Sunday, May 23, 2010

One Writer’s Process: Johanna Hurwitz

“I wake up each morning with my head filled with stories,” says Johanna Hurwitz, the beloved author of more than seventy books for children, “ and I am eager to begin writing.”

Sometimes ideas for children’s books come to her in dreams, and she makes sure to keep a notebook and pencil near her bed. That way she can always write down her ideas when they come to her, even if the idea strikes in the middle of the night.
“The writing is shaky but at least I haven't forgotten what was in my mind,” says Hurwitz, who admits that she’ll get ideas for books in other ways, too, especially from observing the newest members of her family now that she is a grandmother.

Hurwitz grew up in New York City and enjoyed visiting the public library near her home two or three times a week as a young girl. She remembers carrying home dozens of books despite the stacks of books that she had at home because both her mother and father, who met in a bookstore, loved books, too.

Her love for books led her to work as a children’s librarian after she earned a degree in Library Science from Columbia University. But it wasn’t until after she married and became a mother that she turned to writing, giving birth to her first published book, Busybody Nora, which grew into fourteen books about Nora and her brother, and their neighbors, Russell and Elisa, and which became known as The Riverside Kids series.

''When I am writing it's like I am working on a quilt. I take all these pieces that I have collected and put them together,'' says Hurwitz, who has such discipline and passion for writing that she can research, write, and revise a manuscript to prepare it for publication in six months.

Since her first book Hurwitz has written fiction and non-fiction, picture books and middle grade novels, her efforts earning her awards such as the Parent’s Choice Award, ten Children’s Choice Awards, and many more honors.

Hurwitz’s latest book,
I Fooled You, is an anthology collecting the work of some of her favorite writers, and offers readers a variety of entertaining perspectives on what happens when someone plays a trick on someone else.

She was kind enough to take a few minutes from her work to share her thoughts on writing with wordswimmer:

First off, it's interesting to me that you compare writing to swimming because I can't swim. I grew up in New York City during the years when polio was prevalent and so I never was permitted to go near any swimming pools. My parents didn't drive, so I didn't get to the beach. The only water I saw was in the bath tub. I never went to summer camp where some children mastered swimming. Neither my high school or college owned a pool so swimming was not part of the phys. ed program and a mandatory skill that one needed to pass. Luckily, I didn't have to worry about disease when I started writing.

My usual routine is that unless it's pouring rain or icy underfoot, I take a two and a half mile walk most mornings. I don't listen to music or use a cell phone but instead pay attention to my own thoughts. I think about my work as I walk and often solve problems in my plot structure during this period. The days I don't walk are the days when I go off to speak at a school. Meeting children and school personnel is a great motivator. They are usually very excited about my stories, ask great questions that keep me thinking, and stimulate new ideas as well.

Usually when I write I have the characters and the beginning of the story in mind. I know where I want it to end. What I don't know is the middle. I compare my writing process to taking a trip and leaving the map at home. I know where I want to go but by not having a map (or in this case a story outline) I may get lost and I might waste time along the way. Still I find this much more interesting as I'm writing to discover what's going to happen next just as readers read with this same goal. Occasionally I get bogged down. I don't know what to write next. In those instances, here's a trick I learned: I write backwards starting with the last chapter. Then I write the chapter that would come before it. And in this way I "meet" my story in the middle.

The best part of writing for me, the part that gives me a real "high," is one of those days when I get so involved in my writing that I lose all track of time, forget to eat lunch and don't even feel hungry. I just write and write about this world that I am creating. After 9/11 several writer friends of mine said they were so upset that they couldn't concentrate on writing at all. I, on the other hand, couldn't wait to sit at my computer each day. I wanted to enter my own world where there were no terrorists, dying people, horrible news, or fear. My writing life became a wonderful escape for me during this period.

And of course, the other best part of writing is getting a letter or an e-mail message from a reader who has read and enjoyed one of my books. Sometimes it's a child who has just discovered the joy of books and other times it's a teacher who is having fun sharing one of my works with a class.

I'd love to learn how to swim in the water but at my age, I've given up on that possibility. Still, I can write about someone swimming and I feel as if I'm in the ocean or at the lake. There's salt on my lips and water in my eyes. As a reader and as a writer, the world is so large. Nothing is impossible.

For more information about Johanna Hurwitz, visit her website:

And for more interviews with her, visit:


Carmela Martino said...

Thanks so much for this peek into your process, Johanna. Like you, I tend to write without an outline, and I also jump around and write chapters out of sequence if I don't know what happens next.
I'm also tempted to say I can't swim either. However, because my high school did have a swimming pool, I had to swim two lengths of the pool to graduate. I never was able to tread water, or get the breathing part, so I learned to hold my breath long enough to swim one length, flip, and do it again. I barely passed!

Andrea said...

An interesting glimpse at how another writer works. Thanks Bruce, and Johanna, for sharing!