Meet Shirley Parenteau the great author of the new book Bears on Chairs, a wonderful childrens book. I had the opportunity of interviewing Shirley, and here's what came of it -
To start off, tell us a little bit about your background:
Heather: How Long Have You Been Writing?
Shirley: I feel I’ve been writing forever. My mother wrote feature stories for newspapers. I enjoyed reading her writer’s magazines and followed in her footsteps, first with magazine articles, then books. Currently, I’m writing picture books with a counting One Frog Sang sold to Candlewick Press in 2007 (reprinted in book club and audio versions by Scholastic in 2008) and a rhymed preschool-age picture book Bears on Chairs also with Candlewick Press published just this past August.
Heather: What started you writing for publication?
Shirley: That’s like asking what started me eating chocolate! There is a hunger for writing that I can’t resist. If I’m not writing, I feel that something is missing. I’m fascinated with the way putting words together can evoke scenes and hopefully, emotion.
My first published article was on traveling with a baby after driving across the country with my husband and then six-month-old son in a VW bug in the days before disposable diapers were common. I received an acceptance letter for the article on the same day as I received an acceptance for a very short story sent to a puzzle magazine…and I was hooked! Writing has been in my blood ever since.
I wrote a lot of articles for travel magazines while we tent-, trailer- and boat-camped with our three children. Then we bought seven acres and all the buildings of a nearly 100-year-old farm. The boat went into the barn—permanently as it turned out—and I began writing a humorous newspaper column about restoring the house and raising animals. While experimenting with and researching natural dyes, I found an article that inspired my first children’s book. I loved writing books which last a lot longer than newspaper or magazine articles and never looked back. Since then, I’ve written several children’s books and women’s novels.
Heather: Do you have a set time when you write, or just whenever you get the urge?
Shirley: I try to write every day, but life and bookkeeping for our family sheet metal business take time away. Even when I’m not actually at the computer, stories are constantly working out in the back of my mind.
Heather: Who is your favorite author?
Shirley: There are so many! I love Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum and for years, I’ve been in love with Martha Grimes’ detective, Richard Jury. I also love Elizabeth Peters’ fearless Egyptologist, Amelia Peabody. There are too many others to list. Reading has always been my favorite pastime.
Heather: Have you ever had writer's block, and if so how do you get rid of it?
Shirley: I’ve never had the emotional inability to write—knock on wood. If a story refuses to move forward, it’s usually because somewhere pages back I let it head in the wrong direction. I need to go back and find that spot and redirect the story to get it moving again.
Heather: What do you recommend to aspiring authors?
Shirley: Patience and a tough skin. One of the hardest things for me is to put a finished story aside for awhile. I always think it’s ready when I’ve finished the first draft and can’t wait to send it off. But after a cooling down period, I usually see parts that don’t quite work or that can be made better. With picture books, especially, every word must be right. I’d rather find a problem while it’s still in my computer than send a revision after agent or editor has spent time on the story.
The tough skin is needed because rejection and criticism are so much a part of writing. We have to get past taking it personally and realize it’s the story that is being criticized, not the writer.
Heather: How do you invent your characters?
Shirley: For me, characters evolve as the story develops. I envy and admire writers who fully develop each character before beginning their story. It’s the characters we remember, after all, even more than the plot.
Heather: I know a few authors who keep records (almost like police records) of height, weight, background, etc. of their characters, do you keep tabs on your characters, and if so, what do you usually make note of?
Shirley: My life is full of notes: grocery lists, ideas, quotes…but I can’t make extensive character sheets. When I try, I lose interest in both character and story.
Heather: Some authors say that they feel as though his or her characters are real, do you feel this way, and what do you think about this?
Shirley: They’re not real? Actually, it’s wonderful and surprising when a character comes to life and insists on behaving in a way I hadn’t consciously planned. Sometimes a line of dialogue will surprise me or make me laugh and I wonder, “Where did that come from?” Of course, when a character comes to life, it’s because the writer is really into that character, so much so that it takes on its own life. But you have to keep control of the story, whatever—they—may want to do. (smiling)
Heather: Do you have anything in the works?
