Super-talented illustrator, Deborah Melmon, who made the Adventures at Hound Hotel and the Adventures at Tabby Towers chapter-book series so adorable, interviewed me on the Picture Book Junkies website. During the discussion, I talked about the genesis and development of the Hound Hotel series.
Here’s the interview in its entirety:
MONDAY, MARCH 2, 2015, Interview with Shelley Swanson Sateren
So honored to have Shelley Swanson Sateren on the blog today! She has written many books for children, both fiction and non-fiction. Her latest project, just released by Capstone, are four chapter books in the Adventures at Hound Hotel series, and illustrated by me, Deb Melmon. Mudball Molly, Homesick Herbie, Growling Gracie and Fearless Freddie are funny and endearing stories about the Wolfe family and the antics that ensue when different breeds of dogs are boarded at their family-run kennel. Since I was lucky enough to illustrate these books, I thought it would be fun to do an in-depth interview with Shelley. After you read this you can head over to my personal blog and see more about the process of illustrating the covers!
Welcome Shelley! How did you come up with the idea for Adventures at Hound Hotel?
Hello Deb and all children’s book lovers! Before I answer your first question, Deb, I’d like to thank you for interviewing me. It’s been a joy getting to know you through the Hound Hotel series. I’m a very lucky author to have such adorable illustrations bring my stories fully to life. You handled the project with such skill, talent and humor. I absolutely love the doggone cute pictures of the Hound Hotel gang and kids everywhere will love them too!
To answer your first question, the idea for a chapter book series set at a rural dog-boarding kennel was generated in-house at Capstone Press. I’d previously written numerous children’s books for their company (fiction and non-fiction) and an editor approached me with the Hound Hotel concept. I love dogs and immediately accepted the assignment. I had a contract in my email inbox three and a half hours after the editor’s initial email!
The editor gave me this three-sentence pitch to work with: Eight-year-old twins Owen and Emma and their mom own an established boarding kennel out in the country. They live, work and play with dogs every day. Each story will feature a new dog and his/her adventure at the kennel, introducing a variety of breeds of dogs and typical dog antics.
Besides reading level, word count and front/back matter expectations, this brief, simple pitch was the only guideline I received. After much research and many deep dives into my imagination, I created the Hound Hotel world around it, though I changed the children’s names to reflect the humorous tone of the stories. I love writing to assignment like this. It’s an invigoratingly creative process for me.
The main characters of the book, the Wolfe family, are so cleverly written. Can you fill us in on the dynamics of the family and the twins, Alfie and Alfreeda?
My first draft of the first book, Homesick Herbie, was a realistic account of two siblings helping a little Yorkshire terrier adjust to his first over-night stay at a boarding kennel. I had bits of humor in that draft and the editor asked for more; she encouraged me to push beyond the boundaries of reality and bring more over-the-top humor to the script. So I re-wrote the whole story to match the new comedic tone and turned the main character, eight-year-old Alfie, into an underdog who’s always in competition with his “top dog” twin sister. I based their ever-competitive spirit on the dynamics of wolves in packs—dominant versus submissive (information gleaned in part from the excellent book, The Dog Listener, by Jan Fennell, which links dog behavior to wolf behavior).
No matter how hard Alfie tries to become an alpha (top) dog in his pack (family), his sister usually triumphs. Of course this dynamic lent itself to much more humor. (As Garrison Keillor says, “Humor belongs to the losers.”) After I turned Alfie into an underdog, the stories became much easier and more fun to write. I named the twins Alfie (as in Alpha) Wolfe and Alfreeda Wolfe for an added sprinkling of comedy. And I gave their father the job of wolf researcher. He’s often gone on long trips to study wolves in the wild, which Alfie bemoans; Alfie really misses his father, which parallels the little terrier, Herbie, missing his owner. Also, I named the twins’ mother Winifred Wolfe. I considered the word “win” within “Winifred.” As much as the twins vie for top-dog status, of course their mother is truly the one in charge at Hound Hotel.
How did you select the breeds of dogs that come to visit the Hound Hotel?
I spent many weeks researching dog breeds and dog-boarding websites/facilities. Choosing four breeds (one per book) wasn’t easy because there are so many great ones! These were my criteria: a breed that young kids could safely play with; a loveable breed; a bit of a troublemaker. Trouble = entertainment.
Do you have your own dog?
Not right now. I grew up with various canine breeds as pets and, as an adult, adopted a West Highland terrier named Max. Max now lives in the happy dog park in the sky and I miss him! He was full of crazy high energy and I thought of him often as I wrote these books, especially Mudball Molly.
I visited dog kennels as part of my research for this series and had a difficult time not adopting one of the adorable dogs on the spot! But owning a dog is a huge responsibility and my husband and I agree that we’re too busy to give a very social pet, such as a dog, the attention it needs. Last summer, soon after wrapping the final book in the series, I dogsat a tiny teacup Yorkshire terrier named Chloe. She helped ease my desire to adopt my own dog—just a little!
