Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Author Interview: Elizabeth Garton Scanlon on A Sock is a Pocket for Your Toes

Elizabeth Garton Scanlon on Elizabeth Garton Scanlon: "I grew up in Vail, Colorado, before it was Vail, Colorado. Our ski passes were $57 a year and we lived in 'the country' outside of town. Television didn't reach that far and stories were everything. My sister and I created serial imaginings that we'd go back to, day after day. Since then I've lived in Wisconsin, Ohio, the U.K., Wisconsin, Colorado and Texas--with my fair share of wanderings in between.

"Now I've been in Austin for 14 years--longer than I've ever been anywhere. I met my husband here and had my babies here and found my cats and dog here. I worked doing corporate copywriting when my husband was in graduate school and then gave myself a well-deserved pay cut to teach at Austin Community College. I've concocted a happy hybrid life, teaching, writing, mothering. Stories are still everything. Both the real ones and the made up."

Visit Liz In Ink, her LJ!

What about the writing life first called to you?

For ages I didn't know that it was the writing life I was settling into. I wrote letters and poems and political rants. I read like a fiend. I slept with my thesaurus. But I didn't know what any of that had to do with my big-picture life. I went from degree to degree and from job to job with a scary sense of disconnect.

It's really only been in the last five years that I've recognized the intuitive flow I followed from journalism to teaching poetry, from Michener fellowship to writing for IBM, from blogging to books.

The writing life can be fantastically nebulous, so much so that I didn't know I was in it 'til I was in it. Now, I'd say that it's been a calling more than a choice, and maybe what I love the most are the shifting borders, the flexibility, the dynamic space it makes for a changeling like me.

What made you decide to write for young readers?

I wrote for children once I had children. I remember sitting in the rocker (and driving to the store and pushing the stroller) singing little ditties, silly rhymes with my daughters' names and the cats' names and the hot sun and the dogs leash, whoops, wrapped around my knees. And I thought, ahem, here's another diversion. Now that they're older (my girls), I'm writing for older kids. My books, growing with their books. I love that.

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

Oh, gosh. My first sale was so deceptively easy. I wrote in the stupor of early motherhood, mailed my manuscript out pell-mell and more than one house responded! It was the simultaneous submission nightmare--or dream--or something. I wanted to feel all a'flutter but instead I was sick with worry and indecision. Steven Malk, an agent with WritersHouse, rescued me and before that week was over, I had things all sealed up with HarperCollins. I was giddy. So, that was a sprint. Then began the long slog 'til it came out.

And since that first sale, a few stumbles. I've got four picture book manuscripts out there in the world, none of which have been snapped up with that early vigor. Once, I left a piece with a very interested editor for almost two years, exclusively. I revised for her and crossed my fingers and waited and hoped and it never materialized. I really learned about being a firmer, more careful advocate for my own work. In that way, stumbles are worth it, but oh-so-heartbreaking when you're in the midst.

Your debut title was A Sock is a Pocket for Your Toes: A Pocket Book, illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser (HarperCollins, 2004)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

I was dressing my daughter--singing to her as she kicked on the changing table--and I heard myself say, "A sock is a pocket for your toes." And then I thought, it is! It's a pocket! The concept became an obsession for me; the world is teeming with metaphoric pockets. One of my sweetest delights is to hear the ideas school kids have for pockets of their own--a hat is a pocket for a rabbit, a head is a pocket full of brains, a napkin is a pocket for your green beans--things I'd never have come up with on my own. I really like taking something simple simple simple and exploding it wide open.

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

I began writing that piece in, I think, early 1999. It hit the shelves in March 2004. (See reference to sprint and slog, above.) The early stages were auspicious; the latter, full of pregnant pauses. (Literally, in one case. My first editor at Harper went away on maternity leave and never came back. The next switched houses, so by the end, I was on my third.) Still, each milestone thrilled me: receiving final sign-off on my edits; seeing the first pen-and-ink sketches; opening that year's catalogs and seeing my book on page 24! Accepting offers from the Junior Library Guild and Children's Book of the Month club; launching my Web site, and finally, receiving glossy F&Gs in the mail. Not long after, there was that satisfying thump--a box of books on my front stoop. It was worth the wait. Especially since it dawned on me that bringing the living, breathing book to children is the real beginning, the hatch, the birthday. I'm still celebrating that.

