Sunday, September 25, 2005

Author Interview: Kelly Bennett on Not Norman

Not Norman (A Goldfish Story) by Kelly Bennett, illustrated by Noah Z. Jones (Candlewick, 2005). From the catalog copy: "'Don't think that just because you made me laugh, I'm going to keep you,' I tell him. 'Tomorrow, you're outta here.' Norman the goldfish isn't what this little boy had in mind. He wanted a different kind of pet--one that could run and catch, or chase string and climb trees, a soft furry pet to sleep on his bed at night. Definitely not Norman. But when he tries to trade Norman for a 'good pet,' things don't go as he planned. Could it be that Norman is a better pet than he thought?" Ages 4-up.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

Did you ever receive a gift that you didn't want? Well I have, although I'll never tell who gave it to me...(Hi, Mom!)

It's really tough because you appreciate the gift and the thought behind it, so you try to like it. Well, I thought to myself, what if the gift was something you couldn't just hide in the back of your closet and forget? Like those not-even-close-to-the-right-brand jeans I was given for my fifteenth birthday.

What if that gift was alive? So I set about writing a story about a boy who received a pet he didn't want. For the story to work, my character had to be unable to interact with this pet in any physical way. I eliminated every pet my character could pet, sleep with, exercise, tease or play with. That meant no dogs, cats, lizards, snakes, rodents or bugs.

What was left? Fish! Which was perfect because I love fish. Fish are funny, loveable and fun in spite of the fact that you can't really play with them. Just watching fish make me laugh, however, the moment I try to touch my fish they scatter. And if you want to feel unwanted, try swimming with your pet goldfish--they'll hide for hours after. The perfect pet for Not Norman.

Do I have a goldfish named Norman? Of course. He was named after my cat. In fact, I bought my first goldfish just to tease my cat. That Norman the goldfish lived in a glass percolator on top of my stove. He'd swim around and around and around the glass percolator stem and I'd watch and laugh. One day I came home and my cat was laying on top of the stove with his arm draped around my goldfish's coffee pot--that's when I decided needed a new home. So my son Max and I created a fish pond in our back yard. Max dug the pond. I built the waterfall and filter system. And about two weeks later Norman the Goldfish had a new home. Ever since then, I have had a goldfish pond. I have one now in my home in Jakarta.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

The idea for Not Norman first met paper on February 16, 1999. Back then it was a very different story with a completely different title. It was much more of a list-book, and the pet was the main character. Then, thanks to an editor who took the time to write a person note on my rejection letter--one that pushed my buttons and made me mad enough to try something else, Not Norman: A Goldfish Story was born.

The manuscript went through went through three stages of revisions with my agent, Erin Murphy, before we felt it was ready to send out. As luck would have it, at an SCBWI Conference my editor Sarah Ketchersid of Candlewick Press mentioned that she loved goldfish. My agent, Erin, happened to be at that conference and the rest is history.

I need to mention that Sarah isn't just my editor, she's Not Norman's birthing coach. Along with my critique buds who urged me on every step of the way, Sarah coaxed, coerced, encouraged this final manuscript into being. I have five complete revisions of the story in my file as well as a good handful of e-mail notes about tiny changes. Thank heavens Sarah loves goldfish, too. Hers is named Lucky--we know who the lucky one really is!

Sarah called with an offer to buy Not Norman on April Fool's Day 2003. I was driving in my car when Erin reached me. I jerked the car off the side of the road and made Erin swear it wasn't some kind of sick joke.

Even after it Not Norman was purchased the manuscript went through some revisions--minor tweaks. Then it was time to choose an illustrator. I had one request. I wanted the main character to be brown-skinned. I didn't specify an ethnic group, but I did want him to have dark eyes, dark hair and dark skin--like most of the world!

This is Noah Z. Jones' first book. Sarah had seen his art and thought Noah's style was perfect for the book. One of his first sample illustrations was a version of the cover illustration--a boy looking through the fishbowl, and the goldfish is where his nose and mouth should be. I loved it! I still do. And boy does Noah work fast! Thanks to his speedy, perfect, fun illustrations the art was ready in record time and the picture book was released in less than two years--a record for a picture book!

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

I'd love to pretend there was some research or deep soul searching that went in to Not Norman, but honestly, my inner self isn't much older than eight, so it's not difficult for me to think and act like a child--my family says I do it all the time! But it was hard figuring out how the main character was going to learn to love Norman. After all, when someone really wants a cat or dog, it's tough to settle for a fish.

At one point I had the main character treating Norman like a stuffed animal and taking him everywhere. In one scene, I had him climbing a tree with the fishbowl slung over his shoulder and Norman sloshing around all googly-eyed. I thought it was funny. But it didn't fit, so I had to cut it.

That's the toughest part of writing picture books, unlike longer fiction, you can't have any extra scenes. You can't include something for a laugh or other effect. Every word has to move the story forward. As anyone who knows me will tell you I am wordy, so it is hard for me to keep it short. I spent loads of time cutting words, words, words. It's hard for me to take out phrases I think are "wonderful." Those cuts really hurt--and the first cut was the deepest...

Writing in first person present tense isn't usual for a picture book, either. It feels right for me, very much the voice I use when chatting with friends, and that's what I wanted this book to read like, a kid telling a story to a friend. Still, it took some extra work to keep the story reading smoothly.

One last little challenge, not for me, but for everyone else: In the book, the main character doesn't have a name. Since he's the one telling the story, it wasn't hard to write the book that way, but it poses difficulties for folks writing the jacket and catalogue copy and for reviewers--they don't know what to call the boy in the book. I do, but I'm not telling!

Cynsational Note

Not Norman, A Goldfish Story is a 2006 Oppenheimer Toy Award Gold Medal Award Book.

Cynsational Links

Kidding Around: Follow these tips for weaving the various types of humor into your children's stories by Kathryn Lay, author of Crown Me! (Holiday House, 2004), from Writersdigest.com.

Kimberly's Wanderings: Thoughts, Musings, Inner Angst, Favorite Things and the Crazy Life of Author Kimberley Griffiths Little: new blog from the author of The Last Snake Runner (Knopf, 2002); Enchanted Runner (Camelot, 1999); and Breakaway (HarperTrophy, 1998).

Where Ideas Really Come From by author Tim Wynne-Jones from The Horn Book, September/October 2002.

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