Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Author Interview: Susan Marie Swanson on To Be Like the Sun

Susan Marie Swanson on Susan Marie Swanson: "I learned to read and write and ride a bicycle in a small Illinois town on the edge of the Chicago area. It was a lucky place to grow up. I went into the city with my family and on school trips, but we lived on the edge of a cornfield where we could see the sun set from the kitchen window. The stars were bright in the sky.

"My town had a wonderful public library and a cozy bookstore, and I loved to visit those places by myself when I was young. My family moved to Minnesota when I was a teenager, and now I've lived most of my life in St. Paul. I write poetry and picture books, and I've been writing poetry with children for many years through my work in arts education programs. I'm fascinated by the place where poetry and children's voices and books for children meet."

Would you tell us about your apprenticeship as a writer? How did you develop your skills?

I wrote as a child--poems, letters, scrapbook entries, a diary, stories--and during my college years I began to develop the strong sense of vocation that is with me still. I spent several years completing an MFA in poetry at University of Massachusetts Amherst in the late 1970s and early 80s, taking literature courses that had me reading writers from A.R. Ammons and Gwendolyn Brooks to Tarjei Vesaas and Virginia Woolf.

I spent many hours in workshops with a lively group of mentors and young writers. I remember going with friends to hear readings by Tomas Tranströmer, Maya Angelou, and Louise Glück. It was a rich, challenging time.

I read children's literature during those years and did some writing for children, but I didn't have any context for that work. That changed when I moved back to Minnesota. I began teaching with COMPAS Writers and Artists in the Schools in 1983, the same year that my first child was born. I was reading and writing with children in elementary schools, and I was reading and writing in the midst of family life. That set me on the path to writing for children.

How was your path to publication, any sprints or stumbles along the way?

Oh, paths to publication are all about sprinting and stumbling, aren't they? My poetry for adults appeared in many publications in the 1970s and '80s, including some of my favorite literary magazines, like Ironwood and American Poetry Review; and I was fortunate to be awarded several fellowships for my work as a poet.

My first publications in the field of children's literature were reviews and critical essays. I wrote for Hungry Mind Review and then for Five Owls, Riverbank Review, and New York Times Book Review. Most recently, a piece I wrote about Astrid Lindgren appeared in The Horn Book Magazine (Nov/Dec 2007).

Dick Jackson published my first book, Getting Used to the Dark: 26 Night Poems, with lovely black and white illustrations by Peter Catalanotto (Richard Jackson/DK Publishing, 1997). "Trouble, Fly," a poem from that collection, appears in Georgia Heard's anthology This Place I Know: Poems of Comfort (Candlewick, 2002). Peter Catalanotto also illustrated my second book, a picture book called Letter to the Lake (Richard Jackson/DK Publishing, 1998).

The First Thing My Mama Told Me, a picture book illustrated by Christine Davenier, was a New York Times Best Illustrated Book and Charlotte Zolotow Honor Book (Harcourt, 2002). The Zolotow Honor has meant a lot to me. It is an award that honors picture book authors, from the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin Madison.

Congratulations on the release of To Be Like the Sun, illustrated by Margaret Chodos-Irvine (Harcourt, 2008)! Could you tell us a little about the book?

I am so happy that To Be Like the Sun is in the world. The text of this book is addressed to a sunflower, beginning with the seed that a child is about to place in the ground: "Hello, little seed, / striped gray seed. / Do you really know everything / about sunflowers?"

Both my text and Margaret Chodos-Irvine's artwork are concerned with patterns—the stripes on the seed, for example, and the rays of the sun, and the great cycle of the four seasons.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

Two inspirations. First, real gardens with real sunflowers in them! We had a plot in the community gardens down by the railroad tracks near our city home, and of course we planted sunflowers. I remember taking a snapshot of my son standing by a flower that reached up over our heads.

The other inspiration was poetry. Our language is full of poems spoken to objects and individuals. Curious readers could thumb through Kenneth Koch's classic anthology of poems for young people, Talking to the Sun, and find many examples, including poems by Blake, Dickinson, Langston Hughes, and Frank O'Hara. Robert Herrick's poem of address in that volume begins, "Fair daffodils we weep to see / You haste away so soon." I found my own way to speak to a flower.

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

My projects take shape slowly, and I've altogether given up trying to keep timelines for them! But in May 2005, when I was preparing to teach a university course in writing children's literature, I went to observe a class taught by a friend, poet Deborah Keenan. She encouraged her students to stay connected with their older work.

Within a few days, I had sent the sunflower poem from my first book to Harcourt editor Jeannette Larson, with a letter asking if she thought it would work in a picture book. Before long, she wrote back to say yes. Later, Jeannette sent the revised and expanded piece to Margaret Chodos-Irvine. The two of them have worked together on a series of wonderful projects.

Now there's starred review for To Be Like the Sun in Kirkus Reviews, and a picture from the book will be on the May cover of Book Links. We're delighted.

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

Working with a series of drafts, writing and rewriting, I ask myself a lot of questions. How can I deepen and simplify my thinking and writing? What in my understandings about poetry can I bring to this text? Are the rhythms working when I read the work aloud? What knowledge of children's lives and voices can I engage in this piece?

What did Margaret Chodos-Irvine's illustrations bring to your text?

I am especially excited about the way that Margaret's bold mixed-media prints reach out to everyone in the room when the book is read aloud. At the same time, patterns and details in the art reward a close look. In my text, a child's perspective on experience is important, and in the art we see how that child stoops and stretches! And this is an artist who works beautifully with shapes, texture, and color.

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were beginning author, what advice would you offer?

I would tell myself, "Some of this work is going to be very difficult, even painful, but you can handle it."

What do you do when you're not in the book world?

I sing in a choir, and I enjoy going to concerts and the opera. Some of my favorite places in Minneapolis-St. Paul are the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; Williams Arena at the University of Minnesota, where my family cheers on the women’s basketball team; and walkways along the Mississippi River.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I'm happy to tell you that To Be Like the Sun is one of two picture books written by me coming out this spring. The other is The House in the Night with inspired artwork by Beth Krommes (Houghton Mifflin, 2008)). It is a book about the night and the comforts of home--and the early reviews have had stars on them.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Author Interview: Mary E. Pearson on The Adoration of Jenna Fox

Mary E. Pearson on Mary E. Pearson: "I've been writing full time for about ten years now. I just sent my fifth novel off to my editor, and my fourth comes out this month.

"On a personal level, I have been married to the man of my dreams since I was a tot and have two beautiful daughters who both tower over me. My husband's tall genes are obviously much stronger than my short ones.

"We also have two golden retrievers who I do tower over, but they tend to rule the roost anyway. They're too darn sweet and cute to ever say no to them. I am an easy touch."

How would you describe yourself as a teenager?

I was very quiet. Of course with my small group of friends I could be loud and crazy, but in general, I was one of those on the perimeter who quietly "watched."

I didn't belong to any one specific group, but for the most part I hung out with the surfer crowd because my girlfriends and I surfed. But I also had cheerleader friends and jock friends and low-rider friends and band friends--you name it. Even though we had labels when I was in high school, I think you could flow from one group to another a little easier.

It was the "hippie" period, and that label almost covered everyone. At least all of our parents thought if you had long hair and wore beads (this was the '70s) that you were part of some hippie subculture. And I did have straight hair past my waist and always had leather beaded bracelets on my wrists and ankles.

Oh, and I went bra-less. Can I say that? My parents definitely thought I was just this side of joining a commune.

What is it about young people as fictional heroes and/or as an audience that especially appeals to you?

Beginnings. I love teen protagonists because they are making serious adult decisions, but it is pristine territory. It is not like it's their hundredth time of getting out of rehab or their eighth divorce. They are encountering a lot of firsts in a very important, life-altering way. I like exploring that territory.

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

Ha! Lots of stumbles. The first stumble came when I was in college, and my professors told me all I would ever be able to do with an English degree is be a teacher. I wanted to be a writer, and just being out of high school, a teacher was the last thing I wanted to be!

