Author Dori Hillestad Butler
What’s the funniest/memorable/worst thing that happened to you on a school author visit?
The “thing” I’m thinking about is all three: funniest, memorable and worst! I visited a school that had never had an author visit before. They put me in the library by myself with 30 middle school students for a writers workshop. No teacher. No librarian. Two of the three sessions went just fine. But during the third session, when it came time for the students to share what they’d written during the workshop, one of the kids read a story that was basically porn. Okay, no “basically” about it. It. Was. Porn. I stopped him just as his story was really heating up and said, “Wow, that’s a really interesting piece of writing. Have you shared that with your teacher or principal? No? Well, I’D like to share it with them.” I tried to take the paper from him, but he wouldn’t let me. When the workshop was over, I did tell the person who had invited me what had happened. Apparently, this was a new boy. He’d just arrived and none of the staff really knew him. But that only reinforced my feeling that authors (or any guests in a school) should never be alone with students. And fortunately, most schools already have a policy prohibiting you from being alone with the students.
Did you have a teacher who encouraged you to write?
I’ve had three very special teachers who encouraged me to write.
First was Mr. Hartshorn, my 6th and 7th grade English teacher. I wrote my first “novel” for him for extra credit. I believe I’m a writer today in part because of the encouragement he gave me back then. I even put him in my Haunted Library #3: The Ghost Backstage. I didn’t really describe him in the text. I just said he had a beard. But the illustrator drew him almost exactly the way I remember Mr. Hartshorn! I dedicated the book to him, too.
Next was Mr. Chicos, my high school creative writing and humanities teacher. When I was a senior, he agreed to be my advisor for an independent study in creative writing. Which meant I got to hang out in the English office during my free period and write my stories in there. Mr. Chicos told me about a college fiction contest sponsored by Mankato State University. Even though I wasn’t a college student, he thought I should enter because it would give me a concrete goal and a deadline. So I did. And I won honorable mention! This was a huge boost in confidence…and made me feel like maybe I really had a shot at being a writer one day.
Third was Dr. Elliott, my college creative writing teacher at Bemidji State University. I took creative writing 1 and 2 from him. This was where I realized I didn’t just want to be a writer; I wanted to write for kids. When I ran out of official creative writing classes to take, Dr. Elliott agreed to be my advisor for two quarters of independent study in novel writing. This was my first “real” novel. I didn’t finish that novel in either of those quarters, but I did finish it a couple years later. I got my first agent on the strength of that novel. Unfortunately, she was never able to sell it. I did, however, sell another book a few years later. I hadn’t kept in touch with Dr. Elliott, but I wanted to tell him about my first book contract and to let him know that he’d made a difference in my life. But he wasn’t at Bemidji State anymore. I couldn’t seem to find him anywhere. A few more years went by and I finally connected with another professor I’d had at Bemidi State. He told me that Dr. Elliott had taken his own life. That hit me really hard. For one thing, Dr. Elliott was a writer, too. He’d published a few short stories in small literary magazines, but like me, his dream was to publish a novel. He never did it. I got my dream. In part, because of him. But he didn’t get his dream. Of course I have no idea what drove him to take his own life. It may or may not have had anything to do with being a writer. Or not being a writer. For a while it felt somehow “wrong” that I was a writer living my childhood dream and things went so wrong for him that he took his own life. But of course the real “wrong” in all of this is the fact that I never told him he made a difference in my life.
Dori Hillestad Butler is an award-winning author who is eager to share her love of story with readers of all ages. She is the author of more than 40 books for children, including the Haunted Library series and the Buddy Files series. Her books have been on children’s choice and teen award lists in 19 states. The Buddy Files #1: Case of the Lost Boy won the 2011 Edgar Award for best juvenile mystery. Dori grew up in southern Minnesota, spent the last 19 years in Iowa, and now lives in the Seattle area. She is on a quest to do an author visit in all 50 states. If she hasn’t visited your state yet, you may be eligible for a discount. For more information visit www.kidswriter.com.