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Anne asks Ellen: How did you get started?
Ellen: It started with horses. I loved horses. I grew up in New York City, where the only time you ever saw a horse was when it was pulling a carriage, or when a fancy person rode it through Central Park. I was not a fancy person. So instead of riding on them, I wrote about riding on them. It was almost as good as the real thing. Well, maybe it was even better because in my stories I was able to ride my horse through the Sahara and over high fences on the Olympic equestrian team and occasionally I dashed across the English moors on a high-spirited chestnut stallion. Oh, and in real life, I am allergic to horses.
Anne: When did you first realize that you wanted to become a writer?
Ellen: It was a real ta-da! moment. I was in the school library looking for a book to read.The librarian suggested Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. I found it on the shelf, pulled it down, and started reading the first few lines. It was so good that I sat down on the floor, stuck my nose in the book, and was instantly lost in Harriet’s world. I don’t remember what yanked me back into reality (probably the librarian telling me to get up off the floor), but I suddenly realized that the best books in the world were written for eleven-year-olds ... which was great, because I was eleven. On the other hand, my twelfth birthday was right around the corner, and after that I’d be a teenager, and after that . . . holy cannoli, adulthood. Then what on earth would I read? I was horrified by the thought that I would get “adult amnesia” and forget about all the great kids’ books. So I decided then and there that even if I couldn’t always be eleven, I could always write books for people who were eleven.
Anne: How long did it take you to become published?
Ellen: It took a long time. No, actually it took a looooooong time (my first short story was published in a magazine about five years after I graduated college). But in the end, that wasn’t such a bad thing, because it took a looooooong time for me to become a good writer. While I was getting rejection letters, I was still writing and reading lots of books and figuring out how to create a story that people would want to read. By the way, you might think getting published is the greatest thrill ever. It is pretty great, don’t get me wrong. But in my experience, finishing a book and knowing that it’s good, is much more thrilling than getting published.
Anne: What helped you the most when you began?
Ellen: Weirdly enough, one of the things that helped me the most was a rejection from a teacher. I was in college and I wanted to become a creative writing major. I gave a bunch of my short stories to my writing
teacher to see if she’d let me in the program. She wrote me back saying that I wasn’t good enough yet to be in the program. Instead of getting discouraged, I got angry. “Big mistake, lady!” I said to myself. “I’m going to hang on to your rejection note, and when my first book is published, I’m going to send you a copy of it along with your stupid little note.” It would be the ultimate nah-nah-na-na-nah! I put her note in a manila envelope.
And then I got into the program without her. A different teacher let me in. For the next few years I wrote like mad. After I graduated, I churned out short stories and a novel for grown-ups and finally my first kids’ book, Olivia Kidney. All that time, I kept that hurtful rejection note tucked away in my desk drawer, waiting for my big moment of revenge. Finally my first book was published. I opened the drawer and pulled out the dusty manila envelope with the rejection note. It was then that I realized two things:
(1) That teacher did me a favor by rejecting me. It made me rebellious. It made me want to fight to prove her wrong.
(2) She was probably right not to let me in the program. I think my writing was pretty lousy back then. In the end I did send that teacher a copy of my book, but instead of including the rejection note, I included a Thank-you note.
Anne: What was your biggest obstacle as a beginning writer?
Ellen: I have two brothers who are impossibly smart, and as a kid I always felt like the dumb one in the family. How could I be a writer, I asked myself over and over, if I wasn’t smart? Writers are witty, quick with a comeback sort of people, I thought. I was always slow with getting my words out when I spoke, and the words I did manage to get out were not what you would call clever. But the thing was, every time I had almost convinced myself to forget about becoming a writer, I would read a wonderful book and think, Oooo, I want to write something as great as this! Then I would snatch up my pen and launch into writing a new story. I still struggle with not feeling smart enough. I bet lots of other writers do too. When I’m feeling particularly dumb, I go back and read things that I’ve already written. “There,” I tell myself, “you were able to write that story, weren’t you? And that story was pretty good, which means you can’t be a total dope.” That often helps. And anyway, the only other option is to never write again. And that’s really not an option.
Anne: Tell me about your family.
Ellen: When I grew up, books were a big part of our family life. Our parents read to us a lot when we were little, and even when we were older (I still love being read to!). One of my favorite memories is that whenever I was home sick with a cold, my mother would read Mary Poppins to me. On some Saturdays, our parents took us to a used book shop on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It was one of those ancient stores with creaky wooden floors and the moldy smell of old paperbacks everywhere. Our parents set us loose, and we rampaged through the place, meeting my parents back at the checkout table with armfuls of books that sold for a dime a piece. I just loved that!
My parents were very supportive of my decision to be a writer. For many years after I graduated college, I waited tables at night and wrote during the day. Even though I hadn’t earned a single penny from my writing, my parents never said, “Oh, come on, Ellen. Why don’t you just give up writing and get a real job.” They insisted that if I kept at it, I’d get published some day. They encouraged me to take the chance on pursuing what I loved to do. Young writers need a couple of cheerleaders at their back. Actually, they need an entire squad.
Anne: Who are your literary heroines and heroes?
Ellen: I love Willy Wonka because he is totally mad and deeply good. I love Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter books . . . again, totally bonkers but with a heart of gold. Then there’s Claudia in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler because she really understood that great adventures take guts and plenty of sensible planning. I adore Uncle Vartan from your Sister Magic series because he is a grown-up who never grew up—the best kind of grown-up as far as grown-ups go—and he can do magic to boot.
Anne: What or who inspires you?
Ellen: Books often inspire me more than anything. I’ll read something really great and think, Oh, I want to make other people sink into a book like I just did!
Anne: What were your favorite books when you were a kid?
Ellen: I loved A Wrinkle in Time, Harriet the Spy, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Changeling, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Freaky Friday, The Secret Garden, and so many others.
Anne: What do you love/hate the most about writing?
Ellen: Things I love about writing:
-Getting up in the morning and stepping into a world that doesn’t exist.
-Finding out about things I’d never known because I have to research them for a book, like how to do an ollie on a skateboard or how to build a radio telescope or where to find a secret passageway in a Scottish castle.
-Creating interesting characters, then getting to spend the day with them.
-Receiving letters from kids who have read my books and have been changed—just a little—because they did.
Things I hate about writing:
I guess I don’t really hate anything about writing, but there are lots of times when I slam my head down on my desk and moan, “This is hard!”
Then I have a strawberry Twizzler and
feel a little better.
Clara says: That was great, Ellen! I'm inspired. Thanks so much for sharing with such frank honesty about the writing life. Bet you'll be getting lots of Twizzlers from fans! Visit Ellen here: http://www.ellenpotter.com/
Readers, please leave a comment for Ellen. Even if you commented before or won a book in a previous contest, we still want to hear from you. Yes, we do! You know we need all the encouragement we can get! Be on the look out for Part 2 next week, when Ellen interviews Anne. I've had a sneak peek, and you're going to love it.