Tribute: Interview with Ellen Conford

Update, 3/27/15: A week ago, Ellen Conford died at her home in Great Neck, NY.  YARN was very sad to get the news, especially since we’d had the pleasure of interviewing her just last year.  As a tribute, we thought we would repost it here, with love and admiration for Mrs. Conford who will always be for us one of the shining stars of YA.

{Originally published on June 30, 2014.}

This is Kerri here, seizing this AMAZING opportunity to introduce one of my literary heroes, Ellen Conford.  When I was a tween and teen, I devoured as much Ellen Conford as I could lay my hands on.  At the library, at sidewalk sales, and in bookstores, I would look for her name and when I found new titles, I would immediately place the book in my bag.  She wrote with unparalleled humor and respect about the experiences of kids my own age, and in her characters I found real friends.

If this is loveOne of my absolute FAVORITES was a short story collection called “If This is Love, I’ll Take Spaghetti,” and it sat on my bedside table for years.  It was the very first book of short stories I ever owned, or read in its entirety, long before I ever—philistine teen that I was—realized that short stories were, like, a “literary” thing.  Any time I felt troubled, or couldn’t get to sleep, I would turn on the light and (re)read one of the stories inside, and laugh, and feel better—about my own problems, about people in general, and (on some subconscious level that ultimately led me to be a writer myself) about storytelling.

So imagine my GLEE in discovering that Lizzie Skurnick must have loved Ellen Conford as much as I did, because she is republishing some of her books under her amazing Lizzie Skurnick Books imprint (BTW, if you haven’t discovered LSB yet, get thee to the website immediately and re/discover other totally awesome but until-now out-of-print YA novels from the 30’s – 90’s, which she is bringing back with gorgeous new covers and fanfare!).  Lizzie sent YARN her first Conford release, “To All My Fans, With Love, From Sylvie,” which I had not read, but I started reading the minute it came to my door.  Lourdes read it, too, and she is a convert.  This book more than stands the test of time.

YARN is so lucky to bring you this interview with one of the best voices in YA—now, then, and ever.  AND to bring you the title story from “Spaghetti”!!!


I have NEVER put that word in print, and will likely not again.  But this is my big fangirl moment.  Don’t judge.

Writing Process

YARN: You have been in writing for decades—quite an accomplishment!  Did your writing process evolve over the years?  How was it different at the beginning? The same?

EC:  My books became longer as I wrote my novels. I frankly think this is a matter of laziness.  It isn’t exactly evolving.  I think I just put more detail in than I needed.  Writing my YA books was a different experience than writing my middle grade books.  I emphasized character and emotions rather than plot.  I felt as if I were writing adult books and assumed a high level of maturity in my readers.

YARN:  You have written numerous novels, as well as collections of short stories.  Do you prefer one method of storytelling over the other? How do you approach writing novels differently than short stories?

EC:  Novels are easier than short stories because you can write longer which is easier than writing short.  I love the challenge of writing as concisely and precisely as a short story demands.  Also, I never have to outline a short story as I do a novel.  I just sit down and write.  I loved O’Henry stories as a child so I enjoy making surprise endings.  Also I don’t have to plot out a short story as I do a novel.  One brief, bright idea and the ending and it’s so much fun to write.  A short story also gives me an immediate payoff.  I can write a short story in one day, whereas a novel takes months.  So as soon as I write it I can appreciate it and congratulate myself.

Life as We Knew ItYARN:  In the dedication to “To All My Fans, With Love, From Sylvie,” you mention YARN alum Susan Beth Pfeffer, who recently retired.  As a writer, when do you know that your process is complete?  Can you ever stop being a writer?

EC:  I don’t think you stop being a writer, but I think you stop writing.  Maybe it’s when you have nothing more to say or can’t find new ways to write what you’ve written before.  At least that’s my experience. I don’t know about Sue. By the way, Sue Pfeffer is my cousin and a fine author in her own right. Her “Life As We Knew It” series is terrific.  This is an entirely unbiased opinion. I would say that even if she wasn’t my cousin.

YARN: Do you have any advice for readers out there who might be stuck on their own writing projects, or homework assignments?”

EC: I don’t know about homework assignments, but I’ve found that when I get stuck on a book it’s usually because my subconscious mind is trying to tell me I’m on the wrong track. It won’t help me with the plot or the next piece of action until I change where I’m going. This may sound a bit supernatural but it’s not. The subconscious mind exists and it will come up with an answer to a puzzling question hours after you stop trying to think up an answer. Maybe that’s a technique to try with homework. Put aside the part you’re having trouble with for an hour or two and then go back to it and – surprise! You may find you’ve come up with a solution.

Your Books & Career

To All My FansYARN: The first of your books that Lizzie Skurnick republished in gorgeous form, is “To All My Fans, With Love, From Sylvie,” which deals with some themes that nowadays YA readers might be surprised to find in a YA novel from 1982 set in the 1950’s: a broken foster care system, confused and abusive father figures, and a young girl looking for love in all the wrong places. How was this book received when it first hit bookshelves, and what was your attitude toward that reception?

