The story of Scripture

"The story of Scripture" Continued...

Issue: "2009 Books Issue," July 4, 2009

Why did you think you couldn't write? Because I imagined that to be a writer was way up there, and I just assumed that I couldn't do it. The publisher said something that was so helpful: "We could get someone else to write it." I said, "No, no." I thought, "I can't give it away; I've got to try." And he said, "Just write what makes you laugh." I thought, "You're allowed to do that? You're allowed to make people laugh?" I thought writing a children's book was something way out there, and I didn't realize that I could just write what was close to me. The thing that comes naturally to you is so close to you that you can't even see it, so the danger is to discount it and think that everyone can do it, but it's not true. That was very helpful to me, to realize that I just had to make people laugh.

How did you start? I knew that the first line in the book would be, "Once upon a time there were no handbags. It was terrible; people all across the land had nowhere to carry their things." It's just nonsense, but it made me laugh. Now it's an adventure storybook about these little friends, the Handbag Friends, who go on an adventure and rescue the baby handbag that had been captured by the terrible, bad handbag.

I was fortunate enough to work with a publisher who let me be really creative, and it was such fun. I collaborated with the illustrator, and it was really a blast.

Were you then able to start writing more? The sub-packaging started drying up, and I thought, "This is horrible, because that's how I make a living!" I thought, "Perhaps I'm just supposed to be writing"-but the leap between doing that and writing meant that I had to be prepared not to have much money for a time. That was tricky. I had some savings, and I was using that. Someone said to me, "You're investing in yourself." When you're writing a book it may not earn any money for four or five years. Instead of saying, "I'm going down a slippery slope, I'm using up my savings," you have to tell yourself, "I'm investing in myself." There are a lot of tricks you have to use in your head.

Do you try out your stories on children? I try to, but that can be hard because they need to see the pictures. Usually I have to finish the manuscript before the pictures, but when you know the illustrator, then you can really test it out well. Another thing that's nice about picture books is that you have to get rid of your ego. With an illustrator, if I put more words on the page, then the pictures will get smaller, and really the child would suffer, and the whole book would suffer. So I have to be thinking, "What's more important, the book or my words?" You will be more generous if you write it for the reader.

And you have to produce something that adults, the book buyers, also will like? The danger with children's books is that a lot of them are an adult's idea of what children will like. I don't like those books, because I don't think they're really for children. They're not looking at the child eye to eye; they're looking down on the child. I think it's very important to be on the same level as the child.

Did you have to learn to rewrite? One book went through about 22 revisions. You can't be editing the first draft; you have to let it all come out. The writer and the editor are two different people, kind of schizophrenic. But you've got to protect the writer role from the editor role, because the editor comes along and says, "That's not funny, you've got to cut that." If I know what I've written is too long, then I try it out on certain friends to see where they laugh. If they don't, I worry that it's not coming across. And then I work with a really good editor who constantly pushes me to do better. Everyone needs an editor-an editor gets you to do your best work. But you have to be careful not just to do what they say. You have to think, "Is that really the right voice?"

Where do you write? You've used the New York Public Library and coffee shops, right? Yes, I was trying not to be in my apartment all the time, so I would go to the library. And I would sit there and think, "OK, I'm writing now." And I'd look around and there were people with huge manuscripts, looking really clever, and I would think, "They're writing great novels. Why can't I do that? What am I doing?" I realized that the library wasn't good for me. Then I realized I had to pretend that I was playing; I couldn't pretend I was writing some modern novel. So I then decided that a better place for me was a coffee shop where I could have some coffee, wear my headphones, and the people around me were all doing the same thing, working on their laptops. It's a much younger energy-not so stuffy. I started to learn what works and what doesn't and not to make rules for myself.


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