Because I loved stories. I grew up hearing many family stories and my mother used to read fairy tales aloud to me. When I got older I discovered I loved reading on my own. When my children were growing up, I discovered that my wife and I loved reading aloud to them. Then I realized I had a lot of stories I could share, and by being an author I could share stories that I knew and loved—stories that very few people knew, and stories that I began creating with the rest of the world. I could give something back, give a gift that I received back. That’s why I wanted to be an author, because I loved it.
How old were you when you found your favorite author?
One finds a favorite author during every year of one’s life. I must have been in second or third grade when I discovered the Jungle books by Rudyard Kipling. All the stories of Mowgli and Bagheera, the black panther and Akela, the wolf and Baloo, the bear. I think Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle books marked the point when a particular author grabbed me. Before then I didn’t know the names of particular authors, but I loved myths and legends and the stories of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Those were the stories that really got me started. I began to get excited about reading and I discovered authors from there. When I was very young there was a book that I really loved, Little Fur Family by Margaret Wise Brown. I must’ve been very young—it is a picture book. When I was in sixth grade I discovered a book that changed my life, Moby Dick by Herman Melville. It is the story of the great white whale, and I read that book many times in my life. In junior high school I discovered the science fiction of Ray Bradbury, and that was very important to me. I’m still discovering favorite authors now.
Who is your favorite author?
I have many and I’m always discovering new ones. One of my favorite authors is J.R.R. Tolkien, and The Lord of the Rings is the book.
How long does it take you to write a book?
That’s a scary question. Most of my picture books are inspired by tales drawn from other cultures. I have to research very carefully; from the first time I find a story that I’m interested in or excited about working with, to the time that the story itself is written. This might take three or four or five years or more because I’m thinking about, trying to understand, and research the story—before I even sit down and write the story. The actual writing might take a few months. I have two new books coming out for Scholastic, one is a novel and one is novel length. The actual writing for both of those books will be about three or four years, that includes the research, but most of the material is coming out of me.
When you retell or rewrite a traditional tale, how much do you make up and how much do you try to be true to the original version?
I’m always true to the original, but we need to understand that in the world of traditional tales, much of what is really the meaning of the story may not be down in the versions that we have. My job is not to invent or make up sections, my job is to spend a lot of time with the story and open my heart and imagination to what the story is really trying to say to us. I then try to bring that alive in a new version that can be authentic to the tradition from which the story comes, but really speak to us today as well. And that’s what I attempt to do with each re-creation of any traditional tale I work on. It’s a very intuitive process. If you take a look at the note at the back of the new book The Shark God, I discuss some of this there.
Are all of your stories retold from original stories?
No. Several of my picture books like Will’s Mammoth and The Lost Princess are completely original stories. In my book The Hungry Tigress, a collection of stories from India, there may be four or five original stories. The chapter book The Boy Who Loved Mammoths is a completely original story. My tape Animal Dreaming is all completely original stories. On my tape Ghostly Tales of Japan there’s another original story. The new book coming out next year with Scholastic, The World Before This One, is built of Seneca legends from my area, but it is set within an original framework tale. Finally, my forthcoming novel, also with Scholastic and Arthur Levine Books titled Bird Wing, is a completely original full-length novel.
Because Will’s Mammoth has so many pictures and so few words, did you tell the illustrator what you wanted each page to look like in order to tell your story?
Yes, I did. But Stephen Gammell, one of the truly great illustrators today, also brought his own storytelling genius to each page. If you want to see more of how that particular book developed you can look at my chapter book The Boy Who Loved Mammoths, which is the way I originally wrote the tale before it became a picture book. There’s an afterward about that book that talks more about this.
Do you ever use an illustrator more than once?
Yes, of course. David Shannon and I have collaborated on three terrific books together. Each time I chose David, and he fortunately agreed to work with me, because we each loved the story and felt we could make the best book together. These three books are The Rough-Face Girl, The Boy Who Lived With the Seals, and the brand-new one, The Shark God. I’ve also worked with and chose the illustrator Susan Gaber for the books The Brave Little Parrot and The Language of Birds. I’ve also worked and chosen for the same reasons the illustrator Tatsuro Kiuchi on two books, Mysterious Tales of Japan and The Eagles Gift. I feel I’ve been very fortunate to work with all these gifted illustrators several times each.
