Welcome to the six hundred and fifty-fourth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with memoirist and children’s author Ellen Schecter. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Ellen. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Ellen: Hello, Morgen, pleased to meet you. I’m a widely published author in print and on the web. I live in New York City and write every day—looking out over the every-changing Hudson River in New York City. I commute from bedroom to living room, keeping office hours, about 10 to 5 every weekday.
I’ve been writing since kindergarten, when my first story was published, and that did it: it’s in my blood. I get hives if I don’t write. The sign above my computer says, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”
Morgen: “commute from bedroom to living room” I love it! You write non-fiction, how do you decide what to write about?
Ellen: So many things fascinate me, and I write about what fascinates me most: Many of my children’s books were inspired by my children and their classmates, who once said: “Why aren’t there any African-American queens and princesses?” So I wrote about the Queen of Sheba. But I also write fiction: many of my children’s books are fiction. I’m particularly interested in re-telling stories from other cultures, which introduce strong girls—which is important for both girls and boys to read. My latest book, Fierce Joy, a memoir, is non-fiction. That’s the one I’d like to talk about most.
Morgen: We’ll have to chat again about your children’s books. 🙂 What have you had published to-date? Do you write under a pseudonym?
Ellen: I’ve published over twenty children’s books, and only two were written under a pseudonym. I wrote them with my friend, Doris Orgel—a wonderful writer—and the publisher said they had too many books from us, so we created a fictitious name to please them. I don’t want to tell you, because I don’t want to blow our cover.
Morgen: Your secret is safe with me. 🙂 Are your books available as eBooks? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Ellen: I think a few of my children’s books may be available as e-books, and Fierce Joy eventually will be available as an e-book, just not yet.
I have a Kindle and have read a few books on it, while travelling, but I vastly prefer ink and paper. I write all over my books: stars and underlines, x’s, ideas—I need a real book in my hands.
Morgen: Most people do. Did you have any say in the titles / covers of your books? How important do you think they are?
Ellen: I’ve had a lot of say in the covers, always, but that’s because I was an editor as well as a writer on the Bank Street Ready-To Read Books—a very unusual situation. We didn’t always agree, however, and diplomacy was essential. And I worked very closely with the cover artist for Fierce Joy—David Wander. He is an extremely talented and well-respected painter, and we worked hard together to come up with the cover image together—he was brilliant. He knew how to push us toward the right images. Also I worked hard on the interior with the designer, Noah Arlow. He had a vision for the interior of the book that drew on the cover and made the whole book sing.
Morgen: What are you working on at the moment / next?
Ellen: I’ve finished a fantasy novel for children called The Green Man, which is ready to sell, and am up to my chin in an adult novel, Crazy Things I Did For Love. Each book is very different and delightful to me.
Morgen: And to your readers I’m sure. Do you manage to write every day?
Ellen: I write every day unless I’m sick. And even then, I try to write something, even if I’m balancing a yellow pad or my laptop on my knees. I wrote a great deal of Fierce Joy that way—in the hospital, in the Outpatient Infusion Room, even in the ICU. The book started as several black-and-white Composition books.
Morgen: Wow. That’s dedication. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Ellen: I edit edit edit—I love editing almost as much as writing. I never show anyone my initial drafts—not until, maybe, the third or fourth drafts. I belong to three different writing groups, and make sure my chapters are fairly polished before I’ll subject my writing colleagues to my work. I feel a responsibility not to show them unedited work.
Morgen: It’s always worth getting it the best it can be because second, third, fourth opinions will always find something. Do you have to do much research?
Ellen: It depends on the book whether research is entailed. There was not much research needed for Fierce Joy—the research was done in my memory, which is remarkably clear. But there was a great deal of research for The Green Man. Even though it’s a fantasy, the main character and his best friend go on exciting journeys to The Ten Directions: north, south, east, west, up, down, before, after, outside, inside.
They meet ten goddesses from different cultures, and each one had to be realistic and reflect those cultures. They also meet many insects and reptiles when Jake travels underground, and they are all totally realistic—except that they can speak—so I needed to find out all about the creatures that live under Riverside Park, in New York City, and they are fascinating. Jake and Alex also meet the animals and fish that live in the Arctic Circle, both above ground and down under the page ice, so all that needed to be carefully researched. And what a pleasure that was—including learning a about Sedna, the Icelandic Goddess, who ushered them through her Arctic Kingdom. All of the details were so delicious—but they had to be given meaning within the context of the story; they aren’t just there for their own sake. I loved the research—the details helped bring each climate to life for me—as I hope it will for my readers.
Morgen: I love your ten directions. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Ellen: Well, I did write a Survival Kit for parents and kids called A Pox on Your House—an activity book to get the family through the Chicken Pox. Happily, it was fun to write—because soon after I finished it the vaccine for chicken pox was approved by the FDA, so I think that may have missed its chance. Maybe I can re-tool it for some children’s disease, but they’re mostly gone, so . . .
I have some that haven’t yet found a home. But my publication pattern has been that each book has taken a long time to find its publisher: so I am eternally hopeful.
