Friday, September 22, 2006

Author Interview: Karen Halvorsen Schreck on Dream Journal

Karen Halvorsen Schreck is the author of a young adult novel, Dream Journal (Hyperion, 2006) and an award-winning children's book, Lucy's Family Tree, illustrated by Stephen Gassler (Tilbury House, 2000). Her short stories have appeared in various literary journals and have received a number of awards, including a Pushcart Prize and an Illinois State Arts Council Grant. Karen lives with her husband and children in Wheaton, Illinois.

Karen Halvorsen Schreck on Karen Halvorsen Schreck: "I was the only child of two older parents who were passionate about their work as musicians and college professors. They shared their love of art and learning with me, which was a great gift with one string attached: from the get-go I had to rise to the most adult of occasions. I didn't always succeed. For example: I saw my first opera at the Chicago Lyric when I was five years old, but when all was sung and done, of course I couldn't remember anything but the seat upholstery--how it itched. I traveled to Europe several times with my dad's singing group--I even spent a surreal afternoon with the queen of Holland--but what really fascinated me during those tours were the many variations on the chocolate bar.

"Mostly I wandered around the seemingly interchangeable hotels and cathedrals and pretended something truly dramatic was happening: the stories in my head. On the surface I was a reasonably well-adjusted, if middle-aged kid--terribly, horribly good for a terribly, horribly long time. I acted out only in my imagination. Real play--crazy fun--I experienced this only when I had my own children.

"Ultimately I joined the family business, getting my MA and PhD in Creative Writing and English. Since then I've mostly taught, worked in advertising (I've waxed poetic on everything from Christian Dior gowns to Godiva truffles to designer furniture--in other words, things I could never afford and wouldn't buy if I could), written fiction as much as possible, married the photographer and all-around-good-man Gregory Halvorsen Schreck, and built a family."

Dream Journal by Karen Halvorsen Schreck (Hyperion, 2006). From the ARC promo copy: "'Will she die?' Sixteen-year-old Livy Moore has finally summoned the courage to ask about her mother's illness. But she already knows the answer: for two years, Livy has watched her mother grow weaker. And until now, Livy has survived the pain of losing her mother by shuttering herself off from the rest of the world. She has alienated herself from her best friend, and barely speaks to her father, never sharing with him the grief that is tearing them both apart. But as Livy gets swept up in a strong but ill-fated crush and her mother's condition worsens, she must learn to trust not only those around her, but herself."

How did writing first call to you?

I think I first called to it. As in: Help! I'm lonely and bored! I've got to escape! Or: Help! I'm confused and scared! I need an answer, or at least a distraction!

As I said, I made up stories all the time--and not just in hotels in cathedrals. I felt a real urgency about the whole enterprise, actually, and I did a pretty good job of straddling my imaginary and real worlds. Luckily, my parents encouraged this--or at least, they ignored me when I was whooping it up in the living room on a black stallion only I could see. And they kept me well stocked in books, bless them. Oz, Wonderland, Avonlea, and Narnia provided great alternatives to suburbia.

I started writing my stories when I was about ten, and I never really stopped--or, more truthfully, I never really stopped wanting to write. I remember seeing Madeleine L'Engle and Marguerite Henry give readings when I was in grade school, and vowing: I'm going to do that someday. They both signed my copies of their books, and I studied their signatures, wondering if it was something about the loop and swirl of their letters that helped these women make what they made out of words.

Could you tell us about your path to publication, any sprints or stumbles along the way?

I'd call the whole experience more of a marathon than anything else. I've certainly had to pace myself for the long haul. I hunkered down into fiction writing when I was in college--twenty-some years ago now--and proceeded to doggedly write my way through the decades. I published some stories and articles, won a few nice prizes and grants along the way. But mostly I tucked the work in when I could.

In my darker moments, I felt like a sham. For heaven's sake! I'd stew. Will ya just stick with some legitimate, consistent, and (at the very least) slightly lucrative career! Greg kept the faith during these times, thankfully. And thankfully, too, my stewing always cooled to a simmer, and then I'd snap out of it.

Then Greg and I adopted our first child, our daughter Magdalena, and life transformed. In fact (and I'm just realizing this right now as I write), having a child reinvigorated me with the kind of urgency I felt as a child about making up stories. Hm. I wonder if this also has anything to do with the fact that I no longer wanted to write for adults. I wanted to write for Magdalena. So I did, during her naps. Suddenly I was punching the clock: she was down for the count in her crib, and I was at my desk. I loved this time--the discipline and regularity of my work and her breathing in the next room. She taught me to turn on a dime and to appreciate and use (nearly) every spare minute I had, and I'll be forever grateful.

Actually the summer after Magdalena came home qualifies as my single experience of "sprinting." When I realized that I wanted to write a book for her--one she might want or need to read when she was older--I cranked out Lucy's Family Tree. This took me a little over a month. A few months after this, Tilbury House accepted LFT for publication. Ah, those halcyon days. Then the publication process slowed to stumbles. LFT’s release date was delayed by a year because of an office flood. Then the date was postponed again because the original illustrator tore her rotator cuff. Magdalena was going on four when the book finally came out. But there was a pay-off: she immediately understood that I'd dedicated LFT to her and she was proud. She strutted around readings like she was responsible for the book, and, really, she was.

Congratulations on the publication of Dream Journal (Hyperion, 2006). What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

My mother's death from cancer when I was thirteen. I'm reading a nonfiction book right now called Never the Same--Coming to Terms with the Death of a Parent by Donna Schuurman (St. Martin's Press, 2003). Never the same? I'll say. My feelings about my mother surge up at the weirdest times, and at the most predictable ones. I missed her a lot right after I became a mom, so I guess it's no coincidence that I started writing Dream Journal soon after I finished Lucy's Family Tree.

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

In my early twenties, I wrote a number of stories where the mother/father/aunt/fill-in-the-significant-other-blank dies. But I never wanted to crack one of those stories open and try to find a novel.

Then caring for Magdalena pretty much cracked me open; it was like I got to know myself all over again--the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful, too. So this is love, I kept thinking. So this is anger, frustration, patience, grace. We are so vulnerable to each other, she and I! Which led to: What would it be like to lose my daughter? What would it be like for my daughter to lose me? And: Did my mom feel all this?

There was so much I wanted to ask my mom--more than ever before. So the immediate inspiration for Dream Journal was becoming a mother and finding that I needed to talk to a mother (albeit a fictional one) in the most profound way possible. The more long-term inspiration was, of course, my old friend and enemy, Loss. Ultimately I just wanted to write the book I wished I could have read when I was a teen, and that I still needed to read as an adult.

I plunged in and stuck with it, draft after draft after doggone draft. I didn't want death to be the subplot, kind of lurking in the background, something the characters had already endured. I wanted them to go through the illness; I wanted to get the last days and the funeral and the aftermath right. And damn it, I wanted the chance to go through it all again, too, the way I wish I could have the first time. I wanted to be bad instead of so terribly, horribly good.

Dream Journal took me nearly four years to write and revise; what started as four hundred-some pages wound up being about one hundred and seventy. I finally felt like I'd done as much as I could with the manuscript, and that's when I sent it to my agent Sara Crowe, who agreed to represent it. Some time passed, and then Hyperion agreed to publish it. This felt like a miracle. And since then, it's been a pretty blissful year and a half, working through final revisions with my editor Jennifer Besser.

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

First and foremost I wanted to make sure that I didn't recreate my actual family; I didn't want to write a memoir. I'm happy to say Dream Journal is fiction. It's rooted in emotional reality, of course, but my friends and my father have said: What's true here? It feels real, but we don't remember this happening! And to that I always say: Whew. Got that right.

And I'd never crafted anything this long before, only to rewrite it again and again when this twist or that turn led only to a dead end. So I learned a lot about revision and plotting, as well.

What do you love about your writing life?

I love losing myself and finding myself in any mind, body, voice, place, detail that I want. Making a mess and cleaning it up, or not. And how small things can hold so much meaning--that cosmos-in-a-hazelnut kind of a thing. Then there's the way a sentence can unfold crazily, snagging the right words as it winds its way toward sense. And those words--how they feel on my tongue and sing in my ears. And the quiet, of course. The candles on my homely desk. The way I feel when everything is going right: focused, and contained by the computer screen in front of me, and poised for whatever's next. The surprises. I love the surprises. The healing that comes when I least expect it.

