Sunday, September 21, 2008

Blog Book Tour - Carmela D'Amico

I just got back from seeing the new baby elephant at the zoo in Portland, Oregon, and let me tell you he is one of the sweetest and funniest babies I have ever seen. Of course I am partial to elephants, and I therefore leapt at the chance when I was invited to interview Carmela D'Amico who created, with her illustrator husband, the wonderful Ella the Elephant books.

1. What inspired you to make your Ella character an elephant?
I tend to rely a lot on my subconscious for inspiration. Often when I'm working, I'll recline and close my eyes and just daydream for a while and simply observe whatever turns up. I had been toying with the idea of a little girl starting at a new school and figuring out what her challenges would be. One morning, I stopped to daydream and the image of an elephant popped into my mind, along with the title, "Ella the Elegant Elephant". I've always loved elephants and so does my daughter, Olivia, so it just felt right. The story took off from there.
2. What kinds of messages do you think your Ella books convey to their young readers?
Because I read a lot to my daughter, who was two when I wrote the first Ella book, I noticed that many of the girl characters in picture books were sort of sassy or even snobby as a means of being entertaining. There are many exceptions, of course! But I really wanted to capture a spirit that was genuinely sweet while also being courageous and adventurous. I hope that the message of the Ella books is always one that urges children to be true to themselves but never at the expense of being unkind.

3. The Ella books describe, with a little charming embellishment, the kinds of adventures and problems any child might have. Did you incorporate your own childhood experiences and fears into the books?
It's funny. I didn't used to think so until my Aunt said after reading the first Ella book, "Oh, I remember Belinda. She was so mean to you!" Well, the name of the girl who had teased me relentlessly in 1st grade was actually Brenda, but I had honestly blocked her out until my Aunt brought her up. As a child, I was very shy and kind of odd so I did get teased quite a bit, which I'm sure helped to inform the first book. I also often desired to be responsible and self-sufficient, which is a prevalent theme of the subsequent Ella books.

4. Does working with your husband on the Ella books present new challenges for you?
It did at first, but less so, now, mainly because I've gained more experience with collaborating. Steve has been a designer for many years and often has to go back and forth with a client to reach a place where everyone is happy. Writing is a solitary art. I had never been in a position where I'd had to collaborate before. If he didn't like the way I'd written something, I'd tend to take it personally, which would upset him, and next thing I knew, we wouldn't be getting along and I would be wondering why. The challenge of putting on my "work hat" when doing a book with Steve was tricky for me at first, but I ended up learning a lot about him, about myself and the process of creative collaboration.

5.Do you discuss the illustrations with your husband before he begins drawing?
Yes, I do. In fact, he jokingly calls me his "art director". However, once I express to him what I'd like to see happening visually, he does his own thing, which I'm normally very pleased with.

6. Are there going to be more Ella books or are you going to branch out in a new direction?
We may do more Ella books; I've written another one. But, at the moment we're exploring a new character we're both excited about.

7. You have done a lot of other kinds of writing in addition to writing the Ella books. What made you want to write children’s books?
I have wanted to write children's books ever since I was child. Funnily, on one of Steve and my first dates, we discussed our mutual love of children's literature. Once I had my daughter – and with my husband being an illustrator – it seemed like an avenue I simply had to explore.

8. What was your favorite picture book when you were a child, and have you shared this book with your daughter?
My favorite picture book was "Thidwick the Bighearted Moose" by Dr. Seuss. No matter how many times I read it, my heart would go out to Thidwick and I'd feel such satisfaction at the end when he finally gets rid of his pesky guests. I have read it to my daughter, but she thinks it's just okay. My favorite children's book that isn't a picture book was "Charlotte's Web". Olivia learned to read by having me read that book (the unabridged version) to her, again and again, when she was four. So it balances out!

9. Are you the kind of author who carries around a notebook to scribble down ideas and thoughts as you go about your day?
I sometimes feel that I should carry a notebook with me but I don't. I write every day and when I write I'm in total isolation. When I "go about my day" doing things around the house or running errands, I'm often chatting on the phone or with the people in my neighborhood. I'm pretty social for a writer. And I learn a lot from my day-to-day interactions. I should note, however, that during much of my "writing time" I'm not actually writing but pondering and scribbling notes. I'm fascinated by how every writer's process is different.

10. Do you know from the beginning how stories are going to develop and conclude, or is that something that unfolds as you work?
It varies. Sometimes I think I know how a story will develop and conclude and then I'm taken by surprise when it takes off in a different direction; other times it kind of chugs along as planned. But usually I begin with a mental smattering of "snapshots" that I endeavor to arrange into a well-balanced collage. I tend to "see" the stories I will write, meaning they come to me first in pictures rather than in words. I then set out to write a story that elaborates on these scenes and links them together and gives a voice to the individual characters.

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