Ask Eric

Eric enjoys answering questions from his readers. Submit a question and it might even be posted here on his website.

Aaron from Maryland asks: Are all your books told by someone?

Eric answers: Yeah. Me! Seriously, I think you’re referring to retelling of folktales. There’s a difference between a folktale and an original story. Folktales are hundreds of years old. We really don’t know where they began and who first told them. I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that the same story can be found on opposite sides of the world. How did that happen? There are lots of theories but no one really knows. When I retell a folktale, I see myself as a link in a long chain of tellers. What can I add to the story? How can I make it appealing for my readers? What can I contribute that makes my version unique. I may not be making up the entire story, but I am definitely bringing my creativity to it.

Lily from Maryland asks: How old were you when you made your first book? What inspired you to do so?

Eric answers: My first book was The Tartar’s Sword. I based it on a period of Russian history that interested me. It was mostly guys on horseback chasing each other around with swords. The book came out in 1974. I began writing it in 1968, just after I finished college. What inspired me was that I wanted a career as a writer. Writers write, so I needed to come up with something that a publisher would find worthwhile. Get busy! If you sit around waiting to be inspired, you’ll wait a long time. It’s better to simply get started. Begin writing something, anything. Keep at it long enough and the inspiration will come.

Sohia from Maryland asks: Why do you retell stories so well?

Eric answers: It’s the kind of writing I love best. I’ve been doing it for years. If you practice something long enough, you get good at it.

Andrew from Maryland asks: Are you going to come up with more Greek myths?

Eric answers: I would jump to put together another book of Greek myths. The McElderry Book of Greek Myths has been enormously successful. It was even translated into Greek for children in Greece to read and enjoy. I asked my editor about doing a second volume. Unfortunately, there was little interest at the publisher’s office. I would love to do it and I know exactly the stories I would use. Maybe someone will contact me about it some day.

Javiera from Maryland asks: Why do you like looking at and cleaning your fish tank?

Eric answers: Watching tropical fish and cleaning their tank is very relaxing. I don’t have to think much when I do it. That gives my brain a chance to chill out. That’s also when the best ideas emerge.

Felix from ??? asks: I know this has nothing to do with reading, but do you like jokes? Do they give you inspiration for writing?

Eric answers: I love jokes. My wife and I know our favorite jokes so well that we only have to tell each other the punch lines and we immediately start laughing. Most jokes are too short to provide enough inspiration for a story. However, I do like to slip in some of my favorite jokes occasionally. Here’s one that I plan to use in the third Scarlett and Sam adventure which I’m working on now. “What do you do if you’re swallowed by a whale? You run around and around until you poop out.” The book is going to be about Jonah.

Ms. Shetka and her class from New Prague, Minnesota ask: I am a second grade teacher in Minnesota, who has read all of your ‘Anansi’ the spider books to my students. We absolutely love those books, and have become very attached and interested in the characters! We were wondering if you have any new Anansi books coming out anytime soon?

Eric answers:  I wish I had good news for you. There aren’t go to be any more Anansi stories at this point. My artist friend, Janet Stevens, is busy with other projects. Our publisher, Holiday House, has been sold to a Chinese publishing company. I don’t know if they or any other publisher is going to publish more Anansi stories. I’ve asked. So far I haven’t seen much interest. That’s the way it goes.

But don’t sit around moping. You know the characters and what they’re like. Why not write some of your own stories about Anansi the Spider? You could illustrate them, too. Send me copies. I’d love to see them.

Elli from Maryland asks: I was wondering how you get all of these ideas. They’re so creative and interesting.

Eric answers: Thank you for the compliment, Elli. There’s no magic trick or special place I visit to get ideas. It’s mostly a matter of starting out with an image and working with it until a story develops. That’s the most exciting and most challenging part of writing. In the case of my newest book, Rattlestiltskin, which will be published in May, I wanted to tell the story of Rumplestiltskin with a Texas twist. The original story in Grimm’s Fairy Tales is magnificent, but it’s also dark and creepy. I wanted to soften that and make it lighter. I also wanted my heroine to have some spirit. She’s a doormat in the original tale. She spends her time crying and weeping. My heroine, Rosalia, is not going to stick around and become a victim. Check out the story HERE. I hope you’ll like it.

One more thing, Elli. Would you and your friends make sure the email address works for me to write back to you? I get lots of emails from children all the time who give me a school address. Most school email filters will not accept mail from an outside, unapproved address. This is a good idea to keep children safe. But it also means I can’t write back and I have no way of contacting them. That’s what happened with your email. I hope you find my answer on the website. It’s the only way I have of contacting you. Please spread the word.  I hope children don’t think I ignore their emails. I answer every one. 

Luna from Manila asks: Is there any time you are writing, you get ‘writer’s block’ [ losing your inspiration] ? If  so, how do you recover from it? If not, do you have any advice if it does happen?

Eric answers: Writer’s block is real. I’ve experienced it lots of times. It’s a form of depression. You feel as if nothing you’re writing is worthwhile. You just don’t want to do it. You feel as if you have nothing to write about and never will. Mark Twain used to call it “draining the well.” Your well of ideas is dry. There’s nothing to do but wait for it to fill up again. When I feel like that I know that it’s time to stay away from my desk and do something else that I enjoy. I might go for a long bike ride or practice my banjo. I might not attempt to write something for several weeks. Slowly but surely, I’ll start to miss it. Some ideas will form. Before too long, I feel that it’s time to get back to work. I have something to write about.

On the other hand, I find that most students who think they have writer’s block have something else going on. In most cases they haven’t given their stories enough thought. They get a good idea and start writing without knowing where the story is going or how it will end. They’re not blocked. They haven’t spent enough time thinking before they began writing. I spend a lot of time thinking about a story before I write the first word. Who are the characters? What are they like? What’s the problem that they have to solve. How do they solve it? What’s in their way? How does the story end? I can always change my mind later on as new ideas form. However, I have a strong sense of where I’m going before I begin. 

Other students get “blocked” because they don’t trust themselves enough or value their own ideas. They’re looking for the teacher to tell them what to write. They want the teacher to suggest ideas. Students like that have to develop the confidence that what they have to say is worthwhile. You know what you want to write about. You know which story you want to tell. Write about something that really happened. You don’t have to make up stories all the time. The teacher’s job is to give you the skills of writing. The content has to come from you. It had to be about people, things, ideas you care about.  If you don’t really care about what you write, no one else will care about it either. If it isn’t meaningful to you, it will never mean much to others.

Pia from Manila asks: My students in my 7th grade English class in Manila enjoyed reading Matajuro’s Training. We loved his transformation. What inspired you to write this story? What would you like young people to know about writing?

Eric answers: The story is from my collection of samurai stories from Japan: Sword of the Samurai. I became interested in samurai culture after spending three weeks in Japan, speaking at international schools in Tokyo and Osaka. Matajuro’s Training is one of my favorite stories because of what it says about education. Nobody really teaches us anything; we teach ourselves. A teacher can open a door, but you’re the one who has to walk through it. The ancient Greeks put it another way: “The mind is not a jug to be filled; it is a fire to be kindled.” Another important lesson comes at the end of the story: “Before you can master any art, you must first learn to master yourself.”

You, as a student, can do anything. Don’t blame others or make excuses. If you need to work harder, work harder. Do whatever it takes to accomplish the task. Success or failure are in your hand. 

If I can tell you one thing about writing, it would be this. Writing is hard work. It’s twice as hard when you’re writing something you don’t care about. Don’t worry about pleasing the teacher. Write about things you know about; things that mean something to you. Write about people you know. Write about things that happened to you or to someone you know. You’re not bound by the truth when you write a story. If you’d like to throw in some of your imagination, go ahead. If you like to go fishing, write about the time you caught a sea serpent. Who cares if it’s true as long as it’s a good story.

Another thought to keep in mind is that writing is mostly rewriting. Don’t expect to write a story once and have it be any good. Some of my best ideas come when I revise or when I read stories to my writer friends. They often suggest lots of good ideas that I can put into my next draft. Good writing doesn’t happen in five minutes. It takes more time than most people imagine. Give yourself time to think; time to write; time to thoughtfully read what you’ve written; and time to revise. If you can think of a way to make your story better, make it better. 

Restaurant chefs have a saying: Do you want it good or do you want it fast? When it comes to writing, I want it as good as I can make it.

Giovana from Maryland asks: Why do you like reading books?

Eric answers: What other activity can you do any time, anywhere, that doesn’t require batteries or special equipment? 

Sadie from Oregon asks: When I was little, my favorite book was Anansi and the talking melon. In second grade, my class went and saw the play of it at the Oregon Children’s Theatre. My favorite part of the play was when we sang along with the Anansi in the melon. Now, I’m almost 16, and sometimes I remember bits and pieces of the song, but I can never remember the whole thing! I don’t know why, but this is really important to me. Do you know where I could find that song?

Eric answers: Sadie, you made my day. It really is true that our favorite books stay with us our whole lives long. I’m glad one of mine did that for you. I don’t recall the Oregon Children’s Theater dramatizing that story. The Tears of Joy Puppet Theater definitely did. They’ve performed it many, many times over the years. I remember at least the last lines of the song you’re talking about: “We’ll see the king. The king will sing. The praises of this melon.” Am I right?

Here’s a link to Tears of Joy. Click HERE. They should be able to find the complete lyrics to the song for you. I know they’ll be as thrilled about that as I am.

