Interview with Ellen Booraem Part 1
Missed writing yesterday, but today I had extra time and got through two chapters. Yay! I worked out that I have to do close to two scenes a day for the rest of the year (except the holidays) if I want to have the book completely revised by Jan. 1. Tomorrow’s goal: Chapters 21 and 22.
And now we have a treat.
Debut author Ellen Booraem tried many times to write a novel until she quit her job and and wrote the wonderfully sweet The Unnameables. She overcame the difficulties we all face and now has a second novel due out in 2010. She’s a true Day By Day Writer who made her dream come true. Ellen kindly answered some questions about her inspirations, writing process and books. This is part 1. Check back for part 2 tomorrow.
First, congratulations on The Unnameables’ inclusion in Kirkus Reviews’ Best Children’s Books of 2008. How does it feel?
Thanks. I’m extremely grateful to Kirkus, which also was the first journal to review the book and started me out with a starred review. That gave me a lot of confidence—and believe me, confidence is not my strong suit.
Could you tell us a bit of background behind the story in The Unnameables? What was your muse?
Medford started out as an adult character in casual paintings my partner, artist Rob Shillady, used to make for friends. The Goatman was Medford’s sidekick. Back in 1984, I set out to develop those characters into a picture book for Rob to illustrate. Their story got away from me, and before long I had a novel going. Medford eventually became a young teenager, and the Goatman acquired all sorts of attributes he’d never had before, among them hooves. (Rob’s version had socks and sandals.)
While I’m not sure Rob would agree, the Medford in the paintings always struck me as your basic Nice Guy paired with this chaotic Pan figure. But it was Medford’s nonsensical name that really got me started. There I was in New England, where Weston is west of Boston and roads are named for where they take you, and I had a nice-guy character with a name that meant nothing. So I set him in a highly controlled place where names mean everything and he’d be odd man out, and where the Goatman would be a serious problem. The characters—and then the story—evolved from there.
What are your favorite and least favorite times in writing?
I’m at my best in the morning, and my abilities go downhill from there. I occasionally find that I have fewer inhibitions in the afternoon when I’m tired, and that’s a nice surprise when it happens, but my ability to string words together takes a nosedive.
You were a journalist. What was your biggest challenge in switching from news articles and features to writing an entire novel?
When you’re writing on a newspaper deadline, there’s no such thing as a first draft. You write your story in an hour or two, somebody edits it, and the next thing you know it’s printed. I still have trouble allowing myself to slow down and experiment, write something one morning and throw most of it out the next. I have to keep reminding myself what Anne Lamott said in Bird by Bird: “The only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.” (Pardon the language, but that is probably the most helpful thing I’ve ever read.)
I’ve heard that book recommended before. I must get a copy.
I’ve read that you quit your job to write this book, but it wasn’t your first time. Could you tell us what made you decide to quit and dedicate your time to your novel, and how you prepared for the transition? Also what was different this time from the previous times you had tried it?
Twice in my 30s I quit a writing/editing job to write fiction, and both times I got bored or stuck and wimped out. The second time, I managed to finish a terrible first draft of what was then called Medford and the Goatman before scuttling back to the Land of the Paycheck. I ended up in paid work that I loved—writing and editing rural weekly newspapers—so I thought the pipe dream was dead. But for the next 19 years, some part of my brain must have been working on that story. In 2003, I decided to take a six-week dialogue-writing course with a local author, and the obsession returned, big time. I was 52 years old and I figured, it’s now or never.
I think it worked this time because I was older and more disciplined, and also I figured out a workable approach to writer’s block, which I described in your comments a few weeks ago.
Check in tomorrow for part of Ellen’s interview.