Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor
zette@cableone.net

 

Interview: The Girl Who Wanted to Write

An Interview with Susan Taylor Brown

By Lazette Gifford
2006,
Lazette Gifford


Knowing she wanted to write made a difference in author Susan Taylor Brown's life.  With a steadfast perseverance, she has stuck to her love of writing, and made a name for herself in the field of writing for children, with a range of books that will delight and touch readers of all ages.  She also isn't slow to help writers, and has dedicated part of her website to offering that aid to others.  As a speaker, she also helps to instill the love of writing to her audiences of all ages.  Her soon-to-be released book Hugging the Rock has already garnered considerable praise in pre-release reviews.

Susan's obvious love of the craft shines through in every aspect of her career.  To find out more about Susan Taylor Brown and her work, check out her website at: http://www.susantaylorbrown.com/

Vision:  First, what drew you to write for children?

I suppose it was the time and place I was at in my life when I really started to write. I was a stay-at-home mom with two young children. I had always loved to write, mostly poetry, but had started playing around with short stories and thinking about a novel. I sort of thought I would write a romance novel, an adult romance novel. They were what I was reading in between changing diapers and feeding babies. Somehow I ended up with some young adult romance novels, Sweet Valley High books, and I started to think about writing for a much younger reading audience. We didn't have a lot of literature devoted just to children when I was younger.

Some, yes, but entire series, not a lot outside of Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames. Then I joined a writing club and from there, a critique group with other young mothers.

We'd get together with our kids and talk a bit before sharing our writing. The talk usually turned to something either funny or frustrating that our kids had done the week before.

Every week I would tell something about one of my kids and one of my friends would tell me I needed to write it down, that it was an easy reader. I usually laughed but eventually I listened to her. Some of those first stories I shared out loud became the basis for my Nathan and Nora books. As my children got older, old enough to sit still while I read to them, I discovered more and more wonderful pieces of children's literature. The more I read, the more I wanted write along the same lines. 

Vision: What is the general age range you target for your books? Do you think the children's market is limited in the types of material that can be written?  Are there stories you want to tell, but don't feel would be appropriate for your market? 

I don't actually target my books for a particular age. I listen to the character (I'm one of those writers who hears voices) and then let them tell their story. I have published for the picture book age on up but rarely when I set out to try to write a specific kind of book does it work. I need to be true to the story and the character. I have tried, at times at the request of an editor, to write, say, a picture book on a particular subject, but because the idea didn't originate with me I found that the book never really got off the ground. (I'm talking about fiction here.) What seems to happen to me most often is that I will be haunted by a character for a while before I learn enough to know if he/she is 5 or 10 or 16 years old.

I have to listen carefully. Once the character feels more fully formed, then I can think more about what type of book it will be.

The children's market has evolved tremendously in recent years and I can almost say there is very little that can't be written about, as long as it is handled appropriately for the age. There are books about abuse and incest written for the middle grade reader, books that we would have never seen on the shelf for that age 20 years ago. Young adult books seem to cover pretty much the same ground that adult books do, just in a setting that is more common to teen readers. There will always be people who feel that some material should not be available for children to read but I think we run the risk of protecting our kids too much if we don't let them read about real life, the sorts of lives that many of them are living. The simple fact remains that there are kids out there whose parents abuse them, kids who have drug or alcohol problems, kids who are poor and skip meals, who live in a car because they are homeless, and so on. I don't think we should sugarcoat life for the reader just because it might make some people uncomfortable.

Writers have an obligation to tell the truth through story. Many people are surprised to find out how often a book has been the catalyst to a child in trouble seeking out the very help they need.

If a child can read a book about rape and see that the character is finally strong enough to tell someone what happened, the reader (who may be in the same situation) can often gain the strength to go to an adult who can help them. In any group of readers you will always find a difference of opinion on what is and isn't appropriate for children. What I feel is most important is that writers always do their best to tell the truth of a story in a such a way that the child that needs to hear the words will be able to do so. Somewhere in the universe that's always going to tick someone off.  

Vision: Are there lessons that you hope your young readers will learn from your books?  Do you start a book with an intention of helping to influence the reader in some way? 

I think just starting out I fell into the trap of many beginning children's authors and wrote in much too much of a didactic vein. I didn't give kids enough credit. That being said, sure, I hope there is a take-away value for the reader in each of my books but I think that is best tied to the theme of the story. CAN I PRAY WITH MY EYES OPEN? was an obvious question I wanted the reader to think about and I did hope that at the end of the book the reader would realize that prayer, in any shape or language or religion, was the important thing. OLIVER'S MUST-DO LIST is all about the importance of play in our lives, no matter what our age.

