A Peek at the Creative Space of Mary Quattlebaum

A dog is a great muse!
I always get many ideas while walking the family dogs.

Ahoy and avast, ye mateys! If there’s a wee pirate enthusiast in your life, have I got a book recommendation for you: Pirate vs. Pirate by Mary Quattlebaum and illustrated by Alexandra Boiger. Bad Bart is the biggest, burliest pirate this side of the Atlantic, and Mean Mo the maddest, mightiest pirate that side of the Pacific. When Bart and Mo decide they won’t settle for just one measly ocean, they want to conquer the world, they meet their competitor in the middle and have one of my favorite exchanges of the book:

“Rogue, am I?” Bad Bart spat. “Deck swabber.”
“Grog Swiller.”
“Bilge rat.”
“Sea skunk.”
Gentleman,” Mean Mo sneered.
Such insults!

Mean Mo and Bad Bart duke it out pirate style with shark-swimming competitions, cannonball throwing, and mast climbing until a winner is finally declared.

Mary Quattlebaum has two more picture books being published this year, The Hungry Ghost of Rue Orleans (illustrated by Patricia Castelao) and Jo MacDonald Saw a Pond (illustrated by Laura J. Bryant). Other titles by Mary Quattlebaum include Family Reunion, Underground Train, and Winter Friends. To learn more about Mary, visit her website. And to learn more about Mary’s creative space and writing process, read on!

I write in a small, cluttered home office.  It’s stuffed with mementos and cozy with snoozing dogs.

Describe your workspace.

Well, most of the time, I work in my very cluttered home office. Sometimes, though, I write at my kitchen table, which is close to several windows and has lots of natural light (and is away from my computer and the temptation to check email and troll the internet). And then sometimes I work at nearby coffeeshops. But my FAVORITE workspace is outdoors, while walking our dog, Yoshi.  That’s where I do my best thinking/mulling.

For a change of scenery, I move to the table in the kitchen, where I often jot notes and revise.

Describe a typical workday.

I lounge in bed until noon and then skip lightly downstairs to discover that my dear family has made me a delicious breakfast of fluffy pancakes and fruit salad before slipping quietly out of the house for work and school. After lingering over my hot tea and perusing the newspaper, I am struck by a *brilliant* idea, which is quickly and decisively fashioned into a charming manuscript, which I email to my agent, who gets right back to me with some delightful news: the publisher accepts, with no revisions. They want to bring the book out *immediately*. The advance? Six figures. No, seven. The president of the company insists. Meanwhile, the busy dogs, which never shed, have been dusting the furniture and sweeping the floor and–oh, lucky me–have whipped up some delectable scones with their dainty paws. The cheerful guinea pigs have done all the laundry. Can it be tea time already? Three o’clock. I put aside my computer and pens and prepare to greet my returning family with a happy smile. I can’t believe how much I did today!

Oh, wait . . . you asked about a typical workday, not typical dream day. Whoops. Typical day: pretty much the opposite of the daydream. Certain things hold true for both dream and day, though: dear family, hot tea, busy dogs, cheerful guinea pigs, computer, pens. 

“It’s important to take breaks for grog and hardtack (or your writerly refreshment of choice).”  Mary and her husband dress as “book buccaneers” at Booktopia in Bethesda, Md.

List three of your most favorite things in your workspace and why they are meaningful.
1.  Ratty, plush collie dog, about 38 years old.  A Christmas gift from my Nana, whom I loved very much.
2.  Photos of family.
3.  Paper crane and painted ceramic bunny, both made by my daughter.
4.  Mime doll, one of the first gifts from my husband.
(Okay, that’s 4 things but, then, my office is very cluttered.  I could list more!)

Finally, out of all that chaos, calm, clutter and dog-and-buccaneer breaks comes … the finished book.

Do you have any rituals in your work habits? If so, describe them.
For creative work, I like to draft in longhand with blue pilot pens (extra-fine point) on yellow legal pads, then type into my trusty laptop. Sometimes, though, the laptop is less than trusty and so I have to scold it. Then I call my husband to see if he knows why the computer is acting up. This is part of the daily ritual. Oh, and I drink hot tea. Lots of it.

What do you listen to while you work?

Real bird song and the snuffle-snores of sleeping dogs.

What is your drink and/or snack of choice while you’re working?
Have I mentioned hot tea? Lots of it. And popcorn.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?
That would be hot tea. Popcorn. Bills (certainly keep me on task with the teaching and freelance writing that I do). Also, an exciting idea, a compelling character.

Do you write longhand, on a computer, or another way?
Scribbled notes and messy longhand first draft for creative work. Articles and book reviews, I type directly into the computer.
How do you develop your story ideas? Do you use an outline, let the muse lead you, or another technique?

Rudimentary outline, recalcitrant muse. A combination of the two.

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

My husband. Actually, we had to share when we were newlyweds and he was in grad school and I was working from home as a freelance writer. We had one computer in a nook in our apartment. He’s a night owl and I’m a morning robin and so we never had to argue over who would work when. The only downside: that poor computer never got a break and would sometimes just shut itself down.

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

From author Kathi Appelt: Commit to writing five minutes every day.  Just five minutes.  Often, you may find yourself writing more but all you have to do is five minutes worth of writing.  Every day.

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5 Responses to “A Peek at the Creative Space of Mary Quattlebaum”

  1. jama

    Love this! Thank you. I'll take a second cup of tea now :). *adjusts eye patch*

  2. LadybugSF

    I love the five minutes everyday thing. I try for BIC every day, but telling myself five minutes might make it even easier… hm. Much like when I tell myself: go for a run. You only have to go around the block…

  3. Louisette Lanteigne

    I met a wonderful man by the name of John Grisham. He's pretty good at this book writing thing as well. He goes for half an hour a day instead of five minutes but he likes taking the same approach, little bit each day, bit by bit. It's amazing how many books he's crafted using that technique. His wife reviews his work. If she likes it she'll say it. If not she might toss the papers across the room, quite literally. Mr. Grisham jokes that the candor of his wife's reviews make editorial critics "look like children". Lol.

  4. Julie Larios

    I work with Mary At Vermont college of Fine Arts – a low-residency program. Our residencies bring us together twice a year, but we never actually get to sit in each other's homes and talk together – it's wonderful to see Mary's world (and her pirate husband!) Thanks!