Did you ever consider letting your daughter illustrate your books?
My daughter is a photographer and we’ve talked how we might collaborate in the future. We’re kicking around ideas, but so far nothing has seemed exactly right. We hope we’ll hit on the right combination sometime soon. Thanks for the question—I’ll pass it on to my daughter.
Do your kids give you ideas for your stories?
My kids are grown now, but when they were younger, I used to try out my stories on them. I learned a lot from them, but these days they really have their own interests and I learn a lot about life and the arts and new good authors that I should be reading—from them.
You are not Native American. Do people ever question you retelling tales that belong to another group’s traditions?
I’ve had terrific support from many Native communities. I feel very blessed by the respect my work has been offered. The Seneca community in my own area Rochester, New York, has invited me on various occasions not only to tell stories for them, but on a winter’s night in a real longhouse. I spend several weeks every year as a guest of a Zuni pueblo in New Mexico telling stories, teaching the children, teaching about writing, and being able to attend ceremonial dances as a guest—all of which moves me very deeply. There will always be issues about who has the right and the responsibility to tell stories; I try to bring respect, love, many years of careful thought, and some intimacy with a culture into the work I do. There has been some criticism, but it has been very minor and I feel very supported in everything I’ve done.
Why are most of your books taking place in a Native American tribe or near the water?
They are not. I think there almost 20 books I published, and of them several are Native American because I like those stories very much, and because I think they have a lot to teach us. Several are by water, namely The Boy Who Lived With the Seals and The Rough-Face Girl. At least that’s what I recall of the books that I’ve written. If you go to my Web site, you’ll see all the books and that should give you a little fuller background on how many are actually Native American and how many actually by water.
How did you tell stories in other countries? Do you speak several languages?
No, I speak only English. When I was in Japan I spoke in English-language schools and that worked just fine.
Did you write The Shark God after you went to Hawaii?
Yes, the note in the back of the book discusses some of that process. But first I had almost 15 years of thinking about the story and several trips to Hawaii performing, speaking, and researching, before I began writing the story as a book.
Do you have to be in a certain location to feel confident in your writing?
No. I tend to do most of my actual writing in my office at home. But I have found I can edit almost anywhere, under almost any conditions. And in working on my new novel, Bird Wing, I found myself so excited about the story and what was happening in it, that my motel room on the road—after a full day of speaking and performing in schools—worked just fine for me to continue my writing. You can never tell.
Where is your favorite place for ideas?
I like being at home, surrounded by objects and art from the many cultures I’ve been able to visit, and that inspires me. I like being out in nature, I often find great ideas coming, just being by nature, water, trees. I’ve discovered that I like to get on my motorcycle and ride through the hills and I find that many new ideas come to me in this way too.
How do you like to write? Do you use a computer or pen, etc.?
I use a computer because my handwriting is usually so sloppy and it’s slower and more tiring. With the computer I can keep many versions— I usually go through 20 or 30 rewrites of a story. Having them all in the computer I can see the whole evolution of my work. It helps me stay more organized and neater; but it’s not necessary even a pencil and a piece of paper, when you have a good idea, will do the job just fine.
Do you work on more than one book at a time?
Yes, with picture books especially. There can sometimes be several, three or even four in the works at any one time, but they are all in different stages. One may be in research, one may be in final edit, one may be in first draft, and one may be somewhere in the middle. And not being an octopus I don’t work on them at the same time. For a week or so, I may work very intensively on one and then when I feel it has reached a saturation point; I can let that one rest and go on to one that feels fresh. In this way I stay engaged; I never feel that I overdo any one book at any particular time. With longer books I tend to only work on one at a time, for longer periods. And then may switch to the other when I feel I have reached as far as I can on the first one. And I need time off from it. Or it needs time off from me.
Do you ever get writer’s block? What do you do if you get it?
I don’t think writer’s block exists. Writer’s block to me simply means I haven’t yet seen in my own mind clearly enough what needs to happen in the story. So I’ll take a walk, or I’ll do something else that gets my imagination going, like being in nature, motorcycling, cooking dinner, talking with a friend, listening to music, or do some reading that might open my imagination to other possibilities. Once I get a sense of where the story needs to go, I can begin writing again. Sometimes you just have to be patient, but don’t think of it as a block—think of it as a new beginning.
