When I first interviewed Amy Krouse Rosenthal about ten years ago, she had freshly published her delightful, memorable Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, whose unique marketing campaign was half the fun of the book (I personally got to hide copies of the book around Chicago for people to find.) Since then, she has become a hit machine of children's books, including Little Pea, Uni the Unicorn, the new bestseller I Wish You More and, one of my son's favorites, Spoon. Plus, she has published journals like Your Birthday Book, the new A Week In The Life Of Me as well as The Big Sibling Book which we are attempting to fill out in a heartfelt way but my 2.5-year-old son (who has a thing for hedgehogs) is not taking as seriously as I'd like him to:
Amy's also created numerous films that showcase her talent for bringing people together through wordplay, coincidence and random acts of kindness. She and her husband also threw Steve and me a beautiful, memorable engagement party that included an alarm that went off at 10:11 PM because that was to be our wedding date, and I still have the scrap of paper she wrote to remind us of that. Thanks to her I knew deep down that we'd ultimately buy the house we ended up moving into because its street number is 1011.
Anyway, in the interest of creativity and fun, instead of answering my queries herself, Amy threw the questions to her daughter Paris (a senior in high school), her husband Jason (a senior authority on the subject), and a cast of strangers who responded to an invitation on Facebook to be part of this "interview experiment" wherein they'd supply their own guessed answers. In other words, Amy had these questions answered by two people who know her very well, and several people who do not know her at all. For the strangers who totally guessed at her answers, Amy replied with how hot or cold they were.
On with the interview!
Do you still hear back from readers of Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life? What's the latest interaction you've received from someone who replied to one of its reader-response prompts?
DAUGHTER PARIS: Yes, she does! My mom might not say this herself but I know that underlying all her work she aims to have her books resonate with people. Many people still read Encyclopedia and then reach out to her whether that be in the form of a simple letter, a recreation of their own version of the book, a product from a class project/study on the book, etc.
What are some of your favorite things readers have sent you?
PARIS: A snow globe ring. All of the "lovely submissions" from The Beckoning of Lovely (at least those are some of MY favorite things that readers have sent her as I saw when helping organize her drawer!).
HUSBAND JASON: A man from New York started sending her letters with all kinds of unique stamps on the envelope and in the correspondence. Several came over time. It eventually became kind of confusing and weird.
STRANGER MAURNA ROME: Amy's favorites include letters from kids who write their own versions or responses to her children's books. Additional questions for the "Yes Day", additional unique pairings for This Plus That and persuasive essays extolling the reason why it's a duck vs. rabbit in Duck! Rabbit!
Amy's response: Maurna's guesses are actually 100% spot on!
STRANGER SARAH KROLCZYK: Some of Amy's favorite things that she has received has been a homemade embroidered blanket with pictures of each of her books on it, a bag of frozen peas, and a box of Ding Dongs [the reason for which you can watch below.]
Amy's response: Again, Sarah's guesses are all bingos-- the only caveat being that while I did in fact receive an embroidered blanket, it featured pictures from a single book, Plant a Kiss.)
Last time I saw you you spoke about doing a follow-up to Encyclopedia. What do you have planned so far?
STRANGER SARAH KROLCZYK: Amy is working on a new book called Dictionary of an Extraordinary Life. It is all about the glitz and glamour of now being famous and dripping with jewels.
Amy's response: Ha.
JASON: Amy immersed herself in a follow up of sorts. I think the world will be better for having it very soon.
PARIS: If I told you, I'd have to kill you. :)
Have you or would you reconsider the statement that your life is ordinary?
PARIS: Her life is not ordinary -- that is the opposite of what I think of when I think of my mom's life. Her life is not ordinary because: a) Her work and all that she makes is unique, non-traditional, and forward thinking. This type of approach allows for non-ordinary, yet beautiful and serendipitous (one of her favorite words) things to flow into her life. b) No one's life is really normal or ordinary, because what is normal? And how can a life be ordinary if each one is vastly different in its own way?
JASON: Ordinary seems right in the scope of big life tragedy and hardship. We all have things that happen in our lives that seem out of the ordinary; painful, difficult...life.
Where, most generally, do you get your ideas? Walking? In the shower? Half-asleep?
DAUGHTER PARIS: Let me start by saying, people ask my mom this question ALL the time--I guess I don't blame them! My mom does not for example say "I'm gonna go for a walk to get some ideas." She might go for a walk to get some milk for her coffee or she might for a walk just to walk, but she would never go for a walk and expect ideas to seep into her.. Ideas seem to come to her when they are meant to, sometimes when she is least expecting them. What I mean by that is, she always carries a pen and notebook (or just a pen and her hand as an easel is equally as good) because she is constantly thinking and constantly experiencing all that life has to offer, which triggers the ideas.
HUSBAND JASON: Immersed in water for sure. Multiple baths per day provide Amy time to settle an otherwise very active brain.
How do you know when one is worth of translating into a book or project and when one isn't really meant to go farther than a Tweet or a joke to your husband?
