Monday, February 26, 2007

An Interview With Ellen Jackson

We are thrilled and honored to feature children's author,
Ellen Jackson, for our first Shrinking Violet Interview. Ellen is a wildly talented, successful, prolific, and generous writer of both fiction and non-fiction for children. She is a "confirmed" (read official) introvert, and has a wicked sense of humor. Ellen is also an esteemed recipient of the Children's Literature Grand Slam Award, given only to those with starred reviews in Kirkus, Publisher's Weekly and School Library Journal. (All right, I just made this award up, but isn't a good idea?)

MH: Ellen, thanks for letting us take a look into your life. Let's start with your books. You have published between 50-60 children's books last count. What an amazing achievement!

EJ: CINDER EDNA is probably my best known book. Forthcoming books are THE CUPCAKE CRIME, my first early reader and a humorous mystery that incorporates information about the judicial system; ABRAHAM'S ANIMALS, a nonfiction picture book about Abraham Lincoln's relationships with animals; and THE SPACE SCIENTIST, my latest contribution to Houghton Mifflin's award-winning Scientists in the Field series, featuring Alex Filippenko, an amazing astronomer who studies supernovae and dark energy. For this last book, I went to Hawaii to watch Alex observe supernovae with the Keck telescope (which sits on the top of Mauna Kea). Tough assignment, but somebody had to do it!

MH: Do you work with an agent?

EJ: I’m not working full time with one right now, but I do have a part time agent, Kendra Marcus, with whom I sometimes work on special projects.

MH: How many years have you been writing and publishing?

EJ: My first book was published in 1981, but I’ve been writing since I was eight–poetry, a neighborhood newspaper, and a daily journal. I have a few excerpts of my childhood diary on my website (if you want to read how my brother and I used to play catch with an egg :-)

MH: How would your best friend (or spouse) complete this sentence?
"Ellen's idea of a perfect day is..."

EJ: Eggs Benedict for breakfast, a game of Frisbee with the dog on the beach, hiking in redwood country, a cozy conversation with a few friends in late afternoon, cinnamon raisin bagels and chocolate in front of a roaring fire in the evening, and snuggling with my hubby and a great book before bedtime. I guess you can tell I’m an introvert from reading that! Oh, and it wouldn’t hurt if I heard that one of my books had won a Caldecott too!

MH: How do you feel about the label "shy"? Does it fit for you? Or, would you describe yourself differently?

EJ: I don’t especially like the term "shy." I really am an introvert, in the Jungian sense. I like to play with ideas and stories in my head, pay attention to my intuition, and try to be as authentic a person as I can. There’s an inner resonance I’m looking for, and I need a certain amount of solitude to find it. That’s what keeps me sane and able to function in the world. It isn’t that I don’t like people–I do. And it’s not that I’m longing for a more public life and something called "shyness" is keeping me from it. It’s not like that at all.

MH: Where would you place yourself on the introversion/extroversion continuum?

EJ: I’m definitely a confirmed introvert, but I do enjoy getting together with a few friends–so I’m not an extreme introvert. But big gatherings and big parties are not my thing, although I can be in that kind of environment if it’s required. It’s just exhausting for me.

MJ: And, has that changed as you have gotten older, or stayed the same?

EJ: It’s more that I’m letting myself be the person I really am.

MH: What is your personal stand in the controversy regarding the nature of introversion? Were you born that way, or shaped by your environment?

EJ: I think a little of both. I was forced to take a speech class when I was 13, and that contributed to my reluctance to be in the spotlight for the next 20 years. But I think it’s also a deep-seated preference that’s part of my basic personality.

MH: How has being an introvert helped or hindered you in the writing business?

EJ: Well, as I mentioned above, I managed to avoid public speaking for the first half of my adult life. But then something happened that I couldn’t avoid. One of my early books got quite a bit of attention. One day, a publicist called and told me that she’d booked me on a television show at the urging of my editor. They wanted me to talk about my little picture book for–two hours! And it would be in front of a live audience. I sucked it up and said, "Oh, how wonderful!" Then promptly burst into tears when I got off the phone.

When I told my agent, she said, "Oh, don’t worry, Ellen. It’s nothing. Only about 500,000 people watch that show." Yikes! Obviously, my agent just didn’t get it (but then again most agents love the limelight). I had never done any public speaking. I guess you could say I was phobic, and now I’d have to get over it in front of half a million people.

So, I did the only thing I could. I de-conditioned myself little by little. I wrote a presentation, and arranged to give it in front of bigger and bigger audiences. First, I gave it to a friend, then a classroom of children, then a group of three classrooms with parents. By that time, I was much more relaxed. As it turned out, my television presentation was a great success and got good reviews from everyone who saw it. I even enjoyed it (as much as I could).

MH: What do you do to promote yourself and your books-- signings, school presentations, book tours, tours of your home, White House readings?

