What You Ask Me


Where do you get your ideas?

I don’t know. I don’t think I was born with them, because when I look at pictures of myself at, say two months old, it’s obvious there are no ideas in there. But by a year or so old I look as though I’ve got plenty of ideas, not all of them wise.

Baby BJ laughingLike weeds in watered gardens, ideas occur naturally in people who are paying attention to the world around and inside them, and wondering.

Wait a minute! you say. I do that, and I still don’t have great ideas!

But are you writing down your wonderings? Do you have a blank sketchbook in which you can switch from words to doodles and drawings and stapled-in cartoons? Do you carry it around all the time, until it gets orange juice and salsa and cat barf on it?

Do that. Later, when you go back through your sketchbook-journal you’ll find it crawling with ideas for projects of all sorts. You’ll also be able to revisit who you were at twenty or forty, and weep with embarrassment and love.

Do you have kids?

Nope. If I had kids I wouldn’t have time to write for kids. But I have two nieces who eat live squid.

Yashi twiceDo you have pets?

I once had a spotted ground squirrel named Yashi. I rescued him as a baby, and he thought I was his mom. His favorite lunch was a live, wildly buzzing cicada—it was like watching somebody eat an alarm clock.

Also I live right next to a nature preserve with thousands of cranes, ducks, coyotes, turtles, toads. I love toads.

bj_rattler copy…But wait! I forgot the rattlesnake. This is me removing a visiting rattler from my yard with a snake catcher made out of a piece of pipe. (Kids, do not try this at home.) I put it in a picnic cooler and took it to a new home in the mountains.

It was not a pet. Repeat: I do not have a pet rattlesnake. Neither should you.


Do you have hobbies?

I love to hike in the desert and pick up rocks. I have so many rocks my house will never blow away in a hurricane.

Smooth Round Rocks cropHiking in the desert taught me how to write books.

No kidding.

Because if you’re on a twelve-mile hike with your friends, and you’re six miles out, and you’re exhausted and thirsty and you have a blister on your heel and a cactus spine in your behind, are you going to lie down and wail, “I can’t go on!”

Of course you won’t, because a. you don’t want to look like a wimp in front of your friends, and b. Search and Rescue won’t send a helicopter unless you’ve fallen off a cliff.

It takes much longer to write a novel than to hike twelve desert miles, but both require that you doggedly keep going. Both take you into country you’ve never seen before—sometimes into country nobody has seen before. And the scenery is fantastic.

Writing a novel will also threaten your behind, but only with sitting too much. That’s when you get up, go outside, and hike.

What made you decide to be a writer and illustrator?

My brother says it’s because I wouldn’t put down the Crayolas. Probably because he wanted to use them. I never practiced the piano except when he wanted to play it. (Wisely, he took up the banjo instead.)

mrgrumpyI always wanted to be a writer, but I was afraid to admit it because I figured writers are famous people and I wasn’t. Also I thought you had to be a really good writer right away, without being a slowly-getting-better-writer first. (That image on the left is a poem I wrote in third grade. If you need help with my handwriting, click here.)

Illustration wasn’t as scary for me. I liked drawing frogs, goofy little kids, and princes being gnawed by dragons. And in my family we always made homemade birthday cards. So after college I got jobs doing illustration.

But secretly I wrote tons of poetry and kept a journal where I wrote whatever I felt like. I drew pictures of kids at the laundromat while I waited for my clothes to dry. One day I found I’d gotten really good at writing and drawing—almost without noticing.

Why do other people sometimes illustrate your books?

To match an artist’s style to the mood of the book, the publisher decides who the illustrator will be. I don’t mind at all. It’s interesting to see what somebody else’s imagination does with my words.

How long does it take to write and illustrate a book?

The first draft of a picture book might take days or weeks to write, but then it has to “cool off” for a while before I can tell whether it’s ready to revise. Sometimes it cools off for years.

To illustrate a picture book takes about six months.

To write and rewrite a novel takes a year or more, especially if it’s a fantasy. Imaginary places tend to keep on expanding. (This is a geologic process, similar to continental plate formation along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.)

Both picture books and novels will be read many times by me, my writer friends, my editor and my art director before they’re finished. Friends, editor and art director are my “pre-audience.” They catch my mistakes, help me keep my writing clear, and push me to imagine new things. I will be forever grateful to the editor who noticed, in a rough draft, that I’d drawn all the kids with six fingers.

What was your first book?

What’s That Room For? It’s about a bossy little girl who’s supposed to clean up her room. One book on that topic was enough.

What’s your favorite of all your books?

The one I’m writing now. Which varies.

What are your favorite children’s books?

Well, that varies too. Plus it’s like asking, “What are your favorite kisses? Your favorite kittens? Your favorite summer morning when the air smells like new rain?”

But if you really want to know some favorite chapter books, click here.

What’s your advice for people who want to become writers or illustrators?

Sometimes I wish I’d gone to art school. But mostly I wish I’d been braver, sooner.

There’s no “right” way to become a writer or an illustrator. Everyone does it differently. Probably the way you’re doing it is right enough.

Daybooks, ca. 1997

If you want to write, write lots. Poetry. Letters. A journal. (I’m on journal number 280…plus. They have their own special bookcase.) Pay attention to how other writers write.

If you want to illustrate, draw lots. Kids at the park. Your houseplants. Your cats, brothers, neighbors, stuffed alien, car.

Talk with other writers, hang out with other illustrators. You’re not competing, you’re problem-solving. If people try to compete with you, quietly go away from them: they’re going to get mean wrinkles, have rotten marriages and die young. Stick with affectionate, funny, sharing kinds of people.

Keep gnawing at whatever seems important to you. If you’re steadily  writing and drawing and sharing, you’ve already arrived at 99% of being a writer-illustrator.

“But I want to be published!”

Of course you do. And when you are, you’ll find your life still consists of writing, drawing, and sharing. You had it all already. Enjoy it now.

If you weren’t a writer and illustrator, what would you be?

arroyohandMaybe I’d be an archaeologist, because I love garbage dumps. (They have to be older than 1950.)

Maybe I’d be a linguist, and study all the weird words humans invent. Or an ethnomusicologist, and sing World Beat.

Or maybe I’d adopt four kids, make sure they had lots of art supplies, and get them to teach me all the verses to I See London, I See France. I’d live to regret it, my hair would turn white, and I’d grow wise.

How do you think up the names of people and places in your books?

I don’t know. I think they exist already. One of the reasons I like the writing of Ursula K. Le Guin so much—and if you want to write fantasy you should read her essays, they’re wonderfulis that she knows that the places fantasists write about already exist, in the subconscious and the unconscious.

For a truly in-depth answer, click here.

What are you working on now?

Like most writer-artists, I work on several projects at once. Right now it’s a couple of novels, a chapter book, a book about hiking, and a lot of short articles. And maybe if I get through all that I can finally get my  garlic planted!

All material on this site, both text and graphics, is ©Betsy James, and may not be used commercially without her permission.

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Betsy James on Writing, Art, and Walking in the Desert

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