The questions I hear most often from kids,
and the best answers I can come up with:

Where do you get your ideas?
How old were you when you started writing?
Which was your first book for kids?
How long does it take you to write a book?
Do you write other things besides books?
How much money do writers make?
What's your favorite book for young people?
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Why do you like being a writer?
Got a better or wackier question?

Where do you get your ideas?
From my sock drawer.Photo by Noricum

Kidding aside, they just explode into my mind. I suspect story ideas wander around looking for somebody who will write them down, and I must have a big crack in my skull where they can sneak in. Writing most of my recent books, I have felt like I was taking dictation.

How old were you when you started writing?
I began writing as a second-grader, with a short story about two puppies called Yip and Yap, and with a poem about one of my favorite book characters. Here's the poem (try not to groan):

Clifford the Big Red Dog
Went “arf” and he fell in a bog.
Nothing stuck out
But his very big snout.
Poor Clifford! He could not get out!

My teacher suspected I'd stolen it. I'd certainly stolen the character (I prefer to think of it as homage), but for better or worse, I'd begun to write. I've kept at it, off and on, ever since, and I enjoy it more all the time.

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Which was your first book for kids?
Bears Barge In.

How long does it take you to write a book?
I usually blast through the first draft of a novel in about a month. Revisions take months and sometimes years more. Reality Leak started out as a screenplay, and even if you don't count several years in which I worked on the script, more than 4 years passed between the time I started the novel and the time the publisher, Henry Holt, bought it — and it took nearly another two years until it came out in bookstores. Bears Barge In took even longer — about 8 years, believe it or not — between the day I wrote the first draft and getting the book finally published. Yikes!

Do you write other things besides books?
After college, I spent about 10 years writing screenplays for movies. Although I did well in contests and optioned one script to a Hollywood production company, I eventually realized that Hollywood and I were not a great match, so I shifted my focus to kids' books. (The screenwriting practice proved invaluable, though.)

I've written many magazine articles for adults, and I occasionally write a little poetry for fun. Plus, I write non-fiction (usually!) for businesses to pay most of my bills.

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How much money do writers make?
There are a few famous exceptions, but most of us couldn't buy a car with what we make on a single book, let alone pay rent and buy food for a year. That's why, when I'm not writing books for kids, I write newsletters, brochures, and training materials for big companies. But that kind of writing puts a roof over my head so I can spend the rest of my time inventing stories.

What's your favorite book for young people?
Of all time:
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel)
The Whiskers of Ho-Ho by William Littlefield

Recently:
The Mark of the Horse Lord by Rosemary Sutcliff
Feed by M.T. Anderson

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When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
For a long time, I didn't. I liked to write the whole time I was in school, but it didn't occur to me that I could pick writing for a career. One day in high school, a girl sitting next to me told the teacher that she wanted to be a writer. I thought, “Gosh, how lucky! I wish I could do that.” But I thought somebody else had to tell me that I should be a writer. Nobody ever did, so I planned to be a scientist instead. Luckily, by the time I graduated from college I figured out that all you have to do to become a writer is to write. That means that if you want to be a writer (or an artist), you can — you just have to practice a lot, ask people to look at your work, and try to get better over time.

Why do you like being a writer?
One of the things I like best is that I get to learn a little bit about a lot of interesting topics and odd facts. For instance, did you know that if you threw your socks out on the side of the road and never picked them up, they would lay there for months, maybe a whole year, before they finally rotted away and disintegrated? (Of course, that might depend partly on how stinky your feet are!)

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