After a few good hours of work, I sometimes feel buoyant, a little high. Not too mention happy, sane, and ready to meet the world. You probably can see it on my face when I've had a good writing day. I certainly can feel it in my body. I've got energy to burn; I don't even have a problem keeping up with Teo, my four-year old son.

What are its tougher aspects?

Finding the hours to achieve the above. Unfortunately I need consistent blocks of uninterrupted time to get something done. I'm juggling a lot right now, and that's been taking its toll, most specifically on the YA novel I'm trying to write, but more generally on my faith in my work.

I hate it when I stop believing in the story I'm telling. When that happens I can start avoiding work altogether, or undermining it. Oh, it can get ugly, and I can get ugly, until one day I'm able to fling myself at my computer for a few hours and then I'm usually a believer again.

On top of the time-factor, I'm also feeling rather exposed having my first novel out in the world. Stark naked, in fact. I'm trying to do more yoga, take some lessons from the kids on immediacy, eat good food, pray.

I mean, Come on, Ego. Give me a break. I did the best I could!

But this is a hard challenge for me, releasing this book into the world. I'm working hard not to run and duck for cover. I launched a website, for instance. I'm scheduling readings.

I never knew self-promotion could be so blamed difficult and time-consuming! But ultimately I hope that I'll be able to make contact with some readers who appreciate the book, and this might act as an anecdote for the other tough challenge of this kind of work: the isolation that can set in. Assuming you've had consistent blocks of uninterrupted time to get something done.

What advice do you have for beginning authors?

Write the story you want and need to read.

And here is a message that is also to myself: Appreciate the work of others. Learn from the work of others. But do not compare your work to theirs.

How about novelists specifically?

In my experience, it's all about revision, so pace yourself for the journey. If you're a perfectionist, give yourself a break because it's bound to get chaotic. Why not enjoy the chaos, or at least accept it? It might reveal something if you leave it sprawled across the page for a while. When the writing feels a little more like play, you can always go back and shake out some cosmos.

What do you do when you're not reading or writing?

I love to go to plays, movies, concerts, restaurants, museums, galleries, etc. I really love to travel. I like hiking, camping, and cross-country skiing. Once in a while I get to do these things, and it's great.

But at this stage in my life, I find myself at home a lot, hanging out with my family and friends. I put in a garden this spring, and it went wild on me. I was expecting this decorous Victorian knot/Zen kitchen "space" and it turned into something out of "Little Shop of Horrors." The sunflowers are taller than our house. I'm considering investing in a machete to hack through the vines. But I've grown a lot of delicious vegetables, and Greg and I have been having fun figuring out what to do with them.

What can your fans look forward to next?

My fans? Um...well, the season is changing, so I'll probably be wrapping up their extension cords and storing them down in the basement.

(Pause for a beat. In case anyone decides to laugh.)

I'm working on a YA novel set in the late 1930s. It draws on a story of mine that won a Pushcart Prize a few years back. That story was based on some of my father's boyhood experiences, most of which were informed by his younger sister, who had cerebral palsy. For me this book is also about money and class--the aspirations of an immigrant family devastated by the Depression. And it's about a kid who wants to be an artist, in spite of everything.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Editor Interview: Nancy Feresten of National Geographic Children's Books

Nancy Feresten has been editing children's books for almost over 20 years. After earning a degree in English Literature from Yale, she began her career at Harper & Row Junior Books Group and has since worked at W. H. Freeman, Scholastic, and National Geographic, where she is now Vice President, Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic Children's Books, an imprint that specializes in children's nonfiction and reference.

What first inspired your passion for children's books? Were you an avid young reader or did you come to this love later in life?

I read voraciously all through my childhood, and when others left children's books behind, I continued to read my old favorites and discover new ones. When I graduated college and embarked on a career in medical editing, I found that the books I still loved most to read were children's books.

What made you decide to make children's book editing your career focus?

When I realized that though I spent my days editing medical professional books, I spent my spare time reading children's books, I decided to change my focus and went looking for a job in children's books.

What do you see as the job(s) of the editor in the publishing process?

An editor has a two-pronged responsibility. It is an editor's job to find and nurture powerful writers and help them do their very best work, and it is also the editor's job to select books that will be meaningful and attractive to children and the parents, teachers, and librarians who select books for them.

Have you worked with both fiction and non-fiction? If so, how do the processes compare? What do you like most (and/or least) about each?

I have worked in both fiction and non-fiction, though I have spent far more time on non-fiction. Both genres are fun and challenging. In both, the goal is to support the author and the rest of the book team (including illustrator, photo editor, designer, etc.) in telling a compelling story.

Could you offer us an overview of the your children's nonfiction and reference publishing program at National Geographic? Age ranges, types of books published, etc.?

At National Geographic, we publish nonfiction and reference books primarily for children ages 7 to 14. We have three distinct publishing strands: narrative trade nonfiction, school library series nonfiction, and trade reference. We will publish about 85 titles in 2006.

What are you looking for? In which areas are you looking to grow?

Right now, we are focused on expanding our school library series publishing.

What are the particular challenges in marketing non-fiction for young readers? What are the benefits and encouraging signs?

The good news is that nonfiction is coming into its own among teachers. For many years, kids were taught to read by reading fiction. Now, with new research showing that 80% of adult reading is nonfiction, the education community has developed a new respect for nonfiction reading, which they are actively passing along to their students.

Do most of your manuscripts come directly from writers or from agents? What recommendations do you have for individual writers in the submission process? What are pitfalls to avoid?

Our manuscripts come from agents and from authors we already know or whose work we know. We are not accepting unsolicited manuscripts.

For those submitting manuscripts to any publisher:

1. Know your market. Visit bookstores and libraries and read what is being published right now. Read books that have recently won prizes or appeared on Best Book lists. Know how your work fits in. Understand what age child it is for. Know what type of book it is and how long that kind of book should be. Demonstrate your knowledge in your cover letter.

2. Don't underestimate your competition. Serious children's writers labor long and hard to do the very best research and create the best and most appropriate text. In the case of nonfiction or nonfiction-based fiction, do first-rate research, using primary sources as much as possible. Wait to send in a manuscript until you have read the work of others and are satisfied that yours is as good as the best of them.

3. By all means read your work to the children in your life, but don't use their enthusiasm as evidence that your work is publishable. Editors are very skeptical of this sort of claim.

4. If you write a picture book manuscript, don't try to find an illustrator for it. That is the job of the publisher.

5. Grow a thick skin. Even the very best writers get rejected a lot.

How about with illustrators? Any insights, recommendations, or cautionary words for them?

My advice to illustrators is fairly similar to my advice to authors. Know what's going on in the world of children's book illustration. Make sure that your work is special and appropriate. Then make appointments to see art directors and editors. And stick to it.

What titles would you especially recommend for study to authors interested in working with the house and why?

As I said, we are not taking unsolicted manuscripts. And I don't encourage authors or illustrators to set their sights on a particular house. Write what works for you and then find the right publisher for that project. Many highly accomplished authors and illustrators work with several houses.

What titles are you especially excited about in 2007 and why?

In 2007, we are continuing our tradition of showing children new ways of understanding history.

1607: A New Look at Jamestown by Karen Lange explores the settlement of Jamestown through the most recent archaeological discoveries at the site. It will be published in the spring to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the settlement.

A World Made New by Marc Aronson (author interview) and John Glenn explores the causes and consequences of the Age of Exploration, showing how it changed not just the Americas but the whole world.

Both of these books are graphically engaging and highly illustrated with photographs and archival materials.

In what ways do you work with teachers and librarians in support of your titles and their efforts?

We work with librarians and teachers in several ways: both before and after the books are published.

To make sure that we publish books that will resonate with librarians, we have a library advisory board that guides us in our long-term planning and series development. To make sure that our books work for teachers and students, we bring our books into schools for testing.

Once a book is published, we make sure that librarians know it is there by sending out tens of thousands of catalogs and hundreds of sample copies to key decision makers around the country. We also submit books to review journals and prize committees, attend both teacher and librarian conferences, and advertise in the professional journals that teachers and librarians read.

What do you do outside your editorial/publishing life?

I read, knit, hang out with family and friends, work out, do laundry, watch TV, take walks in the woods, go to the movies, all the usual stuff.

