Teresa has written an MG novel and a picture book. She lives in New Jersey with her family.
Teresa Harris wrote her first novel (23 pages long and about a pair of time-traveling cats!) when she was in fifth grade. Since then, she has earned her Bachelor’s Degree in English from Columbia University, and an MFA in Writing for Children from Vermont College where she received numerous awards. Her novel, THE PERFECT PLACE, has been published by Clarion, and SUMMER JACKSON, her debut picture book, was published by HarperCollins. She also writes for a major brand licensor.
A former publisher, Teresa has now re-trained as a teacher.
When and how did you start writing?
I first started writing a lot in middle school, though sadly none of it was very good. In fact, what I was writing was a mish-mash of what I was reading at the time. So, imagine the Baby-Sitter’s Club members attending Sweet Valley High with the Sleepover Friends.
Can you remember the first book that made an impact on you? Who were your childhood storytelling heroes?
We read BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA and ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY in elementary school. These books, aside from being beautifully written, were the first books that I can remember evoking an emotional response in me. Reading them marked the first time I connected to fictional characters in such a way that their pain became mine. These were the first books that made me cry, and I remember marveling at the power books could have, a power I hadn’t known existed before.
For this reason, Katherine Paterson and Mildred Taylor were — and still are — my childhood storytelling heroes. I also loved Judy Blume and R.L. Stine. No one could make me laugh like Peter and Fudge, and only Stine could make me sleep with the lights on.
Can you talk us through the writing of your first book? What were the key moments?
I began writing my first middle-grade novel while a student at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I started it so many times. So, so many times, but I never got tired of it, because I loved my characters and I really wanted to tell their story the best way I could. By the time I finished Vermont College, I’d written 110 pages. Then, I was on my own. I had to develop my own writing schedule, with no college advisor to hold me accountable. That was scary, but I took it one day at a time, two pages a day, until at last I finished. Selling that novel a few months later was the best day of my life.
Was it hard to get an agent ? Can you talk us through the process?
I queried one agent right after I finished my novel. To this day, I have not heard from her. Acceptance, rejection, nothing. I like to think my novel excerpt stunned her speechless, but that’s probably not the case. I queried Sarah after I met her at a Vermont College alumni retreat. I liked her immediately, and queried her with the first three chapters of my novel when I got home. Sarah asked to see the rest, I sent it, and prepared myself for a long wait. But the long wait never came. Sarah called me two weeks later and told me she was interested in representing me. The rest, as they say, is history.
Describe your writing day. Where do you write? How do you organize your time? Where do you look for inspiration?
Organization has never been my strong point, so I just tell myself that I am going to write every day. Sometimes I start writing in the afternoon; sometimes I don’t do so until midnight. As long as I write, that’s all that matters.
Sometimes, if I’m feeling stuck, I’ll pluck a book off of my shelf for inspiration. If I’m having trouble with humor, I may reach for those good old Fudge books. For trouble with description, I may reach for a book by Katherine Paterson or Nancy Farmer, because they both do it so well. Of course, after reading their work, I’m immediately humbled, but also inspired enough to go and try to create my own great scenes.
Are there any tips you could give aspiring writers who are looking to get published?
Focus on your writing, not the sale. Always work on improving your writing as much as possible and the sale will come. Also, don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day of writing, or write something that you hate. We’re not surgeons; no one dies if we slip up.
Can you describe three aspects of writing craft that have been most important as you’ve developed as an author?
Finding my middle-grade voice was a huge triumph for me. Working with my editor has taught me a lot about tightening plot. It’s tempting to use everything in a novel — every plot line you’ve ever thought of since you started writing in middle school — but you can’t. You really can’t. There will be other books. Go ahead and save some plot for them. And, lastly, it sounds so Writing 101, but I’ve learned it’s really important to keep asking yourself, ‘What does my character want?’ Forgetting for a moment can leave you completely lost within your own novel, and novel no man’s land is not a fun place to be.
Which favorite authors would you invite to a dinner party? What fictional character do you wish you’d invented?
I would invite Rita Williams-Garcia and Jacqueline Woodson because I think they’re brilliant; Neal Shusterman because he’s hilarious; and Nancy Farmer because she’s so creative. I just want to pick her brain over free-range chicken and a side of mashed potatoes.
I wish I’d invented Gilly Hopkins (created by Katherine Paterson). That little girl is tops in my book.