Tuesday, May 4, 2010


The Texas Sweethearts couldn’t be more pleased to announce that Alison James is our newest Featured Sweetheart! She’s incredibly personable, creative, and generous with her time!

Alison James started writing and translating books for children in 1990, when her novel, Sing for a Gentle Rain came out. She has lived all over the world, most recently in Taiwan. Along with Mary Lee Donovan, Alison started Kindling Words in 1992, expanded the Winter Weekend in Vermont retreat to a week retreat in Taos in June. This year she is involved in writing four books, ranging from a YA novel to a book of poems about the cultural history of America. Her irreverent creativity finds her experimenting with raw wool felting, baking, tarot card reading, channeling existential spirits, and painting henna tattoos, as well as leading Enchantment Camps, summer adventures for young wizards with her husband Joplin.


TXS: You're an author, translator, plus the founder and director of Kindling Words--how do you make time for your adventures and everything that needs to get done? What is your schedule like?

AJ: Oh I long for a sensible schedule. It would go something like this:
  • 6am wake up, stretch, meditate
  • 7am do yoga, enthusiastic, heart-warming, body-strengthening yoga
  • 8am Eat breakfast, granola and yoghurt while appreciating the beauty of the morning with a cup of tea and the comics
  • 8:30 start writing
  • 10:30 break for some almonds and chocolates, and a refill on the tea
  • 12:30 stop writing, eat lunch, go for a walk
  • 1:30 Social networking, email, facebook…
  • 3:00 stop working and take care of other things – paint, sing, clean house, bake bread, go have coffee with friends…
But my actual, honest schedule is more like this:
  • 6:30 struggle to get out of bed, wake up my daughter, get some breakfast and get my daughter to practice her cello, check email and facebook, get more tea, think I really ought to write, but I have to check the Kindling Words Budget, Get my Taxes Done, Send Thank-You Notes (insert myriad other things that take priority over writing), get daughter to do other schoolwork while grabbing almonds, somehow it’s 1pm and still nothing done!
This gets worse on those days when I have to get my daughter somewhere during the day. It got so bad, I even asked for angelic help, but the answer I got was “you gotta do it yourself.” That means, I have to sit down and actually write. Before I do anything else. Then it is a real job. And on the days that I do that, I feel authentic, and can actually breathe and think clearly to do the other things.

TXS: Could you tell us about Kindling Words? What prompted you to start this winter retreat for children's book authors, editors, and illustrators?

AJ: Oh great. You get me to spill the private laundry about my personal schedule all over the place and THEN ask me to be professional?! LOL.

I got my Master’s Degree from the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature back when it was a pure ‘literature’ degree. It was fantastically indulgent, digging into the best of the best of children’s books to discover why they were so good. I felt challenged many times a day.

When it was all over, there was a moment when I was with my best friend Mary Lee Donovan, and we were like – “How can we ever have this again?” We decided that we would start a retreat where we could come together at least once a year to be intellectually challenged in our field. Other careers have regular professional development workshops; we wanted one for children’s literature.

Kindling Words evolved over time to what it is now, but the thing that has been consistent and powerful is the commitment to the belief that we all are in this together. There is no podium of awe upon which we place the icons of our field. We understand what it is like to be admired, and we’d much rather be equally respected. If someone has a big ego running, and feels the need for constant praise, they would be out of place at KW. Instead, everyone who comes has something to add to the conversation because everyone is in some way or another on the same path.

It’s particularly nice that children’s book editors can have these closed-door sessions where they feel safe to discuss those things that keep them up at night, from changes in the business structure to how to handle particularly tricky edits. And all of us, authors, illustrators, and editors, get together in the evenings and laugh, or sing, or tell stories until long after we should be asleep.

When KW got too crazily popular at the winter session, we decided to do a week-long retreat in Taos in June. Now that has taken on a life of its own. How incredible it is to sit in such beauty for an entire week, writing all day long and laughing (sometimes crying) with such close friends every night. When I think about it, West is when I am guaranteed to have my ideal schedule, only with double the writing time, for an entire week. ^_^

TXS: What have you gained from this experience?

AJ: Honestly? Everything. I have so many friends, so many beloved friends from Kindling Words. Year after year I see people, how their careers evolve, how they go from being a total newbie to winning the biggest award in the business (Go Rebecca!!) Or how they go from having one fantastically amazing book and the next one is not even accepted. It’s all there; it’s all part of the path. So being at KW makes me realize that my experience, though absurdly dramatic in isolation, is just par normal for the field. KW is my community, virtually all year long, and an actual, physical reality twice a year. I love it!