Do you have any books you are currently working on to be published?
Yes. There is The World Before This One, which will be Seneca tales from my area woven together to make one long story, almost like a novel, about the power of stories and how they change us and our communities for the good. I’m also working on my first completely original novel, called Bird Wing. It is a very mythic, adventurous, and hopefully exciting story that I’m very excited about. If you go to the Books page, you’ll find information on all my books, the new ones that are coming out and the forthcoming ones to be published in the next several years.
I noticed in a few of your books you have a lesson or moral. Do you have lessons or morals in all your books?
I have stories, and stories teach us. I never try and add a lesson or moral to any tale. But I think the very structure of stories is about meaning, and in the process of bringing stories alive, so they’ll be enjoyable, I also like to remind us that part of the enjoyment is the meaning.
Why do you tell so many folktales?
Because I love folktales and I also believe that they remind us that each one of us carries the universal inheritance of all of those that have come before us. It’s part of who we are, to remember the wonder of the imagination’s way of looking at our lives. I think folktales do that for us. Go to my Web site and you’ll find articles I’ve written on this very topic; feel free to read and enjoy them.
If you could write them over again, is there anything in your books that you would change?
I don’t know. I think at this point I’d have to say that each book stands on its own merit now. I can’t think of anything off the top of my head that makes me want to go in and make any significant changes. The one book I might want to cut some of the text and let it stand in a shorter way is The Eagle’s Gift, which was a very challenging story to work with. But I think it has its own life now, and so I’ll leave it alone.
Which book was most challenging to write?
I would say it’s always the one you’re working on now, so my forthcoming novel Bird Wing for me now is the most challenging book I’ve ever worked on.
Which book was your favorite to write?
I would have to say that each book was a favorite because it began with an idea or a story I loved and I never knew how or if I was ever really going to make it work. So each one was a challenge and each one was a new adventure and each one taught me things I never would have learned, except by jumping in and trying the best I could to bring this story to life.
Did you write stories as a child that you saved and rewrote as an adult?
No. Except there were two or three science fiction stories I wrote in junior high school, which I’m still very pleased with. I may yet do something with them. But other than that, as a child I much preferred reading, hearing stories, and drawing to writing. I think drawing helped me a lot as an author, because it taught me how to picture things in my own way. And that for me is the real foundation for telling a story well, seeing it clearly in your own mind to start with.
What is your favorite genre to read or to write?
To read, I like everything novels, poetry, short stories, it really depends more on the quality of the writing. Even nonfiction has given me some of my best reads. As to writing, I love writing picture books, which are very close to poetry; but I’ve also written short stories, and I’m now working on several novels.
Did you ever write a book you did not send to a publisher?
Every author has a drawer some place of ideas that just didn’t seem quite to work, but every author also every now and then opens that drawer and rewrites the story again. Maybe some day some of those stories will actually be published.
What are your favorite hobbies and why?
Writing, reading, speaking, and telling stories because I love doing these things. I feel very grateful that these are also things that others like me to do and support me in doing them by having me come to their schools and speak, and by reading and sharing my books. But I also enjoy being out in nature, canoeing, kayaking, motorcycling, cooking, and spending time with family and friends. I do these things because I find they invigorate me, they nourish my imagination, and they just make me feel good.
Do you ever do school visits? If so, what do you share with the student body?
Yes, I do a number of visits every year. I find it one of the great pleasures of my work to go in and speak directly with teachers and students. I like to speak about the power of the imagination; words are only sounds on the air, or squiggles on a page. But each one of us takes those sounds and those squiggles and creates a world with our imaginations. Television makes us all see the same things; stories and words empower each one of us to find our own creative way of seeing the world. Not only do I speak about this in my sessions with students and teachers, I demonstrate it, which I love to do because I’m not only an author, but also a professional storyteller. One of my real joys in appearing in schools is actually telling, not reading some of my award-winning stories, so that listeners can see the difference between the told tale and the way the story comes out when I finally finish writing it as a book. The third component of my school visits is that I like to answer questions as well about the writing process, my work as an author and storyteller, and anything else that teachers and students might be interested in. You can go to Programs page for full information on author visits, as well as all other aspects of my work.