My Family Haggadah was way ahead of its time: It took seven years before it was published. Then, the publishing world was ready and I got a contract in seven days. The same with Fierce Joy: it just took patience and a wonderful publishing house and publisher: Charles Salzberg of Greenpoint Press.
Morgen: Do you pitch for submissions and / or are you commissioned to write?
Ellen: Both: I’ve been commissioned to write sometimes, and others I simply write what I love, and then pitch. And pitch, and… nothing happens.
Morgen: But you have to keep going. Presumably you had some rejections along the way. How do you deal with them?
Ellen: I’ve had many, many rejections. They hurt and hurt. But I’ve made a decision to write no matter what. It’s what I do.
Morgen: Do you enter any non-fiction competitions? Are there any you could recommend?
Ellen: I just entered Green Man in a novel competition, I won’t say which one. And now I’m just going to forget about it.
Morgen: Fingers crossed. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Ellen: I’ve had agents, and they really worked hard for me. I appreciated their efforts. But both times I’ve had a big sale, I’ve done it myself.
I would love to have an enthusiastic agent, but I spent months and months trying last year to get one after my last one became ill and didn’t want to represent Green Man… but I think it’s better for me to use my energy to write instead of trawl the internet for agents. Maybe I’ll change my mind, but for now, that’s how I feel.
Morgen: It’s how I feel too. I’m sure they’re scouring the internet as we speak so you never know… How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Ellen: I’ve done nearly all of the marketing for Fierce Joy: a small publisher simply has nobody and no funds for it. I knew that when I signed on; but on the other hand, I was given the freedom to work on the cover myself.
Morgen: Do you have a favourite of your stories or characters? If any of your books were made into films, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Ellen: I think my not-yet-completed-novel, Crazy Things I Did For Love would make the best movie: It’s about a young twenty-to-thirty something woman who gives and receives many kinds of love, both sane and crazy: love of friends, family, female and male friends of all kinds. The woman: Ellen Paige; her graduate school lover, an actor I haven’t seen yet; her best friend, Keira Knightly; her roommate, whose fiancé dies in Vietnam: a younger, brunette version of Michelle Pfeiffer.
Morgen: Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Ellen: It depends on the book. I usually have an overall structure in mind. With Fierce Joy, the structure was my life—chronological; in Green Man, the structure was the journeys in the Ten Directions, though I played with the order to heighten the tension. With Crazy Things, it’s once again fairly chronological, but with lots of flashbacks and flash-forwards.
Morgen: Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Ellen: I make sure I can see and hear my characters, see their clothes and eyes and hair, hear the way they speak, as soon as they come into a scene. I watch scenes unfold behind my eyelids, or sometimes in the air over the river. They sometimes take over and decide what’ll happen next. I love it when that happens, but it doesn’t always.
Morgen: What point of view do you find most to your liking?
Ellen: I love first person / present tense; it feels so alive to me. I have to struggle to write in the third person, because I hate, hate the passive voice, when things have happened or should have happened. I will sometimes, often, re-devise a scene so I don’t have to write that way. I think it came out of so many journalism classes, jobs, but I never write that way if I can help it.
Morgen: What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Ellen: My favourite? The work itself–and then, people enjoying it, finding it important in their lives, finding that it speaks to them, revealing themselves to me in ways they’ve never done.
The least favourite is all this marketing, extending myself to promote it, pushing myself all the time to do what I’ve never done before—though I’m finding it interesting and fun after all. I’m a private person—I would so much rather be at my desk, looking out over the river, finding just the right word, hearing the characters talking inside my head or doing unexpected things.
Morgen: What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Ellen: Write. Don’t talk about it: DO IT. I can’t tell you how many people say they want to be writers, but they don’t write. I know it’s frightening to put yourself on the page, but nobody has to see it but you. Try to take a certain time every day to write, even for ten minutes. Make it a habit. Even if you don’t have anything to say, write that: I don’t have anything to say today…maybe because…Just WRITE. Get in the habit. Then go back and see what you wrote and see what you like and if you want to save or change it. Add to it. Rewrite it. And then—look! You’ve written something that you like.
And ignore that ugly critic on your shoulder who says—THAT? You’re writing THAT. Brush the negative guy off. And keep on writing.
Morgen: Absolutely. Because there will always be plenty of positive guys who love what the negative guy dislikes. If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Ellen: I have one dinner that’s fail-safe, so won’t worry about that.
I’d invite Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, and Vladamir Nabokov—three of my favourite writers. I think they’d have a lot to say to each other, with their sharpened sensibilities, about their work, about their commitment to excellence, about their childhoods—as each of them, I think, have a very active child alive inside them.
I wish I could invite a fourth, with a very active sense of humour—maybe Michael Champion, but I think we might get along nicely without him. I would have to be ready with good questions to get the flow going…. but I don’t think I have to decide that yet.
Actually, I wrote a play in college, The Dinner Party, where the guests were Virginia Woolf, John Stuart Mill, Samuel Johnson, and a few others—and the feathers flew.
