Interview with a Hamster: Humphrey & Betty Birney

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A certain HAMSTER took over my blog while I was interviewing my writer pal, BETTY BIRNEY.

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Don’t believe me? Read on…

It started out innocently enough with a few questions for Betty:

(Check out the full bio of this Emmy/Children’s Choice/Humanitas award winner on her web site.)

Q 1. Where did Humphrey get his name? 

Betty Birney: “Right here:”

Betty Birney Humphrey street“My parents grew up on Humphrey Street in St. Louis two houses away from each other and were best friends from the age of nine, so it’s an important place with extremely warm memories of my childhood.”

 Q 2. Which of the following quotes best describes your path as an author? (or your revision process?) 

a. “Sometimes you have to look-look-look to find the perfect book.”                                          SECRETS ACCORDING TO HUMPHREY

b. “I don’t know what color I’ll be when I come back.”                                                            ADVENTURE ACCORDING TO HUMPHREY

c. “If you think you are too small to make a difference, you have never been in a dark room with a mosquito.”          Betty Birney

d. “My imagination’s flying!” IMAGINATION ACCORDING TO HUMPHREY

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BB: “d. Humphrey’s latest book, IMAGINATION ACCORDING TO HUMPHREY, is really all about the writing process. This little rhyme Humphrey writes in his notebook sums up my path and my revision process. Just keep trying over and over again.”

I tried and tried again

and then I  kept on trying

And now I am so happy:

My imagination’s flying!

Q 3. Did you base Room 26, Longfellow School on any school in particular?  Reavis perhaps?

BB: “I think most writers picture something familiar when they write. Reavis School, which I attended, is in my mind when I write about Humphrey, even though it doesn’t exist anymore. However, I am aware of how things have changed over the years (desks vs tables, for instance).”

Q 4. Since you also write for television, can you tell us how this process compares to that of writing children’s books? 

BB: “On the one hand, there’s little difference. A story is a story and there are many ways to tell it. Print or TV: you’re still telling a story with a beginning, a middle and an end.

“That being said, there are lots of differences. The challenges in writing for television or film is the fact that it’s difficult (and awkward) to get directly into a character’s head. Characters can only reveal what they’re thinking by stating it out loud to another character, using voice-over or talking to themselves (something I dislike in film and consider amateurish). Everything is action. The action can’t stop for explanation or backstory. Film and TV are also made up of connected scenes and each scene has a beginning, a middle and an end. I still talk of writing books in terms of scenes. People tell me that my books read like a movie.

“I still find television easier to write than literary fiction because there are great shortcuts: a cut, a dissolve – the passage of time doesn’t have to be stated out loud. It’s easier in a book to make great leaps of time and place. I love writing both mediums and they present different challenges. For television, the ultimate challenge is the length. Because a show is a very specific length, a script can’t be one page too long or too short. It doesn’t work. However, once you write a lot of television, you learn to have the sense of where you are in the story and how much time you have left and you adjust as you write, which is a fascinating process.”

 

GREAT ANSWERS, RIGHT?

BUT THEN, I BEGAN TO NOTICE A PATTERN…

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Q 5. What was the most surprising fact or discovery you’ve made while writing this series?

BB: “I have learned a lot about hamsters from research and from fans. In the first book, I said they were nocturnal, which is what my research told me. It turns out they are crepuscular, which means they are most active at dawn and dusk. The funny thing is, I get up at the crack of dawn and get an energy burst late in the afternoon. So I think I’m crepuscular, too!

Q 6.  Which character is most like you? Lower-your-voice AJ? Speak-up Sayeh? Mrs. Brisbane, Mrs. Wright, Garth, Seth, Humphrey? (Or another?)

“Without a doubt, Humphrey is more like me than any character I’ve ever written. He’s curious, excitable, a dreamer and he likes to help other people (he’s much better at it than I ever was). And we both write our thoughts and ideas in a notebook. Little known fact: Humphrey loves crunchy raw veggies and so do I.”

ARE YOU CATCHING THE CLUES HERE, READERS?

Q 7. Given that Humphrey has tried his paw at poetry for the Valentine’s Day Festival, and I notice you mention that he took over writing the World of Humphrey books after book #3, do you think he’ll ever write his memoirs? If so, what might he “tell all” about?

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BB: “Since he is very young at the start of THE WORLD ACCORDING TO HUMPHREY and he grows in understanding throughout the series, I think the According to Humphrey books are his memoirs. And he does tell all, including his inner conflicts and deepest feelings. He’s one honest hamster.

Q 8. What would you like readers to know–about you? HUMPHREY? Life?

BB: “Many people already know this but I don’t have a hamster and have never had a hamster. But I don’t need to own a hamster to write the Humphrey books, because

I AM A HAMSTER.

Really!”

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WHAT??????

BB: “I may not look like one, but in order for me to write the books from Humphrey’s point of view, I’ve had to learn to think, act, feel and write like a hamster. And when I am writing one of the Humphrey books, I really do feel like a little hamster. Sometimes when I’m writing one of Humphrey’s big adventures outside of his cage, I feel really tired, as if I were a tiny hamster doing big things.”

READERS–DO YOU THINK HUMPHREY HAS BEEN ANSWERING MY QUESTIONS ALL ALONG????

Q 9. HUMPHREY books are celebrating their eleventh year in print (Congrats!), not only in the U.S. but the U.K, as well as translations in Polish, Spanish, and Dutch. Are there any other countries your books have landed?

BB (OR POSSIBLY HUMPHREY…):

“Germany, Hungary and soon in Vietnam and mainland China. And in the UK and the U.S., there’s a new-ish series of HUMPHREY’S TINY TALES, which are shorter, illustrated chapter books:

Creepy Crawly Cover

Unlike the According to Humphrey books, they don’t follow in order and that was a nice break for me. There are three out now in the U.S. and two more coming next year.”

Q 10. Since it’s November and almost Thanksgiving, what are you and/or HUMPHREY thankful for this year? 

BB: “I will always be grateful to my editor, Susan Kochan, for publishing the first book and sticking with Humphrey and me. I am eternally grateful to Humphrey’s loyal, fun-loving, enthusiastic fans and to the teachers and librarians who have introduced their students to the series.

HUMPHREY (Come on–We KNOW it’s you!) “Teachers and librarians are the people who supported the books in the beginning and continue to support them today, so all I can say is:

THANKS-THANKS-THANKS!”

HAPPY THANKSGIVING DEAR READERS!

Both Betty Birney and I agree with Humphrey’s wish for you:

“I hope they all get an extra piece of pumpkin pie with whipped cream on top!”

 

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