After reviewing Spilling Ink, I was eager to read more books by co-authors Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter. Having received enthusiastic email from both ladies upon the post of my review of their writing guide, I decided to also ask for interviews.
I always appreciate when writers take time from their own busy work schedules to answer questions. Anne replied within a week despite having a cold. Ellen also replied quickly despite having project commitments.
If you haven’t already read it, please check out my interview with Anne Mazer. I hope you will enjoy my follow-up interview with Ellen Potter. Thanks to both ladies for their time.
Allison: You have tons of odd people, places, situations, and inventions in your books. How do come up with all your quirky ideas? Are any of them based on real life counterparts?
Ellen: I do have this attraction to the quirky side of life. If you plop me in a room full of people, I will magically find my way to the lady who collects earwax in mason jars. I just love people who are unapologetically bizarre. Some of my characters are amalgams of people I have met; but many pop into my head fully formed.
Allison:You have said in other interviews that because you don’t outline you don’t often know what’s going to happen to your characters at the outset. In Olivia Kidney and Pish Posh, you were even surprised by the secrets that some of your characters held. How you prepare your readers for these unexpected revelations?
Ellen: Since I often don’t know the secrets until I am almost right on top of them, I have to go back into the original narrative and tuck in a few hints in. For the most part, though, I don’t want to over-prepare my readers. The beautiful thing about working without an outline is that you keep surprising yourself with your own story; and if I’m surprised by my story, my readers will be too.
Allison:You’ve talked about doing research for some of your books. How does research change what you write? What advice would you give to students about how to integrate research into a story?
Ellen: I consider research one of the great perks of my job. I’m a pretty curious (ok, nosy) person, and I love going on research quests. Sometimes I will deliberately pick settings or a character’s occupations because it’s something I want to know more about. I used to be shy about asking people questions, but I’ve found that people generally love to chat about the things they know best. I’ve been inside jails, been coached on how to do an Ollie, helped deliver mail to islands, and spoken to subway conductors. Totally fascinating!
As far as advice goes, I think it’s often best to do the research at the same time you are writing your story, or even after. Otherwise, you can waste a lot of time doing research on things you may not ultimately need for the story. Also research can be a nifty stall tactic for getting started, since it’s generally easier to read about something than to write about it.
Allison:You grew up in New York City, which is also the setting for three of your books. What was your favorite thing about NYC? Least favorite thing?
Ellen: Manhattan was a great place to grow up. Your playground is thirteen miles long and filled with the coolest stuff imaginable. For a kid who loved to write, I had all the material I needed right outside my front door. And now, years after I’ve moved out of New York, I still find myself setting many of my books there. I think it’s partially because I’m writing about kids, and kids have an unusual degree of autonomy in the city. They can move about without parents via buses and trains and on foot, so there is more potential for adventure.
My least favorite thing about NYC? The smell. How an entire city can reek of urine is beyond me.
Allison: Your details of apartment buildings, restaurants, and even New York City are rich in sensory detail. What is your secret to so effectively building setting into your story? What advice do you give kids about how to build a sense of place in story?
Ellen: I think kids understand, deep down, how to do this. It’s a form of playfulness. It’s a natural extension of “Hey, imagine if . . .” You just sort of sink into the part of the mind where kids go when they’re bored—the part where exciting things happen and the world is brighter and more alive than the one they are living in. That’s essentially what I do.
Allison: You have known a boy like Owen in SLOB and this helped inspire the book. In the acknowledgments, you credit others for helping you work out a scenario for Owen’s invention. How did you even know where to start and who to contact to get this help? How much of the book were you able to write before figuring out the details of his invention?
Ellen: Before SLOB, if someone had told me I was going to write a book about radio telescopes, I would have said they were nuts. In college I failed an astronomy course. But Owen had a brilliant scientific mind, so I knew I had to bring myself up to speed. I found a wonderful astronomer in Hawaii who was incredibly generous with his help. He gave me some terrific ideas about how Owen might build a radio telescope out of scraps of junk. My husband is an engineer, and he helped me with the inventions. I told him what Owen was trying to invent, and he gave me some ideas about how Owen could do it.