Cynsational News & Links

Tricycle Press and Susan Taylor Brown invite you to join them as they celebrate the release of Susan's debut novel, Hugging the Rock (PDF excerpt). Books Inc., 301 Castro Street, Mountain View, CA at 7 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 27. Hear a reading from the book and meet the author. Drinks and snacks will be provided. What's a Rock? A rock is someone who loves you no matter what, someone who helps you find your inner strength when you feel like everything around you is crumbling. Who's Your Rock? Bring your rock and be entered to win an autographed copy of Hugging the Rock. Read a recent Cynsations interview with Susan Taylor Brown.

Interview with author-illustrator Amelia Lau Carling, whose books include Mama and Papa Have a Store/Alfombras de Asserín (both Groundwood, 2005) interview with author-illustrator, René Colato Laínez, whose books include I Am René, the Boy/Soy René, el niño, illustrated by Fabiola Graullera Ramirez (Piñata Books, 2005), both by Aline Pereira from papertigers. View an art gallery from Lela Torres. See also "Bilingual Storytime: 10 Best Books to Read to a Young Audience" by Ana-Elba Pavon and "Wisdom and Heritage: Stories about Grandparents and their Grandchildren" by Aline Pereira.

Sarah Beth Durst: official site of the debut author of Into the Wild (Razorbill, 2007). Sarah is based in Stony Brook, New York. See also Sarah's Journal.

The next YA Authors Cafe will be Tuesday, Sept. 26 at 8:30 p.m. EST, 7:30 p.m. CST, and 5:30 Pacific. The topic of the chat is "Secrets of YA Lit: Grabbing Teen Readers" and our panel of young adult authors will be Robin Merrow MacCready, author of Buried (Dutton, 2006), Mary Beth Miller, author of On the Head of a Pin (Dutton, 2006)(excerpt), and Laurie Faria Stolarz, author of Bleed (Hyperion, 2006)(author interview). All YA Authors Cafe chats are held Tuesday evenings at www.yaauthorscafe.com.

Cynsations has a reputation as a source of author/illustrator interviews, but we talk to other industry professionals as well. If you missed them the first time around, here are those links:

Agents

Agent Interview: Gabriella Ambrosioni from Cynsations and SCBWI Bologna. Gabriella is based in Italy.

Agent Interview: Rosemary Canter of PDF from Cynsations and SCBWI Bologna. PDF is "one of Europe's leading literary and talent agencies." Rosemary is based in London.

Agent Interview: Costanza Fabbri of Gabriella Ambrosioni Literary Agency from Cynsations and SCBWI Bologna. The agency represents authors, illustrators, publishers and other agents for foreign rights.

Agent Interview: Barry Goldblatt from Cynsations and SCBWI Bologna. Barry represents children's-YA authors and is based in the United States.

Agent Interview: Rosemary Stimola from Cynsations and SCBWI Bologna. Rosemary represents children's-YA authors and author-illustrators. She's based in the United States.

Attorneys

Attorney Interview: Aimée Bissonette on Law & Publishing from Cynsations.

Publicists

Publicist Interview: Aimée Bissonette of Winding Oak from Cynsations.

Publicist Interview: Rebecca Grose of SoCal Public Relations from Cynsations.

Publicist Interview: Susan Salzman Raab of Raab Associates from Cynsations.

Editors and Publishers

Editor Interview: Victoria Arms of Bloomsbury USA from Cynsations and SCBWI Bologna.

Editorial Director Interview: Shannon Barefield of Carolrhoda Books from Cynsations and SCBWI Bologna.

Editor Interview: Nancy Feresten of National Geographic Children's Books from Cynsations.

Publisher Interview: Miriam Hees on Blooming Tree Press from Cynsations.

Publishing Director Interview: Anne McNeil of Hodder Children's Books (UK) from Cynsations and SCBWI Bologna.

Editor Interview: Stacy Whitman of Mirrorstone Books (an imprint of Wizards of the Coast) from Cynsations.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Author Feature: Rita Williams-Garcia

Rita Williams-Garcia on Rita Williams-Garcia: "If you asked teenage Rita about an important life event, she would have said, 'beating my brother at chess.'

"Russell taught me how to play so he could have someone to beat. Russell was Bobby Fischer and I was Boris Spassky. According to Russell's rules, Americans went first and Russians last. I got used to being on the black side of the board and waiting for 'Fischer' to open while I waited my turn and usual beatings, preceded by taunts and insults to Sputnik. Russell checked out a different chess book every other day so I didn't think I'd ever win a game.

"Well, one night while we were playing I realized I had gained the advantage in our game and was poised to knock down his king. This was too great to be a good sport. I didn't know how to close the deal, but I felt a funky chicken victory wobble coming on.

"I was silly enough to mention my great milestone on one of my first college dates. Looking back, I understand why the guy didn't ask me out again. I still think about that game, but for other reasons. I've even included it in a true story titled, 'About Russell.'"

Note: "About Russell" appears in Dirty Laundry, Stories About Family Secrets edited by Lisa Rowe Fraustino (Viking, 1998).

How did writing first call to you? Did you answer or, at first, run away?

I had a head start. I entertained myself with stories in my wooden playpen and chose writing stories in kindergarten over coloring. To the humiliation and frustration of my siblings, I quit many a dodge-ball or kickball game to think up a story.

At twelve, I found the Writer's Market and the Writer's Handbook at the library and learned to write query letters and prepare manuscripts. I wrote stories, sketches, and ideas every day. I loved receiving envelopes addressed to me from publishers. True, the envelopes contained rejections, but I didn't care initially. I was a writer!

Could you tell us about your path to publication, any sprints or stumbles along the way?

I made my first sale to Highlights Magazine when I was fourteen. My next sale was a short story to Essence Magazine as a junior in college. They never published it, but they sent the check in time to pay for my summer dorm bill.

By the end of college I had a draft of Blue Tights (Dutton, 1998). I hoped to sell it quickly but it was nearly ten years before I had a contract. The timing was all wrong for this story. Joyce made poor choices based on her poor self-image. In the early eighties we weren't ready to have a black female character who wasn't a traditional role model. Black characters were still sparse in teen literature so editors were skittish about this character with low self-esteem issues. "Couldn't she fight racism or have some higher goal?" What was wrong with liking herself as a goal? Unwilling to compromise or revise, I put the manuscript away.

My job as a promotional writer had been cut when my company was bought, so I took the administrative position I was offered to help out at home. I was now married and had my first daughter. That only pushed me to dust off the old manuscript and try again. This time I made revisions I could live with, yet maintain the character's integrity. I did my research and looked for publishers who sought "realistic" teen fiction. They call it "edgy," these days.

Rosemary Brosnan at Lodestar/Dutton [now HarperCollins] believed in the story and responded to my query letter--which she really liked! All of those Writer’s Handbook articles paid off. Sure, we had a lot of work ahead of us--only I didn't know that. There was much to do. I had to narrow the point of view, toss out a chapter or two, and examine my story choices. The plowing, was brutal but I'm glad I did the work. I was finally a writer, soon to be published author!

Could you briefly tell us about your earliest novels--Blue Tights (Dutton/Lodestar, 1987) and Fast Talk on a Slow Track (Penguin/Lodestar, 1991)? What did each of them teach you about writing? About yourself?

Blue Tights was my initiation into the world of publishing for children. I didn't know what YA meant. I had a picture of my reader, and she was a fourteen-year-old black girl. No one else mattered. Rosemary explained that teachers and librarians were instrumental in putting books in kids' hands. I nodded, but I wasn't really receiving. I think the biggest shock was meeting my audience, which was black, white, Asian, Ukrainian, Hispanic, and so on. Females and males of all ages.

Fast Talk was my first foray into writing a male character. I flipped esteem around, giving Denzel too much ego and very little likeability factor. The last thing I wanted to do with this character was blame conditions for his failure at the Princeton summer orientation program. I wanted to give him all of the power, all of the choices, and, yes, all of the blame.

With Fast Talk I learned a hard lesson, which was to breathe and walk away from the work. The symmetries that I aimed for in the ending were too on-the-nose. I'm slow by nature. It took forever for me to be born. I've learned to not fight my nature, to read better and to be honest. I still admire Fast Talk.

Though both of your earlier novels were critically acclaimed, arguably Like Sisters on the Home Front (Penguin/Lodestar, 1995) was your breakout book, the one that secured your place as a YA star. Ten years later, what does the novel mean to you? How did it feel to receive a 1996 Coretta Scott King Honor Award for this book?

