Ellison the Elephant

Eric Drachman

by Ann Stalcup

Did you write stories when you were growing up?

Eric Drachman

I can’t say that I “wrote” or that I aspired to be a writer when I was a child, but I do remember a few stories that came out of an early desire to learn to type. First of all, you have to understand that at that time, no one had personal computers and while my Dad had an electric typewriter, I had a small manual typewriter. I used to watch him type without looking at the keys and wanted to learn to do that, too. He showed me where to put my fingers and I gradually learned to type without looking – a skill that saved me lots of time in high school and college! Well, I would wake up early in the morning, before the rest of my family and practice. So, I developed the typing skill, but I needed a story, so I started a letter... “Dear World...”  It was a long letter addressed to the world (the earth, really) asking what it was like when dinosaurs were around. Did it hurt when they walked on your back? For that matter, don’t all of the buildings and roads and cars hurt? Are we too noisy? Needless to say, I never heard back. Also, while I’d learned where the letters were on the keyboard, I wasn’t so great with punctuation — my letters tended to be one page-long sentence.

When you went to college, were you already pursuing a writing career?

No. It would take me years and some different career choices to finally land on writing children’s picture books, but oddly, everything I learned along the way seems to serve this career choice. In college, I majored in psychology – animal behavior, specifically. I worked with rats and pigeons. We were trying to figure out what motivated them to make various choices. The psychology taught me to critically examine our motivations in life and running an experiment gave me a good background in logical thinking. How can we reach definitive conclusions? What steps must we go through? All of that helps when crafting a new story, making sure that one event in the story logically leads to the next.

Next, I got a masters degree in acting. I rely a great deal on what I learned as an actor. Acting is, after all, about telling a story. When I write a story and when I work with my illustrators, I sort of play every role — I imagine that I were that little elephant or lightning bug. I feel what they would be feeling, which helps guide me in the progression of the story and the content of the illustrations. In fact, sometimes when I’m working with my illustrator, if he gets stuck or if I’m having trouble communicating to him what I’m looking for,  I will act out a moment in the story. He will start to sketch the character with elements of my expression. Sometimes I look at the book and see that if I were an elephant or a frog, that’s what I would look like!!  One very important element I learned from acting is that, as people (really, as animals) we are always in action — we always WANT something. We have a motivation in everything we do. So, another technique I use with my illustrators is to ask them the questions that a director would ask an actor.... “What does that lightning bug WANT in this moment? What is his objective? Motivation?” When he really answers these questions, the illustration comes to life. Rather than just seeing a pretty picture, you can see the character IN ACTION — wanting something. I think that makes a big difference and I’m grateful to my acting training for having given me that insight.

If you didn’t write as a child, then when did you start writing and what inspired you to start?

As for getting into writing children’s books . . . I needed a holiday present for my niece and nephew.  First I created some very rough books-on-tape based on already published books.  These were just personal presents, but the kids loved them and over a few years, those projects evolved into fully edited books-on-CD complete with sound effects, audible page turns and my niece and nephew playing the kids’ roles.  Everyone who heard them, wanted to buy them, but these were not my books, so I decided to write my own… and found that it was something that came naturally.

What kinds of things inspire you to write?

I always have my eyes and ears open for good story ideas. I look for a fun story that my readers will enjoy, but beyond that, it has to have some kind of conflict that the character has to overcome. There has to be some sort of struggle on the way to a larger goal, and through that journey, it has to touch and inspire my readers. I find that if I am honest in the telling of the story, it will have something that everyone can relate to and they will be moved. If I’m missing that element, I find that my stories feel shallow and incomplete....

How do you come up with the ideas for your stories?

Stories will come to me in a variety of ways.  With LEO THE LIGHTNING BUG, I was watching a tremendous lightning storm from the porch of a cottage in the countryside north of New York City.  When I saw a little lighting bug, flashing his light by the screen, I wondered if he thought he was making all the lightning…and that was the start.  With ELLISON THE ELEPHANT, it grew out of my love of music, my odd propensity to make all kinds of noises and sounds, and my desire to create another book with a similar theme to LEO.  With IT’S ME!, it was a voicemail message I got from my cousin’s daughter.  First, she just said, “Hi.”  I could hear my cousin in the background, suggesting that she tell me who it was, to which she responded, “IT’S ME!” as if it should have been obvious.  It was, and it also inspired the title of that book, and from the title, came the story. BAD RATS was originally called “The Learning Curb”, a little phrase that I liked for its silliness. I developed a story around that title – after all, who better to learn on a curb than a rat?!? BAD RATS did make a better title, though.

Was your first book accepted immediately? or did you experience a number of rejections?

I am in a rather unusual situation in that, not only am I the author, but I am also the publisher, so I never submitted any of my books to another publisher. While I can be hard on myself as a writer, I didn’t reject my own submissions!

There are pros and cons to being your own publisher. What’s great about it is that I get complete control over the final product. I get to choose an illustrator for each project and work with them — a luxury that most authors do not experience. I also work with the graphic designer, choosing the font and the layout of the book, the kind of paper it will be printed on, and every other decision you can imagine. That gives me a lot of control, but is also a burden, a lot of work and another whole set of problems to learn about. In effect, I’m doing the job of what would be a whole team of people in a publishing house. I am the editor, I oversee production, color correction, marketing, distribution, etc. etc. etc.... You would be surprised how much time is spent discussing the construction of the pallets that the books are shipped on and the content and size of the label that goes on the cartons!! Besides all of that, I am taking all of the financial risk for the enterprise. In case you were wondering, those last few were the CONS....

That said, by the time my books are published, it feels like a part of me and I care a great deal about each one. I am very proud of their successes and I am always touched when I hear from one of my little readers or their parents, librarians, educators and enthusiastic booksellers!

How were you inspired to include a companion CD with each book? What do you feel the “Book-on-CD” adds to the reading experience?

The idea for the audio came first - when I needed to find gifts for my niece and nephew.  In fact, I was in a book store with a friend, reading books aloud to her, trying to choose one, when she suggested that I record them.  That idea snowballed and after a couple of years and about five audio book gifts, the production value had greatly improved, and more and more friends and family were asking for copies.  It was time to turn this playful past time into a business.

What is the best reaction from a child you have ever received after reading one of your books?

“You’re a really nice stranger.” During my tour for A FROG THING, I posted some quotes from the kids along with some pictures. You can find those quotes on my website at : http://www.kidwick.com/slideshow_FTTour_2006.html.

In fact, to see and hear samples pages and sound from all of my books, you can find them at http://www.kidwick.com. To see the cast from the audio (and hear a sample line from each) look them up on the site under “Authors & Artists” and then click on the “Cast” tab.

I hope you enjoy them all!  Here’s the list of titles that I have written and published so far: