An Interview with Barbara Jean Hicks
By Elaina Daniels
Do you really know your cat? Did you ever wonder what is really going on in your cat’s mind? In The Secret Life of Walter Kitty, Barbara Jean Hicks explores the world behind the purr. Recently, I was given the opportunity to ask some questions of Barbara. Barbara has had an extensive career, writing many more books than just Walter Kitty. See how she switched from writing romance novels to children’s books.
Elaina Daniels: Do you have cats? Is that what inspired you to write this book? Will Walter be having more adventures?
Barbara Jean Hicks: The Secret Life of Walter Kitty was inspired by the first cat of my adult life, a rescue named Miguel. Although Walter was my third published children’s book, it was the first I wrote, although in a much different form.
“Miguel truly was my muse, both for my children’s writing and my cut paper artwork. You can read about that here.”
The first cat I remember from my childhood was named Lucky—like Miguel, a tuxedo. She was aptly named; she lived eighteen years! Then there was Mama Kitty, who gave us Ozmandia, Aurelius, and Demetrius. (My sister was taking Greek at the time.) The current cats in my life are Annie and Oliver. Both are big hunks of love that need a lot of attention, which I don’t mind giving them at all.
ED: Where do you get the inspiration for your books?
BJH: Inspiration comes from everywhere! I often tell kids in my school assemblies that the more difficult thing than finding ideas is choosing between them. Jitterbug Jam was inspired by a comic strip. I Like Black And White was another book inspired by Miguel—I observed him napping on the spring green lawn in our back yard one day and was struck by how black and white he looked against the vivid green. Monsters Don’t Eat Broccoli was inspired by a drawing of gleeful monsters throwing trees at each other. My current work-in-progress, Abelard and the Bad-Weather Why-Bother Blues, was inspired by a friend who gave me a tasting tour of all the ethnic bakeries in Seattle! (An illustrator friend and I are developing this last one as an e-book that we will publish on our own.)
ED: I find that you also used to write romance novels. Do you still write both? If so, what inspired you to change from romance to children’s books?
BJH: I haven’t been able to write a novel since I started writing picture books. The process is completely different. Picture books are in many ways like poems—sound and imagery are particularly important and every word must be chosen with care. You can’t write a novel in the same way or you’d never get done with it—which has been the problem when I’ve tried in the last several years! The bottom line is that I prefer the picture book process to the novel process. I’m not saying I’ll never write another novel (romance or children’s) but I don’t see one in the foreseeable future.
I have, however, revisited my published romance novellas in the last year, revising, editing and formatting them for sale as e-books. Tea for Two: A Christmas Romance and Cupid’s Chase: A Valentine’s Romance are available through both Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
ED: What is your writing process like? Do you have a room off by yourself that you write in? Are you an everyday writer, for a few hours a day?
BJH: When I started working full time two years ago, I stopped writing every day. Those two years have also been tumultuous emotionally, dealing both with my dad’s Alzheimer’s and a primary relationship that wasn’t working well. Now that my job has moved to my home office, my dad has passed on to a better place and my ex has moved on as well, I find that I’m in a much more creative space in my head. I have my office set up in the spot with the best light and the best view, which happens to be the dining area of my kitchen. My dining room is now in the second bedroom!
ED: How did you “get into” writing? What are some tips that you could give writers who are wanting to reach their dream of becoming a published writer?
BJH: First of all, I was read to regularly as a child. That’s where I learned to love words, language, ideas, and books. A writer’s most important learning comes from reading other writers.
I first knew I wanted to “be a writer” in fourth grade, when our teacher, Mrs. Green, had us write a diary from the perspective of a child traveling to Oregon in a wagon train in the 1800’s. I hand wrote 32 pages, single spaced, and I had never had so much fun! From there I started writing short stories, poems and song lyrics that I set to music. I majored in English Literature in college, where I got many opportunities to hone my writing skills both in my classes and as an intern in the school’s public relations department.
I didn’t start to write for publication until I took an adult education class in Writing for Profit. I met a woman there who invited me to work on a romance novel for a new inspirational line with her. I had never read a romance novel at that point, but boy, did I start reading! Co-writing a pair of inspirational romance novels with her was the beginning of my career as a published author.
My Five Rules for Getting Published:
4) Take classes.
ED: What is something that you would advise aspiring writers NOT to do?
BJH: Worry! Worrying about what’s hot and what’s not, about finding an agent or a publisher, about whether people like what you’ve written, about how many books you’ve sold—all that worry is SO counterproductive to the creative process. Write because it gives you joy. When the process stops giving you joy, stop. Take a break. And when you do go back to your desk, forget about your work-in-progress for the first hour. Write something for yourself alone, without the expectation that anyone else will ever see it.
ED: The illustrations in this book are fantastic! They could not have more perfectly complemented the book. I know that the book was not illustrated by you, but how closely do you work with the illustrator to develop the pictures for the book?
BJH: I have two people to thank for the wonderful illustrations for The Secret Life of Walter Kitty—Dan Santat, whose style is perfect for the text, and Erin Clark, my editor at Knopf, who recognized that! A good picture book editor is like a matchmaker, in a sense; looking to make a good marriage–but in this case, the two parties aren’t allowed to meet until after the marriage takes place! That’s right–the author doesn’t choose her own illustrator and is even discouraged from making any kind of contact with the illustrator until the job is done.
Because my illustrator friend Siri Weber Feeney is developing Abelard and the Bad-Weather Why-Bother Blues with me as an e-book, the process is quite different. I asked Siri to join me for the project because I love her illustration style and felt it was a great fit for my text—so in this case, I get to be my own matchmaker! We are working together in a back-and-forth process much different than working with a traditional publisher. I’m really enjoying it!
ED: What are your favorite genres to read?
BJH: I’m a very eclectic reader. I’m in the middle of several books—among them two books on Alzheimer’s, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Mary Norton’s The Borrowers. For total escape I LOVE detective novels—Michael Connelly, John Lescroart and Ian Rankin are favorite authors, and I devoured Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series. Although my own books are light and sometimes even silly, there’s something in the darkness of crime novels that draws me. Maybe it’s a safe way to explore my own dark side. We all have one!
And of course I love to read picture books, old and new. It’s imperative for writers to read in the genre for which they write. When I read picture books I read first for pleasure, and then I go back and try to read as a writer, paying attention to how the story is told. What can I learn from what the author has included and not included, how he has used language and imagery, how she achieved the effect she was striving for? One of the things I love about being a writer is that my learning is never done. To be open to new information and new ideas is to stay young!
Elaina Daniels is a 13 year educator, who had taught at the elementary/middle school level for all of those years. She has taught all subjects, but her passion is Reading. She has two children, aged 9 and 7. Her oldest son was diagnosed with autism. Elaina lives on a farm in Southwest Missouri with her husband of 11 years. Together, they raise children, dogs, and cattle.
Tags: Barbara Jean Hicks, Children's literature, Picture book, Secret Life of Walter Kitty, Writers Resources, Writing
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