A Peek at the Creative Space of Mary Newell DePalma

Mary Newell DePalma is the author and/or illustrator of over a dozen picture books. A little bit about some of my favorites:

A Grand Old Tree is the story of the life cycle of a tree and how the influence and importance of that tree does not stop once it dies. Here’s a taste: “The grand old tree flowered, bore fruit, and sowed seeds. She had many children. They changed the landscape for miles around, perhaps even farther than the old tree knew.”

Roads (written by Marc Harshman) Her illustrations depict a family’s drive to visit grandparents and all the sights and sounds along the way. For me, this story brings me back to driving up to Sacramento as a child to visit my grandpa and summer road trips down to San Diego to visit family there.

The Nutcracker Doll, about a girl who auditions and earns a role in a production of The Nutcracker, might be my favorite of the DePalma books I’ve read. I grew up dancing so that’s part of the reason why I’m partial to the story, but I also like that the protagonist receives a very small role in the production and is happy to be a part of it just the same. The emphasis of the story is really on the experience of being in a performance rather than the character’s struggles. (Fun fact, this story was inspired by Mary Newell DePalma’s daughter who performed in the Boston Ballet’s Nutcracker as a child.)

Her latest book The Perfect Gift was published by Arthur A. Levine Books earlier this year. It’s the story of Little Lorikeet who finds a beautiful strawberry she plans to take to her grandmother. But on her way “hip, hop, plop!” she drops the strawberry into the river where it sinks way down deep. A chipmunk, goose, and frog stop by to help her retrieve the strawberry, more trouble ensues, and they all end up working together to create a surprising and satisfying resolution to Little Lorikeet’s problems.

For more information about Mary Newell DePalma, visit her website. If you are a teacher or a parent looking for supplementary activities while reading her books, there are multiple curriculum guides available there too with excellent ideas and suggestions.

Describe your workspace.

My workspace is the front room of my apartment. It has really lovely light.

Describe a typical workday.

My workdays have evolved over the years!

When my children were small, I worked after they went to sleep, from 9pm to 1am. During the years that they were in school, I worked an average of 4 days a week, 9am to 3pm. I took an hour for lunch and a walk through the Arboretum near my house.

When I became an “empty nester” I was very excited, because I had looked forward to uninterrupted workdays for so many years. But I discovered that working at home was way too lonely!

Now I work 9-5 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, which is fabulous. Then at 8pm I sit at my drawing table and write and/or draw for 2-3 hours. I also write and draw on at least one weekend day, usually noon to 5. I really love to write and draw, so it doesn’t usually feel like work.

What media do you use and which is your favorite?

I like to try different media—pen and ink, tissue paper collage, acrylic paint . . . recently I’ve been using watercolor. I’m a little itchy to try some different media so I’ve been experimenting with collage and fabric. I use Dreamweaver and Photoshop for my website, and I’m looking forward to learning to draw digitally.

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

I love my drawing table. It has a light table built in, and it is a wonderful tool. My husband got it from the company he worked for when they didn’t need it anymore.

The armoire that holds my art supplies is very beautiful. It belonged to my grandmother, and I remember that it was in her bedroom when I was a little girl.

The art in my studio was made by my friends and that inspires me.

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

I don’t think I have any daily rituals, but I do have to clean the studio before I begin new projects so I can think clearly.

What do you listen to while you work?

Repetition gets me into a working “zone”, so I listen to things over and over. Peter Gabriel, Mack Martin, and the Dixie Travelers, and soundtracks from The Last Waltz and O Brother Where Art Thou are some of my favorites. I used to listen to NPR when I was working during the day. When I write I prefer silence so I can hear myself think!

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

I never eat or drink in my studio; it might make a mess and ruin some artwork.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

Being involved in the work, in the worlds that I’m creating, keeps me focused. I like to finish what I start, so that helps too.

What aspect of writing and/or illustrating do you find the most challenging and why?