So I went with my alternate choice: art. If I couldn't be a writer I would be an artist. Very practical, huh? Youth.

So that set me back about twenty years--that and being a mother, teacher (turns out I loved teaching after all), and everything else in between.

But in retrospect, I think the detour turned out to be a good thing because I am not sure I would have been able to handle the real "stumbles" of this business at such a young age. That old rhinoceros-skin thing you have to develop, you know? And of course the various life experiences helped to give me a lot of perspective, too. So I really think I became a writer when the timing was right for me.

The sprint came when I sold my first book. Of course it didn't seem like a sprint at the time, but relatively speaking, the time from submitting my first manuscript to selling one was only a little over a year. And I've had stumbles and sprints ever since. It's part of the writing world. One thing for sure, it's never boring.

We last spoke in May 2005, shortly after the publication of A Room on Lorelei Street (Henry Holt, 2005). What has that book come to mean to you over time?

I love Zoe. I always will. Her story taught me a lot about writing honestly. And the many readers who have written to me and shared their thoughts--all those letter make me so grateful to be a writer.

I am amazed at how many people told me that Zoe's story was their story, too. We read to escape, but we also read to see ourselves. I am grateful to be part of that process.

How have you grown as a writer since you began working on your craft in a serious way?

I think with each book I am learning to dig deeper. With A Room on Lorelei Street especially, I think I learned to banish my internal editors and just write the story that was speaking to me--the one I wanted to write--and write it as honestly as I could, even if it was painful at times.

And of course I'm always striving to make my vision match my execution. It's not just a matter of saying what you want to say, but creating the atmosphere and feelings of the world you want to share with others.

But at least half of what happens in the writing process seems to happen subconsciously anyway--those fun surprising things that don't even seem to come from your own head--so growing for me also means just trusting the process.

I think what is frustrating is that sometimes I want the story to come now, but that just doesn't happen. It comes when it's ready, in fits and spurts. My editor has been awesome that way, telling me the story will be done when it's done. That really gives me a lot of freedom to listen.

Congratulations on the release of The Adoration of Jenna Fox (Henry Holt, 2008)! Could you tell us a bit about it?

It's a near-future story about Jenna Fox who wakes from a coma and can't remember who she is or the accident that took away her memory. She lives with her family but can't remember them either. There is something odd and curious about the whole situation, and piece by piece, she puts the clues together.

The heart of the story is about finding identity and how we define humanity and its value.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

Two questions fueled the story. How far will medicine advance in fifty years? And, how far would a parent go to save their child?

I asked myself both of these questions when my own daughter was diagnosed with cancer, and I witnessed not just what we went through, but what other parents with hospitalized children were going through and the tough decisions they had to face.

Luckily, my daughter had a choice of treatment with a good success rate. Just fifty years earlier she would have died of this cancer. I was infinitely grateful for the time and place we lived.

Of course, I didn't know that these questions would be the impetus for a story years later, but they niggled at me long after my daughter was well.

When my second daughter was diagnosed with the same illness 3/4 of the way through writing this story, it at first turned my world upside down as it would any parent, but then, I think, deepened the story--especially the secondary characters.

(Note: Both of my daughters are well and healthy, and have agreed, under the threat of eternal-mother hovering, not to give me any more inspiration.)

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

Well, there was one major obstacle when I began this book. It was something that I hadn't even considered. How do you get to know a character who doesn't even know herself? I was banging my head against a wall just a short way in, thinking, how do I write about a character who has so many gaps? What have I taken on?! Jenna had no point of references or very few. All of our world perspectives are built on prior experiences and yet she had none.

I really had to shift gears and be prepared to experience her world as it came and Jenna slowly developed her new identity.

As for research--that was fun and ongoing. I loved reading about the brain, brain damage, language acquisition, and all the different control centers and what they do.

But the interesting thing is the mind. The mind and the brain almost seem to be two different entities. There is still so much we don't know. It's like it is the last frontier.

And of course, lots of other research popped up along the way as different characters and situations presented themselves. Prosthetics are making amazing advances. Sometimes I felt like my imagination was barely staying ahead of reality. And just recently we have been hearing about seed vaults in the news, and seed preservation was a passion of Jenna's grandmother.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I just recently sent off the completed draft of my next book to my editor. The title isn't settled yet, though my editor and I do have a favorite that we are wild about, but it is a little "different" so we are letting it simmer a while. Titles are so hard, but this one jumped at me during one particularly head-banging moment and I thought, yes! Perfect!

Anyway, it's about four teens from a boarding school who set out on an "unauthorized" road trip. The story explores the ways chance weaves in and out of our lives. Kind of a fun, outrageous, quirky, and hopefully thought-provoking sort of story. It should be out in 2009.

55th Jane Addams Children's Book Awards

Winners of the 2008 Jane Addams Children's Book Awards were announced April 28 by the Jane Addams Peace Association.

The Escape of Oney Judge: Martha Washington's Slave Finds Freedom, the winner in the Books for Younger Children Category, is written and illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully and published by Farrar Strauss Giroux.

Mrs. Washington declares that young Oney is just like one of the Washington's own children, but Oney is not fooled. On the night Mrs. Washington tells Oney she will not grant her freedom upon her death, Oney thinks quickly, acts courageously and flees.

Expressive watercolors within this well-researched biography portray the bravery of Ona Maria Judge, an African-American woman who claimed, and fought for, the right to have "no mistress but herself."

We Are One: The Story of Bayard Rustin by Larry Dane Brimner, published by Calkins Creek, an imprint of Boyds Mills Press, Inc., is the winner in the Books for Older Children Category.

Working behind the scenes because of his sexual orientation and unpopular political stands, African-American pacifist and civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, a trusted adviser to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., organized the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Succinct prose, powerful quotations and fresh historical photographs place the story of Rustin’s life alongside the story of the March, revealing the breadth and depth of Rustin’s decades of commitment to confronting racism and promoting peace in the United States and in countries around the world.

One book has won honors in the Books for Younger Children Category.

One Thousand Tracings: Healing the Wounds of World War II, written and illustrated by Lita Judge is published by Hyperion Books for Children.

After discovering one thousand yellowed foot tracings in her grandmother's attic, Lita Judge wrote this tribute to her grandmother who had used these newspaper tracings to find appropriately-sized shoes to send to needy German families in the aftermath of World War II.

A combination of paintings, collages of original photographs and reproductions of foot tracings underscore the message of compassion at the heart of this family story.

Three books have won honors in the Books for Older Children category.

Rickshaw Girl by Mitali Perkins, with illustrations by Jamie Hogan and published by Charlesbridge, is a contemporary novel set in Bangladesh.

In clear prose and detailed black-and-white drawings, ten-year-old Naimi excels at painting alpanas, traditional designs created by Bangladeshi women and girls. Her talent, though valued by her family, cannot buy rice or pay back the loan on her father’s rickshaw as a son’s contribution would do. Determined to help financially, Naimi disguises herself as a boy and sparks surprising events that reveal an expanding world for herself and women in her community.

Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis, published by Scholastic Press, an imprint of Scholastic, Inc., is a sensitively-written historical novel infused with the spirit of youth.

Eleven-year-old Elijah bursts with pride at being the first child born free in Buxton, Canada, a settlement of runaway slaves just across the border from Detroit. When a scoundrel steals money saved to buy an enslaved family's freedom, Elijah impulsively pursues the thief into Michigan. The journey brings him face-to-face with the terrors of slavery, pushing him to act courageously and compassionately in the name of freedom.

Birmingham, 1963 by Carole Boston Weatherford is published by Wordsong, an imprint of Boyds Mills Press, Inc. Deftly-written free verse and expertly-chosen archival photographs lay open the horror of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing by telling the story in the voice of an imagined girl in the "year I turned ten." Four memorial poems, each a tribute to one of the four girls murdered in the bombing, conclude this slim, powerful volume and carry its emphatic message: No More Birminghams!