Allison:In other interviews, you have talked about the origins of Olivia Kidney, Pish Posh, and SLOB. How did you come up with the idea for The Kneebone Boy?
Ellen: One of the things that sparked the idea for The Kneebone Boy was something I had read about a creepy castle in Scotland. According to local lore, the castle had a secret room that had once held The Glamis Monster. The monster was the oldest son of Lord Glamis, a child who had been born with such awful deformities that his parents claimed he had died at birth, then locked him in the hidden room for the rest of his life. This story was so terrible and compelling that I knew I wanted to weave it into a book.
Allison:You don’t plot. What is the typical draft process like? What do like most about it? Least about it?
Ellen: It’s a little bit nerve-racking to write without an outline, but I find the discomfort is worth it. I follow my characters rather than a story outline, and I try to imagine what they might do in a given situation. Things pop into my brain more easily when I’m not fixated on a result, so the first draft feels very improvisational. The funny thing is, although I’m not meticulously constructing the storyline, the storyline almost always winds up pretty tight. It’s like that feeling you get when you look back on a series of events in your life, and in hindsight you can see how it couldn’t have happened any other way.
Allison:What is the typical revision process like? What do like most about it? Least about it?
Ellen: I used to dread revision. Now I enjoy it. The hard work of manifesting has been done and now you can relax a little and tinker. It feels like a big puzzle, and I’m pushing pieces around until it all fits snugly.
Allison:You post about being involved in writing workshops for kids. What are the best lessons you have learned about your own writing from them? What are the best lessons you would pass onto young people?
Ellen: My Spilling Ink co-author, Anne Mazer, and I conduct many writing workshop for kids, and we are always amazed at how many young writers have strong narrative voices. It seems to come pretty naturally for younger writers, whereas many adult writers struggle with it. Listening to their stories reminds me to loosen up with my own writing. To remember to play.
On the other hand, some kids feel that because writing doesn’t come easily to them, they aren’t good at it. Anne and I tell them that even professional writers struggle daily with fiction writing. We stumble around a lot. Our first drafts are generally pretty lousy. The best asset a writer can have is not natural talent; it’s stubbornness.
Ellen:I have a new book called The Humming Room which is coming out early next year, and I’m working on a series for younger kids now. Anne Mazer and I are also cooking up something new too, so stay tuned.
What amazes me most about Ellen Potter’s books is how unpredictable they are. Just when I think I have one character or one situation figured out, Potter will reveal a twist. Yet I would never say that her plots are contrived. Ellen Potter also delights me with quirky characters, settings, and situations. Yes, she truly makes all three unusual! Yet with only one exception, I would never say that her unconventional writing feels forced. Last, I’m impressed with how convincingly Potter took on the perspective of an overweight fifth-grade boy. Her other three books are from the viewpoint of precocious preteen girls, making SLOB a unique feat. Perhaps for this reason, SLOB is probably also my favorite. Roahl Dahl and Neil Gaiman fans especially, I encourage you to check out Ellen Potter.
Cover of Olivia Kidney
Olivia Kidney splashed onto the scene in 2003. Anyone with a bizarre name like Olivia Kidney is bound to have adventures. And so she does, partly because of her dad. Olivia’s dad is an apartment building superintendent. He doesn’t know how to fix things and so is always getting fired. Of course, this means lonely Olivia is always traveling new places and meeting new people. So much so that Potter has already written three books about Olivia. In the first, Olivia’s new home is an apartment building twenty-two stories high, made of maroon and yellow bricks, and located on New York City’s Upper West Side. This in itself might not be so unusual, nor perhaps are the crabby and unfriendly tenants, but wait…. What about the Biffmeyer children outside who are playing freeze tag? The boy who greets Olivia, who is searching for her key, has no shoes and wears dirty socks with a hole in the big toe. He “gave off the faint odor of a barnyard”. What about the batty old woman with bird-skinny legs and no pantyhose? She lives in an apartment that feels like it is floating in thin air, because everything is made of glass—even the floor. From her apartment, you can see two women below playing cards. Olivia can also see an unsupervised toddler playing in the bathroom. When he picks up a blue bottle, full of liquid that Olivia’s dad uses to unclog sinks, Olivia rushes downstairs to prevent him from swallowing poison. In doing so, she meets the boy’s mom who has an appointment with a psychic. As you can tell, adventures also seem to find Olivia. Sometimes all the twists and turns in Olivia Kidney make me feel like I’m in a house of mirrors. At the same time, the bizarre scenarios also exhilarate me the way haunted Halloween houses can. Olivia is a fun character. The apartment complex where they live is weird. And by the time I turn to the last page, pretty much every situation has surprised me in a good way. I can’t wait to read Olivia’s next adventure!
