Writer Unboxed Part 2

Source: Writer Unboxed. Published 11 December 2009.


Today, Dashka tells us about her other writerly hats–children’s book author, poet, short story writer, teacher–and lets us in on a few of her secrets.


Part 2: Interview with Dashka Slater

Q: After The Wishing Box, you moved on to write and sell several children’s book stories. What inspired that transition? Do you think you’ll write additional adult fiction novels?

DS: My son was born the same year that The Wishing Box came out, and through him I was brought back to children’s literature, which I always considered my first love. I was an early and avid reader and many of my most profound influences have been children’s writers. Magical realism is a strong thread in children’s fiction, for example, and having grown up reading books by Edward Eager and E. Nesbit where ordinary children find magical amulets lying on the street or get wishes from disagreeable sand fairies, it didn’t seem strange at all to have ordinary adults do much the same thing. Astute readers may even be able to find the chapter in The Wishing Box that was inspired by the Pig and Pepper chapter in Alice in Wonderland.

But while I love writing for children, I will continue to write for adults as well.

Q: What’s the common denominator between your adult fiction and your children’s fiction? Your poetic voice? A touch of whimsy? (I read something about a sea serpent spilling out of the spout and into the tub…)

DS: Magical realism, is one common thread – although in children’s books no one is surprised when strange things happen and so no one bothers to call it “magical realism.” It’s just fiction. Lyrical language is probably another. I was a poet before I was a fiction writer and a little bit of poetry tends to spill into everything I do. But really, I never make that much of a distinction in my mind between what I write for adults and what I write for children. Both genres are very close to my heart and I probably bring the same preoccupations to both.

Q: You’re also actively writing and publishing poetry and short stories for adults. Do you use poetry and/or short stories to practice certain aspects of your fiction, to explore certain themes, or something else? What draws you to these mediums? And would you recommend other writers try their hand at poetry and/or short stories? Why?

DS: Every medium has something to teach a writer. There is no better medium than poetry for teaching writers to distill their ideas and ruthlessly hone every sentence and for that reason I encourage all my children’s literature students to read and write some sort of poetry. Picture books are — or should be – a lot like poems.

I am not by nature a short story writer, although I do love reading them. I started writing short stories after my son was born, when I had to work in short bursts. I found that I had a lot of self-contained stories in my head and I was determined to get them down on paper. But writing a book of short stories is in many ways harder than writing a novel. All the same, I’ve learned a lot by doing it. Short stories teach you how to build narrative tension quickly – they are the narrative equivalent of wind sprints.

I would never recommend that any writer follow my path – writing in so many genres (poetry, short fiction, long fiction, journalism, children’s books) has certainly taught me a lot, but it also results in a lot of partly-finished projects and a variety of editors who all want to know why I’m not working on their particular piece of the puzzle!

Q: Do you offer your students any specific guidance for writing poetry? Do you have favorite poets you recommend that they read?

DS: I recommend that they read anything they like, but since most people have trouble thinking of poetry they like I tend to recommend poets like Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, and Robert Frost who are immediately accessible and also extremely good at what they do. When I teach in-person seminars I read a poem aloud each week so that students can really hear the music. But mostly now I teach online, which doesn’t allow me to do that. It’s too bad, because I love reading poetry out loud and I adored having a captive audience! As for writing poetry, I ask my poor students to experiment with a variety of poetic techniques for creating music with words, and that includes writing in rhyme and meter. It isn’t easy, but I do want them to at least wake up the part of the brain that thinks about what words sound like when spoken.

Q: What inspires you? (Favorite authors, trip to the park, your child, etc…?) Who is on your keeper shelf?

DS: Being outside is the best inspiration — walks, swims, and bike rides are where I get most of my plotting done. But I also turn to the book shelf often to see how writers I admire handle particular problems. About a third of my bookcase is children’s books, and I also have a large collection of folk and fairy tales and a lot of poetry. For adult novels, my favorites range from Toni Morrison to Andrea Barrett, Louise Erdrich, Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, Angela Carter, Ann Patchett, Elizabeth McCracken, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, George Eliot, and, of course, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. If you can find the common thread, I’d be very curious to know what it is!

Q: There are so many rules for writers to follow (show, don’t tell; don’t use adverbs, watch the “ings,” etc…). Which if any do you break, and why?

DS: When I was a freshman in college, I was admitted into a poetry workshop led by a very well-known poet. On the first day of class, the poet wrote a series of rules up on the blackboard and asked his students to critique each other’s poems in terms of violations of rules 1 through 12. He seemed very surprised when I dropped the class, since it was difficult to get into. But even at the age of 18, I felt that teaching adherence to a set of rules was a fairly silly approach to creativity.

While all the writing workshop adages you mention have their uses, in the end a good writer simply does what works. Developing an instinct for recognizing what works is a writer’s primary mission, and if you rely on rules to tell you, you’ll never develop that deeper understanding. Because, of course, in the course of a novel you sometimes tell and you sometimes show and you sometimes do both and you sometimes do neither.

Q: Have you ever had writer’s block, and if so, do you have any tips on overcoming it?

DS: Twenty years as a journalist has taught me that inspiration comes after you get your ass in the chair and start writing, not before.

Q: What’s the best advice on writing you’ve ever received, and what advice would you pass along to aspiring novelists?

DS: Once, when I was a young newspaper reporter, my computer malfunctioned and a 2000 word story vanished into thin air about 4 hours before deadline. I called my editor to tell him and he said, “That’s too bad. Luckily you still have 4 hours. Take a short walk to clear your head and then write it again. It’ll be easier the second time.”

He was right. I made my deadline and I also learned that writing is something you just do, whether or not it’s easy or inspired or convenient. Nothing bad ever came of just sitting down and getting words on the page.

Q: What’s next for you?

DS: My next children’s book comes out in the spring of 2011. I’m working on several more books for children, as well as a book of short stories for adults and another project for adults that’s too inchoate to categorize yet.

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