Sunday, November 04, 2007

One Writer's Process: Leslie Bulion

When Leslie Bulion isn't immersed in a book--"I read all the time as a girl and I still do"--she loves to immerse herself in the natural world, pulling on a wet-suit and diving into coastal ponds to do research for her graduate studies in oceanography, or simply studying bugs in an entomology class.

Growing up, Bulion didn't study writing in school or know that one day she would become an award-winning poet and writer. Instead, she studied to become a social worker, and for years she worked in hospitals and schools where she could help children and their families.

But on a visit to East Africa she began keeping a journal of her experiences and took hundreds of photographs. After returning home, she re-read her journal entries and filled five albums with her photos.

It was the words that she found printed on a red-and-yellow kanga cloth in one of her pictures --"don't be fooled by the color, the good flavor of tea comes from the sugar"--that inspired her to write her first book, Fatuma's New Cloth (Moon Mountain Publishing), which went on to win the 2003 Children's Africana Book Award.

Since then she's found that her diverse interests in entomology and the sea offer a rich source of ideas for her work.

Last year her award-winning collection of poems about bugs--Hey There, Stink Bug! (Charlesbridge)--was named to the Children's Pick List by Book Sense, voted one of the best books of 2006 by the Association of Booksellers for Children, and nominated for the 2006 Cybils Award in Poetry.

Her most recent book, Uncharted Waters (Peachtree), a story about a young boy's month at the shore, was named a Bank Street Best Book for 2007, and a new middle-grade novel is due out from Peachtree in 2008.

Bulion was kind enough to take a few moments from her latest work-in-progress to share her thoughts on writing with Wordswimmer.

Wordswimmer: If writing is like do you get into the water each day?

Bulion: Some days I dive in, relishing that feeling of breaking through the cool, clear surface and into my story. I’m eager to try ideas I’ve jotted in a notebook by my bed, or the notes I ran back and jotted at the top of yesterday’s work after I’d already finished for the day. I might have a pile of captivating research waiting for me. Some days I wade in more slowly, re-reading the work I’ve done the day before and revising that before I strike out across the ocean.

Wordswimmer: What keeps you afloat...for short work? For longer work?

Bulion: I write poems, but they’re collections with a central theme, so it all feels connected into a longer work. I research each poem as I go, so each day brings a different kind of work and new ideas to explore. When a poem is in a shape I’m mostly comfortable with, I can put that project down for a time and come back to it much more easily than when I have to climb out of a novel and dry off for a spell. I love the feeling of swimming along in a longer story. I’m immersed in a different time and place with this group of characters I grow to love and trust in my life. It’s harder for me to find my way back in when I have to interrupt my flow in a novel.

Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?

Bulion: I mix up what I do so I’m not always trying to do the same sort of thing. There are so many different kinds of projects. When I finish a longer project, I usually go into a reading period and immerse myself in the new crop of books for kids. That’s like enjoying a summer rain – not a dry spell at all. If I’ve been working on a novel, I might start to poke around and do some research for a new collection of poems. Of course, there have been times when I’m not writing at all for one reason or another. I don’t worry about it. In the life of a writer, life intervenes. I give myself permission to hike, climb, or pedal instead of swim.

Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?

Bulion: The hardest part of swimming can be staying in the water, even if it’s freezing or full of jellyfish, rather than getting out to peruse the internet, clip a fingernail, or wash the kitchen floor (and in my house the water must be pretty cold for me to think about getting out to wash the kitchen floor). Conversely, climbing out of the water for a break when I’m not getting anywhere can be a hard decision. Another hard part is realizing I’m swimming north when I should head east. Sometimes I don’t see it until I’m pages and pages from the shore. Then I have to make myself swim all the way back, and jump in again. One of the hardest parts of swimming is getting out of the water at the end—saying goodbye to my characters and their lives. I always feel bereft for a time.

Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?

Bulion: I don’t ever feel as though I’m swimming alone! I have wonderful writing friends who swim with me all the way. They keep me in the water and buoy me.

Wordswimmer: What's the part of swimming that you love the most?

Bulion: I love the way the water changes all around me as I swim. I love the way characters come alive and swim ahead. I love finding an elegant droplet of a word, or a funny, funny droplet to add to my ocean. And I love when readers discover their own currents and tides in my writing.

For more information about Leslie Bulion and her work, visit her website:


eisha said...

Great interview, Bruce! I really enjoyed Stink Bug, and I'm intrigued by her new book. Thanks for sharing this!

Barbara O'Connor said...

Great interview. My favorite part is about how hard it is to stay in the water. Amazing how even that fingernail clipping can seem like more fun than writing. But then, when it's all over - how much more satisfying a book is than a good manicure. :-)

Bruce said...

Thanks, Eisha. The interviews that you and Jules post over at Seven Imps set a high standard, so I'm grateful for the kind words.... and even more grateful to Leslie for taking the time to share her thoughts.

And, Barbara, thanks for your comment. There are days when, as you and Leslie suggest, almost anything--even cutting one's fingernails--beats staying in the water. But rarely does anything beat a good book... and I guess that's something to remember when we find ourselves with the urge to get out of the water too soon, or at least before we've put our words down for the day.

Anonymous said...

I like the part about not worrying about a dry spell and giving yourself permission to do something else for a while. Seems like that resting time would lead to another productive period. Thanks for a great interview!
-Jennifer Thermes

Bruce said...


I like that part, too.

It's often hard to see "resting" as part of the process... especially if you're worried about having something to show for your work. I have to admit that I have a hard time "giving myself permission" to rest.

But I've found that resting often gives a story a chance to deepen and grow and send out roots that you can't see until you return to the page refreshed... and the words start to flow.

Thanks for stopping by.

Susan T. said...

That's a good interview, Bruce. I didn't know that Leslie had a new book out; I'm putting Uncharted Waters on my library list.

Stinkbug was fun.