Making the first sketches is tough. That is where reality meets your fantasy. It is easy to dream up scenarios, and more difficult to sketch them in real life! When I get really stuck, I take a nap to work it out subconsciously.

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

Ooooh, I think what I do is a very solitary kind of work, so I’m not sure I could share my workspace!!! I have always been very careful to have my own space—in my first apartment, in our house, and now, in this apartment. It is very important to have a space dedicated to work. Maybe I could share the space with one of my children, because they spent a lot of time in my studios along the way . . .

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

I had always worked toward being an illustrator, but writing was something I tried at the suggestion of various editors who saw my illustration samples and thought I should try to write a story. So I gave it a shot. I didn’t realize that writers start with a draft, which doesn’t have to be good, and then they fix it. That insight came from Jane Yolen, and it is definitely the best basic writing advice ever.

After my first book was published, I wondered if it was just a fluke. I mentioned this to Arthur Levine, who is now my editor. He just shook his head and said, as if it were very obvious, “you did it once, you can do it again!” So when I feel under-confident, I think of that.

A Winner and a Rainbow

Thanks for your patience with the book raffle, everyone. I’m back from my vacation and had my husband pull a name from my beach hat (which is the last action that hat will see for a little while as the daffodils have just barely begun to poke their green tips through the dirt and snow is predicted for the weekend here–was I really watching the sun set into the Pacific less than 24 hours ago?)

Without further ado, the winner of a signed copy of Building on Nature by Rachel Rodriguez is:

Jane Heitman Healy!

Congratulations, Jane! Please email me at fromthemixedupfiles (at) gmail (dot) com with your mailing address and I will get your book to you ASAP!

I can’t guarantee a book giveaway every week, but I do know for a fact we have more coming up with future interviews so I hope you’ll all come back and play again.

A Peek at the Creative Space of Denise Vega

In addition to her writing career as a middle grade, young adult, and picture book author, Denise Vega is the co-regional adviser for the Rocky Mountain chapter of the SCBWI. When I moved to Colorado five years ago she was one of the first local writers I met. I had been nervous about moving away from the thriving children’s literature community of the Bay Area and the friendships I’d formed there, worried I wouldn’t be able to find anything similar, but upon meeting Denise my worries were instantly put at ease. She and her co-advisor at the time, Chris Liu Perkins, couldn’t have been more friendly and knowledgeable about the children’s literature community out here by the Rockies and kindly welcomed me into the fold.

Denise is the author of the middle grade novels Click Here (To Find Out How I Survived Seventh Grade) and its sequel Access Denied (And Other Eighth Grade Error Messages), the young adult novel Fact of Life #31, and the picture books Build a Burrito and Grandmother Have the Angels Come? You can learn more about her and her books at her website.

Now let’s step into Denise’s writing space and learn a little bit about how she works. (Random trivia–can you spot an item in her workspace that is the creation of another very well known writer in the children’s literature community?)

Describe your workspace.

Depending on what stage of the writing process I’m in, I may be in my office—which I try to call my writer’s studio because it sounds much more creative and fabulous than “office,” but I keep saying “office”—very annoying. It’s a lovely space we added when we did our house renovation in 2007, connected to my yoga and meditation room (yes, I’m very spoiled). If I’m doing some pre-planning for a book or revising on paper, I will usually sit outside if it’s nice or in my comfy chair in my office—er studio—or in another part of the house so that becomes my workspace. I’ve also been going to Daz Bog in Aurora on Tuesdays after I drop my carpool off at Regis. I’ve been amazed at how much I get done in another location, even with wireless Internet access (online being the enemy of my productivity—okay, it’s really ME procrastinating with email and surfing, but it sounds better to blame the technology).

Denise’s meditation room

Describe a typical workday.

