Monday, April 07, 2008

Author Interview: Deborah Lynn Jacobs on Choices

Deborah Lynn Jacobs is the author of three books for young people. Visit Deborah at MySpace, and read her LJ!

The Same Difference (Royal Fireworks Press, 2000) is about a girl with Asperger's Syndrome, and her struggle for identity and self-acceptance.

Powers (Roaring Brook, 2006)(author interview) explores the various aspects of power from the multiple viewpoints of two teens who develop very special abilities. Too bad they nearly destroy each other before they come to terms with their powers. Powers has just been released this spring (2008) as a paperback. Powers was nominated as a Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, was a Sunburst Award honorable mention, and is on the Wisconsin AR list.

Choices (Roaring Brook, 2007) follows Kathleen as she shifts between alternate realities, trying to find a world in which her brother is still alive. It’s a quick read, with plot twists and turns, and a touch of romance. Choices is an ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, and received a starred review from Kirkus.

Debbie is an avid reader, a somewhat rabid gardener (meaning she gets a little crazy this time of year, when everything bursts into bloom) and a sane mother and wife. (Mostly sane. Most days.)

We last spoke in March 2007 about the release of Powers (Roaring Brook, 2006). Do you have any updates to share related to that title?

Yes! Powers was released in paperback on April 1 (2008.) I'm very excited about that, as it has a new cover and will be more affordable for teen readers.

Also, Powers received an honorable mention by the Sunburst Awards Committee. The Sunburst is a juried Canadian award, given for outstanding speculative fiction novels. Speculative fiction can include science fiction, fantasy, horror, magic realism or surrealism.

Congratulations on the release of Choices (Roaring Brook, 2007)! Could you tell us a little about this new title?

On one level, Choices is about Kathleen, a seventeen-year-old whose life fractures after the death of her brother. At first, Kathleen thinks she is suffering post traumatic stress, or perhaps multiple personalities. Her world becomes unpredictable, changing from one day to the next. Today, her hair is shoulder length and brown. Tomorrow, it's two inches high, spiked, and blue.

When she meets Luke, who introduces himself as her brother's friend, she is offered an alternate, mind-blowing possibility—she is shifting between alternate universes. Each choice she makes causes her reality to split, leading to infinite “Kathleens” living out an infinite number of lives.

On another level, Choices is about love—love for your sibling, love for your parents, and love for that one person who helps you make sense of your life.

Choices is on the 2007 ALA Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers list.

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

I have trouble answering this one, since I'm not a good record keeper. From what I can reconstruct, it took about a year to write Choices. I had a workable draft, labeled Choices 10, by Feb. 2005. The "ten" indicates it was my tenth draft.

I took this draft to a novel revision workshop in April 2005. This SCBWI-WI sponsored weekend featured Darcy Pattison (author interview) as the workshop leader.

I revised, and sent it to my critique group. (Either that or I sent it to my critique group before the novel revision workshop—I can’t remember!)

After another revision, I sent it to my agent (Steven Chudney (agent interview)) and my editor at Roaring Brook, Deborah Brodie. I believe Deborah and I did three more revisions, but the last two were fairly minor. Choices was released in September 2007.

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

There were two challenges. One was to keep the timelines accurate. I had to know what was going on in each universe, even when Kathleen wasn't "there." I had a big flow chart, which started the night Kathleen's brother died, and ended up splitting into eight universes. I didn't write about each of those eight universes, but I had to know what was going on as the result of each choice Kathleen made.

The second challenge was to blend quantum mechanics theory into the narrative without boring the reader. There was one scene, which I labeled "the omelet scene," where I had to balance quantum mechanics theory, Kathleen's attraction to Luke, and Kathleen's suspicion of Luke. I spent at least two weeks revising that scene.

I kept sending new versions to my editor, who would write back saying, "better, but not quite there yet." Finally, we came up with something that satisfied us.

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

Don't expect your road to publication to be fast or easy. It can take years to bring your writing to publishable standards. I'd recommend being part of a critique group, especially a small online group where you critique whole manuscripts at once. If one critique group doesn't work for you, join another, or form your own. It can take time to find the right combination of people, but when you do, it's magic.