My rating? Read it. Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.
How would you rate this book?
Cover of Pish Posh
In contrast, it took me awhile to warm up to the equally precocious pre-teen featured in Pish Posh. True, Clara Frankofile is different from the norm, but she is also a perfectionist snob. She wears dark glasses and a black dress (of which she owns one-hundred and fifty-seven copies), sits at a little round table in the back of the Pish Posh restaurant, and dines on a tuna-fish sandwich cut into four perfect squares. The latter doesn’t sound too bad, but I don’t like that “she gazed around the room with sharp, assessing eyes”. Nor do I like that Clara felt that her classmates were all astonishingly stupid. Last, I hate that because Clara’s parents won the restaurant, Clara can a patron “has become a Nobody” and then ask them to leave and never return. My favorite scene is the conversation that transpires between Clara and Dr. Piff after she calls him a “Nobody”. While he admits that she has cunning eyes, he also informs her: “And yet, you have failed to notice a most particular and mysterious thing that is happening right under your nose.” This announcement rankles Clara, who in her arrogance thinks she knows everything. To her dismay, she eventually discovers that Dr. Piff is correct. I enjoyed seeing Clara frustrated. Remember though that Clara likes tuna-fish sandwiches. She also likes roller coasters, cotton candy, and beach sand. Moreover, in the quiet of her apartment floor (the family owns two floors of a high-rise apartment), Clara likes to wears overalls and a straw hat. This elegant girl is not as proper and prim as she wants everyone to think. When a girl about her age gets caught stealing on her floor, Clara finds herself craving danger and even covers for the thief who is named Annabel. There is sweetness to the relationship that develops between these two girls, as they make choices about their future and who they really want to be. I also liked the mystery that unfolded, as Clara tries to figure out what secrets are happening under her nose. Last, I was impressed with how Ellen Potter could introduce a somewhat unlikeable character but then turn her into an endearing fun kid.
My rating? Read it. Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.
How would you rate this book?
When I read the first lines of SLOB, I wondered what I was in for: “My name is Owen Birnbaum, and I’m probably fatter than you are.” Was this going to be another “pity the fat kid” story? Or was it going to be another “here’s how to lose weight” story? I should have known better than to wonder. This is Ellen Potter. SLOB starts out with a simple problem: The cookies which Owen eats for lunch everyday have disappeared. I like Owen’s reason for this daily snack: “No matter how lousy my morning was; those three Oreo cookies remind me that life also has its high points.” I feel the same way about chocolates. After you read about Owen’s gym class, you’ll probably also understand why Owen needs those cookies. On the heels of gym class is a third problem: Owen is trying to build something called Nemesis. About it, Owen says: “I’m not going to tell you what she will do when she’s complete. You don’t know me well enough yet. You probably think you do. Everyone thinks they know the fat kid. We’re so obvious…. That doesn’t mean we don’t have other secrets that you can’t see.”And Owen does have a huge one. So does his sister. And even the high school bully. What amazes me about SLOB (and all of Potter’s books) is how organic it is. SLOB goes in one direction and then another. Yet no matter what surprises crop up, when you think about them in hindsight they all make sense. Something else I love about Potter’s books is how easily she weaves in lessons, without ever preaching about them. For example, throughout much of SLOB, Owen struggles with being a coward. At one point, he realizes that he is like a boulder that sits there and lets others do what they want. As such, some of Owen’s failures are through his own weakness. Owen is all of us who have ever run away from a problem. He is also every person who has faced up to problems. For so many reasons, including this one, SLOB is my favorite Ellen Potter book.