I didn't know how Like Sisters would be perceived, but I knew it was needed. This was the story I was born to tell.

Embarrassing but true, although my work phone rang off the hook that Monday after ALA and I heard the congratulatory messages, I was in my work head and thought, that's nice.

Then Rosemary called. She was excited, bracing me for the news. When she told me Like Sisters was named as an honor book I was more excited for her than I was for myself. I used to tell her, "Don't go nominating me for any Corettas. I just want to write my stories."

Clearly, I didn’t know how the process worked. My paperback deal from Viking editor Sharyn November was the first real money I received as a writer. I soon received offers from other publishers. I was very flattered to have met with editor Andrea Davis Pinkney, who was spearheading Jump at the Sun for Hyperion. It was an amazing time.

My ex-husband and I had visited Atlanta where we met Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz (widow of Malcolm X). During her speech, Dr. Shabazz even remarked that she and Coretta had become Like Sisters—unrelated to my novel, but oh, how that resonated with me. I felt like Gayle, overwhelmed by The Telling.

My favorite of your novels is Every Time A Rainbow Dies (HarperCollins/Amistad, 2001). What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

It is rare that violent crimes against black women receive media coverage. When the Tawana Brawley incident broke about fifteen years ago, I was interested in the continued victimization she endured as a young woman and as an African American. Even though her account proved problematic, I remained interested in public attitudes toward sexual assault victims.

I intended to write a story about our failure to help an African American girl and the reluctant friendship she forms with a young man. I was cleaning up Fast Talk and writing a draft of Like Sisters when I began notes for Rainbow. I didn't get to Rainbow until about 1997. It just wasn't working. I worried that I had lost the drive for the story.

I went for walks in Crown Heights, the Brooklyn neighborhood where the story would take place. The more I saw and heard the neighborhood, the more I realized my characters were not African American but Caribbean. Ah! The girl was an enigma to me, but the boy, Thulani, was clear. I knew his back story instantly. I understood his afflictions and his responses.

The focus of the story changed as my characters became real. I had to abandon revictimization as a focus. Most women or girls don't report rape and most women of color don't receive any form of justice. I could work that angle, but that wasn't where my heart was. I did know what Thulani and Ysa were to each other and that this was stronger than formula.

I think this is why I admire Chris Lynch's Inexcusable (Atheneum, 2005)(excerpt)(author interview from BookPage), because it gives us more insight beyond the realm of a traditional story centered around rape.

I also thought about how young people relate to each other and felt sorry for them. So much indiscriminant sexual behavior. What is the point in indulging in what you can't feel? In Rainbow, I sought to create body and soul healing in two people with walls around them. I wanted the reader to appreciate the difficulty in getting to the point of being ready.

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

Oh, gee. I've been derailed so many times. The writing didn't really take off until about '98 and then I had it right by '99. There was so much going on in my life. The divorce and the death of my mother-in-law, plus my mother's grand stroke made it hard to stay focused.

At one time I said the writing was horrible, but it was actually quite good. Things had to calm down before I could read my work.

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

I was nervous about writing outside of my culture and didn't want to exoticize my characters. I immersed myself in the sounds and expressions of Kreyol (Haitian Creole) and Jamaican Patois to give my characters distinct voices. Although I didn't use a lot of the expressions, knowing them gave me a feel for my people. Expressions reveal humor and perspective. Thulani's sister-in-law, Shakira, was one of my successes. She wrote herself.

I learned a lot about birds and bird keeping, but for all of my reading and standing on rooftops with bird keepers, I used just enough material.

That's a discipline within itself, learning when to pull back on research. Research material adds to the authenticity, but does it heighten the story?

When I was a teen, I read Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, devouring every inch of the architectural detail. I thought that was so cool that Rand knew all of that stuff. This made sense. I was into knowing as much stuff as I could. These days I ask myself, "So Rita, do you need this?

Crown Heights was the perfect location for Rainbow. I stretched location to enhance Thulani's ability to see all the named streets from the top of his brownstone. I chose a brownstone to overlook Eastern Parkway and the West Indian Day Parade. There was that beautiful Grand Army Plaza Library. The Botanical Gardens. A great cultural mix, depending upon what side of the Parkway you stood. Caribbean, African, Orthodox Jewish, African American, Asian, Islamic. People were giving up Brownstones owned by families for generations. Every element of the story was in Crown Heights. This was the place!

If you look closely at any of my characters, you'll see a consistent thread of psychological behavior. I always have to know why--and sometimes I don't until I'm far into the writing. Some characters' behaviors are more on the surface, while others' behaviors are deep-seeded to mimic true behavior.

I run the risk of having that character misunderstood, but I think some murkiness in teen literature is okay. Kids are better readers than we give them credit. Thulani and Ysa can be easily misunderstood, but their behaviors make incredible sense.

Given his emotional experience, could Thulani behave like a classic hero for Ysa? He could be heroic, but only on his own terms. A male teacher I met at a seminar expressed frustration at how Ysa treated Thulani when all he wanted was to help her. "I know," I said, "but all she wants is to hit someone, and as long as Thulani offers himself up, she'll take a swing."

Everytime A Rainbow Dies is about a boy who falls in love with a rape victim, and your latest title, No Laughter Here (HarperCollins/Amistad, 2004), deals with female circumcision. You handle such sensitive themes with grace and truth, yet many authors would shrink from such a challenge and responsibility. What leads you to the hard places? How do you find your way out?

I promise you, I don’t have a wheel with hot button topics that I spin and where she stops Rita writes. Seeing a story in a unique way is the bribe that works for me.

Once I have story and character, the surrounding issue must bend to the character's needs. Gayle in Like Sisters is a teen mother who has had an abortion, but the story follows her and not the abortion. With No Laughter Here, it was the sound of girls giggling that immediately suggested the reverse to me: girls not laughing and why.

The longer I entertain an idea, the greater the likelihood a novel will follow. It's like being in the wooden playpen telling myself a story.

I had to do No Laughter Here because I could. I knew I could do it in a way that no one else would. I loved those little girls more than I was uncomfortable with the subject.

Little girls made me brave. I worked with this premise; if you can see the face of a little girl, you can be brave.

I'm really speaking to adults who immediately say, "I can't handle this topic."

For me, it's simple; over a million girls undergo the ritual annually. Some with great pride and acceptance while many with terror and trauma.

I'll go anywhere that children go. It's that simple.

I'd love to write a sister book to No Laughter Here from Victoria's point of view, but I don't know that the market can bear it. I'm sure I will do it, even if I have to self-publish. Victoria and Mrs. Ojike have not yet left me.

Don't let my publisher see this, but No Laughter Here isn't a classroom set book. Yes, classes use it, but I see it as a personal book, one that finds her reader. The letters I receive from readers, mainly 12-14, all appreciate being enlightened and trusted with this story.

Where do our activists come from? Look at the faces of these young girls.

Though best known for your YA fiction, you're also the author of a picture book, Catching the Wild Waiyuuzee (Simon & Schuster, 2000), which really shows off your wonderful sense of humor. How did writing this picture book compare to crafting fiction for teen readers? What muscles were up to the job? Which ones perhaps needed more development?

Unlike my novels, I didn't incubate, outline, make a map, get inside the characters. None of that. My first draft came out in one thirty minute splurt. I pitched it to Rosemary but she and a few other editors felt the story wasn't strong enough.

Renowned Clarion editor Frances Foster suggested that I have more fun with the words and I did! I played with alliteration, onomatopoeia, and made-up dialect to give it an African-Caribbean sound. I learned to make a picture book dummy when I took a course with editor Olga Litowinsky (Writing and Publishing Books for Children in the 1990s (Walker, 1992)). The hardest thing was placing the right scene on the center spread. I added text to trick it into place!

Eventually, I came to my senses and cut the excess. It didn't work. It was just stuff. After I went as far as I could with it, I put it away and concentrated on my novel. Then I met Simon and Schuster editor Kevin Lewis who said, "I am the Wild Waiyuuzee!" and offered me a contract.

You're also a well-published author of short fiction, and your stories appear in numerous anthologies. Do any of the short stories have ties to your books? Of them, which would you first recommend to a prospective Rita fan and why?