I also recommend reading books about the craft of writing, and joining SCBWI. Through SCBWI, you can find a critique group, attend both local and national conferences, use all the resources on their website, and bring your writing to a more professional level.

What would you say on the topic of writing young adult fiction?

I love writing young adult fiction! At the age I write for, 12 to 18 or so, there is so much emotional and intellectual growth. Unlike a child, who accepts what they are told, a teen begins to question everything—what their teachers and parents tell them, authority in all its forms, including government, right and wrong, justice…even the ultimate questions of what is reality, is there a God, and why are we here? It's such an exciting time, but confusing as well.

I love writing novels that challenge readers to entertain new ideas—what if teens developed powers, what if multiple universe theory is real? It's so exciting to think that my "what if?" will unlock something in the mind of a questioning teen.

I love reading young adult fiction because it is generally so well crafted, and because it explores universal and important themes.

What recent books would you suggest for study and why?

For "how to" books, I recommend anything in the Writer's Digest Series, especially any written by Nancy Kress.

About books similar to my genre, I’d suggest any books by Stephenie Meyer (author interview), Scott Westerfeld (author interview), Neal Shusterman, Gail Giles (author interview)…

And on fantasy specifically?

You’ve got me there! Although my books are often called fantasy, I don’t agree. I prefer "speculative fiction," which is a term that comes into favor and goes out of favor about every decade. Speculative fiction is the "what if" story, and can include fantasy, science fiction, magical realism, horror, supernatural, paranormal, etc. When I think fantasy, I think "high fantasy," with wizards, invented languages, orcs, trolls and so on.

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

Badly. (Big grin.)

I have trouble juggling it all. I guess that isn't uncommon. What I try to do is keep to a schedule—one hour to check and respond to email, one hour to do marketing/promotional stuff (such as setting up school or library visits, posting on MySpace or LiveJournal) and four or five hours of writing.

Of course, if I'm caught up in writing, I let the other stuff slip. And, if I have a month with more appearances/visits, I’ll do less writing.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I've written a new novel. I'm very excited about it, but don’t like to jinx it by talking about it too soon!

Friday, April 04, 2008

"The School Librarian" by J. Patrick Lewis

"The School Librarian"


A sign hangs on her door,
BOOKLYN, NEW YORK
WE OPEN UP A MIND
YOU'LL NEVER CLOSE!
When you walk in, the whole library knows—

A welcome bell hums like a tuning fork.

She'll tell you what to read and what to skip.

You name a book; she heads right to the shelf.

The rumor is she’s read them all herself.

No one has ever run a tighter ship.

These days, a job like hers is electronic

Because computers answer every need.

Librarians belong to a new breed.

But here at Booklyn, isn't it ironic?

She still treats books like they are dreams come true.

And you had better treat them that way, too.

Cynsational Notes

School Librarian Day is April 4.

"The School Librarian" is offered with permission from children's author and poet J. Patrick Lewis.

From Candlewick Press: "J. Patrick Lewis has written many books for children, including The Last Resort, illustrated by Roberto Innocenti, which was a New York Times Book Review Best Illustrated Children's Book of the Year, and Arithme-Tickle: An Even Number of Odd Riddle-Rhymes, illustrated by Frank Remkiewicz. Of Once Upon a Tomb (Candlewick, 2006), he says, 'The dead can be very funny. Some of their best one-liners are written in stone.'"

Cynsational News & Links

Interview: D. Anne Love on Defying the Diva from Little Willow at Slayground. Here's a sneak peek [on how publishing has changed in the past decade]: "It has become more competitive, but also more open to edgier and more challenging themes. There was a time when Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War and Katherine Patterson's Jacob Have I Loved were considered "out there." Now we have authors tackling the subjects of sexuality and sexual identity, date rape, and other difficult topics. This new freedom is good for authors and good for readers, too." Read a Cynsations interview with D. Anne.

