Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Survivors: E. Lockhart on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children's-YA Author

Learn more about E. Lockhart AKA Emily Jenkins
By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field. 

Reflecting on your personal journey (creatively, career-wise, and your writer’s heart), what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

I want to be honest about the biggest reason I have weathered tough times: I have some financial security.

I have published approximately 45 books in 21 years, and a huge factor in my remaining a working writer was a gift of money from my in-laws.

My spouse and I used it to purchase real estate. That purchase meant our overhead was (and remains) low. We could thus have a family in New York City without the vagaries of my income jeopardizing our housing. I don’t want to ever pretend my career has been all hard work and creativity. It has been hard work and creativity – but with the cushion of an apartment purchased with money I did not earn myself.

It has helped me to publish in multiple age categories. I write under two names and can have a couple of books a year. I co-author a series, and that helps too – we can write the series books while having other projects on the go.

I publish with multiple houses. Penguin Random has much of my backlist and my bigger books, but in 2017 I did books with Candlewick, Scholastic and Farrar, Straus & Giroux – and it’s pretty much always been like that. The publishers haven’t always been happy about the competition, but I’m employed.


If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently?

I would write A Fine Dessert (Schwartz & Wade, 2015) differently.

On a practical note, I should not have been so wide-ranging at the start of my writing career. I published two picture books, a book of essays for adults, a novel for adults, and a middle grade. Then I couldn’t figure out why my career had no momentum.

Ha! Of course it didn’t. I hadn’t built a reputation in any one area, and I hadn’t sustained relationships with editors.

The smart thing would have been to focus tight at first and to build longer-term connections -- and to find a community of writers. I didn’t have any writer friends, really, until nine years after my first book came out.

Now, those relationships are essential to the longevity of my creative life. I don’t know how I managed before.

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

I adore the emergence of LGBTQ+ YA stories into mainstream popular consciousness. On bestseller lists. Made into films! (As I’m answering these questions, "Everyday" and "Love, Simon" are in theaters.) There’s LGBTQ+ fantasy, adventure, dystopian, historical and science fiction as well as realistic contemporary. Makes me happy.

Queer YA has been around since 1969, of course. And there are still more people to include, more intersections to examine, more ways of feeling and living to be represented and more voices to be heard.

But things have changed and expanded hugely in the thirteen years I’ve been writing YA and so many of the books are spectacular.

I also adore the emergence of the graphic novel as a major and respected art form. There are MacArthur winners, National Book Award winners, and hilarious young middle grade books that grab the most reluctant readers.

I grew up reading comic books and the interplay of image and text was the subject of my dissertation. I feel lucky to be making books at such a fertile time for graphic stories.

Have you finished a draft of your next book?

The actual publication of a book doesn’t feel so great to me. Satisfaction must come from making things you are interested in and are proud to have made, from the exciting process of collaboration, from storytelling. You’ll keep your head straight if you’re thoroughly involved in that experience of creation when your book arrives in bookshops.

You're also a writing teacher. What led you to join the Hamline MFA faculty, and how does teaching inform, influence and intersect with your writing life?

After getting my doctorate, I taught creative and scholarly writing for some years, adjuncting at NYU, Barnard and Columbia. I enjoyed the work, but those jobs didn't provide me with colleagues or a department — I just showed up and did my courses, held my office hours, and went home.

At some point I began to want more: to be able to create new classes, to bring in visiting lecturers, to work with other teachers who stretched my understanding of my field, to contribute to the shape of a program and to be part of conversations about how best to teach fiction writing and literature.

I couldn't do that as an adjunct, and I began to feel bored. I left those jobs and wrote full time.

Some years later, I saw an ad in The Horn Book looking for an experienced college teacher who wrote both picture books and YA. I thought, Oh, that's me!

I applied, but during the resulting interview, I realized (to my embarrassment) that I had done so cavalierly. I had a small baby. I couldn't leave her for 11-day residencies! What had I been thinking?

Up-front I told Mary Rockcastle, the program director, that I would be interested in working at Hamline if she wanted to come back to me in a couple of years — and she did. Then I was able to take the job.

Being there has been the formal fiction-writing education I never had. When I first arrived, I didn't have any of the creative writing vocabulary used by my colleagues. Over the years I have had the chance to learn from some of the best people making books for children.

In particular I have returned to insights from lectures by Meg Medina, Matt de la Peña, Ron Koertge, Laurel Snyder and Nina LaCour.

In the lecture hall, am often struck by ideas for projects, or strategies for revision.

Another thing I love is getting to work intimately with students on long-form projects and in multiple drafts on picture books. I get to see my students grow and develop in hugely significant ways. And I feel useful. I love team-teaching workshop, too.

 I have run class with Laura Ruby, Anne Ursu, Marsha Qualey, Kelly Easton and Claire Rudolph-Murphy, and in each case I got so much out of seeing the way my co-teacher worked with a student text — total paradigm shifts from the way I might have approached it, sometimes. And wonderful.

Last, I have spent a huge amount of time working on the Required Reading List we assign at Hamline. Our List Committee tossed out our old list in late 2015 and re-imagined what we wanted our students to read and why, putting together a pedagogical mission, learning outcomes, all that — and a list of amazing books.

Then each year we have done small updates to that list, often with new Committee members circling in to keep the list fresh and evolving as our departmental needs evolve.

Sherri Smith is co-leading us this year and she is amazing. Serving on this crew means I read books that I might not have picked up, otherwise — and I get to discuss them with my colleagues, too. That reading has broadened my mind and my writing.

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?

Emily with Paul O. Zelinksy
I hope our community can practice radically better inclusivity in publishing.

I’d like the editors, art directors and publicity teams to reflect the gorgeous range of people we publish books for.

I hope we will continue to support freedom of speech and of the press.

If we can make that big change and hold onto that central value, I think we’ll make beautiful, funny, touching, wonder-filled books.

As a writer, what do you wish for yourself in the future?

I want to try new forms. I might take courses cartooning and see what that does to my thinking about image and text, both for picture books and graphic novels.

I like it when I don’t know how to do my job.

The best work bubbles up when I have no idea how to tackle this new thing that I want to write.

Cynsational Notes 

In the photo above, Emily and Paul are on a walking tour for All-of-a-Kind Family Hannukah (Schwartz & Wade, Sept. 2018).

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children's-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.

The Texas Library Association issued A Statement on Questions Over A Fine Dessert and tie-in resources, including those for teaching the related criticism and controversy.

5 comments:

anny said...

Love your Survivor Series, Cyn! Keep doing it.

Andrea Mack said...

Wow - I had no idea that two authors whose work I admire were actually the same person! Thanks for an interesting article. It gave me a lot to think about.

Bonny Becker said...

I so admire Emily Jenkins/E. Lockhart. "We Were Liars" totally took me in. And how many people could create a convincing character from a stuffed stingray? Thanks for the insight into your process as a writer and as a teacher.

Samantha M Clark said...

Great interview! My debut is coming out next month and I'm in that same mode of figuring out the plan for future books, so it's good to know you think building a readership in one area before branching out is good. Thank you!

LinWash said...

Such a great series!