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

My first editor, Kara Vicinelli, asked me to even out the rhyme and rhythm of the piece. I'd written something akin to jazz, I thought, and she wanted it to scan. The argument was that children learn how to make sense of poetry by starting with more simple structure (in the same way that they learn to make sense of sentences) and then, later, they can climb up onto that building block with a more sophisticated eye and ear. I trusted this explanation, but oi, that was tough. Once verse (especially rhyming verse) is "complete," it's like blood-letting to go back in and pick it apart. My husband actually had to board a plane with our daughter and leave me to flog it out in private. But in the end, the piece became more lyrical and my daughter got to toddle around the Seattle Zoo, so no regrets.

After the edits were done, Kara left me in the hands of Ellen Stein (who gets credit for finding Robin) and later still, my book and I were adopted by Anne Hoppe, who saw it through. This editorial round-table may not have been the most efficient arrangement, but I think it made for a serendipitously collaborative effort, and a different, lesser book would've been born without all their insights.

The final, um, challenge, was that soon after Robin committed to doing my book, 9/11 happened. The myriad ripple effects of that horrific day, logistical and psychological, are impossible to fathom or trace. But I do know that a certain vice president's wife had written a patriotic primer that suddenly seemed especially apt. Robin was Mrs. Cheney's illustrator, too, and her book naturally leap-frogged mine. I remember thinking that the pause in our timeline was a good way to slow down my mind during that mind-boggling time. Plus, I would've waited years--a baker's dozen--for Robin's art.

What did Robin's illustrations bring to your text?

Everything. What a gift. I wrote a little verse--a string of metaphors--that I hoped would be funny and playful and clever and sweet. Robin laid a visual narrative over the top, a whole 'nother layer that pops with joy. She really brought the human presence to the page. I think all that Robin does is genius. My personal favorite is You Can't Take a Balloon into the Metropolitan Museum, written by Jacqueline Preiss Weitzman (Dial, 1998).

What advice do you have for beginning picture book writers?

Read. Read stacks and stacks of picture books. They are instructive and inspiring, and I think there is nothing sillier than to imagine one can be a writer without being a reader. People worry about becoming imitative, but my own experience has been that reading the work that I admire (and the work that I don't) helps me to recognize my own authentic voice more easily. When I read Cynthia Rylant, for example, I feel more determined than ever to stick to my own chops and write what I believe in. She's been a North Star, to be sure.

How about beginning children's poets?

Again, read. But read aloud. Poetry should resonate--and not just on the page. I think that to write compelling poetry, we need to be able to hear it. It's like watching a kid learn how to play an instrument or sing on key. You've got to grow your poetic ear. Also, humor. Humor offers an open door into poetry for children. Mary Ann Hoberman comes to mind. And really, for adults, too. Billy Collins became poet laureate because he was able to make ordinary folks laugh--with poetry. Imagine!

What have you learned about publishing since selling your first book?

Really, I'm learning on the fly. Early on, I wrote and submitted intuitively so everything I know about craft and submitting and marketing is new, or at least new at the conscious level. I've been beneficiary to a remarkable breadth and depth of knowledge, thanks to a generous network of writers--many of whom I met through Austin's SCBWI chapter. They exchange work with me, over coffee or online, and give me editor's names and tell me stories and share their lucky omens. That's been priceless, and fun. And the other most elucidating thing for me is teaching new writers about the craft; there's something about articulating the practice to others that helps me embody it myself.

What do you do when you're not writing?

I do a lot of laundry and a lot of yoga, I watch a lot of home-made musicals and pick up a lot of piles. I'm a mom of young kids at a school with a lot of sign-up sheets. Time is a tricky juggle. Every day I try to balance one piece of my life with another. I'm lucky to have a desk, a heap of ideas and a husband who thinks it's good, what I do.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I have high hopes that my picture books will see the light of day soon (look for titles "Alia's Good Tidings," "The Good-Pie Party," "Moolie the Seasick Seal," and "The Old Man and the Marvelous Wind.") My newest project is an historical middle-grade novel that's as-of-yet untitled. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Ghost Fever/Mal de Fantasma Becomes First Bilingual Book to Win Texas Bluebonnet

Ghost Fever/Mal de Fantasma by Joe Hays, illustrated by Mona Pennypacker (Cinco Puntos, 2004) is the winner of the Texas Library Association's 2006-2007 Bluebonnet award. The title is a bilingual middle reader, and this signifies the first time a bilingual book has won the award. According to the TLA website, the award program "accounts for over 850,000 books read through the direct influence of Texas librarians."

