The Superlative Susan Patron

Normally, bloggers first post a book review and THEN the author interview. But I never have done things in the proper order. Check in tomorrow for my (enthusiastic!) review of Susan Patron‘s newest book, Lucky Breaks.

For today, enjoy this cyber-conversation with the 2007 Newbery Award winner:

Were you a flashlight-under-the covers or a run-and-play-and-collect-bugs kind of kid?
I was an organize-neighborhood-plays/tell-stories-on-car-trips/earn-money-mowing-the-lawn/eavesdrop-on-grownups kind of kid.
(Susan, age 6, with her sister)

What was the nudge/spark that set you in front of that blank paper to write for children?
E.B.White’s Charlotte’s Web, read aloud by my fourth-grade teacher.

Who are the writers you read to be inspired?
I go back to Annie Lamott (Bird by Bird), Carolyn See (Making A Literary Life), and John Gardner (The Art of Fiction). (titles added by Kirby)

Do you have any special writing talismans/tokens in your writing space? If so, what are they?
I have a beloved and battered Roget’s Thesaurus, the Compact Edition of the OED, and lots of books about English usage, word and phrase origins, slang dictionaries and visual dictionaries, all at arm’s length. They give me deep comfort.

I love the title concept explored by Carolyn See in her Making A Literary Life: What do you do that helps you sustain and nourish your literary life?
I have an active and longstanding email correspondence with three other writers. We discuss a myriad of subjects, from wildflowers to films to books we’re reading, to thoughts on mortality, but we always come back to writing.

What’s the worst writing advice you ever received?
“Don’t submit a retold folktale if you’ve never been published.” My first book, Burgoo Stew, is a retelling of the “Stone Soup” folktale. The legendary Richard Jackson bought it after three other houses turned it down. That doesn’t mean the advice is wrong, only that it didn’t apply in my case.

I heard you talk about a tip given you by Franny Billingsley, to put something in your character’s hand. Can you share how that impacted your writing? Feel free to share any additional tips that have worked for you.
I was horribly blocked when I heard Franny speak at SCBWI. When she said, “put something in your characters’ hands,” I felt as if I’d had some kind of religious transformation. That simple device revealed whole worlds to me about my characters because of what those objects turned out to be. (I also like to read books about Chinese and western astrology and steal characteristics from those signs.)

What was the scariest thing you’ve done as a writer?
Appear on “The Today Show” for 14 seconds.
(Susan closing her eyes to the fact that the lady in purple is goosing David Wiesner)

What are you proudest of in your work?
My picture books—now out of print—were each selected (over a period of several years) to be included in “Expectations,” an annual anthology published by the Braille Institute and given to blind children. Since stories are selected for their visual qualities, storytelling, and narrative punch, this seemed like a great honor and a fine compliment to my work.

How do you know when you have a story just right?
When I can read it aloud (to myself) and not cringe.

How long was it between “I’ve got an idea” to “We’d like to publish your book”? And what happened in between those moments?
For The Higher Power of Lucky it was over a decade and the struggle was a mighty one: weekends and vacations devoted to writing while I worked a full-time job. For Lucky Breaks,the contract was offered before the Newbery award, before I retired, and before the book was written. Talk about a contrast! I felt validated to be under contract without having to produce any evidence that I knew where I was going with the book, but terrified that I wouldn’t be able to deliver. This time it took about two years to finish, but during part of that time I was retired.

In The Higher Power of Lucky, Lucky makes a list of good and bad traits in mothers. If you were to make a similar list for writers, what would be some of the traits listed in each column?
I suppose Bad Traits would be not making your bed, leaving dishes in the sink, letting your library books become overdue, watching junk TV at night, forgetting to make dinner, and eating too much Melba toast, beef jerky, and Mentos while playing computer solitaire or fooling around on facebook. Good traits are writing the damn book. I think we all struggle tremendously to stay in the Good Traits column, but sometimes we just find ourselves over there NOT writing the damn book. Probably because we’re human and vulnerable and scared to do it. Writers have to be the bravest people alive.

A series of questions about work habits:
Computer or long-hand?

First two drafts are longhand (#2 pencil on lined paper). Next three to five drafts in Word.
Coffee or tea?
Espresso or sometimes Gatorade.
Quiet office or music going?
Quiet, with snoring dog nearby.
Desk: neat or tidy?
Hmmm, neat or tidy, neat or tidy: I’m going to propose another category here. I’m actually over on the dark side, two-thirds of the way between chaos and anarchy.
Essential writing snack food:
Melba toast, beef jerky, Mentos.

Is there anything you wish I’d asked you? If so, what is it?
Yes, how about this: Q: Are you ever going to have a website? A blog?
A: Yes! The enormously talented Pamela Greene, a librarian f
riend, is just finishing my website design and it may be up by the time you are blogging this interview. The URL is I love reading blogs but will try to resist having one of my own because I know it will suck out the quality creative time (when I’m not playing computer solitaire or fooling around on facebook).

If we promise not to set anything on fire, would you share a flaming dessert recipe with us?
Listen, you really do need to be careful! Have the lid of the pan handy in case the flames get too big. Okay, slice bananas in half lengthwise. Saute them in butter on both sides until nicely caramelized. Add sugar to pan and let it caramelize, too. Add a glug of cognac if you have it; otherwise, bourbon, brandy, or rum will do, but not Vodka. Do not worry about proportions; you will know what is right. Shake pan a bit. Averting your face, ignite the liquid with a match, shaking until flames die down. Serve with a scoop of ice cream. (Allow half a small banana or ¼ large banana per person.)

If my inept attempt at interviewing sweet Susan doesn’t satisfy you, feel free (you Seattle folks) to join me in dropping in on her presentation at University Bookstore-Mill Creek on Tuesday, March 10, 6:30 pm. Secret Garden Bookshop will be hosting Susan at a school visit on Wednesday so if you live in that end of town, they’ll have ample copies of signed books for you to buy.

Thanks to Susan for so graciously agreeing to be interviewed!

No Responses to “The Superlative Susan Patron”

  1. Kirby Larson

    There is no accounting for taste! However, I think Susan’s junk food picks seem very “Lucky-ish,” don’t you?

    I’m a red licorice gal, myself.

  2. kcushman

    Oooh, another Carolyn See fan. Living the Literary Life, Bird by Bird, and Ray Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing are my favorite writing books. I pick them up and reread them whenever I need a boost. And snacks? I’m a nut girl, so much so that I no longer keep them in the house. Me and the squirrels, we like our nuts.