Interview with Emma Walton Hamilton

Tammy Nuzzo-Morgan: I had the pleasure of meeting, getting to know, and becoming friends with Aeronwy Thomas Ellis, Dylan Thomas's daughter. She struggled in her adult life to outgrow the long shadow cast by her famous father in her professional and artistic life, and managed to become recognized in her own right. I am wondering if you have ever struggled, being the daughter of Julie Andrews, and if so, how were you able to do as Aeronwy did?

Emma Walton Hamilton: My parentage set me up to want to make a life of my own in the arts, but also contributed to my feeling a certain amount of pressure, especially in my early years, to figure out who I was and how to make my own mark. Sometime in my 20s, a wise mentor said something that dramatically changed my outlook and that has stayed with me ever since. She told me to "wear the mantle with dignity and pride." She reminded me that my mother is associated with excellence and class, and that people want nothing more than to have that view confirmed. It was therefore up to me - part of my karma, in a sense - to do so. I have tried to honor and uphold that in my conduct ever since. I finally did find my own way in the arts, first as an administrator, co-founding Bay Street Theatre, and then as an arts educator. And of course, writing for children has taken me and my mother in a whole new direction together, which has been, and continues to be, a joy.

TNM: How was it to co-write the Dumpy the Dumptruck series and Thanks to You: Wisdom from Mother and Child with your mom?

EWH: Actually, my mom and I have written over 20 children's books together over the past decade and a half (you can find the complete list on our website). We weren't sure when we started whether we would be compatible writing together, since we can both be fairly opinionated and controlling, but happily the process has been totally joyful. We have complementary strengths, and a tremendous amount of mutual respect. We rarely disagree, but when we do, we have a kind of innate instinct as to when to defer to each another. Writing with a partner is hugely helpful in terms of brainstorming ideas, and problem-solving, and these days, we wonder if we could ever do it alone. Ultimately, it has also strengthened our relationship, since we spend so much of our time together being creative as opposed to talking about family issues or life's problems.  

TNM: On April 4, you and your mother will be honored at the 2011 Stars Of Stony Brook Gala, an event that will benefit Stony Brook Long Island Children's Hospital as well as student scholarship. Can you share your feelings and thoughts on being honored?

EWH: Since I work for Stony Brook Southampton's MFA in Writing and Literature program (as Director of the annual Southampton Children's Literature Conference, co-Director of the Playwriting Conference, and Executive Director of YAWP, the Young American Writers Project) this is a very special honor. Stony Brook is a phenomenal university and I am proud to be affiliated with it, so it is gratifying to be able to support this wonderfulinstitution in whatever way I can. I am also grateful for the opportunity to shine some light on the MFA program, which is over 30 years old and one of the best in the country. In addition, we are advocates for the Children's Hospital for personal reasons. My daughter, Hope, now seven years old, was born two months premature and spent the first few weeks of her life in the excellent neo-natal intensive care unit at Stony Brook Hospital. If it weren't for the outstanding care she received there, it's likely that she would not be here today.  

TNM: What brought about the idea and the genesis of the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, New York, which you co-founded?

EWH: My husband, Steve Hamilton - an actor/producer and co-Director of the Southampton Playwriting Conference - and I had been working in the theatre in New York for many years. We were both in love with Sag Harbor, and spent as much time as possible at my father's home there that he owned for many years. Growing up, I spent summers and holidays there as well. Steve and I were married out here and we dreamed of living in Sag Harbor full time. We also dreamed of having our own theatre, but couldn't figure out how to reconcile what we wanted to do with where we wanted to live. Then a synergistic combination of events transpired in our favor. An old friend by the name of Sybil Christopher, who also had a theatrical background, relocated to the area, and while dining with her one evening, we discovered that the building on the Long Wharf that now houses Bay Street was vacant. Another friend who was a real estate agent overheard our discussion and urged us to submit a proposal to the landlord. We did so the next day, and it was a snowball effect that we ran to keep up with from that moment on!

TNM: You have a very accomplished background as author, editor, speaker, and arts and literacy advocate. We are delighted that you have made Stony Brook your home! What made you decide to undertake the position of Executive Director of the Young American Writers Project, or YAWP, an inter-disciplinary writing program for middle and high school students on Long Island?

EWH: Steve and I left Bay Street in 2008 after 17 years. It was time for a change, and we wanted to spend more time writing, teaching and being creative (running a not-for-profit theatre is pretty much all about fundraising and administration), and being with our kids. We were therefore absolutely thrilled when Bob Reeves, the Director of the MFA in Writing and Literature, approached us about our interest in starting the Playwriting Conference as part of the esteemed Southampton Writers Conference. He had also been offering Young Writers Workshops for many years through the Conference, but was keenly interested in growing that program to encompass other writing disciplines and to reach out beyond the summer to area schools. Because of my background in arts education, he invited me to take a leadership role in that effort, which I was delighted to do. Subsequently, he also asked me to take over the new Children's Literature Conference. These three roles represent a unification of all my passions in a way I have never quite been able to enjoy before, so I am thrilled and grateful to Bob for his vision and generosity.

TNM: As Executive Director of YAWP, what is your vision for the program?

EWH: YAWP is dedicated to mentoring middle and high school students in the development of critical thinking, communication, and creative expression skills through writing. The goals of YAWP are to:

  • Help each student find and develop his or her unique voice
  • Enhance critical thinking, collaboration, and communication skills
  • Use creative expression as a way to solve problems and promote global awareness
  • Advance 21st century skills while supporting E.L.A. requirements
  • Expose students to the unique creative programs and resources of Stony Brook Southampton, including the annual Writer's Conferences
  • Develop and support the next generation of writers and readers

YAWP programs send professional writers and writing teachers (many of whom are students and faculty of the MFA program) into middle and high schools in Long Island with a variety of innovative, inter-disciplinary writing programs as represented by the MFA in Writing and Literature, including writing plays, personal essays, poetry, scripts, and fiction. Programs conclude with special projects and presentations, as well as potential publication in the YAWP Ezine. YAWP Programs provide Stony Brook, Stony Brook Southampton, and the MFA in Writing and Literature Program with important community outreach and they help to shape the next generation of American writers and readers.

TNM: Lastly, as a lifelong fan, I must ask: how is it to have Carol Burnett as your godmother?

EWH: As you might imagine, Carol is a lovely person - a dear friend of my Mom's and a very affectionate godmother!