I think it’s appropriate that the last writer in the author-author series is the writer I’ve known the longest and who has most inspired me to be serious about writing — Deborah Freedman. I met Debbie when we were both 18. It was immediately clear to me, even through the fog of sleeplessness and hangovers that has mostly obscured our first year in college, that she was a deeply creative person, the sort of person who was always making something: sweaters, boxes that told stories, observations that made me laugh.
I can also clearly remember the day, one spring (while we were hanging around waiting for whatever you wait for when you’re 18), when Debbie showed me A Hole is To Dig and told me how much she loved the language and the pictures. It was an unusual experience, and one I have never forgotten because it was one of the first genuine brushes I had as a young woman with authentic delight, which, as I now know, is not bounded or defined by what other people are thinking or doing. At the time, I was concerned with getting on in an adult world that seemed serious, weighty and not all that fun. (I mean, when I wasn’t otherwise occupied with doomed and foolish love affairs or avoiding my not-so-interesting work.) Ruth Krauss’s brilliant First Book of First Definitions made me think that maybe there was room for writing stories, and maybe adult life could be serious and weighty, in the best senses of those words, but those things could also be leavened with the delight of creative work. Along the way, it’s been inspiring and helpful to watch Debbie go about building a career as a picture book writer.
Debbie trained to be an architect, but, as it turns out, what she loves to do most is build worlds in books. Her first picture books were tiny ones, written and illustrated almost twenty years ago for her own young children. Debbie became especially inspired when her girls grew old enough to draw, after they began to create recognizable and fantastic beings with endearing back-stories. She started to play with their pictures by photocopying them and doodling around them, developing ideas that became, many years later, her first picture book, SCRIBBLE.
SCRIBBLE (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007) was a Children’s Book Sense Pick, and was recently selected as a finalist for the 2008 Connecticut Book Award.
You can visit www.deborahfreedman.net to learn more about Debbie and her work. It’s a terrific, interesting site — there are book recommendations and things for children to do and a lot of really wonderful drawings, among other things.
How’s your work coming along these days? What have you recently sent out into the world?
These days? I’m a bit manic. I’ve had terrible insomnia for the past few nights which means things are good. Good, because I’m awake and using the mini flashlight that my husband bought for me so that, at 3:00 a.m., I can write things down on the notecards I keep by the bed and hopefully not bother him too much. The only problem with insomnia is, well, the lack of sleep. Once I get tired enough, I will certainly cycle back into a string of days when those ideas, that seemed so fresh and clever and brilliant in the middle of the night, are now clearly insipid or just plain idiotic.
People love to hear how writers overcome difficulties- the long slog of getting from a brilliant idea to the end of a work, the strings of rejection so long they could circumnavigate the globe, the mean reviews, the weird reactions of loved ones to your work, the moment you see your book on the remainder pile. Can you talk about the dark nights of the soul and how you kept going, even though the lights seemed to be out?
Well, I try to be philosophical about all of that. I’ve finally figured out that rejection has actually been a good thing for me and that all of those years it took to produce something publishable were necessary. They have given me a proper amount of humility: I know that I will always have something to learn. I also deal with difficulties by trying to remember that overnight successes don’t necessarily know more than the rest of us, and even $500,000 advances don’t protect an author from getting Kirkussed. I also whine a lot, preferably to someone who will cook my supper. And I visit schools once in a while (where the children have been told by some delusional person that I’m a “famous” author), because kids make me smile and when they give love it’s honest. I try to always remember that THEY are my audience.
The business of being a writer – finding an agent, placing stories and poems in literary journals, getting a publisher to buy your stuff – can be difficult to navigate. What do you wish you’d known starting out?
I’ve always worked alone; I treasure solitude. And for years no one except for my husband and children even knew that I wrote, which I got away with for a while because Ben happens to be an amazing critic. While his support is essential and dear to me, what I’ve learned is that I also need at least one other friend who loves my writing, and loves me enough to say when my work is, um, wanting. And who knows when to share the 70% cacao Scharffen Berger and doesn’t hoard their champagne. Having lots of friends like that is even better.
How do you balance the rest of your life with your writing life?
I am working on saying no more often, and convincing myself that this is actually as good for the no-ees as it is for me, the no-er. At least when the no-ees are my children.
Talk about the books you’ve loved.
One of the books that inspires me, and bucks me up when I need it, is called Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (edited by Leonard Marcus). Nordstrom was an editor of children’s books, of many of the books we now consider classics. Her letters are brilliant, nurturing, funny, and inspiring to read. Among my favorite letters are those she wrote to the writer Ruth Krauss, who did lots of wonderful collaborations with Maurice Sendak that I love, like A Very Special House and I Want to Paint My Bathroom Blue. In a letter about Krauss, Nordstrom said, “…grownups and children together with a Ruth Krauss book can be closer than they can be without a Ruth Krauss book”. Isn’t that great? I want to be Ruth Krauss.
How did you come to write picture books?
I just love the picture book form, being allowed to write with both words and pictures, the little cha cha that I get to have them dance. I love being allowed to tell my story with every inch of the book, that wonderful object, from cover to cover – including the endpapers, title page – everything, even the colophon. Pages can be full and active, or empty and silent. Page turns become part of the rhythm, acting like giant commas.
Picture books are much more challenging to write than most people realize, or maybe I should say that they are harder to do WELL than most people who have been on the cover of Vanity Fair realize (do I sound bitter?). They have to be very tight – authors are generally only allowed thirty-two pages and word counts in the low hundreds to get character, story, and theme across. And of course picture books are usually read aloud, so the text really needs to sing. I really can’t imagine not making them! They’ve become the prism through which I see the world.