Monday, August 31, 2009

Interview with author ELLEN POTTER

The book I am currently working on for my sons Book club is SLOB by Ellen Potter
(You can read my review: HERE.)

Such a great book! As a parent it address all types of heartache that happens growing up; self-identity, bullying, dealing with hardships, developing talents and interests, friendships, family etc.. etc.. but has such great appeal because of Owen Birnbaum's humor (the main character). My boys and I laughed but also had the opportunity to talk about some of these issues they are dealing with.

Really- I can't say enough about this book--- so you can imagine my thrill when Ellen agreed to answer a few questions. I tried to sound professional and like this wasn't my first interview... but really I was wondering how can a mom write such a cool character? (She really understands boys!)

Any way- with out further introduction- here is my interview with the author Ellen Potter. ( And no- she's not related to Harry... trust me.. I asked!)

Was any of this book inspired from your own childhood?
I knew a boy who was much like Owen Birnbaum, the hero of SLOB. He was very clever and very overweight. Though he was terrorized by the other kids—as well as a particularly sadistic gym teacher—he fought back with his brains rather than his fists. Once, when his Oreo cookies kept getting swiped from his lunch, he scraped out the cream and spread horseradish in the middle instead, then put the cookies in his lunch box. They were never swiped again.

What was a defining moment, good or bad, that shaped you as a child?
When I was eleven I had a big “A-ha! Moment” while looking for books in the school library. The librarian suggested I read Harriet the Spy, so I took the book off the shelf and started reading it right there in the library. I loved it immediately. And suddenly I had this flash of certainty: I knew without a doubt that the best books in the world were written for kids! In the next second, I realized the problem with this epiphany . . . I was not going to be a kid forever. One day, I’d get that dreaded amnesia that all grown-ups seemed to suffer from, and I’d forget just how gorgeous and exciting and magical kids’ books were. I’d start reading those dreary books that my parents read while the really great books like Harriet the Spy would grow moldy on my bookshelf. I decided then and there that if I couldn't always be a kid, I could write books for kids.

Do you have any suggestions for engaging and motivating young readers?
There are so many great kids’ and YA books out there these days that parents and teachers only need to poke around to find one that would engage a reluctant reader. I think you do need to pay attention to what the kids are deeply interested in, and accept the fact that the books they like may not be the ones you would choose for them.
I have been reading all the wonderful classic books to my 4-year-old, but the ones that get him really excited are the superhero books. At first I balked at this. “But hey, honey, don’t you want me to read Blueberries for Sal?” “No, Spiderman Saves the Universe!”
Whatever. If Spiderman floats his boat, then Spiderman it is.

Do you have any advice for classroom teachers or parents?
I’m often so impressed with the huge efforts teachers and parents make to motivate their kids to write. My best advice is to allow kids to experience the excitement (and occasional terror) of writing without a plot outline. Yes, there is great merit in teaching kids how to outline a story, but once they have a reasonable understanding of the way a story is constructed, I think it would be more interesting for them to concentrate on character rather than plot outline. In fact, if I had to outline my books before I started them, I would never write them! It would be far too boring. I love not knowing what’s going to happen next. I’m a big advocate of letting the characters and their desires direct the story. It keeps things fresh and surprising for the writer (and the reader), and if the child is fully engaged in the writing process, chances are he or she will want to write another story, and another . . .

Have you had formal writing training?
I did go to Binghamton University to study creative writing, but the very best training a writer can get is to read like a fiend and write every day. It’s that simple. Yes, you can learn all sorts of fancy stylistic tricks in classes, and having assignments definitely trains you to meet deadlines, but most of the real training is self-taught.

How do you support yourself (are you writing full-time?)
I’m very fortunate in that the book contracts keep coming in, so I can support myself with my writing. Still, I spent many years doing odd-jobs to pay the bills. I was a dog-groomer and a construction worker, and I waited tables for a looong time! I had to keep repeating the mantra: “I’m a writer not a waiter” as I hauled trays of Pad Thai and refilled water glasses. I didn’t always do the best job of convincing myself it was true.

What's a typical day like for you?
I wake up around 5 am to write. And P.S. I am not a morning person. My 4-year-old is a morning person, however. And he doesn’t nap. And he is a Chatty Cathy. Hence, the only quiet time available in my house is in the wee morning hours.
I write for about two hours, stopping often to waste time online or checking to see if anything new and interesting has happened in my refrigerator.

And what would be your ideal arrangement?
Oh, I’m not fussy. My office would be a simple hammock on the beach, accompanied by a professional foot massager.
Actually I’m pretty happy with my current arrangement, although a little more sleep would be nice.

Whose work has influenced you?
I love E. Nesbit’s books! The kids in her book are so charmingly rotten. Roald Dahl has also been a big influence. I love his skewed, eccentric universe, and it has definitely crept into my own books.

What was your favorite book(s) as a kid?
The short list: A Wrinkle in Time, The Borrowers, Harriet the Spy, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Secret Garden, and From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

Were there books you loved as a child that continue to be important to you as either models or inspiration for the work you do now?
Roald Dahl’s books certainly. Also the New York landscape of From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and Harriet the Spy.

What has been the biggest thrill about having your book published?
No doubt, seeing my books in stores is thrilling. I had waited so long to experience that. But the best thing about being published is that I am now invited into classrooms to talk to kids. That is by far the most fun part of this whole book biz.

What are you working on now?
The old noggin is working some ideas, but nothing I could talk about yet without dithering.

Do you have any books scheduled for publication?
Next year I’ll have two books out in the stores. One is a non-fiction book called Spilling Ink, A Young Writer’s Handbook of Incredibly Useful Advice, Oddball Tips, & Rules to Just Plain Ignore. I co-authored it with the super-brilliant Anne Mazer (author of 44 books including the Amazing Days of Abby Hayes series). It will be published in Spring 2010. We’re both very excited about Spilling Ink. The idea for the book was born out of all the e-mails we received from kids who wanted to write stories. They asked very sophisticated questions and there seemed to be a need for a meaty but fun book on writing. So we wrote one.
Also I’ll have a new novel coming out in Spring 2010, tentatively titled Kneebone, published by Feiwel & Friends.

Then anything else you would like to share with readers…
I’m holding a Short Story Contest for kids 8-13 years old! Details are in the Kids Page at

Thanks so much Ellen!
It was wonderful getting to know you better!


Amanda said...

What a fun read! Thanks, Laura.

I look forward to seeing her writing manual for kids in the spring.

Sarah said...

Great interview. The bit about writing without an outline was an interesting idea.

Also, I had to laugh when I read the bit about the oreos. It's almost exactly the same as something I once did. There was a girl in my sport class a few years ago who used to drink out of other girls' water bottles without asking them first (which was pretty gross considering meningococcol was going around). But a little bit of strategically placed wasabi sauce ensured it never happened again. ;)

Emily said...

Can't wait to check this book out! Interesting interview!

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