If I’m being especially disciplined, I’ll start in my meditation room and try to quiet my mind, then pick up where I’ve left off on whatever book I’m working on before accessing my email and other Black Hole–type things. This happens maybe 2–3 times/month because I’m not disciplined, though I’ve been better in 2010—the resolution hasn’t worn off yet. Most days I head to my computer, deal with business (including SCBWI email and planning), respond to fan mail for my Blab-o-Rama page on my website, do some type of marketing thing (get on one of the many social networking sites I’m on, create an ad or flyer, work on my quarterly e-newsletter, prep for one of the classes I teach, etc) or other busy work that keeps me from working on my books. Once I get started writing, I usually go for 2–3 hours before one or more kids gets home from school or I need to go pick someone up.

See that picture of me with that stack of paper? Even though it was staged, that’s what it looks like when I’m going through all of the comments on a manuscript from my critique group!

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

1. The art on my walls was created by my brother John—one is of a goddess image that I commissioned and had input on during the design. He does graphic art on the computer that is absolutely stunning and I find it soothing and inspiring at the same time.

2. A postcard of Click Here stuck in a clip that has a black high top sneaker as its base—because that was my first published book and it reminds me that I’ve done it before so I can do it again.

3. A writing fairy that hangs near my computer given to me by the lovely and talented Jolene Gutierrez. On it is a quote by James Michener that says “I love writing. I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions.” I love that Jolene took the time to find something so perfect for me and I love that it’s so perfect because the very best stories go to the depths and heights of human emotion and take readers with them.

Do you have any rituals? If so, describe them.

I jump over a lit candle three times and whisper affirmations to the writing gods while wishing for a huge plate of French fries. Kidding. But maybe I should (except for the fries, which will surely be the death of me, along with potato chips and chocolate). The aforementioned meditation/mind-clearing thing is a wannabe ritual since I don’t do it regularly. I think if I did, things would flow more easily when I begin to write.

What do you listen to while you work?

When the days are nice I open my window and let in the sounds of nature. That’s the best! I often work in silence, though when I was writing my latest novel about a guy in a rock band, I played a lot of my rock music to get in the groove. If a scene is really intense or I need to focus, I can’t have any distractions, though, so quiet is good.

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

How much space do you have? Just kidding. Water is what I drink most because I’m not a coffee or tea drinker. Though I think I may take up tea as it sounds rather classy and romantic to have a cup of tea. When it’s really cold I’ll have a hot chocolate. Snacks range from “love it but bad for me” stuff like chocolate and other candy, to healthy stuff like air-popped plain popcorn and nuts.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

A good scene and also a deadline, self-imposed or otherwise.

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

I do my “pre-writing” long hand—jotting down ideas, snippets of dialogue, what the end of book is—but I do most of my writing on the computer and on my Dana AlphaSmart.

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

You’ve asked this at an interesting time. I’m in the midst of what I’m calling my Grand Experiment. I’ve always been a seat-of-the-pants writer, which for me means I have an idea I’m excited about, I write the first pages or chapters and then I stall. Then it takes me 18-24 months to complete a book as I follow tangents, change my mind, don’t focus on what the story is about, and so on. I moved from that to at least knowing the ending and a few key scenes, but it was still taking me a long time to write because I lacked true focus. But with the book I’m about to start, I’m being more thorough ahead of time. I wouldn’t call it an outline—shudder—but it’s a worksheet I developed based on classes I’ve taken, craft books I’ve read, and other writers’ processes. It forces me to identify the turning points in my novel and the climax and resolution, among other key markers. I’m hopeful that I will be more focused this way and not take so long to complete a book, while still able to be open to where the muse may lead once I begin the actual writing. But we shall see. It is, after all, an experiment that may fail miserably. ☺

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

My husband. He is very busy and can get involved in his own work and not interrupt me. I do NOT like to be interrupted, except when it’s vital. My family is very sensitive to this (I trained them well).

