Andrea will give a talk entitled, “The Antagonist, a Striking Alternate Reality of Your MC”, about two characters vying for the same external goal and their flaw-revealing, stake-raising journeys. She will also have a break out session entitled, “The First Steps in Creating Award-Worthy Books”, which is aimed at people new to the children/teen publishing world.
Andrea Hall is an Associate Editor at Albert Whitman & Company where she works on picture books through young adult. She is particularly drawn to stories that have layers of meaning and diversity. Andrea started her publishing career at Pearson Education and is a former ARA of the Central and Southern Ohio Chapter of SCBWI.
To help us get to know her even better before the conference, Andrea agreed to answer some questions we received from some of our SCBWI OK members.
Valerie Lawson: Welcome to the blog, Andrea! Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our members’ questions, today.
Question #1 – If you could tell a writer one thing to help them get published, what would it be?
Andrea Hall: Don’t give up! Keep writing and trying. One never knows which project will be the one that will get published.
VL: Ah! Persistence is so important.
VL: Question #2 – Have you ever found a manuscript at a conference that you went on to publish?
AH: Not yet. But I’ve heard stories from other editors.
I did have a published author pitch me the novel of another member of her writing group at a trade show, and I did go on to publish that.
VL: What a nice friend! (Another reason to join a critique group!)
Question #3 – What makes you cringe in a query letter?
AH: Not following directions.
Telling your life story when it doesn’t pertain to the book. Mentioning that family/friends/your kids love your book. Calling the submission the next “best-seller.”
If only we could predict that!
VL: Yes, it’s always important to follow the submission guidelines!
Question #4 – What words would you recommend authors replace in their writing?
AH: This is going to be different for each writer.
For picture books, every word needs to count. Eliminate the words that are unnecessary.
For novels, look at words or phrases that are overused and try to avoid repetition.
VL: Question #5 – Do you prefer picture books written in past or present tense?
AH: I don’t have a preference.
VL: Question #6 – Could you explain what goes on inside an acquisition meeting?
AH: This is where the editor pitches the book to the rest of the group and works to get everyone (hopefully) excited about it. We discuss how the book fits into our list and get feedback from sales and marketing. This determines whether or not the editor gets the green light to acquire the project.
VL: Question #7 – How do you feel about sensitivity readers? Who is expected to obtain the services of sensitivity readers, the author or the publisher?
AH: Sensitivity readers serve the necessary purpose of ensuring authenticity when writing outside one’s own cultural group. I feel it falls to both the author and publisher—the author needs to do their due diligence to make the work as authentic as possible, and the publisher needs to also double-check and verify accuracy.
VL: That makes sense. Double-checking is always a good idea.
Question #8 – In Middle Grade historical fiction, is it a problem if the action of a story begins when the main character is very young? (Knowing kids who read Middle Grade like characters that are a little older than they are, and also wanting to stick to the facts as much as possible without turning off readers.) Any suggestions?
AH: This is tricky without knowing the context of the story. If something significant happened to the MC as a young child, which impacts the overall plot or helped shaped the character, than it makes sense to include. I suggest looking at other historical fiction titles that have done this and then find the best approach for your story.
VL: Question #9 – How many titles that you’ve published have come from un-agented submissions?
AH: Personally, three books I’ve acquired have been un-agented submissions.
VL: Question #10 – What are you NOT seeing from submissions right now that you would like to see?
AH: I’m not seeing enough cultural/diverse/#ownvoices stories. I’m always looking for more of these!
VL: Thank you, Andrea! It’s been a pleasure! We all look forward to hearing you speak at our conference.
And thank you to everyone who submitted a question!
Learn more about Andrea and her publishing house here.
Jodell will be discussing the topic of pacing in picture books. The title of her talk is Pacing Picture Books (& Beyond) to WOW. “Attendees will walk away with oodles of editing options and a renewed excitement for just how fun crafting a story can be.”
Jodell wrote her critical thesis on pacing picture books and earned her MFA in Writing for Children & YA from Hamline University, 2009 and started agenting a few years later, and most recently launched Kidlit College. She hosts workshops and presents on pacing with Writer’s Digest. At Kidlit College, she brings in editors and agents to present and offers participants direct critiques. The webinars span from picture books (fiction and nonfiction) to MG/YA.
She is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) and is passionate about helping writers pace their stories well because it allows writers the opportunity to enhance emotional resonance, tension, and find exciting ways to improve story arc with jumps and twists and pauses and stops that garnish editorial attention and help them get published.