See a Cynsations interview with publisher Lee Merrill Byrd of Cinco Puntos.

More News & Links

Thanks to debut author Greg R. Fishbone for featuring Cynsations as a Word of the Day. Read a Cynsations interview with Greg. Thanks also to Carrie Jones and A Fuse #8 Production for linking to this interview and the latter for also noting my recommendation of The Silenced by James DeVita (Laura Geringer Books/HarperCollins, June 2007).

"Stone Listens to Tough Inner Editor:" an exclusive Authorlink interview with Tanya Lee Stone, author of A Bad Boy Can Be Good For A Girl (Wendy Lamb/Random House, 2006) by Susan VanHecke from Authorlink. Read a Cynsations interview with Tanya on this same title.

Surf over to Spookycyn for "Windy City Predators," the low-down on my research trip to Chicago.

The Writer's League of Texas has launched its recently redesigned website.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Author Update: Brent Hartinger

Brent Hartinger on Brent Hartinger: "In addition to the books in the Geography Club series (HarperCollins, 2003-), Brent Hartinger is the author of the teen novels The Last Chance Texaco (HarperCollins, 2004) and Grand & Humble (HarperCollins, 2006). His May 2007 release, Dreamquest (Starscape), is the first in a middle grade fantasy series entitled Tales of Slumberia. Also a playwright and a screenwriter, Mr. Hartinger has both a stage and screen adaptation of Geography Club in active development. He lives in Tacoma, Washington, but would much rather you visit him online at"

We first spoke in 2003 about the pubication of your debut novel, Geography Club (HarperCollins, 2003) and then again in 2005 on the banning of that same title. Could you briefly catch us up on your books published since?

Yes, you've been so supportive, Cyn, right from the beginning! Incidentally, do you do windows?

Let's see. I wrote The Last Chance Texaco, a teen novel about kids in a group home, and Grand &; Humble, a thriller with a "twist" ending that's hopefully a real mind-bender. And I wrote two sequels to Geography Club: The Order of the Poison Oak, which came out in 2005, and Split Screen, which is just out now.

But to tell the truth? I've always been a productive writer. I think that's because I've supported myself from my writing since 1989 and if I don't write, I don't eat. So when I talk to writers who tell me it takes them three years to write a book, I think, "Really? Um...why?" I mean, maybe if you're talking War and Peace, but a 250-page teen novel? What exactly do these folks do all day? They always make me feel so guilty, like I'm doing something terribly wrong.

Congratulations on the publication of Split Screen: Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies/Bride of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies! What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

Thanks! When I wrote Geography Club, I always envisioned that it would be the first in a series. The day I turned the first book in, I naively said to my editor, "I think I'd like to write a sequel!" He sort of laughed and said, "Why don't we wait and see how the first book does, okay?" I guess I didn't understand that they only publish sequels to successful books. Ha!

But the first book did very well, so I did eventually get to write The Order of the Poison Oak, when Russel and his friends go to summer camp. And that book did well too. So I ended up in that incredibly rare situation where I really enjoy writing books that a lot of people seem to really enjoy reading.

With each book, I've tried to do something completely different, really shake things up, and also make the books pretty much stand-alone. This is definitely not just a trilogy. Split Screen, for example, is two complete books in one, published together and back-to-back. They're the story of when Russel and his friends get jobs working as extras in a horror movie being filmed locally. The first "book," Attack of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies, is the story from Russel's POV. The second "book," Bride of the Soul-Sucking Brain Zombies, is the same period of time from Min's POV.

But even though the books cover roughly the same events, they're completely different stories: in Russel's story, he finally comes out as gay to his parents (and they end up being not unlike the soul-sucking zombies in the movie he's working on!), and in Min's story, she starts a romance with a new girlfriend (whose status-conscious friends are soul-sucking zombies of a different sort). I could call the project Rashomon for teens, except I'm not sure most teens would actually get the reference.

I guess the initial initial inspirtation was back when I was working as an extra in movies myself. In fact, I just Tivoed one of the movies I was in, "Come See the Paradise," starring Dennis Quaid. I remember I was personally yelled at by Alan Parker, the director. On the first day, I didn't know the difference between "rolling" and "action," so I screwed up a whole shot. I actually think that comes into Split Screen. Anyway, if you freeze-frame your way through Come See the Paradise, you'll see my blurry, partially obscured face at least twice!

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

This one took a while. Almost a year, I think, which is a really long time for me. It was by far the most complicated project I've ever worked on, since it was two complete books that interact with each other. Writers always say that if you change one thing in a book, it's like pulling a thread in a tapestry that affects everything else in that tapestry. But in this case, pulling that thread also affected everything in the tapestry next door! Needless to say, there were plenty of times when I wanted to shoot myself. Thank God for copy-editors.

What were the specific challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life? You did such a particularly great job with Min's voice. I'd espcially love to hear about that writing process?

You know, I never imagined that I would write a book from Min's POV until I had the actual idea for these new books. I always assumed I'd write a book from Kevin's POV (and I am writing that book right now, for fall 2008).

But Min has a very passionate fan base. I think it's because there are so few characters like her in gay teen lit: bisexual and Asian. And because she's a person of such clear principles, I think that speaks to a lot of readers too.

Many, many people have written to me and said, "I want to know Min's story!" So I told it—or at least one part of it. And for the record, I'm planning on writing a full book from her POV too, but not for another year or so.

I did do research, talking to some Asian American teens. But the biggest challenge was getting the two voices as distinct as possible. I teach writing, and I always caution my students that it almost never works to have one book from two first-person POVs. Granted, this is two books, but the principle is the same. So I created these charts that spelled out exactly how Russel talks (lots of parentheses, a meandering conversational style, lots of starting sentences with "And" and "But," etc.) and how Min talks (no parentheses ever, a more straightforward, linear style, no beginning with "And" or "But," a sprinkling of pretentious words). And I had to decide what expressions each one uses, but the other wouldn't use. I also tried to vary their senses of humor, but I think that might be impossible, since an author really only has one sense of humor.

It was also important that the two characaters not just sound as different as possible, but that they notice and experience different things. Partly this was the gimmick of the book, but I also figured it would be really boring to the reader to just see the same scenes twice. There are a few of the same events, but they're completely different stories. I was always thinking, "Contrast! Where's the contrast?" So while Russel is having difficulties with his parents, I figured it would work better if Min has a close relationship with her parents. And while Russel is interested in all the hot guys on the set, Min, being more cerebral and competitive, is more interested in figuring out the actual plot of the movie.

Basically, I wouldn't recommend any writer ever doing anything like this ever again!

This a flip book! Tell us about that. How did it evolve? What is the appeal of this format to teen readers?

I actually pitched it to my publisher as two complete, separate books published simultaneously. Partly, I really, really liked the idea, but partly I was thinking I could fulfill two books off my contract and get paid twice! Alas, my editors quickly saw through my ploy and suggested instead publishing the two books as a flip book. I reluctantly agreed, even as I admitted to myself that their suggestion actually made the idea stronger. Made it a good bargain for readers too.

Can I confess something? Truthfully, I just love a good gimmick. A great high concept definitely doesn't mean the book or movie will be any good. But I do think it's an indication of something, some creativity on the part of the creator. I'm in awe of the truly great gimmick, the Jurrassic Park gimmick--Jurrassic Park being probably the highest concept, and best high concept, of all time. Frankly, there are so many books and movies and TV shows out there these days that I'm now on the look-out for stories that seem fresh and different and new--something I haven't read before. Not just the 13,000th story of some oh-so-sensitive kid dealing with some angsty problem and learning a nice little lesson.

Given your book Tantalize, I think you must agree, at least in part!

I'm a great fan of AS IF! Authors Supporting Intellectual Freedom. Now, that it has been up and running for a while, what have you learned from your involvement? What is your feeling about the current state of intellectual freedom with regard to youth literature?

How much time do you have? AS IF! is a group of teen book authors like ourselves who fight censorship, and actually, it's been fascinating, seeing what books get challenged, and why, and what strategies work in getting those challenges rejected.