Morgen: I’d have two writers of my three (Roald Dahl and Kate Atkinson). My late father would be the third. Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Ellen: There is a prayer I sing to myself, a Jewish phrase, every morning to start my day: Moda ani lefaneka, Melech Chai: Thank you, God of life, for giving back my soul today—a rough translation, but that’s the gist.
Morgen: That’s lovely. Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Ellen: My three writing workshops: I learn so much from reading other peoples’ writing, seeing how they solve problems, what works, even what doesn’t work. That’s how I learn to improve my writing—by reading theirs, and getting their feedback, of course. But a lot of it is seeing how they write, and how they rewrite. I’ve learned from my writing friends the necessity and the glory, really of rewriting as a key part of writing.
Morgen: What do you do when you’re not writing?
Ellen: I’ve been coordinating a volunteer literacy program in a New York City public school for fifteen years: About forty volunteers work with first- and second-graders who are having trouble learning to read.
We meet with them two mornings a week, one to one. They’re being taught to read in their classrooms, but we reinforce those skills by reading beautiful pictures books to them—until they feel confident enough to try reading to us. We help them when they stumble by reinforcing what they’re learning in class. Some kids come in September not even knowing the alphabet; by May, everyone is reading something.
It’s a lot of fun, and at that age they learn so fast that it’s very rewarding. It’s part of a national program, the National Jewish Coalition for Literacy, and people can probably find a similar program in their communities.
Here’s a terrible statistic that might motivate you: Children need to learn to read until third grade. After third grade, they need to read to learn. If they can’t, they fall further and further behind. That’s why working with first and second graders is so crucial.
I also love loving my husband, close friends, and grown kids—both writers; enjoy aqua aerobics; read, love movies, dance in the kitchen to Motown and DooWop. I sing, too, as long as nobody else is around,
Except my husband, and then he sings with me, even though he can’t carry a tune in his briefcase.
Morgen: Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful?
Ellen: I’m just getting involved in goodreads.com, and the published author and memoir websites at LinkedIn.
Morgen: Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Ellen: I’ve found LinkedIn to be helpful; it’s helped me connect to friends and colleagues whom I haven’t been in touch with for a long time. Also the LinkedIn author sites.
Morgen: I love LinkedIn. I was getting low on interviewees (down to a week’s worth) and put a shout-out on LI and have been booking months in advance ever since… up to nine months, which is why I created http://morgensauthorinterviews.wordpress.com and now it’s down to less than a month. 🙂 What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Ellen: I think the future can be as rosy as you make it. I know there is a great deal of flux in the publishing world, and I have found that to be both helpful and hurtful.
Fierce Joy tells the story about how illness forced me to leave the world of children’s television and published years ago, which broke my hearth—but here I am, back again in another guise, with different kinds of writing. Before FJ was published, I’d been writing all by myself for years, determined to do it whether or not I ever got published again. So no matter what the future holds for me as a writer, I will never stop writing.
Morgen: Me neither. 🙂 Where can we find out about you and your writing?
Morgen: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Linda Wolfe, on FabOverFifty, found Fierce Joy among the best memoirs so far this year: http://www.faboverfifty.com/bookblog/2012/04
Laura Schultz, in the New York Journal of Books: “Ellen Schecter creates a visual symphony with her extraordinary command of the unique language of the soul. Fierce Joy is a powerful story full of hope, redemption, and the ultimate triumph of the human spirit.”
“Diagnosis Is Not Death,” a review in Tablet by Sarah Ivry: “Illness does not always rob us of our spirit …”
Schecter…finds in Judaism a sense of nurturing that she didn’t realize she craved….”I not only want to make peace with my illness, I want to sanctify it. I want to discover—or create—a deeper, even sacred meaning for—my illness.”
Morgen: Congratulations. 🙂 Thank you, Ellen.
I then invited Ellen to include a synopsis of her book…
Fierce Joy: A Memoir is a medical mystery, a spiritual adventure, and a love story. Ellen Schecter had everything she ever wanted: a loving marriage, two great kids, and her dream career writing children’s books and television programs. Then her life shattered when she was stricken with a painful, potentially fatal disease. Fierce Joy tells the story of how Schecter found a way to be sick without suffering and transformed the loss of her place in the world of work into a quest for her soul. Propelled by her illness into a search for new meanings, she learned to listen to her body and find healing even though a cure for her physical disease was impossible. Never asking “Why me?” she instead asked, “What’s next?” and forged a new life paradoxically filled with joy.
Ellen Schecter is a writer, producer, and educator. She’s been widely published in print and on the web. She has written or collaborated on many multi-award-winning TV series for children and families, including Reading Rainbow and the pilot for The Magic School Bus.
She was executive producer of Voices of Lupus, produced in conjunction with FM Productions and the Hospital for Special Surgery, and given free to every English-speaking Lupus Foundation in the world.
She’s published more than twenty children’s books. “The Big Idea,” her first novel for middle grade readers, [Hyperion] won the Américas award. Her Family Haggadah [Viking] was a Book of the Month Club selection.
She edited and helped write the beloved Bank Street Ready to Read series, and her articles about how to help children read appeared in Child, Parenting, and Sesame Street Parents.
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