Debbie Dunn

Author Interview

When and how did you start writing?
Drawing, painting, writing—being creative—was something others did. The arts were intimidating, I became a computer scientist.

About 12 years ago, I took an art class on creating a children’s books and needed text to illustrate. I spent significant time piddling around with the words for that book and fell in love with the process of writing.

Can you remember the first book that made an impact on you? Who were your childhood storytelling heroes?

I will never stop loving picture books. Picture books that introduced me to universal truths were the most impactful. I appreciated the simplicity of Joan Walsh Anglund’s A FRIEND IS SOMEONE WHO LIKES YOU and still read my tattered copy.

The Man Who Wouldn’t Wash His Dishes by Phyllis Krasilovsky and Barbara Cooney is both practical and genius. “One night he came home hungrier than usual, so he made himself a big, big supper. It was a very good supper (he liked to cook and could make good things to eat), but there was so much of it that he grew very, very tired by the time he finished. He just sat in his chair, as full as he could be, and decided he'd leave the dishes in the sink till the next night, and then he would wash them all at once.” Perhaps, tonight, I should leave my copy jackknifed beside my sink of dirty dishes?

E.L. Konigsburg’s is a storytelling superhero and needs a cape. I am not sure how many times I read FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER. I think the book reminded me of my grandfather. Sundays, my grandfather and I would roam the Metropolitan Museum of Art, then head to the basement of the museum or Central Park to eat bologna sandwiches and end up at the mothership, Barnes and Noble, on Fifth. I just knew my grandfather and I could live in that museum and then I found a book where two kids did just that.

Can you talk us through the writing of your first book? What were the key moments?

My thesis for Vermont College’s MFA in Writing for Children program included three nonfiction picture book manuscripts and part of a novel.

The characters in these nonfiction books had fascinating accomplishments and I wanted to share all of their triumphs. However, holding on tight to all of their achievements was diluting the heart of my story. When my friend and fellow graduate Tami Brown and I tackled the true story of a team of women who programmed the first computer we combed through dozens of facts and details to find that heart and bring the story of these heroic women to life.

Finding that honest thread for a picture book, or any book for that matter, is a crucial moment. Discovering that nugget can be tricky, but it is pure gold and satisfaction once you do find it.

Was it hard to get an agent? Can you talk us through the process?

I met Sarah Davies at a Vermont College alumni event. Sarah was a speaker at the alumni mini-residency presenting a state of the union about the children’s book publishing industry. I always imagined there would be music playing in the background when I saw my agent for the first time. Alas no music, but it was magical to talk to someone who shared the same enthusiasm that Tami and I had for our new picture book manuscript.

Describe your writing day. Where do you write? How do you organize your time? Where do you look for inspiration?

If I am working on plot, I prefer the University of Texas PCL Library 5th floor: total silence. If I am researching, I have to be in my home office with two large computer screens and it looks like command central. If I am writing, I like to be at a coffee shop or bookstore. People come and go at the coffee shops and bookstores, but it feels good to have folks around.
My time is organized around tennis matches in chunks of three hours at a time.

I find inspiration in the news, there are so many interesting people out there doing fascinating things.

Are there any tips you could give aspiring writers who are looking to get published?

Read, read, read. Analyze what you enjoy reading and try to see why you gravitate towards a certain book or story. Read once for pleasure, but if a story moves you, read it again to identify the appeal.

Spend as much time on craft as possible.

Can you describe three aspects of writing craft that have been most important as you've developed as an author?

Plotting for both novels and picture books. Once I have determined what is driving my character, then I can go into the plotting stage. To help with plot, I have taken courses and read books. I don’t over plot, but I don’t want to be a ship without a rudder.

Studying writing in an MFA program was crucial in specific ways: it taught me to go deep and not stay on the surface of a story, it gave me a writing community, and an understanding of the industry through the lens of many authors. I was also able to see the agents and editors side of the industry by serving on the board of the Writer’s League of Texas and serving as Regional Advisor for Austin’s SCBWI. Seeing the business from both ends was an education.

As mentioned before, reading for technique and teasing out why I find a story engaging is helpful for me, but also reading and realizing why I am not enjoying a piece can be just as informative.

Which favourite authors would you invite to a dinner party? Which fictional character do you wish you'd invented?

I would invite Ian Falconer, Susan Meddaugh, Dr. Seuss (aka Theodor Seuss Geisel) and Kevin Henkes and we would rollick with laughter because they all have a great sense of humor that is relatable to both children and adults.

I wish I would have invented E.B. White’s Charlotte A. Cavatica, otherwise known as Charlotte from CHARLOTTE’S WEB. And Roald Dahl’s Charlie from CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. Was that greedy to choose two characters?