An EllRay Q & A With Sally Warner
Today, readers, we are sharing a bonus blog piece! Over the last week we've collected questions from our participants about EllRay Jakes Is a Rock Star! (and few other topics, like popsicles). Then we handed them over to the creator herself, Sally Warner. Here's what Sally had to say about the questions from our readers:
How did you come up with the idea for this book?
There are a couple of ideas in EllRay Jakes is a Rock Star that came from my own primary school life. For instance, a shy boy in my class brought in his dad's crystal collection to share, and he ended up giving everything away, just like EllRay. But in real life, the boy's father came into our class to demand that everything be brought back at once.! Scary.
The class's Valentine's Day scene was based on real life too, but in a more general way. Valentine's Day was a lot simpler then, but it was still a pretty big deal. Mrs. Yvette Miller, our beautiful teacher in fifth and sixth grades, was the inspiration for EllRay's teacher Ms. Sanchez. She tried to keep our expectations under control, but Valentine's Day always seemed to take on a life of its own.
Why is EllRay's dad a geologist?
I am interested in nature, and a dear friend's husband is a geologist who lives in Finland. (His work mostly has to do with isotopes and radiocarbon dating, but he knows a lot about rocks.) We met when he was working with another scientist for a while at Caltech, near where we live in Southern California. Our sons went to school together and became great friends, even though my son reported that his new friend spoke only "Spinach." ("Finnish.")
I always pictured EllRay's made-up town of Oak Glen as being very much like Ramona, California, where I once adopted a dog. Ramona is halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego, San Diego being home of one of California's universities, and its hillsides are strewn with boulders. Also, Ramona is very near Anza Borrego Desert State Park, a place where my sons' classes used to camp, and my husband and I loved to visit. The rock formations there are dizzying in their variety, forming a canyon, and "the badlands," and "Earthquake Valley," where you can see where an actual earthquake fault has split the surface of the earth.
So I put everything together and came up with–geologist!
Mostly, I just thought it was a fun choice full of lots of story possibilities.
Do you have any pets?
We have a 15-year-old dachshund named Jimmy Shivers who we adopted when he was already 11. He had been abandoned in the desert. He has put himself in charge of me and follows me everywhere.
Outside, we have three koi in our fishpond. Their names are Cyrus, Spot, and Fancy. Cyrus lets me pet his head sometimes, and he's the fish in charge. He is probably about 14" long. Whenever we bring a new fish to the pond, Cyrus trains the new guy to hide in a little cave under a big flat rock we put in to give them a place to hide from raccoons, herons, and other predators. They have survived for years now.
I have also fed the local California scrub jays for a long time. I became interested in them after I rescued a baby jay from four cats in the middle of the night many years ago. I named him Lucky. I raised him, taught him to fly, and successfully set him free. He would come visit when I worked in the garden, making the same baby bird noises he made when I was taking care of him.
I am also very interested in crows (another corvid, like the jay). When I caw, one usually caws back. They're smart! And they keep an eye on things. Ever since the quarantine started, my husband has become interested in them, too. He cleans the birdbath for them each day and puts out roasted peanuts (no salt). But now, whenever one of our local crows sees him sitting outside reading, it starts to caw for its friends to come watch him. They even stare at him through the window! So we'll see how long his new crow hobby lasts.
Do you play a sport?
I used to play tennis and lots of informal games with my friends. But when I was growing up, there were no sports teams for girls.
These days, I like swimming best. We are lucky enough to have a pool, and I usually swim in it from May until mid-October. Starting–next week, I hope!
Do you play a musical instrument?
I took piano lessons for a little while when I was growing up, but I mostly liked to play the piano on my own. (I should have kept taking lessons, maybe, because you can only get so far on your own!)
I also liked playing the guitar, and my dad gave me a baritone ukulele to play as well, for some reason.
I love music, though, and can remember words and tunes forever, even if I no longer play any musical instrument.
Do you like popsicles?
Yes! I really do! These days, I especially like "Outshine Frozen Fruit Bars," which are basically just fancy popsicles. But you can really taste the fruit! I always buy extra for when neighbor kids come swim in our pool. (I like the idea of fun on top of fun, like being in the pool and eating a popsicle at the same time. The kids like that, too!)
When I was growing up, I like orange and red popsicles best, not the green ones. And never blue. Oh, and root beer popsicles were really good.
What is it like writing a book? Is it hard?
Writing a book is like making up your own private world and all the people in it, and then getting to live there for a while. The characters become very real to me, and sometimes I talk to my husband about them as if they were read. "Guess what EllRay did today?"
You can't write a book without sitting down alone and working on it–regularly. So you have to be able to tolerate working alone. (I love it. My husband is also an artist/writer, and we feel as though we've been in training for this quarantine our whole lives!)
Yes, it is hard, because a lot of writing is really re-writing, making your story the clearest and best it can be. Also, you have to be able to write as if you were doing the work all at once, no matter what else is going on in your life, happy or sad. I have worked on a book in the car while we were driving across the country, and in a hospital room, writing on a toilet seat cover.