EJ: I’ve done most of those, but I have to make myself do them. It doesn’t come naturally to me. I’ve had bookstore signings, classroom readings and presentations, and I’ve even spoken at a few conferences. Picture book authors don’t often get invited on book tours. (But then I would have thought they don’t get invited to two hour television shows either.) And, so far, Laura Bush hasn’t called :-)

I do a lot of unconventional things to promote my books. For example, when my book THE SUMMER SOLSTICE came out. I searched the web for information about summer school programs all over the country. I sent individual emails to the teachers and administrators of those programs telling them about the book. It seemed to really impact sales. I also wrote to bridal salons telling them about my book HERE COME THE BRIDES, and generated quite a bit of interest that way. I went to a science fiction conference to promote my book on SETI (the scientific search for extraterrestrials), and I’ve held contests, sent out mailings to special interest groups, and put postcards advertising my book in with utility bills. To help promote my book on Abraham Lincoln, I made contact with the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and had six Lincoln scholars review it. Some even volunteered to write blurbs for the book.

MH: What promotional situations are you the most comfortable in? The least?

EJ: I’ve learned some creative ways of promoting my books on the web and that’s probably the most comfortable venue for me. I still don’t like speaking in front of large groups.

MH: Have you ever felt pressured (by your editor/agent/inner demons) to take on a bigger promotional role, perhaps one you were uncomfortable with? What happened?

EJ: One of my most uncomfortable experiences came when I was promoting my book CINDER EDNA, which is a spoof on Cinderella. I was booked on a phone-in radio show in another part of the country. I discovered, once I was actually on the air, that the host wasn’t interested in talking about the book. She wanted me to give relationship advice to people and asked me a lot of questions that were downright inappropriate. I handled it with good humor though, and I think it turned out all right. One of the things that I’ve learned is that no matter how embarrassing a situation is, two weeks later no one remembers it, and life goes on.

MH: Are there any promotional mistakes that you think you might have made along the way?

EJ: Yes, I had some booksignings that were disasters because I didn’t realize the kind of preparation needed. It’s important to find a way to attract people into the bookstore through a mailing, personal contact, or newspaper advertising.

MH: How much impact do you think an author's efforts can actually have on book sales?

EJ: I think it can have a huge impact. Obviously some authors are amazing at promoting themselves and their work. But, in the end, I think word of mouth is the most important promotional tool. When my book CINDER EDNA first came out, I was new to publishing and didn’t do much in the way of promotion. The publisher didn’t do any advertising that I know of. But (to date) that book has sold hundreds of thousands of hardcover copies, mostly by word of mouth.

MH: What percentage of your time is devoted to writing/reading/research and what percentage toward promoting your work?

EJ: It would be hard to give a percentage. Right now, I have a book deadline and I’m working day and night on writing, reading, and research. I’m also polishing up a couple of other manuscripts. When I do promotion, especially if it involves big gatherings, I just do that–no writing. So it seems I go from one mode to the other.

MH: How do you 'recharge' when you've been out in public too long?

EJ: I love to walk in the botanic garden, read, do a Sudoku, go to the zoo, make scones, or hang out with a special person.

MH: If you could be any extravert in the world for a day, who would
you like to be?

EJ: I like and admire lots of extraverts. I think it would be interesting to be Nancy Pelosi.

MH: How about favorite introverts? Who would you most like to dine with?

EJ: Probably the Dalai Lama. Is he an introvert? I’d love to have lunch with Annie Dillard, and I do think she’s an introvert.

MH: Any final promotional advice that you have for other introverted writers and artists?

EJ: Try to find your own way. There are so many things you can do to get attention for your book–the more unusual and creative, the better. You don’t necessarily have to do what everyone else is doing. "You owe it to all of us to get on with what you’re good at." (W. H. Auden)

MH: Ellen, thanks so much! Now, about the scones you mentioned you like to make to recharge. Quite coincidentally, I love to EAT scones when I need to recharge. Can I get your address? Perhaps I could just swing by...

by Mary Hershey


R.L. LaFevers said...


Thank you so much for being our first interview! You have so much terrific advice and a wonderful perspective. I especially liked your comments regarding the word shy. It is so true that introverts tend to have a lot going on in their own head, ideas, stories, intuition, etc.,and that we need solitude to find that deep resonance. SUCH a great insight!

Anonymous said...

I completely agree! There is a huge difference between introversion and shyness. No one who ever met me would accuse me of being shy, but I'm VERY introverted, and it does take effort for me to pry myself out of my house.

Thanks, Ellen, for your great comments... and thanks also to Robin and Mary for this whole endeavor.

Barbara Bietz said...

Hi Mary and Robin,

I was so excitied to come across this interview on your blog! I just reviewed CINDER EDNA in my column! What a coincidence. Here is the link if you or Ellen are interested.

I LOVE this blog :)