Thursday, May 7, 2009

An interview with Ellen Potter, creator of the Olivia Kidney books

A few months ago I read the first Olivia Kidney book, and I really enjoyed the experience. The book is very different, full of quirky characters, bizarre encounters, and strange adventures. Olivia herself is a tough little person who has an uncommon gift, and who has been dealt some very unfortunate cards in her short life. Wanting to better understand where Olivia Kidney came from, I decided to interview Olivia's creator, Ellen Potter.

Marya: The characters in “Olivia Kidney” are almost all very strange indeed. What prompted you to make them this way?
Ellen: You want to know the funny thing? Nearly every character in Olivia Kidney is very loosely based on a people I knew as a kid, growing up in an apartment building in NYC. There really was a woman who had a “farm” in her apartment, with chicken and rabbits (it was the adoption of a rooster that was her undoing). There was a family with eleven children, all of them fabulously freckled. The frightening Sidi was based on my friend’s tall and intimidating mother who kept her apartment roasting hot for her beloved plants. And as for the vicious but tiny pirate Master Clive, there was a little man who lived in the building—no taller than the average nine-year-old—who was always so dapperly dressed and adorable that as a child I imagined he must be deeply sinister. I’m still not convinced that he wasn’t.

Marya: Though she does not fully understand it, Olivia is grieving the death of her brother. Why did you add this component to what is a mostly funny book? El;len: It wasn’t a conscious decision. I almost never know what’s going to happen to my characters when I first start a book. Instead, I begin with a character that interests me—in Olivia’s case I admired her dry sense of humor and her aura of self-possession—and then I “stalk” them to find out what they are made of. It’s a fairly terrifying way to write since I never know what’s going to happen next.
In the first chapter of Olivia Kidney, Olivia’s book on séances literally fell out of her knapsack. It sounds disingenuous to say that I had nothing to do with it, but honestly, the thing just appeared and I was surprised to see it. “Oh, that’s interesting,” I said to myself, “Olivia must have a dead person she wants to contact. Now who could that be?” At first I thought it might be her mother. In fact, I began to steer the story in that direction, but Olivia let me know I was wrong via a bad case of writer’s block. Once I let go of my stranglehold on the story, I realized it was her much-loved older brother who had died. And yes, apart from this tragedy the story is pretty humorous, but as my grandmother liked to say, “If you laugh in the morning, you’re going to cry at night.”

Marya: Olivia encounters a ghost is very matter of fact – and not at all spooky – way. Why did you choose to make the ghost so normal?
Ellen: I’m glad that you didn’t find Branwell at all spooky. That makes sense since he doesn’t know he is a ghost at first. In fact, I didn’t know he was a ghost at first either. That was another piece of the story that took me by surprise. I just figured Branwell was the good-natured older brother of the Biffmeyer gang. I didn’t realize he was a ghost until nearly halfway through the book, when his “mother” didn’t seem to be able to hear him. Once I realized his secret I did have to backtrack in the story to make him more invisible to everyone except Olivia.
The other reason I wanted to keep Branwell un-spooky is that most people I know who have seen a ghost say that it was not a scary experience at all. Okay, I’ll fess up, and hopefully your readers won’t think I’m a crackpot: Years ago, I also saw a ghost. While I was in college, I lived in the basement room of an old house. One night I woke up and saw a face on my wall, looking at me. Then it vanished. It sounds very creepy when I describe it, but in fact it felt perfectly natural and not at all spooky—and believe me, I’m a mega-chicken!
As the late Hans Holzer, a famous ghost-hunter, once said, “After all, a ghost is nothing more than a human being in trouble.” (I’m doing an awful lot of quoting of deceased people in this interview)