PARIS: She doesn't know right away. One thing I have to say when answering this question is that she writes all of her ideas down. There are pieces of paper, notebooks full, maybe even napkins scribbled with her ideas at any given time. I'm assuming that way if one idea did indeed start as just a Tweet or a joke, she can always go back to it and try to make it into something more than that. I presume that she knows when an idea is worth translating into a book when a) she's been thinking about it for a long time and simply writing it down and putting it away is not satisfactory/doesn't feel right, b) when the "umph" behind the idea comes out naturally, not when it is forced (her and I know what I mean by that I think), and c) when it makes sense in the context of her work, in the context of what she already has published, and in the context of what she is trying to accomplish next.
JASON: When Amy knows she knows. Some little thoughts become books after many years, others quite quickly. If all of Amy's thoughts became books or projects, we would need a new Library of Congress.
STRANGER YOUA VANG: To answer this question, I would like to quote Mitch Hedberg: "I write jokes for a living, I sit at my hotel at night, I think of something that's funny, then I go get a pen and I write it down. Or if the pen is too far away, I have to convince myself that what I thought of ain't funny."
Amy's response: I love and relate to this. I'd amend my version by saying if the pen is too far away, I type the note in my phone.
You made a lot of films since I last interviewed you: do you have any others coming up? What have you learned about making movies along the way?
PARIS: She's always making films, just like she's always writing, always thinking, always being her. She has learned a lot about making movies logistically in terms of music, lighting, editing and that kind of thing. She has also learned when videos are more effective than just a post or a photo. I'm glad she makes these films but I my dad and I do sometimes get a little annoyed when she plays the same song over and over again while editing a film.
What's been your most recent moment of noticing a pattern, or having deja vu, or getting a message from the universe (you know, one of those Amy K-R moments.)
HUSBAND JASON: In planning a big birthday, Amy found a public art exhibit with hundreds of yellow umbrellas a la Beckoning of Lovely! The party will be in that space.
When I last interviewed you 10 years ago you had young kids and I had no kids and now you have older kids and I have new kids. What's something you've learned about raising kids in the last 10 years that could help me?
PARIS: Kind of funny to think about answering this question AS one of her kids, and this is the one I had to ponder the most. I think the magnitude of what she has learned about raising kids in the last 10 years is a loaded question (because she has 3 of them, because 10 years is a very long time, because she learns something new every day, etc). To pick one thing, I would say that she has learned how to, not to mention succeed in, attain and maintain a loving, supporting, special, and genuinely mutual relationship with each of her kids. Now if you want advice on HOW she did that, and how you can do the same, that is another long, detailed answer.
STRANGER YOUA VANG: If you're going to tell a white lie to a kid, make it believable. If you say, "We're out of Almond Joys," wait until they go to sleep to eat them. Don't sneak it while they're still awake.
Amy's response: Indeed there were MANY a Halloween night where Jason and I would wait until the kids went to bed to raid their trick or treat bags. Note to future candy-stealers: make sure to bury the wrappers at the bottom of the trash bin.
JASON: Every kid is a unique being. Though they are being raised by the same parent or parents and under the same roof, they are who they are from a very early age. Take time to be just your family even under the pressures of life and your extended family. Laugh a lot - life is serious enough.
You always seem so positive and full of energy and ideas and are open to the world. What's the last thing that really annoyed you or you were just generally crabby about?
PARIS: With all the innovation and modern ideas, the way that streets are designed, meaning the unclearly marked crosswalks in the middle of busy streets and the unsafe bike lanes, is something that really bothers her, even to the point of "crabbiness".
STRANGER NICOLE COYLE: The last thing that really annoyed her was that her Wednesday went by way too quickly to do all things she wanted to do.
Amy's response: Yes, Nicole. And if you replace the word "life" with "Wednesday" and put a period after the word "quickly", the sentence also holds true.
STRANGER CATHY BONNELL: Amy wonders why copy editors always change the word "wiggle" to "wriggle"? Who ever says "wriggle"?
Amy's response: I also wonder about the use of "hone in" on something versus "home in."
JASON: People who don't know how to genuinely say "I'm sorry." Listening to young people who say they are "bored." That really tall guy who stood in front of her at the last Wilco show.
This isn't a question, but I just got the joke in the title "Writers Block Party."
PARIS: I just understood it, too. No shame. Better yet, shame for BOTH of us together!
How does it feel to be the fourth person interviewed for Zulkey.com once per decade?
STRANGER SARAH KROLCZYK: Amy graciously accepts this as a high honor- right up there with winning a golden ticket and getting to drink from the chocolate river.
Amy's response: I like Sarah's guess because Willy Wonka holds a special place in my heart, AND because my publisher and I arranged for 100 golden tickets to be randomly placed in the paperback edition of Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life when it first came out. By the way, have you ever heard the Smoking Popes cover of the song "Imagination"? It's pretty much the best.
PARIS: Weird ass, pretentious question.
You can learn even more about Amy here.
The people who don't know Amy at all included the following contributors:
The people who don't know Amy at all included the following contributors:
If you want to check in on other interviewees with whom I've followed up ten years after our first chat, like John Green, Ben Karlin and George Saunders, you can find them all archived here.