The 5-Question [Children’s Author] Interview: Alexis O’Neill

The writer lets us in on trimming excess, cutting to the chase, pushing through weeds and the strange dichotomy of promotion.

Alexis O’Neill, a multi-award-winning author, is hard at work writing children’s books in every genre. With four picture books published (Loud Emily [about which Publisher’s Weekly (starred review) wrote: “O’Neill crafts a charmer…Emily’s quest to find her place in the world without altering herself in the process, will encourage anyone who has ever felt different from the crowd.”], Estela’s Swap, The Recess Queen and The Worst Best Friend), she’s one genre down and many more to go. Alexis is on the road a good portion of the year doing school visits all over the country, meeting and making fans. In addition to writing for children, she pens a column for the SCBWI Bulletin called, “The Truth About School Visits” and is regional advisor for SCBWI in the Ventura/Santa Barbara region of California.

The Writer’s Journey: Is voice, to you, a constant? Has yours as a writer evolved over the years? Or have you just gotten more confident in using it?

Alexis: To me, “voice” is the [I-get-it alert:] voice of the story that needs telling—not my own personal voice. My tall tale and folk tales have a different syntax and flavor than my contemporary picture books. My magazine articles, of course, are different still. But what has evolved over the years is my ability to cut to the chase of a story. Trimming excess is probably the most difficult part of writing for children—especially in picture books. I love words, but I have to think like a poet and choose the right words (the only words) that will unlock my story. My first drafts always are terribly overwritten. The fun comes in cutting and shaping.

The Writer’s Journey: Why is telling stories so much fun? I ask because I believe it satisfies a need we all have to connect with others. How about you?

Alexis: My family is Irish and Scottish. To us Celts, with a bardic tradition ingrained in our DNA, telling stories is the same as breathing. The memory of our culture depended on shaping facts and emotions through stories colored with sensory images and sharing those stories from village to village. Today the tradition lives in print. And what could be better than having others love your stories and pass them on?

The Writer’s Journey: Do you wait for the muse, or do you see writing as a job to be done whether the muse is in or not? By the way, what is your muse?

Alexis: My muse? She never sets her own alarm, and is very undependable. So, as a full-time working writer, I have to wake up my muse every single day and tell her to get busy!

The Writer’s Journey: Taking the stance that creativity is a natural state, why do we get stuck?

Alexis: Wow. Who said creativity is “a natural state”? While I do think that we’re all born with creative sparks that can take many forms, I also believe that creativity is something that needs to be nurtured in order to grow and thrive. We need to try our hands at new forms and stretch out of comfortable habits. I think that the perfect antidote to “stuckness” is to take a class, try a new art form, put heads together with others to solve a puzzle, take a trip, or read a stimulating and challenging book. More than getting “stuck,” I think we get “stopped”—mostly from laziness or an unwillingness to push through the weeds of horrible drafts toward the meadow beyond. And there is always a meadow of green beyond—we just never know how long it’s going to take to get there and are tempted to give up short of the destination.

The Writer’s Journey: As a children’s book author with many books in print, how do you balance the left-brain activity of promotion with the right-brain activity of creation? Or do you experience them as unified?

Alexis: Here’s the problem. Promotion is a monster that often sits on the heart of creation. Right now, I have countless projects I’m working on. When story creation is in full gear, I’m in the zone and on a high. My heart races. I write lines in a rush of “Yes! That’s it!” I’m excited. Pure joy! I lose track of time. I have lots to tell my husband at the end of the day. I can’t wait to get back to the story. But then as I reread my story, the promotion monster whispers in my ear, “Will it sell? What’s the hook? Who will buy this? It’s a nice story, but is it a necessary story?” That monster is always lurking. I know he’s necessary to the success of my works, but it doesn’t make me any happier to have to share a room with him. So I have to feed the monster a bit, then hush his voice and get back to story-making for the pure joy of it.

Alexis lives in Simi Valley with her husband, David (an airplane-building, computer-savvy, good-natured  writer and-cat-loving guy) and his very huge extended family (but not all in the same house or no writing at all would ever get done!). Act like family over here.