Postscript: Sadie was able to track down the song. She wrote back: 

Hello it’s Sadie! I just wanted to thank you because you found the song!  I feel like my life is complete now 🙂 Thank you so much!!!

Nasim from Houston asks: What should I do so when I grow up I can be a good author like you?

Eric answers: That’s quite a compliment, Nasim. Thank you! The best advice I can give you is to be a good reader. I don’t know a single author who doesn’t love books and reading. Reading good books gives you a sense of what makes a good story. By reading you see how other authors go about putting words together to tell their stories. Is there anything you can learn for your own writing? When you read a book, always ask yourself what the author is doing to make you want to keep turning the pages until you get to the end. It works the other way, too. When you read a book that you don’t enjoy, ask yourself what the author is not doing to make the book work for you. Read books that will challenge you, so that your vocabulary and imagination will grow. Visit the library. Librarians always have good recommendations for books to read.

Another thing to remember is that writers write. Give yourself plenty of writing opportunities. Keep a journal. Write letters and email. Have a notebook or a computer file where you write down ideas and try them out. Writers don’t just write stories. There are all kinds of writing: movie and TV scripts, graphic novels, nonfiction, poetry, plays. Just keep writing. Try everything. Explore. Have adventures and write about them. Writing should be fun. It is for me. If a story or an idea isn’t working, set it aside and try something else. You don’t have to finish everything you start. I don’t. (But you should finish some!)

Also remember that the famous writers of tomorrow are kids today. Who knows? One of them may be you! 

Meredith from Pearland asks: How are you so good at drawing the pictures?

Eric answers: Your question made me laugh. How am I so good at drawing the pictures? I’m not! You can draw better than I can. My part of the book is writing the story. That’s what the author does. The illustrator draws pictures to go with it. Sometimes the author and the illustrator are the same person. Not in my case. I can’t draw to save my life. I need the help of talented artists to create pictures to go with my story. That’s why my books always have a different look. 

Did you think I was really that clever? Thank you, but I’m not.

 

Bella from Georgia asks: Why do you think young children enjoy your books so much? 

Eric answers: I think children enjoy my books because I know how to tell a good story. I was a storyteller before I was a writer. I quickly learned how to tell a story that children would enjoy. I worked mostly in the parks. If I wasn’t any good, the kids would get up and leave. They weren’t in school. Nobody could force them to stay. I had to work fro my audience. I think that was great preparation for being a writer.

 Another thing to consider is that words have sounds. The best way to tell good writing is to read a story aloud. The words should have rhythms. Bad writing always sounds flat. Good writing sings, like a song. One of the best compliments people have given me is to tell me how much they enjoy listening to my stories. When I hear that, I know I’ve done a good job.

Ann-Marie from Round Rock asks: Are your books fractured fairy tales?

Eric answers: Not all my books are fractured fairy tales. I write them because they’re fun and I enjoy the challenge. Any retelling is hard to do well. First, I have to ask myself, what can I create that hasn’t already been done? You have to tell the story with wit and style. Check out my latest book, Little Red Hot. I start with Little Red Riding Hood. Then I add some chili peppers.

Jaden from ??? asks: How do you feel when you write a book? How do you feel when kids read your books? Happy or nervous? How do you feel when you are done with your book? ?o you feel nervous or happy. When you write  books, do you like writing them or does it make you feel nervous? When you write a book, do you get easily distracted or you are always focusing on writing your books?  Do you want to be the best writer of the world or do you just want to be a writer for fun? When you write a book, do you feel like you want to stop or keep on writing more? Are you going to write another funny books because I really like the books you write?

Eric answers: Wow! That’s a lot of questions. And they’re all good ones. I think I can answer them together. Being a writer isn’t like being a contestant on American Idol. There are no winners or losers. I try to write the best book I can. I try to tell the characters’s story in the best possible way. If I can do that, I’m satisfied. As for the rest, what will be, will be. I hope readers will like what I’ve done. However, I have no control over that. What matters is whether or not I like what I’ve done. The world falls away when I’m writing. I enter into the story with my characters. Nothing else matters. I don’t feel nervous at all. Instead, I feel calm and excited at the same time. What’s going to happen next? As for being “the best writer in the world,” I don’t think about that at all. It’s a meaningless phrase. Everybody has their favorite writers. There are best-selling authors of fifty years ago who are totally forgotten today. At the same time there are authors who thought they were failures (Herman Melville, F. Scott Fitzgerald) who are regarded as being among literature’s finest writers. You bet I’m going to keep writing more books. It’s what I like to do best. And a lot of them are going to be funny because I like to laugh.

 

 

Do you have a question you’d like to ask Eric? Send it in.

 

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