Here's what I've learned: most people are opposed to the banning of books. They see it as fundamentally un-American, which it is. When you get to the point where libraries are picking and choosing who can read what books, you've altered the definition of library so it's not a library anymore. And while the question of "age-appropriate" is a real one, you deal with such questions with openness and dialogue and active parenting. You don't deal with it by banning books.

The one thing I want to say to librarians and teachers is that public exposure is not your enemy (except maybe in some parts of the the South, or so I hear). On the contrary, in the vast majority of cases, what's really going on is a small, vocal, and very activated group of people who are insisting on imposing their world-view on everyone else. Sure, they'll try to quote a scene out-of-context, or obsess about a dirty word. But when people can be made to understand that these same folks also want to ban the novel that changed their life--To Kill a Mockingbird, or 1984, or Forever, or The Handmaid's Tale--they start to see these people for who they really are. And my take is that most people are getting really, really, really sick of these moral scolds and self-appointed censors who seem to think that the only way to be moral, or to be an American, is to be exactly like they are.

You've recently joined the faculty of the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. What do you like about teaching and being part of the VC community?

Oh, I've learned so much from my students and the other faculty! Now I cringe even more than I used to when I look at my old books. It's such a supportive, talented community. I can honestly say that anyone interested in writing for children or teens should check it out. You might learn a thing or two from us faculty--including you, Cyn, who also teaches there! But you'll learn just as much from your fellow students, and you'll end up with a great support system of people out there making their way in the world of children's lit. This is absolutely invaluable.

Speaking of my Vermont students, and going back to your question about specific challenges? I'm always blathering on to my students about plot and dramatic structure, which I think is missing from waaaaaay too many books. Well, writing students take note! Split Screen has three complete dramatic structures: one each for the two "books," but also a separate three-act structure, a separate emotional "arc," for both books when read together. Kevin is the main character of that story, but you have to sort of read between the lines to sort it all out.

Are you totally impressed yet?

What can your fans look forward to next?

In May, Tor Books is releasing the first in a fantasy series called Tales of Slumberia. It's called Dreamquest, and it's about a girl plagued by nightmares who wakes up in "Slumberia," which is the place inside her own brain where they "film" her dreams. Complications ensue.

There are a number of productions of Geography Club, the play, in the works, including a possible production in New York. Oh, and work on the Geography Club movie is proceeding nicely, but, alas, I'm not supposed to talk about it.

Finally, I'm writing a sequel to Dreamquest (called Brainstorm), another contemporary fantasy for teens (about astral projection!), and those two other books in the Geography Club series, one from Kevin's POV and another one from Min's.

Like I said, I'm, uh, kind of prolific. But hey, I gotta eat.

It's all at my website,, which also has my email address. I'm a pretty accessible writer, so if people have questions, ask away!

Our Librarian Won't Tell Us Anything

Congratulations to Toni Buzzeo on Our Librarian Won't Tell Us Anything, illustrated by Sachiko Yoshikawa (Upstart, 2006) and Collaborating to Meet Literacy Standards: Teacher/Librarian Partnerships for K-2 (Linworth, 2007). Read a Cynsations interview with Toni.

More News & Links

Curl Up with a Cup of Tea and a Good Blog by Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace, and A Tea Cozy from School Library Journal. Cynsations is among those blogs recommended--what a thrill!

Kira-Kira Author Shares the Story of a Soldier's Best Friend by Linda M. Castellitto from BookPage. Takes a look at Cracker! The Best Dog in Vietnam by Cynthia Kadohata (Atheneum, 2007). Read a Cynsations interview with Cynthia.

Rising River Winter 2007 Words and Images: a working retreat for the writer of children's books. "Rising River is the heartchild of author Jacqueline Davies." See bloggers Loree Griffin Burns and Eric Luper on their retreat experiences.

Successful Writing in the Children's Market with Lila Guzman from Author Access Blog. Read a Cynsations interview with Lila.

Thanks to Shaken & Stirred for highlighting my post on male versus female voice. See also my follow-up on Spookycyn, Gender Speak. While you're on my other blog, don't miss Spooky Sneak Peeks for 2007 and Five Little-Known Facts about me.

Please note that though I was able to log on this morning, my limbo with Blogger is ongoing. I apologize for any gaps in posting.
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