My rating?Bag it:Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.
How would you rate this book?
THE KNEEBONE BOY
So far, I haven’t cared for at least one book in every author round-up. Inevitably, I have reached this place with Ellen Potter’s books. In The Kneebone Boy, the Hardscrabble children live in a small England town where everyone has avoided them like the plague since their mother disappeared. One reason the villagers avoid them is because rumor has it that one day Otto strangled his mom in a fit of rage. I suspect another reason is because the children aren’t all that friendly. One day the youngest Max invites a girl home. Lucia demands to know who she is. Lucia keeps pressing Brenda with questions until finally Lucia denounces everything Max has said as lies and snorts: “I’m surprised a girl your age would believe such rubbish. I honestly think kids are getting stupider each year.” Yes, Ellen Potter has given readers another snob. The difference here is that while eventually Clara reveals herself as vulnerable as the rest of us, I never really feel this about the Hardscrabble children. In Potter tradition, mysteries are afoot within the first chapter. Did the children’s mom die at the hands of Otto? Did she even die? What exactly happened to their mother? There are other storylines, but none of them possesses the same heart of Potter’s other books. Instead they seem weird for the sake of being odd, such as the unidentified narrator of The Kneebone Boy. Then, if you remember, I compared Olivia Kidney to a house of mirrors because all of its twists and turns. The Kneebone Boy also has twists, but I find them harder to follow and so in the end stopped caring whether they all made sense.
My rating?Leave it: Don’t even take it off the shelves. Not recommended.
How would you rate this book?
During one of my first years of gardening, I bought a box of about one hundred flower bulbs. My future husband and I dug trenches along my apartment walls, dumped the bulbs randomly, and then covered them up. The following spring, I had the fun of trying to guess what plant would show up where and in what quantity. Ellen Potter’s books are akin to that experience. Reading them, I never knew what path she would take her characters down or what new characters would show up on the next page. Yet in the end, just like I had a delightfully beautiful garden, her books always felt satisfying and complete.
This week I’m continuing my round-up feature of fiction books by Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter. These two ladies are the co-authors of the fabulous writing guide Spilling Ink which I reviewed earlier this fall as part of a round-up. Last week I spotlighted Anne Mazer; this week I’ll feature Ellen Potter.
Daily Teaser Archives
Collaboration: Ever wonder how these two ladies met or how they found the collaboration process? Read all about it at Cooking The Book: The Joy of Co-Authoring. My only collaboration experiences have occurred as a teacher, but I keep teasing my husband that one day he and I need to co-write a mystery. He can plot and add the quirkiness, while I can do the rest. What do you think of collaborating? What have been your experiences?
Reader: What is the oddest thing you have ever read? When Ellen Potter was a child, some of her favorite books were Harriet the Spy, A Wrinkle in Time, The Secret Garden, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. However, when no books were available, she read walkie-talkie instructions, the back of cereal boxes, and even the washing instruction tags on her clothes. Me, I read dictionaries and encyclopedias, along with those instruction manuals and food boxes.
Writer: What did you want to be when you grew up? Why did you make that decision?
Ellen Potter has wanted to be a writer since she was eleven years old. She was in her school library, strolling through the aisles, trying to decide what to read next. As she debated whether it should it be A Wrinkle in Time or maybe Harriet the Spy, Ellen Potter decided that the best books in the world were written for eleven-year-olds. With her twelfth birthday just around the corner, she reasoned that the only thing for her to do was to grow up and write books for eleven-year-olds. Which is pretty much what happened!
As for me, I grew up wanting to be a naturalist, actress, veterinarian, singer, astronomer, artist, teacher…. You name it and I probably wanted to be it. Most of all though, I wanted to be a writer. I loved to read stories, tell them, and hear them. I still do!