Question of the Week Thursday: Mitali Perkins. Robin Friedman asks: "How Does Your Background Inform Your Writing?" Read a Cynsations interview with Robin.

Interview with E. Lockhart from Debbi Michiko Florence. Here's a sneak peek: "Most of my books stem from anger or outrage about something. In this case, I was thinking about the old boys network that still operates and determines power in the world, despite our egalitarian values." Read a Cynsations interview with E.

On Word Counts and Novel Length from the Swivet. Here's a sneak peek: "YA fiction=Can be anywhere from about 50k to 80k; sometimes-but rarely-goes above 90k." Source: Gwenda Bond at Shaken & Stirred.

Kathryn Erskine: official author site. Kathryn's latest release is Quaking (Philomel, 2007)(excerpt). From the promotional copy: "After years of being batted around, fourteen year old Matt has learned to rely on herself at school and everywhere. Biology is good. I am an expert. We are studying morphing, but I have already morphed. I have my own exoskeleton... I have spent years developing my armor and I will not let it be pierced. She must call on all of her resources to handle Mr. Warhead, the Rat, and the Wall at her new school, not to mention the Beast in her head. But somehow it is even more difficult to cope with the warm Quaker family, her 'last chance,' who has taken her in. Why does Jessica insist on acting like a mom, for God's sake? Why can't their little boy with his gack covered fingers just leave her alone? And why does Sam have to care about her--and everything--so much? Doesn't he realize that only gets you hurt? And even though Matt knows that pain very well, why is she finally letting down her armor and allowing herself to care?"

Rutgers One-on-One: "A Unique Program for Authors and Illustrators of Children's Books Sponsored by the Rutgers University Council on Children's Literature." Note: The next One-on-One Plus Conference will be Oct. 18.

P. J. Lynch Gallery: the Dublin-based illustrator "has won many awards including the Mother Goose Award, the Christopher Medal three times, and the prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal on two occasions, first for The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski, and again for When Jessie Came Across the Sea by Amy Hest." Site features bio, books, other work (posters, murals, stamps), and store. See also the P. J. Lynch Gallery blog.

Check out the book trailer (below) for Chess Rumble by G. Neri, illustrated by Jesse Joshua Watson (Lee & Low, 2007). From the promotional copy: "A story in free verse about a troubled boy who learns to use his mind instead of his fists through the guidance of an unconventional mentor and the game of chess." Source: Melissa.



Heather Brewer is giving away three paperback copies of Eighth Grade Bites (Dutton, 2007)(excerpt))! Learn how to enter. Deadline: May 1.

Sketchy Words: "Professional artist and writer indulges herself and hopes you will, too." A new blog from Janie Bynum, who says, "I will post snippets, thoughts, sketches and other gibberish pertaining to the world of art and publishing." Read a Cynsations interview with Janie. See also Bynum Creative: Design, Illustration, Photo, Fine Art.

Greg R. Fishbone is requests feedback on his Survey: Author/Illustrator Websites. Please surf over and help him out! Read a Cynsations interview with Greg.

Writing and Selling the YA Novel by K.L. Going (Writer's Digest, 2008). Here's an excerpt: "When you watch the world around you, keep an eye out for conflict and tension. Part of what appealed to me about that particular news story was that the teens were meeting with resistance from the school board and people in their town. This intrigued me. I wanted to know how they would handle the opposition and how the situation would get resolved. Conflict makes for great stories, and although we wish it didn’t exist, it’s everywhere." Read a Cynsations interview with K.L.

Meredith Wood offers a thoughtful review of Lessons from a Dead Girl by Jo Knowles (Candlewick, 20007). Read a Cynsations interview with Jo.

Debut Author of the Month: Jody Feldman from Alice's CWIM Blog. Here's a sneak peek: "True revision means being brave enough to imagine your story could possibly be different than when you first conceived it." Read a Cynsations interview with Jody.