So far none of my short stories are related to my novels. I use this form to experiment with form or subject, even though I tend to raid my personal experiences to come up with short stories. "Clay" (Second Sights: Stories for a New Millennium (Philomel, 1999)) was an experiment that came from my mother stirring cornbread. One of my favorites, "Crazy as a Daisy" (Stay True: Strong Stories for Strong Girls edited by Marilyn Singer (Scholastic, 1998)) is about a girl who dances wild because she never learned to partner dance. To this day, I can't dance with a partner to save my life. It just throws me off. It is easier if I lead, but how many guys put up with that? "Food From the Outside" (When I Was Your Age, Vol. 2 edited by Amy Ehrlich (Candlewick, 1999)) is the very true story of my sister, brother and my desperation to keep our mother from entering her home cooking into the International Food Fair hosted by our school. Mommy could burn, and I do mean burn, with the best of them. We lost Miss Essie to cancer a few years ago, but we never stop talking about her culinary hits and misses. My favorite short story is "Chalkman" (Twelve Shots edited by Harry Mazer (Delacorte, 1997)(author interview), about kids who reenact a shooting at a playground. Kids want to play, even under the most difficult circumstances.

How has your writing changed and grown since you began publishing in the late 1980s? How have you changed as an author?

Let me count the ways! I had such a hard time getting in that I viewed all of publishing with great suspicion. I'm learning more about the world of children's publishing and enjoying the book offerings, especially in the teen market. During the '80s, that market wasn't there. Now it's plentiful and diverse. We could use more diversity, so if you have a great story, don't hold back.

These days I don't write as dense as I did. Look at a page of Blue Tights or Fast Talk. Dense. When I was a child and a young woman, volume was important. I wrote a lot all the time. I now cut as much as I can to free the text and scenes. Back then I wrote as "writerishly" as I could. Yuck! My thoughts about where the author stands in relation to the work haven't changed. Even in third or omniscient I let the character direct. Semi-omniscient viewpoint was always comfortable to me, but if my notes are in first person, the novel will be in first person. If it doesn't work, I change my approach. In the beginning I didn't question. I just plowed.

I've become too aware of the outside world these days when I write; editor, social attitudes, sales, bills. My editor gives me room, but I tend to worry about editorial concerns that I shouldn't think about during the writing process. I need to let it go. I envy the Blue Tights writer. She had not a clue! She just wrote.

I like to venture out into the world more. I've learned to get on a plane--which I was always reluctant to do. I encourage my readers to get off the block, so I leave Jamaica, Queens every once in a while and write about Brooklyn. Okay, so that's only a subway ride away. One thing that will never change; I'm slow. Events do affect me and throw me off track. My incubation and research period is always long so I'll never have one book quickly follow another. I'm a turtle.

What are the challenges of your writing life?

I've finally quit my job of 25 years to live a writer's life, a dream come true. I thought I'd churn them out, but I'm as slow as ever. I do rewrite more.

In the past year, my youngest daughter came down with an unexpected and undiagnosed illness. I lived in her hospital room for two months, so all writing and thoughts of writing ceased. My editor was completely supportive through that tough time. My students were understanding and worked around me. Several months later, my daughter is back on track. She graduated high school, attended the prom and is starting college this fall.

I'm now back to work on Jumped, my sixth novel. I've always had characters with likeability issues, and this novel is no exception. My main characters are a witness, a bully and a victim. There are no heroes in this story and no personal victories. This has been very hard to finish, which is why I might ultimately like this book. No Laughter Here was easy; this is kicking my butt.

Honestly, I can't wait to move onto my seventh novel with characters I absolutely love. Couldn't I just change the focus and plot in Jumped? Make these characters comply--dig deep into my bully's soul, or play up the victim so we feel the injustice, or embolden my witness? I could, but nah.

I can't lie. These days I'm more concerned about making a living than I was when I worked for my former company, but I have to believe in the quality and appeal of my work. I do what other writers do; I take on more appearances and I'm teaching part time. I notice I'm shyer with age. Back in the day, I'd speak anywhere because the subject was my book!

What do you love about it?

I've never really had a block of time to think about my work. With a fulltime job and a family to care for I had to steal time. Well, the job is no more and the kids are out of the nest, so it's just me! I just love sitting down and thinking about one piece of my story, then scribbling all day long. It reminds me of being 12 and having all of my writing regimes. One of my colleagues was talking about taking a course. That sounds like fun! I can take a class if I want to. School's never out.

You're teaching now through the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. What about teaching appeals to you? How do you balance it against working on your own manuscripts?

The MFA/CW low residency program at Vermont College was ideal for me. The students are writers, so the student-teacher relationship is different than with other classroom settings. I enjoy talking to other writers about their work. We respect each other’s time; they're busy fulfilling work requirements for that month, which gives me time for my work.

I have to admit, I enjoy the lectures during the residency. The faculty and graduating students' presentations are intense, diverse, and stimulating. I'm always exhausted and invigorated after each ten-day residency.

When I get stuck or am challenged, I have a great resource in my fellow faculty members. Being on faculty keeps me out of my vacuum, which is a good thing. I am a hermit. It's good to get out and talk to other writers. I learn so much.

What advice do you have for beginning authors?

Keep it simple. Write a little bit each day. Keep your requirements lo-tech so you're always ready. No idea should ever wait until you get home or when you finally get that upgrade to your laptop.

Take care of your craft. If you can't take a class, create one for yourself. Find the author whose work you respect, and let them be your "mentor." Don't go emailing them--if they're still with us. Instead, read their work. Look at the approach. Take a few topics (pacing, plotting, beginning, conflict, etc.) and study your mentor's choices to these aspects of craft. Think about it in relation to your own work.

Surround yourself with a writing community to keep you going. Workshops provide opportunities for feedback and to learn how to take criticism. True, I didn't and don't have a writer's group, but I see the benefits.

Write a story that you're dying to tell.

What do you do when you're not reading or writing?

These days I walk a lot and knit to relax. I love to watch sports.

What can your fans look forward to next?

Jumped should be ready in 2008. No promises, but One Crazy Summer (both to be published by HarperCollins) will follow shortly after. I'm going back to the sixties for that story. It should be fun.

Cynsational Notes

Author-Editor Dialogues: Rita Williams-Garcia and Rosemary Brosnan from CBC Magazine.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Author Interview: Jane Kurtz on the Ethiopian Books for Children and Educational Foundation, Memories of the Sun: Stories of Africa and America

Jane Kurtz was born in Portland, Oregon, largely raised in Maji, Ethiopia, and in fourth grade went to boarding school in Addis Ababa. She is the author of numerous books for children and educator resources. She returned to the United States for college and, among other adventures, lived through the 1997 Red River flood in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Jane now makes her home in Kansas and is a visiting faculty member at the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Learn more about Jane. Read a 2005 Cynsations author update with Jane.

You've published a lovely range of books for young readers, but today, let's talk about your work related to Africa. Could you tell us about your ties Africa, why it resonates in your life and tales?

My childhood memories are anchored in East Africa. Ethiopia to be exact--although I also have powerful sensory connections with Egypt and the Sudan.

After World War II, Emperor Haile Selassie returned to Ethiopia to find that a whole generation of educated Ethiopians had been killed during the Italian occupation. Until that moment, Ethiopia had fought off a series of invaders, from Ahmed Gran in 1543 to the Italian army defeated by King Menelik in 1896.

As the only African country that wasn't colonized during the so-called "scramble for Africa," it was once considered a beacon of hope for the continent. Now the emperor invited outsiders in--to invent a national airlines (Ethiopian Airlines), to give business advice, and to plant schools and hospitals. My parents packed up their four-year-old, two-year-old (me), and one-year-old girls and headed for the continent of Africa where they ended up working for 22 years. We visited the U.S. twice when I was a girl, but I never lived there until I came to Illinois for college.

I've been spending a lot of time thinking about those years in Ethiopia because I just finished a new book that will come out in spring 2007: Jane Kurtz and You, part of a new series called The Author and You (Libraries Unlimited). In it, I wrote, "A two-year-old is stuck in the world of things, busy figuring out what can be done with them. She stacks 4-6 objects, scribbles with crayons, walks backwards, rolls a large ball, can turn the pages of a book. A two-year-old doesn't ask, 'Why are we moving to Ethiopia? Will we stay there forever? Does that mean we're going to become Ethiopians?' Those questions came later."