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

Wow. That’s hard because I’ve received or heard so many great pieces of advice—both general and specific. If I have to pick one, though, I’d probably say to find a process that feels right to you and trust it. What works for others may not work for you—though you can certainly try out other methods. Ultimately it has to be effective for you, whether it’s how you write, how you process and incorporate feedback, or how you balance your writing and personal life.

PS. I’ll be announcing the winner of the giveaway for Rachel’s book later this week. I’ve been away on vacation where the internet connection is slooooow and the sun and ocean have been calling me out to play, so I haven’t had the chance to do the drawing, but I will soon. Stay tuned!

A Peek at the Creative Space of Rachel Rodriguez (and another giveaway!)

Happy Monday morning, everyone! Today we’re getting a tour of the workspace of my friend Rachel Rodriguez. Rachel is the author of two picture books: Through Georgia’s Eyes, a biography of Georgia O’Keeffe, and Building on Nature: The Life of Antoni Gaudi, a biography of the Spanish architect. They are beautiful books, both illustrated by Julie Paschkis. Rachel tells the story of these artists’ lives with a poetic voice and strong imagery. Listen to this:

“For a time, Georgia lives in the city. She walks through canyons of concrete. She misses the outdoor world. The sun steals a bite from a skyscraper.”

Isn’t that great? It drops me right back into my city-living days. Here is my favorite passage from Georgia:

“A canyon calls her. From the bottom at dusk she sees a long line of cows above, black lace against a dusky sky.”

Black lace against a dusky sky. Beautiful. Here’s a passage from Building on Nature that I like because it reminds me to be true to my own creative vision:

“Everyone gapes at Gaudi’s grand twists of imagination. But not everyone enjoys his strange buildings. Gaudi pays no attention to the talk. He listens to himself.”

Rachel is currently working on a middle grade novel, which I’ve had the pleasure of reading. (It’s gooood! Very different from her previous books but her beautiful prose is the common thread.) Rachel also works as a national speech coach and frequently visits schools to talk about her writing life. She’s represented by Laura Rennert at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. You can find out more information about Rachel at her website www.rachelrodriguezbooks.com.

One more thing before we step into Rachel’s office–I have another giveaway! It just so happens that I have an extra copy of Building on Nature and when I last visited the Bay Area I had Rachel sign it, just in case. If you would like to win a signed copy of Building on Nature: The Life of Antoni Gaudi, comment on this post any time this week up until Friday at 5pm MST and your name will be entered in a raffle. (Make sure to either include an email where I can reach you if you win, or check back later this week to see if you’re the winner.)

Now let’s tour Rachel’s workspace, shall we?

Describe your workspace.

I love my home office with its big bay windows overlooking a plum tree-lined street next to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. This workspace has the writerly essentials: a big desk, a super comfy ergo chair I can sit in for hours at a time, and an endless supply of chocolate bars. Sun streams in the west-facing windows all afternoon—unless of course it is a foggy day (or foggy summer, which is every summer in San Francisco). Then a depressing bleak, gray pall seeps in which, fortunately, also encourages me to keep writing because there is not a speck of sun tempting me to go frolic outside. Better to bundle up in a fleece parka, make some hot tea and—you got it—keep writing.

Best of all, sunny and foggy weather both inspire me to take my post-lunch, 30-minute Power Writer Nap (PWN) every day. PWN’s are essential to my being a happy camper and productive writer. Anyone else?

Describe a typical workday.

I am a morning person so I usually exercise, eat breakfast, and arrive at my desk by 8:30. When I was younger, I thought just proclaiming “Oh, I’m a writer” meant that I somehow produced work. It’s taken me a long time to make friends with discipline and commitment. I’m humbler now, and more serious about my chosen work, and I’ve discovered what schedule for writing works best for me. For every writer I know, it looks different. For me, I try to stick to a 9-5 Monday through Friday schedule of writing, just like people working in an office. I break for lunch, enjoy my 30-minute PWN and keep working. I’m proud to say my current novel-in-progress has been written with many PWN’s fueling the effort. During the afternoon, I sometimes break things up and go to a café to work. Or if I play hooky during the afternoon then I might do a bit more writing in the evening. I try to put off any errands until late afternoon since though they can feel urgent, they mostly aren’t!