Since 1953, the Jane Addams Children's Book Award annually acknowledges books published in the U.S. during the previous year. Books commended by the Award address themes or topics that engage children in thinking about peace, justice, world community, and/or equality of the sexes and all races. The books also must meet conventional standards of literary and artistic excellence.

A national committee chooses winners and honor books for older and younger children. Members of the 2007 Jane Addams Children's Book Awards Committee are Susan C. Griffith, Chair (Mt. Pleasant, Michigan), Barbara Bair (Washington, D. C.), Ann Bower (Harwich, Massachusetts), Sonja Cherry-Paul (Yonkers, New York), Eliza T. Dresang (Tallahassee, Florida), Oralia Garza de Cortes (Pasadena, California), MJ Grande (Juneau, Alaska), Daisy Gutierrez (Houston, Texas), Margaret Jensen (Madison, Wisconsin), Jo Montie (Minneapolis, Minnesota), Sarah Park (Long Beach, California), Pat Wiser (Sewanee, Tennessee) and Junko Yokota (Skokie, Illinois). Regional reading and discussion groups participated with many of the committee members throughout the jury’s evaluation and selection process.

The 2008 Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards will be presented Friday, October 17th in New York City. Details about the award event and about securing winner and honor book seals are available from the Jane Addams Peace Association (JAPA).

For additional information about the Jane Addams Children's Book Awards and a complete list of books honored since 1953, see www.janeaddamspeace.org.

Founded in 1948, JAPA is the educational arm of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). In addition to sponsoring the Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards and many other educational projects, JAPA houses the U.N. office of WILPF in New York City and owns the Jane Addams House in Philadelphia where the U.S. section of WILPF is located. Organized on April 28th in 1915, WILPF is celebrating its 93rd year.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Editor Interview: Audrey Maynard on Tilbury House

Audrey Maynard on Audrey Maynard: "I was a 'lifer' at an all-girls school in New York City. I learned to love discussing ideas there, and books were usually at the heart of those discussions. In fact, Blue Balliett (author of Chasing Vermeer) and I were classmates.

"The first word I can remember sounding out as I was learning to read was the word 'surprise.' To this day, I love surprises in books, in people, and in life. I am generally open to trying things in new ways. I am an optimist.

"Also, I am generally a very patient and consistent person. For example: I have lived in Maine for 24 years (18 years in the same house), and have been married for 25 years. In recent years, when I meet new people, I have been asked where I am from in Maine. I find this quite amazing. In the spirit of full disclosure, I spent a decade in my twenties living on the West Coast, and in the U.K."

Were you an avid young reader, or did you come to this love later in life?

Books really were everything to me when I was young. I had the type of childhood that promotes being a reader. My parents limited TV (Sunday night!), disapproved of games, and of course, forbade play with Barbie dolls! However I was allowed to read any type of book. My reading life was completely uncensored.

I have a lot of curiosity, so I read to learn about the rest of the world. My grandfather was a Quaker, and my godmother lived in Asia.

From the start, I was given books to expand my horizons. I read a lot of books about WWII, China, Japan, religious persecution, and what we call now social justice. I remember reading Gone with the Wind, All Quiet on The Western Front, and Valley of The Dolls in the same summer.

Among my favorite picture books were Harold and the Purple Crayon, Huge Harold, and a book called Gwendolyn The Miracle Hen. This last was a family favorite and featured a hen with special powers that saved the family farm from a greedy landlord! When I was in middle school, I actually wrote several children's stories with a friend.

What inspired you to enter the field of children's and young adult publishing?

In the late 1980s and '90s I began to read picture books addictively as a form of relaxation. At the time, I worked primarily as a teacher with low-income pre-school-age kids, plus I had two school-age kids of my own. I was also in graduate school working on my Master's degree in Early Childhood Education, so I was very busy.

However, I was fascinated to discover that the field of children's literature was being transformed by larger social trends. Not only were picture books becoming more diverse, but they were addressing subjects that publishers had previously felt were "unsuitable" for children.

To a certain extent, you can trace my "inspiration" to a picture book review I read in 1985 in the New York Times. The book reviewed was Rose Blanche by Roberto Innocenti. I bought the book and started asking myself lots of questions about children's interests, and the information that adults share with them. Ultimately, this curiosity is what has guided my professional career.

In Maine, most people don't get to be choosy about what they do for work. So, I feel lucky to work where I do. I never presumed that I would be able to work in the field of children's publishing, although when I now tell people what I do, they smile and say that I have found myself the perfect job.

Could you summarize your career to date?

My resume is eclectic--besides teaching pre-schoolers in both rural and urban settings, I have taught college courses on child development and children's literature.

Prior to working at Tilbury I had great experience consulting with Born To Read, an early reading program at the Maine Humanities Council. The most important thing that I can say about my "preparation" for the field of children’s publishing is that my work experiences cumulatively gave me:

1) Absolute faith in the transformative power of all types of literature.

2) A clear sense of what interests children.

3) A fascination with the question of what is considered "appropriate" for children in our culture.

What led you to Tilbury House?

I met with Jennifer Bunting, Tilbury's publisher, in the summer of 2001 to discuss the economics of publishing at a Maine Humanities Council meeting. I was clueless about the business and production side. Jennifer and I had a great lunch together. We discovered that we shared passion for the idea of publishing books that would empower kids.

Jen knew that she had job openings coming up, and she gave me a call to see if I was interested in working with her. Before I took the job, I gave a full disclosure of things that I'm not good at. For example, no one would ever hire me as a copy editor. But sales and marketing were something I thought I could tackle. I started at Tilbury the last week in August 2001.

What challenges and opportunities did you encounter at the company?

The business side was all new to me, and so I had a big learning curve when I started. Marketing is demanding, but you have to give it your best shot. Our company has three full-time employees, and five part-time people. We all happen to be women. It's a pretty cooperative, egalitarian atmosphere.

When I started, we only were doing two children’s books a year (our company also publishes regional non-fiction for adults). Now we are working on three or four picture books a year.

We're growing, and our children's books regularly win awards. That's so exciting!

Still, at the core, I'd say working at Tilbury is more like the experience of working in any small business. Our shipper and part of our inventory is housed amidst our offices.

The goal is simple: we want to create books and see them shipped out. Returns are bad news. There is a lot of redundancy in the book-selling business.

And because we are so small, we can't spend much on advertising or going to conferences. We are also very low tech. We all work on older turquoise i-Macs. The fact is that this is an expensive; there are all these other built-in costs--like printing and shipping.

When I started out, I did work that was mostly focused on sales and manuscript review. Gradually I have shifted my focus to the editorial side. But starting with sales was important as a reality check! I can and do need to evaluate how "profitable" a book can be for us. A big part is sticking with one's "brand." We don't stray from our mission. And that also keeps life simple.

That said, I knew right away that children’s literature would be affected by the events of 9/11, as so many things were. And I was right. We had already published a number of picture books that speak to the theme of immigration and tolerance. I'm talking about Who Belongs Here, Shy Mama's Halloween, and the Gita books. A month after 9/11, we had several big orders for these books going out all over the country. A few months later, we brought out The Carpet Boy's Gift, which also benefited, I think, from being a story set in the Middle East.

How would you describe your list? What sorts of books do you publish?

When I started, Tilbury House was equally known for publishing picture books that explore cultural diversity, nature, and the environment.

In recent years, we have had a bit more difficulty bringing out environmental titles that we were so strong on earlier. We'd like to re-energize that side of our list.

But, in terms of publishing books on cultural diversity and social justice, we're thrilled with the way things have been working out. It's important that we continue to grow in this area.

We continue to seek to have authors and illustrators of different classes, color, religion, and region tell stories of universal significance. The fact that we are in rural, northern New England means that we work even harder to find stories that will resonate everywhere!

If you had to highlight three recent titles that would give us a feel for the list, which would you choose and why?

