Monday, April 5, 2010

Ellen Potter interviews Anne Mazer (co-authors of SPILLING INK!)

Ellen Potter (L) interviews Anne Mazer (R)
Don't miss the wonderful web pages of SPILLING INK  You'll want to share these links with all your writing friends! Be sure to ask your librarian or favorite bookseller for Ellen's Olivia Kidney series and Anne's Sister Magic series.

REMINDER: Don't forget that you still have time to leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of Spilling Ink or Ellen Potter's new book, SLOB!  Please feel free to leave a comment for Anne or Ellen even if you commented on one of the earlier posts. It's okay just to say, "Thank you!"  or "Pick me!"  You are important to us, and we want to hear from you.

Don't forget the Writing Contest!  If you missed that post, I'll be happy to send you the details or you can search my March blog posts. Simply e-mail me:  with your entry using one of the writing prompts I posted from SPILLING INK.  Thanks everyone who has sent me an entry for the contest! Anne, Ellen and I are eager to hear from all of you out there who are still thinking about it! Don't be shy. You have until midnight April 9th to enter.


Ellen: What was it like growing up in a writing family?

Anne: Growing up in a family of writers, you might say I spooned up the writing atmosphere with my breakfast cereal. It all began when I was five years old and my parents decided to become writers. It had taken them a lifetime to arrive at this decision, but for me, life changed overnight. Suddenly my family—which up until then had included me, my brother, and newborn baby sister—turned into a nonstop, 24/7 writers’ boot camp. Every morning I awoke to the clicking, ringing sound of two massive electric typewriters. Half asleep, still dreaming a little, my head on the pillow, I knew that all was well in the world when I heard the keys of my parents’ typewriters clattering loudly. That was the opening music to my day. Later, there was another, less enjoyable writing ritual to be endured. When my baby sister took her nap, my mother locked my brother and me out of the house so we could “get some fresh air.” Bored and cold, we banged on the door and whined to be let in. My mother was adamant; we needed fresh air to be healthy. Translation: She needed writing time.
          There were riches here for a future writer. We had a house filled with books, there were constant discussions about writing, and I had the riveting example of my parents making their writing dream come true. My courage to be a writer came from watching them when I was young. I saw how hard they worked, the time it took, and the discipline they needed. All of this was tremendously helpful to me later in my life.

Ellen: How do you know when a book is done?

Anne: When I can’t go any further. When it “feels” done.
When I stick a knife into it and when no crumbs cling to the blade.
When I refuse to write another word.
When the story lies down and refuses to budge another inch.
P.S. I don’t always know when it’s done.But usually I figure it out, sooner or later.

Ellen: Did you always want to be a writer?

Anne: Here are all the things I wanted to do when I grew up:

Artist. I really wanted to be an artist. I went to art school, and then I dropped out after a year. My younger sister, Maia, whowas talented in all the arts, including writing and music, was the one who became a serious painter.

Children’s book illustrator. I adored children’s books and their illustrations. I was always drawing—and writing, although I didn’t pay much attention to that.

Nuclear physicist. Seriously. When I was in seventh and eighth grade, I attended a program at Syracuse University called Science for Young Scientists. Your teacher had to nominate you for attendance, so it was a real honor. Each Saturday morning, S.U. science professors would give lectures on subjects like “how we would write a universal language to communicate with other life forms in the universe,” or “how do light waves work?” or “the structure of an atom.” The professors were incredibly creative and interesting in the way they presented their topics, and they sparked a desire in me to delve into science. Unfortunately, I didn’t get any encouragement outside of the Saturday morning lectures, and I soon lost interest. But I always think of those lectures as one of the best educational experiences of my life.

Ballerina. Ha! I was not what you call terribly coordinated. I didn’t even like ballet. I just liked the thought of myself as a beautiful, graceful, gliding ballerina. Seriously, I was one of the gawkiest preteens around.

