Thursday, April 12, 2012

New Voice: Lizzie K. Foley on Remarkable

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations 

Lizzie K. Foley is the first-time author of Remarkable (Dial, 2012). From the promotional copy:

A wonderfully whimsical debut that proves ordinary people can do extraordinary things.

In the mountain town of Remarkable, everyone is extraordinarily talented, extraordinarily gifted, or just plain extraordinary. 

Everyone, that is, except Jane Doe, the most average ten-year-old who ever lived. But everything changes when the mischievous, downright criminal Grimlet twins enroll in Jane's school and a strange pirate captain appears in town.

Thus begins a series of adventures that put some of Remarkable's most infamous inhabitants and their long-held secrets in danger. It's up to Jane, in her own modest style, to come to the rescue and prove that she is capable of some rather exceptional things.

With a page-turning mystery and larger-than-life cast of characters, Lizzie K. Foley's debut is nothing short of remarkable.

What were you like as a young reader, and how did that influence the book that you're debuting this year? 

Here’s the deep dark secret about me. I was not a reader as a young kid.

I didn’t learn to read until I was about 8 ½ years old. This may have been from an undiagnosed learning disability, it might have been from some type of issues with my eyesight, or it might have been from something else entirely.

Not being able to read meant that I got held back in kindergarten. And not being able to read meant I wanted nothing to do with books for a while – because I saw reading as a source of shame.

And this was astonishing to my family, which is full of academic-types like teachers, scientists, librarians, etc., who all read all the time.
Lizzy with her eye patch, age 5

But I was really lucky, because I had a grandmother who was an amazing elementary school teacher – and she figured out that the shame of not being able to read was going to be a bigger issue than whatever was keeping me from reading in the first place.

And because of her, my parents took an unusual approach to helping me overcome my inability to read. They just relaxed about it. They got me to relax about it. They let me discover books in whatever ways were comfortable. They took me to the library and let me have the run of it without pressuring me to look at anything. I spent a great deal of my library time playing with globes and watching library filmstrips. My older sister Nancy started reading out loud to me.

Gradually, I got interested in the stories – even if I still wasn’t interested in the books. So instead of reading, I starting playing “story,” which meant I took the characters from book, pretended to be them, and made up new adventures for them to be in.

And then, eventually, something in my brain changed and it changed fast. And I went from being not able to read to reading chapter books in about a week.

My long path from being a non-reader to a reader is a huge part of my debut novel. For starters, I think my inability to read was what first launched me on the road to being a writer. All of those hours I spent “playing story” taught me a lot about creating ways to try to entertain myself – which eventually led to the idea that I could create stories that entertained people other than myself (erm…whether I’ve succeeded in this remains to be seen).

Sandy
Additionally, most of my protagonist’s struggles in the story – her feelings of inadequacy and insecurity – are taken straight out of my own childhood. One of the side effects of not being able to read as a kid is that I had (and still have) a very over-developed sense of all the ways in which I didn’t measure up to the people around me. And this sense of not measuring up was probably strongest when I compared myself to my sisters (who are both absolutely amazing human beings).

Imagining an ordinary girl in a family where she is the only unexceptional person – and who lives in a town where everyone is really quite remarkable – was not all that hard for me.

How did you discover and get to know your protagonist? How about your secondary characters? Your antagonist?

Jane, my main character, came about because I went to listen to a lecture on children’s literature once, and during this lecture, I was told that main characters in children’s books needed to be really heroic and special and could never ever ever ever, without exception, be ordinary. Which – as an ordinary person – made me kind of mad.

So I decided that I would prove that lecturer wrong and write a story with an ordinary main character. But, you know, it was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be – because every main character I thought of turned out to secretly be deeply exceptional.

And after a few attempts, I forgot all about it and went back to writing a story that I was absolutely certain was going to be wonderful and publishable – a book I now think of as “that story I was totally delusional about.”

