Our Monthly Member Interview Series continues with Sean Petrie, author of PET POEMS (ALSO NOT JUST PETS), published by Burlwood Books, and 2022 Independent Publisher Book Awards’ Bronze Medalist. You may know Sean as the founder of Typewriter Rodeo or from his other books for kids, including the JETT RYDER adventure-history series, Jollyfish Press. Besides an MFA in Writing for Kids from Vermont College, Sean is a professor of legal writing at the University of Texas Law School.
Where did you grow up, and how did that place (or those places) shape your work?
I grew up first in Columbus, Ohio, then we moved to Dallas (actually Flower Mound) the summer before 5th grade. More than place, I think the experience of moving at that age, halfway across the country, shapes a lot of my work. Most of my stories are middle grade, and deal with being a new kid or trying to fit in. And one of my works-in-progress is about playing football in Texas (which I did), and all the pressure that comes with that. I think nearly everything I write—from stories to novels to poems—touches on the search for a sense of belonging.
Did you always want to be an author, or did that come later?
I always loved to read and make things up. Sometimes the making things up was stories and poems, other times it was to entertain kids at school. In 2nd or 3rd grade, I told the kids at school that two of my poems, about Christmas and Thanksgiving, had been published in Highlights magazine. Which hadn’t happened at all. Well, the poems had happened–they were real—but not the Highlights part. (Back then there was no internet to verify it!) But I think from early on, the idea of being an author, of sharing my words with others, was there. It just took me a long time—a trip through law school and brief stint as an attorney—to find my way back.
If someone were to follow you around for 24 hours, what would they see?
Oh fun! Well, mornings are coffee and finance stuff, then usually Typewriter Rodeo emails and bookings, then some writing or other creative work (right now I’m doing a series of poetry how-to videos). Then it’s usually a run through my neighborhood, followed by fetch with my neighbors’ dog, Terra. (Shout out to Jodi & Owen!) Then it’s more creative work and/or teaching work, like grading papers. Evenings are a mix of phone calls, maybe dinner with friends or walking to a local restaurant on my own, or often a Typewriter Rodeo gig. Then winding down with reading, texts, and whatever streaming show I’m into.
All of that is on a non-teaching day; on a teaching day (at UT), the first half of the day is doing my classes at the law school. Or the first part of the day might be doing a school visit, like a poetry workshop.
How does your everyday life feed your work?
Oh, my goodness! All the poetry events I get to do with Typewriter Rodeo give me such inspiration and material for my own work! I think, over the last nine years, I’ve written probably 25,000 poems for strangers. All on different topics. It’s amazing how much you learn about other people from what they ask for poems about. And how much you learn about yourself writing so many unfiltered, on-the-spot poems.
On a different scale, I go on a lot of walks or runs through my neighborhood, often including the Town Lake trail. Just being out in nature (there are AMAZING trees in my neighborhood), soaking all that in, seems to make its way back into my stories and poems.
Lastly, interacting with my students at UT or at poetry workshops, and with the people I see regularly in my neighborhood, I think adds to the “fodder folder” that I draw from in my creative work. In particular, I have a couple local restaurants that I walk to and eat dinner at the bar once or twice a week—I talk a lot with the people who work there, and the other customers, and get to hear lots of stories about their lives that I think trickle back into my writing. More than once I’ve jotted a poem title down from those experiences.
Tell us about some accomplishments that make you proud.
I’m super proud of Typewriter Rodeo, what we’ve built it into over nine years, from just a wisp of an idea that was never meant to last more than a few hours. Those poems are framed on people’s walls, taped on their fridge, tucked into a book, still living and breathing and inspiring all over the country. Even though I’ll never see 99% of them again, I’m really proud of that.
I also love being able to share some of my words and ideas with people through my books. Right now I’m especially proud of PET POEMS (ALSO NOT JUST PETS) that came out this year. I love that that book exists in the world, and that it’s slowly finding its way into kids’ hands. I’ve had so many people tell me their kids sat down to read it, finished it all in one sitting (“They never do that!”), then read it again, or took it to school, or acted out the poems on their own. Between the art and the variety of poems, I think there’s something in there that speaks to almost any kid. I’m proud of that.
I’m also really proud of the JETT RYDER books that came out last year. On the surface, those are about a daredevil kid performing dirtbike stunts at famous landmarks like Niagara Falls and the Space Needle. But underneath, each one is about family, friendship, and getting back on the bike when you fall (literally), all mixed in with a deep sense of respect for place, history, and the environment. And action, of course! 🙂
And lastly, I’m proud of being a teacher (both legal writing and creative), and being part of this Austin community of creatives. I’ve been part of Austin SCBWI for over 20 years now, and it’s so special. There have been times when I’ve considered giving up the creative work, but so many of the great folks in this community—the ones who’ve published a ton of books and even more so the ones who have yet to publish any—kept me going. I’m proud I didn’t give up, proud to be part of a community that knows how tough the creative life is and supports each other so darn hard.
What surprises you about the creative life?
How insecure you feel, no matter how much you’ve accomplished! The imposter syndrome is real, and I thought it would get better over the years, with having published books and writing tons of poems and doing school visits, but it’s still there! And so many other creatives I know feel the same.
The other thing that surprises me is how so many people who aren’t creatives really don’t “get” what it’s like. Not in a mean way. But I hear so many people (including friends) say things like, “Congrats on finishing your book! When will it be out? In a couple months?” Or when I tell them I am busy working on a book, they’ll say, “Oh, got it, you’re just writing.” Can you imagine if someone said to a pilot, “Oh, got it, you’re ‘just’ flying?” Maybe it shouldn’t surprise me at this point because I’ve heard all of that so often, but it still does!
When a reader discovers your work, what do you hope they find?
Something that speaks to them. Makes them smile, makes them nod, makes them want to pick up the book a second time. And ideally, makes them feel, even in the tiniest way, seen.
You have been known to dress up as a green mushroom (at four years old), and for jobs: a pink Care Bear and a lottery numeral three. So, what was your Halloween costume this year?
I was Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer! (Best show ever.)
For the wordsmith: Typewriter is to Rodeo as Sean Petrie is to ______.
What song gets stuck in your head?
“Yo, I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want!…” 🙂