It's hard to pick! But, I'll start with Say Something. I always hope that our books will get kids talking to each other more. This truly is a book that invites conversation. It's about bullying from the bystander's perspective, I like to think that this is a book that helps improve school culture for those who are "different." Bullying begets violence, violence begets fear, and fear begets bullying once again. It's a vicious cycle. Say Something might spark someone to make a difference in his or her community. That's huge!

Thanks To The Animals was submitted to me on a storytelling and song CD--so it exactly followed the description of a "nontraditional submission" that was talked about in my multicultural literature course in graduate school. Alan Sockabasin wasn't optimistic about his chances of getting the story published. But I listened when he said that he thought kids would like the story. So I checked it out, and I agreed with him! Kids love this story because it's exciting. On top of that, this story has built new awareness about Native Americans in Maine. It's been a gift on so many levels.

Playing War is probably the most complex story we have published, and certainly one of our most important. I've watched people pick up the book and read it at conferences, with tears running down their faces. It's a wonderful example of having just the right book when you need to talk about a difficult subject with children.

Which would you recommend to writers for study and why?

I respect writers who can create characters that will engage children. We need just the right details to make the reader want to find out "what will happen next." [See editorial guidelines.]

What do you see as your jobs in the publishing process?

My job is to select titles that I think will be good Tilbury House books. This means I have to see how a book really fits on our list. Next, I have to take the story and make the book be as good as it can be--so that it can reach its potential.

Sometimes I joke that I am the book's therapist. Occasionally, I have to balance the different visions of a book that evolve as the book goes through the illustration process. I need to communicate effectively between all the different parties. Finding the right illustrator is very important, because he or she "delivers" the book to kids in his or her own way. When the illustrator does his/her job, it's like watching a book learn to dance. I love that.

What are your challenges?

Well, I wish we could have a patron who would just come and buy all our books and place them in schools and libraries around the country. I get frustrated that more people don't know about our books--so I confess to frustration with the marketing side of things.

All things considered, I believe we do a good job with it. (We call it "publishing by triage.") Still, I'd love to see what an infusion of capital would do for our company! I actually think we could benefit from being a little bigger, since we have a really good team working here.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Cynsational News, Links & Giveaways

Enter to win one of three autographed copies of A Growling Place by Thomas Aquinas Maguire (Simply Read, 2007)(author-illustrator interview)! To enter, email me with your name and snail/street mail address by 10 p.m. CST April 29! Please also type "A Growling Place" in the subject line. Note: one copy will be awarded to a teacher/librarian (please identify yourself accordingly in your entry), and two copies will be awarded to any Cynsational readers!

Thomas says: "It's about nighttime and tea, wind gusts and windows, feathers, birds, blankets, bears, bedtime and a little girl named Aril who befriends all of these things." Read the whole interview.

Enter to win one of two autographed copies of How Not to Be Popular by Jennifer Ziegler (Delacorte, 2008)(author interview)! To enter, email me with your name and snail/street mail address by 10 p.m. CST April 29! Please also type "How Not to Be Popular" in the subject line. Note: one copy will be awarded to a teacher/librarian (please identify yourself accordingly in your entry), and one copy will be awarded to any Cynsational reader! Visit Jennifer's LiveJournal and MySpace page!

Jennifer says: "The book centers on Maggie, a seventeen-year-old girl who has just moved to Austin, Texas. Most new students do their best to make friends and fit in, right? Well, not her. This is because her parents always make her move after a few months or so, and she is just done with it. She knows she will only be in Austin for a short while, so she asks herself, 'Why try to be accepted at all?'" Read the whole interview.

Reminder: Enter to win a copy of By Venom's Sweet Sting (Mirrorstone, 2007). To enter, email me with your name and snail/street mail address by 10 p.m. CST April 30! Please also type "By Venom's Sweet Sting" in the subject line. Note: one copy will be awarded to any Cynsations YA reader, and one copy will be awarded to a member of Tantalize Fans Unite! at MySpace. Please identify yourself accordingly as part of your entry! Don't miss the latest Hallowmere book, latest Hallowmere novel, Between Golden Jaws by Tiffany Trent (Mirrorstone, 2008)(sample chapter)! Read a Cynsations interview with Tiffany.

More News & Links

Interview with Susan Burke, Associate Editor by Pam Mingle from Kite Tales, the newsletter of the SCBWI Rocky Mountain Chapter. See also Pam's interviews with literary agent Erin Murphy and editor Jennifer Wingertzahn.

Writers v. Editors: A Battle for the Ages by Michael Kinsley from Time. Peek: "...nothing here should be construed to apply to the editors of Time, who edit with the care of surgeons, the sensitivity of angels and the wisdom of the better class of Supreme Court Justices." Note: a humorous, tongue-in-cheek look at both sides of the relationship.

What Makes a Good Picture Book: the initial post at this week's discussion, led by Dianne White, at Through the Tollbooth. Peek: "Simple. Simply irresistible. And a hair-puller to write. That's how Schertle describes picture books, and those of us who love them and love to write them, know truer words were never spoken. So how does the aspiring picture book author work through the hard parts to write a picture book that 'sings and swings,' or that's 'cozy and quiet,' as Schertle suggests?" See also Picture Book Biographies with Kathi Appelt and Fairy Tales with Louise Hawes. Read Cynsations interviews with Kathi and Louise.

Question of the Week Thursday: Dianne Ochiltree from Robin Friedman. On behalf of a reader, Robin asks: "Should I self-publish my children's book/memoir/self-help book/novel?" Read interviews with Robin and Dianne from Cynsations.

Enter to win one item from az-ang's CafePress shop, Pickled Pixel Toe. See also her products at my-my-my-my Muse-rona, My Inner Critic, and Writing, Illustrating, and Conference.

Harry Potter Author J.K. Rowling's Copyright Case: Behind All The Legal Jargon: Case against The Harry Potter Lexicon hinges on the doctrine of fair use — but what does that mean? by Shawn Adler from MTV. Peek [quoting J.K.]: "This trial has decimated my creative work over the last month," she said. "You lose the [plot] threads and worry whether you'll be able to pick them up again. Should my fans be flooded with a surfeit of substandard books--so-called lexicons--I'm not sure I'd have the will or heart to continue." Source: Alex Flinn.

Rants and Ramblings on Life as a Literary Agent from Rachelle Gardner. Peek: "In all genres, I'm looking for books that express a Christian worldview. In some books, particularly non-fiction, the message will be overt, while in others (especially fiction) the Christian message should be subtly woven through, not in-your-face." Note: In youth literature, she seeks YA only (not middle grade or picture books). See also: Literary Agents Who Represent Christian Authors from Mike Hyatt, president and CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Congratulations to Cyndi Hughes on becoming the new director of the Writers' League of Texas, and thanks to outgoing director John Pipkin for all of his hard work in the position! Note: Cyndi was the original director of the Texas Book Festival.

Naming Maya by Uma Krishnaswami (FSG, 2004) is the Tiger's Choice on PaperTigers this month. Check it out, and join in the conversation. Read a Cynsations interview with Uma.

Bookjoy! a new blog from Pat Mora and a literacy concept that stresses sharing the love of books and reading; sharing with families and community. El día de los niños/El día de los libros (Book Day/Children’s Day) is one part of Bookjoy!

"We Don't Make Fuzzy-Bunny Books" (Part 2) from Tony DiTerlizzi, co-creator of the Spiderwick Chronicles. Peek: "Before I post more sketches of the characters and world I created for Kenny and the Dragon, I thought I would share some of the inspirational art that I looked at while writing the story."

We Love Children's Books: Laurina Cashin and Bobbie Combs specialize in promoting children's books. Services include: websites, catalogs and marketing publications, collection development and research, writing and editing, trade shows, workshops and informal presentations. Clients include: authors and illustrators; publishers; education and retail wholesalers; organizations; children's bookstores.

Interview with Alice Hoffman from Kim Antieau. Peek: "I think I fear that if I ever figure out how I do it, I'll lose the ability. I think that's why so many academics find they can't write fiction—they are so busy deconstructing they can't just let go." See also: Adelphi University Alice Hoffman Young Writers Retreat: "an intensive writing workshop where high school students and their teachers can experience the power of arts-based learning."