Anyway, one day right after I finished a draft of that story I was totally delusional about, I suddenly had one of those moments of clarity where I could completely imagine the main character for my children’s book. It was a girl – a deeply ordinary girl – who was living in a town where everyone else was super special. And the town would be named Remarkable. And the girl would not discover some secret talent by the end of the story. Instead, she’d learn she liked being ordinary.

And because I am sometimes slow on the uptake, it took me a while to realize that the character I was writing about was me as a child.

 No one else was fooled though. Every time I told someone I was writing a book about a girl who was deeply ordinary and had no discernable talents, that person would inevitably say, “Oh, this is a story about you, isn’t it?” (and yes, it always stung just a little bit).
Lizzy & her "amazing" sisters

Anyway, after my experience of (slowly) realizing that Jane was me as a child, you’d think I might have been more prepared for what happened with the character of Mrs. Schnabel, who started off as just a minor character but suddenly developed into a major player in the story.

When I started Remarkable, Ms. Schnabel was just a warm body. Jane needed a teacher in her classroom, and the teacher needed a name, and the name I chose was Ms. Schnabel. But Ms. Schnabel would not behave. Instead of quietly disappearing into the background, she kept saying things. She hated being a teacher. She had dreams – big dreams – that she’d walked away from. She walked away from them because society (as embodied by her parents) expected her to do something with her life that was sensible and safe.

I could not figure out where these ideas were coming from, but they seemed interesting to me, and so I went ahead and decided to see where they’d take me. And where they took me was to a familiar place.

You see, I’d always struggled with the idea of being a writer. I’d wanted to for years and years. But I couldn’t quite dedicate myself to it, because what if I dedicated my life to writing and I failed at it? It was so awful to contemplate that I kept chickening out and doing “sensible” things instead, such as getting jobs with paychecks and going to graduate school.

Eventually, I convinced myself that my dream was to become an academic sociologist and teach women’s studies for living, which seemed like such a responsible and sensible dream to have. Except, um…er…well…it totally wasn’t my dream.

And so there I was, writing a character who didn’t want to be a teacher, but who wanted to live the wild and unpredictable life of her dreams – and eventually (remember, I’m slow on the uptake here), I started to realize that if Jane was me as a child, then Ms. Schnabel was me as an adult. 

As a comedic writer, how do you decide what's funny? What advice do you have for those interested in either writing comedies or books with a substantial amount of humor?

Okay, here’s the thing about writing humor. It is really hard to tell the difference between what is funny and what is not funny but for some reason makes the person who wrote it laugh. Seriously.

Lizzie's workspace
My best advice for anyone who wants to write humor is to have very patient people who will listen to your writing and tell you if it is working or not.

And when I say listen to your writing, I actually mean listen. Don’t hand them a copy of your work and have them read it to themselves. Read it out loud to them and listen for their response. If it’s funny, you’ll know it from their reaction. They will smile, they will chuckle, they will nod their heads and signal their enjoyment in a million subtle ways. The air in the room will feel friendly and happy.

If what you wrote isn’t funny, you’ll feel and hear the dead air, and you’ll know you have more work to do.

I have been lucky – extremely lucky – to be part of two writing groups where reading out loud is how we share our work with each other (as opposed to sending out the work beforehand and having people critique it on paper before meeting as a group).

I am sure the critiquing-on-paper method has many good aspects to it, but I really can’t extol the virtues of reading to a group enough. Listening to people hear your writing for the first time, and then picking up the cues from their reactions is an amazing way of getting feedback.

How did you go about connecting with your agent? What was your search process like? Who did you decide to sign with? What about that person and/or agency seemed like the best fit for you? What advice do you have for other writers in seeking the right agent for them? 

Matthew and Lizzie
My search for an agent started with a round of good old-fashioned query letters. Well, they were query emails, actually, because I am lazy, hate going to the post office, and I’m always out of stamps.

