Allison's Book Bag

Interview with Ellen Potter

Posted on: October 30, 2011

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. 
Allison:What’s next? 

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.

Ellen Potter
Spilling Ink

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