The Adoration of Jenna Fox (by Mary E. Pearson (Henry Holt, 2008)): official website has been expanded to offer trailer, reviews, sample chapter, author bio, author interview, and medical-ethics related links. See also "Meanwhile, Back in the Garden..." from Mary.

Mentoring: The Writer You Guide Might Be the Future by Tara Yellen at B0okSquare. "He instructed us to spend as little energy as possible on the classes that we taught. He told us to keep time with our students to an absolute minimum. 'Teaching, critiquing, working with them. It’ll suck out your writing soul,' he said."

Guest Blogger: Jennifer Hubbard On Going From Blog Reader to (soon to be) Published Author from Nathan Bransford - Literary Agent. Peek: "Not that there's so much mystery involved. I signed with Nathan not as a result of knowing any magic words or secret handshakes, not as a result of being related to him, and not as a result of cocktail-party schmoozing. (As if I've ever been to a cocktail party in my life.) If I knew any magic words, I would tell you. Or sell them at an entirely reasonable price." See also Jennifer Hubbard's LJ at writerjenn.

Children's Book Agents and Artist's Representatives: A Guide from Harold Underdown. Note: includes Finding and Choosing Literary Agents; Resources Listing Literary Agents and Artists Representatives; and three case studies: Firebrand Literary; Writers House; and [Name Withheld]. Read a Cynsations interview with Harold; and check out the third edition of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Children's Books (Alpha, May 2008).

Short Stories: a bibliography of recommendations from The Horn Book. Read a Cynsations interview with Roger Sutton, editor of The Horn Book.

Online Classes from Laura Purdie Salas

The Line Forms Here: Writing Poetry for Kids and Teens: taught by Laura Purdie Salas from May 12 to May 16. Don't miss Laurie's Write Your Own Poetry (Compass Point, 2008).

Matchmaking Your Manuscript: Lisa Bullard and Laura Purdie Salas are offering a three-week online class. They will lead participants through the steps of market research to create a list of publishers and editors that might be a good match for a particular manuscript. Lisa and Laura also will guide participants in how to create an attention-grabbing cover letter or query letter. Note: The dates are June 2 to June 19, with two classes/posts per week. There will also be a fourth week that will be strictly for Q&A and discussion.

Writing Kids' Nonfiction Books for the Educational Market
: Lisa Purdie Salas offers an intense, one-month course from July 21 to Aug. 22.

More Personally

Thanks to Ms. Triplitt and her fourth and sixth grade students at Terral Elementary in Terral, Oklahoma for Wednesday morning's wonderful online author chat! It was great fun discussing Jingle Dancer (Morrow, 2000) and Indian Shoes (HarperCollins, 2002)!

This weekend's Austin SCBWI conference has sold out! Here's a warm Texas howdy to all of the speakers and participants, especially my Candlewick editor Deborah Wayshak! I hope to see some of you there! Note: here's a sneak peek from Chris Barton at Bartography: Get some wisdom from accomplished children's literature professionals. Or from me.

Congratulations, Y'all!

Congratulations to Austin YA author Varian Johnson on his sale of The Path of The Righteous to Delacorte!

Crank the sound and check out the Austin Public Library's Bibliofiles book cart drill team's winning performance at the recent Texas Library Association in Dallas, Texas. Wow!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Author-Illustrator Interview: Thomas Aquinas Maguire on A Growling Place

Thomas Aquinas Maguire on Thomas Aquinas Maguire: "Thomas Aquinas Maguire is the author and illustrator of A Growling Place (Simply Read, 2007). He was born, raised and educated in Rochester, New York; and currently lives in Milwaukee. His first book was conceived of and produced in Denmark where he also worked for The LEGO Company as a toy designer.

"Thomas is creating a variety of new books for 2008 and 2009. He develops exhibits with Discovery World and teaches drawing and illustration courses at The Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design."

Could you tell us about your apprenticeship as a writer and an illustrator? How did you come to each? Where did you study and/or otherwise develop your skills?

I was professionally trained as an Industrial Designer at RIT in Rochester, New York.

At the end of my second year of study, I found myself working as an intern toy designer for Fisher-Price. I absolutely loved it. I focused the remaining two years of my studies at RIT towards toward a career in toy design, and upon graduation, I flew across the ocean to Denmark and got a job with LEGO.

In Denmark, I had a lot of time to myself, I used this time to educate myself in picture book creation and spent almost every evening drawing, writing, and imagining.

Congratulations on the release of A Growling Place (Simply Read, 2007)! Could you tell us a little about the book?

A Growling Place is my first picture book. It's about nighttime and tea, wind gusts and windows, feathers, birds, blankets, bears, bedtime and a little girl named Aril who befriends all of these things.

What was your initial inspiration?

I would have to say loneliness--and I don't mean that in a sad way. To an imaginative mind, loneliness can be a great collaborator. I remember most of my childhood being in the company of my brother and sisters, but I also clearly remember (especially before my little brother roommate was born) the lonely and imaginative moments before sleep.

The isolation that I experienced in Denmark evoked those same quiet imaginative moments familiar from childhood. Loneliness became a great friend to me, and, in many ways, A Growling Place is about just that.

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

It took about three years from the very first sketch to the publication of A Growling Place. I had actually just abandoned my very first attempt at a picture book manuscript called "Cricket Nights." I began A Growling Place by experimenting with a new technique using tea washes and graphite crosshatching in my sketchbook. Some of the colors in the first illustration from A Growling Place are actually painted with tea!

While living in Europe, I had the opportunity to expose myself to children's literature history. I studied the work of my favorite illustrators from childhood, including of course, Maurice Sendak and Edward Gorey. I traveled and saw some original Beatrix Potter drawings in London. With my aunt, I visited the home of the Grimm brothers in Kassel. On my days off from work I would visit Hans Christian Andersen's birthplace in Odense.

After each trip, I'd settle back in at home with some tea and continue work on A Growling Place. It was probably one of the healthiest environments I could've been in at the time. Surrounded by the work of these storytellers, I went home each night and put their teaching to use.

A little bit later, I made the decision to move back to the U.S. and completed the rest of A Growling Place at my parents home in Rochester. They were wonderful to give me the whole downstairs to set up a little studio and get the thing finished!

I printed five sample books and sent them to some people that I thought would be interested. Dimiter at Simply Read Books gave me a call, and we pulled it all together with a great cover, a striking long format, and a beautifully crafted half cloth book construction. Simply Read Books did such a good job with it.

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

In the early stages of the book's creation, I was diagnosed with an eye disease called Keratoconus. The disease affects the rigidity of the corneal tissue--the cornea loses the perfection of its shape and vision is blurred. My right eye began to lose it's precision and continues to... This became a problem with some of the detail work that went into the illustrations.

The other challenge that I consistently find with creation is sustaining a mood. Before I can begin working on an established project, my mood must match the spirit of the book. This, at times, can be a great stumbling block, especially if the project stretches over years--as A Growling Place did.

Music helps me to find, sustain and revisit a mood. This is why I'll sometimes spend whole evenings searching for perfect music. Sometimes, though, even with music, it can take me hours to transform my mindset.

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were beginning author-illustrator, what advice would you offer?

I'm not sure that I would. I feel that my motivations and methods for A Growling Place were right-on. If I had to translate the most important of my realizations from those three years into a piece of advice it would be this:

"Create work that you believe in: work that you want to see and that you believe is worth making. Completing a work that you truly respect is a greater reward than gaining the respect of others or finding publication."

What do you do when you're not in the book world?

If I'm not at work, I usually have books or drawing on my mind, so this is a tough one.

