Betty G. Birney’s series of books looking at the world through the eyes of a classroom hamster named Humphrey have won eight state awards, two Children’s Crown Awards and a Christopher Award, among other honors. Her book, The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs, received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, was named one of the best books of the year by Borders, and has been on numerous state lists, including the California Young Readers Medal. For her television writing, she has received an Emmy, a Writer’s Guild of America Award, and three Humanitas Prizes. A native of St. Louis, Missouri, Betty lives in Studio City, CA. And now the seventh book, School Days According to Humphrey, was released. For more info, visit her website.
Let the conversation begin!
Outliner or seat-of-the-pantser?
Both. I have written detailed outlines for many books but with others, I have just the barest “sweep” of the story. I do like to know where I’m going – a direction – and seem to do better. But I’m flexible and change things along the way. I think of an outline as a map. You wouldn’t drive from L.A. to N.Y. without a map. But when I travel, I often like to change the route as I go. Also, my background writing children’s television trained me to write outlines, since an outline is a required step in the process. All TV writers know that the outline is harder to write than the script but if you have a solid outline, writing the script is easy.
What initially drew you to writing?
As soon as I was able to read, I fell in love with books. Somehow, I knew I didn’t just want to read them, I wanted to write them. I wanted to figure out how my favorite writers came up with wonderful stories using their imaginations. I had a pretty vivid imagination so at seven, I wrote my first book, Teddy Bear in the Woods. I gave it to my parents and announced that I wanted to be a writer. And I’ve been writing ever since!
How many words do you write each day?
This varies wildly depending on where I am with my deadline – whether it’s imposed by the publisher or myself.
When are you the most productive?
I am at my most creative in the early morning. I often wake up with ideas for where I’m going with a story or even a whole new book. I’m at my most productive in the late afternoon. Go figure!
What do you do to recharge your creative batteries?
Not enough. I usually write 7 days a week and have a lot of demands with my books that take up time. I do love to travel, mostly to England and Scotland.
Where do you get your ideas?
Everywhere. From the news, from conversations I’ve overheard, from things that happened to me, things that happened to others, family stories and dreams.
What advice would you give young writers?
Write for the sheer joy of it. Don’t think about getting published. Don’t think about anything but you and how much you like the story. I hear from too many kids who obsess – and I don’t use that word lightly – about getting published at age 10. They want fame and they want it now. My other advice is to read as much as possible and to read across genres. Kids tend to get stuck in one genre. Also, don’t try to imitate your favorite author or anyone else.
Tell us about the book you’re working on.
Which one? The eighth According to Humphrey book, out in 2012? The fourth Humphrey’s Tiny Tales book due in the UK? The dog series I’ve been working on in between deadlines? The historical book with 125 pages written or the other three that I’ve put aside to continue with the Humphrey series? The new idea I dreamed about recently and have tons of notes on? Some day, I hope to finish them all.