HUGGING THE ROCK was written to heal my hurt at growing up without a dad but I hope that young readers that are dealing with a missing parent or a parent with bi-polar disorder will find that it helps them cope with the difficult changes in their life. Since the book focuses on the complex relationship between father and daughter I hope it will also open doors for discussion between fathers and daughters. 

Vision: You offer writing workshops on your site.  Do you feel helping other writers is an important part of your position as a published author? 

Yes, I do feel a need to give back to the writing community. I've been fortunate to have the help of many other writers at various stages of my own career.

One thing I can say about the community of children's authors is that they are overwhelmingly generous with sharing their knowledge.

Someone helped me, I help someone else, that someone helps someone new. This is how we keep the flame alive. And like most teachers I feel that I learn tremendous things, different things each time, when I teach. Each student teaches me something about writing, about myself, and often about life. 

Vision: Are there common mistakes you see new writers making? What suggestions would you give them?

I'll be generalizing, but here are a few that come to mind:  

  • I know you're excited when you first finish a story. I am, too. But don't pop it in the mail right away. Let it sit for a while. A couple of weeks is good.  

  • Show don't tell. You'll hear it over and over again for good reason. 

  • Be active, not passive.  

  • Take risks with your writing. Be willing to tell your story. You're the only one who can.

 Vision:  Are there certain attitudes a writer should embrace when looking at writing for a younger audience?

Don't write down to kids. Today's kids are smart. They have been exposed to more (good and bad) than you probably were as a child. Remember what it was like when you were a child, but unless you are writing a historical piece, bring only the emotions from that time to your work. 

Writing children's books isn't easier than writing for adults. In fact, many people believe it is much more difficult. An adult will stay with a meandering novel for a lot longer than a child. It is tough to compete with television and action movies and podcasts and such. 

Vision: What do you think is the best way to approach writing for a younger audience? 

Read, read, and then read some more. Honestly, you would think that people who want to write would be people who love to read but I am constantly amazed at the number of people I meet who want to write a children's book but when I ask them what they have read lately (in the field of children's literature) look at me like I just landed my spaceship in their backyard. If you want to write picture books you need to read picture books. Hundreds of them. You can't rely on the memory of what books you liked as a child. Literature has evolved and you need to read what is being published now. If you want to write mysteries for middle school readers, read them.

Lots and lots of them. Get to know your local independent bookseller and ask them for recommendations.

Join SCBWI (The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustratrors) http://www.scbwi.org  You don't have to be published to join SCBWI.

It's a fabulous resource for writers that are learning the business as well as those that have been writing for a while. There are SCWBI regions all over the world. 

Vision: What genres do you write in, and why? And would you like to try your hand at any others? 

I am all over the place with what I write. I've done picture books and easy readers and my latest book is a free verse novel for middle graders. Again it comes back to story, to the character's story. I do feel more comfortable with novels for the middle grade though I am not ruling out writing for young adults. As for genres, I don't think I can be pegged in any genre. Contemporary stories, perhaps?

I've long ago given up the idea of writing romance novels for any age but I do think the young adult novel I want to write will have a bit of a mystery to it. 

Vision: Have imaginary friends from your childhood made it into any of your books or influenced your writing in some other way? 

I had one imaginary friend, a mouse named Tommy, but I don't think he stuck around for very long. I do think having an imaginary friend was a beginning to my tendency to tell stories. Around that same time I was afraid to go to sleep at night so I used to make up stories about the television shows I watched and make them all end a different way, with me as the star, of course. 

Vision: Who has influenced your writing? 

Teachers who believed in me, long before I ever thought I would publish a single word, were a tremendous influence on me. Joyce Welch and Vicki Hackett, my 7th and 8th grade English teachers, and Chuck Foster and Bob Sillionis, my high school creative writing teachers. I would say that they were the core team that believed in me when it felt like no one else around me ever did or would.

Rod McKuen showed me all about telling the truth with your words. 

Oh my. There are so many writers who have influenced me I don't even know where to start. I am a voracious and fast reader going through several books a day when I am in reading mode. Everything I read (or don't read) has an impact on me.

I read a book recently where, in the acknowledgements, the author said she felt she should send tuition checks to many of her favorite  writers for how much she had learned by reading their stories. I feel much the same way. 

Vision: Do you see the Internet as a good tool for upcoming writers?  How should they be using it, if it is? 

The Internet is fabulous for writers at all stages of their careers. How good (or bad) it is depends on how you use it. Those new to the business have wonderful opportunities to network with more experienced writers, gain exposure for their work, and even take classes from more established authors no matter where either of them is located.

Doors are wide open when it comes to research with the Internet. One does have to be careful to use trustworthy sources but still, doing early research online can save you hours of research at your local branch.

