–  What is the first children's book you remember reading / being read? Can you tell us what you remember about that experience in as much detail as possible?

When my mother read me the Babar books, I entered a wondrous world where elephants wore spats and old Cornelius was drawn with wavy lines to show how shaky he had become with age. 


And who came to the rescue of Babar and Celeste when they needed help? The Old Lady, that's who. I really loved how small she was in comparison to the elephants, yet she was powerful in ways that the elephants were not and I imagined myself helping the elephants the way she did. I loved the art in these books; it had so much detail that I discovered something new with each rereading. The simply-told stories were filled with action, ingenious plot devices, and even tragedy. I sobbed when one of the elephants -- Babar's father? -- was shot. The text was printed in script, another grace note in this elegant elephant world. 

– Where do you like to read most and at what time of day?

I've read that before the Industrial Revolution, it was considered natural for people to fall asleep at night, awake for a stretch, and then fall back into a 'second sleep.' I was relieved to discover this because I am a 3 a.m. waker upper and this is when I read. This year, by the glow of the flashlight from my phone, I read my nocturnal way through all four volumes of Robert Caro's Lyndon Johnson biographies, which are absolutely brilliant. I also read books while riding on the Jitney between Sag Harbor and New York city, but during the day when I'm home, I read the paper and magazines. 

– What are your writing habits? Got any? Where do you write, when do you write, on what kind of computer or in what kind of notebook?

I work on a MacBook with an elaborate ergonomic set up involving a split keyboard that tents higher in the middle than on either side and a stand for my MacBook that elevates it so that I'm looking straight at my screen without tilting my neck. I have a mouse that I switch from left to right sides every week or two. I also have a pile of books on a table that's my stand-up desk. I take my laptop over and work there for an hour or so at a time.

I don't have any set time when I have to be in my office, but I usually go in about 8:30 or 9. I try to do some work every day, seven days a week, and I like the rhythm of that. I'll start my day writing or answering e-mails or making necessary phone calls, and then I settle into work around 10:00. But sometimes, if I'm writing a longer piece -- say a Myth-o-Mania book -- and I'm into the first draft, I'll jump right into work and let e-mails and everything else slide for days or even weeks until I'm finished. The only constant in my day is my dogs. Toby can tell time to the minute, and every day at 3:00 I hear his toenails clacking on the floor of my office as he comes in to stare at me, unblinking, until I get up and give him and Pinkie their supper.


They are like old retirees who show up for the early bird specials. After they eat, we go for a walk in the village and do some errands and my work day is over. 

– What are you working on now? What has the process been like so far? What are the highs and lows with this project(s)?

I'm about to go back to work on what I hope will be a series of stories -- maybe graphic novels for the 2nd-3rd grade set -- starring a duck. We live on a cove in Sag Harbor. I hear ducks quacking all the time, and it always sounds comical to me --QUACK wack wack wack wack -- like the punch line of a duck joke. That's all I'll say right now about this project, as I'm in the middle of it and talking about work in process is like letting the air out of a balloon. 

– If you could offer one tip that has been more important than any other in your writing career, what is it?

This certainly isn't a career-making tip, but here goes: When I get stuck or I feel as if my story is tying itself in knots, I get up and do something else. Taking a walk is great because I'm looking around and not really thinking too hard about anything and if I'm lucky, up bubbles an idea or a phrase or something that leads me to be able to untie the knots in my plot -- all with no conscious effort. It surprises me how often this works -- by thinking of something else or nothing in particular, part of my brain is working to get me back on track. Thank you, brain!
Posted by michael at 09:03 AM Link to this post

I met Holly McGhee in the early ‘90s when she was working with the legendary editor, Michael di Capua, at Harper Collins. One afternoon my husband, the illustrator Jim McMullan, and I came in to meet with Holly and Michael because I was stuck, stuck, stuck writing our third picture book, which eventually became Hey, Pipsqueak!

In the story, our boy Jack, driving a little red car, comes to a bridge guarded by a troll. The troll is a bully. He taunts Jack, demanding booty, and Jack tries to buy passage with the toys he has in his car. I knew I had to get Jack over that bridge, but armed with only toys, how could he defeat the big bully troll in a surprising yet satisfying way?

The four of us tossed around ideas, but for me, the meeting felt unproductive. As we were leaving, Holly suggested that I might want to take a look at William Steig’s Gorky Rises.

I bought a copy. I discovered that Gorky is a frog who sets up a lab in his kitchen and mixes available ingredients to make a magic potion. He takes a bottle of the potion outside to Elephant Rock, “his best spot for doing nothing,” in hopes that the nature of the potion will reveal itself. The potion, as it turns out, makes him rise into the air, and Gorky has a glorious, dream-like ride through the clouds. He survives a storm, is observed floating overhead by his cousin, Gogol, devises a clever way to descend, and lands where he began, on Elephant Rock. The rock morphs into a real elephant. Gorky climbs onto its back, once again passing Gogol as the elephant carries him home.

I loved Steig’s story. On the surface, it had nothing to do with the story I was writing, but Holly had recommended it, so it had to be relevant. Right? Like Dumbo, believing that the feather he held in his trunk enabled him to fly, I never doubted that Gorky would show me the way. Like a Talmudic scholar, I pored over the text, and at last an idea bubbled up.

I had Jack give the troll a balloon. As the troll blows up the balloon, he shrinks until he’s a tiny troll with a giant balloon, and Jack speeds over the bridge, leaving the powerless bully behind.

In the finished book, this sequence ended up with no words at all, yet it inspired one of my all-time favorite paintings of Jim’s.            


This art hangs in a prominent place in my office. When I see it, I sometimes think back to Gorky Rises and wonder, did Holly routinely recommend this story to her troubled authors? Or did she have a hunch that the little hero Gorky, with his air-borne adventure, might help our little hero Jack find his way? No matter. The gift worked its magic, and I’m grateful for it.

At best, writing is a mysterious, non-linear process. We mix our potion and wait for our story to reveal itself. Some days, the potion sits there like a lump. Other days, while we wait, Cousin Gogol sails serenely above us. And on a day when we despair that our potion is little better than watery gruel, it turns out we’ve cooked bouillabaisse. I feel so fortunate to work with the Pippins, Holly, Elena, and Joan,  who deeply understand and support what goes on down at Elephant Rock.
Posted by elena at 10:02 AM Link to this post
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