Cynthia Lord!

On January 22, 2007, I joined what I fondly call the Silver Sisterhood which includes Jenni Holm and Cindy Lord (we let Susan Patron play, too!). Like me, Cindy won the Newbery Honor for her first published novel. If you’ve ever met her, you know she is a good-hearted and generous person. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to hear her present, you came away with pages of notes and terrific new ideas for your own writing.

Cindy’s writing career began when she was 4, with a song co-written with her older sister, “Ding-Dong the Cherries Ring.” If you go to her website, you can read the lyrics. Words and story captured Cindy from the get-go and she treasures early favorite books like Happy, Peppermint, Fantastic Mr. Fox and Winnie the Pooh. Cindy rises very early every morning, between 3:30 and 4 (I would consider this in the middle of the night!) and is ably assisted in her pre-dawn efforts by her Mr. Coffee and her dog, Milo.

So pour yourself a steaming cup of tea and sit back to get better acquainted with Cynthia Lord!

Were you a flashlight-under-the covers or a run-and-play-and-collect-bugs kind of kid?

As a child, I was daydreamer who loved to read and pretend, but I also loved nature. I grew up beside a lake in New Hampshire, so I spent a lot of time in the water and on the sand, turning over rocks and rowboats to see what lived underneath.
A young Cindy thinking about that first book!

What was the nudge/spark that set you in front of that blank paper to write for children?
I’ve read many children’s books in my life: first as a child, then as a teacher, and finally as a parent. I’ve always loved books for children. I also love to tell stories, and fiction writing is really just storytelling on the page.

As a writer, I began my career writing for educational publishers, but when I would write for myself, the voice that came was always 10-12 years old.

Who are the writers you read to be inspired?

When I am looking for inspiration, I often read poetry. It encourages me to see language in new ways and to stretch my voice in new directions. I have a love affair with setting, so Donald Hall is the author of the poetry book I have on my desk on the moment.

Do you have any special writing talismans/tokens in your writing space? If so, what are they?

Yes, I have quite a few! I have a huge rubber duckie collection.

People give them to me at events because of RULES’ cover.

I have a fortune affixed to my computer monitor. It says, “Your talents will be recognized and suitably rewarded.” I pulled it out of a fortune cookie right before I sold RULES. I taped it to my monitor as a joke, but then I sold RULES right after. Then the book won some awards. So now, I’m afraid to remove it!

I also keep things around me that have to do with my latest work-in-progress. My second novel is set on a Maine island, and the main character is the daughter of a lobster fisherman. So I have lobstering tools, fishing gloves, a seagull feather, sea glass, shells, etc. along the windowsill.

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 spend time with other authors, which always feeds the writer in me. A few times a year I go on retreats with various author friends—that time away in the company of other authors is very centering.

What’s the worst writing advice you ever received?
I think any advice that comes with the word “always” or “never” or “only” attached to it! One thing I’ve learned is that there are many ways to create something of beauty and meaning.

What was the scariest thing you’ve done as a writer?
I’ve deleted an entire novel from my computer on several occasions. Then I’ve opened a new file to begin it again.

What are you proudest of in your work?
I’m proudest of the times when a child writes to me and lets me know that RULES has been her voice. Sometimes books say the things we can’t or don’t dare.

How do you know when you have a story just right?
I hate to say this, but I don’t ever feel that! I get to the point where I can honestly say it’s the best work I can do, and that’s when I hit “send.”

There’s a book called “Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking” by David Bayles and Ted Orland. There is a wonderful discussion in the book about “perfection.” Here is one line: To demand perfection is to deny your ordinary (and universal) humanity, as though you would be better off without it.

Yet, it is our humanity in our art that people relate to and respond to. It’s a freeing idea for me that perfection as a goal is not only bad for the writer, but for the book, too.

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?

It took about a year to write RULES, and then nine months to sell it. BUT after I got “the call” saying Scholastic would like to buy it, it took four more years before it was a published book.

RULES came out on April Fool’s Day 2006. Given where the book went next, that release day seems ideal for it!

What, if anything, in the writer’s life has caught you by surprise?

I thought every book would get easier! Everyone who has published more than one book is probably laughing at that. Each book has its own path.

A series of questions about work habits:

  • Computer or long-hand? Computer!
  • Coffee or tea? Coffee.
  • Quiet office or music going? Most often, quiet.
  • Desk: messy or tidy? I have two desks. The one in my house is messy. I also have a writing shed in my backyard and that desk is neat.

Cindy’s writing house

  • Essential writing snack food:Goldfish crackers and iced tea. My dog comes out to my writing shed with me, so I also need dog treats!