Inspirations: Remember how I said that I tend to grab information for teasers from anywhere online I can find it—including other reviewers. Well, today, I have two tidbits about Ellen Potter which both come from other blogs.
Ever wondered whose writings most influenced your favorite author? If you didn’t grow up reading E. Nesbit and Roald Dahl, but like Ellen Potter, check them out. In an interview at Girl in a Swirl, Ellen Potter credits them: “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.”
When compiling questions to ask Ellen Potter, I noticed that some answers exist about the origins of three of her books. Here I’m including one about her most famous book, which comes from Ellen Potter’s own blog: “Like my character, Olivia Kidney, I grew up in a high-rise apartment building in New York City’s Upper West Side. In fact, the idea for Olivia Kidney came from a game I used to play when I was about eight or nine years old. I would watch people in the building’s elevator (most of whom I knew nothing about) and make up crazy stories about their apartments. There was one woman, for instance, who was sort of chubby and always cheerful, so I imagined that she lived in an apartment made entirely of chocolate! I imagined that her walls were made of chocolate, so she could lick them, and her furniture was chocolate, and she had a chocolate refrigerator that only contained chocolate eggs and chocolate milk. And if she got hungry in the middle of the night, she could nibble on her bed.” Reading this tidbit made me think about how one can see hills in the distance in my hometown. Growing up, I wondered what lay behind those hills and wrote at least one story where I explored this childhood question.
As for the origins of The Kneebone Boy, Ellen Potter shared this answer in an interview with me.
As an avid reader and aspiring writer, I grew up reading author bios. I’m still reading them as a book reviewer. One of the most fun bio I’ve ever read comes from Ellen Potter: The Big Fat Lie of the Author Bio
To get an even fuller scoop about Ellen Potter, check out my interview with her. And of course don’t forget to read my roundup of her books. Both are coming your way this weekend!
Américas Award for Children’s & Young Adult Literature
CLASP founded the Américas Award in 1993 to encourage and commend authors, illustrators and publishers who produce quality children’s and young adult books that portray Latin America, the Caribbean, or Latinos in the United States.
The Caldecott Medal was named in honor of nineteenth-century English illustrator Randolph Caldecott. It is awarded annually to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.
The Carnegie Medal is awarded annually to the writer of an outstanding book for children. It was established by in 1936, in memory of the great Scottish-born philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie.
The Christy Awards are awarded each year to recognize novels of excellence written from a Christian worldview.
Coretta Scott King Award
The Coretta Scott King Book Award titles promote understanding and appreciation of the culture of all peoples. It is given to African American authors and illustrator.
children and young adult blogger literacy awards
Dolly Gray Children’s Literature Award
The Dolly Gray Children’s Literature Award was initiated in 2000 to recognize authors, illustrators, and publishers of high quality fictional and biographical children, intermediate, and young adult books that appropriately portray individuals with deve
Hans Christian Anderson Award
The Hans Christian Andersen Awards is given to a living author and illustrator whose complete works have made a lasting contribution to children’s literature. The award is the highest international recognition an author can receive.
Kate Greenaway Medal
The Kate Greenaway Medal was established in 1955, for distinguished illustration in a book for children. It is named after the popular nineteenth century artist known for her fine children’s illustrations and designs.
Middle East Book Award
The Middle East Book Award recognizes quality books for children and young adults that contribute meaningfully to an understanding of the Middle East and its component societies and cultures.
Mythopoeic Fantasy Award
Honors fantasy books for younger readers, in the tradition of The Hobbit or The Chronicles of Narnia
Newbery Medal Award
The Newbery Medal was named for eighteenth-century British bookseller John Newbery. It is awarded annually to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.
Pura Belpré Award
The award is named after Pura Belpré, the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library. It is presented annually to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino experience.
Red House Book Award
The Red House Children’s Book Award is a series of literary prizes for works of children’s literature published during the previous year in England.
Sydney Taylor Award
The Sydney Taylor Book Award is presented annually to outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience.