Ever hear and author talk about writing in such a way that makes you cheer, shout, weep a little? And then throw all caution to the wind and begin scribbling away - on a post-it, the back of your hand, the wall?
If not, well, then you haven't heard from Alyssa Satin Capucilli.
But,. folks, just wait, it's your lucky day. Because Alyssa was generous enough to do an interview recently with Stories are Good Medicine.
In the interests of full disclosure, I took a children's writing seminar from Alyssa some time ago. And I don't know how she did it, but more than any technique, or specific note, what Alyssa was able to give me was sheer courage. Courage to take risks, courage to try, courage to keep writing no matter what. I'm not 100% sure how she did it, but I used to think there was something magical in her gentle, lyrical tone - after all, she's the 'voice' behind the beloved Biscuit books.
But after reading this written interview, I realize that whatever that inspirational quality may be - it's beyond the spoken word. Because even in her written responses, I can feel that sheer joy, that excitement that Alyssa transmits about children's writing.
Read it, and tell me - do you feel it too? But be forewarned and have something to write with nearby. You just might be pulling an all-nighter on your new novel...
Q: . Woof Woof! I know you began your "storytelling" life as a dancer - what are the connections between that sort of storytelling with one's body and your life as a children's book writer? How did the career change happen?
Alyssa: There is a wonderful parallel between the two art forms: in dance, your body is the vessel that carries the story, and in writing, your characters fulfill a similar role. Dance is such a visual art and for me, writing for children is as well. Whether a picture book or a novel, there is a connective line that runs through page to page or scene to scene to form a story, which moves forward much the way a dance or ballet unfolds. In both, you have to find the flow between moments, make seamless transitions, and have the balance of timing and tension. You can also compare the musicality and rhythm that is integral to dance to the cadence and meter of a poem or a picture book text.
Then of course there is the creative connection, which is the most fun of all. As both a dancer and a writer you slip into a character’s skin and into their world. You have to really engage your imagination to flesh out characters and give them emotional depth. In other words you have to access a creative zone, whether writing or dancing. Tapping into this space has always been second nature to me.
But what I think is also so striking is, as a dancer you are aware of all of the dancers on stage around you and how one action may set off another action. The presence of a dancer on stage that subsequently makes an exit is much like the way characters interact in a story. They may come or go, but their presence in whatever space or time they appear is integral to the overall story.
My actual segue from dancer to writer was perpetuated when I started my family. I was immersed in literature that I loved reading to my children, dancing pulled me away for too long for my comfort level, and I always loved to write. So with some research and lots of time at the library, I slowly and somewhat naively began to write and submit stories, and most fortunately, to publish. Dance demands a great deal of discipline and I think that was tremendously helpful in terms of my writing as well. The foot is either pointed or it is not; you sit down to tell the story…or you don’t!
Q: Tell us how many picture books you've written to date! (ALOT I know!) Can you tell us about your process - how many books do you write a year? Who sets these goals for you?
Alyssa: I’ve written about seventy-five books with nearly fifty of those within the Biscuit series. That’s not counting all of the stories that are patiently waiting in my files and notebooks! With a series like Biscuit, or Katy Duck, I am on more of a schedule than with an individual title, and in that case, it is determined by the editor/publisher. I try not to think of my writing as how many in a time span or how much. Some books flow easily and take a shorter amount of time to write, but others I’ll work on for months or years until I get it just right…or not! I find that the process of writing in and of itself often spurs an idea for another story so it’s sometimes a matter of managing the time and space to devote to each project.
Q: Tell us about your writing process - every morning/evening, any rituals you have, etc.? What do you do when you get 'stuck' - or is there just an endless well of creativity that you tap into? (and if so, can I visit?)
Alyssa: I like to write in the morning before the day has impacted me – I do a lot of thinking and preparing for my writing day even before I get out of bed in the morning. There is usually a moment when a story or a seed of an idea clarifies itself to me and I know then that it is time to put pen to paper. I always work in a notebook before I go to the computer. I like my house to be quiet. I like specific pens, definite places to sit and work.
In terms of getting stuck, I have a wise friend and teacher who once told me there is a time to take in and a time to give out. In other words, your creative well may not run all the time, but perhaps you are absorbing something that you will draw from your well at another time. The more you can allow yourself time to be creative, the more creative you can be. You have to allow yourself to tap into that level of consciousness where you write from – it’s its own time and space and when we are busy and juggling a lot of responsibilities, it is sometimes hard to allow ourselves that room. There’s a balance between letting everyday life distract us from our writing, and letting the every day events nurture us.
Q: Many of your characters are animals - from the beloved Biscuit to the adorable Katy Duck. How do you make the decision to create an animal character who behaves primarily like a pet (say, Biscuit) vs. an animal character who has the emotions and behavior of a human child (ie. Katy Duck - who has friends, goes to dance class, etc.)? What different considerations does an anthropomorphic animal demand of the picture book writer?
