Few people do everything, and do it well. Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen is the exception. She has 24 published titles under her belt, running the gamut from picture books to fiction and non-fiction for both children and adults, to an upcoming chapter book series, to speaking and teaching engagements, not to mention she is super mom to three awesome, amazing, wonderful children, has an endearment for pigs, fowl, the color pink and shoes. And to top it off, she’s a Jersey girl with an imaginary pony named Penny!
I put on my running shoes (and even gave myself a head start! Ok, I cheated!) to catch up with this wonder woman in high heels.
How and when did you start writing? Did you always want to be a writer?
I didn’t start writing until pretty late in life since becoming a writer was just about the last thing I ever expected to be doing. I was a PhD candidate in developmental neurobiology at Caltech when I had one baby. And then 14 months later, I had another baby. Babies have this way of changing your life and turning everything you had planned on its ear. All of a sudden, I didn’t want to be a biologist so much as I wanted to be a mother.
About six months after Brooklyn (my second) was born, I decided that just being home being a mom wasn’t what I wanted – I definitely cherished my time with my kids, but I wanted to have something more, something that was mine. I thought I could write with two babies in the house – which was utterly silly because you can’t do anything with two babies in the house!
What was your big break as an author?
I’m still waiting for my “big” break!
Seriously, though, every day, even now, I struggle with trying to figure out whether I am any good at this — so I suppose I haven’t really decided yet if I’ve had a big break. In fact, I’m not sure every day if this writing thing is even what I want to do when I grow up!
I was in the library doing research for one of the science experiment books I’ve written – which actually means that I was doing anything but researching science experiments. Instead, I was flipping through vintage magazines and actually came across one from decades ago that had an ad for the circus. There were pictures of pigs doing different acts – dressed up as clowns, playing the xylophone, walking on a tightrope. That’s where the idea of a piglet who wanted to be star at the circus was born.
Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process? How do you develop your stories from beginning to end?
I typically start with character. In my opinion, having a strong main character is the single most important thing for any book, whether it be a picture book, a chapter book, or a novel. But don’t confuse “strong” with “perfect.” The first thing I do to my main characters is to infuse them with flaws. No one wants to read about little miss perfect who never does anything wrong or has anything bad happen to her. No, we like to read about characters who are just like us – messed up, crazy, unlucky, sometimes dumb, etc. A flawed character is an endearing character.
It is only after I establish character and flaws do I start thinking about the plot itself. The plot should flow logically out of the character and his flaws – meaning the character’s flaws both create a problem and then somehow redeems him. That’s what creates the strongest plots.
Also, in almost every book I work on, I carefully consider whether there is a way to work a platypus or a pig into the story. To make it better. 🙂
How many books do you work on at a time?
Oh, that depends on the type (picture book vs. novel, for example), but typically I have between four and six projects going at any given time.
Once your editor has selected an illustrator, do you get to share your ideas with the illustrator?
Not usually! I try to respect the illustrator’s need for space to create by not crowding it, though I am always here to offer suggestions if requested!
One thing that I love about your picture books is that they touch on very important every day issues confronting both parents and children alike: the joys of bedtime , sharing , being yourself , fear of the unknown , fear of becoming a parent , and the unexpected perils of having a new sibling .
Where do you find the inspiration for your stories?
Most of my inspiration comes from my life, which is a fairly boring answer. But as you point out, the books are typically about everyday issues – you know, the ones I face every day. 🙂 Chicks Run Wild is an autobiography – every night, I kiss my kids goodnight, I tuck them in, I turn off the lights, I shut the door – and five minutes later, I hear someone yell, “She’s touching me!” Which wouldn’t bother me so much if my children didn’t have their own rooms!
I could basically do this over and over and tell you a story about each of my books and tie it into my life. Like how trying to get two toddlers 14 months apart in age to share inspired me to think of a selfish dinosaur who only knows how to say MINE, otherwise known as The Mine-O-Saur. This is a story about recognizing your faults and correcting them, about learning to consider the feelings of others and determining what is most important in life – possessions, or friends.
In another case, a lifetime of weighing the need for a midnight snack against the possibility of a monster in my kitchen led to a book called Hampire! This is a story about making assumptions and about acceptance. And how funny vegetarianism can be in the right context.
For Quackenstein Hatches a Family, I was inspired when I was expecting my third child. I’d already had two children, daughters, perfect little princesses, and I was convinced I was about to have daughter number 3. That’s when I found out that the new she was actually going to be a he. And like Quackenstein, what I got wasn’t what I expected.
