A Peek at the Creative Space of Zilpha Keatley Snyder

Today it is my pleasure to welcome three-time Newbery Honor winner, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, to Creative Spaces. Ms. Snyder is the author of many beloved and award-winning titles including The Egypt Game, The Headless Cupid, Witches of Worm, The Velvet Room, The Unseen, The Great Stanley Kidnapping Case, Libby on Wednesday, The Changeling, The Ghosts of Rathburn Park, and her most recent title published last fall, William S. and the Great Escape.

I discovered Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s books around third or fourth grade and became a huge fan, reading every book of hers my library had in its collection. The Egypt Game is an all-time favorite. My childhood best friend and I (and occasionally her younger brother too, because he matched the role of Marshall) played our own version of the Egypt Game, which as I remember it, amounted to sitting in the dirt behind a grove of pine trees in the corner of her yard. This paled in comparison to the exciting things that happen in the book, and I’m not sure that our version of the Egypt Game lasted very long. But the love for the book and Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s stories remained.

Fast forward a dozen or so years, I was working at the Linden Tree children’s bookstore while I was going to grad school and discovered there was a sequel to The Egypt Game called The Gypsy Game. (I was shocked that I could have missed this, but there was a simple explanation: it was published in 1997, 30 years after the original.) Because I was in graduate school for writing, trying to unravel for myself the mysteries of “how do I become a writer”,  I was now not only interested in the books but the writer behind them. So I sought out more information on Ms. Snyder and discovered this essay, which I found thrilling to read both as a fan of her work and because of the informative and practical information she offers about her process.

For this interview, I had the pleasure of speaking with Ms. Snyder on the phone, so the answers that follow have been transcribed from our conversation. If you’re interested in learning more about Zilpha Keatley Snyder, I highly recommend reading her autobiography posted on her website. You can also connect with Ms. Snyder on Facebook where she occasionally shares photos and recent news. If you’d like a more thorough tour of where Ms. Snyder lives, there is also a 20 minute video interview available through Good Conversations. (You will need to register for a free trial in order to view the entire video. There is an excellent collection of author interviews on this site though, and it looks like a worthwhile subscription for a school or a library.)

As I mentioned yesterday, as part of this special set of interviews (today and tomorrow) for my birthday week, I will be giving away a book from each author. Today I’m giving away a copy of Ms. Snyder’s latest book, William S. and the Great Escape! Comment on this interview and you’ll be entered to win.

Zilpha Keatley Snyder in her office with her dog Joey.

Describe your workspace.

I have a room on the third story of our apartment. It’s a big room that is meant to be a bedroom, but I use it as a study. I have lots of bookcases and bulletin boards where I post different things. I have a bulletin board with pictures that kids have sent me. I used to get a lot of these, but now that most of my fanmail is email, I no longer get kids’s pictures so much. I also have a lot of files up there and my desk.

However, now that I have a laptop, I very often sit in the living room. My room up at the top of the house tends to be colder in the winter and hotter in summer than the rest of the house. So I very often just sit in the living room on the sofa with my laptop and write there. There’s just the two of us in the house now, my husband and I, so it’s fairly quiet and private.

Describe a typical workday.

Well, that varies. My husband and I go to the gym three mornings a week–Monday, Wednesday, and Friday–to work out. And so I used to write in the mornings but now I write mainly in the early afternoon. I don’t work as many hours as I used to. There was a time I might write five or six hours a day, but now it’s more like two or three.

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

My room upstairs faces back behind our house which is just a wooded hillside and gives me the feeling that I’m a long way from anything. There’s nothing out there but deer trails and redwood trees. So that’s probably my most favorite thing about that room, along with all the pictures on my bulletin board.

Downstairs, I like that I’m close to the kitchen where I can get a cup of tea easily (that’s where I’m sitting right now). It has a nice view out big front windows, so it’s a pleasant place to sit.

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

I don’t know if you’d call it a ritual, but one thing I have done for years is when I start a new book I start character sketches of the main characters. When I used to do it in a notebook I would leave a whole page for each of them or important characters, and I would add new things as I began to figure them out because I didn’t know the characters that well at first. Now of course I do it on the computer. I just add to them when I think of new information. And it’s very helpful, because I’ve found that in writing the character sketches I very often get plot ideas. A person with a certain type of character, certain view of life, would be apt to have a particular problem that could be worked into part of the plot.

What do you listen to while you work?

Absolutely nothing. I don’t listen to music or anything. Oh, sometimes I have to–my husband is a pianist and if he’s playing the piano . . . But anything that might have words in it would be very distracting.

