Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Donna Jo Napoli Interview, author of 60+ children's books

Hi Donna Jo, 
Thank you so much for joining me. You are such an accomplished author. I think that a lot of writers would like to know the process a successful writer goes through when writing one of their books.

1. Why/how/what made you decide to get into writing for children?

I started writing as therapy -- to deal with a trauma.  But when I was finally recovering from my grief, I realized I loved writing.  I had a little daughter and I was reading her a zillion books.  So I thought I'd try my hand at that.  Then I kept having children (I have 5) and I kept trying that hand.  :-) 

2. Do you get an idea and then plot the problem?  Do you write with an outline or write as you go?  What does the writing process look like for Donna Jo Napoli? 

Usually I get a character with a problem in my head and I research the world I'd like to set the story in.  Then I simply begin -- no outline -- just a knowledge of the world and the character.
But sometimes I'll be writing a historical tale or a fairy tale that's already known -- then I am constrained (or I let myself be constrained) by the historical facts or by the plot of the original fairy tale.   Again, though, I have no outline -- but I do have more than just a world and a character.
I like to discover what happens next as it happens.  My story is born on the page.  That's exciting for me.  I find outlines deadening (though I know writers who swear by them).

3. What does your revising process look like? 

I finish a first draft and it is awful. (This is not modesty talking; this is honesty.)  So I inflict it on my family.  They are not kind.  They are savage.  So I listen and cry and then rewrite.  The second draft I bring to a school and read aloud and get feedback from my target audience (which I hopefully discovered from the comments on the first draft).  Then I rewrite and that's generally what goes to an editor.  Usually the editor wants many changes... and usually the editor is right. 

4. About how long do you usually spend on one book—your average length from beginning to end before you think it is done (before sending to agent)?

It can take me anywhere from a few months to several years to have a draft that's ready for an editor to read.  I'd say I average about 1 year for a novel (but then the editing process takes another half year at the least, and many times more).  And I cannot guess how long for a picture book.  Most of them take me years and years.  I'll work on them between drafts of a novel -- and just fiddle and fiddle till I don't know what else to do to them, so I figure I need an editor's help now.

5. What does a typical day of writing look like in your life. I remember you mentioned something about not sleeping a lot, and writing at late hours. When do you write, and how many hours do you spend a week would you say?

When I was younger, I'd grab hours whenever I could and then write like a fiend for as long as I could.  But I'm old now and I cannot stay up all night like I used to be able to.  I still grab hours whenever I can -- but usually they are morning hours on days when I don't teach any classes (I teach linguistics).  The number of hours I get to work each week varies drastically.  I might have a good week and be able to write 10 hours a day every day.  I might have a week full of other obligations and not be able to write at all -- at all, at all.  It's not within my control (and won't be, so long as I still have a salaried job).

Donna Jo at a deaf conference in Siena, Italy, on 24 June 2015 

6. How do you balance historical background in your novels with plot and character? How much research do you do and how do you decide what to use? 

I love the research -- so I do a lot of it.  I use books as an opportunity to learn about other places and times and various technologies and arts.  Writing is my "university".  I tend to put tons of information in early drafts and then I have to weed out what isn't needed on later drafts.  What isn't needed?  Well, basically anything that doesn't help the plot move forward is not needed.  That's a bitter pill to swallow for someone who loves research.  But if you think of the child who's still struggling to read, you can console yourself as you make your cuts -- But I must say that character comes first in all my novels.  I'm much more interested in why people do things than in what they do.

7. What is your #1 advice that you have gotten about writing.

Write what only you can write.
(you need to interpret that ... which, of course, is the tricky part ... but I think this is excellent advice) 

8. What key pieces of advice would you give? (Any advice to the aspiring children's author?)

Write as much as you can, as often as you can, in as many different modes as you can: letters, poems, short stories, recipes, directions for making bird houses, novels, everything.  The more you write, the better you get.  
And write out loud.  Listen to what you write.  You will become your own best editor that way -- catching sentences that don't work -- and finding dialogue that does work.

9. Is there a question you wish somebody would ask you, so you could answer it? And could you please answer it?

I don't know.  My writing life is fairly private.
Maybe I wish people would ask me why I write -- because then maybe I could try to figure out why I write.  I think I do it simply in order to create beauty.  But what do I know? 

10. Do you have any new books coming out?

Yes, DARK SHIMMER is coming out this fall.  It's a YA, and it drove me crazy writing it.  Gothic and twisted and very difficult to write.  It gave me nightmares (so I hope people will read it).  

Thank you again. It's so lovely to be in touch with you!

You're very welcome. 
Donna Jo 

To learn more about Donna Jo, visit her website

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