Writing is a solitary occupation and the Internet allows writers to gather at various virtual water coolers to celebrate and console one another on an as-needed basis. The danger, of course, is that you can spend so much of your time socializing that you don't have any time left to write. 

Vision: How has writing changed who you are or how you see the world?  Are there themes that matter most to you? 

Writing hasn't changed who I am. Writing is who I am. Writing defines me.

I believe that in my case, at least until I make peace with my own past, I will continue to seek out themes of finding one's place within a family,  most especially a family with a parent who is missing, either emotionally or physically. 

Vision: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Has your career progressed the way you thought it would? 

I've always sort of envied those writers who say they knew they wanted to be a writer from the time they learned to write their name on wide ruled paper in school. I thought I couldn't  be a "real writer" because I couldn't pinpoint a time in my  childhood that I knew had influenced my path to writing. The thing is, I wrote poetry for fun. English was easy for me because I loved to read and I loved to write. Because I was good at it, I got good attention. Which of course encouraged me to keep on writing.  All through junior high and high school I wrote in spiral notebooks. Love poems to boys I liked. Hate poems to people that made me mad. But it was just something I did. I never thought I could actually make money at it or look at it as a career option until my first child was born. I had tried all sorts of home businesses with zero success. One day I was walking around the block with a friend, both of us pushing babies in strollers, and my friend asked me what I would do if I didn't have to worry about making any money at it and I didn't hesitate for a moment before I said I would write. She pointed out that I might as well be doing what I wanted since it was obvious all the other things I was trying weren't making any money either. After we had a good laugh I realized she was right and I enrolled in a writing class the next week.

Nothing in my career has progressed the way I thought it would.  Sometimes I look back and wonder if I might be further along if I had focused in just one area of writing for a while until I made a name for myself but I have finally reached the point where I understand that everything that has happened has helped make me the writer I am today. 

Vision: What is your average day like? Do you write every day? 

I don't know if I would recognize an average day if I came face to face with one. I have a day job so my writing has to fit in and around that. I get up. I check email and/or blog. I try to write in my blog or at least begin something that will eventually become a blog entry even if it means working on it for a few days. I go to work, early, with the idea that I can come home early and write. But the thing is, I'm writing in the back of my head all day long. My desk at work always has several Post-it notes with thoughts, great lines, ideas written on them. I gather them up at the end of each day and bring them home to pile on my home desk until, usually, the weekend. I have been known to call myself and leave a voice message about a book, especially if I am driving. 

If I am in the midst of a book, a new project, I will usually reread what I wrote the day before and do some light editing before I go to work on anything new. I try to write crummy first drafts without editing but it's tough. 

If I am writing in verse, I work longhand for several versions before it goes to the computer. 

I work up to and sometimes through dinner (an advantage to the kids now being grown and on their own). I read something outside of the area I am writing for at least a half an hour every night. 

Vision: How long does it take you to write an average book?  What are the approximate word counts for these types of books? 

I don't think there is anything "average" anymore about children's books, unless you talk picture books and then it is mostly due to manufacturing issues. A picture book will almost always be 32 pages because to do more or less is more expensive for the publisher. I have a picture book that is barely 100 words (CAN I PRAY WITH MY EYES OPEN?). I have another that is closer to 1000. (OLIVER'S MUST-DO LIST). My middle grade novel (HUGGING THE ROCK) runs approximately 12,000 words, but that's written in free verse so not every page is filled with words. 

I have written a rough draft of a picture book in a few hours but that was after the idea simmered for over 20 years. I've written a novel in six months but then spent 3 years revising it.

I think what it comes down to is that a story needs to be as long as it needs to be, within the common expectations of a genre. You're not going to have a lot of luck selling a picture book that runs 5,000 words. 

Vision: What do you have coming out that we should look for? What sort of things do you plan, or hope, to write in the future? 

There are a few things in the pipeline but awaiting decisions so I'll just say that at the moment I am working on another middle grade verse novel and a young adult novel that is part mystery and part coming-of-age.

Vision: Thank you for taking this time for this interview. Any last words you'd like to say to our readers? 

There are people who want to write and people who want to have written. 

If you have a dream, if you want to write, if you really want to write, you have to want it bad. Don't let anyone tell you that you can't or that you shouldn't or that you won't make it or any number of other things that someone might say to try and deter a dream. 

You can get almost anything you want out of the writing life but you have to put the time in. It's not so much talent as it is a willingness to do the work.

Be sure to check out some of Susan Taylor Brown's websites!

Website: http://www.susantaylorbrown.com

Newsletter: http://www.susantaylorbrown.com/mailinglist.html

Blog: http://susanwrites.livejournal.com

Writing prompts: http://writeonrightnow.blogspot.com

Oliver's Blog (character from one of her picture books): http://oliversblog.livejournal.com