A Peek at the Creative Space of Deborah Underwood

Deborah Underwood is a talented friend of mine who I met in one of my first writing critique groups back in 2001. She is the author of 18 nonfiction titles (including Has a Cow Saved Your Life?, Staging a Play, and Northern Lights), the easy reader Pirate Mom, and co-writer with Whoopi Goldberg of the Sugar Plum Ballerina chapter book series.

And just published this spring are not one, not two, but THREE of her picture books. The first of the three is Granny Gomez & Jigsaw, published in March. I remember reading a draft of Granny Gomez’s story way back when, in our San Francisco writing group, and was so excited to see these characters again years later in their published form, wonderfully illustrated by Scott Magoon. It’s the story of a friendship between Granny Gomez and her pet pig Jigsaw. The story was inspired by Deborah’s real-life adopted pig who lived at Farm Sanctuary for many years. I really love this book–it appeals to the animal lover in me, plus it just makes me giggle. There is a great interview with Deborah at Our Hen House where she talks more about herself, this book, and the pig who inspired it.

Today is the official release day for Deborah’s second picture book titled The Quiet Book, although I spotted the book prominently displayed at the Boulder Bookstore last week. This book has already been generating a good amount of buzz and deservedly so. It received a starred review from the School Library Journal who said, “The soft, matte feel of the illustrations, created with pencil, are digitally enhanced, and are priceless. . . . A delightful and enchanting choice for storytime or sharing one-on-one.” It was also one of Amazon’s picks for Best Books of the Month. It’s a beautiful book about the many different types of quiet (lollipop quiet, hide-and-seek quiet, last one to get picked up from school quiet) and the book encompasses the theme of quiet through and through. It’s a smaller than normal size picture book, with adorable little critters illustrating the different types of quiet in subdued colors (illustrations by Renata Liwska), and a gentle narration of the types of quiet throughout.

Her third picture book, A Balloon for Isabel, illustrated by Laura Rankin, will be available April 27. It was chosen as a Spring 2010 Junior Library Guild Selection (as was The Quiet Book) and is the story of Isabel, a porcupine who desperately wants a balloon and the creative solution she comes up with to get around the no-balloons-for-porcupines rule.

To find out more about Deborah Underwood, visit her website. (Author Photo Credit: John Vias)

Describe your workspace.

I live in a one-bedroom apartment, so my workspace is essentially my living room and my bedroom. I wish I had a separate office, because without one, my job seems to take over my whole life! I’ll be trying to watch a DVD at night, but my gaze will drift over to a pile of work papers, and I’ll end up sorting through them instead of relaxing.

Since I have a laptop, sometimes I write on my bed. I do creative work and brainstorming there, partly because I can look out my window easily and that seems to help me think. I have a resident scrub jay, Fred, that pops by for peanuts, and feeding him is a productive form of procrastination (at least according to him).

I’ve had some back problems, so I’ve rigged up a standing desk in my living room that I often use when I’m checking email or doing online research. If I have a big nonfiction project to research, I set up a card table so I can spread out my notes, or I use Standing Desk #2, a large book laid flat over my stereo. My workspace feels totally jury-rigged. I dream of getting a lovely Craftsman-style standing desk, well-made wooden file cabinets, and functional lighting someday. I kind of thought I’d have grown-up furniture by the time I hit this age. Alas!

My main work area.

Describe a typical workday.

Really, there’s no such thing for me. My schedule is very dependent on what’s going on–for example, the last few weeks have been almost no writing and lots of marketing and website stuff. If I have a nonfiction project due, I drop everything to work on that since my nonfiction work has tight deadlines. Generating new fiction typically falls to the bottom of the priority list, since it’s speculative and no one’s waiting for it. That’s something I really need to rethink, because I have a middle-grade novel I’d like to write, and it’s not going to happen unless I carve out fiction time almost every day.

The few semi-constants in my workdays are that I meditate every morning, and often take a break mid-day to go to the gym. I take a nap after lunch, too; just 15 or 20 minutes, but it makes a huge difference, and I really miss it when I don’t get one. Afternoons are my least productive time, so working in the mornings and evenings and using the afternoons for errands and busy-work makes sense for me.

My glamourous standing desk #2. Hmm, clearly someone could use a better system for organizing papers.

