A Peek at the Creative Space of Carmen Agra Deedy

Carmen Agra Deedy has been writing for children for over two decades. Born in Havana, Cuba, she came to the U.S. as a refugee in 1964. She grew up in Decatur, Georgia, where she lives today.

Her books have garnered high praise and awards and include The Library Dragon, The Yellow Star, Martina the Beautiful Cockroach, and 14 Cows for America.

Her latest is her middle grade novel debut, The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tale, co-written with Randall Wright and illustrated by Barry Moser. From the publisher Peachtree:

In this playful homage to Charles Dickens, unlikely allies learn the lessons of a great friendship

Skilley, an alley cat with an embarrassing secret, longs to escape his street-cat life. Tired of dodging fishwives’ brooms and carriage wheels, he hopes to trade London’s damp alleyways for the warmth of ye olde Cheshire Cheese Inn. He strikes a bargain with Pip, an erudite mouse: Skilley will protect the mice who live at the inn, and in turn, the mice will provide Skilley with the thing he desires most.

But when Skilley and Pip are drawn into a crisis of monumental proportions involving a tyrannical cook, an unethical barmaid, and a malevolent tomcat, their new friendship is pushed to its limits. The escalating crisis threatens the peace not only of the Cheshire Cheese Inn but also the British Monarchy!

Unbeknownst to Skilley and Pip, however, they have a secret ally: a famous author who scribbles away many an afternoon in ye olde Cheshire Cheese Inn. . .

The Cheshire Cheese Cat has received glowing reviews include a starred review from Publishers Weekly who wrote, “Expertly realized characters and effervescent storytelling make this story of unlikely friendship, royal ravens, and “the finest cheese in London” a delight.”

If you’d like to learn more about Carmen Agra Deedy, visit her website.

Describe your workspace.

Official workspace, or de facto?

I do have an office in my home, and I do write at my desk on occasion—okay, that is only marginally true––I really write everywhere. I have a laptop and I have it for a reason. I write on planes, and at my neighborhood coffee shop, and in bed at night (my own bed, a hotel room bed), a plastic chair at La Guardia when my flight is canceled . . . My schedule includes a generous smattering of travel, and that sort of life demands flexibility from a writer.

I truly love my cheery little office. It’s just so elusive these days. . .

Describe a typical workday.

My workdays vary greatly. I visit over a hundred schools a year, in and out of state. If I happen to be home, I will spend the day with school children and the evening with my family. My husband and I will make dinner together, wash our dishes, and then our dog, George Bailey, will take us for a walk. We inevitably wind up on the porch where we sit and talk for an hour or two. George is a rather long-winded storyteller, I’m afraid.

I don’t usually sit down to write until quite late. Being something of a night owl, this arrangement suits me nicely.

If I’m on the road, my evenings are pretty dull: I order room service, eat, then stay up and write for a while. Except for those times when I don’t . . .

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

In my office (the titular writing space) I keep a number of things that have special meaning for me. The place seems to have a magnetic quality for the flotsam and jetsam of my life.

My granddaughter’s crib. Ruby and her parents live in Brooklyn. The crib isn’t used regularly, but it is always at the ready. And it’s such a happy little thing. I love having it nearby when I work from home.

The painting of my dog and BFF, George. It was a gift from my husband, and I adore it.

A wonderful clock, created by my daughter, Erin, from an old book of Robin Hood tales.

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

Avoid, avoid, avoid. 

When the avoiding is done, then it’s work, work, work.

But, you’ve never seen such resistance to writing when a deadline first looms! I will scrub the toilet, refold the linens, and label the spice jars, if it will gain me one more nanosecond of lollygagging.

What do you listen to while you work?

Words in the background when I’m trying to write?
No can do. 

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

Hot tea; a homemade brew of chamomile and star anis is my favorite.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

Once I truly immerse myself in a story, I don’t need anything to keep me focused. I become most obsessed. It’s the whole “getting started” thing that I find paralyzing (it’s a bit like that childhood dream where you are trying desperately to run, but your feet won’t obey the command).

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

All notes, research, and story arcs, are written longhand. The first clean draft is then entered into my laptop, and I continue in that medium until the near-final draft. At that point I print it out and edit the hard copy. I enter the changes . . . then repeat the process two or three times.

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

I start with an idea. It may be something I’ve seen, thought, felt, experienced, remembered, or twisted my ankle upon. If it feels like it could be the beginning of an intriguing story, however, I let it play out. To state it with more clarity: I think about it, read about it, and talk about it to anyone who’ll listen.

As I go along, I write down everything, every morsel of information, in notebooks. When I have enough for a proper story, I write an outline. This process could take weeks, months, or years. Then, and only then, do I begin to write any substantial prose.

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

Teddy Roosevelt. I’d prefer to have the live specimen, of course. There’s not enough room in my workspace for a dead president, no matter how fond I am of him.

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

Write what you really think.

Your list of erstwhile friends may grow longer––but you’ll hardly miss the buzzards. As for your true friends? Like Pip, I’ve found that they become often more loyal with every line of truth you fling into the universe.

3 Responses to “A Peek at the Creative Space of Carmen Agra Deedy”

  1. Jane Heitman Healy

    I was fortunate to meet Carmen and hear hear tell stories a few years ago at the Plum Creek festival in Seward, NE. She held all of her listeners spellbound, from the youngest child to the oldest teacher. We laughed, we cried, we sat at the edges of our seats. We were transported by Carmen's stories and left with bigger hearts than when we entered. Thanks, Jennifer, for featuring Carmen here!