Do you write every day? Tell us a little bit about your process.
It’s a rare day when I don’t write. Mornings are my most productive time. I try to get household tasks done in the evenings so that my weekends are free to write, too. It’s a very time-consuming process, writing books that kids will enjoy, so I devote many hours to it every week. For me, writing is a vital part of my day, as important and necessary for my wellbeing as brushing my teeth and eating healthy meals.
I write longhand for the first several drafts and type only when the story is close to sharing it with my first readers. Because the deadlines were so tight, just one person read the Hound Hotel scripts before I sent them to my editor: my son, Anders. He was a senior in high school at the time. He’s a very good editor, in my opinion. He understands the sensitive, playful mind and heart of an eight-year-old boy very well.
I see you come from a very creative family. Can you tell us a bit about your parents?
It would be impossible to encapsulate fully, in this small space, how very creative these two people are. Nothing about Steve and Judy Swanson’s life is cookie cutter, except maybe their “Minnesota Niceness.” Their house is filled with their creations—paintings, ceramics, sculptures, etc.
My mother is a graphic designer. She’s designed countless logos, brochures, book covers, banners, posters, production sets, convention spaces, etc. My father, besides being an English professor and Lutheran pastor, is a book writer and a metal sculptor. He welds animals out of old car parts and other cast-off metal. I grew up watching him type his many sermons, articles and book manuscripts. He’d pound away at his noisy typewriter and I knew from a young age that I’d be happiest sitting in front of a typewriter doing the same thing.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Consciously, fifth grade. My teacher in Seguin, Texas, where we lived at the time, read A Wrinkle in Time to our class. I went straight home and told my mother, “You know what that book makes me want to do? Write.” Immediately, I began to draft a chapter book called “Mystery in the Library.” I loved reading mysteries in elementary school. In seventh grade, I turned “Mystery in the Library” into a play. I wrote, directed and starred in it. Some of my classmates and I performed the play at my middle school in Camrose, Alberta, Canada, where my family lived at the time.
I was always a big letter writer, to my grandparents mainly, since we always lived far away from them. I often kept a diary, too. One of the greatest regrets of my life is that I, as a teenager, threw away my childhood diaries. (I think I saw them as “baby writing.”) My mother must not have been aware that I tossed them in the trash; for sure she would’ve stopped me.
What books influenced you when you were young?
The ones with the most endearing and enduring characters influenced me the most: Curious George; Max in Wild Things; Pippi Longstocking; Harriet the Spy; Madeline; Peter Rabbit, etc. Strong-minded characters with a mischievous streak always took permanent residence in my childhood heart.
What other books have you written?
My complete bibliography is posted on my website: http://www.shelleysateren.com. Because I love research and because I once worked as a children’s non-fiction book editor, I’ve written many non-fiction books for kids. My Humane Societies: A Voice for the Animals was a Children’s Choice book. I wrote twelve early chapter books in the Max and Zoe series (fiction) plus a humorous, contemporary middle grade novel called Cat on a Hottie’s Tin Roof (Delacorte/Random House) which Publishers Weekly called “hilarious, punny and fun.” I’m currently at work on two more middle grade novel scripts.
Do you have plans for more Hound Hotel adventures?
I did loads of research on different breeds and dog-behavior issues for the first four books and have a three-ring binder filled with extraneous material. If the good folks at Capstone Press decide they want more books in this series, I’m ready!
Where do you find your creative inspiration when you are not actually writing?
From many places: long walks in my pretty neighborhood or around the lake near my house; trips to the family cabin or museums; soul-enriching movies; gorgeous music; farm and zoo animals; my funny friends or family members; great books, etc. However, because I write primarily for children my greatest inspiration comes from kids. Of course, memories of my own childhood are paramount, especially emotion-laden ones, times when I felt really afraid, excited, joy-filled, etc.
Also, I usually have a part-time job to support my writing income and many have involved working with kids. I’m inspired to write board books or pre-K picture books if I’m working with babies and toddlers; I’m inspired to write chapter books if I’m working with older kids. I’m always scribbling down something that kids in my life say or do, funny things, sad things. I’ve got boxes filled with these scribblings, including my priceless journal notes from the years my two sons, Erik and Anders, were young. I hope I live beyond age one hundred so I can turn many of these golden nuggets into publishable stories for kids’ enjoyment!
Please visit my blog post to see how I created the covers for these books and visit my newly revamped website at deborahmelmon.com.
POSTED BY DEB AT 1:29 PM
(Updates: my dear, amazing dad passed away in August 2015; also, I no longer post my bibliography on my website. ~Shelley)