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

Tea. I drink several cups of tea a day. As for snack, I try to avoid that. Although I generally try to keep a bowl of what I call snacking fruit available. Very often grapes or cherries or something like that.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

Oh, I don’t know. Not being interrupted? Which is hard to come by because there’s the phone and front door and time to do various things during the day. But . . . well, I know–just getting interested in my characters. When I’ve gotten to know them pretty well then I’m curious about them, and as I write I discover more things about them. And that’s one of the greatest interests for me in writing.

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

When I first began to write, my first book I wrote all out in pen and ink on a pad. My husband, who types very well, which I think goes along with being a pianist–very fast typist–he typed it for me. Which was very kind of him because I’m sure he didn’t think I was ever going to sell it. After that I started working on a typewriter. I could do action and sometimes narration, but I never could compose very well on the typewriter because if you make a mistake then of course you have to try to erase it or throw the page away and get a new page. So anything the least bit difficult, I would keep a pad and a pen right by the typewriter and write it out. Now, of course, there’s the computer. I love working on the computer.

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

In the past I would write the first chapter or so, just getting the feel of the story and the point of view of the main character. But then I would take a lot of time and do plotting. At that time I would write what I thought of as a plot page. When I was teaching I would say it was like writing a book report before the book has been written. Just a very short form of the story, but with a general idea of what the ending is going to be like. I find it very difficult to write without some idea of the ending. I know there are other writers who say they just start writing and see what happens, but I don’t seem to work that way very well. I always seem to get my characters into a mess that I can’t get them out of, a situation that doesn’t mean anything. I try to have a plot page.

Years ago, when writing some very difficult young adult books, I would outline chapter by chapter. I’d have a page for each chapter with a line down the middle. On one side I’d write the action or what is to happen in this chapter. And on the other I’d put information or narration, which would be narration that gives the reader more information about where the story is going. And I would try to work some action in with some narration so it wouldn’t get boring.

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

Well, my husband of course. But if you mean some figure in history or writer of the past, then maybe one of the Brontes.

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

I remember one thing my first editor told me, that was Jean Karl at Atheneum. My first book was fantasy and quite a few of my books have been. She said: If your story is a fantasy, you must let the reader know what the basis is, what the underlining factor is for the fantasy. You can’t have magic happening here and now with no reason for it, no thing it arises from, no cause. The reader begins to feel there’s no need to worry because something magical is going to happen that solves this problem whatever it is. So you have to limit the magic in some way and make it have a basis.

Advice from Ms. Snyder herself:

Get to know your characters well, and keep at it.

Remember to comment in order to enter yourself to win a copy of her latest title, William S. and the Great Escape!

9 Responses to “A Peek at the Creative Space of Zilpha Keatley Snyder”

  1. Eric Carpenter

    Great interview. I was a late comer to The Egypt Game but really enjoyed it. Headless Cupid is the next book in my pile for SSR at school, can't wait to read it.

  2. Linda Lodding

    This is so thrilling, Jenn! I absoluetly adored reading Zilpha Keatley Snyder books when I was growing up and mention her as one of my idols on my website. The Egypt Games as an all-time favorite and a few years ago I listened to it on CD with my daughter. Just as delightful then as now.

    Ms. Snyder has so much wisdom to impart about plotting and getting to know your characters. And she works out 3x / week (and doesn't snack!) Huh? I certainly wish I had her willpower and fraction of her creative genius. Thanks so much to you both! And happy birthday!

  3. LadybugSF

    This was so amazingly cool. I have always wondered about her, and about her writing process. The article on her website about storytelling gave a delicious little insight into her life as a creator of imaginary worlds.

  4. Amy

    I have never heard of this author, but it sounds like I have been missing out! Would love to win this book and check out her style of writing! Thank you for this giveaway!

  5. Literally Lynne

    I have listed you on my Blog as one of my favorite Blogs because I just LOVE these stories behind the story and these peeks into the fertile grounds from which creation springs forth!!! You are such a gift to the society of bloggers! Just LOVE your posts each week. And certainly Lois Lowry is a long-time favorite. Thank you for inviting me to the birthday party <3 I HOPE I get to go to the Birthday Ball 😉

  6. Jane

    Great interview! I always enjoy learning about behind-the-scenes information about authors. By the way, I haven't read The Gypsy Game either! I'll have to get right on that.

  7. Kathy

    Zilpha Keatley Snyder was my favorite writer as a child and The Velvet Room was my favorite book. I also loved the illustrations by Alton Raible. They are exquisite. I loved the pink cover, and the cover illustration. I was a bookworm as a child and the skinny girl with the black hair on the cover even resembled me. I really identified with her. I also loved reading about warm and beautiful California and the fruit orchards because I lived in frigid Wisconsin.

  8. Michelle K.

    This is a wonderful interview! You must have been so excited to talk with her. Thanks for sharing this– I linked to it from Zilpha Keatley Snyder's Facebook page. She's one of my favorites and this was a delight to read. Hope you have a happy birthday week! :o)