A Few Questions for Heather
As a kid I spent all my free time running and jumping and playing sports—not writing stories. I never thought about what I wanted to be when I grew up. . . until fourth grade. That's when I read Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, and I decided to be a spy. Unfortunately, I was shy and not much of a risk taker. Still, that didn't stop me from wanting to be bold and clever like Harriet. To prepare, I read every Nancy Drew book. I kept a top secret diary. I spied on my twin brother.
Well, I never did get that job with the FBI or the CIA, but I did find a job where I can use my spy skills every day: researching and writing childrens books. I have a notebook that I keep with me at all times to write down clues and observations. My four children give me lots of leads. Whether I'm digging for information on a person who lived in another century or digging in the dirt to find out what it's like to take a mud bath, there's always fun and interesting research to do. Every book is a top secret, high-stakes mission!
What were you like as a child?
I was shy, and I loved sports. For some reason my shyness never carried over to sports, and perhaps that's one reason I loved them so much. I took risks and chances in sports that I didn't take in other parts of my life. I played volleyball, softball, tennis, and just about any sport—except gymnastics. The only thing I could do was a headstand.
As an adult I've realized there are some advantages to being shy. Shy people tend to absorb a lot more. They listen and watch carefully, processing the world differently. And those are great skills to have if you want to be a good writer.
Do you have any pets?
I have a very cute, cuddly dog named Vivi. She likes to sit at my feet when I write. And she loves to do tricks. click here to see her latest trick!
Were you always good at writing?
That's an easy one: NO! My best subject in school was always math. I have a very logical mind and liked being presented with a problem, solving it, and knowing the right answer! Even now I don't like showing anyone my first drafts. Luckily there's always lots of revision. A story really comes to life during the rewriting process.
What other jobs have you had?
When I was a teenager, I babysat, painted and sold barrettes, and taught tennis. I was a public health lawyer before I started my favorite job: being a mom. I have four children with a wonderful husband, whom I met in high school!
Is being a writer a hard job?
Being a writer is a very tough job, but it's extremely rewarding. I had to develop a thick skin and be open to criticism and rejection. I've learned to think about criticism as feedback—suggestions from people who are trying to help me improve my writing. Sometimes I use the suggestions and sometimes I don't, but the important thing is to be open and listen.
Why do you like to write?
Researching and writing for children is challenging but so satisfying. I like the feeling I get when I find just the right ending or just the right word or phrase to express an idea or emotion. Sometimes the word comes to me when I'm not even thinking about it. I think it's magical.
Where do you get your ideas?
With nonfiction, I sometimes come across ideas when reading the newspaper, watching TV, or listening to the radio. Other times I go looking for someone to write about, but usually I have narrowed the field. For example, when I decided to write my first picture–book biography, I knew I wanted to find a female athlete who overcame great challenges. I spent hours in the library and online reading about athletes. When I read about Alice Coachman, I knew I had found my woman!
Where do you write?
Mostly I write in my office or in the kitchen. But I am always thinking about my stories. I jot down things at my kids' golf events, at track meets, or when I'm in the car (after I pull over, of course).
What kinds of books do you write?
I like to write picture books, chapter books, and narrative nonfiction. Despite the variety, I discovered recently that I tend to be drawn to common themes. My books often involve a character who shows great determination and takes risks to follow her dreams. And since I love sports, many of my books have sports themes.
What are your favorite kinds of books?
The fabulous thing about children's books is the variety. Whenever I have time I love to go to the library or bookstore, browse the fiction and nonfiction shelves, plop myself down with a big pile of books, and read! Right now I can't get enough of narrative nonfiction. Well-crafted, narrative nonfiction reads just like fiction; it draws you in with character, setting, and tension, and the best part is that THE STORIES ARE TRUE! Click here for a list of my favorite sports picture book biographies.
I also love humorous and clever stories. Some of my favorite authors are Judy Blume, Lois Lowry, Jerry Spinelli, Louis Sachar, Wendelin Van Draanen, Sharon Creech, and Roald Dahl. And I always enjoy reading and giving feedback on manuscripts written by fellow writers.
How long does it take you to write a book?
That's a toughie. Every book is different. Some take one year and others take three or four years. When I have an idea for a nonfiction or historical fiction book, I research it and take lots of notes. But it takes me a while to figure out how to frame the story. Where should I start it, and where should it end? What characters are important? What is the story really about? So I spend a lot of time just thinking about it—when I'm brushing my teeth, when I'm cooking dinner, when I'm walking my dog. It percolates. Then one day, BOOM, I just know I'm ready to get started with the writing.
What else do you like to do when you are not writing?
I love to do creative projects. Recently I took ceramics and metalsmithing classes with my girls. I also love adventures. A few years ago we went to Wyoming where we rode horses, milked goats, camped, and rode the rapids. On a recent family adventure in Tanzania, we saw lions and cheetahs, and we listened to the hyenas at night while we slept in tents in the bush!