interview by Erin Nuttall
I don’t know anyone who is more excited about the process of writing than Sarah. I think that’s because she uses play to make writing FUN! She has a joie de vivre which is infectious. Somehow in the middle of all that play, Sarah is prolific and also makes sure that her writing is grounded in excellent craft–true talents we can all aspire to and work toward. –Erin Nuttall
KLC: What inspired you to write Brand-New Bubbe?
Sarah Aronson: When my stepson and his wife called us with the news that they were having a baby–our first grandchild–I was (of course) immediately delighted for our family! I was so ready to be a bubbe! But then, a friend asked me if it bothered me that technically, the baby and I would not be related! That question bugged me. It made me think about family and what it takes to blend two families into one…and the main ingredient to do that: LOVE! It got me thinking about those first years when my husband and I started dating and bringing our kids together, and how we needed to be patient for them to get to know each other and develop the bonds that make us a family. These are big emotions to write about. But writing about step-parents felt too close to home. So I thought deeper. About the other members of a family. Like bubbes! And how a child might feel at the prospect of getting a new grandparent on top of everything else. In Brand New Bubbe, I strived to let Jillian tell her story. I wanted to show how this child was able to bring her whole family together, with the help of my very favorite thing to make…soup! I tried to tell the story with some humor, too! That always helps! Like soup, family is made with love. And there is no one set recipe!
KLC: Can you tell us about your writing process? You write for all different ages, is your process different when you write PB vs. MG vs. YA vs. Adult?
SA: No two projects emerge the same way, but I will commit to this: my process is aggressively playful. It’s my policy NEVER to say no to an idea until I’ve tried it out. I start by banishing expectations and embracing all the “what if”s through practice, discovery, and an attitude of experimentation. So, the first part of my process is asking: Who is the main character? Who is the reader? What is the genre? What does this mean to me? Why am I the best person to write this story? What scares me about this project? What excites me? What do I want to say?
Then I explore. As all my friends know, I write a discovery draft. Then I delete. Then write in earnest.
No matter what I’m writing, I try to give myself space and room to play every day.
What I can’t write without? Community. Having a supportive community of like-minded writers has always been essential to my willingness to try new things. Although writing is solitary, I need to feel safe and secure when I am reaching for something difficult or scary. If any of us are ever going to write what scares us, we need to make sure we have support. Today, I was looking at this Martin Buber quote: “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” Or put it another way: sometimes, I have to sacrifice the book I thought I was writing for the one that wants or needs to be written. For me, the magic happens when I strive for more, when I risk failing and falling. (And for the record, I fail A LOT MORE than I succeed.) I think about all the ways to foster creativity and wonder in my writing life. Daydreaming is essential. Too much busy time (especially on the computer) really stifles my voice and vision.
KLC: Pantser, plotter, or plants?
SA: Definitely a plantser. I draft. I look for structure. I draw. I walk. I am a big believer in the pomodoro technique. I start every day with 3-4 pomodoros (25-minute timed writing sessions). Then, the rest of the day, I can relax, read, and welcome inspiration!
KLC: Character first or plot first?
SA: Good question! Usually, I’m a character first writer. But with my new WIP (an adult mystery), I blocked out the plot turns first. (With a mystery, there are expectations!) Of course, I still managed to finish the draft without solving the mystery!!!
KLC: How does sidewriting fit into your process?
SA: Sidewriting is so important. It IS the magic. The practice. The work. I ALWAYS keep my journal nearby. I journal when I’m stuck. I journal when I have an epiphany. When I get feedback, I bring it first to the journal. I draw a lot. Every week, for my newsletter, I add a writing prompt or challenge. This always becomes the start of my side writing. I also look for good quotes that spark my imagination. Then I try and figure out what they mean to me.
KLC: How does play fit into your process?
SA: If there is one word that defines my process, it’s play. (Also gusto!) I write without expectations. I reach until I fall. Writing, for me, is a series of discoveries and missteps. I lower the stakes for my own success and write what makes me happy. I always have a “peach sorbet” going. This is a project that is just for me. This project never has to be good. It just has to keep me amused and writing.
For me, play is all about writing what you don’t think you can write. It’s about having fun with story. It doesn’t mean I don’t take my message seriously. But this work should be joyful. Confidence is key. When I tell myself I’m playing (versus working…or thinking…or doing something really important), ideas flow.
KLC: Do you have any tips for fellow writers who are working on Picture Books?
SA: When don’t I have tips? (haha)
***READ!!!! Every Saturday, I read ten picture books. I read them aloud. I type up the text. Want a great picture book? Some recent titles I’ve learned from (and loved): The Year We Learned to Fly, by Jacqueline Woodson and Rafael Lopez. Or Knight Owl, by Christopher Denise. Or See You Someday Soon, by Pat Zietlow Miller and Suzy Lee.
***Ask yourself: what is the promise you are making on Page One. Are you keeping it?
***My favorite picture books are about ONE essential thing. What is YOUR book about in ten words or less?
***Make a dummy! You will learn everything about pacing this way.
***Are you leaving room for the illustrator? Keep all art notes (unless they are essential to the story) to yourself. Your artist needs space to imagine, too.
***If you are writing a true story, think about WHY this person or event is important.
KLC: How has craft study informed your writing?
SA: Honestly? Sometimes, I need an MFA-ectomy. Sometimes, the tools wear me down. But studying craft has also helped me in so many ways. It helps me understand the scaffolding that every story, no matter what the genre, requires. It also has helped me to read my own work critically–and figure out what is missing…and why. It has helped me appreciate what goes into the making of a book. But if I catch myself thinking about craft when I should be tapping into my imagination, back to the sidewriting I go!
KLC: You teach for Highlights’ The Whole Novel Workshop, how does that influence your writing?
SA: Reading other writers’ novels and helping them take the next step is the most humbling, exciting thing I do. Thinking about the mechanics of story ALWAYS gives me new ideas. The conversation that is a central part of the Whole Novel Workshop gets my brain swirling! Conversation leads to confidence. Confidence leads to risk-taking. Risk-taking leads to more authentic, emotional stories with compelling characters.
KLC: What do you wish you had known about the publishing industry that you know now?
SA: In the beginning, I thought you had to write ONE thing. You know, you had to have a brand. I’m so glad I broke that rule!
KLC: What’s next on the horizon for Sarah Aronson fans?
SA: Thanks for asking! I’m working on a bunch of things:
I’ve got a Picture Book about Bella Abzug, coming from Calkins Creek (Astra Publishing) in 2024.
I just sent my agent my mature lady mystery. Fingers crossed!
I’m revising a chapter book. And I have about ten ideas for other novels in three different genres, so your guess is as good as mine!
Sarah Aronson began writing for kids and teens when someone in an exercise class dared her to try. Since then, she has earned an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and published books for kids and teens.
When Sarah is not writing or reading (or making great soup or riding her bike), she is talking to readers about creativity, writing, social action, and of course, sparkle power! She loves working with other writers in one of her classes at the amazing Highlights Foundation or Writers on the Net. Warning: When she gets really excited, she makes funny faces and talks with her hands. Don’t be shocked if she talks about the power of play. She lives in Chicago, Illinois.
Erin Nuttall holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is an active member of SCBWI and ALAN. She lives outside of Chicago with her family where she writes stories for middle grade and young adult readers that offer a humorous take on friendship, identity, feminism, and romance.