David Elliott on Pajamas, Olive Picking and Inspiration

We start the new year with an interview with our funny, creative, hilarious client David Elliott.

David ElliottWe’ve always wondered how he comes up with the amazing poetry and stories in his books, including the best-selling picture book series ON THE FARM, IN THE WILD, IN THE SEA, ON THE WING and IN THE PAST. Who is the man who imagined the wonderful wacky world in the New York Times best-selling picture book AND HERE’S TO YOU? He’s also the brilliant mind behind the funny chapter books that star Jeremy Cabbage at Harpwitch’s Home for Mean Dogs, Ugly Cats, and Stray Children, and Roscoe Wizzle, hamburger fan.

David’s latest book, the YA novel-in-verse BULL, has earned multiple starred reviews, with Kirkus writing, “Elliott’s absolutely magnetic rhythms will wake up any high school class.” BULL arrives in stores in March, and we can’t wait to read it.

Here’s a look into David’s world…

Booking Biz: What does your average day look like?

David: Oh dear. Since I’m no longer teaching full-time, you’re asking your readers to imagine me in my pajamas at 3:30 in the afternoon. No one wants to see that.

In fact, these days, I try not to let any day seem average. Because I live in the  New Hampshire countryside, I am surrounded by natural beauty. I remind myself every day to be grateful for that, for the somber indigo of the hills at dusk, for the comfort of the night sky, for the evanescent light in fields behind our house. I’m also making a bigger effort to keep in touch with the people I love though they may be far from me. I try to read every day. And I try to listen to some music every day. I want to remember that there is beauty and goodness in the world. I write every day, usually in the morning, but sometimes in the evening, too.

But don’t think I spend my days in spiritual bliss. Like everybody, there is the tedia and minutiae of modern life. I’m responsible for dinners, so there’s that, the shopping, the planning, the cursing. Recently, I seem to spend a lot of time doing writing-related things, this interview for example. I have a blog now, and even though I only post every other Monday, it still takes time. It’s amazing — and annoying — how much time managing a woodstove takes. I’ve just begun to volunteer at my local Community Action program, and Barbara and I have started a local group pledging to make five calls a day to Washington. (Sounds like a lot, but in fact, once you get it down, it takes no more than ten minutes.) I HATE to exercise, but recently I have started going to a local gym. Something else, no one should see.

Booking Biz: When you’re not writing, what do you like to do best?

David: Eat. But that has gotten me into trouble. Recently, I have been experiencing a strong urge to develop another creative outlet. I’ve always thought I’d be a good painter. The trouble is I have no talent or skill. Pottery, maybe?

Kill me for saying it, but I DO like TV. Recently, we have been binge watching THE AMERICANS. And I can’t get enough of THE FLIGHT OF THE CONCORDS. It makes me happy to know that there are other silly people in this weary world. Of course, the best thing is to have a good book in hand. I’ve just finished Eric Larson’s DEAD WAKE, about the sinking of the Lusitania. Fantastic. And I’m now reading LAWRENCE IN ARABIA: War Deceit, imperial Folly and the Making of the Middle East, by Scott Anderson. My uncle has just recommended THE VIOLET HOUR: Great Writers at the End, by Katie Roiphe, which I can’t wait to get to. I asked for Teju Cole’s book of essays KNOWN AND STRANGE THINGS for Christmas, along with novels set in the Middle Ages. I’m also reading for my next big project. So many books, so little time.

Booking Biz: Where do you get the inspiration for your books?

David: I think that inspiration may be one of the most misunderstood words in our language. As far as I know, there is no Well of Inspiration into which I need only dip my bucket, take a sip, and voila, there it is, all laid out before me. In fact, I don’t know where inspiration comes from or what causes that little flash in the chest that says to me, “Pay attention. There’s something there.”

For BAABWAA AND WOOLIAM, my new picture book about two sheep (Candlewick, Fall 2017), it was simply the names. Our neighbor was keeping her sheep in our field at the time. Anyone who has read my work, knows that I like to play with language, and so the names came to me. (My beautiful, smart wife’s name is Barbara.) But here’s the important part: The names came, yes, but not the book. The book came through work – and faith. That is, I had no idea what was going to happen when I sat down to write about those two sheep. The only thing I had to go on was the names. (By the way, the inimitable Melissa Sweet is illustrating. I’m super excited.)

BullFor BULL, my YA novel-in-verse, based on the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur (HMH, March 2017), it was entirely different. I’ve always loved that myth, but when I discovered that the Minotaur’s mother had given her baby a name, I got that flash in the chest. (Sorry, don’t know how else to describe it.) She named her baby Asterion, which can be translated as Ruler of the Stars. That broke my heart. I knew I had to write the book. But again, the inspiration was only the precipitating event. I wrote the eleven-line prologue in a week or two. Then it all stopped. I had nothing. I carried those eleven lines in my head for years, and then one day, I “heard” Poseidon speak his first two words, and the shield that was between me and the way to proceed through the book lifted. It took another two years to write the book.

In the end, I like what the African American, science fiction writer — could she be more original? — Octavia Butler had to say: “Habit is more important than inspiration.”

(By the way, if you haven’t read her KINDRED, run, run like the wind to your local library or bookstore.)

Booking Biz: Did you always want to write books for children, or was there another career you wished for as a child?

David: The path that led to my becoming a children’s author was not a straight one. In my other lives, I have been a Peace Corp volunteer in the Philippines, a teacher in Palau, a singer in Mexico, an olive picker and cucumber washer in Greece, a popsicle stick maker in Israel (I know it sounds like I’m making this up, but I’m not), an English teacher in Libya. For a while, I taught at boarding schools, Wykeham Rise School for Girls, for example. (I only bring this up because I want to share what the girls called it – Wicked Thighs.) When I met my wife, I was a student of classical voice at The New England Conservatory.

I started writing for kids when my son, now 30, was a little boy. I had no illusions about publishing, but sometimes the Cosmos helps you out. We were living in Vermont at the time, and my neighbor mentioned that she wrote. I said I did too. She asked to see some of my work, and I gave her the text for AN ALPHABET OF ROTTEN KIDS. I didn’t know it, but as it turned out, she had just retired as the Executive Editor of a major kids publishing house in New York. She sent the book to Paula Wiseman at Philomel, and well, Bob’s your uncle. (We don’t talk enough about the role Fortune plays in our lives. The thing is, you’ve got to be ready for it when it comes calling. I sometimes wonder about all the opportunities we miss or didn’t even recognize because we’re not ready or receptive.)

But even then, the road was rocky. I had no idea what I was doing – in some ways, I still don’t, and I’m not saying that to be coy. I’m still learning.

The topic of my Dec. 5 blog post is what I learned about writing by studying voice. Some of you might want to take a peek.

Booking Biz: If you ruled the world, what would it look like?

David: If I ruled the world? Good heavens! You don’t know what you’re asking. But I think I’ll let the inimitable Tony Bennett answer that question or me. Just substitute “everyone” whenever the lyrics say “man”: