Friday, March 16, 2007

Author Interview: Andrea Beaty on When Giants Come to Play

Andrea Beaty on Andrea Beaty: "I come from a very big family and a very small town in southern Illinois. There weren't a lot of thrilling things to do in town, so we had to make our own fun. We roamed the fields and woods looking for adventures and we made up sports. Our favorites were chasing each other around the yard with old tires and trying to make each other laugh until we begged for mercy. Of course we were easy tire targets because we kept falling over laughing. It's hard to say if we looked more like a bad Monty Python sketch or narcoleptic goats.

"Our mother was a voracious reader and filled our house with books so when I wasn't on an adventure or blowing soda out my nose from laughing too hard, I was reading. I had about a hundred things I was going to be when I grew up: spy, detective, arctic explorer, interpreter for the U.N., pirate, English veterinarian, head of the CIA, pool shark...

"I think the great thing about being a writer is that I can still be all of those things if I just keep writing! I guess I've already been a giant, an architect, and a bear doctor! What's next?"

What about the writing life first called to you?

It was probably the voices.

What made you decide to write for young readers?

It wasn't really a conscious decision. In my late 30s, random ideas and snippets of stories started popping into my head when I was gardening, taking a walk, or picking lint off my children. These ideas were all about giants, pirates, and slugs. A lot of them were in rhyme.

I started playing with the ideas and writing them down and they turned out to be kids' books and poems.

Maybe I would write for adults if they read more books about giants or slugs or pirates. Adult books can be so dull!

Perhaps someday that market will open up and I will at last write the Great American Novel in which GIANT SLUG PIRATES RULE THE UNIVERSE!!!! Bwa-ha-ha-ha!

(See what I mean by "the voices?")

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

Syncopated is the word that comes to mind when I describe this journey. I started submitting stories to publishers about a year after I started writing. During the next three years, I had flurries of activity--getting some interest from editors, finding a literary agent and winning a Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators grant for When Giants Come to Play, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes (Abrams, 2006).

These exciting times were always followed by long, slow periods when it seemed nothing would ever happen again. Even after I sold my first two books (at one time!), it was about three years before I sold more books. That was a bit hard, because I had bizarre delusions that once I sold my first book, the rest would be a cakewalk. Of course, that was nonsense and I knew it, but it was easy to think I'd be the exception to that rule!

I learned that the only way to stay sane during the lulls was to keep writing and not to get bent about the rest of the process. Of course, that was easier said than done.

It helped when I quit stalking the mailman to see if he had any book contracts for me. I used to love the way he said things like, "If by 'contract,' you mean 'restraining order' then yes!" and "Two-hundred yards is two-hundred yards, lady!"

Sometimes I miss those days, but in the end, I realized that the best way to use my energy was to write. Getting published is a fantastic, fun, and thrilling joy ride for me, and I'd be a liar if I said it wasn't. But as sappy as it sounds, it's really the deep satisfaction of writing that makes this journey the most exciting. Getting a new idea and being sucked into other worlds and stories is just plain magical.

Plus, I believe that when writing stops being magical, I won't write anything worth publishing anyhow! I try to spend my energy on the writing and figure the publishing part will follow. So far, I've been lucky and it has.

Your debut title is When Giants Come to Play, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes (Abrams, 2006). Congratulations! What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

Many of my books start when a word or phrase gets stuck in my mind. There are a lot of cobwebs in there so it can happen pretty easily. In this case, the word "giants" got stuck in my brain and rattled around for a bit. It grew into the phrase, "When giants come to play." That was an idea with potential.

I went to bed and literally woke up in the middle of the night with the complete book in my head. I wrote it down and polished it up the next day and sent it off to the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators grant competition for unpublished writers. I was thrilled a few months later when it won the runner-up Barbara Karlin grant!

Writing When Giants Come to Play was a turning point for me. After I wrote it, I felt tingly for a week. I loved this book and felt that I had found my voice when I wrote it. Before Giants, I thought of myself as a person who wrote. After Giants, I thought of myself as a writer.

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

I have to say that this was a strange book in that sense. It happened VERY fast and didn't involve a lot of emotional or psychological challenges.

This book hit me like a lightening bolt and was mostly complete in its first draft. And yet, it didn't sell to the very first editor who saw it! Or even the second! What was that about?????

About a year after I wrote When Giants Come to Play, I started working with a wonderful literary agent named Barry Goldblatt (agent interview). He read the book and said that it needed a story arc. A what???? How could my perfect book need work????

Of course, Barry was right, and after I added a new beginning and end to the story, it was so much better than the first draft. This sold to Susan VanMetre who was at Dutton but shortly after left for Abrams Books for Young Readers. I had met Susan at a conference and wanted to work with her, so we took Giants to Abrams, too. Susan signed on Kevin Hawkes to illustrate the book, which was simply beyond thrilling!

What did Kevin's art bring to your text?

Kevin's art captured the soul of these giants! He captured the whimsy and wonder of the text and played the jokes to the perfect pitch. He gave them the perfect balance between rough and gentle. Kevin's giants are a bit gruff but, at the same time, a bit childlike. They are devoted to the little girl, Anna, and treat her so tenderly.

Much of the humor of the book was written into the original manuscript via art notes, but Kevin took those ideas and ran with them even further. In some of the scenes he went entirely in new directions I hadn't considered. It was thrilling!

Kevin Hawkes is a wonder!

You have another picture book and a novel coming from Abrams and five picture books coming from Atheneum Books for Young Readers! Wahoo! It looks like you already have a hearty body of work in the queue. Please tell us how you smashed the odds in a tough picture book market!

I really and truly do not know. The only explanation I have is luck, timing, and a great agent! (And of course, I eat my Wheaties!) I have been extremely blessed in being able to sell some books in a tough market, but I don't take it for granted. Getting published seems to be a feast and famine adventure. I know that while I'm on a roll now, I might not be next year. I try to take it as it comes. (And eat my Wheaties!)

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

When you get an idea, write it down. It sounds obvious, but you'd be surprised how fleeting good ideas are. I know this because last year, I had the idea for the Great American Novel. Alas, I forgot to write it down, and now I can't remember what it was! I think it had something to do with giant pirate slugs.

Write for yourself. Don't try to please someone else when you write. It won't work. It's never possible to predict what trends will come down the road. Don't waste your time trying.

Not every piece of advice you get will be useful. (That probably includes some and/or all of this advice!) Always think critically about input you get on your writing. If it doesn't ring true to you, ignore it! Not everybody is going to get what you do. Most probably won't! The important thing is that YOU get it!

Join the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators if you want to write for kids. It's a great place to make contacts and find folks who have gone down the path before you. It's also a great place to meet folks who are at the same point in the journey as you. Both are extremely valuable! Plus, kids' writers are just plain fun! Get to know some!!!

Eat your Wheaties!

How about picture book writers in particular?

Oh boy! I'm full of advice on this topic! But before following my advice, readers should remember my earlier point. Advice should always be taken a grain of salt. Each writer has to listen to their inner voice and learn to trust themselves--even when it means discarding tried and true rules or advice from folks like me.

Having said that, this is the advice I offer to picture book writers.

-- Let the art do the heavy lifting. Don't add unnecessary descriptions in the text when they could be and should be handled by the artist. Sometimes that means including art notes, but use them only when you must. For example, an art note is important when some action takes place in the art but not in the text. Art notes are annoying and a bad idea when used to say what color the slug's shirt should be or what the weather is like unless it is vital to the plot. Before including an art note (or text in your story for that matter), ask yourself if it furthers the action of the story. If it doesn't, pitch it.

-- Picture books are, in my opinion, a form of poetry. Each and every word has to belong, make sense, and add to the sound of the book. If a word or phrase doesn't do that, cut it out.

-- I prefer short picture books. Any text that runs over 750 words needs a very good reason to do so. Most don't have one. There are many fine longer books, but if they work, it's because they NEEDED to be longer.

-- NEVER write a book in rhyme unless the book demands it. Writing rhyming books is more a function of music than poetry. (IMHO!) I think most people either have a natural facility with rhyme or they don't. If you don't have that, don't sweat it. Stick with prose, and you'll be ahead of the game.

