As the daughter of Jane Yolen, Heidi E. Y. Stemple has big shoes to fill; and she does it wonderfully. I spent 4 days with Heidi at Jane Yolen’s picture book boot camp. Her humor and wit are rivaled only by her gourmet cooking skills. And owling with her is an experience I’ll never forget! I’m thrilled to interview Heidi on Writer’s Rumpus.
Kirsti Call: You took a circuitous route to writing. You were a private investigator, and a probation officer first. How did you finally decide to join the family business and how have you used your work experience in your writing?
Heidi E. Y. Stemple: I had no intention of being a writer. My passion was in criminal justice. I thought of joining the FBI after college, but, instead, I interviewed with the Department of Corrections in south FL and they hired me. I worked for about 3 years as a Probation/Parole Officer in Broward County before quitting to work as a private investigator. It wasn’t until I was pregnant with my daughter (who is now 20) that I gave in and started writing, mostly out of boredom because I was very sick during my pregnancy. My first published story was a mystery story about a little girl solving a murder to help a kind ghost move on in the afterworld.
In many of my books, you can see my love of criminal justice, criminology, and mystery solving. The narrator of the Unsolved Mysteries from History series (Mary Celeste, Roanoke: The Lost Colony, Salem Witch Trials, and The Wolf Girls) is a little girl who wants to be a detective when she grows up. If you read Bad Girls, it is very easy to see the connection between my writing and my love of crime. I even wrote a spy book (which was work for hire) which allowed me to, for an entire month, immerse myself in spy research and learn everything I could about the history of spycraft. Sometimes I miss working in criminal justice, but when you work as a writer, you get to learn about any subject that interests you.
KC: Of the books you have written, which is your favorite?
HS: That’s a very frequently asked question and I have to tell you the answer is always anti-climactic. Most writers won’t choose their favorite book because we love them all the same. Like our children. But, on any given day, we have favorites—the book that just came out, the book that just earned a royalty check, the book that just got an award or starred review…. So, right now, I am in love love love with You Nest Here With Me as it is brand new. Melissa Sweet’s illustrations are so beautiful, every single time I open the book, it’s like unwrapping the best birthday gift ever. Also, Animal Stories just made the ILA Teachers’ Choice List and Bad Girls just won the Magnolia Award. Next week, you could ask me the same question and I might have a different answer.
KC: You’ve co-authored many books with your mom. How does that work in real life?
HS: My mom is a pro in every sense of the word. She is tough and smart and a brilliant writer and editor. We work together all the time so we have an easy rhythm to collaboration. Our normal way of collaborating begins with an idea and we talk it out—often on long car rides—for a while until we have a direction. Notice I didn’t say ‘plot.’ That seems tighter than ‘direction’ and usually plot comes later WHILE we are writing. When we get to the real writing part, one of us will start and send it to the other via email or dropbox. Then we take turns polishing the other’s work and moving the action along. This goes on back and forth until we either finish the story or have to sit and chat about it some more—hashing and rehashing until we find the direction again. And, then we get back at it. We’re working on a story together right now like this. We had a friend, illustrator Hazel Mitchell, over at the house recently and she was showing us some of her art. One piece jumped out at both of us and we started talking about it. I think Hazel sat in the middle of us bobbing her head back and forth like watching a tennis match. We are not completely sure where the story is going or how we will get there, but, we are keeping an open mind and just writing it where it takes us.
On a project like Bad Girls or Animal Stories (written with both my brothers), we separate the subjects and each do the research and writing on those pieces. Then, when they all come together, someone (in both those cases it was me) reads the entire manuscript as a whole and does what I call a ‘story wash’—making sure it all has a similar feel to it. On those two books, though each piece may have a different author, they need to read seamlessly as a single book.
KC: What is your favorite part of being an author?
HS: I get to work in my pajamas.
KC: What is your least favorite part of being an author?
HS: The lack of regular paychecks.
