Sunday, November 18, 2012

One Writer’s Process: April Pulley Sayre

 “My specialty is narrative nonfiction, material that is true but that uses suspense and other narrative techniques to give the feel of a story,” says April Pulley Sayre, an award-winning children’s book author of over 55 natural history books for children and adults.

Beloved by readers and reviewers for the wide variety of subjects that she explores in her books, as well as for her lyrical prose and the care that she takes with scientific facts, Sayre received the Theodor “Seuss” Geisel Honor Award from the American Library Association in 2008 for her book, Vulture View, which was also named a finalist for the 2008 American Association for the Advancement of Science/Subaru/Science Books and Films Prize for Excellence in Science Books. 

“I like to choose material that has layers of meaning,” Sayre says.  “Often my books seem to be about something small but ultimately make a reader feel connected to something deep and large, such as the sunrise, the water cycle, and so on.”

One of those “think small, think big kind of books,” says Sayre, is her picture book, Stars Beneath Your Bed: The Surprising Story of Dust, a book that she never thought would be published because it was rejected 53 times over the course of 8 years.

That was before her editor, Rebecca Davis, who was at Greenwillow, took a chance on a book about “how you and I help create the color of the sunset and sunrise,” says Sayre. “It's about how we live in a world sprinkled with stardust and dust from long ago, even dust in which dinosaurs rolled.”

The book, which she considers an example of her best writing, won the Best Science Picture Book of the Year in 2005 from the American Association for the Advancement of Science/Subaru/Science Books and Films, and Sayre was so happy on hearing the news that she cried tears of joy.

When she isn’t writing, Sayre loves to travel, and you can find her standing in an army ant swarm in Panama or swimming with squid in the Caribbean. Out of such experiences frequently come books like Sayre’s Army Ant Parade and her upcoming book on howler monkeys, He’s a Howler.

“When I write picture books, in particular, I approach them with a certain voice, and polish them until they have a push and pull of language that is pleasing to my ear,” explains Sayre. “The words have to be right.”

She lives with her husband in South Bend, Indiana, where she has written many of her books, including Go, Go, Grapes: a Fruit Chant and Rah, Rah, and Radishes: a Vegetable Chant, as well as her forthcoming books, Here Come the Humpbacks! (Feb, 2013) and Touch a Butterfly: Wildlife Gardening With Kids (April , 2013). Recently, she was kind enough to take a few minutes from her many works-in-progress to share thoughts on writing with wordswimmer.
Wordswimmer: If writing is like swimming, how do you get into the water each day?

Sayre: Oh, I enter it in a rather unimpressive, clunky way that should not be recorded on video. Probably step-by-step in the shallow end—doing lots of writing emails to respond to the business part of writing, invitations to talk, revision inquiries, editorial comments, title changes, and the like. I used to jump in, first thing in the morning, to the most creative work and lots of folks do it that way. (Maybe I'll start doing that when my deadlines let up.) But lately the business part of being in the midst of many book contracts has made a lot of shallow paddling necessary. Because I'm not alone in the pool. I'm navigating among editors, art directors, illustrators, publicists, colleagues, all in their lanes, all calling out to me about this and that. So...writing for publication is not quite as solitary as one might imagine once you're in the thick of it. 

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

Sayre: Pure creative joy and flow keeps me afloat for a lot of my shorter works. A drive to make writing sound delicious makes me return to a piece again and again. For longer work, discipline and necessity keep me going. Pure grit is sometimes necessary if you've gotten yourself into the pickle of creating a really hard, long book. Or even a rhythmically complex short one! Sometimes writing is the last thing in the world you want to do. Making muffins...watching reality TV, sorting pens and pencils...anything seems more attractive. Then you have to just be stern with yourself and go. Sometimes I have to set a timer and just make myself do an hour. But sometimes, yes, I manage to work really hard all day long, and yet I find I have not written anything new. 

Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells? 

Sayre: Dry spells, for me, are more like floating. Just trusting that a wave will come, or fish will gather, or birds will fly overhead. Inspiration will arise. But you have to rest and let it go and get into the most relaxed state possible. That's hard and you may feel listless, useless, and insignificant in the world while you are recovering from one project and awaiting the next.  Friends and family help. Nature helps. Doing other arts helps. I wrote a lot about that in my book Unfold Your Brain

Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?

Sayre: Remembering to breathe.  I literally could not breathe properly by the time I finished writing a recent book. I could almost feel my skin stretching to encompass the new ways I was growing from pushing so hard intellectually and creatively. It was as though my energy was a wave, constantly overlapping where my body was in space, like a wave getting ready to break. This was exhilarating but it went on too long. I was doing so many kinds of creative work that were new and terrifying to me. Near the end of 3 1/2 years of work, I couldn't breathe.  Yes, I went to the doctor and he had all kinds of ideas for chasing expensive medical tests. I said, "How about we just wait a month and see what I can do to fix this on my own?"  To heal, once the deadlines passed, I had to make myself be bored.  I had to stare at trees and not even think of new creative work.  I spent two weeks watching and photographing birds and being pretty much not very social.  Everyone around me was really cool about it. I'm still realigning a bit now...coasting as I prepare to start some big projects that have been waiting impatiently while I finished big book contracts and writing speeches for some new venues. In case you're wondering, my breathing is fine now and I haven't been back to the doctor.

Oh, the other hard part of swimming/writing is remembering that you have a body and you must take care of it. Writing deeply can carry your brain/spirit away and then you come back to a cold, cramped, totally pained body because you forgot to move for minutes, hours, even days and weeks while you were transported by what you were writing.

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

Sayre: Um, I have a lot of life preservers? Hallelujah for the internet and listservs and other generous writers. Getting my MFA at Vermont College connected me to lots of generous souls. And I've connected with so many other terrific writers over the years. I like to help them, console them, and celebrate their successes. That keeps me going whether or not my writing is working at the moment. My mom, my husband, and a couple of very close friends allow me to bellyache about things, even in the midst of what is, yes, one of the coolest jobs on Earth.   They know me so well that they realize I'm just processing, not truly complaining or being ungrateful about life or work. 

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

Sayre: Well, I've always loved being in the water. It taps a core joy. It's like dancing in a different, fluid medium. Writing allows me all those pleasures of swimming.... the splash, flow, effort, and the ability to follow my interests—to swim where I please. That's the great joy of writing and swimming. But, you know, I do have a long-term dream to be a surfer, too.

For more info about Sayre, visit her website:

For more interviews with Sayre, visit:

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