Monday, August 31, 2009

Author Interview: Nancy Bo Flood on Sand to Stone and Back Again

Learn about author-educator Nancy Bo Flood.

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

My path to publication has been a stumble-bumble path with an occasional sprint.

At first I dived right in and wrote novels. After several long manuscripts and no publication success, I paused and thought about what I needed to learn.

I signed up for writing courses (online, in "live" classrooms, and by correspondence) and attended workshops offered by local colleges and SCBWI. I wrote shorter pieces, fiction, and nonfiction. What a thrill it was to receive my first "yes" letter from an editor and then see my words in print (two years later).

I read all the children's books I could get my hands on--books recommended by librarians, teachers or award-winning books. I studied and analyzed them.

One personal writing goal was to have a piece printed in Cricket magazine, a favorite of my children's, and me, too. "One Hundred Coconuts and a Top Hat" was published and won several awards, including an SCBWI magazine merit award.

My first publishing success with articles and with books began with nonfiction. I recommend to every writer, consider writing nonfiction as well as fiction. Enjoy the challenge of taking a topic, such as rocks or hoo-doos, and use every creative writing skill to distill information and keep the wonder of Wow.

Could you update us on your back list, highlighting as you see fit?

The stories people tell have always fascinated me. Wherever I am, I search for the storytellers.

While living on a tropical island in the western Pacific, surrounded by white-sand beaches, coconut palms clattering in the sea breezes, and a few hermit crabs crawling over my toes, I listened to the people's stories. Sometimes they were told through dance, sometimes with masks, tattoos, or wood carvings. I tried to capture the heart of the stories and tell them together with cultural and historical information that gives meaning.

For example, in Pacific Island Legends (Bess Press, 1999), in a Yapese story, the clam sits. Through several chapters. The clam sits until page four, and then the clam is no longer present. For Western readers, a sitting clam may not be very meaningful, but for the island storytellers, this is a key element in the story. Cultural explanation is needed.

Marianas Island Legends I am especially happy about. I was the collector, the listener. The stories, poems and legends--fiction and nonfiction--were written or told to me by children, students, adults and seniors. To listen, record, listen again to corrections and elaborations, and weave the voices into one collection was a gift--mine to pass on as best I could.

Congratulations on the release of Sand to Stone and Back Again, illustrated by Tony Kuyper (Fulcrum, 2009). In your own words, could you tell us about the book?

This book broke all the rules. Tony Kuyper is a pharmacist at the clinic where my husband works. Tony is as particular and passionate about the magic of red rock and sunlight as he is about medicines.

On one of many outings, before dawn, we climbed into his old white pickup truck, sat knees to chin, squeezed between photographic equipment and bounced over a maze of sandy roads to a particular arch in order to catch the light on the rock exactly at the right angle at the first moment of sunrise, this month, this season….and as we waited for the sun to appear, Tony said, "Would you write a book for children about rock formations--a book we could create together, your words, my pictures?"

"Nope,” I said, "I don’t know anything about geology."

But the idea wouldn’t get out of my head. So I read over 100 books about geology, sedimentary rocks, igneous, etc. and struggled with concepts that kept spilling into thousands of mangled words until, ah-ha, the amazing idea I finally discovered is that rock changes.

Rock changes, just like you do, just like every child does. Rock changes…all the time and cycles back to sand.

Five years later, including revisions with Ellen Howard at Vermont College digging for that golden through line--voilá--Sand to Stone and Back Again.

What was your initial inspiration for writing the book?

Watching the sun’s light transform a sandstone arch--an arch bigger than a city bridge--into a blazing orange wall of color. Underneath the arch, walls of sandstone plunged straight down for a thousand feet. How could I bring that moment, that majesty, to a child?

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

About five years--not constantly revising but re-thinking. Sending out manuscripts, reviewing the reasons for rejection, rewriting, researching who might be interested, not giving up.

One day I remembered, Fulcrum Publishers out of Colorado does kids books, is interested in the southwest and science, maybe….

I sent the manuscript and one week later the publisher called on his Blackberry.

I thought it was some kind of joke at first. An editor doesn't call on a Blackberry to a place where I had to stand on top of a dune to get cell-phone reception. I happened to be walking my dog, standing on a dune, and then staring at the words coming out of my cell phone.

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

The challenge was two-fold, how to convey the wonder of the desert landscape, the ghoulish and mystical geological formations, with meaning to kids who aren’t naturally interested in "landscape." How could I find a story line that made sense to a five-year-old?

