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Three Questions With Donna Gephart: Advice For Young Writers and Death By Toilet Paper

Donna Gephart is a professional nerd. She’s written five novels filled with humor and heart for Penguin Random House, including How to Survive Middle SchoolDeath by Toilet Paper and Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen. She’s also written some compelling grocery lists and award-winning Post-it notes to her dogs. For free activity/reading guides, lots of fun info and a singing hamster video, visit  “I’m a big fan of teachers and librarians; let’s connect @Dgephartwrites or via carrier pigeon — whichever is more convenient and poops less.”

I first met Donna when she wrote for me at Inklings, my email newsletter for writers back in the early days of the Web. As I prepped her Three Questions interview, I looked back through some of my old archives and found a “Writing Funny For Money” piece she did for me back in 1998(!).


When the good toilet paper is replaced by cheap, scratchy stuff, Benjamin Epstein realizes his hard-working mom is in deep financial trouble. Ben will do anything (entering contests, selling candy bars, etc.) to help his mom pay the rent and keep a promise he made to his late father. (Toilet and toilet paper trivia head each chapter.) Nominated for Pennsylvania, Maine and Rhode Island state reading lists and winner of the Sydney Taylor Honor Award.

1. Could you please take a photo of something in your office and tell us the story behind it?

My friend’s daughter creates sculptures of each of my book’s characters. Hammy the Hamster from How to Survive Middle School w/his microphone to the right. And Vanessa Rothrock from As If Being 12-3/4 Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother Is Running for President on the left. You might notice Vanessa has no pants (nor legs).

They melted on the cookie sheet in my friend’s oven because her daughter ran out of clay and used a cheap substitute for the legs. We now refer to her as Vanessa Meltypants.

Our one dog keeps me company every day while I write, while the other dog guards the front window by barking at dangers, such as the UPS delivery person, babies being pushed in strollers and the bunny who sometimes hangs out on our lawn. (Our window blinds will never be the same.)

2. What advice do you have for young writers?

There’s some advice on my site from industry professionals and resources for young (and young at heart) writers: 

Everyone says: “Write what you know.” But I think if you write only what you know, it would be boring. Write what you’d like to know. I purposely create ideas for my novels that require me to research and learn new things. Did you know there are 516,000 bacteria in every square inch of armpit? Your brain weighs about three pounds? And the first stall in a public bathroom is the least used and therefore the cleanest? (You’re welcome for that last one.)

Write the emotional truth of what you know. Do you know what it’s like to feel lonely, scared, left out, overjoyed? Write about those feelings!

You may not believe this, but the bliss in writing is in the actual writing — in losing oneself completely in the process of creating something that didn’t exist before — not in the outside rewards one might get from being published, winning an award, etc. Although those things are nice, too. Let everything else go and write with great joy . . . and a pen. A pen definitely helps.

3. What are you excited about right now?

I’m excited to have a wonderful year of school visits, Skype visits and book festivals behind me and a long, lovely summer ahead to daydream, fill up on books and play outside with friends, family and our dogs.

And write.

For more insights from book creators, see my Inkygirl Interview Archives and Advice For Young Writers And Illustrators From Book Creators.