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Cher-y-lynne {sher-uhl-lin} –noun 1. One who formerly sold and recommended children’s books at a bookstore; a specialist in young adult, middle grade, and picture books. 2. A para-educator at a middle school. 3. A struggling young adult writer. 4. A lover of chocolate and popcorn. Archaic: An Audiology and Speech Language Pathology major at Brigham Young University. Questions? Suggestions? Books you'd like me to review? E-mail me at cherylynne1 (at) gmail (dot) com.
This is a blog for my ranting, raving, and occasionally brilliant opinions. You have been warned. Enter at your own risk.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Author Interview: Claudia Mills

Congratulations to all of our winners! I will be contacting you within the next couple of weeks. But for right now, I would like to post an interview I conducted with the brilliant Claudia Mills, who I am honored to assist at this year's Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers Conference in Sandy, Utah.

Claudia has a Ph.D in philosophy from Princeton and is a professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder. She is the mother of two boys, and has written over 40 books for children. And all of her books have been written between 5 and 7 in the morning with a mug of Swiss Miss at her side. She is one of the most brilliant and genuine people I have ever had the privilege to meet.

But enough of me. Read the interview so you can fall in love with her yourself.

Could you tell us the story of your first rejection letter?

It came in seventh grade. I had written a love poem to my first sort-of boyfriend, and I gave it to him. Shortly thereafter, he broke up with me, and I happened to see a list he had written of things he wanted in a girlfriend: “Not blond. Not emotional. Does not write poetry.” So I count that as rejection letter number one. After that there were too many to remember, all run together in my memory, but then came the one I remember best. I was in my mid-20s, working in NYC as a secretary/editorial assistant at Four Winds Press/Scholastic. Weary of uninformative standard rejection slips from all the other New York publishers, I decided to try sending one of my manuscripts to my own house, under a pseudonym, so I would have a ringside seat to watch the proceedings. Like all my other submissions, it was rejected. But this time I was the one who had to type the rejection letter.

You have a Ph.D in philosophy from Princeton, which is, to say the very least, no easy feat. How do you feel your educational background has affected your writing?
Well, it really hasn’t affected it in the way most people, including me, would have expected. If I heard that some children’s book writer had a Ph.D. in philosophy, I would expect that person to write high fantasy, epic struggles between the forces of good and evil, each page studded with nuggets of deep philosophical wisdom. I don’t write that kind of book. I write books like 7 x 9 = Trouble!, where a third grade boy is struggling against . . . the times tables. Still, in all my books I care about the small, central truth about the universe that my character discovers by the end of the story. And writing an opus as major as a doctoral dissertation made me able to believe that however daunting the writing task, if you just keep writing one page, and then another, and then another, at some point it really will get done.

Since you work basically two full-time jobs (as a professor at the University of Colorado and the mother of two boys), your writing time must be very limited, yet you manage to produce a steady stream of novels. How do you manage to maximize the writing time you have so that it's as productive as possible?
You cannot allow yourself to spend very much of your precious writing time on delay, denial, and self-doubt. It took me twelve years to write my dissertation, and of that entire span of time, literally two months was taken up with actual writing. The rest was spent telling myself I couldn’t do it, that it was impossible and hopeless, that it would never be finished, that I would go to my grave with the dissertation undone – including weekly visits to a therapist who specialized in working with people who couldn’t finish their dissertations, etc. Now when I write my books, that’s the part of the writing process I try to eliminate. Well, yes, but how? For me, what helps most is what I call “trusting the process,” which also means “trusting my writing group friends.” I just write the chapter, and then let them tell me whether it’s working or not. I heard one grownup-book author give a talk, and he told the audience that he had revised one scene of his book 88 times. The audience gasped with awe. I was unimpressed. “Don’t you have a writing group?” I asked him. “Well, no,” he said. “Well, they would have saved you 80 of those revisions,” I told him. And I was right.

I've heard that you write with a pen and notepad instead of on a computer. What does this do for your writing process?

This is going to sound a bit strange, but it’s almost as if my pen is a magic wand. Truly, I don’t think about my writing when I’m not actually doing it; when I sit down to write each day, I don’t have the unfolding scene planned out in any detail more than, e.g. “Sierra confronts her father” or “Second encounter with Luke.” Everything that happens in the book happens only as I actually write it. And it’s my pen that makes it happen. I don’t think it would happen on the computer. It doesn’t have that same magic power. I also love the coziness of curling up with pad and paper on the couch. Computers don’t seem as cozy.

You started writing when you were very young, and never stopped. What do you feel are some of the best strategies for inspiring children to write?

I think the two things children need to be inspired to write are opportunity and encouragement. I was lucky enough to have parents and teachers who prioritized writing and who praised me for my early successes at it. I was going to leave my answer at that, but then yesterday I saw the best strategy for inspiring children to write that I have ever seen in my whole entire life. While I was meeting with a fellow writer at a local café, in came an entire class of third graders, wearing their idea of beatnik garb (tie-dye shirts, hippie beads), and carrying notebooks. I inquired: it was a third grade class trip from a nearby elementary school – the kids were there to sit in the café, with their hot chocolate and croissants, and write poetry. And for the next hour, that’s what they proceeded to do. What child in that classroom would NOT be inspired to write?

You manage to jump effortlessly from writing for one age group to writing for the next. How do you deal with the difficulties of writing for different age groups?

I have the same process and approach in writing for any age group. I think we’re all the same, really, whatever our age. When I teach freshmen at the university, I tell myself, they’re just big fifth graders. And graduate students are just VERY big fifth graders. And kindergartners are just very little fifth graders, or maybe fifth graders in the making. At any age, we want to connect with characters we care about, and with a story that matters to us because it matters to them. And I think we also want to come to see the world just a little bit differently from how we saw it before we began reading.

What is your very favorite recent read in middle grade novels?

Well, my favorite author in the world, Carol Lynch Williams, has been mainly writing YA lately, so this isn’t a recent book of hers, but I will always love If I Forget, You Remember for its dazzling ability to blend hilarity and heartbreak on the same page, sometimes even in the same sentence. I thought last year’s Newbery, When You Reach Me, was the best Newbery in years . And I’m a huge fan of Jeanne Birdsall’s Penderwicks series.


  1. Tough first rejection! Wow, it sounds like you juggle a lot. I like the pen/magic wand analogy. Great interview!

  2. I arrived at your blog in a rather roundabout way. I'm glad. I feel rather lame confessing this to a stranger, but I recently decided to sit down and finally write the story that's been in my head for years. It felt extremely nice to read about the practical, hopeful, "page by page" process of another writer. Thanks for posting the interview!

  3. Cherylynne, what a great interview! I loved Claudia's rejection letters, especially the one she had to write herself. I also loved seeing how a busy mom finds time to write. Thanks for sharing it!