Alyssa: That is a great question and I wish I could take responsibility for those decisions. When a character presents himself or herself to me, they usually bring their voice or their persona along, even if I don’t realize where the inspiration came from at the get-go. (I hope that doesn’t sound too weird!) But then as you develop the character and their world, you must make decisions to stay true to that character. Biscuit behaves like a pet, yet he also behaves much like a child. It allows children relate to Biscuit both emotionally as well as behaviorally. If you ask a child how Biscuit feels when a baby comes to live in his house, you will be amazed at the very personal and insightful answers you hear! Kids will reveal their own experiences through Biscuit. Still he is a “bone-a-fide” pup, which means he is not piloting a spaceship or deep sea diving anytime soon. Even on a trip to the big city, his responses and actions must be true to his canine self.
Katy was drawn from my many years of teaching dance to children. She imbues my philosophy of treasuring the imagination and creative process of a child. She bucks the stereotypical image of a “ballerina” yet, she is the very essence of the creative spirit an artist needs. I can make broader and more direct commentary through Katy simply because as an anthropomorphic character, there is a degree of freedom, a license to make the character somewhat bigger than life, and I can disregard limitations of gender, physical size, and even appearance. While her feelings and actions are a very direct parallel to a human child, her physicality and “duck-ness” can provide a bit of comic relief in a situation. There was some truly funny discussion on how to portray her webbed feet in ballet slippers. Henry Cole did a great job in figuring that one out.
Q: Speaking of picture books - can you tell us the story of writing your first one? Do you have any plans to write other types of children's fiction?
Alyssa: My first book published book was Peekaboo Bunny, a lift-the-flap story, and in essence, a poem. I read, I researched, I went to conferences, I joined a writer’s group, I submitted….I was very lucky! And yes, yes, yes, I have plans to write other fiction. I’ve written several books for older readers that I’d love to see published one day. There are so many variables that impact publication depending on the trends and the market. Still, I think it is important to write what you believe in. My paws are always optimistically crossed!
Q: What are your favorite picture books and why?
Alyssa: Oh, too many to name especially because so many of my friends are writers, too. I like books that take you on an emotional journey and I look for books that are relevant and respectful of a child’s world and sensibilities. Beautiful language is really important to me. The Alfie and Annie Rose books by Shirley Hughes are wonderful. I can’t look at Blueberries for Sal without hearing the resonating “kuplink, kuplank, kuplunk.” I love Kevin Henkes work, and more recently, All the World, a Caldecott Honor Book this past year was truly beautiful.
Q: How about your favorite MG/YA books - either from childhood or now?
Alyssa: I was completely in love with ‘Henry and Ribsy’ by Beverly Cleary mainly because Henry was my soulmate. He wanted and schemed for a dog almost as much as I did. I loved getting lost in the intricate relationships and world of Little Women. I am a huge fan of Katherine Patterson, Madeline L’Engle and ‘Tuck Everlasting’ by Natalie Babbitt is one of those books I wish I’d written. Rebecca Stead’s ‘When You Reach Me’ is awesome and I really admire Deborah Wiles, too.
Q: As a teacher of children's writing, do you recommend aspiring children's book authors take courses specifically in children's book writing? Did you before you were published?
Alyssa: Classes are valuable on many levels; support, structure, developing and honing your craft, discipline. Sometimes it’s easier to get started if you know someone is waiting to hear your work on the other end. But a class can only give you what you are ready to give of yourself. I wrote my whole life and took every creative writing class I could in college but I didn’t take a specific class on writing for children until I had really read a great deal and immersed myself in the world of children’s literature. The interesting thing is that where you are in your life sometimes presents alternatives and opportunities you don’t expect. If you had told me when I was a dancer that I’d write for children someday, I wouldn’t have believed it. And yet, having my children, not a prerequisite in any way, was definitely the impetus and inspiration for me to write. If you want to write, and you feel you can carve out a space for writing, a well structured class can be invaluable.
Q. What are your 3 favorite pieces of advice for your writing students?
Alyssa: Read, and read broadly; immerse yourself in literature. Write everyday even if it is only for a few minutes. You have to consciously access and awaken that part of yourself. Give yourself time and space to find and develop your voice without pressuring yourself to publish. There is no formula or number of words that make a book a great book or a publishable book. Take your reader on a journey and to do that, I think you have to give yourself the time to travel there as well.
Q: Are your stories good medicine? (I think so but I'd love to know the answer!)
Alyssa: I hope so; I believe stories really are. Stories are teachers, and mentors, and inspiration. They can celebrate the best that we are and they can offer the possibility of the world as we want it to be. The universality we find in a story transcends boundaries in every sense of the word; I think that is beautiful and so powerful. For many children, and even adults, a story can nurture and sustain the all important imagination or dream. It may provide the very best minutes of your day.