Shirley: Always. Currently, my heart is with a young adult fantasy set in an imaginary Aladdin’s lamp setting. And I’m working on a new picture book.
Heather: What would you say is the neatest thing you know?
Shirley: What it’s like to soar in a hot air balloon over my own home and fields. I was lucky enough to win a ride in a balloon called Rainbow that lifted off from a nearby park. The same luck was working to send us over my home. I was amazed that I felt no sense of motion. The ground seemed to fall away, then slowly pass beneath us, as if the balloon stood still in the air.
Heather: What was your favorite part about writing your book?
Shirley: A favorite part in any book is when I know something is needed and seemingly out of the blue, an answer comes to mind—a gift from the muse. My original text for Bears on Chairs began with a bear on a chair. My editor suggested opening with just the chairs, like a stage set where something is about to happen. Since the book is rhymed with every line ending in a rhyme for bears, I was at a loss. Then a complete stanza dropped into my mind saying exactly what I needed to say.
Heather: Has music ever inspired your writing?
Shirley: Since music can be very emotional, I feel that it should, but have never experimented with listening to music while writing.
Heather: Do you like to write in complete silence or does it have to be noisy?
Quiet is nice but I’m used to writing while tuning out noise.
Heather: What made you put your characters in the setting that you did?
Shirley: For the young adult novel I’m writing, the plot idea decided the setting. I learned of a way of foreseeing the future I’d never heard of before and wanted to develop a character who uses it. In my mind, the idea called for an ancient desert setting in a time of wizards and magic. Bears on Chairs evolved from an incident in a bookstore where my then-three-year-old granddaughter was placing stuffed animals on child-size chairs. I wondered, what if there were more bears than chairs? The book sprang from that.
Heather: Keyboard or pen?
Shirley: I love the ease of composing and editing on a keyboard, but I print a hard copy for revising. Words on paper seem to give me a fresh view of the work.
Heather: What do you think is the hardest part about being an author?
Shirley: Rejection of a project I’ve put my heart into. One Frog Sang was rejected by several publishers, all with very nice letters saying they liked the book but already had counting books on their lists. When the book found a home with Candlewick Press, I was delighted. Cynthia Jabar, the artist Candlewick selected, placed my text into gorgeous paintings. For my new primary age book, Bears on Chairs, Candlewick selected David Walker, an artist who created wonderfully cuddly, toddler-like bears.
Heather: What do you usually do while writing?
Shirley: I usually get my daughter’s opinion of an early draft. She’s my best and harshest critic. Even when I wince from her comments, I see how they improve the story. I may not feel her exact comment works, but she gives me a fresh approach where there is a problem. I also count on advice from a longtime writing group and from a critique partner, both through email and in monthly meetings. Writing can be a lonely business. Feedback helps!
Heather: Some people say that you need to live life before you write a book, do you think that it’s experience that writes a book or imagination?
Shirley: I think it’s both. My older sister once comforted me in a difficult situation by saying, “Everything is grist for the writer’s mill.” Those words have lived with me for a long time. But imagination is needed to turn the actual experience into a story that comes alive for the reader. Recently, my granddaughter of the bookstore bears, now age six, gave me a wonderful line that is the theme for the picture book I’m working on now. I’m lucky to have six granddaughters, four under the age of eight. I find that listening to them and seeing how their world has changed even since my own children were young can inspire fresh ideas for today’s readers. Of course, some things never change, like the need to share inspired by the bookstore bears.
I like the colors of: oceans
The sky is most beautiful when it’s: stormy
My favorite feature of a computer is: communication
I think inventors should invent a: teleporter
Thing I love most in the world is: family
Things I hate most in the world is: anger
My favorite type of electronic device is: computer
My favorite thing that has been available before the year 1900: kite
My favorite thing that has been available since the year 1960: E-mail
The oddest thing you have ever written on (hand, wall, etc.) is: mushroom
Shirley's books are avaible on amazon.com and many other places too!