Sunday, October 30, 2011

One Writer’s Process: Eric A. Kimmel

Since his first book, The Tartar’s Sword, came out in 1974, Eric A. Kimmel has published over one hundred titles, many of them winners of such prestigious awards as the the Caldecott Medal, the Sydney Taylor Award, and the National Jewish Book Award (which he won twice–first for The Chanukkah Guest, then again for The Mysterious Guests), as well as numerous state children's choice awards. He is especially proud of being presented with the Sydney Taylor Award for Lifetime Achievement by the Association of Jewish Libraries. (A previous winner was the renowned writer I. B. Singer. Eric says, "It's nice to be in the same category with a Nobel Prize winner.")

Although he’s written for years, his writing routine is much less disciplined than most people might assume. “I spend a lot of time doing nothing, trying to find a good idea that will get me started,” admits Kimmel. “When I have a good idea, then I have to work it into a story. I need a character, a problem, and the solution.”

It can take Kimmel several months of hard thought before he reaches the point where he feels he’s ready to start writing. “I often say that 80% of the work involved in creating a story is done before you write the first word. It’s all in the thinking.”

Once he’s ready to begin, he sits down at his computer and writes and writes. He dislikes interruptions, and some days he doesn’t even take the time to get dressed. He simply goes down into his basement office in his pajamas and works until it’s time to go upstairs again for dinner.

“Some writers I know are very methodical,” explains Kimmel. “They follow a set routine. Others are completely disorganized. It’s hard to imagine how they ever get anything done. None of this really matters. What counts is finding some sort of routine that works for you.”

“I love old things: old books, old pictures, old tools, old songs, and especially old stories,” says Kimmel. “The best present I ever received was a volume of Grimm's Fairy Tales, which I loved so much that I literally read it to pieces. Somehow, I always knew that I was going to be a writer when I grew up, and that I would share the stories I loved so much with others.”

Kimmel’s earliest memories are of his grandmother telling him stories that she remembered from her childhood in Europe. His mother shared stories with him, too, reading aloud to him each night. And he remembers the teacher who read Horton Hatches the Egg with his class and told everyone that the author was Dr. Seuss. He had such a visceral response, Kimmel recalls. It was a revelation, of sorts. “If this Dr. Seuss was an author,” Kimmel told himself, “then I could do it too!"

It was in 1985 that Kimmel got his break. Marianne Carus at Cricket magazine asked him to write a holiday story for the December issue. Kimmel sent her a a story about a character named Hershel, and that story became the beloved Hanukkah tale "Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins" (illustrated by Trina Hyman), which received the Caldecott Honor Award when it was published as a picture book five years later.

His work retelling folktales isn’t without controversy. “Sometimes someone will say, 'But you changed the story!'” Kimmel says. “Of course I did. I always do. So does every storyteller. Stories aren't dead relics, preserved in a jar or stuffed and put into a glass case for people to gawk at. They are alive, and like all living things they grow and change.”

Kimmel retired from teaching at Portland State University in 1993 to devote himself full-time to writing. He lives with his wife in Portland, Oregon, along with a dog named Hope, a cat named Doug, a snake named Pirate, and a tank of tropical fish. When Kimmel isn't writing, he can be found going on long bike rides or practicing bluegrass tunes on his banjo.

He was kind enough to take a break from his current project to share thoughts on writing with wordswimmer:

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

Kimmel: Don't think too much about it. Just do it. Jump in. Sit down and write something. Get lost in the story.

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

Kimmel: There's no difference between long and short. It's all in the story. The characters become real. They talk to you. You become part of their adventures. You find yourself wondering how they're going to get out of the predicaments they get into. You want to get to the end because when you start you don't really know how it will end. You're not writing the story. It's writing you.

Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?

Kimmel: Again, don't think too much. Don't worry about tomorrow. Sit down and write something. A dry spell is usually a lack of confidence. Is this story any good? Is this project going to go anywhere? The answer is, Nobody knows! You just have to write it. Then we'll find out.

I believe it was Deborah Wiles who passed this quote on to me. I don't know where it came from, but it's worth remembering. "I can rewrite trash. I can't rewrite nothing." So even if what you're writing isn't very good and you know it, that's still better than not writing.

Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?

Kimmel: Jumping in when the water's cold. It's the same with writing. That first page is always the hardest. It gets easier as you keep dog-paddling along.

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

Kimmel: You deal with them as they appear. You don't know how your story ends? Well, start at the beginning and keep going. You'll worry about the end when you get there. Or maybe by the time you get there, you will have figured it out. The key is to write. Don't terrify yourself trying to come up with ways of dealing with issues that may never arise. You can always find reasons NOT to write. Here's how it goes: does anyone care if you do your daily laps? No. Will the world end if you never write another word? No. Here's the key: Nobody cares. It's all up to you. So get busy and write something. Or spend the morning sitting around at Starbucks. I'm not going to lose any sleep over it and neither will anyone else. I have my own work to do. So do you. Get busy.

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

Kimmel: When the characters start talking to me. They appear in your dreams. They sit beside you and whisper into your ear. They will talk to you once they feel they can trust you. That's when the story starts to sing. However, they only talk to their friends, to the people who hang out with them. So don't agonize. Start writing. You'll be surprised what a thrill it is when your characters let you into their world. You may prefer it to your own!

For more information about Eric A. Kimmel, visit his website:
or check out his blog:

And for more interviews with him, take a look at:


She Answers Abraham said...

I have always admired Eric Kimmel's work, and now I admire him for being honest about staying in his pajamas and writing in fits and spurts. I recently referred on my blog to his beautiful book of stories for the High Holidays (see footnote #2)

Thank you for posting this interview, Tziporah

laurasalas said...

Always interesting to read about writers whose process is so different from mine. But it still all boils down to the same basic elements. Think. Write. Let go. Rewrite. Repeat.

Thanks, Bruce and Eric!