Valerie Lawson: Jodell, thank you for doing this interview. It’s a pleasure to speak with you, today.
Your agency is considered a boutique literary agency. Can you tell us more about what that means and why an author or illustrator would benefit from choosing it?
Jodell Sadler: My focus has been on craft, and, particularly, Pacing Picture Books (& Beyond) to WOW. I’ve taught and shared this material in libraries with young learners, in middle school classes, and from secondary education to graduate classes in picture books and publishing. I come from a marketing/design background where deadlines were tight and I juggled multiple projects a week. I’ve worked with thousands of writers and students and have been sharing my pacing study since 2008.
As I started the agency, I wasn’t in a position to move, and really wanted to stay where I lived, so I also taught full time as an AP/Dual Credit English teacher as well. Like writers, agents are not much different in that we do whatever it takes to achieve our goals. I started KidLit College for this same reason. I wanted to give back, celebrate editors and agents, and help them share their expertise, while also providing a great option for writers and illustrators looking for an agent or who would benefit from an editor’s webinar and critique.
VL: You come with a lot of teaching experience. That is excellent. We should all keep learning our craft.
What makes you stop reading a query?
JS: Writers really do need to know that if they submit out a solid query and simply follows submission guidelines, that’s half the battle. So often I receive submissions for projects I do not take on, and they are addressed in a generic fashion: Dear Sir, Dear Agent, etc, and I no longer read these.
The ideal submission is one that focuses on the manuscript. It’s short and direct and gives me a glimpse at the author’s personality. Like most agents, I look for a short query that shares that connection and answered the question: why me? A pitch for that top-quality manuscript that’s been through a number of editors and has received favorable feedback from a critique group. And the ideal bio is simple and focused and screams you are serious about your writing and actively participating in conferences.
VL: Short, direct, and with a glimpse of personality. Got it.
What hooks you when reading a manuscript? What doesn’t?
JS: Voice, direction, great pacing, and freshness: This gets the attention of most agents.
Some manuscripts I read, I love but cannot take on because I rep something similar, and there are manuscripts I love but I just feel I cannot sell well. I also steer clear of holiday books and much prefer the true story and narrative nonfiction book: PB or older.
VL: What manuscripts are on your wishlist?
JS: Nonfiction, narrative nonfiction picture books as well as author-illustrators top my wishlist right now. I am closed to submissions except through conferences and events like this one.
VL: Yes, conference attendees will be permitted to submit to our speakers, SO EVERYONE SHOULD COME TO THE CONFERENCE!!!
Besides being an agent, you also teach webinars about writing. Tell us more about this.
JS: I teach. I teach. And I teach. I’ve been teaching since I completed my MFA in 2008, and I actually taught full time in order to jump into agenting, to even be able to afford that time to grow the agency. KidLit College is really a dream community I thought about creating back in 2010 when I started my doctoral studies.
I really wanted to make a difference, make connections, and create that way to share craft learning fun with other writers and industry professionals. We all have so much to share. I invite everyone to join us on our closed Facebook page and visit our KidLit College website and just see what we have going on, including a writing retreat and cruise!
VL: Sounds like a wonderful resource.
Speaking of teaching, I was fascinated by a discussion you had about the difference between using rhyme versus poetry in picture books, could you address this?
JS: A quality rhyming picture book is one is 100% committed to quality rhymes. It often focuses on end rhymes and shares poetic forms in creative ways, but for me, poetry is a huge gift to picture book writing, and it’s one of the 20 tools I talk about in my Pacing Picture Books to WOW class.
Poetry lifts our writing through the power of enjambment, prosody, page turns, poetic devices, and it shifts the language to this contagious level. There’s nothing like that quality picture book that provides that beautiful poetic or comedic pause that suspends the emotion and lifts a piece to this loftier universal level. Nothing like it. When we write, we must write to mind, heart, and ear, and poetry is a big part of that. I will be discussing this more in my presentation and here’s a little overview of what I will share.
VL: Write to heart, mind, and ear. I love that. I think we could all learn to be better writers by studying more poetry.
Tell us what happens after an author or illustrator signs with you. What’s the next step?
JS: It differs and depends on a number of factors, but the first thing we do is meet online to really determine focus, discuss manuscripts, and plan next steps. The clients I work best with are those driven to move their work out into the world, who are actively participating at conferences, and constantly providing me with updates and new work. That’s just such a gift.
Recent sales include Brunhilda’s Backwards Dayby Shawna J.C. Tenney (Sky Pony Press, 2017) Mr. McGinty’s Monarchs (Sleeping Bear Press, 2016) by Linda Vander Heyden, Snow Beast Want Play and Untitled (Roaring Brook Press, 2017) as well as the Friday BarnesMG illustration series project (Roaring Brook Press, 2016) by Phil Gosier, a picture book/board book (Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Macmillan) by Ann Whitford Paul, as well as 5 NF MG projects, including my own (Rowman & Littlefield) and Medical Mavens (Chicago Review Press) by Susan Latta.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, today, Jodell. I look forward to hearing your talk at our conference!
Sara will be discussing the topic of humor in writing. “Humor draws in and hooks readers, and it keeps them engaged!” In her talk, she will discuss different types of humor and how you can apply them to your own manuscripts.
In her work as Executive Editor at HarperCollins Children’s Books, Sara focuses on fiction and nonfiction in the picture book, middle grade, and young adult categories.
Previously she was an Editor at Simon Pulse, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Sara has worked with New York Times bestselling author Abbi Glines, National Book Award finalist Deb Caletti, Jennifer Echols, Julie Cross, Aaron Karo, and Martina Boone, among others. She also received her Master of Science in journalism from Northwestern University. You can sometimes find Sara eating takeout and reading on the couch. You can always find her online at www.sarasargent.wordpress.com and on Twitter and Instagram @Sara_Sargent. Sara lives in Brooklyn.
Valerie Lawson: Sara, thank you so much for doing this interview. It’s a pleasure to speak with you, today.
What makes a story an evergreen? What gives it staying power?
Sara Sargent: I’ve always wanted to edit books for the same reason I want to read them: for escapism. I love getting lost in a story, getting wrapped up in characters and their struggles. So, to me, a story with emotional heft and amazing characters will be perennial. It’s important to allow the reader to see the human experience reflected back at them from the pages of your book, to let them get entangled in the emotions and the drama.
We’ve all had that experience where a book “doesn’t hold up,” where we re-read a novel we loved as kids and are no longer sure what we loved about it. Sometimes we grow up or move on or mature, and a story doesn’t have the staying power it used to. But, to me, all that matters is whether we connected with it emotionally at one point in time. For a book to be successful, it needs to find its mark and connect. Regardless of whether that happens when we’re 5 or 50, and whether it remains true always.
VL: Emotional connection with amazing characters – yes, that describes all my favorite stories. I must say, the idea of connections changing as we age is very intriguing. Our life experiences change, why shouldn’t our experience of a story change?
What hooks you when you’re reading a manuscript? What doesn’t?
SS: I like to tell writers that, no matter what genre they’re writing, they are all mystery writers. Because you have to think like a mystery writer to plot an interesting book. For me, that advice comes from a personal place of loving twists and turns and surprises. What hooks me—and keeps me reading—is not knowing what’s coming next, whether that’s in the actual plot or for character development or with a romance.
VL: Fascinating idea! I love a good mystery.
You’ve mentioned that lack of character development is one major reason you might reject a project. What are some others?
SS: Weak world-building, especially in fantasy, is a tough sell for me. I am happy to edit fantasy projects and work with authors to improve their world-building and to help them transfer the wonderful images in their heads to the page. But, if the logic of the world doesn’t hang together, and there are strange twists or turns that feel aimless—I am likely to pass.
Also, when it comes to realistic contemporary novels, I love evergreen tropes that resonate time and time again. But I do not like stories that feel too similar to others I’ve read or edited. With the realistic genre, I need fresh and new and different for me to want to buy it.
VL: With your focus on social media and digital platforms, what can you tell authors and illustrators about the importance of online time?
SS: Pick one platform—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Tumblr, blogging—and really commit to it. There is no point in spreading yourself thin and trying to be active on every social network known to humankind. Develop an authentic and genuine presence for one profile, and then focus your energy there. Getting people to connect strongly with you in one space is amazing, even if it feels limited. That’s how you start building your brand.
VL: NOT spreading yourself thin? I’m so on board. It’s so easy to overdo it and leave no time for real writing.
We often hear the advice to research before you submit your work, what’s the most important thing writers and illustrators need to know before they submit to you?
SS: It’s important to know what an editor likes, and it’s important to know what she’s acquired. But what’s even better is to recognize what she likes and what she’s acquired, and get to the next level of thinking. Which is to say: send me something with the essence of what I love and have already edited, but with a new twist or take—that’s the best way to go.