XRR Book Reviews: "innovative, enticing, and engaging. (I'm tooting my own horn here, by the way. Take it with a grain of salt :)) Why? Because it's got reviews of awesome (and not so awesome) books written in a straightforward but still somewhat charismatic and flamboyant style. It's not a place to dis all books, and it's not a place to rave about all books. It's a place to tell it like it is." Note: see information on submitting books for review and requesting an author interview.


The Children's Writer Guide to 2008 is now available. It packs hundreds and hundreds of shrewd insider tips, market-tested strategies, and pointed insights from more than 250 leading editors, publishers, and authors in the children's field." Note: check out my quotes in Chris Eboch's article on horror and ghost stories.

René Saldaña, Jr.: a blog from the YA author of The Whole Sky Full of Stars (Wendy Lamb, 2007); Finding Out Way (Wendy Lamb, 2003); and The Jumping Tree (Delacorte, 2001). Note: "Originally from Nuevo Peñitas in South Texas (a suburb of Peñitas Viejo)," René now lives in Lubbock and teaches at Texas Tech University (in their College of Education).

Agent Lauren MacLeod of The Strothman Agency, LLC in Boston has declared a YA specialty at the agency and is actively looking to acquire YA writers (both fiction and non-fiction). See submissions guidelines.

Congratulations to Sylvia Vardell on the release of Children's Literature in Action: A Librarian's Guide (Libraries Unlimited, 2008)! Sylvia says: "It’s intended to help the new librarian or library media specialist become knowledgeable about the field of children’s literature in preparation for guiding young people, ages 5-12, in their reading. It provides practical ideas for generating interest in reading, strategies for connecting with the school curriculum, and guidance for reaching out to families and the wider community through children’s literature." Don't miss: Authors in Action (written by Pat Mora, Seymour Simon, Janet Wong (author interview), Kristine O’Connell George, Laurence Yep, T. A. Barron, Cynthia Leitich Smith, and Ashley Bryan). Read a Cynsations interview with Sylvia.

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.

Check out the latest book giveaway contests at Teens Read Too!

"Triple the Query Critique, Triple the Fun:" agent Nathan Bransford of Curtis Brown looks at query letters for three YA fantasies and chimes in on what works, what doesn't, and why. Read a Cynsations interview with Nathan.

Congratulations to Lee Bennett Hopkins on the release of America at War, illustrated by Stephen Alcorn (Simon & Schuster, 2008). Note: excerpt includes double-page interior illustration and poems by Brenda Powelson-Vick, Cynthia Cotten (author interview), and Rebecca Kai Dotlich.

Reminder: Austin SCBWI offers a great line-up for its April 26 conference. Speakers include: author and editor Deborah Noyes Wayshak from Candlewick Press (author-editor interview); Alvina Ling from Little Brown (personal blog); agent Erin Murphy (interview from Olswanger.com)(interview by Pam Mingle from Kite Tales, Rocky Mountain chapter, SCBWI); artist's agent Christina Tugeau; and writing professor Peter Jacobi. See details at Austin SCBWI. Note: I hope to see you there!

Calendar this for April 17 from readergirlz! Read a Cynsations interview with the readergirlz divas.

How Do You Celebrate a Sale? from Mindy Alyse Weiss. Note: highlighting as a reminder to celebrate, celebrate, celebrate good news! Writing for publication has its lows. Make the highs something to remember!

Agent Query: the Internet's largest and most current database of literary agents. Source: Mindy Alyse Weiss.

More Personally

An excerpt of Jingle Dancer, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (Morrow, 2000), will soon (if not already) be featured at the Office of Indian Education's Teacher-to-Teacher website. See a featured illustration from Jingle Dancer!

Thank you to Devona Carpenter, youth programmer of Austin Public Library, and everyone at Gardner Betts Juvenile Detention Center for their hospitality this morning! In conjunction with Second Chance Books, Greg and I spoke to two groups--the first made up of about 70 kids who're awaiting the next step in the legal process, and the second made up of about 15 girls who're longer-term residents. "Second Chance Books is an award-winning collaboration between the Austin Public Library and the Gardner Betts Juvenile Detention Center. The collaboration began in 2003 and has become an invaluable resource to the incarcerated youth at Gardner Betts. Incarceration is not pleasant, but through the work of Gardner Betts teachers and Austin Public Library librarians, incarcerated youth are provided with books that they would like to read either for pleasure, personal growth, or both." See "Program uses literature to change lives in juvenile center: Second Chance Books a success as accolades, grants keep rolling in" by Reggie Ugwu from The Daily Texan.