TXS: You've been writing for a long time--what keeps your imagination sparked?

AJ: I guess everyone has the things that cross wires in their head and make them ignite. For me, it is cultures, when someone has their assumptions stretched, and magic – where the limits to physical reality are stretched.

My first book was a time-travel in the southwest (because I wanted to challenge the notion that all good time-travel fiction had to be set in England where there was time to travel back to. We’ve got time too, I thought, just not Euro-Caucasian time.) My second book, Runa, still dealt with the echoes of archaic time on modern life, when a girl goes to Sweden and is involved in her ancestor’s sacrificial rites. My most successful book was a picture-book, The Drums of Noto Hanto, was about non-violent resistance in Japan. But my WIP is set in an alternate world, where I am able to do a lot more actual magic while having the feel of the book stay realistic.

TXS: Also, could you tell us about your experience translating children's books?

AJ: I’ve translated a lot of picture-books, over 150, including the wildly popular (if not wildly admired as literature) Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister. I write in English, and speak a number of other languages badly. It is my ability to really see the heart of a book and re-imagine it in English that makes translation both fun and successful for me.

I’ve come to think of a book, not as a piece of artistic property owned by its author, but more like a pet, or even a child. The book is an energetic being that has its own story to tell, and that story can be told in various ways so it is best heard in a different culture.

So when you hear about a ‘lousy translation’ to me, that usually means that the translator was too careful to be close to the literal meaning of the book, and lost the spirit of the story in the attempt. Translations that are vibrant and alive – look at what Anthea Bell did with Cornelia Funke’s books! Those translations are true to the life of the book more than the printed word.

A perfect example are the translations of the poetry of Haifiz, a Sufi mystic, by Danial Ladinsky, who himself spent six years in a spiritual community in India. I can’t read the original Persian, but I’m sure Ladinsky has tapped into the soul of the poetry rather than the ink of the author.

TXS: Do you have any advice for children's book professionals to keep their creative energies fueled?

AJ: This morning, I was saying to my daughter, who is on a creative path as well, that if she is going to put this amount of time into practicing her cello, it is really good for her to get praise now and then. It’s nice when she can amaze a friend because she is so good. Because without that, the hours and hours, day after day, of working on etudes and getting the intonation just exactly right would be disheartening, and it would be easy to give up.

Same for me. I’m a little more mature, 48 instead of 13, but every once in a while, I need someone to say I’m amazing. If I have an editor and an agent, and I’m doing a book or so each year, I’m getting that feedback from the publishing industry and from readers. But if I don’t have that relationship established, I really need to hear it from people I trust and respect that I’m not wandering down the path of delusion.

I just heard a Frank Lloyd Wright quote that made me laugh: “ Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose the former and have seen no reason to change.” I think that in this job of writing books, we need a good dose of honest arrogance, and a huge dose of humility. We’re doing divine work, the art of creation, but we are not divine. We have to believe that what we do is vital, or we’d never get that bic to write the wip. But when we start taking our work as precious and untouchable, we lose the connection to the soul of the work.

I love having more to learn. I love needing to work. I don’t even mind ditching an entire draft and starting from scratch. I just have to know it’s worth it. I want someone to tell me they can’t wait to read the next book, and it’s a bonus if that someone is a person I deeply respect.

So my advice is surround yourself in community – virtual or actual. Have a regular person or group to be responsible to: to give and receive responses. I’ll never really be good enough to write the way I dream of writing, but if I can make someone question an assumption, or feel validated, or experience a burst of joy, then I know I’m at least doing the right job.

TXS: Thank you, Alison! We are so happy to feature you!


Please email us your nominations for featured sweethearts.


  1. This was such a great interview. When I first raed your schedule Alison, I thought your sensible one was what you did everyday. I was like, wow, this girl sure has it together. So I had a good laugh over the second one. :-)

  2. This was a WONDERFUL interview. THANK YOU LADIES.

    Alison - the advice you give to "surround yourself in community" is some of the best I've heard this year. That's what I've been doing the last few months and haven't looked back at all.

    Thank you all for being so generous with your time!

  3. I just have to say, Christina, it is 7:50 in the morning, and I am already on the AFTERNOON part of my schedule. Well. I haven't done any of the morning stuff but breakfast and comics, but I will, right now! ^_^

  4. Thank you so much for visiting, Christina and Ann Marie, and thank you, Alison, for being our Sweetheart this week!