I didn’t want to be a writer. Not until my teens. And then it was just a whisper in my mind. I “forgot” about it, mostly, for another ten years. I did a lot of other things, like go to school and work as a bank teller, an au pair, a housecleaner, a factory worker, a secretary, a receptionist, an administrative assistant . . .It was while I was an administrative assistant that I had my “aha!” moment. My boss had asked me to research air conditioners and to write up a report comparing different models. As I summed up the information, I found myself rewriting and polishing each sentence. Then I had an epiphany. No one in this office cares whether
the writing flows, except me, I realized. My boss wants hard facts. I want good writing. In spite of this realization, I couldn’t stop myself from tinkering with the words. I suddenly understood that this was what I
most cared about. From then on, I knew I was a writer at heart.

Ellen: Give us some advice for young writers.

Anne: 1. READ, READ, READ.
2. Be a sponge. Soak up everything you can. Learn about the world. Learn about yourself.
3. Stay alert. Keep your eyes open, your mind sharp, and watch what your senses tell you.
4. Keep an open mind.
5. Try to understand other people’s point of view. (I admit this isn’t always easy or simple. But it’s very powerful.)
6. Listen to others, to your own secret voice, to nothing at all.
7. Write regularly.
8. Do lots of things other than writing.
9. Do things that you wouldn’t ordinarily do, that might even scare you a little. Stand on your head. Sing in front of an audience. Learn to play chess. You get the idea.
10. Have fun. Be playful.

Ellen: What was your biggest obstacle when you began writing?

Anne: Mood swings. One day I thought I was brilliant; the next day I was a complete, utter idiot. My mood swings almost immobilized me. I felt terrified to write. What saved me was the determination to keep on going, no matter what. By sheer willpower, I managed to complete one book, then another. And then I wrote another and another. In the course of writing these first books, I discovered that sometimes I felt like an idiot and wrote well. Sometimes I felt like a genius and wrote trash. Or the opposite might be true. When I realized that my moods had nothing to do with my writing, I started to pay less attention to them. Now mood swings no longer rule me. Sure, I have good and bad days like everyone else. But they don’t throw me off course anymore. I know they are part of every writer’s inner landscape.

Ellen: Where are your favorite place(s) to write?

Anne: I can write almost anywhere. And I have! But I like sitting at a desk with a view out the window. If possible, I also like lots of light, water, and trees. I prefer an orderly, spacious room with lots of books on the
shelves and paintings on the walls. Right now, however, my office is covered with papers, piles of old manuscripts, and bills to pay. But I’m writing, anyway. And I hope to clean it up soon!

Ellen: Do you ever feel like giving it up altogether? If yes, what keeps you going?

Anne: Yes, sometimes I get really discouraged. But I can never think of any other job that I would enjoy as much, or that would give me as much satisfaction and pride, or as much control over my daily life. I can never think of any other job where I can “talk” to millions of kids, or where I can shape the raw material of my life into imaginative stories.

Ellen: Favorite books as a kid?

Anne: You are opening a Pandora’s box (of books) here.

Earliest Book Experience:

Mother Goose—my first book, ever. My mother read it to me as a baby. When I was older, my mother, who would never deface a book, made a point of ripping out a page with racist words. She made a very powerful point that I’ve never forgotten.

Most Haunting Fairy Tale:
"The Snow Queen" by Hans Christian Anderson

Best Book that I Inexplicably Dislike:
Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White

Weirdest Childhood Memory Involving a Book:
My mother had ordered me to sit at the table until I finished a bowl of her homemade pea soup. Since I hated pea soup, I sat there for hours reading The Hound of the Baskervilles, while the soup grew colder and colder, congealing in green, slimy gobbets. I don’t remember if I ever actually ate that soup, or if I disposed of it secretly; but to this day, I’m not sure which was more terrifying: The Hound of the Baskervilles with his great slavering jaws or my mother’s cold congealed pea soup.

Book That I Wish Was Real:
The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death by Daniel Pinkwater (I read this one as an adult.)

