Author Biography: Julie Andrews Edwards is one of the most recognized figures in the world of entertainment. An exceptional vocalist, actress, and humanitarian, she is perhaps best known for her film performances in Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, and Victor/Victoria. She has also received critical acclaim for her stunning performances on Broadway in My Fair Lady, Camelot, and the stage adaptation of Victor/Victoria. Ms. Edwards is the author of several children's books, including Little Bo: The Story of Bonnie Boadicea, illustrated by Henry Cole. Emma Walton Hamilton is a founder and Co-Artistic Director of Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, New York. In addition to producing and directing, Ms. Hamilton is also dedicated to bringing theater to young adults through her work with Bay Street's Theater's Educational Outreach and Young Playwrights programs. She lives in Sag Harbor with her husband, Stephen, and young son, Sam, whose passion for trucks was the inspiration for these books.
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A Conversation with Julie Andrews Edwards and Emma Walton Hamilton
Barnes & Noble.com: What first inspired you to write children's books?
Julie Andrews Edwards: While traveling in Europe in 1969, I lost a bet to my eldest daughter and had to pay a forfeit for it. She suggested that I write her a story. I had dabbled at writing as a child and thought I could certainly write her a short story to keep my end of our bargain. I discovered that I wanted to give her something that she could keep, and the story just grew and grew. Out of that came my first children's book, Mandy.
I found the writing experience so pleasurable that I felt a little lost when Mandy was finished, and was delighted when the idea for The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles sprang to mind. Now it seems I can't find enough time to write all the stories I want to write!
Emma Walton Hamilton: I think I've always had a secret fantasy about writing children's books, largely because I was an avid reader as a child and so many of them had such a big influence on me. I think I was also inspired by Mom's wonderful books, and by my stepmother, Gen LeRoy Walton, who is an accomplished children's book author. Ironically, one of my many tasks at the theater where I work is to teach playwriting to kids in our education program, and I think that started me thinking seriously about writing -- then when I had my son, those thoughts took on a whole new kind of urgency.
B&N.com: What are the creative similarities and differences between acting and writing?
JAE: I find that I always visualize my stories as if I were seeing them on stage or on the screen, and with luck, the characters mostly do seem to come alive. I have become so fond of the "Whangdoodle," I swear he really exists!
EWH: As a former actress and now director/producer, I think the process itself is very much the same in a lot of ways. You're thinking about such issues as character, conflict, theme...as well as actions and objectives for all the characters, and so forth. It seems like the fundamentals of storytelling are the same -- whether you're telling your story on a stage, screen, canvas, or page. Actually, it probably all goes back to Aristotle's Poetics!
B&N.com: What inspired you to develop a series about a dump truck?
JAE: Wonderful serendipity. I had been asked by my publisher (Hyperion) whether I had any ideas or thoughts concerning books for very young children. At the same time my daughter Emma was bemoaning the fact that she couldn't find enough good books about trucks for her son Sam, then aged two. I will let her explain the rest. Suffice it to say that I asked her the right question at the right time, and the idea for the Dumpy series came about.
EWH: It was really a case of necessity being the "mother of invention"! Sam is, and was, completely obsessed with trucks since the age of ten months. They were all he ever wanted to play with, wear on his clothes, look at, talk about, watch on video, and especially, read about. I kept looking for storybooks with truck characters that had a little something to offer -- a gentle moral, a sweet tale -- but so little existed. All I could find were books describing how trucks work. So when I was bemoaning this fact to Mom one day, she literally said "Why don't we write one?!" and it went from there. Dumpy himself came from the fact that dump trucks were Sam's particular favorite -- and he couldn't yet say both words, so he'd point to one and say "Dumpy!"
B&N.com: Is Merryhill Farm like any real place that you know?
JAE: Certainly the village of Apple Harbor is a combination of at least two places: a village we know and love on the northeastern end of Long Island, and an island in the Channel Islands in Great Britain, where I spent a great deal of my youth and where Emma spent a good many holidays.
