Deborah Noyes on Deborah Noyes: "I was born in Carmel, California, in 1965. My biological father left when I was two, and Mom remarried a Marine stationed at the language institute in Monterey, who adopted me and became Dad in more than name. We moved a lot during and after his years in the service--California, Virginia, Maryland, all over Massachusetts.
"I don't know how many schools I attended as a kid. A lot. I was happiest outdoors climbing trees and such, but at school I was often the wary new kid. Books and nature were my refuge (for me the natural world has an odd consistency that's comforting; neighborhood's change, but there are going to be birds; there are still dragonflies and poison ivy and rain).
"My brother and two sisters were born along the way, and our parents divorced when I was 12, at which time we moved with our minimum-wage single mom from apartment to apartment in an industrial city in central Massachusetts. Here, there were house fires and other hardships, but somehow (I didn't grasp this achievement until I grew up and had kids of my own) she held it and the five of us together.
"At seventeen I moved to Boston, enrolled at U-Mass, and got in with creative writing straight away, feeling I'd found a kind of home.
"To support the writing habit over the years I've shined shoes in a tuxedo shop, worked for the railroad, waited tables, tended bar... My favorite job was being a zookeeper. Later I earned an MFA in Writing from Vermont College, wrote book reviews, edited a literary journal, proofread ad copy, and taught college writing and literature.
"I thought restlessness was just my lot in life until I came to Candlewick Press as a marketing copywriter eight years ago, had my two kids, and fell in love again with children's literature. I crossed into Editorial and at last found a career to rival fiction writing. I've been there since, editing other people's books while I work on my own. I'm still a nomad, though I keep it in check for my family's sake; I travel whenever I reasonably can, and on Fridays ("momentum" day), I pitch camp in coffee shops with my laptop."
How did the writing life first call to you? Did you shout, "yes!" Or run the other way?
Yes! I've always fussed with writing and drawing, making little books, though I was secretive and embarrassed about it early on. My family was fractured and working class and so were many of my friends' families, and the idea of "making art" just seemed indulgent.
I remember in high school a friend's mom asked to read something I'd written. It was a hideous romantic adventure story, and she was this tough Armenian-American woman married to a city bus driver. She looked up from the page, all incredulous, and said, "You didn't write this," and that was about the best response I've ever had.
Another time in a college course in Detective Fiction (I loved that class! We read mostly hard-boiled stuff: Raymond Chandler and Cornell Woolrich and James Cain...); the professor gave us the choice of writing a standard essay or a short story. I turned in the latter, and when I came in late one day, it dawned on me that the teacher was reading my story aloud to the class (something he hadn't done before and didn't do again). I was gawky then but also suspicious and defensive. I almost turned and walked out again I was so mortified, but I slipped into a chair instead, blushing like a fool, and by the time he finished I was beaming inside because I understood that he would have done it anyway, whether I was there or not. It wasn't charity or flattery or even simple kindness. That was a gift, and it couldn't have come at a better time.
Could you tell us about your path to publication, any sprints or stumbles?
Years and years of rejection, which is as it should be. When I speak at conferences now as editor, I always say that rejection's one of two things. It's either a sign that you're not ready; you're still in your apprenticeship (no one would brandish a violin on stage without training, but plenty of people think writers spring from the soil fully formed) and rejection is nature's way of keeping you from making an error. Or the editor in question doesn't love your book enough to live with it for the duration--years sometimes (it can take that long to produce a book, especially a picture book)--in which case they don't deserve it and won't have the passion or wherewithal to shepherd it through and sell it in-house to the people who then sell it to the world at large. Either way, rejection's a thing to be grateful for. It smarts, but it's no curse.
I'd like to focus on your latest release, but first let's touch base with your back list. Could you fill us in on the books, highlighting as you see fit?
Just to make it next-to-impossible for anyone to get a handle on what I do, I write everything from picture books--Hana in the Time of the Tulips, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline (Candlewick, 2004); When I Met the Wolf Girls, illustrated by August Hall (Houghton, May 2007); Red Butterfly, illustrated by Sophie Blackall (Candlewick, January 2008), and Prudence and Moxie, illustrated by AnnaLaura Cantone (Houghton, 2008)--to an adult historical novel, Angel and Apostle (Unbridled Books, 2005).
I love the short story form, too, though our industry only grudgingly supports it, and have commissioned/edited two YA anthologies, Gothic! Ten Original Dark Tales (Candlewick, 2004) and The Restless Dead: Ten Original Tales of the Supernatural (Candlewick, August 2007).
I'm also writing a novel-in-stories (ghost stories) for Candlewick. One Kingdom's my first stab at creative nonfiction (such a weird term) and photo illustration.
Congratulations on the release of One Kingdom: Our Lives With Animals (Houghton Mifflin, 2006)(excerpt)! What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?
This is a 120-something-page book that began as a picture-book proposal, which says how drastically it's evolved. My editor drove the project from the beginning. She was enthusiastic about the photos and, as I fed her sections of text encouraged me to dig deeper and let it grow.