EC: It did not get great reviews. I think part of the problem was that it wasn’t the kind of book people expected from me. All my other books had been funny and “Sylvie” wasn’t funny at all. I was very disappointed because I thought it was a very good book and that the 1950’s setting was very vivid. 

YARN: Well, it’s a good thing that Lizzie Skurnick came along and rescued it, then!  How did you get your start? Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? Did you expect your career to last so long?

EC: I started with short stories for teenage magazines. Then one day in the library I couldn’t find a good book for my son. When I got home I told my husband, “I’ll bet I can write a better book than any I saw in the library today.” “I’ll bet you could,” he said. “So why don’t you do it?” I did; I sat down that afternoon and wrote “Impossible, Possum,” a story book for young children. It was rejected by twelve publishers. The thirteenth, Little, Brown, accepted it.

So I did evolve: I went from pre-school to high school books. Writing middle grade and YA books was the most fun, though I couldn’t do them in one day; novels can take six months to a year. I never thought about how long my career would last. I always just assumed that I would never have any other career.

YARN: In your many years of writing, did it ever feel like just “a job”? How did you get over that? And/or did you ever have to “get a real job” to support your creative writing?

EC: That’s a very perceptive question(s). Sometimes a book felt like a job when I signed a contract before I wrote the book, or if I wrote a book because I was offered a lot of money. Fortunately, I never had to get a “real job.” My husband was a college professor so he got the monthly wage and I got a few checks per year.

YARN: In “To All My Fans, With Love, From Sylvie” there are references to various retro beverages and candies including Mission Orange soda and Sen Sen. Do you have a favorite retro beverage/candy/cultural event that you would like to see make a comeback?

EC: Royal Crown Cola.  Haven’t been able to find it since 1960 and it’s the best cola of them all. Way better than Pepsi or Coke. On TV, I loved “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” and faux family shows. The perfect 50’s family: the kids were respectful and well behaved, the parents understanding and loving. And forgiving! A wonderful American fantasy and the way I though my family ought to be.

YARN: You’ve had a long and prolific career, starting from the early 1970’s, and including more than thirty books! When you look back, do you have any favorites?

EC: I do. “A Royal Pain” is one, and “Why Me?” is another. “Felicia the Critic” is an early favorite, and also, “Dear Mom, Get Me Out of Here!” and “To All my Fans, With Love, From Sylvie.”

lizzie_skurnick_booksYARN: Were you surprised when you got the call (or was it an email?) from Lizzie Skurnick asking to republish some of your out of print books? What was it like, and how did it compare to the times you got published with your first books?

EC: I was thrilled. It’s wonderful to know that my books will have new life. But, of course, no thrill can compare with finding out that your first book will be published. I am so flattered to be part of Lizzie’s list, and in such classy company (with some of my own favorite writers).

YARN: Several of your works were adapted (by you!) into weekend/after school specials. How this process- from was conception to air- and what was the reaction from your fans? Would you ever consider adapting another piece of your work- television/film- for a 21st century audience? What book would it be?

EC: I didn’t do the adaptations or the screenplays for any of my TV specials; they used professional screenwriters. I think “To All My Fans, With Love, From Sylvie” would make a very good movie, and the theme—fortunately—doesn’t date. I think it could be very dramatic and moving. And being set in the fifties, it should appeal to 21st century as 20th century readers without needing updating.

YARN: Oops! Sorry about that mis-information about your writing the screenplays! Kids: Don’t trust everything you read on the Internet!  (Lol.)

Other YA & Book Stuff

YARN: Are there any other YA writers who have been in the business a long time whose books you think stand the test of time?

EC: I love Lois Duncan, M.E. Kerr, and Sydney Taylor. Duncan’s plots are terrific and while M.E. Kerr’s are original and sometimes startling, her characters and their emotions will never be out of date.

YARN: And what never, younger YA writers do you like today?

EC: I haven’t kept up with YA books since vampires and dystopias took over and drove reality almost entirely out of book lists.

YARN: In what ways has YA remained unchanged since you started? In what ways has it changed?

EC: YA books are much more frank than they were when I started writing. The few realistic ones left talk about sex and pregnancy and drugs. The characters seem more like real kids and not storybook characters.

YARN: It’s safe to say you’ve been in the book business a long time, you’re a pro, and have a lot of perspective. What kind of advice do you have for young writers at the start of their journeys?

EC: For young writers, write! Every day if you can. And of course read every day. You don’t have to show your work to anyone if you don’t want to. But writing as much as you can will improve your writing and get you started on the thinking and the working you’ll be doing if you decide to be a writer. For young readers: KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK. I read 8 books a week when I was in elementary school. I’m sure that’s how I learned to write. By seeing how all those stories were told. How to plot, how to structure a book, how to write dialogue. I didn’t know I was learning anything. I just loved to read more than anything. And I’ve never met a writer who didn’t love books when he/she was a kid.

and this is lauraYARN: That is awesome advice, Ellen.  And THANK YOU SO MUCH for answering all of our questions.  And Readers! LSB has also released another Conford classic, “And This is Laura,” which is a must for your summer reading list!

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One Comments Post a Comment
  1. Con Martin says:

    How delightful! I am also a big fan of Ellen Conford, although my favorite is Dear Lovey Hart, I am Desperate.

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