Betty G. Birney’s According to Humphrey series has been on 24 state lists, won seven state awards, several Children’s Crown Awards and a Christopher Award in the U.S. as well as receiving numerous honors in the U.K. Book 10, Secrets According to Humphrey, comes out January 2, 2014, and there will be more. In addition, Betty has written episodes for numerous children’s television shows, including The Adventures of Madeline, Doug and Bobby’s World as well as after-school specials and a television movie. She has won many awards for her television work, including an Emmy, three Humanitas Prizes and a Writers Guild of America Award. For more info, visit her website.
Is there a story behind your name? What is it?
Kids always want to know what the “G” in Betty G. Birney stands for. It stands for my maiden name, but I won’t tell my fans what it was because I was teased about my name as a child and that hurt. Many tears were shed. So I’m not going to stand in front of a group of elementary school children and have them laugh at me. Maybe I should just say “Gloria” or “Greta.”
If you could have one super human power, what would it be?
The ability to slow down time. There’s just not going to be enough time to write all the books I want to write.
If you could snap your fingers and appear somewhere else right now, where would you be?
On Doughty Street, Bloomsbury, London, in the house across from Charles Dickens, where I stayed recently. I never wanted to leave but I will go back.
Name someone who supported your writing journey outside of family members.
I had many teachers, especially in junior high and high school, who inspired me and validated my dreams. They’re all gone now, but I wonder if they realized the power of the impact they had on me. Mr. Warner, who taught drama and creative writing, once wrote on a paper, “You’ve got it, kid!” Wow! That was better than getting a million dollars! I just wrote something about the head of my college English department, who said that my writing ability was a given but I needed to challenge myself more. I am constantly reminded of her words. So to all teachers everywhere – thank you for all you do!
Was there ever a time in your writing career where you wanted to seriously give up? If so, how did you find the motivation to continue?
There is no way a writer’s life doesn’t have lows. I think you need the lows to kick you in the rear and make you try even harder. For some reason, if I got a rejection, my “down” only lasted a day. I always reacted by rolling up my sleeves and vowing to do better. They say if you fall off a horse, you need to get right back up and ride again. Or is that a bicycle? Anyway, the same thing goes for writing. Don’t waste time on self-indulgence.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
To quote Winston Churchill: Never, never, never give up.
Do you have a specific writing style?
I’ve been told I do. I wrote children’s television for twenty plus years and often people will tell me they’re not surprised to learn that, because my books read like a movie. I use dialogue heavily because that’s really all you have in a script (with a few descriptive notes). Dialogue defines character and no two characters should talk alike. I write as little description as possible but it is necessary, of course. You won’t find long descriptions of sunsets in my writing. From writing television, I learned that it’s imperative to keep things moving. A ticking clock helps create tension. I still talk about my writing as “scenes” because I think in scenes. Each scene should have a beginning, a middle and an end.
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing? What comes easily?
Plotting is torture. It’s agony to construct a nice, tightly constructed plot. But I grit my teeth and do it. I’m definitely a character writer and I’d like to think I write good dialogue.
Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
I have dozens and dozens of favorite authors and could never pick one. I love Beverly Cleary – she captures the heart of a child. I love E.B. White for his heart as well. I love Lois Lowry for her brilliant range. I love Laura Ingalls Wilder for letting me experience what it felt like to live her life in her times. My husband and I just spent a week in London across the street from the house where Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. I love his characters, as well. And I love fellow Missourian, Mark Twain, for his slyness. I can’t think of another writer I’d say that about!