Marya: The stories that are woven together in the book are quite involved. How did you keep track of all the threads so that you could give your readers a clean conclusion?
Ellen: I’m a big fan of “strange connection” stories. I love hearing about couples who met in tennis camp when they were 8, and then lost track of each other until someone set them up on a blind date twenty years later. Or twins who were separated at birth and wound up stuck in a busted elevator together. Stories like that make me want to pay more attention to everything and everybody.
Since my mind naturally seeks connections, I think I was hyper-attuned to possible ties between Olivia’s neighbors. Still, the story threads seemed to connect themselves, and I only realized how these people’s lives intersected a few pages before the actual revelation. For instance, I had no idea who the mysterious passenger was on the SS Rosenquist until the old lady next door told her story to Olivia’s father. Of course, once these connections revealed themselves I did have to go back and edit previous sections to make it all seamless, but I was often surprised at how little editing needed to be done. The connections were there all along, I just never noticed them. The added bonus of working this way is that I’m not telegraphing anything to my readers, since I’m pretty clueless myself, so they can be genuinely shocked by what happens in the story.

Marya: You give a lot of classes and workshops. What do you like about doing this work?
Ellen: I’m always astounded by how many people—both kids and adults—want to write. I’m also astounded at how many of these same people feel like they don’t have the time or they’re not smart enough or creative enough. I love being able to prove them wrong in these workshops.

Marya: What do you enjoy about visiting classrooms?
Ellen: Classroom visits are simply one of the great perks of being a children’s book author. What’s more fun than walking into a room filled with a hundred people who are really happy to meet you, and are not too inhibited to screech?
During these visits, I try to convey that the act of writing is at once magical and every-dayish. Yes, writing can be very witchy, and you have moments where you feel you are connecting to the divine or whatever you want to call it. But that doesn’t mean you need to be a “sensitive genius” in order to be a professional writer. You only have to be curious and interested and as tenacious as a pit bull. Also, you have to not mind waiting tables for several years.
My favorite part of classroom visits is always the question-and-answer session. I especially love the totally random questions like, “If you had a dwarf hamster, and the hamster had a funny black spot on its ear, what would you name him?” Or the ever popular question that makes all the teachers cringe with mortification: “So um, how much money do you make?”

Marya: You have a busy life. What kinds of books do you like to read when you have a little time to yourself?
Ellen: I keep trying to read books for grown-ups, I really do. But they are often so relentlessly sad that I put them down and pick up my beloved children’s books instead. Of course, some of the children’s books are sad too but at least the characters seem to have some fun before the sad parts come along.
Lately, I’ve enjoyed Gilda Joyce, Psychic Investigator by Jennifer Allison and Anne Mazer’s Sister Magic series. And ok, I’ll admit it . . . the Twilight series too. I especially love dead authors like E. Nesbit’s, Ellen Raskin, and Edward Eager.

Marya: Do you write every day?
Yes, I absolutely write every day. Then I run on the treadmill for an hour, and after that I eat a hardboiled egg with whole-grain toast. Then I meditate on the wisdom of living in the sacred present.
Okay, I exaggerate. It may be closer to the truth to say . . .
I try and write every day, but sometimes I just don’t feel like it so I don’t.
Also, I occasionally walk on the treadmill for about 15 minutes at a pace that a senior citizen would find snoozy. Then I eat a hard-boiled egg chased by a handful of whatever cookies are in the cabinet. After that I meditate on things I can worry about. Then I call my husband and he tells me not to worry about those things.
Really, though, it is best to write every day if you possibly can. I think it’s a lot like a relationship with a friend. When you talk to that friend every day, you are so entrenched in their world that the conversation is instantly easy and flowing. However, if you wait several weeks, or months, to talk to that friend, there is going to be a “catching-up” period that lacks the flow of the every-day conversation. It might feel awkward until you can get back into the groove, and by the time the groove is back your friend might have to leave to get her sofa re-stuffed.
That’s why writers should write every day if they possibly can.
Marya: What did you like to read when you were Olivia Kidney’s age?
Ellen: I was a maniacal reader when I was a kid. Some of my favorite books were Harriet the Spy, A Wrinkle in Time, The Secret Garden, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And when no books were available I read walkie-talkie instructions, the back of Cocoa Puff boxes, and the washing instruction tag on my scarf.

What a delightful interview. You can find out more about Ellen on her website.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is interview is a little complicated (to me, anyway).