Q: Why do you write?
CPC: I write because I love to. I'm very, very fortunate to have found something that I love doing that also earns my living. But to be honest, I'd write even if I weren't being paid to (Don't let my publisher know!) Writing has always been a sanctuary or a refuge for me, any time I'm stressed or anxious or worried I find that a couple of hours expressing myself by writing always seems to have a calming effect on me. I'm sure there's some philosophy that says one of the best ways to deal with any of your problems is to take a deep breath and step away from them for a while, writing does this for me.
Q: What is your favorite thing about writing?
CPC: Besides the soothing effect it has, I think my favorite part of writing is being able to use my imagination and creativity to make new ideas and people and situations come to life. I often tell young people that as a writer you are very powerful, that you can make absolutely anything happen. I have a great deal of fun doing this, as the writer you are the puppet-master and can control everything. Believe me, that is a whole lot of fun because it ain't something that's going to be happening very often in real life!
Q: What is your least favorite thing about writing?
CPC: I really have to dig deep to answer that because I enjoy every aspect of writing. It's great to create a story and then to submit it to your editor and see what her reaction is to it. It's great to have your editor tell what her suggestions and ideas for the story are. It's great to explain to your editor why her ideas and suggestions are bizarre and to ask her why is she trying to ruin my story. It's great to finally finish the editorial process and turn the book over to the publisher and watch all the wonderful things they do with the cover and publicity and the job of turning my writing into a book.
Probably the only thing that isn't great is the time when I know I'm very close to finishing the actual writing of the story and I'm overcome by this sense of loss. I think it's because I know I won't be "talking" to the main character anymore, it's sort of like what you feel when you know a friend is moving away and you probably won't be seeing her again.
Q: What is your writing schedule?
CPC: I try to make the writing as regular and regimented as possible. I usually get up at around 5 a.m. and read what I wrote the day before. Some of the time, after I read, I think the writing's very good and some of the time I feel embarrassed by what I've written. You have to learn not to pay too much attention to these feelings. You're still too close to the writing to judge it objectively and need time before you can really say if it's good, bad, or otherwise. But I think it's good to have an idea where you need to go with the story.
After that I head to the library around 8 a.m. and start the actual creative writing process where I tell the story and figure out what will happen next. I do this until 11 a.m., then go play basketball and try to get back to the library by 3 p.m. to work some more.
It really depends on the story though. If I'm burning to write it, I can go eight or nine hours and still be fresh with it. If it's coming slowly to me, three hours of writing can seem like forever. I'm finding that there is no hard and fast rule as to how much I write each day. I do think it is important to look at the writing as a job though and to commit to it like you'd have to commit to a regular nine-to-five. But believe me, I've had plenty of nine-to-fives and this is a whole lot more pleasant.
Q: Which of your books is your favorite?
CPC: If you ask some authors that they will tell you that they have no favorite, that their books are like their children and they could never choose one over the others. I say, baloney! Of the books published so far The Watsons Go to Birmingham1963 is definitely my favorite, for two reasons: 1. I love the story, and 2. I was working in a warehouse unloading trucks when it was finally published and because of that book I no longer work in a warehouse unloading trucks.
One of the books I'm working on now, Elijah of Buxton, just might knock The Watsons Go to Birmingham1963 out of its spot though. I've never had a story come as easily and quickly as this one has, and it has been a joy to write and it's been one surprise after another.
Q: How long does it take you to write a book?
CPC: Once again there is no set answer to this question. Watsons and Bud, Not Buddy each took about a year to finish, but while I was writing Watsons, I also wrote another book called Mr. Chickee's Funny Money. Bucking the Sarge took almost four and a half years to write and Elijah of Buxton, if I keep going at the same pace, will take seven months. Every story is different and there are so many different factors that come into play that I don't think you can accurately predict how long a story takes to finish.
Q: Who are some of your favorite authors?
CPC: My favorite author is Toni Morrison. Her books are sometimes difficult to read, but the poetry of her language keeps me going over them again and again. I've read Beloved seven or eight times and I still am surprised by so much of the writing. The first time I read it I felt as though I was lost in a fog, but as I read it again and again, I started to see different things. I started to feel what Ms. Morrison was telling me and it was a revelation. One of the reasons I love the book so much is because of what it talks aboutslavery. I can't imagine a more difficult subject to write about, but Toni Morrison does it with such grace and style and expertise that you know you are in the hands of a master.
I'm also a big fan of Mark Twain, one of the bravest of American writers. Other favorites include Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Jim Thompson (one of the few authors who has me dying laughing), Walter Dean Myers, Chris Crutcher, Jerry Spinelli, and Jacqueline Woodson.
Q: How old are you?
CPC: I'm the same age as my tongue and a little bit older than my teeth. But seriously, I was born in 1953. But this can be a lesson to those of you who want to write: Be patient with yourself. Writing, particularly fiction, is something that takes a lot of time and experience to get a good hold of. I didn't finish Watsons until I was 40. I felt very deeply that I could write. It just took many years for everything to come together. Don't give up! Write for the love of writing and you can't go wrong.
Q: What are you working on now?
CPC: Mr. Chickee's Funny Moneya light fun story about the adventures of a little boy and the Future Scientist Of Flint Club that he has put together. I'm also working on a a picture book called Last Minute Lulu that I'm strongly hoping will be illustrated by a fantastic artist in California named Yuyi Morales, and the story, Elijah of Buxton, takes place in the early 1860s in Buxton, Ontario, which was a terminus of the Underground Railroad.
Q: Do you draw from your own personal experiences when you write?
CPC: Very much so. In The Watsons Go To Birmingham1963, a lot of times people would say to me, "Is it autobiographical?" And I would say, "Not at all." But then they'd ask, "Well what about this?" and I'd say, "Well, yeah that happened" and "Yeah, that's like my sister" or "That's like my brother," and I didn't even realize how autobiographical it was.
Q: Do you identify with any of the characters from your books? And if so, which ones?
CPC: I'm asked that by kids a lot, particularly about The Watsons Go To Birmingham1963. They ask, "Are you Kenny or Byron?" So what they're actually asking is, "Am I a juvenile delinquent, thug hoodlum or am I a kind, sensitive, loving, intelligent, sweet little boy?" And I think I'm probably the sweet little boy. But seriously, all the characters are composites, and I think there are parts of me in them, there are parts of my brother, and there are parts of all friends that we've known. Which I think make it interesting. None of them are exactly as any one person is. The characters all have a little bit of me in them, and I think if it's something that'll grab a readerthat is excitingI think there does have to be a part of you in it.
Copyright (c) 2004 by Random House Children's Books.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
Blood at the Root
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