Also, I have a query for the cumulative brain: if you know how to be hired as a translator by a publisher, will you please email me with that information. A fellow Cynsational reader is seeking information. Thanks!

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Editor Interview: Sheila Barry on Kids Can Press

Sheila Barry on Sheila Barry:

The Personal

"I am 44 years old, and I live in Toronto with my husband, our daughter, our cat, and some fish."

The Professional

"I have worked in publishing for sixteen years. I have been editor-in-chief at Kids Can Press for almost five years, and I still wake up many mornings excited to go to work."

Kids Can Press (KCP) is a children's book publishing company in Toronto, Ontario. It was founded in 1973.

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

I devoured books as a child, mostly looking for material to fuel my incredibly active fantasy life. Stories about orphans or boarding schools (or even better, orphans in boarding schools) were my favorites.

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

I started my publishing career as a production editor working on college textbooks. I learned a great deal about editing and budgets and the production process (and of course, since this was my first real office job, I learned how to get along with difficult people without becoming one myself), but I realized after a few years that once you have worked on 50 books that are mostly text with maybe a graph or photo here and there, there really isn't much left to learn.

And then, I discovered illustrated books and a whole new world of complexity and beauty. Children's books are so much richer than other printed materials--you never have that "been there; done that" feeling. And you get to work with the most wonderful, talented, creative and committed people.

What challenges and opportunities did you encounter at KCP?

Kids Can Press is a wonderful place to work, but it's hard to get rich working anywhere in children's publishing. And often the projects we are most excited about are the hardest to make work from a financial perspective. Still, we persevere, and by and large, we are pretty proud of what we do.

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

Every season, we aim to publish innovative picture books (Mr. Maxwell's Mouse by Frank and Devin Asch and Alphabeasts by Wallace Edwards (author interview) are good examples of the breadth of our picture book list); non-fiction that opens up the world for children (for example, If the World Were a Village, written by David Smith and illustrated by Shelagh Armstrong); and fiction that delights and entertains (The Strictest School in the World by Howard Whitehouse is just wonderful fun).

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

Melanie Watt's Scaredy Squirrel (author-illustrator interview), the tale of a little squirrel who is neurotically afraid to leave his nut tree, is original, witty, visually stimulating, and emotionally satisfying--everything a picture book should be.

One Hen, written by Katie Smith Milway and illustrated by Eugenie Fernandes, shows that there is no subject you can't make accessible for children. This non-fiction title describes the transformative potential of micro-loans through the true story of a young boy in Africa who receives a small amount of money--just enough to buy one hen--and manages over the course of the book to provide food for his family, go to school, and eventually use his knowledge and hard work to help his entire community.

Exploits of a Reluctant (But Extremely Goodlooking) Hero by Maureen Fergus is a funny and irreverent novel, perhaps even a bit tasteless at times. It's the story of a boy with no redeeming qualities who, by the end of the book, shows barely a glimmer of a moral sense.

Which would you recommend to writers for study and why?

Picture-book writing seems to me to be one of the highest art forms. A good picture book is like a poem (and sometimes it really is a poem) in its use of language distilled to a pure essence. Some of my favorite Kids Can Press picture book texts are: Bella and the Bunny, written by Andrew Larsen and illustrated by Kate Endle; Stanley's Party, written by Linda Bailey and illustrated by Bill Slavin; and Rosie and Buttercup, written by Chieri Uegaki and illustrated by Stephane Jorisch.

In each of these books, the beautifully told narratives employ a full range of emotions, from joy to despair and back to joy again--although in the case of Stanley's Party, about a canine house party gone wrong, the emotional range is that of a dog rather than a human. I think a writer could learn a great deal from any of these books about story structure and how to craft a sentence.

