I’ve been cleaning and vacuuming all day because we’re having a special guest. Ellen Miles has spent her adult career involved in children’s books in some capacity, as an editor, an advocate, and a writer. Ellen has recently enjoyed rising popularity with her “Puppy Place” series for Scholastic. But more than any of those credentials, Ellen is here because she’s my friend.
And look, that’s her walking up the front path.
Ellen, it’s so nice of you to stop by.
Thanks for having me. I truly appreciate this opportunity to procrastinate in a brand-new way.
Do you remember when we first met, back around 85-86, when we both worked at Scholastic? Craig Walker was there, throwing punchlines at people like Phoebe Yeh, Brenda Bowen, Holly Kowitt, and Jan Carr. I was a junior copywriter and . . . you were in mailroom, right?
I was the junior elevator operator. Actually I was the editor of the TAB book club, which is for middle school kids. My job was to figure out which thirty or so items to offer each month, ranging from serious fiction to posters of kittens in sunglasses.
Did you get to write those clever phrases on the posters, like, “Hang In There!” Or my current favorite, “Cattitude!”
No, that task went to the editorial assistants. I wish I got the royalties for “Hang In There!”
I hate to say this, but they even made it into a book about “inspirational art of the 1970s.”
In that job, I also got to edit some original fiction. One of the best parts (aside from the lifelong friends I made there) was that I got to read People magazine at my desk, since part of my job was to be on top of current trends.
What did you learn as an editor that helps you as a writer today?
That editors are not the enemy. I love the editing process. I’ve always seen editors as equivalent to coaches for athletes — an editor is just someone who helps a writer be and do her best. I also learned a lot about the basic craft of writing.
Okay, sure. But if editors aren’t the enemy . . . then who is?
I don’t know about you, but I’m my own worst enemy.
You seem to have found a true home in the wilds of Vermont.
I love Vermont with all my heart and it’s hard to imagine living anywhere else. As a kid I spent all my summers here and I think I always knew I’d end up here when I was a grownup. Not that I’m a grownup yet.
Vermont is incredibly beautiful, has a low population thanks to its long winters (which I love, both the winters and the population that is), and feels like an island of progressive sanity in a world gone awry. It’s no surprise that Vermont was the first state to come in for Obama on election night, and that it gave Obama the highest percentage of votes of any states save D.C. and Hawaii. Living in Vermont, it’s easy to be green, non-materialistic, local, and all that other good stuff that other people are just catching on to.
I am your basic NPR-listening, granola-crunching, Subaru-driving, compost-making, do-gooder liberal, so I fit right in here. I was enough of a city girl to resist Birkenstocks for many years, and while I have finally capitulated to those I still vow to never wear a denim jumper over a turtleneck.
Hold on, you’re not one of those hippies I read about who threw their Birkenstocks at Karl Rove’s car?
Did you know that Vermont was the only state Bush never visited during his time in office? Maybe it’s because if he did show up we planned to prosecute him for war crimes.
Back to your fabulous career before this becomes too much like “Countdown with Keith Olbermann.” It seems like “The Puppy Place” series is doing really well. Tell us about it.
The series is about a family who fosters puppies, and each book is centered on a different puppy. The books are sweet, easy to read, and crammed with doggie love and doggie info. They always have a happy ending (as the tagline says, “Where every puppy finds a home”), and there’s no dark stuff unless you include the occasional housetraining “mistake.”
Hey, poop happens.
Exactly. The series came about when our old friend, Craig Walker, knowing that I loved dogs and knew a lot about them, suggested I write some books about puppies. “Something where we can slap a big picture of a cute puppy on the cover,” is what I remember him saying.
Yes, I can hear Craig saying exactly that.
There are now thirteen Puppy Place titles in print with at least five more coming down the pike, and I’ve sold more than a million copies in the US, the UK, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand and Australia. Kids and dogs have a strong mutual attraction, and young readers seem to love these books.
I’ve talked to other series writers about this. I guess we all have a little bit of an ugly step-sister kind of experience. On one hand, the books are bought and read and loved. But at the same time, they are critically ignored, never reviewed, seemingly unread by the “people who matter.”
Sometimes I like the freedom and anonymity of not being reviewed. It seems that the world of literary children’s literature and YA is a feverish contest for awards and reviews and recognition, and I sometimes wonder whether people are writing for kids or for the adults on the awards committees. I’m definitely writing for kids – and frankly I’m also writing to pay the mortgage. It’s hard to imagine having the luxury of writing anything I wanted, without worrying whether a publisher would publish it or readers would buy it. Maybe someday I’ll have that luxury and it’ll be interesting to see what I produce.