In the end One Kingdom became a "crossover" title, as much for adults as teens, which makes sense since I humbly modeled it on the work of favorite adult authors in this area: Diane Ackerman, Annie Dillard, Loren Eiseley...
What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?
Tearing myself away from research long enough to organize the material into a narrative. You know that saying, "How do you create an elephant out of a lump of clay? Carve away anything that's not elephant"?
Well, it took me a long time to get to the elephant. Who knew 17th-century French pet care habits could be so intriguing? Or that animals once stood trial for human crimes? I'm a sucker for offbeat history and strange lore and look for any excuse to lose myself in it. Also, the book's about the relationship between animals and humans in myth, lore, history, science, etc.--a broad topic--so we had to figure out best how to structure it. Chronologically? Thematically? This took some doing, since much of it's a personal meditation on what animals mean to us (i.e., different things at different times and in different parts of the world) and didn't fit squarely into any one category.
You write for children, teens, and adults. What appeals to you about each audience? What challenges are inherent in each?
For me, picture books are a challenge. They're exacting--like writing a poem--and I'll never not need that rigor, that discipline. My first audience is always me, maybe because I wrote for so many years without an audience (smile). As a writer I don't think much about what Editor-me would call positioning. I just write and hope someone will want to read it.
The blogs of late have been buzzing about the marketing perils of writing a variety of books, which is something we both do. What is your take on author branding?
I know there are intelligent and responsible reasons not to do it this way, but if I were an actor, I'd lose out on leading roles. I'd be one of those character actors doing small, quirky parts. For me one idea leads to another, and where I end up may or may not match the format I worked in before. It's an intuitive and ill-behaved process, but it keeps me interested. My agent and editors, so far, have supported what must seem at times a fearful lack of focus...
What advice do you have for beginning authors?
One of the first questions beginning writers at conferences ask is, "How do I get an agent?" This is the question you ask last, not first! Learn your craft. Read. Follow Anne Lamott's advice and give yourself permission to write bad (she uses a livelier adjective) first drafts. Don't grieve or give up if an editor rejects you. Editors are just people with particular tastes.
If you write truly enough, you'll connect with what Hawthorne calls that "heart and mind of perfect sympathy." You'll find your reader. And yes--during and after all of the above--network. Attend conferences. Compare notes with other writers on process, on the vagaries of agents and editors and contracts...
How about those building a career?
Take it slow. It's fine to experiment with forms--Kate DiCamillo, for instance, is hugely successful yet rarely repeats herself - but put only your best work out there.
How about those interested in creative non-fiction specifically?
I have so much to learn in this area, but I'd say keep careful notes and source lists, cross-reference, develop an organizational system that works. The tone of One Kingdom is personal; I like to think the book asks more questions than it answers, but accuracy and attribution were still important to me.
As a reader, what are your favorite recent children's/YA books and why?
It's an embarrassment of riches out there. I read constantly yet don't feel I brush the surface. Most recently I've enjoyed The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak (Knopf, 2006) and Clay by David Almond (Delacorte, 2006)--both strong, unique narrative voices.
What can your fans look forward to next?
I love that question. Fans?! Next up's the YA novel-in-ghost stories I mentioned. And another photo essay along the lines of One Kingdom on the theme of death. Then I'd like to focus on the second adult novel--a mess of notes right now--and turn back to picture books for a while.
Let's shift gears. You have a double identity, as Deborah Noyes, author, and Deborah Wayshak, an editor at Candlewick Press. How do your inner editor and inner author work together?
These roles inform one another constantly. It can be hard to remember which hat I'm wearing--turn off my writer brain and keep my editorial paws off when it comes to stylistic matters--but in the end both jobs demand sensitivity and empathy, and I learn something either way.
Sitting on both sides of the desk also helps me better appreciate and value my own editors. I know how hard they work. I know what they're up against.
What qualities do you look for in a manuscript? What sorts of books most intrigue your editorial eye?
Voice. I'm always after fiction with a distinctive voice. My tastes run older (I rarely take on young picture books or nonfiction unless the topic's irresistible), but I'll read in almost any genre. I love fantasy, contemporary, historical, chick lit, supernatural. As long as the book's character-driven and stylistically engaging, anything goes. I'm interested in the place where popular and literary intersect. Those were the stories I looked for as a teen, so that's what I look for now.
What do you see as the job(s) of an editor in the publishing process?
To ask questions. When an author first completes a draft, they're dead close to the material with little perspective. I'll ask, "Have you thought about this? Did you notice that? What does this character want? What if so-and-so played a bigger role? Have you considered how format will affect content?
What are its challenges?
I love working with authors, with words, but publishing's a business, and that part I don't always love, though I've learned a great deal.
What do you love about it?
Working with other writers, being of use, learning from them in turn.
What do you do when you're not reading, writing, or editing?
I want to be outside...hiking, walking the dog. I love long car trips and listening to music (which is one reason I like long car trips). I'm a music junkie. Photography interests me more and more. For practical reasons I finally broke down and bought a digital camera, but what I really want is to experiment with larger formats and slow, smelly alternative darkroom processes! One day.