Where do you get your ideas?
I’ve found a treasure trove of material from my own past, stories from other people’s pasts, newspaper and magazine articles, overheard conversations, an arresting image, an interesting face, a peculiar phrase. When I do get an idea I like to roll it around in my head for a good long time before I start working on it, just so I know it’s worth pursuing. Sometimes I’ll juggle an idea around for years. Sometimes one idea bumps into another and creates a new idea, kind of like nuclear fusion. I can literally feel a little explosion happening. I’m convinced that when it does happen, if you look closely enough, you’ll see sparks coming out of my ears.
What do you do about Writer's Block?
Usually I take my dog for a walk. I find that my mind loosens up when I’m in motion, either out with my dog, or out for run, hiking or driving (not swimming though, I’m too busy concentrating on not drowning). Also, playing music that is associated with what I’m writing about tends to help. I’ve played Western tunes when writing a screenplay about the west, I’ve played love songs when writing love scenes and so forth. For The Golden Hour I played a lot of Mozart and other classical composers from that time period. And my dog got a lot of exercise. For Hour Of The Cobra I played some Middle Eastern sounding music by Peter Gabriel from the movie The Passion. For Hour Of The Outlaw I played Ennio Morricone spaghetti Western music. For The Fizzy Whiz Kid I didn’t play anything!
Which do you like better, writing for television or writing novels?
I like both. Writing for television is a group activity. It’s collaborative. Whatever I write is usually re-written, and then actors and directors interpret it. It’s fun to be involved in a group project like that, especially when I’m working on a comedy and I’m surrounded by funny people. Writing a novel is a more intense, personal experience. You have to be very disciplined. It can also be a little lonely. But the final product is much more satisfying and gratifying on a personal level.
Where do you work?
I work at my home. I write the outline on my porch outside or in my library, and then when I’m ready I compose at my computer, which is an Apple laptop. I can carry it anywhere to write, and I do. Sometimes changing my location will help to get me inspired.
What is a typical work day like for you?
Ideally I get up, go for a run with my dog, drive my kids to school, read the paper, make myself a cup of tea, and then work until lunch. After lunch I either do research or plan what I’m going to write the next day. I always try to end on something exciting so that when I start the next day I can dive right in. Sometimes I even stop mid-paragraph, in the middle of an action. Then I pick up my kids from school and goof around with them for the rest of the day, help them with homework or read for fun. And yes, I watch TV too!
What were your favorite books growing up?
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, Homer Price and Centerburg Tales by Robert McCloskey, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, Watership Down by Richard Adams, The Once and Future King by T.H. White, and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkein.
Who inspired you?
Authors who have inspired me include: Roald Dahl, Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens. More recent authors would include Louis Sachar, J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman. Many teachers have also inspired me: my fourth grade Teacher Ms. Schacher, My ninth grade English teacher Mr. Metcalf, my favorite history teacher, Mr. Teel. My father, who is a scientist, is a very organized writer, and I’ve tried to emulate that.
What advice would you give aspiring writers?
You have to read a lot and you have to write a lot. Don’t be afraid to revise. Be ruthless. The key to good writing is in the revision. Economy of words is a must.
Did you always want to write children's books?
Not at first. I started out trying to write the great American novel. It would be for adults. It would be simplistic in style and yet profound in meaning. It would be poignant yet brutal. It would be humorous, but deadly serious. Well that book had already been written. It’s called Huckleberry Finn, and I highly recommend it. Finally I realized the truth…I just don’t have anything to say to adults. First of all, I barely think of myself as an adult. I feel like a fraud trying to write for them. But I do think I have something valuable to say to children.
Why do you like writing for children?
I simply like the audience. Children between ages nine to fourteen are old enough to follow a complex storyline, but not so old that they’ve grown jaded or cynical, and also not so old that they’re distracted by the opposite sex. Children in the “middle grade” years still believe magic can happen, and they should, because at that age a kind of magic does happen when they read. A good book puts them under a spell; the book becomes part of them and affects their thoughts and actions for years to come.
I remember that whenever I was in the mood to read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory I would buy a fancy candy bar, sit down with the book and start reading. When I got to the part where Charlie Bucket carefully peeled back the wrapper of his Wonka bar, I would start peeling back the paper on my candy bar. Logically I knew I wasn’t going to find anything, and yet still in the back of my mind I could convince myself that maybe there was a golden ticket just waiting for me to find it. Of course I was disappointed, but like Charlie I would still gobble up the chocolate bar with relish. My copy of the book, covered in chocolate smudges, is testament to the fact that it was read and re-read several times.
When I read The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, I started looking for good places to hide whenever I went into a museum. When I read Harriet the Spy, I started walking around with a notebook, taking copious notes on my family and friends. I still do it, only now I call it “research.”
Does writing for TV help when writing your novels?
Yes. Both mediums require concise, simple expression. You have to get a lot done in a relatively short amount of time – three hundred pages or less is what I aim for. In both television and children’s novels good characters are everything. Storylines have to keep moving. They must have unexpected twists, and plenty humor. They need to have memorable moments. For this age group you must have action. You can’t stay inside a character’s head for too long…things need to happen.
If you could travel in time, where would you go?
That depends on what mood I’m in. I’d have to say that as a writer of color I’d probably head straight for New York and Paris in the 1920’s during the Harlem Renaissance. I’d go to hear Duke Ellington lead his band, I’d hang out with Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Du Bois. Then I’d sneak into the Algonquin Hotel so that I could listen to the wits of the Round Table. After that I’d buy a drink for F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Then on to Paris to hear more hot Jazz!
I'm an aspiring writer, will you help me with my novel?
Sorry, no. But if you email me I’ll give you some very general advice.
Do you make public appearances?
Yes, I enjoy making presentations to schools, libraries, or other forums where people gather to talk about books, especially if the people I’m talking to have actually read any of my books, however I usually charge a fee. If you are interested in having me speak to your group go to the CONTACT page on this site.