An Interview with Andrea Beaty

You may know Andrea Beaty as the creator of funny / clever / happy-making picture books such as:


Or, you may know Andrea Beaty as one of the Three Silly Chicks. Well, you’re about to get to know Andrea a whole lot better, as she joins me in cyberland for an interview to discuss her latest book, Cicada Summer, and a whole lot of other things besides.

Welcome Andrea!

What inspires you (situations / works of art / places / foods / people)?
Nature inspires me. I spent a lot of my childhood outside and I find that being outside, even now, clears my head and lets my ideas go crazy. I also supplement my nature inspiration with heaps of coffee and chocolate.

Is your writing space a place of loveliness? Describe where you work.
I have a great office in my basement. Alas, I never can get it quite straightened before the next wave of papers rolls through and it looks like chaos again. But I don’t mind. I tend to fill my space with goofy things like my growing collection of Archie McPhee Action Figures and Doctor Who junk and goofy hats. In the summer, I often move to my “Summer Studio.” (I take my laptop to the camper and work out there until the kids find me and make me cook for them!)

What books do you wish you had not yet read, so that you could experience the pleasure of reading them now for the first time?
That would be pretty much every book I’ve ever loved. It’s such a thrill to fall in love with a book. I think that’s the great thing about kids reading anything they want. It doesn’t matter if they experience that thrill reading a Nancy Drew mystery or Captain Underpants or a graphic novel or Little Women or War and Peace. The literary quality of the book isn’t the important thing. It’s the falling in love part that matters. Once they’ve experienced it, I think they’ll spend the rest of their lives trying to have that experience again and again. And they’ll discover better and better books along the way.

If you could live inside a kids’ book, which book would you choose?
I’d pick House at Pooh Corner. It’s such a joy. I love all the characters and their adventures. They are so caring and very, very funny. Wouldn’t it be grand to spend a day playing Pooh Sticks?

How does blogging about kids’ lit influence your writing?
On the negative side, it takes time away from writing. Of course, this is also part of its charm. It’s an easy way to play in the kidlit world without actually doing what I ought to be doing—which is writing! On the plus side, it introduces me to lots of fantastic people who are as passionate about kids’ books as I am. They, in turn, introduce me to so many new titles that might slip past without my notice. Reading great books is always helpful to a writer!

Plus, blogging as one of the Three Silly Chicks is just plain fun. Julia Durango and Carolyn Crimi just crack me up!

How does your creative process for writing a picture book compare to your process for writing a novel?
My experience writing Cicada Summer was very strange. The book came to me in full-formed scenes which I wrote down. However, they were out of sequence. I had no idea who the characters were or if there was a storyline that connected the scenes. I hoped there would be and in the end, there was. It was rather spooky, really. I liken it to using a telescope to examine an elephant at very close range. I saw only body parts and hoped and against hope that there was a torso connecting that trunk with the tail!

Writing a novel is a bit like being possessed. There are lots of voices in my head and they won’t go away until I figure out what they want. Unfortunately, that takes months and months, so by the end of the process, I’m TIRED!

On the other hand, I tend to be a very fast picture book writer. Doctor Ted and When Giants Come to Play each took a day to write. Rhyming picture books might take a few weeks because they are more technical in terms of rhythm and word choice. Either way, I can write a picture book and be done with it long before the project has time to get on my nerves. I’m still in love with the story when I’m done with it.

I like to say that writing prose picture books is about writing poetry. Writing rhyming picture books is like writing a TV jingle. Writing a novel is like wearing a tinfoil hat that picks up transmissions from disembodied voices who tell you to do things. (The voices told me to write that.)

Name a picture book you wish you’d written.
I’ll name several: Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, Click, Clack Moo!, Scaredy Squirrel, Miss Spider’s Tea Party, and my latest absolute favorite picture book, 17 Things I’m not Allowed to Do Anymore. That book makes me laugh every time I read it! (Which is often!)

Describe a few of your best summer memories from childhood.
Building campfires in the sandstone fire pit in our backyard. We did that at least a couple times a week. Swinging in the back yard. Running around like yahoos with my brothers and sisters. Roaming the cornfields and dirt roads surrounding our town. Taking endless bike rides, looking for adventure.

Many of the scenes in Cicada Summer are straight from my childhood—except the ones about the gangster and Pete and the old lady parties and . . .

In Cicada Summer, Lily is crazy about Nancy Drew. Why do you think she fancies mysteries so much, and do you think that the drama of her real-life sleuthing adventures might lead her to shelve Nancy for good?
I think there are a couple of reasons Lily is so engrossed in Nancy Drew mysteries. She is a smart and imaginative kid who is trapped in her silence. These books allow her vicarious adventures and an intellectual life, of sorts. And it gives her friends, albeit imaginary ones, to relate to.

