Deborah Underwood is the author of the children’s book Pirate Mom, two forthcoming fiction picture books, and over a dozen nonfiction books for kids. She spent thirteen years typing memos for accountants before taking the plunge into freelance children’s writing.
Tell us what makes you a great Escape Artist.
Being flexible has served me well. Early on I decided that since I was forging a new path and it wasn’t going to be easy, I had to take any writing jobs that came along, period—no prima donna stuff. That decision has taken me places I would have never imagined. I wanted to write fiction picture books, but when I learned there was more of a market for nonfiction, I said, “Okay, I’ll do that too.” Writing samples I sent to publishers turned into nonfiction assignments and book contracts. Queries to magazines resulted in mind-boggling opportunities like getting to interview Nick Park (Wallace and Gromit creator) and George Miller (director of Happy Feet). Now I’m working on a series of chapter books with a celebrity (check my website next summer to find out who!). If I’d stayed focused on picture books, I would have missed out on a lot.
How did you come to start writing children’s stories?
I’ve tried all sorts of writing, from screenplays to greeting cards to puzzles to magazine articles to plays. About ten years ago when I was browsing through a gift shop in a seaside English village, I read a beautiful and moving children’s picture book. I burst into tears (alarming the shopkeeper, I’m sure) and had a lightning-bolt realization that I wanted to write books for kids. That idea percolated till I got laid off (hallelujah!) from my corporate job in 2000. After the requisite few months of lying around my apartment watching daytime television, I was ready to roll. I’ve recently realized that what I really want to do is write screenplays for family films, so in a way I’ve come full circle.
What kinds of other jobs have you held to support your creative venture?
Street musician, office temp, administrative assistant, jewelry maker, choral singer. And I guess you could say my nonfiction children’s writing supports my fiction, since that work is steadier.
What kinds of things have threatened to hold you back along the way, and how have you overcome those obstacles?
One of my scariest moments was right after I signed the contract to write Northern Lights, my first nonfiction book. I didn’t know how to write a book. I hadn’t realized how much science would be involved, and I was completely out of my element. I sat in my apartment surrounded by notes thinking, “I don’t understand any of this! I can’t do it!” I imagined myself running a tin cup along my jail cell bars after my breach-of-contract trial. After a few days, I pushed through the panic and slowly began deciphering the things I needed to know.
That experience taught me two important things. I learned to ask for help—a physics-savvy friend and a very kind aurora researcher got me through that first project. And I learned that an early-on freak-out is part of my process. It happens with nearly every book I write, but now I think, “Oh, okay, this is just the freak-out thing; keep working and you’ll be fine in a few days.”
What’s some of the better advice you’ve received as you’ve worked your way toward this place in your life? Any advice of your own to share with others who are transitioning to a more creative career or lifestyle?
When I started writing for kids, I kept hearing how important it is to join a critique group. Finding a supportive community of fellow writers has made all the difference in the world to me. I’m in four writing groups, and the advice I’ve gotten in them—both about making specific manuscripts stronger, and about how to negotiate the nutty publishing world—has been invaluable.
Then there’s the common-sense stuff: deliver on time, write thank-you notes, return calls promptly—all those things Miss Manners says you should do. Find a way to keep track of your triumphs, because it’s easy to forget them when you’re going through a bad patch. Write them down in a book or keep them in a folder so when you’re ready to throw in the towel, you can remind yourself of the progress you’ve made.
But my best advice is to surround yourself with people who support your dream.
And finally … how do curious readers go about finding your books?