Sunday, March 11, 2012

One Writer’s Process: Barney Saltzberg

On most days Barney Saltzberg, the author and illustrator of more than 30 children’s books, carries a sketchbook with him and draws in it whenever he finds a few extra moments of free time, such as while he’s waiting to see the dentist. “I'm constantly doodling and writing things down,” he says.

His sketchbook has become the place where he watches his characters come to life. “I might draw a little picture of a character and the look on his face or the body language can suggest an emotion or an attitude that might not have occurred to me from just the writing alone,” he says. “Other times I will write down ideas, dialogues or monologues that may or may not get used in the book.”

It’s all part of the creative process of shaping who these characters are, he says, and it's helpful for when he pulls up a chair and sits down at his computer to write.

Saltzberg started drawing pictures and writing stories in elementary school. When he was eight years old, he dreamed of being a songwriter and singer like John Lennon, whose funny little cartoons inspired Saltzberg to start drawing, too.

“My mother liked to paint pictures and she bought me drawing pads,” says Saltzberg. “I wanted coloring books, but my mother didn't want me to have to color in someone else's art. She wanted me to create my own. I began to cover the pages with little characters I had invented. I even drew all over my lunch bag every morning before I went off to school.”

He’s still covering pages with his drawings. In fact, his newest book, Beautiful Oops, explores the creative process of how “mistakes”–something that every artist knows about– can lead to interesting new ways of seeing the world.

“A dog of ours was accidentally locked in my studio, and, while attempting to climb out the window, stepped all over an illustration I had finished,” says Saltzberg, who thought the artwork was ruined.

However, after careful reflection, he found a solution. “I could turn each paw print into a cloud,” he says.

And that page where he spilled a cup of coffee? He turned the stain into a monster.

“People are usually taught that there is a right answer and a wrong answer, and if you don’t get it right, you’re wrong,” says Saltzberg. “The idea I’m trying to hit home when I talk to children of all ages is that, yes, you made a mistake, but you can flip it and look at it differently.”

In addition to writing and illustrating his popular children's books–Crazy Hair Day, Hi, Blueberry, Peekaboo Kisses, I Love Dogs, and more–Saltzberg has recorded four albums for children, including Where, Oh, Where's My Underwear? and The Soccer Mom From Outer Space! (based on his book of the same title). And he loves to sing with children. “It's a wonderful change from sitting alone at my computer or my drawing table,” he says.

Saltzberg lives with his wife and three dogs in Los Angeles, CA and was kind enough to share his thoughts on writing and illustrating with wordswimmer.

Wordswimmer: How do you get into the water each day?

Saltzberg: I make my living as a writer. I go in to my studio and work, just like anyone who goes to the office. That said, I take my work with me. I bring a sketchbook and draw and write ideas all of the time.

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

Saltzberg: I have a buoyant pencil! I want to see things through. If I stop working, I won’t know how a story will end. Wanting to make either a song or story work, I plug away, knowing that even when I’m in murky waters (to splash around in your end of the pool) I have faith that I will figure it out. With close to forty books published and a ton of songs, I know if I am persistent, I will finish.

Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?

Saltzberg: I noodle. Doodle. Strum. Write. An idea will always poke its head out and challenge me to get busy.

Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?

Saltzberg: Breathing. Taking an idea that I think is good and surprising myself and hopefully the reader (or listener in the case of a song).

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

Saltzberg: That can be difficult. Don’t they say you should always swim with a buddy? Tomorrow for instance, I have a friend who is a writer and I am taking her to lunch to run by my latest story. I need fresh eyes and ears sometimes. After I submit a story, my editor will be the person to bounce ideas around with.

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

Saltzberg: When I’ve figured it out. When there’s that ah-ha moment and I know the story or song works. Then there's the pleasure of hearing from someone who likes a story or tells me that a song touched them or tickled them.

For more information about Saltzberg and his work, visit his website:

And for more interviews, visit:

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