What a privilege it is for me (Susan Rosson Spain– hereafter SRS), to wrap up Southern Breeze’s blog tour with our WIK keynote speaker, Donna Jo Napoli! <Polite but excited applause!> Donna is an incredibly accomplished Professor of Linguistics and a prolific author of children’s literature, and has agreed to tell us a little about herself, her books, and her writing process. So, without further ado:
SRS: I hear you were in Dublin this summer. Was that business or pleasure?
DJN: I was a Long Room Hub fellow at Trinity College Dublin. Part of what I worked on was linguistics. But the other part was a novel, about a little Irish girl in the 900’s who winds up in Jutland alone and has some pretty disturbing experiences. It’s a companion book to my novel HUSH: AN IRISH PRINCESS TALE. It’s the story of the younger sister, Brigid, who gets separated from the whole family. I love to write on site as much as possible, and if it’s not possible, I love to visit the site.
When you walk around the place your story is set, or the place your character loves and will be missing, you notice things that books may not tell you—sounds and smells—the feel of things. I’m going to be working on this sort of thing in one of my workshops (the senses). [DJN is referring to WIK]
SRS: Oh, I hope it’s one of the workshops I’ll be attending! Tell me, as productive a writer as you are, with more than 70 books to your name–everything from picture books through early reader, middle grade and young adult—do you have a favorite genre?
DJN: Truly, I don’t have a favorite genre. I get stories in my head that I need to tell—and sometimes they are for one audience and sometimes for another—and sometimes they are of one type and sometimes another. Probably the type that is most fun to write for me is animal novels—because I do a lot of reading about natural history and a lot of observing the animals—and then I just write without worrying that some warthog or swan or frog will be offended that I didn’t represent them in the way they wanted. It’s almost relaxing—which is so unusual, since writing really is a terrifying act in a way.
SRS: Well it’s good to know I’m not the only one that feels that way. <grin> You’ve mentioned that your work in progress is a companion to HUSH. Do you write more than one book at a time? Perhaps more to the point, what does your writing schedule look like on a “normal” writing day?
DJN: I never go back and forth between books in the middle of drafts. But when I finish a draft of one book, I always complete a draft of another before I return to doing the next draft of the first book. It helps me to get distance and perspective so that I can cut what doesn’t work without crying.
But I try not to have more than one book for a given age audience on my plate too close together in time. I try to keep my voices distinct, and I worry about one teen voice, for example, influencing another. Right now, for example, I’m working on a teen book, a middle grade book, and a picture book—finishing a draft of one, then moving to the next. I like this mix. It’s like eating a meal of varied vegetables.
I don’t really have a writing schedule because I have a full time job. I used to wish I didn’t—I used to envy full-time writers. But I have hermit tendencies, and I think being forced to get out of the house and interact with people (which my job does for me) helps me to have more things I want to write about. So, really, a job helps me as a writer.
I begin a first draft of something only when I know I can have uninterrupted time—so that means between my teaching semesters or in the summer. Then I’ll get up early and write as long as my body will allow me (I find I need to get up from my desk more frequently as I get older—my hands hurt, my legs need to move). Day after day. Until I finish.
But on later drafts, I just steal the time here and there while I’m doing my regular job. So maybe I’ll get to work all weekend on a book. But maybe I won’t get to work at all for three weeks. It always makes me a little scared and sick not to write for too long—and to me, a week feels too long. But sometimes I have no choice.
SRS: Are you into any new types of writing?
DJN: Yes, and I’m terrified. A couple of years ago David Wiesner handed me a pile of illustrations he’d been working on which somehow just didn’t get in his head. He asked me if I’d like to try to come up with a story. I wrote a novel—he liked it—and so now we are doing a graphic novel together.
It is a very different experience from writing a picture book—where I do the words and then the illustrator does whatever appeals. And it’s very different from writing a novel—where I see through my mind’s eye, and therefore I can see inside and outside. In a graphic novel, you cannot go on and on about feelings—I mean, come on, what illustrations can fit that? You have to constantly think about what kind of visual scene might go with your words. We are both new to this, so we are feeling our way. Slowly.
SRS: Wow. That really is different from your previous body of work! Tell me, how do you manage teaching and having a personal life, and still get so much writing done?
But I believe in that. Perfection is not something I believe in—so I don’t strive for it. I strive to understand my stories my characters, and to help my reader understand them. I enjoy what I do—in fact, I’m totally passionate about it. And I know anyting I write will never be “finished” in the perfection sense. Anything can be made better—that’s fact (except perhaps in mathematics and religion)—and I don’t want to spend my whole life trying to improve a single sentence. So I do the best I can in a sensible amount of time and I move on. (“Sensible,” of course, is relative. Once I spent seven years writing a first draft. That’s not sensible. But I only did it once.)
SRS: As a linguist, do you consciously try to educate your reader?
DJN: Last spring I heard Eileen Spinelli tell a group of young writers that she “loved words.” I really don’t think I had ever thought about it before like that—but once she said it, I realized that I do, too. Words are such amazing things. And when a writer uses exactly the right word for the scene, I want to kiss the earth in joy. Many times a very ordinary word is the right word. But sometimes you have to shake yourself free of thought and let your instincts about your own language have rein. You are aware of the nuances just by being a native speaker of a language—use the nuances. I try not to intellectualize about it. I write my stories out loud (speaking as I type), and I let myself feel the words in my mouth as I see them on the page and hear them in the air. I trust my instincts to choose them.
SRS: Donna Jo, thank you so much for speaking with us. What you’ve shared is fascinating, and I’m sure our readers would love to know more about you and your books. Are there other ways to read further? A website, blog, Twitter, or Facebook page, perhaps?
DJN: I gave up on a blog and never figured out Facebook (though I have a Facebook page that I hope people will visit and “like”—because I put announcements there sometimes). So my website is my best source: http://www.donnajonapoli.com.