Stephanie S. Tolan

Frequently Asked Questions...

Question: Where do you get the ideas for your books?

Answer: This is probably the most common question writers get! Different writers will answer it differently. Though the ďseedĒ idea for a book may appear in my mind in a moment, it gathers other bits and pieces so that soon it is hard to figure out all the sources of the whole idea.

When Iím asked where the idea for Surviving the Applewhites came from I say that I had just finished writing Flight of the Raven, a book that takes place in a terrorist compound, and I needed a break. I decided to write a funny book. Because my husband and my youngest son are both theatre directors and Iím a writer, I chose to write about a super creative family. And because one of our sons, like E.D., always used to want to have schedules and order in his life, I knew it was possible to have such a kid even in a family of creative types who thrive in chaos. Then I read about a boy who was kicked out of the whole public school system in his state and decided that such a character would be a good addition to the mix. Add the black swallow tail butterfly caterpillars that come to eat my parsley plants every summer, the abandoned goats that lived in the woods near my house one summer, the guru some people I know follow, and you have a lot of the individual bits and pieces that came together in the writing.

My editor suggested that I write a second book about the Filkins family (Save Halloween!). Ordinary Miracles started from that suggestion. The glass salad bowl full of animalcules in that story came from the bowl of animalcules I kept on the coffee table of the apartment I lived in at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA, where I had a writing residency one summer. Lydia, the diving dog, was a dog I watched dive for rocks at a lake in Columbus, OH along a bike trail where I used to ride every morning. My kids and I made many trips to study creek and pond life while they were growing up.

The idea for the book that most people would think is the farthest from real life because it is generally thought of as science fiction or fantasy -- Welcome to the Ark -- came from watching a group of profoundly gifted real kids interact telepathically. The moment I realized what they were doing, I knew I wanted to write a book about it. Almost every unusual mental ability the fiction characters have in that book is an ability that real people I know are able to use. After I wrote it, I learned how to ďreachĒ with my mind as Taryn and the other characters do. You can find more about the truths behind Welcome to the Ark in Interview Too.

Question: How long does it take you to write a book?

Answer: It took me about 8 months of actual writing to write Surviving the Applewhites, but as some writers will tell you, every book takes pretty much the writerís whole lifetime. Not until I started it could I have written that particular book. Iíve been writing for kids and young adults for a long time (nearly 30 years) and I tend to average about a book a year. Some come more quickly than others, though. The first draft of The Great Skinner Strike holds the record for the fastest novel Ė it took only 15 days. I revised it for about two more months before sending it off to the publisher.

Question: Are you planning to write a sequel to Surviving the Applewhites?

Answer: See the announcement in Author’s Notes, Fall 2010.  The book is finished and due out in early 2012.

Question: When and where were you born?

Answer: Itís amazing to me how many students are told they have to have this information about an author for a book report or author profile. Itís a fair question to ask in a letter, though, since the Biography page only gives the state I was born in (Ohio) and not the city or the date.

I was born in Canton, Ohio on October 25th, 1942. The hospital I was born in, Mercy Hospital, doesnít exist any more, but Iíve been told (though Iíve never gone there to see it) that there is a library where it used to be! I hope they have some of my books there.

Question: What inspired you to become a writer?

Answer: I was asked to write a story when I was in the fourth grade. Before that, Iíd been one of those passionate readers who read under the covers at night with a flashlight, and Iíd always thought there was a kind of magic in the fact that little black marks on paper could become whole worlds and real characters for me to spend time with in my imagination. But Iíd never thought of trying to make that magic myself. Once I wrote that first story, I realized that I wanted to be a writer. That never changed. From fourth grade on I wrote in much of my free time (and sometimes in class when I was supposed to be listening to the teacher). An especially good teacher helped me in high school Ė she was my English teacher all four years. I majored in creative writing in college. After I left school I wrote plays and poetry for a number of years before I began writing books for kids and young adults. Writing has always been among the most important things in my life. I canít imagine being me without it.

Question: Do you base your characters on real people or your stories on what really happened to you?

Answer: Not exactly. Check the answer to the first question above.  In Surviving the Applewhites, for instance, the family at the center of the book is a creative family; so is mine. But nobody in the book is much like anyone in my family. Even if I start a character with the idea of a real person in my mind, the character will eventually be very different from that real person.  Imagination has a kind of magic to it; characters partly create themselves as I write.

As for the stories – only two of my books (The Last of Eden and Listen!) were even loosely based on anything specific in my life. All the others are fully fictional. They didn’t happen to me! Sometimes I base the setting on real places, though I generally change the names of towns or cities so that I’ll be free to imagine buildings and streets instead of having to make do with the ones that actually exist. A well-written fiction feels real even when it isn’t. So it always makes me feel good when someone asks this question!

Question: Which of the books youíve written (or characters youíve created) is your favorite?

Answer: I have great difficulty with the idea of ďfavorite,Ē whether itís about books or characters or food or friends. When I go to get an ice cream cone itís hard for me to decide what flavor I want because I like so many Ė when I choose one (or two, if itís a double scoop cone) I feel a little sad that Iíve had to skip so many others that I like. I like all of my books when Iím working on them, for different reasons. And I like most of the characters as well. Itís a lot easier to say which things I donít like than to choose a favorite among the things I do. Iíd give a similar answer to the question about which are my favorite authors. I love to read, and I love the works of lots and lots of different authors. So I canít ever choose a ďfavorite.Ē

Question: Do you have tips for kids who would like to be writers?

Answer: The very best tip I have for anyone who likes to write is only three words long. Read and write. Read as many different sorts of books as you can to see what other people have done with words, and then write and write and write. Write letters, write a diary or journal, write stories and poems and essays. Try any kind of writing you can think of and see what you most enjoy writing and what you think youíre best at. Itís important to write, but not so important for kids to try to publish what you write. If you manage to get something published, or if you win a contest with your writing, itís hard not to get focused on the product. Professional writers pretty much have to focus on the product, and most of us know that a product focus can really dampen your creativity. It can be very hard to take risks when you know you have to get published when youíre finished. When youíre very young itís much more important just to experiment with the process.

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Last modified: February 20, 2009