I hear you about the mortgage. I wrote two books about Norfin Trolls under the name Mitzy Kafka. I worked as a ghostwriter. I wrote an unauthorized biography of “The Rock.” I wrote a picture book adaptation of the direct-to-video classic, “Slappy and the Stinkers!” There’s almost nothing I wouldn’t write. I wrote four books based on an unpopular toy — a toy “craze” that never got crazy — under the name, Izzy Bonkers. Let’s see Jean Craighead George top that!
I can top that: I once wrote some books based on video games. Then there’s the crowning glory of my writing-for-hire ouevre, my novelization of that classic film, Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas! Many of my friends still think my coolest gig ever was writing Scooby-Doo books.
I used a pen name for a lot of my work-for-hire jobs, but sometimes I forgot to do that, so if you Google me certain books come up that make me feel like I’m walking around with toilet paper stuck to the bottom of my shoe.
That’s so great, Ellen. I’ve done about half-a-dozen rescue jobs, where a manuscript was so bad it was beyond editing, so they sent it to me for a torched-earth rewrite. Hey, I just remembered another one: I did a picture book adaptation of the second Pee-Wee Herman movie, “Big Top Pee Wee.” You know, the one Tim Burton didn’t make.
I once wrote about how to choose a dog dish, for a pet website.
You enjoy getting fan mail, don’t you?
I love it. It’s the best part of the job. Kids send me pictures of themselves and their dogs. They decorate their letters with drawings. They tell me that my books ROCK!!!! and that I’m the best author ever, they give me ideas for future plots, they tell me about books they’re writing. I have my favorites hanging on my study wall and I read them over and over. The bottom line about series writing vs. literary writing is that whether or not my books have lasting merit, they do get kids excited about reading, and to me that’s the best possible outcome. Nothing compares to the thrill of getting a letter from a kid who says, “PS, Before I read your books I never liked to read. Thanks for making reading more fun,” or from a parent who writes to say “Thank you for making our daughter into an independent reader.”
I have to say, Ellen, you strike me as really happy these days.
I am happy. I love where I live, and I have a great job, a terrific boyfriend, and wonderful friends and family.
You, um, have a boyfriend? Don’t tell me he’s one of those hulking lumberjack types they’ve got running around in the mountains up there?
No, he’s more of a SNAG, you know, a Sensitive New-Age Guy. Drives a Volvo, communicates well, cooks, vacuums, does the grocery shopping. Not that he’s a total sissy. He’s built all his own houses and he’s out chainsawing right now.
So tell me, Ellen. Just between us. Is there a part of you that wants a big hardcover book, where some reviewer like Lisa Von Drasek from The New York Times takes you seriously as an artist?
I would definitely like to develop as a writer and I’m curious about what I might be capable of, but no, I have never felt a deep urge to be a Critically Acclaimed Writer. I’m not one of those who always wanted to be a writer, and who has a passionate need to tell my story to the world. I fell into writing sideways. It’s the best job I can imagine and I’m good at my craft, and for now that’s enough. That said, of course I’m working on a middle grade novel on the side, though I have no expectations for where it might go or if I’ll even ever finish it. It’s really just an experiment and a way to learn more about writing. I’m in a writer’s group with two writer friends, and their support and encouragement and guidance is a wonderful thing.
Hey, I loved that photo you sent. You look so content and relaxed to be sitting with that small group of kids. Where was that taken?
That was a party given by a fantastic reading-mentoring program I’m involved with, called Everybody Wins. The Vermont chapter honored me this year with an award for my contribution to children’s literacy. They threw a happy, chaotic kids’ party during the day and had a gala Book Bash for adults in the evening, at which I (yikes!) had to make a speech. I’ve mentored three girls over the years and have shanghaied my mom, my brother, my sister-in-law, and several friends into becoming mentors as well. The program is elegant in its simplicity — all you do is go to the elementary school on your lunch hour and read with a kid for forty-five minutes — and yet it has an amazing impact on the kids and on the mentors as well.
I’ve participated in a similar program here. (Of course, nobody threw me a fancy gala.) It’s neat when you see some of those kids again, five, ten years down the line. You spy each other across a room and, it’s hard to describe, but you both know you had that time together. And they know you were there – you cared enough to show up every week — and nothing can take that connection away.
One of my former mentees, who I first met when she was in third grade, is now in eighth. We’re still friends and always will be. She came to my gala. (So sad that you’ve never had a gala.)
Believe me, Ellen. It is enough — more than enough — that you’ve had one. And now I see we’re out of time. Please keep this handsome set of carving knives as a parting gift!
Thanks, Jimmy! It was fun.
Wait, almost forgot the Lightning Round! Favorite books?
Ellen Tebbits, Beverly Cleary; War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy.
Nashville Skyline, Bob Dylan; On Green Dolphin Street, Miles Davis; Something New, The Beatles (the first record I ever owned).
The Last Waltz, Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers, Amarcord. I know, none of these books, movies or albums were created within the last twenty years. I’m a fogey, what can I say?
Type of Dog?
I’d say Labs. Or any kind of puppy.