I’m being silly AND honest with both those answers. Being a writer is hard work. But, it’s also fun. I love research but it is also one of the hardest parts of writing. Revision and rejection are both difficult but every writer I know is committed to putting out the best book possible. Rejection by a publisher, though never fun, means the book wasn’t meant to be there. And, revision, though time consuming, difficult, and sometimes irritating, makes any piece of writing better.
KC: We just finished reading Bad Girls, Sirens, Jezebels, Murderesses, and Other Female Villains at our house. It’s already sparked some fascinating homeschooling discussions and I adore the comic strips at the back where you and your mom debate whether the women are really bad, or just a victim of circumstance. How did you come up with the idea for both the topic and format?
HS: The idea for Bad Girls came from a conversation over lunch with editor/friend Judy O’Malley. She and my mom were talking about my love of shoes. Particularly, what my mom called my “bad girl shoes.” Judy said, “that sounds like the title of a book…” and we started throwing out ideas about what a book called Bad Girls would involve.
Almost from the very beginning, we had the idea to do marginalia with social commentary—the two of us talk like that in real life. But, our original idea was to have it text only. We were, I think, going to call it “Side Bar” like in court. As things do when you’re working with a great team (this book started with Judy O’Malley and finished up with Yolanda Scott—both brilliant editors), the idea for marginalia moved away from words only and morphed into the graphic panels. At first, my mom and I really told our opinions—keeping everything as close to the truth as possible. And, really, my mom IS a softy and I am more strict, but really, we can both, in many cases, see the good and bad in everyone. But, about half-way into the editing process, we realized how confusing it was and we changed our cartoon selves to come down on predictable sides of each argument–me for the prosecution and my mom for the defense. It made it much easier for the reader to follow.
Some things are close to real life situations, for example, I DID go stay at the Lizzie Bordon Bed and Breakfast (though, with my daughters, not my mom). And, other things are totally made up. I enjoy reading on the beach, but you would never find my mom there.
KC: We love Owl Moon at our house. How did you feel when it was published and there was an actual book about you and your dad owling?
HY: Owl Moon is, of course, my favorite book. I was in college when it was published, so, I was off doing my own thing. When it won the Caldecott, my dad and I were actually on a birding trip together in Ecuador on our way to the Galapagos Islands. Though my dad died 9 years ago, owling is, very much, still part of my life. He taught me to call and every year, I take his maps and his recordings and go count owls for the Audubon Christmas Bird Count. My crew and I called down 67 owls in one night on our best year.
KC: What advice would you give aspiring authors?
HS: Do your homework—please don’t show up and think you can write a picture book if you don’t know the market, the process, and the format. Once every month or so, I like to go to a bookstore and pull down all the new picture books and sit and read them all. Join SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). And, please don’t assume that if you just had the time, you’d like to be an author. It’s a job that takes time, patience, talent, and a lot of hard work. Yes, time is on that list, but, if you think it’s just a matter of having time, you are mistaken. Work hard. Read everything you write aloud. Listen to editors and learn to love revision.
KC: What is the best response you’ve gotten to one of your books or school visits?
HS: I am so energized by school visits. It’s where you really get to see how your books impact child readers. But, what I love most is what kids take away from an author visit. Recently, a girl wrote this (spelling mistakes are hers): “You inspired me to write alot more than I use to. I am going to write like a mad woman.”
And, really, what could possibly be better than that?
KC: Thank you for sharing your wit and wisdom with us, Heidi!
Heidi didn’t want to be a writer when she grew up. In fact, after she graduated from college, she became a probation officer in Florida. It wasn’t until she was 28 years old that she gave in and joined the family business, publishing her first short story in a book called Famous Writers and Their Kids Write Spooky Stories. The famous writer was her mom, author Jane Yolen. Since then, she has published more than a dozen books and numerous short stories and poems, mostly for children.
Heidi, her two daughters, her mom, and a couple cats live in Massachusetts on a big old farm with two houses.