On March 15, 2006, award-winning author Pam Muñoz Ryan participated in a chat with Scholastic students and teachers. Ryan's books include Esperanza Rising, Riding Freedom, and Becoming Naomi León, among other titles.
How long have you been writing?
I didn't become an author until I went to college, got married, had kids and went back to school to get my master's degree. One of my professors suggested I might pursue professional writing. She planted the seed that wouldn't stop growing.
Where did you get the idea to write books?
An idea for a book is like a confluence of rivers coming together in my mind. I am inspired by what I read, events in my life, and subjects that intrigue me.
What inspired you to write Esperanza Rising?
Although it is a work of fiction, it parallels my grandmother's immigration story from Mexico to California. The idea is explained in-depth in the Author's Note in the back of the book.
In Esperanza Rising, what happened to Tío Luis?
Tío Luis and Tío Marco are fictional characters, so in my mind they just stayed in Mexico and I left it to the readers to imagine their frustration when they discovered Esperanza's escape.
Are you like Esperanza?
Esperanza is a fictional character who is based on the character my grandmother might have been.
If you were to recommend Esperanza Rising to anyone, who would you recommend it to and what would you say?
Esperanza Rising is for all readers: Not only readers who might identify with her story but also for readers who might like to fall into a story and escape. And for those who might want to learn about someone other than themselves.
Hello, I bought your book Becoming Naomi León. What does León mean?
León is the Spanish word for "lion."
What does Naomi León look like?
She's described at length in the book. When you read the book, you'll have a strong image of her in your mind.
Do you speak fluent Spanish?
Yes. My grandmother spoke only Spanish to me.
What is your writing process like? Do you sit down to work at the same time every day, or just when the inspiration strikes?
If I am working on a novel or a book, I write every single day. I tend to be a morning person. I'll get up early and start early and work until the afternoon, but that's just my personal habit. Every author is going to be different. I revisit the manuscript every single day when I'm working on a novel. From the time I start writing a book until the time it is published, I have probably rewritten it between 20 and 30 times.
Do you ever start working on a book and decide not to finish it? How do you make that decision?
If I am struggling with a manuscript, I will let it rest for a few days, and then when I come back to it, I can usually figure out what is wrong. It helps that I continuously revisit the manuscript.
We are reading Esperanza Rising. Are all the books you write based on family experiences?
No. If you look at all my titles you'll see I write about a variety of different characters and topics.
My English students loved your book. Their question is: what was your childhood like?
There is a biography on my website that is much too long to tell here. I grew up with my grandmother a few blocks away and many of my aunts and uncles nearby. I am the oldest of 23 grandchildren.
What was your favorite class in elementary school, and what were some of your favorite books?
My favorite subject was reading. I remember reading the Little House on Prairie books, Swiss Family Robinson, Treasure Island, and Anne of Green Gables. It's too hard to pick just one book as my favorite.
Besides writing, what are some of your hobbies?
Horseback riding, taking walks on the beach, traveling, reading, and I love the Sudoku puzzles. In fact, I am going horseback riding today and if you go to my website, you can see a photo of the horse I train on.
Why do you like to write about women who struggle in their time period?
I am attracted to little known stories of famous women. I find them intriguing, and I think readers will also find them intriguing.
Are you working on a new book now? What's it about?
I am working on a new novel which will be published in the fall of 2007. I don't want to elaborate too much on the story line because it will change before then. My newest title is called Nacho and Lolita. It's already published and is about two birds of different species that fall in love.
We really felt a lot of emotion over Marta in Esperanza Rising. Can you give any advice on how to make a character stand out or come alive?
As a writer, I try to depict the character as a whole — their good points, their bad points, and their sensitivities as well as their fears — and in that way, I hope to give the character dimension, which will hopefully give the reader something with which they can identify. One tip is that I always imagine the character in my mind as if I were watching them in a movie.
Of all the books you have written, which one is your favorite?
That's like asking me which of my children is my favorite child.
What is your favorite book? Or who is your favorite author?
I read heavily in the genres in which I write, and I admire so many authors that it would be too hard to pick just one.
The Thief Lord and Hoot are coming out as movies. Are any of your titles, like Esperanza Rising, coming out as movies?
At times they have been optioned, but none have been developed yet. I am attending the premiere of the play Esperanza Rising in Minneapolis. It's being performed by the Minneapolis Children's Theater and will run for three weeks. It's the first professional performance of the play.
What's your favorite part about being a writer? What's your least favorite part?
My favorite part is that my job is very diverse. Every book is different and although much of my job is working in a solitary situation, there is a small part of my job that involves talking to teachers and people in the publishing field. The diversity in the job is appealing to me. What people have to remember is that I don't go to a job where I see my colleagues every day. For example, a teacher may go to work every day and see his or her colleagues. I don't have the advantage of networking with my colleagues on a daily basis.
Do you have any stories that you wrote as a child that you reread or use for inspiration in your novels? What was the story about if you do?
I didn't really write stories as a child. When I was in elementary school, the curriculum was very different. We didn't do the type of the writing that kids do today: writing in journals, making books at school, young author fairs, having an author visit the school. Back then, I didn't know that being an author was a profession. I spent a lot of unchoreographed time playing and pretending, so in one way I was already creating stories with a cast of characters. I just wasn't writing them down.
Do you have any advice for kids who want to be published authors?
I have been asked this many times. I've created a page on my website. If you go to there and click on the ADVICE icon, you will find a page of direction for young writers as well as links that will answer frequently asked questions.
Have you ever visited the real Rancho de las Rosas?
No. I haven't ever visited. As far as I know, the actual ranch is no longer there.
How long does it take you to write a book?
Writing a novel takes about a year. It's another year before publication.
Do you have any kids?
I have four kids.
Does your family read your books before you send them to a publisher?
Not usually. It is more likely that they will read them when they are in book form.
Do you ever start working on a book and decide not to finish it? How do you make that decision?
There are many manuscript files on my computer. Sometimes I think I have a great idea for a story and I begin to develop it but it doesn't take root as I thought it would. Sometimes I put it away and it never gets developed and other times I go back to revisit it at a later date and something will occur to me that will help me advance the story. When I'm under contract for a novel for something specific, I will revisit the manuscript or conference with my editor, but I won't abandon it.
Which type of books do you prefer to write — novels or picture books? Were any of your books written with your children in mind?
I like changing channels in my mind, so that's why I enjoy writing both novels and picture books. None of my novels were written about any of my children specifically.
How did you feel the first time you saw a book of yours for sale in a store?
That is always very thrilling.
What do you admire most about your grandmother?
I admire both of my grandmothers. They lived through the Great Depression and struggled to overcome poverty and stereotypical thinking.
How would you feel if someone wrote a book about your life?
I would be honored if that happened, but I would be concerned about the accuracy of the story.
Both my mom and I read Esperanza Rising, and we both really liked it. I am only 7 and I understood it and enjoyed it. You are a great author if kids and grown-ups both like your books. Thank you for your hard work.
Thank you for sharing that with me. I love to hear when readers make a connection with the story.
Are there any other writers in your family? Do you think any of your children may become writers?
I have cousins who are in writing related fields. One of my cousins is a broadcast journalist another is a film editor. My grandmother's sister was a romance novelist in Mexico about a hundred years ago.
Many of these questions are answered more fully in interviews on my website. Also, if you read the Author's Notes in the back of the books, you will find additional in-depth information. I'm grateful to my readers and the teachers who present my books to their classrooms.