We at the Mafia have been very lucky to have interviewed some amazing authors. When Katherine Applegate, Newberry winner for THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN, said yes, I was super excited. Her writing has inspired many and we are grateful to share our interview with you all.
Middle Grade Mafia: It is always fun to hear the path bestselling authors have taken to their first book deal, what was yours?
Katherine Applegate: My very first book deal was for a Harlequin Romance that my husband and I wrote.
I thought it would be easy to write.
I was wrong.
My first children’s books were for a series called SWEET VALLEY TWINS. I was a ghostwriter. They send you an outline and you write to a set formula. I thought they would be easy to write.
I was wrong.
My latest book deal is for a middle-grade novel called CRENSHAW.
I’m pretty sure it will be easy to write.
MGM: What is your process of creating a story? Do you develop your characters first or have a story and create the characters that live in that story?
KA: I’m a little weird, in that I often think about the form of a story first. I imagine the “scaffolding” — the style, the sound of the words on the page, the way the pages look — even before I decide on character or plot.
Often I’ll have a huge pile of books on my desk — 20 or 30 — and I’ll think about how I love the sound of the first-person voice in Book A, and the short chapters in Book B, and the lyrical word choices in Book C. It’s like I’m creating a recipe from scratch.
Of course, all that character and plot stuff is kind of important, too. For me, it just comes a bit later in the process.
MGM: You have written a variety of books across different ages, is there one that you enjoy more?
KA: Middle grade. No question. Best audience on the planet.
MGM: I read The One and Only Ivan three times and the character of Ivan is beautifully crafted and has a way of touching the reader’s heart. How did you decide on his voice?
KA: Trial and error, like everything in writing. I thought a gorilla would speak simply and concisely. Maybe even poetically.
Truth is, I like to write small, anyway. I’m definitely more chamber music than symphony. So maybe it was just a good match between animal and writer.
MGM: When writing your latest book, Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla, did your approach change taking Ivan’s story to a younger audience?
KA: You can never condescend when you’re writing for kids, and that’s especially true with picture books, where every word has a job to do. So the writing didn’t change in any fundamental way, although I of course wanted to tell the story gently, given the audience, without straying from the truth.
By the way, I thought picture books would be easy to write, too.
I’m beginning to sense a pattern here.
MGM: Is there a literary character that you relate to the most?
KA: I may have a bit of Bob the dog (THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN) in me. I hope so, anyway.
MGM: Any advice you could give to beginning writers?
KA: For aspiring children’s writers, SCBWI is a great resource (http://www.scbwi.org/).
This is the best job in the world. But it’s hard — harder than it looks (see question #1.) You need a thick skin, because you’ll be hearing “no” more than a toddler. You need a good ear, both to critique your own work and to know what works for kids. And you need an honest heart, because kids can smell dishonesty a mile away.
It’s tried and true advice for a reason: read constantly. Every book has something to teach you about what works and what doesn’t.
Take risks. Write boldly. Expect to fail greatly and often.
Oh yeah: and have fun.
Thank you again, Katherine for taking the time to share with us. It is great to see how different writers approach writing. To learn more about Ivan and Katherine, visit her website.