Somedays, staring at a blank page on a computer screen is really hard, and you wonder how you ever did it. It can feel as though you are treading water. But writers and most other artists have what I think of as "the habit of work," so you just get going–and write your way into feeling inspired once more.
So yes, it is very hard. But I love putting words together.
How long does it take to write a book?
There are several answers to this seemingly-easy question. The broadest answer–and the most real–is that a book takes you your whole life to write, or however many years old you are. This is because all your experiences, and every person you've met, are with you when you write.
Another answer might be that it takes years, often before you even start the actual writing. I have two or three ideas I have been thinking about for ten or twenty years now.
Sometimes you work on a book for many months before realizing that it just isn't working out, and you decide to set it aside for a while, or forever.
Sometimes, you finish a book, but no publisher wants to buy it.
For the nine EllRay Jakes books, which were sold in three batches of three books each, I submitted a "synopsis" of the plots for each one, with the understanding that the story might change as I worked. Since I was writing based on this informal outline, and I already knew the characters, writing the book was quicker than with other stand-alone projects. I probably spent an average of about 4 months on each of the EllRay books, writing 6 (or sometimes 7) days a week.
What helps you feel creative?
I feel most creative with regular writing hours and as balanced a life as I can manage.
Ordinarily this means spending time outside in the garden, or swimming, and going out to do chores as well. (That's disappeared with the quarantine and home delivery, so finding a nourishing balance is more challenging.)
I also like spending relaxation time with our dog, and planning things in the garden, and watching the koi and birds outside. I regularly text two or three friends, and I write longer letters or emails to friends who live across the country or in other countries. One of my best friends lives in Finland. I belong to a book club, and we Zoom our monthly meetings. My husband and I stream shows and movies in the evening.
One curious thing is how often these unrelated outside activities end up "feeding" my imagination as I work on a book. It could be something I hear, or something I see. But it all helps.
What inspires you?
I am inspired by nature, poems, past experiences, memories, and things I may happen to read. One of my books was inspired simply by an idea I had for a title, and another book was inspired by a dream. But that has only happened once!
And no matter the inspiration, after that comes the work–even when you might not feel like working.
As with so many things, you'll get into the mood once you start.
Do you do research for your books, like with EllRay and info about his rocks?
His father's crystals, you mean!
Yes, I love doing research, and I probably use Google at least ten times a day. The availability of all kinds of information makes it possible for me to write realistic fiction based on today's kids.
Sometimes I end up tossing away much of the research, because I don't want it to take over the book. I always have accumulated much more than I can use. But whether it's kids' clothes, my characters' names, school curriculum and rules, what different neighborhoods look like, or various kinds of crystals, research is, for me, one of the most fun parts of my writing day.
What is your favorite book?
The answer changes as time passes.
In elementary school, I loved The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare, and Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O'Dell. I even wrote a book in which my character is obsessed by that book! It's called How to be a Real Person (in Just one Day). (Knopf Books for Young Readers, ©2001, and still selling well in South America for some reason.)
I also really loved The Once and Future King trilogy by T. H. White. Those books are just wonderful for slightly older readers. They are so funny, and they're what really got me interested in history.
What is your favorite food?
At my age, my favorite food is almost anything I don't cook!
I guess I have just cooked too many meals in my life, and now, I often feel as though my "playtime" is being interrupted when it's time to make dinner. Luckily, it's just my husband and me here now, and he likes to cook from time to time.
I still like to make cookies every so often, though, and I definitely have a sweet tooth.
I love Mexican food (chile relleno burritos especially), and Italian, Thai, and Indian food, too. I also love seafood. and artichokes, and cherries, and Honeycrisp apples.
What is your favorite thing to do that's not writing?
I like being outside, and swimming, and reading. I love solving cryptograms and crossword puzzles, too. I like movies (one of my sons does 3D animation for movies!) and plays and having family and friends come visit. I always leave plenty of time for day-dreaming, too. And I'd never say no to a nap!
Where is your favorite place that you've traveled to?
In the U.S., I especially love New York City (I was born there) and Upstate New York, where we lived part of the year. I love staying in Santa Fe, NM, too.
Internationally, my favorite city is Rome, for its combination of history, art, architecture, pace of life, and really good food. I feel at home there.
But I also love Finland, especially its southern coast.
If you could have any animal as a pet, what would it be?
Or miniature goats, donkeys, or horses–two of them, to keep each other company.
Or river otters, if I had a stream for them to play in.
Or an Abyssinian cat. I've always wanted to live with one of those.
And always, a dog. Preferably a dachshund, because they're so loving, and such natural clowns.
Thank you to Sally for taking the time to answer these questions, and to readers like you for sending them in. We're so grateful for our Read to Them community, and can't wait to finish reading EllRay Jakes Is a Rock Star! with you.