A Peek at the Creative Space of Deborah Hopkinson

One of the things I love about this next Creative Spaces interview–besides the adorable animals you’ll see–is that the workspace is a little unconventional, the writer continues to dedicate herself to a full-time career as the Vice President for College Advancement for the Pacific Northwest College of Art, and yet she’s so prolific with her writing. That’s good inspiration for the days I get a bad case of the “if onlys”. (You know, if only I didn’t need this day job, if only my office was more organized/bigger/smaller/more colorful/more bland, if only I didn’t have to share a workspace, live with my parents, have to do laundry, could speak fluent Chinese. . . THEN I would be able to get more writing done.)

Deborah Hopkinson is an award-winning author of picture books, short fiction, and nonfiction, with more than 40 titles published. Much of her work is about or inspired by historical people or events, as in Sky Boys: How They Built the Empire State Building, Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt, and Keep On! The Story of Matthew Henson, Co-Discoverer of the North Pole. A Band of Angels is inspired by the Jubilee Singers, recently freed slaves who toured as a choir to raise money for their college and became famous for introducing spirituals to the country. In 2009 Deborah had five books published, including two by Katherine Tegen Books about the first family, one titled First Family which follows a day in the life of the Obama family, and Michelle, about Michelle Obama.

Published in February of this year, Deborah’s latest book is The Humblebee Hunter about Charles Darwin spending a summer day with his children observing the habits of “humblebees” (bumblebees). If you like knowing behind-the-book stories, check out this essay Deborah wrote for Bookpage about the creation of The Humblebee Hunter. Forthcoming books include Annie and Helen and A Boy Called Dickens.

To learn more about Deborah and her books, and to access lesson plans for several of her books, visit her website.

Describe your workspace.

If I had to choose one aspect of my attitude toward creative workspaces it would be: flexibility. I have written in a corner of the living room (Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt); shared a home office with my husband and two kids (Apples to Oregon); and taken my laptop to the library (Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek).

But my most common workspace is sitting on my bed using a portable ironing board as a desk for my laptop. That’s where I am now.

Describe a typical workday.

Writing has never been my full-time job. I’ve had a long career in philanthropy, and am now vice president for advancement for Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland. So on a typical weekday (and even some weekends) my day job comes first, though I try to do research and reading at night.

This means I have to make the most of weekends. I usually head to the gym in the morning then park myself at my computer for several hours, breaking away later in the day for the usual weekend chores.

List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.

My favorite part of my workspace is the view from my bedroom. We live in a two-story house on a hillside in West Linn, several miles from downtown Portland. In the summer the sky is bright blue. Yes, it does rain a lot in Oregon. But my favorite time is when it snows–then the landscape reminds me of a Japanese print.

Second, I like having a built-in shelf below the window, where I can put all my research books within easy reach. Right now I’m working on a book about the Titanic for the centennial of the sinking in 2012, and Titanic books are everywhere.

Third, I like the relaxed comfort of being at home. I appreciate not sitting at a regular desk, because I do it all day at work. And then there’s the shower. Recently I became stuck on a picture book, A Boy Called Dickens (for the Dickens bicentennial, also in 2012). The solution popped into my head as soon as I stepped under the hot water.

Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them. What do you listen to while you work? What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?

I am afraid I’m pretty boring in this department: I don’t have rituals, nor do I listen to music. I do drink a lot of mint tea–it helps the stress of having lots of deadlines and two jobs.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

I could say that the sheer joy of losing myself in a story, struggling to make it work, and digging into it all keep me focused. And, this is true most of the time. On a more mundane level, it’s looming deadlines that keep me focused!

Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way?

I write on a computer–almost always.

How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?

For historical fiction or nonfiction picture books I don’t outline, but I do have a lot of trial and error. I do use outlines for longer nonfiction and I also try to be very organized about my process. For example, for this book about the Titanic I have Excel spreadsheets to track possible photos for the book, I am building the bibliography as I get new books, and I keep separate electronic folders with information and articles about some of the people who will be key players in my narrative. Organizing footnotes as you go along helps a lot, or you end up with a lot of extra work for yourself later!

If you were forced to share your workspace but could share it with anyone of your choosing, who would it be?

That’s easy. I have a lot of experience sharing workspaces with my husband, Andy, and my two now twenty-something kids, Rebekah and Dimitri. Our cat, Sophie, sometimes sneaks upstairs to curl up beside me. I sometimes take my laptop to the kitchen table. But Kona, the golden retriever, is like a two-year-old and is soon nudging my arm for me to throw a ball.
So, who would I share it with? My old dog, Pea (pronounced Pay-uh; her name is the transliteration of the word bear in Hawaiian.) She is the perfect companion–she loves to sleep next to me.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard or received?

I have repeated this often, but the best advice I ever got was from my editor, Anne Schwartz, who early in my career said, “You have to want it more than sleep!”

4 Responses to “A Peek at the Creative Space of Deborah Hopkinson”

  1. MG Higgins

    Great interview. Deborah really is inspirational–I'm always impressed by writers who get so much writing done, even with a full personal/professional schedule. If she can do it, maybe I can, too!

    Thanks for stopping by my blog and following.

  2. Jenn (From the Mixed-Up Files)

    Thanks, Rachel! I was glad to discover your blog as well.

    MG Higgins, I completely agree with you. She's on my list of people who I marvel at how they juggle everything they juggle.

    And Carol, thank you!