Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Author Interview: Suzanne Selfors on To Catch a Mermaid and Saving Juliet

Suzanne Selfors on Suzanne Selfors: "I grew up on Bainbridge Island, which is a thirty minute ferry ride from Seattle. Really, it's an ideal place to grow up because we had the beach, the woods, and a safe place to run wild.

"My dad taught history in middle school and fished in Alaska during the summer. My mom stayed at home for most of my childhood. I have a younger sister who is an ultra marathon runner. She's amazing.

"When I graduated from high school, like most everyone in my class, I wanted to get as far away from the island as possible. And I did, traveling through Europe and going to school on the East Coast. But when I got pregnant with baby #1, I moved back. It's still an ideal place to raise kids."

How would you describe yourself as a kid? As a young adult?

I was a happy kid. I loved playing dress-up with my best friend, Elizabeth. And we made tons of movies with my super 8 camera. I wrote plays and picture books and watched lots of Saturday morning cartoons. We built forts, rode horses and bicycles, and ran wild. It was a different world before computers.

I was fairly happy in my teen years too, though I limited myself to a smaller group of friends. I was madly in love with one guy, but he didn't notice me until our senior year when I finally got the courage to ask him out. High school was all about performing for me, in plays and in dance productions. My parents started having marriage problems, and so being in plays was a way to get out of the house.

College was tough for me. I had a major depressive episode that changed my life for a couple of years. It was horrid.

Why first inspired you to write for young readers?

My kids. I have two, and my husband and I used to read to them every single night. I loved what I was reading and realized that there was this huge Renaissance going on in children's literature.

Every time I went to a bookstore, I'd start in the adult section, find nothing I wanted to read, and then ended up in the kids' section with an armful of books. I wanted to be a part of it.

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

Stumbles? Ha! I fell on my face!

The first year of writing was a glorious year. September to September, I wrote an adult novel, signed with an agent, and the novel went into submission to twelve major houses. I thought I was in heaven. I thought I was a sure thing. Could it get any easier?

Of course nothing is a sure thing in this business. I got twelve rejections. I felt like a total loser. Then my next two adult novels didn't sell, and my agent lost interest in me.

Here's a big lesson learned: Do not write a sequel until you have sold the first novel!

Here's another lesson learned: Sometimes, in this business, you have to be willing to reinvent yourself.

That's what I did. I got another agent and I tried my hand at a different genre. My first kids' book, To Catch a Mermaid (Little Brown, 2007), went out on a Thursday, and by following Monday, we had two offers. Three more came in over the next few days. I had found my voice.

Congratulations on the release of To Catch a Mermaid (Little Brown, 2007) and Saving Juliet (Bloomsbury, 2008)! Let's start with To Catch a Mermaid! Could you tell us a little about the story?

It's the story of a brother and sister who find a lost merbaby and their quest to return the merbaby to its parents.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

My inspiration was a walk in Stanley Park, in Vancouver, Canada. All these kids were playing in the tide pools, squealing with delight as they discovered little wonders. It hit me right then that whether a kid grows up on the beach like I did or whether a kid grows up in the city, the beach always yields treasures.

I asked myself, what would be the most amazing treasure a kid could find on the beach?

My answer--a merbaby.

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

I wrote the book quickly, in about five months. It poured forth. Not like the adult novels where I often found myself fighting through a chapter; this story came fast and furious. I loved writing it.

My agent wasn't quite sure she wanted to represent a kids' book but she read it and got really excited. It ended up going to auction, which was one of the best days of my life. There's nothing like feeling wanted after you've gotten so many rejections.

But the biggest event was when I shipped the manuscript off to Jeanne DuPrau. I'd never met Jeanne, I still haven't, but City of Ember (Yearling, 2004) was one of my favorite books that I had read with my daughter. Jeanne said she wasn't all that fond of books about magic, but she read it over Labor Day weekend and loved it! When I got that email from her, I started crying.

Having an author you admire read your work and praise it is one of the best feelings in the world.

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

The biggest challenge for me, each and every time I sit down to write, is trying to balance my "mom" role with my "author" role. I don't have a daily schedule. I don't write every day. It's really difficult for me to separate myself from my domestic duties.

I find moments--sometimes at my desk, sometimes in my car while my son is at water polo practice. I haven't figured out the right formula, and it's a constant struggle.

The "direct descendants of Vikings" play a charming role in the book! How did this come to be?

My father was Norwegian and very proud of that fact. He belonged to a club called The Sons of Norway. He used to wear a Viking hat around the house.

Funny, but I didn't realize that the character of Halvor was based on my father until I had finished the book. It's so obvious now, but it wasn't at the time. He died at age 59, and his spirit found its way into my story.

