A Peek at the Creative Space of Linda Ashman

I’m happy to welcome part two of the duo behind No Dogs Allowed! and one of my personal favorite picture book writers, Linda Ashman. Linda is the author of numerous critically acclaimed picture books including Babies on the Go, To the Beach, M is for Mischief, Creaky Old House, Stella Unleashed, When I Was King, and many more.

Her most recent title, No Dogs Allowed!, was published this month (Kristin Sorra, the illustrator, shared her workspace with us last week). Kirkus Reviews said, “Ashman’s concept is both sophisticated and delightful.” No Dogs Allowed! is a nearly wordless picture book. You may be wondering how one writes a nearly wordless picture book and if so, you’re in luck! Linda has shared the story behind creating this book here.

I had the pleasure of taking a weekend-long master class with Linda Ashman recently. Not only was the weekend inspiring and left me with a brain full of practical tips for writing picture books, but we heard a preview of another of Linda’s soon-to-be published books, Samantha on a Roll. This is a fun, delightful story of a young girl determined to try out her new roller skates. Samantha on a Roll will be published in October in addition to Linda’s third 2011 picture book release, The Twelve Days of Christmas in Colorado.

To learn more about Linda Ashman, visit her website.

Describe your workspace.

My office is a small room at the back of our 1919 bungalow in Denver, with windows on three sides overlooking the garden. There’s a desk, sofa, bookcase, and a couple of tables. I’ve got a vintage poster and framed illustrations from old picture books on the walls and, often, a dog sprawled out on the floor. (That’s Sammy in the picture.)

I like to move around, though. Probably my favorite place to work is our breakfast room, where I can spread everything out on the table. Plus it’s closer to the coffee.

Other times, when I need a change of scenery, I like to work in the dining room. I don’t normally have roses on the table, though that would be nice. These were a gift from our neighbor.

When I really need a change of pace, I go to the Peet’s Coffee shop not far from my home. My son Jackson and I just biked over there today, in fact. Here he is, reading.

Describe a typical workday.

During the summer when Jackson’s home from school, there’s no such thing. I work in fits and starts on whatever is most pressing. During the school year, though, my work hours are more consistent. The alarm goes off at 5:40 am, and after the morning off-to-school hubbub subsides, I get started. I’m not the kind of person who writes every day, and I’m not a good multitasker. So if I’m working on a story, I’ll spend most of the day on that, to the exclusion of everything else. Once the story’s done, I take care of all the things I neglected when I was writing–catching up on emails, preparing for workshops, doing administrative stuff, reviewing sketches, updating my website, etc. And, most days, I get some sort of exercise–either riding the stationary bicycle or going for a walk.

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

1. My books. We have bookshelves in other rooms of the house, but I keep a very limited selection of favorites here. Many are about living thoughtfully, simply and/or sanely in a crazy world, by people I consider very wise: Thomas Moore, Karen Armstrong, Sue Monk Kidd, Carl Jung, Robert Benson, Thich Nhat Hanh, and others. Some are favorite writing books, like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. And then there are books my parents had that I loved as a kid, like the 1943 editions of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights with the very dark and brooding engravings by Fritz Eichenberg (so spooky and romantic!), or the Illustrated Treasury of Children’s Literature, published in 1955, filled with stories, poems, and gorgeous illustrations from the early 1900s.

2. Framed photos of my husband, son, and other family members. Great reminders of the things that really matter (and especially comforting on the days when there’s disappointing publishing news).

3. The windows. First, because of the beautiful woodwork, which my husband painstakingly stripped (it was pink when we moved in). And, second, because I love being able to look out at the garden which, really, is my favorite place to work.

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

I like to begin each work day by reading at random from one of the inspirational books on my bookcase. I confess this really is more of an aspiration than a ritual, but on the days I do it, I feel much more centered and productive.

What do you listen to while you work? 

Dogs barking, including our own Sammy and Stella. Lawn mowers. Leaf blowers. Birds. Cars. The occasional siren. Construction. But no music–too distracting.

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

Black coffee and a sweet of some sort, preferably a muffin, scone, or chocolate chip cookies.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

Coffee and sugar help. That, and knowing that I have a very small window of work time each day while Jackson’s at school.

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

I always start with a pen and paper, but once I’ve scribbled down some ideas, I switch to my laptop. I do most of my writing on the computer, but then print a bazillion drafts so I can revise on paper.

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

I’ve got file folders full of story ideas, usually just a line or two scribbled on a scrap of paper, that I pull out when I’m starting something new. Most of the time I know how the story begins, and have some idea of how it ends, but I’m never quite sure how I’m going to get there. Since I typically write in verse, one of the first things I need to figure out is the rhythm and rhyme pattern, because that often shapes the direction of the story.

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

My husband Jack. We’re good at being quiet together, and he’s an honest (but gentle) critic. Plus he makes excellent muffins and chocolate chip cookies.

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

Fifteen years ago, soon after I started writing, I heard Karen Cushman speak at the SCBWI national conference in Los Angeles, where we lived at the time. I’m not sure if she offered any particular writing advice, but I found her personal story incredibly inspiring. She was around 50, with two master’s degrees, when she started writing, and had won a Newbery or two by the time I heard her speak. Since I was 35, with a couple of careers (and a recently-completed master’s degree) behind me, it was really reassuring to hear that it wasn’t too late to start over.

Around the same time, I received the best nuts-and-bolts advice for picture book writers, which I’ve shared many times. Get a bunch of really good picture books from the library, preferably recent ones. Type the words into the computer, noting page breaks as you go. Do a word count. This is an excellent way to see how few words there are in picture books, and to get a sense of structure, pacing, and language. I still do this exercise and still find it really valuable.

5 Responses to “A Peek at the Creative Space of Linda Ashman”

  1. Stacy S. Jensen

    Great post on how Linda works. I took a class with her too (that may be how I found this blog). She's very helpful in class and her books have helped me out at bed time – several times.

  2. KristinS

    Lovely interview and space (love craftsman style bungalows)! Thanks for sharing yours!! Indeed it was an unusual picture book collaboration, my first time ever speaking directly to a writer during the project.

  3. LadybugSF

    What an enchanting garden… and I love the picture book exercise. I'm going to raid my daughter's book shelves to try it right now.

  4. Linda Ashman

    Thanks, Kristin. It was a pretty challenging project for all of us, I think, and such a great learning experience. You did a fabulous job. Hopefully some day we can celebrate together over coffee (or maybe something stronger!). By the way, it looks like our doggies are related.

    And LadybugSF, I hope you find that exercise helpful. It helped me so much in the beginning when I was writing 2,500 work picture books (so embarrassing to admit that!).