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Blog: This Writing Life


  • Writer's pictureMelissa Stoller

3 Question Interview - LORI MORTENSEN

I'm happy to welcome my #2020BookLook friend Lori Mortensen to the blog today! Lori has over 100 books published, including her newest picture book, NONSENSE, THE CURIOUS STORY OF EDWARD GOREY. I loved learning about how a history podcast and a memorable childhood book inspired her manuscript! Read on for Lori's thoughts about stories . . . creativity . . . and connection.

STORIES – Discuss the inspiration for your ideas and stories, and share the process about your latest projects.

When I first began writing, where authors got their ideas was a perplexing mystery. After all, if ideas were everywhere, what was my problem? Over the years, however, I’ve learned to pay attention to those subtle sparks of enthusiasm when I stumble upon a situation, a voice, a title, or truly any random occurrence that resonates with me. For me, that’s the key. Does that random bit fan a flame of interest? Can I see it becoming something that draws me in for the long haul and makes me smile along the way?

In the case of my newly-released picture book biography, NONSENSE, THE CURIOUS STORY OF EDWARD GOREY, I was reminded of this brilliant, eccentric creator one day on my morning walk when I listened to a podcast about him on Stuff You Missed in History Class. As I listened, his name sounded so familiar and I wondered whether he was the fellow who illustrated one of my most memorable books from childhood, THE MAN WHO SANG THE SILLIES. When I arrived home, I checked my bookshelf—and there it was! This collection of poems was written by John Ciardi and illustrated by none other than Edward Gorey. As I delved into the research, I couldn’t wait to write an equally memorable picture book biography about this one-of-a-kind creator.

Then, the question—how to tell his story? Since Gorey was a brilliant and unique personality, it seemed only right to tell his story in a unique way as well. I read a lot of picture book biographies and took note of the choices authors made with tone, structure, and arc. One of my favorites has always been STRANGE MR. SATIE, by M.T. Anderson. With each page, Anderson’s unique details drew me into this musician’s strange life, full of odd circumstance, eccentric decision-making, and controversial musical excursions.

With that brewing in the background, I began writing. Soon, a fun, quaint, lyrical voice emerged that seemed to already know where it was going—the very best kind! It was a joy to write and it wasn’t long before Houghton Mifflin Harcourt made an offer.

Interestingly, my picture book biography, AWAY WITH WORDS, THE DARING STORY OF ISABELLA BIRD, that came out last year, had a much longer path to publication. One day, I didn’t know what I wanted to write about, so I searched online for women’s firsts and discovered Isabella Bird, the first female member of the Royal Geographical Society who challenged society’s boundaries for women and wrote 10 books about her explorations. Unlike Gorey, however, I struggled with how to tell her story. Although my accounts were interesting and accurate, the story didn’t come to life until I found that unique voice, “Isabella was like a wild vine, stuck in a too small pot. She needed more room. She had to get out. She had to explore.” I was thrilled when Peachtree fell in love with her story and made an offer. Years had passed since I’d written the first draft.

Each of my books has had its own unique spark. For COWPOKE CLYDE AND DIRTY DAWG, it was watching my neighbor’s dogs regularly escape from their backyard and race down the street. For CINDY MOO, I happened to see a figurine of a cow sitting on the moon at a thrift store and wondered how she got there. I decided I’d go home and find out as I typed away on my keyboard.

CREATIVITY – How do you showcase your creative side through writing/illustrating and other pursuits?

One of the things I love about writing picture books is all the creative choices that are inherent in the process. Who are the characters? Where and when does the story take place? What will happen and what will it all mean in the end? Then, how will I tell the story? Of course, the possibilities are endless and as I’ve written manuscripts over the years, I’ve found there’s nothing more challenging or satisfying than facing the blank computer screen and breathing life into something that wasn’t there before. As I plunk away, it’s exciting to see where it will lead. It’s an extra thrill when I see how an illustrator transforms my words into extraordinary page-turning art.

When I’m not conjuring, coaxing and prodding new stories to life on my keyboard, I’m often hiking around birdwatching, camera in hand, or stirring up something in the kitchen—like what to put in my salad! Creative choices are everywhere!

CONNECTION - How do you connect to your young readers through your writing/illustrating, and how do you stay connected to the KidLit community?

Most of the time, staying connected with young readers means staying connected with my younger self and remembering how it feels to be young, vulnerable, anxious, and inquisitive. We all have those emotional memories, and with a little reflection those feelings can reemerge on the page and connect with young readers today. When I’m not at my computer, however, I have fun connecting with young readers at school visits, book signings, and all kinds of author events.

Writing is a solitary pursuit, so I’m thankful for the vast and wonderful ways I connect with the KidLit community in person and online. As a long-time member of SCBWI, I’ve attended and spoken at many SCBWI events, and regularly arrange informal Munch and Mingles where local writers and illustrators can share the ups and downs of writing over lunch. For the past 14 years, I’ve been a writing instructor for the Institute of Children’s Literature, for hundreds of students. In addition to connecting with a variety of writing groups online, my favorite connection is through my amazing critique partners who encourage, advise, and in the end, make all the difference.


Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s book author of more than 100 books and over 500 stories and articles. Recent titles include, NONSENSE, THE CURIOUS STORY OF EDWARD GOREY (Versify/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), AWAY WITH WORDS, THE DARING STORY OF ISABELLA BIRD (Peachtree), about a Victorian traveler who defied society’s boundaries for women and became the first woman inducted into the Royal Geographical Society, IF WENDELL HAD A WALRUS (Henry Holt), CHICKEN LILY (Henry Holt), MOUSEQUERADE BALL (Bloomsbury) illustrated by New York Times bestselling illustrator Betsy Lewin, and COWPOKE CLYDE RIDES THE RANGE (Clarion, 2016) a sequel to COWPOKE CLYDE AND DIRTY DAWG, one of Amazon’s best picture books of 2013. When she’s not letting her cat in or out, she’s tapping away at her computer, conjuring, coaxing, and prodding her latest stories to life. For more information about her books, events, upcoming releases, teacher activities, and critique service, visit her website at



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