Although it has dual-gender appeal, yours has to be the most boy-friendly mermaid story I've ever read! Do you have any thoughts on gender and reading choices?

I wanted to write a book for boys and girls. This was a strategy on my part, hoping it would make the book more marketable. And I wanted my son and my daughter to enjoy the story. That's why the mermaid is more of a wild creature and not a Disney mermaid. I definitely wanted to draw boys in.

The title of the book was not my first choice. I didn't want the word "mermaid" to appear in the title, afraid that it would turn off boys. But publishing houses rely on the shared wisdom of a sales staff, marketing staff, editorial staff, art staff, etc, and more girls buy books than boys, hence their choice of title.

From my visits at schools, boys have admitted that they were worried about reading a "mermaid" book. So most of my readers are definitely girls. The way boys will discover this book is through word of mouth.

What did Catia Chien's (interior black-and-white) illustrations bring to your story?

Catia gets me. She gets the quirky, weirdness of my stories. She's gets the odd humor. I love her interpretations. She's doing the interiors for my next middle grade, too.

You have a wonderful facility for intertwining the humorous and heartfelt! Do you have any advice for other writers in this regard?

Humor is tricky. It can't be forced. I don't even think it can be taught. And it's so subjective. People either get you or they don't.

Humorous books don't tend to win awards, they don't tend to be taken seriously. One reviewer called me "hysterical" while another called me "twee." I had to look up that word. It's not very nice.

The humorous and the heartfelt, as you put it, come from the same place, and that is honesty.

Kids want honesty.

Shifting focus, what first inspired Saving Juliet?

I was under contract for a second middle grade novel, and my intent was to start writing it, but this story wouldn't get out of my head.

I never planned to write YA, never even read much YA but the story wanted to be written.

The most logical course is to stick with one genre, develop readership and write, write, write. But I wanted to tell the Juliet story, and so I threw logic out the window.

How would you describe the novel?

It's a quest of self-discovery. A girl trying to figure out who she is, like most teen girls--trying to find her own voice and find the courage to let others hear that voice.

It's a fantasy because the hero, Mimi, gets transported into the story of "Romeo and Juliet."

What was the biggest challenge in writing the book?

Everything!

At this point in my life, I'm totally in touch with middle graders because that's what I've just been through with my kids.

But teens? Whoa, that's a whole other world I'm just entering. So, I knew right off that I wouldn't write a trendy book, using trendy language.

The roadblock I faced was that while the story was very high-concept, which excited my agent, the magic would prove to be an issue. There's this idea that teens aren't so interested in magic, they want real things, real problems in the real world.

But I wanted that magical element, and so I just went for it.

How is it different writing for the upper YA audience (as opposed to middle graders)?

I think that Juliet is really for a younger YA market. Most of my letters come from 13- and 14-year-olds. And ninth graders write to me to tell me that they enjoyed it because they had to read "Romeo and Juliet" in school.

What is different? Middle graders are all about adventure. They believe anything is possible. And so writing fantasy for them is the ultimate fun ride.

Teens want an element of romance, which is always the most difficult part of the story for me to write.

What are the important considerations in writing a fantasy? What, if anything, did you have to learn the hard way?

Setting is everything in fantasy. I read fantasy because I want a story to take me to another place and time. In my own stories, the setting may seem to be of this world. There are aspects of it that are certainly recognizable, but something is always different, something is always other-worldly. Blending in the magic is the trickiest part.

One thing I've had to learn is not to rush my endings. I tend to do this because after so many revisions a writer can just say, "Let's end this thing already. I'm sick of writing this story!" So, I've learned to set the work-in-progress aside more often. Take a good break before I head into the final stretch.

How do you balance your life as a writer with the responsibilities (speaking, promotion, etc.) of being an author?

I've only been published since September 2007, so I'm still learning how to balance.

With the first book I went a little nuts on the local level, doing bookstores, schools, conferences, etc., and it really exhausted me and took time from my writing.

So when Juliet came along in February 2008, I was so worn out I didn't do a thing. Feast or famine, there's got to be a better way. I'm writing two books a year, which is nuts in itself, so how does one go about promoting two books a year and finding time to write? I don't know what the answer is. Maybe someone will let me know.

What do you do outside the world of books?

I play with my kids, raise chickens, grow vegetables and flowers, draw cartoons, walk my dog, go to lots of movies and plays, volunteer for our local library newspaper, and sort an endless pile of laundry.

What can your fans look forward to next?

My next middle grade book is Fortune's Magic Farm, March 2009. It's about a girl who inherits the last piece of land on Earth where magical ingredients can be grown. I love this book!

My next YA book is Coffeehouse Angel, Spring 2009. I'm working the final revision right now. It's about a girl who works in a failing coffeehouse and an angel who befriends and falls in love with her. It's a lot of fun.

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