Sending me a manuscript and saying “I’m sending this to you because you acquired a book just like it, so I know you will love it!” is not the way to go. Show me that you recognize why your book is a fit for me, because you know I love the genre but also because I’ve never acquired anything like it before.
VL: Excellent advice. Well said.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, today, Sara. They have been very enlightening. I look forward to hearing your talk at our conference!
Learn more about Sara and read her Acquisitions Wish List here.
Follow Sara on Twitter here. Follow Sara on Instagram here.
**Sara does not accept unsolicited manuscripts, however conference attendees will be permitted to submit to her for a limited time.
This is an excellent reason to come see her speak at our conference in Oklahoma City on April 16th!
For more details on our 2016 SCBWI OK Spring Conference or to register online,CLICK HERE.
Today, Ginny Sain stops by for an interview. As a faculty member of the Novel Track for the Fall Retreat, Ginny will share drama techniques to help writers with character development. Below, she’ll enlighten us on how acting and writing are more alike than one might think.
Ginny graduated summa cum laude from the University of the Ozarks in Clarksville, Arkansas, in 1995 with a degree in theatre. She has worked as an artist in residence teaching theatre arts workshops in Arkansas and Oklahoma schools as well as teaching and directing all classes, workshops, and productions for over 18 years with the very successful Stages Theatre for Youth program, an intensive actor training program for serious and dedicated young theatre artists in grades K-12, which she founded at the University of the Ozarks, where she also worked with college theatre students.
With more than 20 years of experience as a working director, choreographer, playwright, theatrical designer, performer, and theatre arts teacher, Ginny is thrilled to be back in Oklahoma as one of the founders of HeARTsong Creative Center, a creative and performing arts organization dedicated to providing professional quality arts programs and events that will encourage people of all ages to explore the depths of their souls, stretch the limits of their possibilities, celebrate the boundlessness of their own imaginations, and recognize the value of hard work paired with creativity.
Valerie Lawson: You grew up in a very literary household, and yet you chose the theatre. What about that medium called to you?
Ginny Sain: Oscar Wilde said, “I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.”
I’ve always believe that. I’ve always been drawn to the immediacy and intimacy of communication that you get in the theatre – both with your fellow artistic collaborators, and especially with the audience.
VL: I love that – thinking of your audience as part of the art.
In the realm of theatre arts, you have been a teacher, director, choreographer, actor, playwright, etc., what aspect of the field do you enjoy the most?
GS: I love to act, but what I am most passionate about is teaching and directing young people who are serious about developing as theatre artists. I spent 20 years working with one amazing group of kids, taking many of them literally from kindergarten through high school graduation, and watching them grow and develop as artists, and as people from year to year.
The kind of theatre we were able to do together because of that, and the kind of community they built with each other – that was such a huge thing to be a part of, for them and for me. So many of them are out there doing amazing things now. No matter what else I do with my life I will always consider those students to be the most special thing I have ever been a part of, my greatest contribution to the world.
VL: That kind of continuity is rare, I would imagine. So fantastic!
How would you say that acting and writing are related? What can a writer learn from the theatre arts?
GS: For writers and actors, it’s all about developing real, honest, believable characters and bringing them to life for an audience. Both art forms are about creating something so real that, just for a little bit, people forget that those characters don’t exist.
In the theatre, we do a lot of character analysis work that I think would be very beneficial to writers. We learn to think about the whole life of the character, not just the aspects that figure directly into the story. We build a whole world and we spend time living there. For an actor, the key is asking questions and then, instead of deciding on an answer ourselves, letting the character answer those questions for us. And I think actors tend to ask those questions in a slightly different way than writers do. It’s a really interesting process that actors have.
VL: Yes! Let the character answer the questions. Wonderful.
For the Oklahoma SCBWI Fall Retreat this October, you are co-hosting the Novel Track with your mother, author Anna Myers, how will you be contributing to the workshop?
GS: I’ll be talking specifically about the character developement process we use in the theatre, and how writers can adapt that for their own work. I’m really excited about that. Hopefully, it will cause people to view their characters from a slightly different perspective.
VL: I’m so curious about this different perspective; I can’t wait to discover this new way of looking at my characters.
Tell us a little about your teen years growing up. What was the most embarrassing thing you experienced? What was the most memorable adventure you had with your friends?