Sometimes I'll just sit in my chair and listen to music, or sit in my chair and think about things. I spend a lot of time boiling water and drinking tea--an almost unhealthy quantity of tea. I've also been very fond of my bicycle recently. Looking out of the window with a blanket is another favorite past-time. Video gaming is my guilty hobby.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I've been working on a few new books. One is complete, one is nearly complete and the other is very young. In August, there should be a nice set of little companion stories for A Growling Place. After that you can expect something much different.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Author Interview: Jennifer Ziegler on How Not To Be Popular

We last spoke to Jennifer Ziegler in October 2006 about the release of her debut single-title novel, Alpha Dog (Delacorte, 2006)(author interview). Visit Jennifer's LiveJournal and MySpace page!

Congratulations on the publication of How Not to Be Popular (Delacorte, 2008)! Could you fill us in on the story?

The book centers on Maggie, a seventeen-year-old girl who has just moved to Austin, Texas. Most new students do their best to make friends and fit in, right? Well, not her. This is because her parents always make her move after a few months or so, and she is just done with it. She knows she will only be in Austin for a short while, so she asks herself, "Why try to be accepted at all?"

Having just bid farewell to best friend number twelve and her first serious boyfriend ever, she is scared to make real connections and then get hurt when the time comes to move. At first she tries to lie low and blend into the background, but that doesn't work. So she changes her strategy and does all the wrong things on purpose--dresses wrong, acts wrong, gets seen with the wrong people. Basically, it's opposite day every day. However, real life isn't exactly a math problem. You can't reverse a formula and expect the inverse result. So things don't exactly play out for Maggie the way she intends.

What was your initial inspiration for telling this story?

That's quite a tale in itself. In the fall of 2005, I was contacted by my oldest, dearest friend, Christy. She called from California to say she was getting married, so of course that triggered a whole series of lengthy long-distance chats. Christy, like Maggie, moved around quite a bit when she was younger. I had always envied her worldliness, but later, when we were grown, she confessed that it could be tough.

Well, I guess she was on my mind a lot, because one day (when I was supposed to be working on the final draft of Alpha Dog) I got a clear vision in my head of a teenage girl walking to school in a crazy outfit. The girl wasn't Christy, but she was in a similar predicament: she was sick and tired of getting uprooted all the time. So she was purposefully trying to drive people away.

I found myself so intrigued, I had to set aside Alpha Dog (don't tell my editor!) and investigate this person and her world. What did she think would happen? What would happen? Who would she affect along the way?

Over the years I've learned that when the muse visits, you have to drop everything and follow. If you wait until a better time, she won't be there and the idea will be fuzzy and stale.

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

After that initial spellbinding flash, it took another two years before the finished product hit bookstores. First I had to finish Alpha Dog. Then I had to shape the idea and pitch it. Once I was under contract, the typical notches in the timeline followed: first draft, revisions, proofs, galleys.

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

With every single one of my projects, the major challenge is balancing work with the demands of parenting. I've been writing for over a decade now, but I still can't seem to find that perfect equilibrium. Just one night (one blankety-blank night!) I'd like to go to bed with no guilt.

At the end of every day, I feel as though I've either neglected the kids or the writing. I say no to a game of checkers with my daughter in order to finish some editing, and it haunts me later. Or I stop short of my mandatory word count, and it proves impossible to make up.

I think one of the reasons this is so tough is because both roles make similar demands. Parenting uses much of the same energy as writing. A nurturing, creating, super-focusing energy. Thus, I'm often sapped of power before I've completed my tasks for the day. Plus, as I mentioned, there's the guilt. Writing requires a degree of self-absorption and concentration that I know, instinctively, is sometimes at the expense of the little ones in my care.

Don't worry--they aren't suffering. And I'm gradually figuring out how to make it work. I've found my high-productivity time and learned tricks to get into "the zone" quickly, and I've set more realistic goals. Coffee helps a lot, too.

What were you like as a teen? Are any aspects of your inner adolescent reflected in Maggie?

I have no idea how people saw me as a teen. I wasn't popular, but I feel I was well-liked. I had a best friend who had my back, a social group I could be myself with, and intellectual pursuits that kept me coming back to school each day (namely, drama and writing for the paper).

Maggie isn't Christy or me. However, I'm of the firm belief that every character I create is going to have a fragment of me in them. Usually, this bestowing of traits isn't a conscious act, so I typically realize it later--after the story is written.

In the case of Maggie, I recognize my avoidance of conflict and my sometimes irreverent inner voice. There's also a duality in Maggie that I'm aware of within myself. That of wanting to be close to others, but feeling guarded. However, Maggie is definitely bolder, more sophisticated, and more impulsive than I am (now and as a teen). But she's also less self aware. Because of her nomadic lifestyle, she's always "presenting" herself to others. And if you're always investigating new surroundings, there's little time for self-exploration. I didn't have the greatest sense of myself at that age, but I was further along than Maggie.

Being an Austinite, I was especially delighted to see how well you integrated a sense of place into your story. What about the city inspires you?

Everything! This is the perfect city for novelists. Here, stories find you.

The surroundings are inspirational--beautiful yet tough, full of charm and flavor and history. But to me, the people are its most valuable resource. Austin is a wonderland of characters, all with tales to tell. Rodeo stars mix with rock musicians. Yuppies live next to hippies. Soccer moms befriend tattooed roller girls. And I don't mean to imply that they all fall into categories.

Either because of the universities or because it embraces musicians and artists, Austin tends to attract very open, creative, and spirited folks. People who are unapologetically themselves. Fascinating beings who belong in books.

In Alpha Dog, although it is set in the present day, many of the places I reference are from the past. "The Drag" that I describe is straight out of the '90s, back when I was going to U.T. and having all sorts of adventures about town. I did that on purpose, both out of nostalgia and because I felt it would be a better setting for the story. The Austin in How Not to Be Popular is the here and now, though.

Sophomore novels are often a struggle. How did you bounce back so quickly with another wonderful story?

I guess I didn't have a sophomore slump because, in a way, it isn't my sophomore effort. Although it is the second publication that has my name on the cover, it's actually my nineteenth novel overall.

Before I successfully pitched my trade books, I wrote for young adult series, such as Sweet Valley High, Fearless and Love Stories. I didn't get a byline on those projects, but I gained invaluable experience and honed my style. So I might have been a little more confident in my abilities than someone with only one book under their belt. I'm not sure.

What has surprised you most about being a YA author?

Two things. First, the fact that I am a YA author. This was one of the primary do-or-die goals of my life. I think I wanted this job as far back as when I was first reading. Even now it seems a little unreal to say, "I'm a young adult author." But I love saying it and hearing it--especially because the phrasing sort of makes it sound as if I'm a young adult. Which I am, of course! (Cough, cough.)

The second shocker was discovering a whole community of writers who like and support each other. You see, my first publishing deals were for mass-market novels. It was work-for-hire--fun (because it was writing), but rather anonymous and motorized. I wasn't "the talent," but a key person on an assembly line. So I guess I started to think of writing as an inherently solitary pursuit. And that was fine.

But now I've "debuted" in the local literary scene and have met several fellow writers. It's like finding long-lost family. They understand you in ways others don't. They offer invaluable advice and encouragement. They make better puns than I do. Discovering this world has been such a pleasant, eye-opening surprise.

How do you balance the responsibilities of being an author (promotion, negotiations, etc.) with writing itself?

Um... I don't. Balance, that is. In fact, it's thrown another metaphoric wrench in my endless quest to be super mom-writer. Now not only do I have to plan my writing around bedtime routines and PTA meetings, I also have to fit it in among store appearances, conferences, business lunches, etc.

Don't get me wrong, though. I love having this problem! I've worked hard for this stress! It's just going to take me a while to figure out how to fit these new tasks into my routine. Plus, I need a bigger calendar.

You're an author who blogs. Tell us about your blog. What is its mission? What purpose does it serve in your writing life?

I started my blog because some key people convinced me that it would be a great publicity tool. I still believe they're right, but in truth, that's not how I use it--at least, not deliberately.

What has happened is that the blog has become my personal journal. I've kept a diary before, but I've never been one of those day-to-day chroniclers. You know, with entries like, "Today I ate beans. Yau-Man got voted off the island. I think the dog is sick."