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

As editor-in-chief, it's my job to make sure we have books on our list each season--and ideally, they will be the right mix of books, the right balance of picture books, non-fiction and fiction, the right ratio of riskier titles to safer titles. I do this by working with our publisher and our editors to decide which projects we should focus on, which ones we should drop and which ones we should attempt to contract.

I also do some hands-on editing myself each season, which is a welcome break in a workday that could otherwise be consumed by emails and meetings.

What are your challenges?

The hardest part of my job is having to say "no" so many times in a day or week. We turn down far more manuscripts than we publish (we probably reject 100 manuscripts for every one we accept), and I write more rejection letters than I can count.

Many of the projects we turn down are perfectly publishable, but they just aren't exactly right at this particular moment for Kids Can Press, and it can be hard to keep finding ways to say: "We like your work, but we don't like it quite enough to contract." I'm almost always impressed by the graciousness of the people I turn down. But I still don't enjoy doing it.

What do you love about it?

The three things I love most about my job are: 1. My coworkers, who are smart and funny and creative. 2. Our creators, who are also smart, funny and creative, even if some of them aren't always punctual. 3. Our books, which I love to share with children I know, and which I love to imagine being enjoyed by children I will never have the chance to meet.

How has publishing changed--for better and worse--since you entered the field?

Advances in technology mean that a lot more illustrators are producing their work digitally. Their work isn't better or worse than conventional illustration, but it is different.

The other big change I've seen in children's publishing over the last decade or so is that production values are consistently much higher. Again, because of changes in technology, it is possible to make books that are much more heavily designed, and it is possible to print more and more four-color titles.

Only twenty years ago, most non-fiction for children was visually a bit on the dull side, with fewer illustrations and only one or two colors on the page.

Now, almost everything, with the exception of fiction, is four color, and there are more and more visually stunning books published each year.

Every now and then I get a bit nostalgic for the days of simple black line art, but for the most part, I think the quality of children's books is higher now than it has ever been.

Do you have any thoughts on the state of youth literature publishing in Canada? How about around the world?

There is an enormous number of books being published each year for children (and for adults), both in Canada and around the world. I hesitate to say there are too many books out there, but it certainly is a challenge for small, independent publishers like Kids Can Press to make sure their books get noticed and their authors and illustrators get the attention (and the sales) that they deserve.

What qualities do you look for in a manuscript?

This is one of the hardest questions to answer, but of course it is a question that gets asked a lot. I guess that I look for a manuscript that surprises or enlightens me in some way. It is true that there are no new stories out there to be told, but it is also true that there are always new ways to tell a story. So I look for freshness, for originality of thought, for something in the use of language, whether it's in the voice or in a turn of phrase, that suggests this manuscript was written by someone who really has something new to bring to children's books.

I also look for some evidence that the person writing the manuscript likes children, remembers being a child, and thinks of his or her work as being first and foremost an art or craft--not just a medium for teaching children lessons.

I don't think that the point of children's literature is to teach morals or math or even reading. The point of it is to introduce children to words and images that have come together to create a work of art. So I guess I look for manuscripts that have been written as art, not as teaching tools.

How can writers/illustrators submit their work for consideration?

Our submission guidelines are available on our website--www.kidscanpress.com. We are currently only accepting submissions from Canadian authors and illustrators.

What do you do outside the world of children's and young adult books?

I nap with the kind of commitment that more energetic people might apply to marathon running.

Cynsational Notes

Canadian Society of Children's Authors, Illustrators and Performers (CANSCAIP): "a group of professionals in the field of children's culture with members from all parts of Canada. For over twenty years, CANSCAIP has been instrumental in the support and promotion of children's literature through newsletters, workshops, meetings and other information programs for authors, parents, teachers, librarians, publishers, and others. CANSCAIP also has over 500 friends--teachers, librarians, parents and others --who are also interested in aspects of children's books, illustrations and performances."