Also, the books are a link to times past with Pete. Lily is stuck in time and can’t really move on. Reading the same books over and over is a reflection of that, but the familiarity is also comforting to her.

I think Lily will linger with Nancy Drew just a bit longer, but mostly to say, “Goodbye.” I suspect that Tinny will take them up as she investigates the new life she’s come to. The books will be another connection Lily can share with her. But Lily won’t need Nancy Drew in the same way and she’ll move on. If she’s like me, she’ll move on to Daphne DuMaurier and Agatha Christie!

(Just a note. I was a MEGA-fan of Nancy Drew when I was a kid. I spent hours imagining that I was on Nancy’s adventure with her. I always identified with George and thought that Nancy should lose Bess and take me along instead! Sadly, that never happened!)

I know this is a bit like asking a parent which kid is the favourite, but… which character in Cicada Summer is your secret pet? (Mine might be Fern… but that could just be because I want to live in her store, right next to the popsicles.)
When I was a kid, my family ran a store exactly like Fern’s. Or perhaps, Fern runs one exactly like ours! (In fact, we bought the store from a woman named Fern!) It was great for us. I don’t think we made any money as a family because my brothers and sisters and I ate so much candy and ice cream. We were like locusts! Still, it was a swell stomping ground and a great place for adventures and people watching.

I think Miss Opal is my pet character. She has a sparkle about her and is full of joy and life. She’s a bit exotic and bohemian, too. Even though we see hints of her losing her edge and worry for her, she still grabs for life with vigor! I also love her sister, Miss Pearl, who is so caring and true blue, but who also has a lot of zest. She’s just quieter about it.

For a good part of your novel, I wished I could sweep into the story and take Lily under my wing. She seemed like a kid desperate for friends. If you could snatch a few characters from different children’s books to be friends with Lily, who would you pick and why?
This is such a fabulous question. I would pick Winnie the Pooh because he is so easy to be around. He accepts all the characters in the Hundred Acre Woods and loves them unconditionally. That would be good for Lily.

I would also pick Scout Finch because I think she would find a way to help Lily. She would do her best to set things right.

Your books, and your focus on all-things “silly” over at Three Silly Chicks, showcase your natural gift for funny. What was it like to step into a story that has darker, more serious elements?
Nobody was more surprised by this book than me! Both because it has very serious elements and because it’s a novel! I really think of myself as a picture book writer. When my editor calls me a novelist, I look around and say, “Where?” I suspect I’ll need to write three or four novels to get over that!

During the first draft of Cicada Summer, I felt more like a reporter than a writer. The scenes that came to me were so emotionally and visually complete, that I simply wrote them down. Even though I felt like an observer of the story, it was a very emotional experience and was, at times, draining. I didn’t set out to write an emotionally charged story, it just happened that way.

I worried about revisions with this book, because I didn’t really have a clue what to expect and it was a long pause (16 months or so) after I finished the first draft. I worried that I couldn’t find my way back to that emotional place where I had been and that the new chapters would seem out of place—as if they were painted from a different batch of paint and the colors were off. Fortunately, my editor, Susan Van Metre, was so brilliant. She really understood this book and Olena and helped me get right back to the place I needed to be. It was wonderful returning to Olena with her and making the story more complete. Miss Pearl and Miss Opal came from the revisions, in fact!

Short answer long—I learned an enormous amount by writing this book. It has given me confidence to tackle another novel or two and maybe someday, I won’t have to say, “Where?” when someone says “novelist!”

If you could be amazingly good at something in addition to writing (which would be totally unfair BTW), what would it be?
Broadway Star. I’m not giving up on this dream. As soon as I learn to sing and dance, I’m moving to New York City to make it on the Great White Way!!!! Oh yeah! Move over Patti Lupone!

You grew up in a small town. Can you take the small town out of the girl?
NEVER!!!! Growing up in a small town was fantastic!

Being from a small town (200 people) was practically like being from the country – only we could walk to school. It taught me how to amuse myself. I am one of six kids who had nothing to do and a million hours in which to do it! We had to create our own distractions and we became very good at it. This often involved making each other laugh until one of us fell down and begged for mercy. That was a daily occurrence in our family.

I’m still pretty good at amusing myself, though increasingly, it’s because my eyesight is slipping and I’m misreading more and more signs and magazine covers.

Thanks ever so much to Andrea for her awesome answers to my many questions, for sharing a picture of her summer writing spot, and for Cicada Summer too (sure to find its way onto many summer reading lists). Read my review so that you want it even more.


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