Instead, I typically wait until I have something weightier to say. A story to tell or an idea to explore or a rant about some random topic.

So rather than simply marketing myself and reaching out to readers (which I hope also happens), I use the blog as a sort of literary dojo-- place to stretch out my writing muscles before I begin my work day.

Sometimes I worry that I'm too open with the personal stuff, but it's not like I have a Lindsay Lohan lifestyle. I really don't have much to hide. And occasionally I fret that I'm not marketing myself enough. But that's hard for me.

There's a difference between writing about my life and writing about myself as some sort of literary figure. The whole self-promotion angle still feels unnatural. However, since that was one of the initial aims of the blog, I should probably keep trying.

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were beginning writer, what advice would you offer?

Gosh... I'd probably tell myself to relax and enjoy it more. Not that I didn't enjoy it back at the start, I was just so nervous about making a mistake.

When the kids were babies, I'd work myself into a tattered, muttering, ink-stained mess trying to meet their needs and meet deadlines.

Now I realize that the publishing world is run by humans. They understand if you are going to be a few days late. They don't expect absolute perfection on the first draft. And they certainly don't want their writers to end up hospitalized for exhaustion.

I'm still a stickler for deadlines, but I've eased up on myself a little. The fear that I'll one day be exposed as a plucky wannabe rather than a real writer has somewhat subsided. If I hadn't stressed so much in the beginning, I could have had more fun--and more sleep.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I don't mean to sound demure and secretive, but I can't really say just yet. I have several items in front of me, and it's simply a matter of choosing.

As I mentioned, I'm learning the whole marketing aspect of the job and trying to fit it into my daily routine, which is slowing me down a little. Right now I'm still promoting How Not to Be Popular and working on some vital infrastructure (setting up websites, learning PowerPoint, etc.), but I've got three ideas researched and outlined, and I'm eager to get moving on one of them.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Author Interview: Margaret Peterson Haddix on Found (The Missing: Book 1)

Margaret Peterson Haddix on Margaret Peterson Haddix: "I grew up on a farm near Washington Court House, Ohio. As a kid, I completely took it for granted that my brothers and sister and I had our own pony; that, if we went outside to play, we had hundreds of acres to roam around on; that, if something bad happened—-the hogs got out, the fields flooded—-my parents expected the whole family to pull together to deal with the problem.

"I think a lot of people I met my freshman year in college thought I was very strange, because they were all from suburbia, and I felt like I was coming from a completely different world. But, who knows? Maybe they would have thought I was strange anyway.

"I was also a big bookworm from an early age, and dreamed of becoming a writer, though I didn't see it as a very practical or realistic goal. I ended up majoring in both creative writing and journalism in college (as well as history, just for fun) and kind of spent the whole four years wavering between the different types of writing. But I had summer jobs at newspapers three years in a row, so it seemed logical to follow that route after graduation.

"Before my first book came out, I worked as a newspaper copy editor in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and a newspaper reporter in Indianapolis, and then detoured into freelance writing and teaching writing at a community college. I also got married and had two kids."

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

Even during the phase when I was more focused on journalism, I was also writing fiction and trying to get it published. I had a few small successes early on that made me think I had a chance: during college, I won an honorable mention in Seventeen's annual fiction contest; later on, I won a trip to Hawaii because of a short story I'd written. These things gave me hope, and I really needed that to get through the long dry spell that followed.

I left journalism when my husband got a job in a small town in Illinois where there wasn't much job opportunity for me. I tried to look at this as a gift, as my chance to focus on fiction: I taught part-time and wrote Running Out of Time (Aladdin, 1997); Don't You Dare Read This, Mrs. Dunphrey (Aladdin, 2004); and numerous short stories. And I spent two years collecting nothing but rejection letters for my fiction, before I finally got an agent, who then sold both books to Simon & Schuster.

Those two years didn't exactly feel like a stumble: they felt like I'd lost my footing completely and was sprawled flat on the ground being trampled by... I don't know--vicious wolves, maybe? Stampeding elephants? It's hard to write about that phase of my life without sounding melodramatic.

To make matters worse, for much of that time, my husband and I had good reason to believe that we might never be able to have children, which we both very much wanted. So I felt stymied, all around. And yet, within a few years after that, we had a baby and a toddler, and my editor was asking me to write another book.

In that speeded-up time-lapse thing that memory does, it seems like I went from a drought to a deluge, almost instantly. But in real time, things didn't change quite so fast.

What has surprised you most about being an author? Delighted you? What do you wish you could change?

I was somewhat surprised that writing fiction wasn't pure, unadulterated joy every single moment. But I've been delighted at how often it does feel like that.

One thing I do miss from my journalism days is having co-workers. I have plenty of friends, relatives, etc., I can call or e-mail or meet with face-to-face, if I want a break from writing, but it's not the same as having someone at the next desk over whom I can ask in the middle of a sentence, "What's another word for 'scintillate'?" The thesaurus function on my computer just isn't as entertaining as co-workers would be. (Though it's also not as disruptive and distracting--there are trade-offs.)

Congratulations on the launch of Found (The Missing: Book 1)(Simon & Schuster, April 2008)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this series?

The first spark of the idea came to me when I woke up on an airplane and couldn't immediately remember where I was flying to or from. In those first moments, I'm not sure I even quite remembered who I was. (In my defense, I had flown across six time zones that day, and, in the last place I'd been, everyone had been speaking French.)

As I figured out exactly who and where I was, I had a flash of thinking that the sensation I'd just had might be interesting in a book. What if a kid or kids were similarly disoriented on a plane? What if the grown-ups around them didn't know who the kids were either?

The thought didn't go very far that day (please--I was doing well just to remember my name). But later, I thought, what if the mysterious kids on a plane weren't just lost and disoriented, but very young—babies, even? And then I just had such a strong image in my head, of a plane full of babies. I just had to figure out how and why such a thing would happen.

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

I got the first inkling of the book in July 2006. I thought about it off and on the rest of the summer and into the fall, but I was doing final revisions of another book (Uprising (Simon & Schuster 2007)) and traveling a lot for author visits and then starting to write a completely different book (Palace of Mirrors (Simon & Schuster, fall 2008)). I thought it'd be a long time before I got around to the babies-on-the-plane idea.

Meanwhile, though, I'd been having sporadic conversations with my editor and agents about starting another series, since the Shadow Children series (Simon & Schuster, 1998-2006) had just ended. I'd already suggested a couple of possibilities that weren't exactly taking the world by storm.

Rather defensively, I told one of my agents, "I do have another idea that could be good, but I haven't figured everything out yet." He urged me to write it up as a proposal and send it in.

I wrote the proposal for Found the same way a kid would write a book report for a book he never actually read. I used vague words. I fudged details. I fully expected to be caught and exposed as a fraud, turned into one of those embarrassing publishing stories people tell for years.

Instead, everyone was delighted.

My editor and agent began talking about contracts and publication dates. And I just sat there thinking, "What have I done? How am I ever going to carry this off?"

My family came to my rescue. That night at dinner we were talking about my new series (which I was thinking of as, "random thought about babies on a plane that everyone thinks I'm going to be able to turn into a book. No--several books! Arghh!")

This was unusual, because I don't usually talk about what I'm working on until it's in fairly final form. And this was a long, long way from final form. But my husband and kids were cheering me up because they kept making hilarious suggestions about what I could do with my idea.

My son suggested a recurring character named Chippy the Annoying Rodent. (I didn't take that suggestion, but I did name one of the human characters "Chip" in his honor.)

My daughter, who'd just finished doing a research paper about Watergate, suggested a secret source named Strep Throat, who'd break the whole story to the media. And then my daughter had another suggestion--The Suggestion. It was the Holy Grail of suggestions, the idea that made me think, "Oh, wow, this can really work! That's perfect! It all fits!"

I can't say exactly what The Suggestion was, because it gives away too much about the book, but it helped a lot.