Once in Ethiopia, my mother wrote to her mother every week. "Janie is still a character and the Dennis the Menace of the family, though she's becoming a bit more dignified now at the advanced age of three," she soon noted. Before too long, other letters record that I was "storming along" through books, loving learning to read.

In those years, I didn't know much about the rest of Africa, except for Egypt where I spent a few weeks that seared themselves into my brain. My parents and younger siblings went to Kenya on vacation, but they left us in boarding school in Addis Ababa. As an adult, though, I've connected with teachers in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Botswana, Senegal, South Africa, and Ghana. I've also had lots of fascinating conversations with Ethiopians and other Africans who now have years of life in the United States tucked under their belts.

I'd like to focus on your work with other writers, both in the States and in Africa. But first could you offer a few related highlights from your own back-list titles?

I'd love to. My books set in Africa are these: Fire on the Mountain, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Simon & Schuster, 1994); Pulling the Lion's Tail, illustrated by Floyd Cooper (Simon & Schuster, 1995); Only a Pigeon, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Simon & Schuster, 1997); Trouble, illustrated by Durga Bernhard (Harcourt, 1997); The Storyteller's Beads (Harcourt, 1998); Water Hole Waiting, illustrated by Lee Christiansen (Greenwillow, 2002); and Saba: Under the Hyena's Foot (Pleasant Company, 2003).

My books that are set in the United States with characters who've lived in Africa are: Faraway Home, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Harcourt, 2000); Jakarta Missing (Greenwillow, 2001); and In the Small, Small Night, illustrated by Rachel Isadora (Greenwillow, 2005). The Feverbird's Claw (Greenwillow, 2004) is a fantasy novel that draws heavily on my experiences in Ethiopia. And I edited an anthology with short stories in three categories: Africa, Americans in Africa, and Africans in America.

You're the anthologist behind a groundbreaking collection, Memories of the Sun: Stories of Africa and America (Greenwillow, 2003). What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

I was invited to write a short story for an anthology about war [Shattered: Stories of Children and War (Knopf, 2002)]. The editor of that book, Jennifer Armstrong, was the one who suggested I consider editing a collection of short stories about Africa.

At first I resisted because I'd never done that before and because I didn't want to take time from my own fiction writing. But the idea kept poking at me. I so often spoke in schools or at conferences where teachers talked about the common misconception that Africa is a country--not an enormous and diverse continent. People told me that schools need resources showing the reality of life in Africa today; that kids need to see more of Africa than the grim bits that make their way into newspapers and TV reports; that many middle schools include Africa in the curriculum and want to make that continent alive and interesting for their students. But they don't have resources that can be brought in quickly and easily to help raise questions and offer insights.

I thought a short story collection written by Africans and Americans, reflecting their experiences, could have power. So I proposed the anthology to my editor at Greenwillow Books and argued that the time was right for it. Not only would social studies teachers use it, I said, but also English teachers who were interested in tapping short stories as a resource to help their students' writing and reading comprehension skills. The answer was yes. If I would take a low advance, they would take the risk to publish the book.

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

My editor and I were determined to find writers on the African continent. I reached out to International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY). An IBBY member in South Africa put the word out via newsletter, and I began to get e-mail submissions from writers in Africa. I also sent letters to authors here in the United States. Many of them turned me down, but a few said yes. I was particularly interested in variety--I wanted stories from all over the continent--North, South, East, West--and I wanted funny stories and joyous stories as well as poignant and sad ones.

It took years. I got more submissions from South Africa than from any other place. North Africa proved prickly hard. An email announcement to members of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators finally led me to two authors. Elsa Marston, whose husband is Lebanese and whose life had taken her to North Africa, contributed a short story. Lindsey Clark was a Peace Corps volunteer working in Morocco and writing evocative letters to friends and family. Her poem in Memories of Sun is her first book publication.

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

Some of the decisions were extremely difficult. Many submissions were from people writing in English as a second or third language. I had to do painful editor things-- ask writers for multiple revisions, give suggestions that didn't always work.

Sometimes I loved a story that my Greenwillow editor didn't. Some stories that writers poured heart, emotion, and tricks of the writing trade into still ultimately didn't end up in the anthology.

Monica Arac de Nyeko from Uganda wrote about what the experience was like for her: "'October Sunrise' was my first internationally published short story. I did not think it was going to get accepted for publication because the layers and layers of advice you read on the Internet about writing sometimes leave you so bleak and pessimistic about the whole writing and publishing experience that I am sure a few people decide they might not as well submit anything to be considered for publication.

"I finally did submit my story to be considered for the anthology, but so did a couple of my writing friends in Kampala. So you can imagine that when mine was the only accepted story, I felt I was in a bit of a difficult position with my friends who obviously imagined that a rejection slip for them meant that their writing must have been a little short.

"Before I thought of submitting 'October Sunrise' for Memories of Sun, I shared a draft of the story at our readers' and writers' club at the Uganda Women Writer's Association (FEMRITE) during the Monday evening readings.

"I was scandalized when one of the club members said 'the story squatted on the page and did not shift much.' This was a time of learning what the other side of writing is after the story has been written and needs to get into print. That was also my first encounter with real criticism and the stark realization that, once a story was out there, there was nothing much you could do to avoid its being abused, misunderstood or being liked for all the reasons you did not intend, which therefore meant you should stop thinking about each story like your newborn baby because then you got terribly hurt when someone said your baby was squatting on a page and not shifting much. My friend has a name for that; 'letting go' she calls it."

What advice do you have for budding anthologists? How strong is the market and why?

I'm tempted to be flip, and say don't do it. Putting together the anthology was a finger-bending amount of work. To my delight the reviews were strong--three of them starred--and several organizations singled it out as a best book of the year.

But when I look at my bi-yearly accounting statements from HarperCollins, I'm always shocked that sales seem paltry. It's a hard time for books that should have a strong support from teachers and librarians, who wake each morning to grim budget realities. No wonder publishers are feeling leery of books whose market might be mainly schools and libraries.

But I did learn a lot by putting on an editor's hat, and I'm proud of the stories and their authors. I hear from readers who say I opened their eyes to Africa, and I remember my original dreams for this book and feel a surge of satisfaction that we actually did it.

To me it's extremely important to hear voices from all over this earth, and short story collections are a perfect venue for that, especially if someone can show me ways to really get the books into the hands of readers.

As someone connected to both lands, why is it so critical that African and Africa-related literature be read by Americans?

A few weeks ago, I was on a bus in the state of Washington, eavesdropping on a conversation between two women. One was an adventure backpacker.

The other asked, "What about Africa?"

I leaned forward a little, listening.

"I've never had any interest," the backpacker replied. "You'd never know when you were going to run into something terrifying."

This woman had traveled in many of the world's remote spots, but she thought of Africa as a place where she wouldn't be able to find adventure without encountering horror around every corner. Anyone who has been in Africa knows that's ludicrous. There's heartbreak--and also beauty, hospitality, warmth, and joyous life force that pulses through people and communities.

So what to do? I had some experience myself, as a child, with feeling invisible. People have a powerful drive to be seen. And art is one way people are able to open their own or other people's eyes. I'm sure that's why so many readers told other readers about Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi (Random House, 2003) and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hossein (Riverhead Trade, 2003).

This reading shouldn't be motivated by duty. It's a pleasure to encounter a book or story that pulls us deeply into another person's life.

I don't demand that people pick up their backpacks go to Africa. Surely reading a story ought to be a risk most of us could take.

It's important...because we have life-giving things to take from Africa and life-giving things to give. Everywhere I've traveled on that continent, educators, parents, and others have asked me, "How can we develop a reading culture in this country?"

When I was asked that question as part of a radio interview in Uganda, I thought about libraries. I thought about book publishing in the United States. I thought about books in classrooms. These are treasures we barely notice we have, but the knowledge of how to set such things up is something teachers and librarians (and other readers and writers) in the U.S. and Canada and Europe could be sharing with readers and writers the world over.

What are the challenges in making that happen?

Language is always one tough-cookie barrier and challenge, but the worldwide community of readers is pretty well-versed in English these days, so lots more communication is possible than people sometimes think.

I originally assumed that 9-11 would be a big spur to Americans to want to understand the rest of the world. Even if our only motivation is to feel safer, I thought, we'll take steps away from our cozy isolation. Of course I couldn't have been more wrong.

I still don't really understand it, except maybe people are huddling and clinging ever more tightly to what they know.

