Monday, June 26, 2006

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(photo from author's website)

Jacquelyn Mitchard is the mother of seven children, as well as an author of numerous best selling books, and she has graciously agreed to take time from her busy schedule promoting her newest book, Cage Of Stars, to answer my questions about being a writer and mother to many children.

As a mother of seven children also, I find you and your work inspiring.

I read that when your first husband died of cancer, well-meaning friends and family urged you to take a "real" job, yet you persisted in writing your first novel, THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN, (a book which ended up a number one bestseller list and which Oprah chose it for her first book club selection.) How did the experience of being picked by Oprah change your life?

It made it possible for me to attempt to tell stories for a living – a privilege that few writers have, even if has meant some sacrifices, both personal and financial. We have to run a very tight ship and be careful; but we also have given our children some experiences that others don’t get to have, such as going to Europe when I have research there. Other than that, it hasn’t changed me. I don’t think of myself as “famous.” I don’t think of myself as different – just more visible.

How do you find time to write with a house full of children? Do you have a set schedule of writing time set aside daily? What advice do you have for women who have a hard time taking time away from family to follow their passions?

Well, the children are my passion, the primary thing in my life, except for my husband and family. My writing is a great love, but it is the way I make a living. And so, it comes after the children. There are times when I have to sacrifice time with them in order to do that job; but I try to do it during their school hours and at a desk downstairs that is apart from their “stomping ground.” If I really have to buckle down and churn hard at writing, I go to a residence called The Ragdale Foundation in northern Illinois, where I have total privacy and work ten or twelve hours a day. It’s far enough away that I can’t be involved with every minute of their lives; but it’s close enough that I can come home in an emergency, and I have. Believe me, as soon as my back is turned, something invariably goes wrong! Sometimes, I think it’s their way of making me see that they aren’t very fond of my being away.

I think all of us as mothers have had that experience! I have taken to saying to my children before I leave the house, "Don't get hurt today. It is NOT a good day for going to the ER." If only they would listen to me.

On your blog you are very candid about missing out on special events with your children since you travel frequently. Do you think it's harder to be a working mom when you've got a lot of children? How do you keep things from getting out of balance?

I definitely think that it’s more difficult now that I have more children. When there were fewer and they were younger, I could easily take them out of a few days of primary school, and take one with me for some of my book-tour events. Now that many of the kids are older; and even the younger ones have such heavy demands at school that I can’t justify doing that anymore. And now that my assistant has a very young child of her own, she can’t travel with me and help out with the kids – except very rarely – so they end up sad and I end up sad and feeling guilty, too. And yet, they do understand that this is necessary for me to support them, and that their dad misses me, too. What’s the saddest thing of all is when I come home and they are just so darned okay! They say they’re glad to see me; but when they cry out at night, it’s for Chris. I guess that’s a tribute to Chris, as a great dad, but it’s made for some tears for me. Of course, I love meeting readers; and I love seeing the effect my book has on people – so it’s a dilemma.

It is such a double edge sword, isn't it? I never knew before I had children how much mommy guilt I would feel, about things that I logically shouldn't even feel guilty about. Speaking of children,you also are the writer of several children's books. Do you have any plans to write more?

I do! Another picture book is coming out next year, and my first young adult novel comes out in January of 2007.

Can you share some of your creative process with us? Do you base characters on real people, or draw from real life experiences for inspiration? Do your children inspire your work?

My children have inspired my work, yes. In fact, my first chapter book for children (‘Starring Prima!’) was written backstage with the help of the children in the cast of ‘A Christmas Carol,’ when I appeared in that with two of my sons, who acted in community theater. And my adult novel last year, ‘The Breakdown Lane,’ was in part inspired by my son, Dan, who appears as the narrator “Gabe” in the book. Many, many of my characters are inspired by people in real life; and many of my books are very loosely inspired by incidents that have happened in real life – by newspaper accounts, by stories people have told me that haunt me. Most of those incidents aren’t at all recognizable.

You travel quite a bit, it seems. You mention Italy as one of your favorite places. I personally have had the desire to travel there and not yet made it. Do you travel with all of your children? Do you have any sage traveling wisdom you could share with us?

Well, the sagest advice I can give is, do it! I think parents are intimidated by the idea of traveling with a large family – so they simply back off. What we’ve done is to try to teach our children manners, consideration for others and to pitch in and be appropriate in other places. It doesn’t always work, of course; but they aren’t spoiled brats who disturb other people. Once when we were on Cape Cod, I heard a waitress pay another waitress to serve our table. And later that server came up to me and apologized. She said, “I really am not used to seeing kids behave that well….” Be prepared. Take lots of books and snack and magnets and go! My son Atticus had taken six plane trips by the time he was five months old!

Tell us about you as a child. Did you have a lot of siblings growing up? Did you always imagine that you would be a mother to a large brood?