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

1) I’ll count photos of my nieces, a card from my boyfriend, and pictures of my cat who recently passed away as one item: They all remind me of those I love.

2) A box of stones: I got three stones when I went to the Highlights Chautauqua conference several years ago. Eileen Spinelli led a workshop and gave each participant a stone that her grandkids had collected. She is a lovely, warm person and the stone is a nice reminder of her and her class. And in the Chautauqua gift shop, they were selling rocks engraved with words. I bought one that said “strength,” because that’s what I felt I most needed at the time. Later I went to a church service there and they handed out clear red glass stones to represent faith. When I was playing with the stones, I realized that if I held the red glass stone over the word “strength,” it magnified it. Faith magnifies strength–pretty cool, regardless of whether you think of faith as meaning belief in a higher power or faith in yourself.

3) An award: Pirate Mom won the Maryland Blue Crab Award for Transitional Fiction, and I got my first-ever engraved plaque! This has special significance for me because although the book got a few very good reviews, it also got a pretty bad one. And of course the bad one came at a time when I was at the end of my rope–almost out of money, feeling like there was no way I could ever make this writing career thing work, completely despondent–and it just about decimated me. Then the book went on to get picked up by Scholastic, sell over 160,000 copies, and win this award. The plaque serves as a reminder to me that one person’s opinion is just one person’s opinion, and that I shouldn’t get too caught up in reviews (especially bad ones!).

Scrub Jay Cafe, open for business!

Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.

Hm. . . not really. Except that when I’m working on the first draft of a longer fiction manuscript, I make myself do 1000 words or 2 hours a day. Sometimes it’s a struggle, but if I let myself slip, I’m afraid I’ll never get it done. I often end up writing really fast so I can get to 1000 words quickly. The fact that I’m allowed to stop after that is good incentive! I know some authors can write for hours and hours and love losing themselves in the worlds they’re creating. But for me, I’m afraid, making myself write is typically like trying to make a smart, manipulative four-year-old do something she doesn’t want to do. I have to be vigilant or I’ll be toast.

What do you listen to while you work?

I love music (I’m a choral singer) but unfortunately I can’t listen to anything–especially anything with words–while I write fiction; it’s too distracting. If I’m doing nonfiction work, sometimes I listen to Bach or other Baroque music. Oddly, I’m not all that fond of Baroque music, but I find it relaxes me without pulling me into an emotional vortex as a Romantic composer’s music would.

What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?

Soy lattes are always helpful! So is dark chocolate.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?
Well, often I’m not nearly focused enough. But when I am, it’s sheer willpower. And deadlines. Having an editor waiting for a revision is surprisingly motivating. 🙂

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

When I’m doing mostly thinking work–brainstorming, plot outlining, trying to solve problems–I scribble out notes longhand. I’m not sure exactly why this works better for me. It could be that writing longhand feels like a more direct connection to my brain. Or it could be that once something’s in a word processing document, it looks official so I feel less free to play with crazy ideas. I also like the freedom to spread notes or index cards all over my bed and stare at them. But once I’m actually writing a draft, I use the computer. When I’m editing, I print out a hard copy and edit longhand, then input the changes.

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

A picture book is short enough that it’s not really an issue–the scribbled notes morph into the manuscript. For longer works, I generally know where I want to start and where I’ll end up, and I often have a few plot points along the way I know I want to include that help anchor me a little. But I don’t know exactly the path I’ll take to get to the end. That seems like a good compromise: I’m not just drifting around, but there’s still room to explore interesting options that may arise. Plot is challenging for me, so I’m trying to be a bit more structured about it than I have in the past. It’s definitely an evolving process!

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

Nick Park, the Wallace and Gromit creator! I got to interview him by phone for National Geographic Kids magazine, and he was incredibly nice–funny and gracious and humble and of course brilliant. I think he’d be a great office-mate. And he’d probably have all sort of clay figures lying around that I could play with.

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

When I was at Chautauqua, I had the good fortune to work with Stephen Roxburgh. He stressed the importance of just writing through a longer work–get a first draft done, then worry about editing and messing with it. I think it’s very easy to get bogged down editing and reediting chapters before you know where your book is going, and then you potentially end up having to toss out a lot of work. That advice has really helped me.

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