In Part 3 of my interview with Mary Downing Hahn, the acclaimed children’s author shares her thoughts on the process of writing and how publishing has changed in the more than three decades she’s been writing. If you missed them, get caught up with Part 1 and Part 2.
On the Process of Writing and Publishing
I’ve read many of your books. I read a lot of them when I was growing up, read and re-read, and then read several as I was preparing for this interview, and I was wondering what it is, so many of them—I think all of them that I have read—really focus on that 12ish age. What is it about that age that you so enjoy writing?
I think it’s partly because I remember how difficult 12 and 13 were. They were really hard years. I was tall, skinny, and I was very immature. Very unsure of myself. I still wanted to be a kid. I didn’t want to grow up. I didn’t want to be a teenager. I didn’t want to have a figure. … So all my friends were growing up faster than I was and I was very aware of not being sure of who I was anymore, because I wasn’t a kid but I wasn’t really a teenager. At 12 and 13 you aren’t, you’re just kind of in this nowhere land. … I think a lot of times I’m just drawn to write about kids who are kind of on the fringes of things, not quite sure who they are, what they want to do. … I think that’s what leads me to 12-year-olds. They’re at that cusp. There are so many ways they can go.
How long did it take you to write your first book?
I think I worked on it for about a year before I got to a point where I just didn’t know what else to do with it. I’d done a lot of writing and re-writing. It was just really hard for me then because I had a manual typewriter and I’d never taken typing because of course it was so boring. I’ve often thought that was probably a big mistake. I could probably write much faster now. I’d probably have written twice as many books if I’d taken typing in high school. …
So I made as clean a copy of it as I could with my horrible typing skills, and I got a book out of the library, which was pretty convenient since I was right there, in fact I didn’t even get it out, it was a reference book, Writer’s Marketplace, comes out every year. And I looked in the back to find the addresses of people who published children’s books, the names of the editors, and I tried to think of ones that published books that I liked and then I thought that maybe they’d like my book. Well, I made a lot of mistakes. I kept getting rejected. They’d send it back to me and I’d just put it in an envelope and send it to somebody else. …
So finally it ended up on Jim Giblin’s desk at Clarion. That was the beginning of my relationship with Jim. He’s been my editor all these years, every book, Jim’s been my editor. I’m in my 70s now, he’s in his 80s, but we’re still struggling along. But that was the beginning. And how did I know how much it was going to change my whole life to get that first book published. He made me re-write it seven times before he accepted it. I asked him once, “Would you have time to do that now?” This was probably about 15, 20 years ago when he was still editing full-time before he decided to start just doing consulting. And he said no. He said the whole shift in publishing away from taking your time with a book and nursing authors along and helping them to reach their potential has been replaced by how many copies you can sell. You can’t even get a book published unless the marketing team approves it. The editor has to make a pitch to the marketing team. That’s just really shocking to me.
Yeah, that actually was one of my other questions was how have you seen children’s publishing change over the years?
That’s how. And I’ve been lucky because I’ve been protected against that working with Clarion and Jim all my life. Clarion is a wonderful company to work for and I found it incidentally, you know, I just stumbled on it. And that was the luckiest thing in my life, that when he sent that manuscript back with all the queries and suggestions and he sent out a lot of critiques of other people who’d read it, I felt really discouraged. I thought that there’s so much wrong with it that it can’t be any good. And I felt like just throwing it in the trashcan. [I] said how can he say I write well if there’s so many mistakes in it? And then I thought, well, he’s the only person who’s ever really given me a personal response, you should pay attention to what he’s saying. So right then and there I made the decision that changed everything. Because I’ve talked to people who got letters like that and just said ‘no, that’s too much work’ or ‘I can’t do that’ or ‘I’ll never get it right’ and I said to that but you don’t get that kind of a letter from an editor unless he’s really interested.
I know you just had the new book come out. Are you working on anything now?
I am, actually. In fact it’s already been accepted. It’ll probably come out next fall. It’s called Took. It’s kind of a folk tale story. Kind of a ghost story, kind of not; it’s not really a ghost story. It’s more like a folk tale with scary elements. I think I’m done with the re-writing until the copy editor gets ahold of it. That’s the job I hate the most, when the copy editor gets ahold of it and comes back with all these mistakes that I’ve made. “I don’t think this is a mistake.”
I’m working on my first novel now and what’s struck me is that it’s been very lonely. It’s a lonely process.
Oh, it’s a very lonely process. In some ways it’s harder for me now than it was before. You’d think you’d get used to it but I find myself getting restless at the computer much sooner than I used to. I think it’s partly because I’m older and I’m more aware of sitting still and getting stiff and wanting to get up and move around. But it is. I tell kids that sometimes when they want to know what it’s like to be a writer, I say, “Well, you have to be able to spend a lot of time to yourself. You have to not mind that.”
I’d like to thank Mary Downing Hahn again for taking the time to meet with me and answer so many questions for me and our readers. I can’t wait to see what she writes next!