Thursday, March 08, 2018

Guest Interview: Author Cheryl Lawton Malone on Elephants Walk Together

By Helen Kampion
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Cheryl Lawton Malone is the author of the picture book, Elephants Walk Together, illustrated by Bistra Masseva (Albert Whitman, 2017). From the promotional copy:

As calves, Asian elephants Precious and Baba roam the wild together, curious and proud. 

But when they get captured and are split up, their time together seems like a distant memory. 

Still, separated by many miles and over many years, their friendship remains, and there’s hope they will once again roam wide open spaces together.

Congratulations on your second picture book! What inspired you to write about captive elephants?

I’ve always been keen on elephants and interested in elephant conservation programs, but it wasn’t until I watched an HBO documentary narrated by Lily Tomlin and titled "An Apology to Elephants" that I was inspired to learn more about the hardships facing captive elephants.

My hope is that Elephants Walk Together will inspire others to help these amazing animals.

Interior spread from Elephants Walk Together, illustrated by Bistra Masseva. Used with permission.

You came to children’s writing later in life than some. Can you describe what you did before you started writing picture books and how you made the transition?

Before I started writing for children, I worked as a biotech attorney in the Boston area for 22 years—first as an associate in a law firm, then a staff attorney with a medical services company, general counsel to a medical device company and a science-based biotech, and finally as owner of a consulting company that launched biotech startups. The work was hard but interesting; my coworkers were fantastic.

Sometime in 2008, I decided I needed a change so I signed up for a creative writing seminar at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That week-long program engaged my imagination in a way I’d never experienced before. I was hooked!

I entered the Lesley University low-residency MFA program in Writing for Young People. Two years later, I gave up law altogether and began teaching classes in writing for children at Lesley and Grub Street (Boston Writing Center). The transition from law to writing has been difficult on many levels, but the intellectual and creative satisfaction are indescribable.

Interior spread from Elephants Walk Together, illustrated by Bistra Masseva. Used with permission.

Has your past career helped or hindered your goal of becoming a professional writer?

Both! As an efficient, productive lawyer, I was passionate about helping clients achieve their goals. My organizational skills have been a huge help in the transition to full-time professional writing.

On the other hand, the corporate world operates at light speed. As a writer, I’ve had to adjust my expectations and accept that the creative process functions in a time vacuum.

Stories are like babies. They come when they come.

I imagine the requirements for writing contracts and legal memos might not allow for much creativity. How different is writing for children?

Writing for children is as different as providing legal advice as you might expect, and yet there are overlaps.

When writing for children, I first decide on my audience. What age group am I writing for? Will my story entertain them or connect with them or even inspire them?

As a lawyer, I always focused on my clients first. What did they really want to know?

As a children’s writer, I strive for simplicity and elegance. The same was true for law.

Notwithstanding all the jokes, a lawyer who can’t communicate is not going to help anyone. Of course, the big difference is that I now get to write about whales, elephants, and wolves as opposed to product regulations and public offerings. I couldn’t be happier.

Which profession is harder? Writing for children or being an attorney?

Writing for children, hands down. The difficulty of telling a heartfelt story with a beginning, middle and end, and populating that story with lovable, unforgettable characters who entertain a four to eight-year-old plus their parents in less than 500 words tops any contract I’ve ever had to write.

What’s the easiest and hardest part of creating a book?

Nothing about writing a book is easy, but for me, the hardest part is finding the story’s emotional core—the answer to the question: What is the story about?

Before I write a single word of prose, I spend time on the structure: the characters, setting, point of view, story problem, plot and scenes.

Then I give myself permission to write horrible first, second, and third drafts.

By the fourth draft, the story typically starts to gel. That’s when the process becomes rewarding. Writing and revision becomes easier. I’m thinking: I need to place this piece here, put that piece there, I’m missing something—what is it?

I keep working until the pieces fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Are you working on any other projects?

Currently, I’m obsessed with another fascinating, endangered species—wolves!

Lastly, tell us something quirky about your writing habits.

I get up between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m., make a cup of coffee, make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and get back in bed with my two dogs.

I drink the coffee, eat the sandwich, and write, with no internet, no email, until the dogs have to pee around 9 a.m. That's the honest truth!

Cynsational Notes

Kirkus Reviews described Elephants Walk Together as "heartwarming...A sweet and sensitive encouragement of wildlife conservation."

Cheryl Lawton Malone is a retired attorney, and professional writer and manuscript consultant. 

She taught creative writing for children at Lesley University after she received her MFA there. She now offers manuscript consults through Grub Street in Boston. 

Cheryl’s short stories and award-winning poetry have been published in numerous magazines and journals, including the Lutheran Journal, YARN, and Bumples.

Her debut picture book, Dario and the Whale, illustrated by Bistra Masseva (Albert Whitman, 2016) was recognized as a CCBC (Cooperative Children's Book Center) Choices 2017 selection, and a Book Best Debut Picture Books of 2016. 

She is also a professional dog trainer. Cheryl and her husband and two wheaten terriers migrate on weekends to Martha’s Vineyard where they enjoy spending time with their favorite animal neighbors.

Helen Kampion is a graduate of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College, and also holds an MBA from Boston University.

After a successful career in business, she became a writer of both fiction and nonfiction for young readers, including middle-grade novels and picture book biographies. Her picture book manuscripts have been recognized by The Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult & Children’s Writing sponsored by Hunger Mountain ("Paddy Cats," Special Mention, 2015) and by the National Association of Elementary School Principals ("Francesca’s Funky Footwear," Finalist, 2013).

When she’s not at her desk busy writing, you can find her helping fellow authors with marketing events targeted to get their books into the hands of new readers, volunteering at the New England SCBWI conference, or supporting The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance as Treasurer.

1 comment:

Cheryl Lawton Malone said...

Thanks Cynthia and Helen for the opportunity to talk about writing and elephants - two of my favorite topics!

Cheryl Lawton Malone

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