I had only one brother, and another who died as a child. Both my brother and I felt there was a shortage of “us.” I did want to have a “larger” family; but I never imagined having one this large! In fact, I wouldn’t have had such a large family if my first husband had lived….but then, so many things would have been different. I don’t mean that they would have been better or worse, but they would have been different!

Your newest novel, CAGE OF STARS, was just released in May 2006, can you tell us a little bit about your book?

It’s the story of a young Mormon girl who witnesses an event of shocking brutality when she is only thirteen. Unlike her parents, she hasn’t the strength of will and faith to eventually turn to forgiveness and peace. She struggles with ideas of revenge, of making the man responsible for her family’s pain suffer the same pain.

Where can we find updates about you and your appearances?

At my website,!

Questions that I subject everyone to, because these are the things that people seem most curious about large families:

1. How many gallons of milk and loaves of bread does your family go through a week? Are you ever caught up on the laundry?

We go through at least ten loaves of bread and seven gallons of milk each week; and no, I do five loads of laundry a day, in a washing machine the size of the Apollo 13; and I will never be caught up, ever. Maybe when I’m 65 years old.

2. How have you changed as a mother from your first to your seventh child?

I know how much more important love is than influence. I know that love has more power than any number of speeches or directions, and setting an example of loving and respecting each other has more power than anything else. Kids are going to turn out who they are going to turn out to be no matter what. A parent can guide and suggest, but not command.

3. What is your favorite snack that you take pains to hide from your children?

I don’t HAVE one! My husband is very protective of his Oreos though!

4. When I am home my favorite thing to do with my children is:

Cook. It’s so home-bringing.

Jacquelyn, thank you so much for taking time to answer my questions and share a bit of your life with us. I wish you the best of luck with all your new projects.

know someone you think I should interview for an upcoming column, email me at

Wednesday, June 14, 2006


Paper, paper everywhere.
So, what do I do with it?
School work
Special cards

Please HELP!

Paralyzed by Paper

Dear Paralyzed by Paper,

Oh, paper. This is one of the banes of my existence and I am sure every mother out there. There isn't enough room in anyone's house for all the paper that children generate. Somedays I feel like my children are single handedly responsible for wiping out all the mature forests in our country.

The key to any system is actually doing it. I know that sounds simplistic, but how many times have you begun a new organization system, have your hopes set high, only to abandon it several days or weeks later. You need to find a system that works for you and stick to it. Even when you don't want to.

That said, I am ruthless. I save very little.

Get an invitation? Immediately write all the pertinent information on the calendar and toss the invitation in the trash. You don't need it.

I have a HUGE calendar. One of those desk blotter sized ones. There is room on there to write everything that I could possibly need to write, including the phone numbers for parties or doctor appointments. I use my different colored highlighters for different things. Baseball games are yellow, doctor appointments green, etc. This way I can glance from across the room and easily see what is going on for the next few weeks.

Don't think you have room for a huge calendar? What about on the back of a closet door? Keep your pen tied to the thumbtack there so it is always handy. Do you have a pantry in your kitchen? That is where I keep mine. I don't like clutter. You'll never see things taped to the front of my refrigerator.

Cards? Store bought go in the trash as soon as possible without being offensive. I don't think I have ever read the card over the open trash can, but I've come close.

Homemade cards I'll cherish, clutch to my bosom, and shower the recipient with my undying gratitude and love, before quietly disposing of it. If it is really spectacular and not another rendition of MOTHER written down the side of the card with words like Mommy- Old- Tells Me What To Do, etc. I'll take a picture of the child holding the card, before I file the card away in my special storage cabinet, aka the outside garbage can.

I have one large drawer in my pantry where I put works of art. Every so often I go through and determine the best representative artwork they have done, books they have written, etc and toss the rest. Anything not able to be stored flat or worthy of public display is tossed. Egg carton caterpillars with glues on wiggly eyes? Cute, but buh-bye. Anything made out of a discarded coffee can? Oh how clever, but buh-bye. Any sort of pen holder, ashtray, paper weight. They go in my special cabinet straight away.

I display my children's artwork.

Children's Artwork

I have many paintings matted and framed, hanging on my walls. I have pottery on display, and ceramic creations hanging on the wall.
Children's ceramics

It is a nice way to make the house feel like it belongs to the children. It makes them proud of their contribution to the decorating. Framing just makes it look nicer and more polished than scotch tape.

Since we homeschool, I probably keep more of my children's school papers than a parent who has a child in traditional school would need to. I put their papers into colored folders, each child has their own folder. At the end of the year I put all the consumable books they have used and folders into a box and put it into the attic.

I go through the mail as soon as I come home with it. Everything that isn't a magazine or a bill is tossed right away. Sometimes I get rid of the extra stuff at the post office in their recycling bins so that I don't even have to cart it home. Then I put the mail where it belongs. Yes it has it's own place.