SCBWI Canada: see both the Eastern and Western Canada chapters.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

In Memoriam: Marian McTrusty of Cedar Park Public Library

On March 29, I had the honor of visiting with librarian Marian McTrusty and her YA book club at the Cedar Park (TX) Public Library.

The full group of 12 teens, plus an enthusiastic mom, Marian, and I discussed Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001)(Listening Library, 2001). Everyone had read the book ahead of time, enthusiasm was high, and both laughter and thoughtful discussion were abundant.

The event was part of a monthly series of local author visits that Marian had organized. She'd secured grant financing so that, month after month, the participating readers could each receive their own copy of the latest featured book and then have an opportunity to discuss it with the author.

Last Saturday's visit also was the first event to be held in Cedar Park's wonderful new "teen zone" (pictured).

I'm so sorry to report that Marian died unexpectedly the next day.

From the Austin-American Statesman: "After graduating from St. Michaels High School, she attended Austin Community College. She graduated from Texas State and received a Masters in Library Sciences from the Texas Women's University. Marian was a member of St. Vincent de Paul Church. She was also a member of several organizations: Angel Network, Texas Library Association, the National Library Association and was known as 'Miss Marian' by all the children at Cedar Park Library were she served as the children's services librarian. Her greatest loves were all kinds of books, cake decorating, arts and crafts, and shopping." Marian was 35.

Again from the Statesman, "In lieu of flowers; please donate a book to your favorite library in Marian's name."

The Austin area youth literature community and Cedar Park readers have lost a great champion. More personally, I'm thankful that I had the opportunity to work with Marian, putting together her speaker roster. My husband Greg and I visited her library three times in the last two years. She was at my home for the Tantalize launch party. Good memories.

My sympathies to Marian's family, friends, colleagues, and library patrons. I miss her already.

Author Interview: Susan Beth Pfeffer on Life As We Knew It and The Dead and The Gone

Susan Beth Pfeffer on Susan Beth Pfeffer: "In first grade, I wrote Dookie The Cookie and realized right away that I wanted to be a writer. I wrote my first book that got published, Just Morgan, my last semester at NYU and never looked back. I've written a lot of YA, a fair amount of middle grade, a few first chapter books, one picture book and one non-fiction book. I've never had a day job, although I've done the same volunteer work for my friends of the library organization for about fifteen years (once I start on something, I guess I stick with it)." See also an Author Spotlight from Random House.

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

I wrote Just Morgan because I was going to graduate from college with no career skills whatsoever. I'd majored in Film History because I loved movies (I still do). I was taking a course in book publishing, figuring that since I also loved books, I might as well be an editor.

One of the guest lecturers suggested that an approach to getting a job as an editor was to write a book, which, even if it remained unpublished, would be regarded as an accomplishment. I don't know. It made sense at the time.

Anyway, I'd known in seventh grade that the books I was reading were pretty bad and I could do better, so I decided to write a book for seventh graders. Just Morgan was the book I would have wanted to read at age 12 (I was 20 at the time, so my memories were still strong).

My professor read the manuscript, declared it publishable, sent a letter of introduction to a small house that no longer exists, and a few months and one rewrite later, I'd signed a contract and begun my career.

My advance, by the way, was $750.00, $500 on signing and $250 on day of publication, which the house forgot and I had to remind them of.

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

In spite of how easy the first sale was and the excellent reviews the book got, it took me two years to sell my second book. My career has always gone like that, smooth and easy and then tough and nasty, followed by smooth and easy. I would assume most freelancers have something of the same career history (if it's been all smooth and easy, I don't want to hear about it; and if it's been all tough and nasty, I don't want to listen to it).

Congratulations on the success of Life As We Knew It (Harcourt, 2006)(excerpt) and The Dead and The Gone (Harcourt, 2008)(excerpt)(preliminary notes)! Could you tell us about these novels?

After many roller coaster decades, I wrote Life As We Knew It. It's about a sixteen year old girl, Miranda, who happens to keep a diary at a time when the entire world suffers a catastrophe, the likes of which only an aging freelance children's book writer who was very angry about conditions in the United States could imagine. Short version--a meteor knocks the moon a little bit closer to earth and gravity does the rest. Tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes, famine, epidemics. I thought of it as a disaster novel.

