Pat Sherman works as a writer, library professional, and writing instructor in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her previous books include The Sun’s Daughter, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie (Clarion), and several nonfiction books for young people on historical subjects ranging from colonial America to the present day.
What made you decide to become an author?
I don’t know if I ever “decided” to become an author. I loved reading as a child and always made up stories in my own mind. I wrote just for myself for a long time before I had anything I thought I wanted to publish. Writing was something I just wanted to try. I wanted to see if I could create a story. I wasn’t really focused on publishing. When I finally did publish something, people told me that I was an author. The truth is, I was an author all along, just not a published one. I think people believe that you only become a “real” author when you publish something, but you are an author the minute you start to write.
What’s a typical workday like?
My days always vary. I do a lot of writing for educational companies, which is often called “work-for-hire.” That means a company has hired me to write for a fee. The job may be writing a nonfiction book, or test passages, or a chapter of a textbook, or materials that teachers can use to instruct students. Each project is different. I often have deadlines to meet. Sometimes I have a couple of projects going at once, so keeping track of how many hours I spend on each project is important. I also try to make a little time for my own writing, something I’m working on that I may want to send out to a publisher when I think it’s ready.
Where do the ideas for your books come from?
From all over the place. Because I like history, my ideas can come from history books, old photographs, old magazines, even old recipes. I also like keeping a journal and recording interesting things I see or overhear during the day.
How many books have you published?
I’ve published two picture books, one of them being Ben and the Emancipation Proclamation. I’ve also published quite a bit of nonfiction with educational publishers. These are books that are usually sold to school and public libraries. Many times they are part of a set of books on related topics. I’ve published about 12 nonfiction books to date. They range from very short books for elementary school readers to longer books for young adults. One of my favorites was a history of journalism and printing in colonial America. I learned so much from my research!
Do you have any advice for would-be authors?
Keep writing! Don’t get discouraged if you’re rejected. Don’t compare yourself to more successful people. Believe in your own story and your own unique voice. Everyone’s path as a writer is different.
What characteristics do writers need most?
I’m not sure I can say what writers need most. I think that depends on the writer. Everyone has a different set of strengths and weaknesses. Curiosity is important. As is the ability to empathize and see something from someone else’s point of view. You need persistence to keep on going when you hit a rough spot. It also helps to genuinely love language and all the wonderful things that words can do.
Can you tell us one thing people may not know about you?
Hmm…I have a hard time recognizing faces. There’s actually a scientific name for that—prosopagnosia. It means “face blindness.” I’m not actually “blind” to faces, but my memory doesn’t retain them well. If I walk right by you like I don’t recognize you, it’s because I don’t! Needless to say, this can be a problem. I try to compensate by noticing other things about people. How they walk or the shape of their hands, for instance. Sometimes, I think that may actually help me as a writer because it makes me aware of details other people might not notice.
What is your favorite thing about being an author?
Getting new ideas. An idea can pop up out of anywhere.
What do you find difficult working as an author?
Having so many ideas. Having to choose one or two to work on can be hard.
What do you do to shake the rust off or get new ideas?
Reading is a good way to get inspiration. Sometimes I’ll open a book of poetry at random and just read one poem. It can be something I like or don’t like. Even if I don’t like it, I try to pick out a word or phrase that speaks to me. I also like looking at art. If I can’t visit a museum in person, I’ll tour one online. And just going out for a walk can really clear my mind.
What has been the highlight of your career thus far?
I think publishing Ben and the Emancipation Proclamation has really been the best experience of my career. In 2018 I was invited be on an author’s panel sponsored by the Children’s Defense Fund. The audience consisted mostly of teachers and I was moved by how many of them had used Ben in their classes and liked the book.
What is something you wish someone had told you when you first started writing?
Expect the unexpected. I didn’t start out wanting to write for children, but after a while a realized that’s what I wanted to do. Your writing career may take a lot of twists and turns. Be open to surprises.
Tell us about Ben and the Emancipation Proclamation? What inspired you to write this book?
I’m always on the lookout for old and historical things. One day I was browsing at a yard sale and I spied an old book about the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University. The book had been published around 1880. It included short biographies of the original singers. That was how I first came across Benjamin Holmes. I was moved by the story of this young man who had taught himself to read and had read the Emancipation Proclamation out loud to his fellow slaves. Even more, I was amazed that his story was not more well-known. So many stories from history become lost or forgotten. I thought Ben’s story should be remembered and I became determined to share it with the world. It took me several years to perfect the manuscript. I was so happy when Eerdmans decided to publish it. Eerdmans seems the perfect publisher for the book.
What’s up next for you?
Right now I’m working on a nonfiction middle-grade book about the discovery of vitamins. I’m also focused on some picture book biographies.
Anything else you’d like to share with aspiring authors?
Be brave! Don’t wait for the “right” time to start writing. Even a sentence or just a few words can be a beginning. And don’t worry about how good something is in the beginning. A lot of writing starts out pretty messy. Some of it actually stays that way. It’s okay to have a lot of experiments. Everything you write doesn’t have to be for publication. The most important thing is to keep learning from what you do. The more you write, the more you’ll discover what works and what doesn’t work for you.