Sunday, October 07, 2007

One Writer's Process: Donna Jo Napoli

A linguist and writer of children's books, Donna Jo Napoli doesn't put much faith in the adage more experienced writers often share with young writers about writing what you know.

If anything, Napoli writes stories about what she doesn't know, and takes great pleasure in discovering the world through writing.

"Writing allows me to find out about the world," Napoli writes. "If I write a story about soccer, I get to go to soccer games for a while. If I write a story about lions, I get to visit the zoo and read about lions for a while and, if I'm extra-super lucky, I get to go to Africa (which is what I did when I researched Beast)."

When she's not traveling to far off countries like Africa, Napoli lives in suburban Philadelphia, and teaches full-time at Swarthmore College.

None of her books, she writes, are autobiographical, yet she often finds ideas for her stories in real life. "Something will happen," Napoli explains, "and I will simply elaborate on it and change it and mold it until I have a story that feels new and exciting to me."

Over the years her method of writing has proven more than successful, allowing her to produce such award-winning novels as Stones in Water, Breath, Beast, Fire in the Hills, Daughter of Venice, North, and The King of Mulberry Street, and picture books like Albert.

In 2007 alone, she's coming out with three new books: Sly the Sleuth and the Food Mysteries (a chapter book that she wrote with her son, Robert Furrow, the third in a series published by Dial); Hush: An Irish Princess' Tale (a YA novel with Simon & Schuster); and The Wishing Club (a mathematics picture book with Holt).

Her work has been translated into so many languages--Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Farsi, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, and Thai-- that it's easy to lose count. (How many was that... twelve?)

Not only does Napoli love writing and telling stories, she loves animals, too, and over the years she has welcomed dogs, cats, birds and rabbits into her home. At the moment she has a cat named Taxi, and Napoli enjoys stepping outside and calling "Taxi!" just to make her neighbors think she's nuts (since taxis don't cruise her small town).

Napoli was kind enough to take a few moments to share her thoughts on her writing process with Wordswimmer.

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

Napoli: I'm not lucky enough to control my life that closely. Some days other things take my time and attention. I have a full time job and a family. But when I do get to write, I go to my desk and just start. When I go out of town, I take a laptop computer with me in case I get the chance to write.

If I'm on a first draft and I have nothing to say, I just write junk. I don't criticize myself, I don't judge. I merely write. And pretty soon the writing just comes on its own. My only goal is to finish -- even if I hate what I wrote. I follow every tangent my characters want to indulge in. No holds barred.

If I'm on a second draft, then I try to be organized and give shape to my work. I let the editor in me come alive. I slash indulgences that didn't go anywhere. I beef up anemic characters. I tighten the screws.

If I'm on a third or later draft, I go back to being just the writer. What I'm after is the emotional core of the story--and at this point I can leave the editing work to the publishing house's editor.

No one but the writer can secure the emotional core, so that's my main job.

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

Napoli: Before I got published, I had 14 long years of letters of rejection. My family kept my spirits up. When a rejection letter would come, my kids would say, "Those assholes!" It helped a lot. But, really, I think I would have kept writing no matter what. I love to do it. And I give myself little treats. I like Hershey's kisses and they are nice treats to mark the end of a page. I like beer -- and it's a nice treat to mark the end of a chapter. I love prosecco -- which marks the end of a draft. I find that celebrating what I do, no matter whether I like it or not, helps me, because, after all, writing is work -- and what we write is an accomplishment -- and we make a mistake not to take joy in that. Focusing on the joy -- of getting the idea, of finding the characters, of writing the words -- of the entire process -- that helps me a lot.

Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?

Napoli: I don't have dry spells. Sorry. I have zillions of stories in my head that I want to write. I will die before I get through even the tip of the iceberg.

Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?

Napoli: The second draft. I am by nature an analytical person. I am a linguist and I have a degree in mathematics. So I have to be very careful that I don't let the analytical side of me (which is the side I draw on to edit) win in the sense that the story becomes so well-crafted and pieced together that there's no organic flow to it. A story has to grab your heart -- and clean stuff grabs the mind, not the heart. If a story is too neat, who needs it?

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

Napoli: I let the problems sit there on the page and I simply move on. I never swim in circles. If I know this scene is just terribly wrong, well, okay, I leave it wrong and I keep going. There is always another draft in which I can try to find the right way to present that scene. And sometimes I find that the worst scenes really aren't necessary, after all, and they can simply be cut.

I have learned that, for me, solving each problem as I go is misguided, because later parts of the story will create problems for earlier parts -- and I can't keep going back over and over and over the same scenes. I need to finish a draft, see how the entirety hangs together, and then jump into the next draft with a holistic approach.

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

Napoli: The first draft -- because I never know where it will lead me till I finish it. That's a major thrill.

For more information about Donna Jo Napoli, visit her website:

And to read additional interviews with her, check out:


gaelwriter said...

I like the routine Napoli has adopted for her drafts, with a certain functional aspect to each. I can appreciate the need to keep her analytical side under control on that organizing second draft; I'm an engineer and I found early on that I had to tether that detail and logic tendency, too. I've enjoyed several of Napoli's books and look forward to more.

Anonymous said...

Sarah Miller (the author of Miss Spitfire: Reaching Helen Keller) observes that her writing process is completely the opposite of Donna Jo's!
Take a look at her blog, where she's posted her comments in response to this post:

Anonymous said...

far off countries like Africa? continents maybe.

Bruce Black said...

Oops. Got me. Have you ever thought of working as a copyeditor?