Beyond the daily schedule, I consider my in-person writing group meetings as critical to my work. I’m in two in-person groups that meet three times a month total. For me, these regular gatherings are like staff meetings. I use these deadlines to revise chapters to get feedback on my work-in-progress.

Office mates, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and ready for work.

My that afternoon sunshine feels good. . . a little too good.

No one is safe from the afternoon sun induced PWN

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

I took a picture of two inspiring objects. One is the black and white photo postcard of artist Georgia O’Keeffe in a lounge chair with her pad and pens writing her daily letter to her husband Alfred Stieglitz. The other is the little mosaic lizard from Antoni Gaudi’s famed Park Guell in Barcelona, Spain. I love the sparkle in O’Keeffe’s eyes, her direct gaze and smile. Gaudi’s famous mosaic lizard statue in Park Guell was the product (as all his works were) of his incredible imagination. I consider both items an invitation to maintain my own dedicated practice to the writing craft. These two objects remind me of the books I’ve already published and the people who inspired them.

Perhaps a third item is my bulletin board, filled with art by people important to my life: my five-year-old niece Sofia, grown up artist friends and also Julie Paschkis, the illustrator for my two books. I like looking up at everyone’s art, and feeling inspired and part of a community of artists.

Do you have any rituals to your writing process? If so, describe them.

A friend once said that if you drew a picture of a capital “W” sitting on a line, that is the universal symbol for commitment. Huh? Okay, the “W” represents a butt on the line. Try to draw it yourself: remember the W can’t float above the line—it must touch the line! For me, my biggest ritual is putting my rear on the line, literally sitting down and committing to writing every day. It’s a very simple one, but maybe the hardest one for most new writers to embrace and live every day.

What do you listen to while you work?

Sadly, I must go in my writer’s cave of no distractions and need absolute quiet. As I used to say in my student library employee days at UC Berkeley . . . SHH! (Okay, I really didn’t say that. Actually, patrons used to approach to the circ desk on my Sunday night shift to tell us student library employees to Keep It Down! because our regular outbursts of (ahem) boisterous laughter were perhaps a bit too non-librarian like.

Anyway, I wish I could listen to music while I work, like some writers. How do you other writers do it? It’s later, away from the desk, when I go for a walk or exercise that I use my iPod and continue brainstorming about a character or scene problem I am trying to resolve.

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

My evil writing twin would have me eating vanilla bean cupcakes from Citizen Cake bakery like there’s no tomorrow. Mwah-ha-ha! Hand me the 12 pack of vanilla bean goodness now!

Instead, I drink water or my favorite Good Earth tea (organic, herbal, yum!). Sometimes I snack on dried mango or other fruit and almonds.

Lest this picture sound too freaking Northern California healthy and we cue the scary Kumbaya sound track—I do reward myself with a key snack every day by late morning or early afternoon—dark chocolate with almonds. Yum! I’m not the only one in my office who likes this snack. No sir. By afternoon, everyone gets a bit restless and stir crazy and eager for a tasty treat. See photo evidence.

Stalking the chocolate.

Also, I’ve come to think of writing a novel as not unlike running a marathon. Never mind I’ve never run an actual marathon. Lately, round about “mile 20” (aka, two in the afternoon), I get out a flavored gel packet which I normally imbibe on my weekend bike rides around San Francisco Bay. Some might call this writing snack weird, and even bizarrely disgusting. But come now, let’s not worry about those synthetic, semi-scary and mysterious chemical sounding ingredients. Mango, vanilla bean, or cinnamon apple gel is rather delicious. I suck down a packet, pretend I’m doing great in this “race” to finish my story, mentally pat myself on the back and keep going.

