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An Interview with Lauren Thompson

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What do you like to write about?

I like to write about the way I remember responding to special times when I was a child. I like to try to recapture that feeling and share it with children today. Those special times include holidays, but also big moments like jumping into the pool even though I was afraid to, or the sparkling magic of a starlit winter night.

Where do you get your ideas?

I find ideas everywhere in my daily life. The trick is to pick which ones are right for me to work on. When I worked as a children’s book editor, I read lots of stories every week, and I talked to authors about their ideas every day. But most of the time, these ideas, great as they may have been, just didn’t seem right for me. I still read lots of other authors’ books and come across ideas that way, too, ideas that aren’t quite right for me. But one of those ideas might trigger a memory from my childhood, or something I see in my son, and then I might be on to something. The ideas that matter to me are ones that remind me of something special in my childhood, some private joy (or pain) that I thought, at the time, hardly anyone else would understand. Now I know lots of people would understand, so I try to get that experience down in words. That way I can share it at last.

Do you write your books with pencil or pen and paper, or with a computer?

Every story goes through many drafts and forms through the process of writing it. Most of the time, I start on a pad of paper, or in a notebook. I like to use pencil, and I know I’m excited about an idea when the pencil point wears down but I don’t want to take the time to sharpen it. When the pages get messy, I might copy the story over in pen, to have a nice clean start. By the third pass, I’ll go to the computer and type it in. I hardly ever start on the computer, and that’s because part of the pleasure for me of writing is the physical act of writing. I’m very choosy about my paper and notebooks, my pencils, erasers, and pens. I like them to have a certain smoothness, to feel a certain way in my hand. I don’t get the same happiness from a keyboard or mouse. But it certainly is faster to write and revise on the computer.

Do you illustrate any of your own books?

No, I don’t. As a picture book writer, I have pictures in my mind as I write, but I can’t draw or paint those pictures well enough to meet the high standards of a publisher. But I enjoy drawing and watercolor painting just for the fun of it.

Do you tell the illustrator what to draw?

No. What usually happens is that when the illustrator turns in sketches, which are rough drafts of the paintings, the editor of the book will let me take a look at them. Mainly, he or she wants to give me a chance to catch any errors that everyone else missed. And sometimes the illustrator has drawn something that looks wonderful even though it doesn’t match my words perfectly. Then the editor may ask me to change my wording, which I am usually happy to do if it makes the book even better. Mostly, though, I try to stay out of it. I’m always amazed by what the artist sees in my words. Illustrators bring levels to a book that I never imagined, and I find that very exciting.

How did you first start writing for children?

I’ve been writing since I was a child, but I might not have started writing for children if I hadn’t started working in children’s publishing. Once I started reading lots of children’s books, I got the itch to try it myself. I think my first manuscript was an attempt to retell “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” in rhyme, which didn’t quite come off. I took a few classes so that I could get some feedback on my writing. I wrote steadily for about seven years before I wrote anything strong enough to be published.

How long does it take you to write a book?

Sometimes it takes a few weeks, and sometimes it takes a few years. I worked on Mouse’s First Christmas for two years before it “clicked” for me. Because of all that work, I was able to write Mouse’s First Halloween in a month or two. Sometimes I write a first draft for a story, but I’m not sure if I like it or not, or I’m not sure what I should do to make it better. In that case I put it aside. Then I come across it later (sometimes years later) and I see at last what the story is really about. Then I will start working on it again.

What are you working on now?

I have a number of picture books on my desk that I’m revising. (But I don’t know if any of them will ever become a published book!) I would also like to write a chapter book or novel, and I jot down ideas for that when I have them.

Do you have any advice for children who want to be an author when they grow up?

My advice is to read a lot, write a lot, and try not to worry about making your writing “perfect.” By reading, aside from enjoying the book, you are absorbing different ways of telling stories, different ways of seeing things, and adding lots of words and phrases to your vocabulary. Words are the primary tools for a writer, and you want to have all types handy when you are writing. Also, try to read different kinds of books. Try fantasy, historical stories, humor, and science fiction. Read different kinds of poetry. Read different kinds of informational books. Read comics, too! Read what you really enjoy, but stay open to other things, too.

Write as much as you can, too. This might mean keeping a diary, or having a journal to write poems and thoughts in. If something you write captures something very important to you, try revising it to see if you can capture it even more precisely. No matter what you write, remember that no one else has to read it unless you want them to. You may worry about being embarrassed about what you write, but don’t let that stop you — just write. Maybe later you’ll realize that you used a word incorrectly, or that you have changed your opinion about something. But that’s okay. All writers make changes to what they’re writing. That’s called revising, and it’s the secret to good writing.