Other sad realities? AIDS and war are disrupting traditional life in most African countries. I've heard from many people--including my friend Kofi from Ghana, whose stories form the core of In the Small Small Night--that stories are getting lost because children no longer sit at the feet of their grandparents and other storytellers. Many Africans want to get those stories written down.

Have you seen those challenges rise or fall over time, and in either case, why?

To me the world has become a little like Fruit Basket Upset, with apples oranges pears and bananas all plopped down next to each other. That makes connection easier--or it should. But we have to stretch. We can't be so scared.

We have to recognize the truths that are at the heart of my novel, The Storytellers Beads: humans are unlimited in their ability to devise ways to say, "I don't know you; you're the stranger; and you probably do lots of weird and dangerous things."

When life tumbles us together with people who make us wary, we're often astonished. Africans who've spent decades--or longer--living in the United States and Canada and Europe are a huge resource for connection and so are all the Americans who love to travel even though their feet have to get up close and personal with the grungy floors of airports.

You're involved in the Ethiopian Books for Children and Educational Foundation (EBCEF). Could you clue us into what the foundation is all about and your role in it?

A big new opportunity all over Africa is tied to the community of readers and writers and teachers. In Ethiopia, for instance, there's very little need to convince families of the importance of education or books. Villagers even in remote areas ask for schools. When some very basic rural schools were asked what they wanted, they said libraries. Little kids run up to tourists traveling outside of the capital and ask for pens. It isn't a matter of planting motivation. It's a matter of responding.

I would despair if I thought the only answer was to motivate the whole country to care more and reach out more, but librarians? Teachers? Professional writers of children's books? Illustrators? That's a community I believe in. So the resources encourage me: more ability to create books than has ever existed in the world before. More people interested in reading around the world than ever before. More people who see education as the answer and want us to help them get started. More people here thinking about the legacy they are going to leave the world.

EBCEF is a good example of what I'm talking about. Its founder, Yohannes Gebregeorgis, came to the United States as a political refugee. He'd been exposed to literature through the Peace Corps teachers in his village in Ethiopia, and held a book for the first time when he was 19. He says it changed his life forever.

At one point during his escape from Ethiopia to the Sudan, while scavenging for food and a way to stay alive, he considered Henri Charrière of Papillon, the prisoner of Devil's Island.

Individuals can make a difference in this world, he thought. If he survived, he'd be one who would.

In 1996, Yohannes wrote an e-mail to me. He was introducing my books to Ethiopian American children in the Bay Area. But what about children in Ethiopia, many of them playing in muddy streets, wrapping plastic bags for balls, or selling packs of tissue 10 hours a day? He told me he wanted to start making books available for Ethiopian children. "I know you have great love for the country you grew up in," he wrote, "and I want to ask you if you can join me in making this idea a reality."

Right! I thought. What are two people like you and me going to do? But I committed to any tiny step that we could figure out.

Not until 2002 were we able to pull anything off. That year we published the first color picture book for Ethiopian children, a retelling of a folk tale in English and Amharic, Silly Mammo [scroll for information].

I was ready to pop the celebratory corks. Yohannes quit his job, took his life savings, and moved back to Ethiopia. That spring, in the bottom floor of the house he was renting, he opened the first free children's library in Addis Ababa, a city of five million people. The staff recorded 40,000 visits from children the first year.

Two years later, Yohannes opened a rural reading room and started a donkey mobile library in the provincial capital near where he grew up. This year, the original library will have 60,000 visits from readers.

Yohannes's plan is to open ten to twelve school libraries, five in government schools and the rest working with two NGOs, one that focuses on girls' education and one that works with street children and the other poorest of the poor.

People say, "Wow. You're doing something heroic." All I did was say to myself, this is someone who needs to be supported. I didn't think that opportunity would come around again in my lifetime, and I committed myself to telling the story and doing what I could.

Up until now we've been an all volunteer organization in the U.S. I'm the president of the board of directors. I talk about EBCEF everywhere I speak and have been astonished by the response.

Almost everything we've done has been supported through grassroots efforts: a small grant from Global Fund for Children, another from Presbyterian Women, donations from individuals, adoption groups, Ethiopian American organizations, churches, schools, and reading councils. Kansas Reading Association gathered about 25,000 children's books in the last couple of years and raised the money to ship them. School children have made books to share with children in Ethiopia. Booksellers donate their time to sell copies of Silly Mammo and other books. The company that created the American Girl dolls donated hundreds of cartons of books from their Girls of Many Lands series, when it went out of print--including my book, Saba: Under the Hyena's Foot (Pleasant Company, 2003).

What's the latest news with EBCEF?

This summer we brought Yohannes to the U.S. for the first time in three years to do planning with us and meet with supporters. A small group of us sat down together in San Francisco with a friend of mine, Richard Male, who has consulted with nonprofits for 35 years. He convinced us that our problems were not unusual--that most nonprofits started by idealistic committed volunteers eventually have to take steps to get bigger. Otherwise everyone burns out. With his encouragement, we decided to take some bold steps: hire a part-time employee here in the U.S., pay Yohannes full-time, raise money as if we believed that someday we could provide books on libraries for most of the children in Ethiopia.

Half the time I'm scared to death. Half the time I'm hopeful and excited. We've already brought on a couple of new board members and talked to new funders. Room to Read, a nonprofit in San Francisco, has given us a $20,000 challenge grant to publish new books in local languages. A Kansas Rotary club wants to start getting Rotarians involved in supporting EBCEF. Almost every week I get e-mails from people wondering what they can do to help.

How can we support EBCEF's efforts?

I'm hoping there will be more groups that will raise money for us. A little money goes a long way. Schools have donated $83.00, for example--the money needed to keep Shola Children's Library open for one day. Organizations have given $250, enough to buy local language books for one school library. We're looking for a sponsor for this year's Golden Kuraz award, given to the best children's book published in Ethiopia. For big thinkers, $5000 will publish that many copies of a new book in an Ethiopian local language and English. One businessman gave $10,000 to cover the library's rent. A teacher donated $4000 to help ship a new container of books to Ethiopia.

Writers and illustrators can donate the rights of their out-of-print books. (I did that with Pulling the Lions Tail, which will soon have a new English Amharic addition with illustrations by an Ethiopian illustrator.) Obviously some books are more suited to an Ethiopian audience than others. We want someone to gather art pieces and do an art auction for us. We'd like to pair Ethiopian illustrators with American writers and vice versa, even though we can't pay much. People can donate design time, as illustrator Janie Bynum did with Silly Mammo. We'd like people to write articles for newsletters and magazines. Authors who speak schools might consider adding some PowerPoint slides about literacy around the world and letting schools know about EBCEF.

We need translators. We need teachers and librarians who will go to Ethiopia and share what they know about reading and books there. We need people with good ideas to raise the $20,000 match of operating money for the Room to Read grant. We need people to speak to their local civic groups and churches and tell our story.

As I've discovered, the main thing is to take a step. Go to our website: www.ethiopiareads.org. Buy a copy of Silly Mammo or Saba or Only a Pigeon via Downhome Books (follow the used book links, even though these books are new). Read a book set in Ethiopia. Be curious. Design a web link to us. Tell a friend about us. Stay hopeful and brave. And treasure the books and libraries in your life.

Cynsational Notes

In her quest to share more writing voices, Jane passes on these thoughts...

From Maretha Maartens, contributor to Memories of the Sun

"Being asked to submit a story about life in South Africa, was like being offered a tray of strawberries. Always when I think about strawberries, I smell them. I see them in my mind's eye: plump, red, tantalizing, irresistible. No cream, no ice cream, no colorants, just sun-ripened strawberries. The analogy between strawberries and writing about South Africa (and Africa)? I love them both.

"To me both strawberries and Africa should be served without sweetened cream or artificial flavorants. Strawberries have an exquisite flavor; so has Africa. I can never get enough of either. Nobody has ever commissioned me to design a full page advertisement for fresh strawberries. But Jane Kurtz actually invited African authors to submit stories about Africa. Hours later I was smelling strawberries and writing the first paragraph of 'The Homecoming.'

"As I was working on 'The Homecoming,' I wrote about things I know, things I use myself (like aloe juice to make mosquito bites stop itching or as a cure for old people's venous ulcers), things I hear and touch and...eat. No T.V. documentary has ever inspired or done anything for my creative writing. Climbing mountains, swimming with dolphins and sipping terrible, horrible yeast beer in a shebeen in a Cape shanty town do that magic thing for me.