About your new picture book: I was fortunate to see a color copy at NCTE – who doesn’t like hamsters?! The energy and pizzazz of this book will appeal to young children. It’s a huge change from Rules, however!
As you are well aware, Kirby, there is a fair amount of pressure when you win a Newbery Honor. So it’s nice that no one can compare my second book to RULES!

The illustrator is Derek Anderson. He is an amazing talent.
A student version of the cover of Hot Rod Hamster

Tell us a bit about what prompted you to write a picture book, and, in particular this book.

When my daughter was small, she loved to choose things on the pages of books. If there were an array of something, she would say, “I would take THIS one, because. . . .” I loved finding out those little things about her—what she liked and why. So I wanted to write a book with a story but that would also give parents and children a warm, fun opportunity to learn a bit about each other.

So the book is called HOT ROD HAMSTER. The hamster wants to enter a hot rod race, but he doesn’t have a car so he goes to a junkyard to build one. There are “choice pages” where there’s a rhyme and a variety of things to choose, ending with “Which one would YOU choose?” The child who’s being read to can point or say his/her choice before you turn the page and see what the hamster chose.

The race is fun and exciting, the colors are rich and vibrant, and the hamster is adorable. I’m excited to have it published next winter.

What’s different for you about writing picture books as opposed to novels?

I’m a very visual person so I love being able to lay the text for a whole picture book out on my desk and see the beginning, middle, and end all at once. But there’s more *faith* involved in a picture book, since four people are changing the book with each pass (author, illustrator, editor, and art director). So it’s more collaborative. When the other three people would make big changes, I had to get to know the book all over again.

Are there other picture books in your future?

I hope so!

Cindy, you and I have commiserated together about what I call the Dreaded Second Novel (DSN), so the next few questions touch on that.

You won a Newbery Honor for your first novel – that should make things easy-peasy. Right?

Oh, so very wrong. As you know, it’s complex experience to realize a dream and then keep going. You have to answer not only “What now?” but “Why now?”

People ask me all the time, “When you win a Newbery Honor, where do you go from there?”

I joke and say, “DOWN, I’m afraid!”

But there’s truth in that joke. There is a valley on the other side of that beautiful high peak, and figuring out what to climb next and why to keep climbing is a whole new journey.

What has worked for you to complete the DSN? What didn’t work?

My editor and agent and publisher have been very supportive, but in the end, it comes down to knowing that writers write. That’s who I am and what I do. So I have regular writing time and I write during that time—no matter what.

What didn’t work was telling myself that I should be better at this. No matter what pretty shiny circles are affixed to my book’s cover, I am only a second-time novelist.

When will your second novel be out? Are you comfortable giving us a hint about it? If so, please give us a little taste of what we have to look forward to next from Cynthia Lord.

TOUCH BLUE is coming Fall 2010. The title comes from a superstition: Touch blue and your wish will come true.

I was a teacher before I became a writer, and one of the schools where I taught was on an island off the coast of Maine. I took a ferry out and back every day, and I was the only teacher in the district who had a special column next to her name in the teacher attendance log. That column said “Act of God,” because if the ferry didn’t run due to storms, I couldn’t get to work! I had 13 kids in grades 2-6, and I loved that teaching experience.

One of the challenges of tiny island schools is that due to their small enrollments, the state would love to close them. But islanders are very aware that if they lose their school, they will lose their year-round community within a couple of generations. So they have come up with many ways over the years to keep their schools open—including one island that once adopted a whole group of foster children to keep their school from being closed.

I am fascinated by that story and the questions it brings up for me, so that is the story I am telling in TOUCH BLUE. Though the book was inspired by that true, historical event, I have changed many things to make it work as a story.

Prior interviewees have shared secret talents with us (for example, Susan Patron shared her recipe for making a flaming dessert). What secret talent do you have that we might not know about?

I make quilts—not as often as I used to, but I love fabric. I love the feel of it, the smell of it, and the sound of the clerk’s shears as she makes that long cut when I’m buying a length of something.

When my agent and editor had their first babies, I made them each a baby quilt. My agent’s little girl loved hers so much I made a tiny replica of that quilt for her dolls.

Cindy, thank you so much for spending this time with us. And I just know my new puppy, Winston, would love a baby quilt, too! 😉

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  1. Crystal

    Wonderful interview, Kirby and Cynthia! Enjoyed learning more about Cynthia (and her writing house!), her quilting (reminds me of my late great-grandma’s skill), and that even Newbery Honor-winners still have writing anxieties. Looking forward to reading Cynthia’s new book when it’s published next year–it sounds quite interesting!