This month we welcome Austin SCBWI member Cate Berry to our interview series.
Cate is the author of the 2018 debut picture book Penguin and Tiny Shrimp Don’t Do Bedtime! (Balzer & Bray/Harper Collins), which was pinned a Junior Library Guild selection and called a “buoyantly subversive anti-bedtime book” by Publisher’s Weekly. She has additional forthcoming publications (TBA!) and holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Read on to find out how Cate avoids feeling like a grimy toad, where she finds writing inspiration, and the gift of living in the present.
Thanks for joining us, Cate!
Where did you grow up, and how did that place shape your work?
I grew up in Clear Lake City, a suburb of Houston surrounding NASA. Most of the residents worked for the Johnson Space Center in some capacity. It was pretty magical, especially our neighborhood called Nassau Bay. We rode bikes on crunchy sea-shelled paths around a man-made lake and played Sardines across a five-block radius. I had total freedom, and this happy independence is woven into all my work. I also had a lot of solitude and time to think. Looking back, I wouldn’t be the person I am without that time, space to figure out my own mind and opinions. Most kids don’t get that luxury today. That’s why books are so important. They serve as a portal into a different world for kids.
Did you always want to be a writer, or did that come later?
Funny you should ask, the very first thing I wanted to be was a writer. I had a little white desk that was painted robin’s egg blue inside the drawers. I felt very important sitting at that desk, staring out the window, writing my stories. I followed several different paths before I came back to writing stories again as an adult. I wish I still had that little desk.
I read somewhere that what you’re drawn to as a child is actually a very good indicator of your ultimate profession. I also had a six-month stint pretending to be Henrietta Pussycat from Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. That would have been a lovely career track as well.
If someone were to follow you around for 24 hours, what would they see?
Oh, mercy. I spend a lot of time daydreaming which I’ve come to trust more and more as valuable writing time. There is a lot of time spent sipping coffee, dealing with the day-to-day logistics of family life and the business connected with having my first book out. Plus, I teach, so there is often prep for that that needs attending.
I must get in at least two hours of writing every day or I feel like a grimy toad.
I used to schedule everything like clockwork but I’m learning to trust my intuition more regarding my time. Some days I work and write and organize as if I were in the Naval Academy. Other times, I respect that I must rest.
I’m also learning that there is never enough time to do things “properly” as I did before I had a family and a writing career. So, I try and lean in and accept that my “to do” list will never be completely finished. But as long as I’m doing things consistently, I feel satisfied.
How does your everyday life feed your work?
The best stories come from noticing what’s right in front of you. A recent sale of mine (not announced yet!) was born right out ofmy backyard. Ann Patchett says that ideas are easy, ideas are everywhere. When I first heard this, I thought she was mad. Coming up with a great idea is hard! But really, gardening in your front yard flowerbed brings endless ideas: from non-fiction doodle bug anatomy to fictional sprites that inhabit this particular patch of soil. You just have to train your mind to pay attention. And always have a notebook handy.
Tell us about some accomplishments that make you proud.
This has nothing and everything to do with my work, but I’m proud of the friendships in my life. Books will come and go, deals, splashy moments, artistic flops—if you plan to really live an artistic life you’re going to sample a buffet of these experiences. But people, deep and true friendships, grow alongside you like mighty oaks. I was a lucky, lucky girl to have a grandmother who whispered this into my ear. It’s something I treasure: being a great friend and having equally great friends.
And as a by-product, my work is better for it. Not only do I have rich experiences to cull from my memories, but I have wonderful writer friends who lift me up with their experiences, editorial opinions and general companionship.
Plus, when good news comes, it’s more fun to jump up and down with someone than celebrate good news all by your lonesome.
What surprises you about the creative life?
Well, this may not sound very optimistic, but I’m surprised that it doesn’t necessarily get easier. I’m talking about the business side of things. If you read Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Surviving and Thriving Series on her Cynsations blog (I read this religiously) there is proof that the artistic trajectory is capricious and unwavering in its uncertainty.
But, if you’re looking at the bigger, more spiritual “creative life blueprint,” there is such a rewarding path stretching out underneath it all. For me, that means the writing. The writing never lets you down. It’s always there for you. Yes, it’s no picnic to get your butt in the chair but once you’re there it’s almost always fun (for me). Or if you’re in that certain circle of revision hell, it’s at least worth the effort when you come through the tunnel of darkness. What I mean is that you can build a life of purpose through writing every day.
That surprises me too. The simplest thing, writing, is the key to it all.
When a reader discovers your work, what do you hope they find?
I’m a sucker for joy and humor. Don’t get me wrong, I have a deep dark side as well. But for kids (and grown-ups!), they needlightness now more than ever so I’m pushing myself to deliver. I don’t remember being stressed as a kid.
But on school visits I meet more and more nine-year old’s who are visibly stressed out. Yes, serious books are important for them to read and experience. But don’t underestimate how much kids need to laugh.
I’m striving for lightness, joy, humor and playfulness in my work right now. Kids need it. Heck, we all do.
Quick Fire Questions:
Would you rather be a giant mouse or a tiny elephant?
Tiny elephant all the way. Elephants are regal and wise. They cannot be diminished by size.
Would you rather have your favorite song stuck in your head forever, or always dream the same thing each night?
Same song! (I love these questions) Although it sounds like torture to have a song stuck in my head, I am a bigger fan of fresh and bizarre dreams.
Would you rather have one wish granted today, or three wishes granted ten years from now?
Now, that is easy. I’d take one wish granted today. The present moment is the greatest gift we get in this life.
What are you doing with it right now?