Look at these organization systems at Pottery Barn. But don't shop there, unless you have lots of money to spend on something you can get much cheaper somewhere else. See how you can make something similar yourself for much less money, that will suit your needs perfectly.

Good luck. And if all else fails you can make a bunch of paper airplanes and wear some large paper hats.

A Large Paper Hat

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Since this is the launch of the blog and there are no burning questions emailed to me yet, I dipped into my email from my personal blog.

Hi! I've been reading your blog over the last few months & I just wanted to let you know that I really enjoy it. I've wondered a few things though...first, what made you want to start a blog & what is your motivation for doing it now? Do you make any money for writing them or anything?

Well, thank you. I always love getting positive email. It makes me feel connected to the people who are reading. I began writing a blog as an online journal and it was only after writing for a few months that I discovered that there was a thriving community of great women writers out there that I could relate to. It was wonderful. I am still in awe of all the great people I have met who make me laugh, make me think, or challenge me in some way.

Haaaahahahahaha. Oh, sorry. No, I don't get paid for writing. I do have ads up on my personal site, but it is too early to really tell how it will pay off. I'm hopeful so I can buy shiny things... like braces.

Also, I wondered what state you all live in, so I can kind of picture where all of these family adventures are taking place. I'm guessing somewhere in the middle of the country...

I live in New England, which is in the northeast for those of you who are geographically challenged, in a small town that is a bit too far from the nearest large city to be considered a suburb. Some people in my town have small family farms with cows or horses. I don't. It is all I can manage to keep seven children alive. Also, I don't like to get dirty.

Third, I just wondered out of curiosity if you really always say the things you write to people and your kids, or if you take poetic license and add stuff to make it more funny.

Everything that I write is the true. Trust me I couldn't make this stuff up. People are crazy out there in the world.

So, just thought I'd write and ask my random questions and tell you I have been enjoying your blog and often laugh out loud at the stuff... which is quite a feat! So, thanks for taking the time to share about your funny adventures in motherhood!

Well, thank you.


Hi Chris, I am a mother of 4 ages 3 boys-9 months, 3, 6, and a 9 yr. old girl (who thinks she is 25). I cannot seem to find a plan and stick to it. We have done so many charts and such, but honestly I just want them to carry their own weight and behave most of the time. I find myself at night wondering what I can do to really make the house run a little smoother and have the kids really take a more active roll in keeping the house clean (this is done on most occasions, but it takes a lot of negotiating before they finally do something).

Anyway, I was just looking for a little advice in this department when you have some extra time (ha ha).I think the key to having any chore system work is to stick with it. Even though that sounds like such trite and easy advice, we all know that it is very easy to let things slide and the next thing you know your kids aren't cleaning up their own stuff, mom is feeling stressed and overwhelmed, and the children are balking at helping out.

In my house we are a team. I tell my children that if they all help out we can do the things that need to be done more quickly and then have time for other fun things. Are there times that they refuse to help or stall? Of course, they are children not trained circus animals.

But the consequences of not helping are logical, natural consequences. Want me to play a game? Sorry I had to clean up the entire kitchen alone and now it is too late. You didn't want to pick your Legos up off of the floor? Sorry, they are now inside the vacuum if you want them you should go sort through the debris in the canister and retrieve them.

Children have to be shown how to do household tasks many times before they are ready to do it themselves. Telling your nine year old to clean up the family room will not mean the same thing to her as it does to you. Sending her off to with the order to "Clean Up!" without instruction will just result in frustration for both of you. Ask me how I know this, better yet, don't ask.
Break the chore down into small manageable pieces and do it with her until she knows exactly what to do. At first it may seem like it is more trouble than it is worth, but if you stick it out the payoff will be there, for both of you.

Children like to please us. They like to feel important and like a contributing member of the team. So above all praise, praise, praise. Tell them what a good job they did, overlook the things that weren't done exactly how you would like them. A little positive reinforcement goes a long way.

Good luck! And the next time my head threatens to spin around on my shoulders and pea soup to come spewing out of my mouth, I am going to try to remember my own advice.


Hi Chris,I just recently discovered your it!
I was just wondering, what kind of camera do you use? Your pictures are beautiful (so are the kids, even though they are full of arsenic and covered in deadly DEET...sheez!)

Thank you.I use a Kodak Z740. I am happy with it and the picture quality. It isn't an expensive camera and is no Nikon D70 or Canon Rebel, but for taking pictures of the children I have no complaints. And you can hardly see the children's phosphorescent glow or third arm that is sprouting out of their backs.


Sometimes, people email me answers to the burning questions I have, like is there a cream to take care of wrinkles and blemishes at the same time?

Olay's anti-blemish anti-wrinkle moisturizer I'’ve been using it daily. Not bad!
I will have to try this. Thanks!

And so this concludes the advice from the trenches for this week. If you have any burning questions email them to me at