Though cliche, the old saying is definitely true: A picture is worth a thousand words. And in Helaine Becker’s case, make that ten-thousand. Those of you who know Helaine, know that this picture says it all.
Those of you who don’t know Helaine, you’re missing out. You really oughtta hunt her down, buy her a drink, and spend some time with her. You won’t leave the table without having been inspired and/or challenged in one way or another. I can guarantee you that.
Meet Helaine Becker.
Please introduce yourself to us.
Hi Everybody! I’m Helaine Becker, and I write kids’ books. Funny kids’ books, for the most part.
Tell us about your most recent books.
This has been a really big year for me – I had FIVE books come out in 2010! First off the mark was The Quiz Book for Boys, which is a very silly kind of book, designed to appeal to the most juvenile-members (and I mean in spirit, not age) of the human species. Sample questions include What is Your Underwear Style, How Weird is Your Family? And What Kind of Junk Food are You? And in case you think I am unfairly biased toward the guys, please note The Quiz Book for Girls – equally silly – will be out in January.
The second book off the press was Magic Up Your Sleeve, which is a how-to of magic with a scientific bent. All of the activities use simple scientific principles to work, so you get to have fun, fool your friends AND experiment with really neat science-y stuff all at once.
I’ve also got two picture books this year. The first is a Halloween book, The Haunted House that Jack Built.
The second is for Christmas and is called A Porcupine in a Pine Tree.
Last but not least, I’ve got a book sure to make me popular with hockey fans – It’s The Hilarious History of Hockey. It’s, well, a history of hockey. And, um, hilarious.
Are there any current/upcoming projects you can tell us about?
I’ve always got a zillion projects on the go – a perennially restless mind and short attention span, I suppose. I’ve just done edits on another picture book that will be out with Kids Can Press in September 11, and am about to start writing two new non-fiction books – the topics are still very hush hush….And in the meantime, I’m working on a YA Horror novel. It’s so gross my 16 yr old son won’t even let me mention the word “book” in front of him these days (mwah hah hah….) And there’s a few other ideas I’ve been kicking around, pitching around too, including a kids TV show.
What do you find to be most challenging about being a writer?
This question is easy. The most challenging, of course, is the constant rejection. You need a freakily thick skin to not let having your work regularly criticized, rejected or ignored get to you. You also need a resilient ego to deal with the fact that none of your friends or family will really take you seriously; most people don’t really understand what we writers do or how the business works, so they think we just print books in the basement or something in between loads of laundry. Related to that is that children’s authors (well, anything to do with children, really) do not get much respect from society. And last but not least, there is the ongoing challenge to survive in a struggling industry – making a buck never gets any easier!
What do you find to be the most rewarding?
Thankfully, the rewards of this career FAR outweigh the challenges. First, and maybe most important to me, is I almost never have to get up early, and don’t have to wear shoes or show up at an office for work 5 days a week. I can work when I want, where I want, and goof off if the weather is nice and a friend calls. To me, that’s worth a billion zillion dollars. Secondly, I get to read a lot and learn a lot, and those are, like, my two favorite things in the world. And third, I get to visit schools and meet tons of great kids, and I have so much fun doing that! Last, but not least, I also get to work with wonderful people – the editors and illustrators who help make my books so beautiful and appealing, the other authors I’ve gotten to know who are 100% the most interesting people I know, and the wonderful teachers and librarians I meet when I am on tour. And did I mention the biggest surprise and reward of this crazy writing gig – that you get to travel ALL OVER the place? I’ve been to almost every province and territory and more than one foreign country as part of my job.
What does an average day look like for you?
Let’s just say there’s a lot of lying around the house…..
Was there a specific event that encouraged you to develop your writerly self?
Yes. Pure misery at a job I hated. I decided to quit, but before I did, I had to answer the question, what will you do instead? I’d been toying with the idea of writing for years – Honestly, I’d wanted to be a writer since I was 5 years old, but had talked myself out of it as a teenager, by telling myself a) I wasn’t talented enough and b) it was “unrealistic” to think you could make a living as a writer. But then, there I was 40 yrs old, and still wanting to be a writer! So I changed up the question in my head. Instead of saying to myself, with that derisive tone we sometimes use, “Why should your dream come true?” I asked myself instead, “Why shouldn’t they? There was only one reason why not: Because I hadn’t really ever made an honest effort to make my dreams come true. So I decided to use my sales experience (I’d been in sales for more than 15 yrs at that point) to start selling my own work – my writing. It was a pretty tough six months of sending out queries and getting rejections before I got my first yes (I don’t want to tell you how many no’s I got – let’s just say it was staggering). But eventually, the yes did come. And I’ve never looked back.
What advice would you give your pre-pub’d self?
It’s not about the talent. Ok, talent helps. But mostly, writing is a skill, that you can learn, and develop. The more you do it, the better you get at it. That being said, being a successful writer is not about the words on the page. HUH???? You say? What I mean is that to succeed in a tough business like publishing, you need to develop other skills in addition to the writing ones. You need to learn how the business of publishing works, and how to sell your work. Mostly, you need persistence, a never say die attitude and the ability to separate your work – your product, so to speak – from yourself as a worthwhile human being.
What advice would you give an aspiring author?
Read voraciously. Write constantly. These two tactics together will help you develop your ear for language, your vocabulary, your sense of drama and pacing. I would also encourage aspiring authors to find a group of like-minded people to share work with, for advice and support. No one can adequately critique their own work; you just can’t see it objectively, so you need someone to point out places where you can make improvements and bring your work to the next level. And third, I would suggest getting some basic business skills. If you are a freelance writer, you are in essence an entrepreneur. You need to know how to operate a small business. If you don’t have the basics down, you will really, really struggle to make a living, and you won’t even necessarily realize why.
Can you share a favorite quote with us?
“Where there’s life, there’s hope.” For me that means no matter how bleak things might look, as long as you are breathing, there is a chance for things to turn around, improve, even turn awesome! I remind myself of this whenever I feel like giving up.
Thanks so much, Helaine! What an inspiring interview. See, what did I tell you? Spending even five minutes with Helaine makes you think you can go out and conquer the world! Or, at least write a book. (Which, depending on the book, could help you conquer the world! )
You can find out more about Helaine on her website.
*Note: Due to my involvement with NaNoWriMo, Toronto Tuesdays Interviews will be on hold for the next few weeks, resuming in December. Thanks for tuning in, and Happy November!