Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Editor Interview: Abigail Samoun of Tricycle Press

Abigail Samoun on Abigail Samoun: "Abigail Samoun is a project editor with Tricycle Press, the children's book imprint of Ten Speed Press, in Berkeley, California, where she has worked since 2000.

"Abigail has edited board books, picture books, middle-grade fiction, and early young-adult novels. These include the 2003 SCBWI Golden Kite winner for best picture book text, George Hogglesberry: Grade School Alien by Sarah Wilson, illustrated by Chad Cameron; and the 2004 New York Public Library Ezra Jack Keats award-winner, Yesterday I Had the Blues by Jeron Frame, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie.

"Abigail edited the middle grade series Edgar & Ellen, which has sold over 200,000 copies worldwide, been translated into eight languages, and launched a cartoon series on Nickelodeon.

"Before entering the wild world of children’s publishing, Abigail received an MA in French Studies and Journalism from New York University and worked jobs as far a field as a lingerie salesperson, a wrapper (as in gifts, not hip-hop), and an intern at the Bronx Zoo. None of these jobs was nearly as exciting as editing children's books.

"To learn more about Abigail, the books she edits, and Tricycle Press, visit www.wordpavillion.com."

What kind of young reader were you?

It's funny but I don’t remember being around books much before I came to the U.S. from France when I was seven years old. I had a really mean first grade teacher in Paris. Her name was Madame Robinet, which roughly means "Mrs. Water Faucet." Her temper ran hot---oui, oui. It was the 1970's but apparently Dr. Spock had yet to introduce the concept of child psychology to the French teaching establishment. I learned to read in her class, but it wasn't a joyful experience.

Then, when I got to the States, there was a transition year where I was learning to read and write in English. It was a strange experience because I could understand English perfectly since my mother had always spoken it to me, but I'd always answered her in French. So that first year, I had to learn how to form English sounds—the "th"s were, of course a problem and for a few years I went around saying "zee" and "zat."

It wasn't until third grade that I discovered books. It started with my mom reading me the Oz books---a chapter every night before bed. Then, in fourth grade, I had a genius friend who was not only a musical prodigy but also a nine-year-old novelist. So, of course, I had to write a novel, too. I got to page 16. She got to page 55. She was deemed the more serious of our literary duo, but I continued to write stories throughout the rest of grade school.

In fifth grade, we moved to a small town in Sonoma County. That's when I really started devouring books on my own. I loved the Ramona books, Anastasia Krupnik, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, all the Judy Blume books. That's probably why I love working on middle-grade fiction so much.

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

I made a pact with myself when I was ten: "Don’t ever forget what it feels like to be a kid. Adults grow up and forget what it's like. But you've got to remember." And I did.

I've always carried that with me. So I think that's part of the reason why I ended up in children's books. It was a way to remember and honor that experience of being a child. I didn't do it consciously, though. I studied journalism in college, and I thought I'd end up working for a newspaper or a magazine.

But then a friend recommended Ten Speed because someone he knew had published with them. They had an opening in the kids' books department. I thought, "well, I'll try it out for a few months and then maybe I can transfer to adult books when a position opens up."

Eventually, I worked part time for the adult division for a while, dividing my time between picture books and cook books, but I quickly realized that kids books were a lot more fun.

Children's literature, despite Harry Potter, is still seen by most people---if they consider it at all--- as the less serious, less important product of the publishing industry. But there's a humility in serving the less powerful in society.

To me the beauty of working in kids' books is that kids don't care about a celebrity author or illustrator, they don't care if it's high literature, they don't care about the writer's ego, or New York Times reviews---they just want a good story.

Their experience of reading is more pure, more about the reason we've told stories since we formed language thousands of years ago. To me, what happens between storytellers and their audience is a type of magic.

How did you prepare for this career?

The best preparation I had for this job was taking a creative writing class every semester in college. I learned how to critique manuscripts in those classes---I learned the basics of story elements such as characterization, plot, tension, and development.

I also learned how hard it was to write something and put it out there for public consumption. This has been helpful in working with writers because I know a bit about what goes into the process and how difficult it is. I admire writers tremendously.

More generally, I prepared for this career by being a lover of books. I thought of favorite authors as kind of abstract friends---when I looked at my bookcases, it felt almost like I was looking at a family photo album. It was always reassuring and comforting.

I even shelved my books according to which writers I felt would get along. Margaret Atwood next to Gail Godwin, Italo Calvino next to Borges, Kundera next to Norman Mailer. It made complete sense to me.

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

A lot of what we do is manage the process. It's a little bit like event planning: you find out who's going to help put the party together (designers, copyeditors, proofreaders), you make sure everything stays on schedule (ceremony begins promptly at two o'clock), you put out fires (the caterer's flambé), you choose formal or informal dress (hardcover with jacket or without?), you balance the budget, you do quality control, etc., etc.

I spend about 5% of my time actually editing text. Most of what I do is plan, coordinate, give feedback, and keep the various players on track and on schedule.

In a more philosophical and grander sense, I see my role as encourager and champion of talented artists. I feel a responsibility to give them an opportunity and to push them to do their very best work.

What are its challenges? What do you love about it?

Challenges: Since the editor, as manager and champion, is usually at the center of a project--- with the author communicating to her their needs, the illustrator theirs, the publisher theirs, the sales people theirs---it's not always easy making sure everyone is happy. There's a lot of juggling involved.

What I love about the job is working with creative people, finding an exciting story and sending it on the road to publication, pairing it with just the right illustrator---and having the opportunity to support artists in a society where they receive very little support.