I know there are people who say that queries never work unless you have connections in publishing, but don’t believe them. They do. Most of the people I know who are agented met their agents through the query process. And most people I know who got agents have high pain thresholds, because querying means facing rejection, and rejection hurts.

Writers who let these rejections devastate them to the point where they are afraid to send more queries out are much less likely to get agents than writers who suck it up and keep sending them.

And I know this is simple math and it’s not something I need to say, except that I don’t think it can be said enough. If your writing is ready, then don’t take rejection personally. Persist.

Of course, timing plays a role in the query process too – and while timing isn’t a factor you can control, it doesn’t mean they will always work against you.

Through sheer dumb luck, my timing on submitting Remarkable was pretty good. It was during a summer in which publishers were telling agents they’d be acquiring more middle grade fiction in the fall, and so middle grade fiction was something a lot of agents were looking for.

So, for the first time ever in a long history of querying projects, I got requests for partials and fulls. Of course, the agents who requested my full manuscript quite often didn’t want it after they’d read it.

This was hard, because while I’d grow accustomed to having my query letter rejected, having my actual manuscript rejected hurt in all new ways. Some of the rejections were nice (“sorry, this isn’t my cup of tea”) and some of them weren’t (“I thought this story would be good, but it wasn’t at all. I should probably go get therapy now to help me clear my mind of the stench that is your lack of talent…").

Robbie and Lizzy
But after a while, I did get an offer, which was exciting. And this led to several more offers. And eventually, I chose Faye Bender as my agent because she is a) awesome; b) came highly recommended by a friend’s agent; and c) was the agent I felt most connected to and comfortable with.

It was a great choice. I adore Faye, and I am grateful to her every day. But as an aside here, and I think it is important aside, I really, really encourage people to submit to multiple agents at once. None of the agents who offered were upset or put out that I had additional offers to choose from.

In fact, every single one of them encouraged me to notify the other agents who were considering my work in case any of these other agents wanted to offer.

And all of them encouraged me to take my time, ask as many questions as I wanted and to make sure I found an agent that I really, really wanted to work with (and I did!).

Cynsational Notes

Lizzie K. Foley has an M.A. in education from Harvard University and has taught women's studies at Northeastern University. She has also worked in story development in the film industry in L.A. She currently lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with her husband and son and four poorly trained dogs.

Luke

9 comments:

Tonya Kuper said...

What an awesome interview! I love Lizzie's personal stories from not reading to the querying process. I can't wait to read Remarkable (& recommend it to my son!)

Kelly Andrews said...

I love hearing that she was a late reader and turned into such an imaginative writer. Great interview and insights.

Angela Ackerman said...

Great interview--I love the concept twist of this book. And you and your dog--that has to be the cutesy picture ever! :)

Angela Ackerman

Joanne Levy said...

Great interview and what a wonderful 'late bloomer' story! Congrats Lizzie - wishing you a very Remarkable Launch! (someone had to say it)

Nikki said...

Great interview - and LOVE the dog pics. I also deeply love this book - I am delighted it's finally in the world so I can buy a zillion copies. I love it like ice cream.

Anonymous said...

Great interview and I love the photos of Lizzie...and of course Luke, Robbie, and Matthew. Is someone being camera shy?

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Tonya, I hope you and your son enjoy Remarkable. In fact, I'm sure you will.

Me, too, Kelly! An inspiration.

Agreed Angela, it's very fresh. And my readers are big on pet pics! (As am I!).,

Joanne, you said it well!

Nikki, perhaps you should re-read it with ice cream. Or would that be too much goodness?

Anonymous, did you miss the pic of Sandy?

Lisa Jenn Bigelow said...

Awwww, doggy pictures. I don't know, Lizzie, it seems hard to believe that a published author with a Harvard degree could consider herself ordinary! But maybe that's just my perspective as another pretty ordinary person. :-) I can't wait to read the book.

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Lisa, I think we can all agree that Lizzie is a wonder. Happy reading!

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