The Proust-Esque Questionnaire is based on a set of 36 standardized questions designed by Marcel Proust in the 1890’s to give an overview of the respondent’s personality. Our goals are less lofty, but hopefully will provide some insight into how your favorite authors and illustrators work and what they love.
1. WHAT IS YOUR EARLIEST MEMORY OF CHILDREN’S LITERATURE?
My earliest memory, in general, is of being wheeled out to the living room in my stroller, or walker, or whatever you want to call it, so my mom could take a photo. I remember crying for absolutely no reason. Then again, I was zero, and sometimes you just cry when you’re zero.
In any case, years later, I found the photo she took in an old box and it brought the memory back to me. And while I’m not sure I properly answered your question, I think this answer should suffice.
I oftentimes feel just like George in James Marshall’s George and Martha series — sort of forgetful, lovable, funny, huggable, hippo-shaped, a despiser of split-pea soup, and possessing a first name that kind of sounds like “George.”
3. WHO IS YOUR FAVORITE CHILDREN’S BOOK AUTHOR? ILLUSTRATOR?
Goodness gracious, there are just so many! I would MUCH rather name folks who AREN’T my favorite children’s book authors and/or illustrators, if that’s OK. This includes Ryan Seacrest, Randy Travis, Katie Holmes, Norah Jones, and, of course, Pat Sajak.
But if you need me to pick a favorite, and you’re unwilling to move on until I do so, and you want me to combine author & illustrator, then let’s go with Shel Silverstein… But I fully retain the right to change my answer at any given moment, depending on my mood, memories, and what’s sitting directly in my line of sight.
Because I just insulted them, above, I would probably invite Ryan Seacrest, Randy Travis, Katie Holmes, Norah Jones, and, of course, Pat Sajak. I’m sure it would be a lively conversation about TV, hosting shows, acting in movies, piano playing, American Idol and the like. And I’d love to end the evening by playing “What’s Your Net Worth?”
Then again, maybe I’d just invite everybody from Louis Sachar’s Wayside School series, and just allow the first five people who show up access to the house. Everybody else could wait outside. I imagine all kinds of hilarious things would ensue, both indoors and out.
I got a chance to briefly meet Louis, a few months ago, and I would’ve liked to have told him how much he’s made me laugh over the years. Instead, I just quietly shook his hand and attempted to pronounce my own name. I suppose that’s what happens when you meet your heroes.
5. WHICH QUALITY DO YOU THINK IS MOST IMPORTANT IN GOOD CHILDREN’S LITERATURE?
I think it’s important for folks who are writing for children to remember what it’s like to be a child, to remember what you liked, what piqued your curiosity, what you were afraid of, and what made you laugh … and then try to distill all of that into your own work.
6. IF YOUR OWN WORK HAS A DEFINING CHARACTERISTIC, WHAT WHAT IS IT?
Mustard stains everywhere.
Also, it has things that I find funny, even though I’m not always necessarily sure who they will appeal to. My first humor book, All my friends are dead, was a case where I wasn’t sure who the book was for, exactly, if anybody. It turned out it was for everybody. (Except for children.)
Sheesh, it’s getting morbid around here! What if you cut the words “If you were to die …” and you just started the question with, “If you could come back as a character from …” etc. You know? I’d still understand the gist of the question. Then again, I guess I wrote a book called All My Friends Are Dead. Hmm.
How about Fudge from Judy Blume’s Superfudge? He was one of the first literary characters who made me laugh out loud in elementary school. I remember sitting in class during silent reading time, chuckling at my desk. He was such a funny fellow. I wouldn’t mind being described that way. “Jory John: A funny fellow.”
8. IF YOU COULD GO BACK AND REDO ONE THING IN YOUR WORK, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
I’d probably take another shot at answering these questions. I was just thinking about all my answers, so far, and wondering if I should start over. Ultimately, I won’t do another draft, or even look this over when I finish. But yeah, I’d choose this interview.
9. WHAT IS THE GREATEST PIECE OF ADVICE YOU WERE EVER GIVEN?
“Do what needs to be done.”
I think I read that on the side of a box of Lipton tea. But I still think about those words all the time. When I have a bunch of dangling threads and loose ends of projects and tasks and people waiting for e-mails and phone calls and interview answers (wink wink), I just try to prioritize by a.) what needs to happen today, before the sun sets b.) what needs to happen this week and c.) what needs to happen this year.
I also like Emily Dickinson’s “Dwell in possibility”, although I feel like that’s an abbreviated quote, and I should also mention that she didn’t say it directly to me. A little bit more on dwelling in possibility, below, per your next question…
10. DESCRIBE YOUR WORK PROCESS.
I’m a BIG fan of bonus points, and I was going to send along a photo of my work space, but I’m pretty sure you know what a Starbucks looks like. (Brown seats, circular tables, a coffee in front of me with 50-cent refills).
In any case, here’s my process, involving some dwelling in possibility.
1. IDEA TIME: This is, perhaps, my favorite part of my process. I grab a stack of 3×5 index cards — say, 100 cards — and write one idea per card for an hour. This is sort of like the exercise of writing “morning pages,” where you’re just supposed to write and write and write, without lifting your pen from the paper and without self-editing and without ending sentences so that they just go on and on and on like this one, if you know what I’m saying, and I think that you do.
2. I PUT THE CARDS AWAY FOR A WHILE AND DO SOMETHING ELSE: Pretty self-explanatory.
3. I COME BACK TO MY IDEAS WITH FRESH EYES: A few days later, say, I’ll return to these particular ideas and weed out 95-percent of them and try to discover what might work, and what approach I might take.
4. I WRITE SOMETHING FROM IT: Whether it’s a picture book, or a longer story, or an article (sometimes I’m a journalist), or a comic (sometimes I’m a cartoonist) or a grocery list (sometimes I’m a customer).
5. THEN, MUCH LIKE THE IDEA PART, I’LL PUT THE WRITING AWAY: Yep.
6. THEN, A FEW DAYS LATER, I’LL RETURN TO IT AGAIN. AND REVISE. AND REPEAT: And so forth.