Tuesday, November 17, 2009

One Writer's Beginnings. . .

Part One -- Interview with author Deborah Heiligman

Q. When did you first decide to become a writer? What was the catalyst?

A. When I was growing up, I didn't know that real, ordinary people became writers. I thought that writers were either old men with really long, grey beards or people who were rich and lived in mansions, like movie stars. So I didn't think that I, a little girl from Allentown, Pennsylvania, could ever grow up to be a real author. I always loved writing, though, and from an early age my teachers told me I was a good writer. (Except for my first grade teacher who humiliated me in front of the class day after day saying I was the worst writer in the room. But she meant penmanship.) So I kept writing and enjoying it. In junior high school, I was editor of the newspaper, and then in high school I was co-editor with a friend. (That newspaper was called The Canary after our school's mascot.) I thought maybe I would be a journalist, one who saved the world like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (whom I knew about from the Watergate scandal, but mostly from the movie, All the President's Men). Still, I didn't think that I would be an author. When I went off to college (Brown University) all the people there who said they were going to be writers seemed so much cooler than I was--so much more writer-like. They wore all black and smoked cigarettes (something I would NEVER do), drank endless cups of coffee, and used really big words. I didn't get that being a real writer didn't have to do with what you looked like, but how you spent your time. It meant you read a lot and wrote a lot and rewrote--and rewrote and rewrote. It meant you had to sit with a paper and pen or typewriter (yes, this was a long time ago, before personal computers) and work on your craft. My first job out of college was working at a magazine, and even though I had to fight to write even a little bit (my job mostly was to fetch coffee and reject manuscripts), I knew I was happiest when I was writing. So my second job, working at Scholastic News, was all about writing. And as it turned our (kind of by the way), writing for children.

Q. What or whom were your influences?

A. My teachers were huge influences, and my mother, who wanted to be a writer. But I didn't know that until after she died. She encouraged me in ways that I wasn't even aware of at the time. Mom taught me so much about people, and connecting with people, which for me is a huge part of being a writer. And she taught me to people watch, and to be nosy. O.K., maybe that was in the genes, but it came from her. I am so grateful she was around to see my first book published.

Q. Did you have a favorite book as a child? Were you a voracious reader?

A. I loved to read and to be read to. Some of my favorite childhood memories have to do with books, even though I did other things, too. Here are some of the books that meant a lot to me: The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton; Debbie and Her Nap by Miss Frances and the Ding Dong School (don't ask); a book whose name I forget but it might have been called something like The Doll about a little girl who had dolls her dad brought her from around the world, but her favorite one was one that he got her--that looked just like her!; a book about twins who wanted to look different (how I wanted a twin sister!); What is a Butterfly, What is a Tree, What is a Frog, and that whole series; Charlotte's Web by E.B.White; From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L.Konigsburg; The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig (who just died); The Diary of Anne Frank. . .

Q. How long were you writing and submitting before you made your first sale?

I was working in that first job, writing very short articles, but it was writing. I had a freelance article published while I was in college, but I don't think I got paid, so maybe that doesn't quite count. But during the first few months after college, a teacher of mine encouraged me to try to get a paper I'd written for school published. She thought it was good enough and gave me the names of a couple of journals to send it to. It was a paper about the writer Cynthia Ozik. So I sent it to one place and I got a phone call from the editor of the journal. He was calling to reject it, but he felt so badly about rejecting it that he wanted to call me and tell me that! I had no idea how unusual that was. He told me they did themed issues and this would not fit in any time soon. He was so encouraging, though, and so I sent it off to another journal. The editor sent me a letter in which he more or less accepted the article, but harshly criticized my writing style. He said that my style of short sentences was too much like Hemingway, and while that might be fine for a college paper, it was not right for an academic journal. So if I would rewrite it to have longer sentences (and he may have even said, "bigger words") he would publish it. I was at once terribly insulted and extremely gratified. He insulted me by comparing me to Hemingway! I was just angry enough, though, that I considered not "fixing" it. My then boyfriend, now husband convinced me to do what needed to be done. So I mulled it over, although it went against what I believed in (clarity, for one thing), and revised it. Guess how I revised it? I took out many of the periods and replaced them with semicolons. He published my article! Little did I know that my Hemmingwayesque style would suit me well as a children's writer.

Years later, I sold my first picture book called, Into The Night. I will never forget the phone call from my husband's then agent who had kindly submitted it for me even though she didn't represent children's books. The phone rang late one afternoon and Tory said, "How would you like to be published by Harper & Row?" I can still feel how hard my heart pounded when I heard those words! We celebrated with ice cream instead of champagne because I was pregnant with our second son.

Q. Are you part of a writer's group?

I have been part of the same wonderful writers' group for many years. We meet in Pennsylvania, where I used to live, and although it is difficult for me to get there every month, I try to go as often as possible. I adore these women, feel very safe with them (which is essential) and value their critiques. I am also in two writers' groups in New York City. I am very fortunate to have many writer friends, but this this may be too many groups! I'm actually rethinking this right now.

Thank you, Deb, for taking all this time for us! I know you just returned from a trip to Japan and are set for an exciting week in New York! We're all cheering for you! Fingers crossed.

Deborah and I both welcome your thoughts. Please share something from your own writing life with us, share the title of a favorite book, or let us know what you enjoyed the most in the interview. Thanks in advance. Leave a comment here, on FaceBook or e-mail me: claragillowclark@gmail.com


  1. Deborah:
    I love your story about replacing periods with semicolons. That is funny! Congrats on all your writing success and your picture books.

    Margo Dill
    Read These Books and Use Them

  2. Thank you for writing in, Margo! I love the bit about replacing periods with semi-colons, too. Maybe it's different for kids today, but I felt the same as Deb about writers when I was a child. Like Deb, I thought they were rich and had lives that were very different from mine. Nevertheless, I wanted to write, and so I did.

  3. I got so excited to read that Deborah remembers Miss Frances and the Ding Dong School! It is one of two television shows I remember as the very first TV I ever saw as a child outside the news. The other show I was allowed to watch was the Firestone concerts with Arthur Fiedler conducting! Thanks for this interview, Clara.

  4. Thanks so much for commenting on this post, Rasco from RIF! It's been exciting for me to have Deb as a guest. I know you and I (and a mulitude of others)are keeping our fingers crossed for her today!

  5. I lost my original comment a second ago - oh, computers at times-hope it is lost and does not appear-

    I really read this interview with great interest but what really caught my attention is Deborah's memory poke for some of us. I am responding in a similar manner as Rasco from RIF. Can we all really be in the same age bracket?

    Miss Frances - yes, I tuned in too and still have my Ding Dong School Bell. Then one Christmas, I received a boxed set of Miss Frances' books. Unlike Deborah, I can't remember my favorite one. I just thought, in a child's way of thinking, she wrote a lot of books.
    One of my faviorte childhood stories was not one of hers but a Richard Scarry one about the two little coal miners.
    I, also, find it interesting that we are commenting on Miss Frances and not your writing journey, Deborah. I guess it shows how nice it is to have childhood memories in common.

    Now I need to go back and reread the interview and of course, read Charles and Emma.

    Thanks for being willing to interact with Clara and share with us.