Summer is over and everyone is home from their travels. But not Kate Banks, prolific and award-winning author for children and young adults. An expat for most of her adult life, Ms. Banks now lives near the Italian border in southern France. A few weeks ago, Ms. Banks and I had the opportunity to chat about her writing life and how her environment, be it Menton, France or Maine, USA, influences and impacts her writing.
Where did you grow up and where do you live now?
I grew up in Maine and graduated from Wellesley College and Columbia University. I worked in the children’s book department of Alfred A. Knopf, and at the National Geographic Society before moving to Rome in 1988 where I lived for 9 years. Home is now in Menton, a small city close to the Italian border in southern France.
How has where you live and have lived influenced your writing?
As a child I was a keen observer of nature and wildlife, and growing up in Maine I had plenty of opportunity to spend time in the woods, at the seashore, in the mountains. This dialogue with nature has accompanied me through adulthood and it’s an important theme running through many of my books. THAT’S PAPA’S WAY, THE GREAT BLUE HOUSE, A GIFT FROM THE SEA all hearken back to experiences I had as a child. I think that getting children to explore and engage in their natural habitat can help them to understand their place in the world, not only as residents, but as part of a big beautiful whole.
I’ve spent most of my adult life in Europe and meeting new people and seeing new things has been both challenging and inspiring. The challenges have helped me grow as a person and that, in turn, has nurtured and instructed my writing. Most of the settings for my stories come from places where I’ve lived or visited. DILLON DILLON was my summer house in Camden Maine and FRIENDS OF THE HEART takes place in and outside of Rome. THE CAT THAT WALKED ACROSS FRANCE details the journey of a cat from the Riviera north to Normandy. And CITY CAT which is due out in November chronicles the journey of another cat—a stray– who follows a family on a European holiday.
What is a normal writing workday like for you?
I have a loose routine in that I write for a few hours every morning. Afternoons are devoted to my work as a therapist and healer. I am a nomad and move from room to room in my house. Sometimes I’ll go out and work at a coffee bar. I always have notebooks in my bag and am ready to take down an idea or a thought wherever I am. Oftentimes this happens at night and I’ll wake up and flick on the light just long enough to take a few notes. My husband has long grown accustomed to this. I write wherever I go—in airports, while on holiday. New places and movement seem to keep the flow going. I usually have several projects in the works at any one time. I like to wake up and know that I don’t have to return to the same thing I was doing the day or days before. I tend to get bored laboring over a single story week after week, month after month. So I jump around a lot. That enables me to distance myself from each project and go back to it again and again with a fresh eye. And if I’m stuck on one project I put it aside and move on to something else. If nothing works, then I play the piano, or try a new recipe. I’m always planning future books and I have many ideas in the cupboard. Some I put aside for months, even years. Some may never be realized but that’s okay. It’s all part of what I do.
As a successful writer of picture books, what do you think of the increasingly shorter word counts in picture books?
I remember about ten years back there was a push for longer picture books. It didn’t last long. I expect it will be the same with this trend. I’ve written picture books with few words and with many words and I wouldn’t generalize about suitable length. A story can be told in a few words or in many, but in a picture book there needs to be the right balance among illustrations, words, and the reader’s imagination. I personally pay no attention to word count until a story is written. And my experience is that a story usually finds its own length. I also pay no attention to word count when I buy a book.
Who are your favorite writers and why?
I grew up with Robert McCloskey’s books. TIME OF WONDER took place near my summer house in Maine where we had blueberry fields just like Sal (BLUEBERRIES FOR SAL). I loved Margaret Wise Brown’s THE RUNAWAY BUNNY and GOODNIGHT MOON. Virginia Burton’ THE LITTLE HOUSE was a favorite as was MIKE MULLIGAN’S STEAM SHOVEL. When I was able to read by myself I devoured the Mother West Wind Stories and THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS. I love Thoreau and Wordsworth and Tolstoy and Chekov. And I read a lot of science and medical literature for my work as a therapist.
There are too many favorites to mention them all. But what I respond to are books that demonstrate a sensibility to place and character and manage to convey a quiet wisdom. Often beneath their words are the greater truths of our being—much bigger ideas than appear on the surface. I find it almost magical when a book is able to speak to me beyond its boundaries of page and length.
What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Aspiring writers should be readers. Reading nurtures a sensibility to the tools of the trade—words and language–in the same way that a painter needs to be familiar with his palette and brushes. Writers should also be familiar with their audience and have something to say to them. Workshops and formal instruction can convey and refine technique. That said, the most important advice I can give to a writer is to find your own voice. And that is more likely to be present in your inner world than anywhere outside of you. For me, this required taking the time to sit quietly in a state of listening and receptivity—shutting out advice and chatter, and seeing what emerged from my own self. I am struck by how these days we don’t seem to be able to do anything without coaching—from breathing and eating, to relationships and work. There are so many people out there telling us how to live our lives, to be successful, happy, and on it goes. I, for one, think there’s something to be said about discovery and experience–allowing life to unfold on its own. And I would apply this same philosophy to writing. Be proactive, but don’t forget to take the time to sit back and just see what happens. Because that’s the space of true inspiration and surprise.
What are you working on now?
I am currently working on a YA novel which originated from my work as a regression therapist. I also have a few picture books ideas in the works in various stages.
Where can your fans find you?
I am rarely in the States but when that happens I am available for book signings and school visits. I also visit classrooms worldwide on SKYPE. This fall I hope to be in New York and Boston in October. My new picture book CITY CAT is out in November, and I urge you all to take a look at the trailer:
You can find all of Kate’s books online or at your favorite local bookstore.