What keeps you focused while you’re working?

I’ve found the internet disabling software called Freedom. It’s available online and it’s FREE! It’s very easy to download. Typically, I will disable my internet connection for three hours at a time. It’s awesome and I get more work done when I can’t jump online and check email or read the NYT’s headlines for the 20th time that day. Even one hour offline allows me to avoid the Evil Internet Monster and drop down to a level of focus I don’t otherwise attain. Did I mention Freedom is free? Check it out.

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

Most of the time, I write in the computer. I’ll sometimes take a break and use my old school clipboard full of recycled paper and scribble notes about a character or scene. I haven’t yet covered a wall of my house in butcher paper and done chapter by chapter novel analysis that way but I wanna see what that looks like!

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

All of the above! I plunge into drafting new scenes and chapters, then stop and take a step back to look at my WIP from an outline view, go back to writing more, talk with writer friends about a particular challenge I may have in evolving the story. I like what Shannon Hale said, that she sees writing as exploratory, not explanatory. I think all new novelists also stumble about a bit to figure out how to develop their story ideas, and get to discover what works best for them. I got to hear Margaret Atwood being interviewed on stage here in SF. She mentioned that for her novel The Blind Assassin, she wrote the first 120 pages and a plot device wasn’t working, so she had to scrap those first 100 plus pages. The Blind Assassin went on to win the prestigious Booker Prize. I take huge comfort now in knowing that many novelists stumble through figuring out their stories.

student made banner from Orion Book Festival

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

Did you say Johnny Depp was a choice? Oh. Or, erm, Clooney? Oh, okay, okay then, you know I had to ask. Well, I actually think it would be cool to share a workspace with some of my favorite shero children’s lit and young adult authors—Maggie Stiefvater, Kate DiCamillo, or Nancy Farmer for starters. A fellow kid lit author also in a couple writing groups with me, Deborah Underwood, lives in my neighborhood. Short of having office mates, I often call Deborah for “virtual water cooler” chats to catch up and share how our writing week and projects are going. I additionally consider my two in-person writing groups and several online critique buddies (including Jenn Bertman, the fabulous author-to-be and owner of this blog!!) as office mates and community that support me and vice versa in our work.

National Poetry Month poster designed by Julie Paschkis

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

I love what Golden Compass author Philip Pullman once said of writer’s block. He pointed out that plumbers do not get “plumber’s block” and doctors do not get “doctor’s block.” Those people go to work every day and do their job. No ifs, ands, or buts. They put their butt on the line so to speak (sorry if you are getting a funny visual there, with the plumber) and get the work done. The doctor, plumber, a teacher, or cupcake baker—they just do their job, they finish the work that needs completing.

It’s helped me to get that there are a lot of ordinary, dull hours in writing, and that I don’t have time to wait for inspiration to come. It arrives when I’m sitting before the blank computer screen, or pad of paper trying to figure out “What’s next?” with writing and revising my novel. I love what I heard Laurie Halse Anderson say once, that when she gets stuck with a scene or what comes next, she sits down and writes out, “What are the 10 worst things that could happen now to this character?” and then “What are the 10 best things that happen to this character next?” Every author I’ve admired has their own version of this, figuring out how to move forward in completing their writing project.

I’m so glad to realize that if I want to produce work, I don’t have the luxury anymore of claiming writer’s block. I’ve learned to block out the time, show up and put my butt on the line. The best part is not just doing it, but seeing you can have fun, enjoy yourself, the creative process (and chocolate) as you go.

RubyPheonix, Come On Down!

Congratulations RubyPheonix! You’re the winner of the raffle for a signed copy of By the Time You Read This I’ll Be Dead by Julie Anne Peters. Please email me at fromthemixedupfiles (at) gmail (dot) com with your mailing address and who you would like Julie Anne Peters to inscribe the book to, and we’ll get your prize out to you as soon as possible!