-- If you do write in rhyme, always strive to use the unexpected word instead of the easy/obvious choice. Read authors like Lisa Wheeler who are masters of rhyme. Sailor Moo is a rhyming masterpiece. [ See Sailor Moo, Cow at Sea by Lisa Wheeler, illustrated by Ponder Goembel, Atheneum, 2002 (author interview).]

-- Write out loud. Picture books are almost always intended as books that are read aloud. It is ESSENTIAL that you read your book out loud so you can tell how it sounds. In fact, I write out loud. It is almost impossible for me to write a word without saying it aloud at the same time. This helps me internalize the rhythm of the book and has the added benefit of making people think I'm nuts. They tend to leave me alone and I can get more writing done! It's a win-win situation!

-- Never write a book with the intention of making a point. Kids and editors can smell that a mile away and will run off screaming!

-- Eat your Wheaties!

You are one of the three geniuses behind one of my fave blogs, Three Silly Chicks! Could you share with us the story behind this fabulous team effort?

Geniuses? Actually, we prefer to be called Mad Chick Geniuses Who Plan to Take over the World. (Just saying . . .)

Boy, how I love the Three Silly Chicks! www.ThreeSillyChicks.com

It's a blog from me and two of my favorite children's authors who write funny books: Carolyn Crimi (author interview) and Julia Durango (author interview). We review funny picture books and novels for kids. Sometimes we have silly contests and we love to interview our favorite funny authors.

And we have a cool logo!

Our hope is that Three Silly Chicks will be a good resource for anybody looking for funny kids' books. That could mean teachers, librarians, parents, chickens or even giant pirate slugs! Everybody loves funny books! (At least everybody we like!)

The Chicks happened because we all have the same agent who holds a retreat every year for his authors. We get together and talk and laugh and learn from each other for a long weekend. It's brilliant! At last summer's retreat, there was a conversation about blogs. Someone said that a great way to do a blog is with someone who has similar interests.

Zap!!!

I looked at Carolyn. She looked at me! We had a blog! Julia came by a few minutes later and she was in, too! It was fantastic.

It's fun because we all have our own flavors of humor and we learn about funny new books from each other.

And sometimes when we're feeling lazy, we just spend the whole afternoon in the coop wearing funny glasses and doing the Chicken Dance. I love it!

What do you do when you're not writing?

The Chicken Dance, of course!

What can your fans look forward to next?

I am tickled to say that I have a number of books on the way.

Iggy Peck, Architect
Illustrated by David Roberts
Abrams Books for Young Readers
ISBN: 978-0810911062
August 2007

Iggy is a kid who is passionate about architecture. He builds from anything in his reach, including pancakes, chalk or even dirty diapers! Things get complicated for Iggy when his 2nd grade teacher turns out to hate architecture almost as much as he loves it.

Doctor Ted
Illustrated by Pascal LeMaitre
Atheneum Books for Young Readers
ISBN: 1416928200
Spring 2008

When a bear named Ted wakes up one morning and bumps his knee. He looks for a doctor everywhere. When Ted can't find a doctor, Ted becomes a doctor. Ted is a great doctor and can diagnose almost any condition on the spot. Alas, Ted's talent lands him in trouble at school.

Cicada Summer
Novel (ages 9-12)
Abrams Books for Young Readers
2008

Who is the strange new girl in Olena? The girl with the odd scar and a secret? Only Lily notices that this strange girl steals from Fern's store and lies. Only Lily knows this girl means trouble. Lily Mathis is the only one who knows. Lily could tell, but she won't. She never tells anybody anything... ...not since Pete.

Firefighter Ted
Illustrated by Pascal LeMaitre
Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Spring 2009

Ted returns to save the day as a firefighter.

Hush, Baby Ghostling
Illustrated by Pascal LeMaitre
Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Summer 2009

A tender, humorous rhyming picture book tells of a mother ghost trying (not very successfully) to get her baby ghostling to sleep.
Master Ted, True Artiste
Illustrated by Pascal Le Maitre
Atheneum Books for Young Readers
2010

Ted returns, with paintbrush in hand, as a master artiste!

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