Today, Mummum has the pleasure of speaking to seven-times New York Times bestselling author, educator and writing coach Emma Walton Hamilton. Her full bio extends pages, so I will just point you to her website. Did I also mention that she is daughter of Hollywood actress Julie Andrews and both mother-daughter team have written several immensely popular children’s books together?
1. You have a stellar career in the children’s books market, as bestselling author, educator and writing coach. What would you say has been two most satisfying moments in your involvement in this market?
Ans: Of all the fields I’ve worked in, I find children’s lit to be one of the most rewarding. Unlike much adult literature, no matter how dark the subjects that children’s books tackle may be, they are ultimately, inherently, hopeful… offering some sense of resilience, or championship of the human spirit. And the people who write them and illustrate them and publish them and sell them are some of the nicest people in the world – which makes it a very lovely world to be a part of. It’s hard to narrow all the satisfying moments down to just two specific incidents, so I’ll give you one general and one specific one.
First of all, there is nothing more rewarding for a children’s book author than doing a school visit, and seeing the joy or interest on children’s faces as you read a story you have written for its intended audience. The questions, comments or enthusiasm of even just one young reader can provide me with enough energy to go back to months of sometimes solitary slogging away at the computer.
I am also fortunate in that I work as a teacher, editor and coach for aspiring children’s book authors, and I get so much pleasure out of seeing a student or client achieve their dream of getting published! Just recently, a former student and editing client of mine (and also a good friend), Susan Verde, had her first picture book, “The Museum,” illustrated by one of my favorite author/illustrators, Peter H. Reynolds, and published by Abrams. Because I introduced Peter to Susan, his dedication in the book was to me. I felt like the world’s happiest midwife. Talk about a thrill!
2.When did you first decide that you wanted to be an author? Can you name a specific moment that triggered that?
Ans: I wrote prolifically as a kid – poems, stories, novels – yet whenever someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said things like “a vet,” “an actor,” etc.
My Mom would always counter, “She says that now, but she’s going to be a writer.”
I ended up being an actor for a while, and then became a director, and a producer, and an arts educator (never a vet, though!). But all the while I kept writing, mostly children’s books.
18 years ago, my Mom and I started writing together, and I’ve never looked back. To date, we’ve written close to 30 books for kids of all ages, and all those other jobs (with the exception of arts education, which I still do) fell by the wayside.
3. I have to ask this question. What’s it like writing books together with your mother?
Ans: Mom and I are both enormously grateful for the joy our collaboration brings us… we didn’t necessarily know that would be the case when we first started writing together, although we had worked together successfully in other mediums, such as film and theater. But we’re both fairly opinionated ladies (read: bossy!) and we were well aware that it could be problematic.
Happily, we have found we have different and complementary strengths, which seems to be the main factor in keeping the collaboration smooth, and our professional relationship has also done wonders for our mother/daughter relationship. We’ve been very aware of the benefits of time spent being creative and brainstorming together, as opposed to indulging in less productive mother/daughter stuff, like discussing health issues, weight management, or family dramas!
Generally speaking, when we begin a new story, we brainstorm the big idea first. We talk about theme, and dramatic arc – the beginning, middle, and end – what the central problem is, and how it gets solved. If it’s a chapter book or novel, we’ll do a chapter breakdown. Then we start writing. At that point it becomes a process of finishing each other’s sentences. We literally think out loud, and I take it all down on the computer – I’m the scribe. Ideally, we’re in the same room together, but we often work via Skype or iChat. At the end of every session, I’ll email the day’s work, which we then review and edit separately. We compare notes at the beginning of the next session, and press on from there.
Can you share one golden moment when you were completely in sync and one moment where you had divergent views on a story?
In terms of moments of being particularly in sync, it happens all the time. As I said before, we typically finish each other’s sentences when we’re working, and often shout out the same word at the same time if we’re searching for something specific. I think that comes from being mother-daughter, and also from the longevity of our collaboration now.
We rarely have really divergent views – but if we do, we have a sort of tacit agreement that “the best idea wins.” That means if one of us is particularly passionate or articulate about a certain idea, then the other one generally defers. There’s a lot of give and take, and a lot of mutual respect – and as I said, we are very aware of our differing strengths. So far, that system has really worked for us and we’ve never (touch wood!) really come to blows.
4.What is your favourite book from childhood? Why?
Ans: The book I returned to most often as a kid was Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth. It was my rainy-day book – I loved nothing more than curling up with it in front of the fire on a rainy day. It’s about a bored little boy named Milo, who one day discovers a tollbooth in his room, drives his toy car through it and embarks on a great adventure. The book is a total celebration of language. Milo visits places like Dictionopolis and Digitopolis, where he literally “eats his words” and “jumps to Conclusions” and befriends a Watch Dog named Tock, among other strange and wonderful characters. All the abundant wordplay really captured my imagination, and thinking about it now, it may well have been one of the contributing factors to my wanting to be a writer.
5. What are your first words of advice to aspiring authors?
Ans: OK, here are the essentials, in my opinion:
1) Read. Steep yourself in the culture of the world or genre you are writing for by reading everything you can. That’s not to say you should imitate anyone else – but it is a business, and I think it’s hugely important to really know and understand what the standards, formats, and market trends are… and, as Billy Collins says, to think about what you can contribute to the ‘conversation.’ People often make the mistake of thinking “I was a kid once, and I know what I liked” or referencing books from their childhood, but children’s publishing has changed dramatically in the last 20 to 30 years. You have to know what the market is like today, and stay plugged in as it evolves – no matter what genre you write for.
2) Hone your craft. Take classes and workshops, attend conferences. Keep stretching, learning, sharpening your skills – even (or maybe especially) after you’ve sold your first manuscript.
3) Find community. Writing can be a solitary business. I’m lucky – I write with a partner, work for a graduate writing program and host a membership site for children’s book authors, but it’s really important to find your tribe and connect with them regularly. Find a supportive critique group, join forums, take classes, attend conferences, whatever it takes to connect with other writers. It will keep you sane, and honest.
4) Diversify your strengths. It’s the rare writer that makes a living solely from writing. Even the most successful writers in the world have to augment their income with things like teaching, editing, or speaking engagements. Find ways to support your writing habit. Be willing to have a day job, to do whatever it takes… but whenever possible, try to make those other sources of income writing-related, such as freelance writing, editing, teaching, etc. It makes it easier.
Mummum: Emma, thanks for a treasure mine of practical advice. I’m at the final lesson of your on-line 14-week Just Write for Middle Grade course. It’s been so valuable in helping me shape, frame and structure my Big Idea for my manuscript. I love the worksheets, questions and bite-size worksheets which stretch my mind and yet, does not overwhelm me. That really gives me a good foundation given that I’m trying to expand from 500-word picture book manuscripts to 20 times the number of words in chapter book writing! Read more about Emma here!