EWH: And we continue to.... In fact my family and I just came back from there. Dad, of course, knows both these places well, so it really is a literal composite of the two places we all love best in the world. And I think Merryhill Farm is just our fantasy of the best possible little farm in the world -- with influences from both sides of the Atlantic.
B&N.com: Do you have any personal experience with or fondness for farm life?
JAE: I have always been a nature lover, and I do feel that if a child can be exposed to ducks and pigs and horses and all the good things that farm life has to offer, they are fortunate indeed. I am never more happy than when I am in the country.
EWH: Me, too!
B&N.com: What is it like to work with each other on this project?
JAE: Joyous. Real life is suspended, and we play in Apple Harbor and on Merry Hill Farm, adding childhood memories and experiences when possible, using family names, and generally having the best time.
EWH: Ditto. It's heaven -- we get to spend hours together in this most perfect little town, where it's totally safe and influenced by all the things we love, and where all the characters are adorable, and nothing bad ever happens. It's also wonderful for us, as mother and daughter, to spend extended time together that is purely creative and fun, and not weighted down by discussions about family issues or anything else. At the end of the day, it can be hard to come back to real life!
B&N.com: How exactly do you work?
JAE: I think I'll let Emma answer that one.
EWH: Well, we start by brainstorming the outline for the story. We try to come up with all the basic elements in rough form -- who the characters are, what they want, what happens to them, what the "theme" is, etcetera. Then once we have as thorough an outline as possible, we go back and write it out, which is essentially just finishing each other's sentences. We're amazed by how compatible we are in the process -- we'll often say the same sentence at the exact same moment, or one will start it and the other will fill in just the right word, etc. We write it all out longhand, and then at the end of each work session I transcribe the day's work onto the computer and generate a printout. We then each spend some time "proofing" and thinking about it on our own. Then the next time we meet, we go over our changes, notes, and so forth, and storm ahead with the next section. It's very organic!
B&N.com: How many books are planned for this series?
JAE: I guess we will have to see how much demand there is for the Dumpy series!
EWH: But we've already written the next two: Dumpy Saves Christmas and Dumpy and the Big Storm, which are scheduled for publication next year. So with the first two already out, we've got four under our belt so far.
B&N.com: Do you have any future plots worked out yet?
JAE: We have many plots in the development stage. I suppose the real question is how many can Tony Walton illustrate for us, given his busy schedule? We are certainly aiming for two each year at the present time.
EWH: It's true -- I think we'd love to just keep churning them out, we're so full of ideas -- but Dad's process is longer and has different challenges than ours -- and he doesn't have the luxury of a co-illustrator!
B&N.com: What authors do you remember from your childhood? Can you name a few of your favorite children's books?
JAE: Jane Austen, Beatrix Potter, Enid Blyton, and an English author called simply "B. B." He wrote a wonderful children's book entitled The Little Grey Men, and it had a big influence on me at about age nine. I have read it to my children and fully intend to read it to my grandchildren. For older children -- even adults -- I would recommend The Once and Future King by T. H. White.
EWH: Ditto the above, and also for me C. S. Lewis, A. A. Milne, Mark Twain, and Beverly Cleary. Big favorites for me were Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth, Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, Mary Rodgers's Freaky Friday, and actually Mom's The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles is right up there, too! And of course Dr. Seuss. Looking back, I think they were all books that created a very evocative world, and that had strong and soulful messages to them.
B&N.com: Do you have plans to work on any other projects together?
JAE: I do hope so. We have already completed another story and submitted it to Hyperion, and we have been discussing several ideas.
EWH: It would be wonderful.
B&N.com: What's next for Julie Andrews?
JAE: I am just about to begin a movie for Disney called The Princess Diaries. It's a charming story and I look forward to it very much. An autobiography is at present a work in progress, though I am not sure when I will have it finished. Given my druthers, I'd rather move to Apple Harbor and play with all my grandchildren!