A little about my life
I was born in Davenport, Iowa, and grew up in Rockaway Beach, New York. I read straight through my childhood, with breaks for food, sleep, and the bathroom. I went to college in Bennington, Vermont, moved to New York City, and took a job in publishing so I could get paid for reading. I read so much bad fiction that I needed a break, so I moved to London, and from there I traveled to Morocco, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan India, Nepal, and Ceylon. I came back to America, wandered around some more–to Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize–and on returning to New York decided to study Tibetan Buddhist painting (called thangka painting) in Boulder, Colorado.
I painted thangkas for many years. Each one took anywhere from several weeks to a few months to complete, and at long last I understood that this was not the ideal way for me to make a living. Only a few hundred Americans collected thangkas, and they wanted old ones, painted by Tibetan monks. It was time to make a change.
So I took another publishing job, this time in children’s books. I found that I liked children’s books a lot, and before long, I became an editor.
Years passed. I was encouraged to write. I scoffed at the idea that I had anything to write about. I edited some wonderfully talented authors–Virginia Hamilton, Philip Isaacson, Clyde Robert Bulla, Gloria Whelan, Robin McKinley, Joan Vinge, Garth Nix, and Chris Lynch, among others–with great enjoyment. Writing seemed like torture by comparison.
Then, to my amazement, I found myself writing a book and having a good time–simultaneously! The book was ALIENS FOR BREAKFAST, and I enjoyed writing it because my co-author was Jonathan Etra. Jon (who died of heart disease in 1990), was a close friend with a wild sense of humor, and collaborating with him changed my opinion of writing forever. After ALIENS FOR BREAKFAST, and ALIENS FOR LUNCH, which we also co-wrote, I began to think that writing could be interesting fun.
And now that I’ve been doing it full-time for seven years, I can tell you why I like it better than a job. First, I can work in my bathrobe. (To the FedEx man and the UPS man, I am “the woman in the plaid flannel robe.”) Second, I can eat when I’m hungry, choose when to take phone calls, and walk my dog at 12 and 6. Third, the only meetings I have–and they’re short--are with the dry cleaner and Mike the postal worker. Fourth, I can read whatever I please. I may tell people I’m doing research when I read about horse-trekking, or hunting in ancient Greece, or 16 ways to better compost, but the truth is, I’m not doing research, I’ m having a good time. Which I think is still allowed.
Career Advice: If the life of a born-again bookworm sounds appealing to you, consider becoming a writer.
Frequently asked questions
1.How do you get the ideas for your books?
The start of something can pop into my head at any time. I’ve often had good ideas on waking, yet another reason to get a good night’s sleep.
2. How do you work when you collaborate with someone?
Depends who it is. When I worked with my friend Jon Etra, I had a full-time job and he didn’t, so he agreed to supply a first draft, chapter by chapter. I rewrote his material, and did all the revisions. We outlined our books together in great detail. And we followed the outlines at least half the time.
When I worked with my friend Terry Bisson, we were both writing full-time, so we took turns generating chapters, and then revising them. We also outlined our books together carefully, and then forgot the outlines once in a while.
Career advice: If you plan to collaborate with another writer, pick one with a really good sense of humor.
3. How did being an editor affect your writing?
I had high standards. I was conscious of the marketplace because I was in the business. I was careful about deadlines. And, knowing their importance, I was horribly demanding about copyediting, artwork, cover copy, and marketing copy. In short, I was the writer from hell, and I still am.
4. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
There was no single moment of blinding light. It came on gradually, like a disease.
5. Describe your work habits.
I write in the morning for a few hours, break for the afternoon, and get back to work after tea/dog feeding. When I’m working very hard, I’ll write in the evenings, too. At such times I use the morning to revise what I’ve written the night before.
6. Who are your favorite writers?
The list is long, and changes all the time. Charles Dickens, Isaac Babel, Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Stone, Isaac Singer, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Angela Carter, Beryl Bainbridge, Clyde Robert Bulla, William Gibson, John Cheever, Paula Fox, Homer, Ovid, Mary Renault, Philip Larkin, Bill Bryson, Cecilia Holland, Don DeLillo, Sir Thomas Malory, and on and on.
7. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Bernard Malamud once said, “Writers kiss with one eye open.” In other words, there’s an watcher in the writer that almost never takes time off. I’d say, foster your curiosity, be observant, take notes, read a lot, and pay attention to the way good writers write–you can learn from them.