"So, in the recent past, did staying with four rural women in a mud house in Malawi. The gentlest of them was in the final stages of AIDS. She died three weeks after our wonderful time together. Making music on gong rocks (perfectly placed hollow rocks on which the San people make percussion music for trance dances), going deep, deep down into the earth with mineworkers, listening to the sounds of silence in the vast Karoo and being with real people...those are the triggers to writing.

"Africa makes me glad, sad, mad, scared and all the emotions in between. That's why I want to live and walk and write and die in Africa."

from Uko Bendi Udo, contributor to Memories of the Sun

"'Soldiers of the Stone' gave me the opportunity, through fiction, to introduce a troubled African teenager to a troubled American teenager. Their tense and potentially deadly interaction results in the realization by both that they share a lot in common. As an African writer resident in the U.S., I hope, through my writings, to introduce the human family to each other. Through such encounters I believe that stereotypes and idiosyncrasies can only crumble and understanding flourish.

"I write and read ceaselessly. I write mostly in my head, and when I'm ready, I put it all down on paper in long hand. I read ceaselessly because when I'm not reading a book I'm busy reading life. Yes, life. I like to people-watch and interact with the immediate culture around me.

"I'm now a proud papa of two precocious kids. Papahood is the toughest job you'll ever love. I've curtailed my traveling and I have to steal time to write. However, through the writing and publishing of 'Soldiers of the Stone,' an old adage was reinforced: It's the quality, not the quantity. Sorry, I have to go. Aniedo, my son, is playing engineer on my stereo!"

Monday, September 18, 2006

Author Interview: Jill Esbaum on Estelle Takes a Bath

Jill Esbaum on Jill Esbaum: "I was the family chatterbox and story maker-upper. By first grade, I was writing my stories down. Unfortunately, in fifth grade, as I proudly showed off the Fifth Grade Pet Newspaper a couple of friends and I had created, a boy I liked pronounced it "dorky," and splat! That easily, my writing dreams were squashed. Fifth grade, after all, was all about being cool (and let's face it, in my light blue cat's eye specs, I already had one strike against me).

"But I always loved books, thanks to my parents and a string of teachers who put a great deal of emphasis on reading. I devoured the Little House series, Misty of Chincoteague (and every other title by Marguerite Henry), Black Beauty, The Happy Hollisters, Pippi Longstocking, Edward Eager's Half Magic...and went through dozens of flashlight batteries reading Nancy Drew under the covers into the wee hours."

What about the writing life first called to you?

My kids were all in school, and I was working sporadically as a substitute teacher's aide. Reading mountains of picture books to my kids had awakened my hibernating imagination, and I was itching to try writing one of my own. I mean, how hard could it be? I had a computer, time on my hands, and a reasonable command of the English language.

Shortly after, I learned the true meaning of Easier Said Than Done.

What made you decide to write for young readers?

Actually, my first published piece was short fiction for a women's magazine. It sold on its first time out, and for about eight seconds, I entertained the notion of writing some type of humor/romance series. But while adults may read and enjoy a novel, when a child reads a book that strikes a chord, he takes it into his heart forever. The possibility, however remote, that one of my stories could someday touch a child that way made writing for adults less appealing.

Besides, writing for kids sounded like more fun.

I started out publishing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in children's magazines, and things evolved from there. That isn't to say I wasn't regularly submitting what I now know were pretty lousy picture book manuscripts during that time. You name it, I did it wrong. I tried not to make the same mistake twice, though, and eventually, I ran out of things to screw up.

For those new to your work, could you briefly summarize your back list, highlighting as you see fit?

Farrar, Straus & Giroux published my first two picture books, Stink Soup, illustrated by Roger Roth (2004), the tale of a girl charged with keeping her mischievous brother in line during a visit to their Grandmother’s farm, and Ste-e-e-e-eamboat A-Comin’!, illustrated by Adam Rex (2005), a look at a steamboat visit to a small town on the Mississippi, circa 1867. That one was inspired by a passage in Mark Twain’s Life On the Mississippi and has garnered numerous honors.

Congratulations on the publication of Estelle Takes a Bath, illustrated by Mary Newell DePalma (Henry Holt, 2006)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

A story of my grandmother's. In the 1920s, growing up on a farm, she and her siblings took their baths in a tin tub near the woodstove. One evening, her teenaged sister, Ruth, was mid-bath when someone knocked on the kitchen door. Ruth panicked. She jumped from the tub and ran up the stairs--naked--right past the door...where a salesman stood looking in, waiting for someone to answer.

I thought the story was funny, but a naked teenager running through the house wasn't exactly picture book material. I finally came up with the idea of making the bather a bedraggled, mouse-hating witch, whose long-anticipated bath is interrupted by--what else?--a curious mouse. I dreamed up a way for them to kiss by accident, which would lead to hysterics on both their parts.

I couldn't find the rhythm, though, so the story remained in my mind for more than a year before the opening lines finally came to me.

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

From spark to publication was probably...four years? I finished the story itself two days after those opening lines hit the page. It's unusual for me to finish anything that quickly, and I wish it would happen more often (or, like, ever again).

I sent it to three editors late in 2003 and received The Call from Holt the first week of February, 2004. My editor suggested that perhaps Estelle shouldn't be a witch, and her reasoning seemed valid (marketing limitations), so I agreed. There were a few witchy details I had to change, but nothing major.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life? I'm especially interested in any thoughts you may have on writing humor.

Writing a story in rhyme is always a challenge. Every word of every line must move the story forward and convey the precise meaning you had intended. Brevity is crucial. Humor is a big plus. The rhythmic pattern should establish a mood. The rhyme has to be flawless. Ack!

I equate writing a rhyming story to attempting to solve a particularly vexing word puzzle. You know the solution is there, but finding it takes time and a great deal of hair pulling and head banging. But it's also a blast.

For the picture book crowd, humor is very visual, so no matter how hilarious a story, a lot of the responsibility for kids "getting it" rests with the illustrator. That means the text had better communicate the humor clearly before it ever leaves your house.

Remembering all those books I read to my own kids, I try to keep the adult reader in mind, aiming for writing that is fresh and funny enough that they won't mind reading it again and again.

What did Mary Newell DePalma's art bring to your text?

When I received Mary's first sketches, I couldn't stop smiling. Her Estelle wasn't at all the way I’d pictured her; I immediately liked hers better. And the mouse had so much personality--he was adorable. I continue to be amazed at the way she captured the story action. It's a wild romp, with Estelle and the mouse literally leaping and bouncing across most of the pages. Estelle's kitchen is full of funny details, and the characters' facial expressions are priceless. Mary made this story her own in such a way that I can't imagine it illustrated by anybody else.

What advice do you have for beginning picture book writers?

If you can keep from obsessing about publication, you'll be much happier. Focus, instead, on making your writing the best it can be. Then find ways to improve it. Don't be in a hurry to submit. Study books on craft. Join the Society of Children's Writers and Illustrators. Read what's out there, new and old, in all sorts of genres. Practice. Persist. Be patient.

What do you do when you're not writing?

I read. A lot. I enjoy school visits and attending writing conferences. My husband and I like to travel, although we don't get away very often. Each spring, I’m gung ho for my flower beds. But by late summer, I've lost interest (survival of the fittest around here). I do small quilting projects, wall hangings and the like, although I'll undoubtedly tackle a full-sized quilt eventually. It’s in the genes.

I also have a picture book critiquing service. Details are available on my website: www.jillesbaum.com.

What can your fans look forward to next?

To the Big Top, illustrated by David Gordon, will be published in 2008 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). It's set in the early 1900s and follows two adventurous boys on the day a circus comes to their town. Stanza, a rhymer illustrated by Jack E. Davis, is scheduled for 2009 (Harcourt). Stanza is a rowdy cur who terrorizes the neighborhood with his older brothers. He has a secret, though. At night, he hides way back in the alley and writes poetry. His life gets complicated when he enters a jingle contest.

More picture books are in the works. Meanwhile, I've finished a middle-grade novel, and I'm working on my second. After that comes a historical novel I'm excited about (also inspired by my some of my grandmother's tales) and the development of a couple of YA ideas that have been buzzing around in my head.

I feel so fortunate to spend my days writing for kids. Until they carry me from my keyboard feet first, I'll keep at it.
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