It was mid-December 2006 when I agreed to write Found. Simon & Schuster really wanted to be able to have the book on the spring 2008 list, rather than spring 2009, so I stopped in the middle of Palace of Mirrors, threw myself into Found, wrote furiously and obsessively for a couple months, and had a draft of the manuscript to my editor by mid-March 2007.

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

Once my daughter helped me out, my biggest challenge was just the timing, since I'd agreed to such a tight deadline. That constant sense of urgency probably helped Found, since the kids in the book needed to be stressed out and anxious, too. But lots of other things I should have been taking care of outside the book fell through the cracks for a while.

Also, since I was dealing with a type of science fiction that lots of other writers have written, I agonized about how to be original without completely disregarding certain standard conventions (not to mention, accepted scientific thought). I read a couple of research books that tied my brain in knots, and I consulted with my younger brother, who's read a much greater range of science fiction than I have. And I decided that, right or wrong, I had some very strong opinions about how I wanted to set up my fictional world.

Another challenge I had early on was with one of my characters, Katherine, who originally wasn't supposed to be a very major part of the book. But it was like she kept standing there at my elbow, needling me: "Hey, you really need me in this scene, too. You don't think Jonah and Chip can handle this by themselves, do you? I'm going in, whether you want me to or not." Eventually I stopped fighting her and realized she was right: I did need her a lot more than I'd thought.

Could you update us on your earlier books, highlighting as you see fit?

There are 21 of them--I feel a little like a grandmother with lots of grandkids trying to restrain herself from pulling out the whole wallet full of pictures. One thing that makes it hard to talk about my books collectively, in any cohesive manner, is that they range from early chapter books to middle grade fiction up through YAs--and they cover a range of types of books as well.

My second-newest-book, Uprising (Simon & Schuster 2007) was a foray into straight historical fiction, which was a little different for me. That book is set in the early 1900s, and deals with a few events that changed history, including the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the first major American strike that mainly involved females. I found all the research fascinating, but it was challenging putting everything together.

As far as news about the other books goes, several of my earliest books (Running Out of Time (1995); Don't You Dare Read This, Mrs. Dunphrey (1996); Leaving Fishers, (1997); Just Ella (1999); and Turnabout (2000), all with Simon & Schuster) have now been re-issued with new paperback covers.

Dexter the Tough (Simon & Schuster 2007), my most recent book for younger kids, is coming out in paperback in July.

And Among the Hidden (Simon & Schuster, 1998) has been optioned to be a TV series, although the writers' strike put that notion on hold for a while.

What did the Shadow Children series (Simon & Schuster, 1998-2006) teach you about writing a series?

That I couldn't even pretend to be J.K. Rowling. Among other issues, there's no way I could ever figure out the last line of a seven-book series before I wrote the first book. (Assuming that that story about her writing process is true, I'm in awe.)

I found that, even though my books were closely linked, I could never step back enough to get the giant, overall perspective until the very end. I had to do my plotting on a book-by-book basis, with bursts of panic in between books when I wasn't sure I would be able to make the leap from one to the next. This time around, with The Missing, I'm using a similar technique, but I'm not quite so panicked about it.

How has your writing grown since the early days of your career?

I'd like to think I've become a better writer over the years, but I'm not sure if that's true or not. It's a little hard for me to judge.

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were beginning writer, what advice would you offer?

In college, I really needed someone to tell me, "Stop spending so much time wondering whether you're a journalist or a fiction writer. It's all writing! You're a writer! Just write!"

After that, I would have appreciated hearing my future self tell me, "It's all going to work out. You'll have your books published. Everything will be fine. Don't get so upset."

But if I'd known then that everything was going to work out, I'm not sure that I would have tried so hard. Even now, I'm highly motivated by fear of failure. Maybe I need that.

How about advice for speculative fiction writers in general?

I think the key to writing speculative fiction is that you have to have the courage of your convictions--or, in this case, the courage of your speculations.

If you're going to write about what it's like, say, for a girl to find out that she's the clone of her dead sister, or that a teenager has her parents' memories implanted in her brain, or that two old ladies can un-age back to their teenage selves, or whatever your speculation is, then you have to first convince yourself that it's not only possible--it's true. It happened. No reader is ever going to believe you if you don't believe yourself.

But, really, that's true of any fiction. The willing suspension of disbelief has to begin with the author. To write fiction you have to believe fervently that there's a deep truth embedded in your story, even though you know--because you're not completely insane--that you're making the whole thing up.

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

Mostly not very well.

In the early years, when my kids were small, I did very, very little in the way of presentations and author visits and book signings and other promotions, because I didn't feel that I could be away from home very often. This gave me something of a reprieve, because then I could focus on writing the next book, rather than constantly wondering, "Should I be writing something new right now or should I be out promoting the book that just came out?" (Instead, my dilemmas were more along the lines of, "I was up all night with my baby--can I manage to stay awake to write during my kids' nap time, or should I take a nap myself?")

Now that my kids are older, I have started traveling more to promote my books, and I enjoy both the travel and the chance to meet new people. But I still feel torn about finding the right balance.

There are other things I've neglected that I can't blame on my kids. It's embarrassing how many times over the past decade or so I've said, "I'll put together a website after I finish writing this book." And then I'd finish that book, and feel compelled to start immediately on a new one, instead of working on the website. It finally got too humiliating to constantly tell people, "No, I don't have a website," so I am launching one this spring, to coincide with the release of Found. It's www.haddixbooks.com.

Do you have a critique group? If not, who are your early readers?

For a long time I was jealous of other writers who would talk about how closely they worked with their critique groups. But for so many years, when my kids were little, I felt like I had time enough to write or I had time enough to talk with other writers about writing--I just couldn't do both. So I chose the writing.

About a year ago, one of my friends invited me to join a writing group, and I've greatly enjoyed it from a social angle--it's somewhat reminiscent of having co-workers. But it seems to be a little late for me to change my writing habits and build in that extra time to get feedback.

Since my kids are now within the target ages for many of my books, sometimes I've consulted with them, or sometimes with other relatives or friends who have a reason to be knowledgeable about or interested in that particular book.

But typically my editor and/or agent are the first to see my work. I've been lucky enough to work with the same editor on every one of my books—David Gale, at Simon & Schuster--and my agent, Tracey Adams (agent interview), has represented me for about a decade now. So they've undoubtedly seen some of the worst writing I'm capable of, and have somehow managed to forgive me for it.

What do you do when you're not writing?

It seems like a huge chunk of my time is spent driving my kids around, but my daughter assures me that that will all change when she gets her license at the end of the year. She also promises to run to the grocery for me, return library books, and take her younger brother wherever he needs to go. So then I'll have loads of time on my hands--to be spent worrying about her, out on the roads among all those other careless drivers...

Okay. Enough of the mom angst.

A lot of my time is taken up with family-related and kid-related activities. I used to volunteer quite a bit at my kids' schools, but that's tapered off as my kids have gotten older.

My husband and I teach fifth-grade Sunday school at our church, which is always entertaining and often educational (for us, anyway). I serve on the board of a group that tries to prevent people from becoming homeless, and sometimes do volunteer work at a homeless shelter or tutoring kids.

I can be a little bit of an exercise junkie: I swim laps a couple of times a week, and try to walk every day. I like to hike and bicycle, too, but don't usually do much of that except on vacations.

I enjoy traveling a lot, and do quite a bit of it with family and friends.

And, of course, I still love to read.

What can your fans look forward to next?

After Found, the next book I have coming out is a companion book to Just Ella (Simon & Schuster, 1999) called The Palace of Mirrors. (This is the one that Found interrupted.)

I stop short of calling it a sequel because, although Ella plays an important role in the book, she's not the main character, and it's very much another girl's tale. Plus, it sounds really pathetic if I say it took me nine years to get around to writing a sequel. But nine years between companion books--that doesn't seem so bad.

After that, the second Missing book, Sent, will come out next spring. And right now I'm working on the book that will probably come out in fall 2009. I'm playing around with a couple different possible titles—at the moment, the leading contenders are "Claim to Fame" and "Has Been."
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