If you could go back in time to your beginning-editor self, what advice would you give her?

That's an interesting question. I was very nervous when I first started out. Talking on the phone with an illustrator or author was something I had to psychologically prepare for and I would often grip the phone receiver so tightly, my hand would be numb afterwards.

I think I would tell my twenty-five year old self to trust her instincts, relax, focus on what’s important: helping artists do their best work.

How have you seen the business change since you started in publishing?

When I started in 2000, it felt like the independent bookstores were losing the battle to the chains. They're still battling, but there have been some inspiring victories.

Here in the Bay Area, communities came together to save Kepler's, a legendary bookstore in Menlo Park. The big giants, Barnes & Noble and Borders, are showing that they're not invulnerable to market forces. Specialty and gift sales have become more important---the success of some of our strongest titles, such as the Urban Babies Wear Black series, owes largely to gift accounts.

There's a lot of pessimism right now about picture books. Fiction is still the hot item. But I don't think this is the beginning of the end for picture books. To me, it feels like a natural cycle.

The social climate is such that verbal language is eclipsing visual language at the moment. I think we're in more analytical times, with a lot of insecurity about our political and economic situation. Things will change.

There's a tarot card that often provides me with both comfort and warning: the Wheel of Fortune. What goes up, comes down; what comes down, goes up. Picture books will have their day again.

What do you think of those changes? If you could make a change for the better in the publishing world, what would it be? Why?

Even in our indie publishing house we talk very little about children. We talk about librarians, teachers, parents, uncles, grandparents, reviewers---but seldom to we ever actually talk about children.

Even though kids aren't the ones with money in their pockets I really think that in some mysterious way, they're the ones who decide the ultimate success of a book.

If I could change something in the publishing world, it would be to give kids more of a voice about what they want to read.

For those unfamiliar to Tricycle Press, could you offer an overview of the house and its philosophy?

Tricycle Press is fifteen years old this year. I think that means we're now officially older than most of our readers. We've grown tremendously since I came to the house eight years ago.

When I started in 2000, we had eight frontlist titles. This fall we have fifteen. Our fiction list is really taking off, and we're publishing our first young adult novel, which I'm proud to say I edited and art directed.

I'd be hard pressed to say what really makes a book a Tricycle book. Other houses seem to have a clearer sense of their brand. Ours is a more eclectic list than most. But I would say that our guiding principle has always been quality--quality of text and quality of artwork.

I think, too, that we're especially open to new and up and coming artists. We're one of the few houses that still accepts unsolicited manuscripts. In my years at Tricycle, it's been a special thrill of mine to introduce many first-time authors and illustrators to the picture-book community.

Among the artists who made their picture book debuts with us are Nathalie Dion, Tatjana Mai-Wyss, Kevin Serwacki, Enrique Moreiro, Raul Allen, Mikela Prevost, and Mark Fearing--you'll be sure to see more from these talented folks.

If you had to pick just three, what are Tricycle Press's don't-miss titles of 2008? And why?

Just three? Hmmm…

The young adult novel I mentioned above is a definite "don’t-miss." Shifty by Lynn E. Hazen (of Mermaid Mary Margaret and Buzz Bumble fame)(author interview), leads you through the emotional territory of a fifteen year old who has spent almost his entire life in foster care. The events of the book take place over the first few weeks of summer vacation and explore the developing trust and affection between Shifty and his eight-year-old foster sister, Sissy, who serves as both his conscience and his partner in a series of unlikely escapades.

Both Shifty and Sissy are drawn with sensitivity and nuance, I missed them after I shipped the book to the printer----but Lynn also brought to life characters that didn't even speak: Chance, an infant and the third child in the foster home, and Lester, a cat who, as Shifty says, "can’t even meow right."

Shifty is a story you feel in your gut--it has that power now and will have that power ten, twenty, fifty years from now.

I'll be brief with the other two: Ocean Wide, Ocean Deep by Susan Lendroth is a story I had to fight for. It's a "quiet story," and it took me two years to convince my publisher to sign it.

It's about a little girl in 19th century Cape Cod whose father goes away to sea for a year. She waits---children and women did a lot of waiting in those days--for her father to return, observing the passing seasons, imagining the exotic harbors her father is visiting. The text is lyrical and heartfelt. The illustrations by newcomer, Spanish artist Raul Allen, are quite simply breathtaking. His style is unlike anything I've seen before--classic watercolor textures (his ocean waves look like Turner's) and beautiful lines, all finished digitally, layer upon layer.

Third story----well, I’ll cheat. The Day We Danced in Underpants is actually a spring book, but since it's one of my all-time favorites, I'll throw it in. Sarah Wilson wrote a lively farce, set in 18th century France (okay, I'm a little biased) full of delicious word play and a rhythm so catchy I'd find myself humming it in the car. Catherine Stock (A Spree in Paree) painted flamboyant, Watteau-inspired scenes with bright, collaged costumes, fancy hairdos, and a fair amount of mayhem. It's delightful, zany fun.

Do most of your manuscripts come directly from writers or through agents?

I'd say 50/50. A lot of the manuscripts I receive directly come from authors with whom I've cultivated a relationship.

What recommendations do you have for writers interested in working with you? With your house?

Familiarize yourself with our list: request our catalog, browse our website (www.tenspeed.com), read our books. This will give you a good sense of the type of work we publish. You can also come to conferences--I speak at several every year---and hear a little more about what it's like to publish with us. I'll be speaking at the SCBWI annual in LA this summer---so come say hello!

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