A List of Books that I Wish I Could Have Read When I Was a Kid:
Aaargh! I want to talk about all the books I love, but there are so many that this list always spirals out of control in, like, two minutes.

One Book I’d Recommend to Everyone:
Stories for Children by Isaac Bashevis Singer

I Can’t Believe I Haven’t Read . . .
The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling

Most Memorable Library, Ever:
It was a second-floor room in what seemed to be a deserted old house in the Adirondacks. I climbed the stairs to find a dusty jumble of books lying all over the floor. There was no librarian, no shelves, no checkout, and certainly no due dates. It looked as if no one had been there in years. I picked out several musty old paperbacks to read lying on a cot in our tent back at the campsite. When I was done, I brought them back, and added a few of our books to the pile.

Best Book Binge:
In the summer time, our public library allowed us to check out ten books at a time, instead of three. I carried them home, lay down on my bedroom floor, and set to reading them, one after another. By dinnertime, I had finished the entire stack. I staggered to my feet, dazed from so much reading, and felt as if I was returning from a long journey that I’d never be able to describe to anyone.

Only Dr. Seuss Book I Really Liked:
Bartholomew and the Ooblek

Long-Forgotten by the World, but Loved (by Me) Comic Strip:
Barnaby by Crockett Johnson

Best Comic Books:
Superman; Archie and Veronica

Best Nonfiction Reading:
The encyclopedia. It was better than a trip around the world. Flip a page and you didn’t know what you were going to find.

Finally, A Few Favorite Books:
Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairy Tales
The Princess and Curdie and The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald
East of the Sun and West of the Moon (fairy tales), with illustrations by Kay Nielsen
The Shepherd and the Dragon (a fairy-tale collection; are you sensing a theme here?)
The Twilight of Magic by Hugh Lofting
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren (shouldn’t Pippiphile be a word?)
The Black Arrow and A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson

Ellen: What characteristics do you think a young writer should try to develop?

Anne: Here is a toolbox of personalities you need as a writer:
1. A kid skipping down the street, happy to be alive
2. A street person muttering to him or herself
3. A ship’s captain setting the course for a voyage
4. A detective sifting through the evidence for the one clue that will suddenly make everything clear
5. A builder raising the walls of a house, brick by brick
6. A monk sitting in silence in a cell
7. A letter writer hoping that his or her message will reach its destination
8. A mother watching a baby grow
9. A spectator at a party

Ellen: I’m always thrilled when I finish writing a book and realize that it’s good. What’s your biggest thrill as a writer?

Anne: For me, finishing a book is usually more relief than thrill. “Made it through another one!” I say to myself, as if lying half dead on the beach after the shipwreck. (And then I hurry to sign on for another sea voyage. . .) I’m exhausted by the time I complete a book, have no idea if I’ve written a good one, and often, can’t wait for the whole thing to be over already so I can get on to the next one. But I do love being published. There’s something about opening a box of books that you’ve written. There they are: bound, printed, illustrated, and real. But the biggest thrill for me comes from knowing that people are reading my book.
          One of my first books, The Salamander Room, sold out its first printing of 10,000 copies in a matter of weeks. I was so excited by the thought of 10,000 people reading my book that, driving my kids home from a play date, I skidded on ice and drove my car into a ditch. That brought me quickly back down to earth! Since then, my readership has expanded into the millions. It seems to me that whoever reads my books becomes part of me, and I become part of them. That’s the real thrill: that so many people carry my thoughts and ideas; just as I carry all the authors I’ve read and loved.

Clara (that's me):  Thanks for the wonderful insights for young and not so young writers, Anne. I love your advice about trying lots of new things. Writers, is there something that you'd love to do that you haven't had the courage to try? Try it anyway. Even if it doesn't work out the way you expect, you'll have a new experience to write about. 


  1. These back-to-back interviews are both so delicious, Clara. The passion to read and write just never gets old, and Ellen's and Anne's stories inspire me. Twizzlers to you for sharing them with us!