Where did you get the idea for The City of Ember?
I grew up in the 1950s, when many people were worried that there might be a nuclear war. Some of them were building bomb shelters in their backyards. I think this influenced my idea for Ember—a city built to protect the human race from a terrible threat. But I was also just interested in the idea of a city that had no light other than electricity. What would it be like to live in such darkness, and to know that light and food and supplies were all running out? And not to know about weather or trees or animals (except for a few rats and insects) or any other places? All this grabbed my imagination. And once I’d written The City of Ember, I hoped it would make people think about our world, about the sun and the moon, the forests and the ocean, the wind and the rain, and how precious it all is.
Why was the city of Ember built?
You’ll find out if you read the sequel, The People of Sparks.
How long did it take to write The City of Ember?
A long time. I wrote the first version many years ago. It wasn’t very good, so I put it away. I got it out again later and rewrote it, and then I rewrote it two or three times more. Altogether, it probably took me about two years of actual writing to finish it.
When do The City of Ember and The People of Sparks take place? In the past or the future?
They take place in the future—a far future, which I hope we never get to.
Did you always want to be a writer?
I didn’t really set out to be a writer. I just wrote. Reading and writing have always been my favorite things, though for a while I wanted to be a writer and an illustrator. I still have my very first book, which I wrote when I was about five years old. Its called “Frosty the Snowman,” has six pages, and is illustrated with red and green crayon.
What are some of your favorite books?
There are so many it’s hard to say, but I’ll list a few. As a young reader, I loved the Narnia books by C. S. Lewis; Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain; The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett; the Doctor Doolittle books by Hugh Lofting; Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll; and hundreds of others. Later I loved mystery and science fiction, especially books by Agatha Christie and Ray Bradbury. Some of my favorite writers are Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and the Brontë sisters. Among today’s writers for young people, I admire Lois Lowry, Richard Peck, Hilary McKay, David Almond, and many more.
What advice do you have for people who would like to be writers?
1. Read a lot. Read all kinds of things.
2. Be interested in lots of things. Be curious about people and about the world around you.
3. Write a lot. Write all kind of things—stories, poems, reports, journals, letters, plays, comics, whatever you like. Don’t worry if you don’t finish everything you start. That happens to all writers.
4. Learn to be good at spelling, grammar, punctuation, and organization. These are important for making sure your readers understand what you want to say.
Tell us more about yourself.
I was born in San Francisco in 1944. I’ve almost always lived in California, except for a brief time in New York. I’ve had many different jobs—teacher, editor, technical writer—but they’ve all involved writing in some way. Outside my work life, I’ve been an ice-skater, a bird watcher, a meditator, a house builder, a gardener, a piano player, and a gourmet vegetarian cook.
Are you going to write more books?Yes. I’m a slow writer, so it will take a while. But I plan to keep writing as long as I have good ideas and eager readers.