I wrote Quackenstein in the months that I was pregnant with Sawyer, and I can honestly say that there are several themes at play in the book that are personal to me. How a parent can both be excited about having a child and terrified by the prospect. How a parent can make assumptions about a child and then be surprised by the reality. It is a story about acceptance, about what it means to be a family, and about how freakish yet cute platypuses really are. And in case it isn’t obvious, my son is a delight, a joy, and a blessing, all contained in the outer packaging of a beautiful, adorable, monster.
I hope I’ve shown you how much a writer draws from her own life to create art, and how if I had not had the experiences I’ve had, I could not write the books that I write.
Ahoy Mateys! It seems you have pirates and treasure trove on the brain these days. Can you please tell us how Half-Pint Pete the Pirate and the Pirate Princess came about?
Who doesn’t like a pirate? They swash and they buckle, they pillage and loot. How great is that?
Despite their shared piratical theme, Pete and Pirate Princess are actually quite different. Pete is the story of a pirate who is in search of something to complete him. Unfortunately for him, he just doesn’t know what it is that he is searching for. He thinks it’s treasure, but with only half a treasure map, how can he ever feel whole? Of course, Pete turns out to be very wrong about where he will find happiness . . . but it makes for a fun-filled journey.
Pete was inspired by my daughters’ inability to share their dress-up toys. One day, this lead to me cutting everything in dispute in half – the princess skirt, the knight’s shield, the treasure map, everything. One of them complained that you can’t do anything with half a treasure map, and, in that moment, “Half-Pint Pete, the Idea” was born.
Pirate Princess is much more a story about following your dreams – no matter how crazy or far-fetched they might be. And what could be more far-fetched than a princess who dreams of becoming a pirate? Somehow Princess Bea finds her sea legs, so to speak – though not before some serious brushes with danger and seasickness . . .This book is somewhat autobiographical – not only have I faced situations in life where I wanted to do something that seemed crazy (like having three kids before 30. Or shifting from PhD candidate in developmental neurobiology to children’s book writer) but that also seemed right. Also, I’m not a particularly good cook or housekeeper, and I get seasick.
There’s been a buzz about your upcoming chapter book series, Spectacles of Destiny. Can you give us the scoop on the series?
These books are about a girl named Destiny who gets a magic pair of eyeglasses that let her see bits of the future. Intrigued? I hope so!
When can we get our hands on our first copy?
Fall 2014 – keep an eye out!
Are there any other books in the works?
Many, many! Disney-Hyperion will be publishing a book called Duck Duck Moose, illustrated by the incomparable Noah Z. Jones. HarperCollins will publish Snoring Beauty with Jane Manning doing the illustrations. Other forthcoming titles include Splatypus, Tyrannosaurus Wrecks! and Orangutangled. I’m a busy girl!
How did you first get involved doing school visits?
I’ve been doing school visits for years, though every passing year seems to bring more than the previous one. The first visits I did were after Tightrope Poppy came out, and if memory serves, the very first ones were part of the Virginia Festival of the Book. Since then, I’ve probably given hundreds of author talks to kids from preschool through college. It’s a wonderful career to have.
I can say first-hand that your school visits are AWESOME! My son and his classmates are still talking about your visit to his preschool two years ago. How can schools, bookshops, and your fans get a hold of you, if they would like you to do a visit?
You are so sweet! All my contact information is on my website, www.sudipta.com. In addition, I welcome emails from anyone who is interested in discussing a school visit. My email address is email@example.com.
How did you get involved teaching writer workshops?
As I became more successful, I felt very strongly that I wanted to give back to my community of writers and I thought that sharing my experience/tips/expertise as openly and as honestly as I could was the best way to accomplish that. Also, there is an ulterior motive to teaching – the more I teach, the better I am able to understand my craft, which in turn makes me a better writer.
What’s your best advice for new authors?
Learn the industry. Being a writer is an art; being an author is a business.
A bonus piece of advice is that you should enjoy the ride. In my job, I get to create something from nothing. Most jobs involve pushing papers from one end of your desk to the other, or executing against someone else’s list of deliverables. In what I do, I start with what is in my mind and my heart and I turn it into something real that hopefully will touch the lives of my readers. If that is not something worth cherishing, I don’t know what is.
I understand you have an imaginary pony. How is Penny?
Believe it or not, she’s much messier than you’d expect! My house looks like a train wreck!
Lastly, what’s your favorite shoe? And how do you keep up with three children in high-heeled shoes?
Oh, that one may be as hard as which is my favorite child . . . hmmm, let me see . . . the pair I am enjoying the most right now is a pair of calf-length black leather boots with lots of straps and a 6-in platform heel. As for keeping up with three children, I decided a long time ago not to chase them. They come to me, when they get hungry enough . . . . 🙂
Sudipta, thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions. I cannot wait to get my hands on a copy of Spectacles of Destiny!
All the best and mucho success.