Most disaster stories have what I call the leaping-the-lava moment, when the hero must leap over the flowing lava, carrying some small helpless creature (a kid, a heroine) in his stalwart manly arms. I have no ability to write leaping-the-lava scenes, and I was more interested in the domestic response to disaster anyway. How do you do the laundry if there's no running water? So that's what Life As We Knew It focuses on.

The Dead and The Gone is a companion novel to Life As We Knew It. I was intrigued by how everyone else on earth was dealing with this series of nightmares I'd created, so I decided to focus on a character who was about the same age as Miranda, but otherwise very different.

The main character in The Dead and The Gone, Alex, is a lower middle class teenage boy living in New York City. The book starts at the moment the meteor hits the moon and ends a couple of months before Life As We Knew It does.

It was an enormous challenge for me to write from a teenage boy's viewpoint, and I didn't make things easier on myself by having Alex be bilingual (I can barely manage English) and Roman Catholic (I'm Jewish). Knowing I had to stick to the same timeline as Life As We Knew It also made things harder. But in spite of all that, I loved writing it.

I'd written YA novels, most particularly About David (Delacorte a long time ago) and The Year Without Michael (Bantam, also a long time ago) that dealt with how teenage girls coped with devastating tragedies. In About David, David, the heroine's oldest friend, kills his parents and himself. In The Year Without Michael, the heroine's younger brother vanishes without a trace. Both books are family books, since my favorite thing to write about is families (and YAs are a great venue to do so).

Life As We Knew It and The Dead and The Gone are basically extensions of those sorts of stories, only I've upped the ante. Now it isn't just one family or even one community that's suffering from the unthinkable. It's everybody.

You know the cliche--think globally, act locally. I guess that's what I did with Life As We Knew It and The Dead and The Gone.

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

I hope I'm a better writer than I was starting out. I'm certainly a smarter writer. I've always been quick and that hasn't changed, but I do a lot more pre-writing than I used to. The more I know about a story before I begin writing, the happier I am.

Actually the pre-writing is my favorite part of the job. I love making up stories. Writing them down is fun, too. Even rewriting can be fun, when it involves solving a problem. But that first how would this work, would that work better, is what I enjoy most.

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

If I could go back in time and give Early Me some advice, well I'd start with, Eat Fewer Desserts! Which I wouldn't listen to, but it would still be worth the shouting.

Then I'd try to explain to myself that careers change, good times turn bad and bad times turn good. So when the times are good, maybe it might be wise Not To Spend All That Money! And when the times are bad, just hold on, do what you can, and expect changes to come. Because somehow or another, they always do.

How about advice for speculative fiction writers in general?

I don't really have advice for writers of speculative fiction, partly because I hadn't realized I'd written speculative fiction (or sci fi for that matter) until people started writing about Life As We Knew It. I just thought of it as a problem novel with a very big problem. Also a couple of years ago I made a vow to stop giving advice, and while I haven't been 100% successful, I really have cut down on my advice giving, and the world is a better place as a result.

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

I've never had a critique group per se. For a while I was part of a small and wonderful writer's group that met at my house on a regular basis. I hosted, and everyone else read what they'd written. I work really really fast, and if I'd read what I'd done between meetings, no one else would have had a chance.

Now though, I have my blog, and lately I've been blogging about a book that would take place three years after the end of Life As I Know It/The Dead and The Gone. I've been calling it Possible Third Book (or P3B for short), since I'm writing it on spec, with the hope that Harcourt will publish it.

My mother keeps saying, "You're writing this book by committee," and I respond that I've written all my books by committee--a committee of editors and copy editors and whoever else makes suggestions and decisions between first drafts and final publication.

I've loved the back and forth between the blog readers and myself as I try to iron out plot problems. Everyone is supportive and encouraging and not at all reluctant to give advice. Which I may not give, but I'm always happy to receive!

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

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