David Elliott is a New York Times bestselling writer of books for young readers. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife of 33 years and a rescued Dandie Dinmont terrier mix.
For what age audience do you write?
I write for the very young, the middle grades, and with the release of BULL in March, teen readers. I’m currently working on one of each kind of book. I like to have a few things going at once. It’s the ADD.
Henry: Given the slow speed of the publishing industry, working on multiple projects simultaneously isn’t just ADD, it’s a good idea! Speaking of which, I recently wrote a picture book featuring an OCD owl and an ADD hummingbird.
Tell us about your latest book.
BULL (HMH, March 2017) is an expansion of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. I know that sounds kind of highfalutin – expansion. But I use it because the book doesn’t at all change the outline of the myth; rather, it fills in areas about which the myth remains silent – the Minotaur’s childhood and adolescence, for example. At least that was my intention. The story is told in the various voices of the main players, each character speaking in a distinct poetic form. It practically killed me, but I loved writing it.
Henry: BULL is terrific. Sort of a YA mashup of Homer and Eminem.
What do you hope readers will get from reading that book?
O dear. I think I’d better leave that to the readers. But it would be terrific if one or two saw that each of us has the potential to become either Asterion — the Minotaur’s’ actual name, by the way, meaning Ruler of the Stars — or the Minotaur. Or maybe even more important, the ability to encourage one or the other in the folks around us. We are now seeing at the national level what happens when the monstrous is excited — the uptick in hate crimes, the increased cruelty in our schools, all of that. Our leaders on both sides of the aisle seem lost in the labyrinth.
Aside from that, I hope readers will enjoy the humor in the book and the language used to tell the story, their language (for speakers of English.) It’s resilience. Its playfulness. It’s beauty.
Henry: We should mail balls of string to Congress so they can navigate the labyrinth!
What aspect of writing do you find most challenging?
Oh, writing comes easily to me. But writing well comes very, very hard.
Henry: That pesky adverb well again! When I first began writing for children, I was surprised at how many revisions are necessary. Not like writing when in school, where the first draft was the final draft!
What is a powerful lesson you’ve learned from being a writer?
I think sometimes people feel that publishing a book changes your life. And I guess it can if you’re someone like J.K. Rowling or Stephen King, at least in terms of material security. (Uh . . .that has not been my experience.) But here’s the thing: Even after that book is on the shelves, you are still who you are. There’s no escaping that.
For me, and especially since every book is different, being a writer is a process, not a result. I now try to think of myself as a scribe rather than the more elevated “writer”.
Henry: I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how collegial the KidLit author/illustrator community is. Not at all like the hyper-competitive Hollywood scene.
What has been a memorable experience that you never would have had if you had not been a writer?
Well, the most memorable is very difficult to describe, and if I did, people would think I was crazy, so let me just say that a few years ago, I was invited to Germany to visit schools there. My wife and I became very good friends with the person assigned to interpret for me. She is still an important of our lives. How lucky is that?
Henry: So, you think describing a memorable experience will push people over the edge on assessing the sanity of a man who fractured a Minotaur myth with rap?
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Accept all criticism as one hundred percent accurate.
For twenty-four hours.
Henry: Interesting approach. Another good piece of advice I’ve read, is never read reviews of your own work. The positive reviews don’t tell you anything you don’t already know, and the negative ones are so rarely constructive, that you’ll just end up depressed.
Do you have any favorite quotes?
Here are three:
“If you haven’t surprised yourself, you haven’t written.” Eudora Welty.
“Habit is more important than inspiration.” Octavia Butler.
“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” E.L. Doctorow
Henry: So, Doctorow was a pantser, not a plotter? Isaac Asimov said “Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.” Then there’s Ray Bradbury: “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”
Do you have any strange rituals that you observe when you work?
My entire life has been, and continues to be, One Strange Ritual. I think everybody’s is.
Henry: Capitalizing the phrase makes it sound like a great book title. Well played, sir.
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
I know from the one I already possess – the ability to eat non-stop –that superpowers are very difficult to control. I think it might be wiser to bestow them on those better equipped to manage them.
Henry: Isn’t it only a superpower if you can eat all you want and NOT gain weight?
If you could have three authors over for dinner, who would it be?
Not many people know this, but Charles Dickens and the Polish poet Wyslawa Symborska are conjoined twins, so if invite Charlie, he’ll have to drag Wyslawa along. (The original meaning of Plus 1, by the way.) That’s also true of Teju Cole and Richard Wilbur. Then there are those famous triplets, George Eliot, Shakespeare and Moliere. Journalist Masha Gessen and the Australian novelist David Malouf are my alternates.
Henry: Boy, give you and inch, and you take a mile! Wikipedia helpfully offers:
Maria Wisława Anna Szymborska was a Polish poet, essayist, translator and recipient of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature “for poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality”.
Teju Cole is a Nigerian-American writer, photographer, and art historian. Cole is the author of three books: a novella, Every Day is for the Thief (Nigeria: Cassava Republic, 2007; New York: Random House, 2014; London: Faber, 2014), a novel, Open City (New York: Random House, 2012; London: Faber, 2012), and a collection of more than 40 essays, Known and Strange Things, published in 2016. He is currently working on Radio Lagos, a non-fictional narrative of contemporary Lagos. Salman Rushdie has described Cole as “among the most gifted writers of his generation”.
Richard Purdy Wilbur is an American poet and literary translator. He was appointed the second Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1987, and twice received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, in 1957 and again in 1989.
What is your favorite creature that exists only in literature?
As you know, I’ve spent quite a lot of time with The Minotaur recently. I think I might choose someone a little cheerier next time around, The Mad Hatter, maybe. Or someone really solid like the armored bear, Iorek Byrnison, in Philip Pullman’s wonderful book, The Golden Compass. I do wish the Oracle of Delphi had a better sense of humor.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
These days, I feel like I’m always working. I’ve got three separate and very different (from each other) projects going right now, and the administrative part of the writing life – interviews like this one, for example, are taking more of my time. (Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. Who doesn’t relish the opportunity to talk about himself?) To complicate matters, for the first time ever I’ve become actively political. Nobody is more surprised about that than I am.
Staring out the living room window into the fields behind our old house is a wonderful thing.
Henry: Can we say your passion for democracy has trumped your desire to focus on writing?
What would you like it to (accurately) say on your tombstone?
He wasn’t afraid.
Henry: You gave me a Monty Python opening, and I’m taking it.
Bravely bold Sir Robin
Rode forth from Camelot
He was not afraid to die
Oh, brave Sir Robin
He was not at all afraid
To be killed in nasty ways
Brave, brave, brave, brave Sir Robin
He was not in the least bit scared
To be mashed into a pulp
Or to have his eyes gouged out
And his elbows broken
To have his kneecaps split
And his body burned away
And his limbs all hacked and mangled
Brave Sir Robin
His head smashed in
And his heart cut out
And his liver removed
And his bowels unplugged
And his nostrils raped
And his bottom burnt off
And his penis split and his…
“That’s… that’s enough music for now, lads.”
Where can readers find your work?
Wherever weird books are sold, but especially at your local independent bookstore.