Then I realized that both sandstone and children have a life cycle, from birth to death. I had my story.

Then I needed to write the story and maintain scientific integrity and accuracy. No taking liberties with science.

What did Tony Kuyper's illustrations bring to your text?

Everything. Stunning photographs that somehow capture the mystery, the majesty.


[Tony's "Walking Above the Wormhole" is reproduced above with permission.]

The slim text could not hold all the information so I persuaded the editor to include a glossary--an engaging glossary with pictures and descriptions that intrigue. The editor and designer created a seamless weaving of photographs, text, and concepts from cover to glossary.

There's been a lot of talk about the ups-and-downs of the picture book market, but you've found success. What insights do you have to share on this front?

Be stubborn. Hold onto your passions. Look for solutions, rewrite. Celebrate the real world as well as creating fictional worlds. Continue to be stubborn.

When you believe in what you are writing, keep searching for "how to make the manuscript better, clearer, with a more compelling story," even if you are writing about mold.

For example, my current challenge is finding a publisher for a book about fungi--from mushrooms to mold--the ultimate recyclers.

As I re-write, I continue to search for a publisher with interests in this topic. Never overlook smaller regional publishers with niche markets, especially if that happens to also be your niche.

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

Go back to school, in other words, seek ways to continue to learn the craft. Writing is a life-long learning process. Attend workshops, retreats and, if possible, plunge in and begin a low-residency MFA Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults program.

Develop your writing community, this may include critique groups, online or "in person," join professional organizations such as SCBWI; read and comment on writing/ literature blogs.

Get a sense of the people, the profession, the art, and the business. Read all types of children's books. Write, keep learning, re-writing.

What do you do when you're not writing?

Teaching, baking cookies (I'm the cookie-mama), writing letters, walking with my husband, my dog, my children, or alone.

How do you balance writing and promotion?

I don’t. My life gets lopsided all the time.

What other hats do you wear in the book world? How do these inform your craft?

I teach and continually learn from my students, everything from technical skills to new books/e-books graphic novels, new perspectives, and new insights.

I work with our Reservation library to develop resources through grants and donations (Books! We need books).

Politically, I voice my concerns as a member of the International Reading Association. I have been inspired by the work of others regarding multicultural issues and the need for books about and by contemporary Native Americans.

A special interest of mine is early literacy. I serve on the Arizona board of Reach Out and Read to bring books and literacy awareness to new families so babies have books being read to them.

What can your fans look forward to next?

Warriors Caught in the Crossfire. I am so excited. Shall I admit that I have been working on this book for ten years?

This young-adult novel tells the story of a Pacific Islander trying to survive as the American military attack and invade his island, Saipan. He and his family are caught in the crossfire between the Americans and Japanese. The book will become a reality this coming year, 2010, published by Front Street-Boyds Mills Press.

Is there anything you'd like to add?

As a psychologist, I observed that children worked through trauma by "re-playing" events through dolls, puppets, drawings, drama. They tell their story--over and over. Sometimes they would find the very story they needed in a book and ask to have it read again and again.

I observed the power of story and realized that is what we do, as children and as adults. In every culture, in many different ways--through dance, sand painting, song, chants, movies, plays, paintings--and books.

Story is a powerful way to build compassion and bridge understanding between cultures and between generations. Story has the power to entertain but more profoundly, to teach and to heal.

I wanted to create those stories.

Cynsational Notes

Nancy Bo Flood holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Minnesota and an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College. She worked for many years as a child and family counselor and currently teaches college classes in Child Development and Psychology.

Nancy has lived and worked in many parts of the world--the U.S. Midwest, mountain West and desert Southwest, Hawaii, Japan, Africa, Haiti, Samoa, and Saipan. These places and people have formed her stories.

Nancy is the author of several collections of retold stories from the Pacific (From the Mouth of the Monster Eel, Pacific Island Legends, Marianas Island Legends, Micronesian Legends), a child counseling handbook (The Counseling Handbook), a book for parents of premature infants (Born Early), a children's book on school fears (I'll Go To School, If….), a children's book about the Navajo calendar (The Navajo Year: Walk Through Many Seasons, awarded the Children's Choice and Arizona Book Award).

Sand to Stone and Back Again, is her first collaboration with photographer Tony Kuyper.

Nancy lives with her pediatrician-husband on the Navajo Reservation in Northern Arizona.

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