GS: Well, you know my mother is going to read this, so……my friends and I spent most of our time just sitting around reading poetry and behaving ourselves. Lol. Honestly, my friends were theatre kids and show choir kids. And I grew up in a very small town. Our idea of adventure was, I’m sure by most standards, pretty tame. We were in rehearsal for one thing or another a lot of the time, and those were the best times I remember.
VL: Ha! Well, it was worth a shot. Actually, my daughter might read this, so…yes! That’s all good theatre kids should do – rehearse and read poetry.
What has been your favorite book to read/book you’ve been most excited about over the past year?
GS: I’ve been reading a lot of young adult books this last year. I really enjoyed John Green’s “Looking for Alaska.” Like I said earlier, I’ve spent almost half my life working with teenagers, and I love them. And the voices in that particular book rang as so authentic to me.
VL: I have heard that you yourself are working on writing a novel, tell us about your experience. What have you learned about writing? About yourself as an artist?
GS: I am working on a book – a young adult novel set in the world of the theatre. Since that’s the world I know best, that seemed like a good place to start. I guess the main thing I’ve learned is that I really enjoy writing. I’ve been told my whole life that I had some ability as a writer, but I never really thought it was something that I enjoyed particularly. Theatre is such a collaborative art form. Writing always seemed to me to be such a solitary process, and that just never really appealed to me. But, I’m beginning to understand that isn’t really true.
VL: Ha! Yes, it may take one writer to draft a novel, but it takes a village to raise it.
You and your sister started your own creative arts center a few years ago, what can you tell us about that project
GS: I’ve always been a director and teacher, and my sister is a licensed teacher. She’s taught in schools in Oklahoma, Texas, and in Malta. So, when I was looking for a change, it just seemed kind of natural that we should combine those things into one joint creative venture. We offer theatre and other creative classes for students of all ages. Most of our work is done in after-school programs at local schools. It’s something we both enjoy and it gives us a lot of flexibility in the projects we work on, which is something that was important to both of us, since we are also raising children and pursuing other interests. It’s been a hard process getting it off the ground, but we’re finally making some good progress.
VL: You have an excellent program. I know my daughter enjoyed taking acting lessons from you. She learned more about her personal strengths and weaknesses as an actor – and how to improve – from you than her own drama teacher. I wish you well in that venture!
Thank you so much for sharing your time with us, Ginny. I look forward to your presentation at the retreat next month!
There are still a few spots available for our Fall Retreat. If you would like to hear Ginny speak, along with our other faculty members, sign up, today! This is an event you won’t want to miss!
I’m so excited that Laura Biagi, literary agent with the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency, will be speaking this weekend at our 2015 SCBWI OK Spring Conference. This year’s theme is “Ignite the Spark”. In Laura’s talk, entitled “The Spark an Agent Brings to the Table”, she will be discussing “insights from the front line about what literary agents do and what they offer clients”. She’ll also discuss what red flags may make an agent pass on a manuscript, among other issues.
Laura graciously consented to giving an interview here on the blog to entice us with a little preview.
Valerie Lawson: What advice would you give to querying writers?
Laura Biagi: One of the more obvious pieces of advice is to do your research on agents so you’re not querying agents who wouldn’t be likely to represent the type of book you’ve written. But there are many other pieces of advice that writers too often take for granted: Be persistent–not only in submitting to many agents or reworking your query letter to make it the strongest possible, but also in writing new material.
Your writing will keep growing and become stronger the more you write, and sometimes it’s the next book right around the corner that will be your breakthrough. Prior to querying, make sure your manuscript is as polished as you can possibly make it. Show your work to your writer friends or anyone else you trust and get their feedback, then incorporate it organically. Don’t skimp on the time you devote to revisions. Revisions are usually THE most important part of a successful writer’s process! Be sure to read very widely in your genre, not only so you know whether your book is unique enough to stand out in the crowded marketplace, but also–and more importantly–so you can learn better how to write with authority and grace and build tension.
VL: Do your research, don’t skimp on revising, and read a wide variety of books. Great advice!
What makes you stop reading a query?
LB: This varies widely depending on the book. I make sure to consider each query on its own terms. However, some examples of things that might convince me to pass include stereotypical characters or plots, too many adjectives and adverbs that get in the way of conveying a clear image, too few details about the characters and their relationships with one another (this makes me worry the characters aren’t developed enough in the manuscript), too few details about the plot (this makes me worry the pacing isn’t strong enough and the stakes and conflict aren’t developed enough).
I’ll be discussing more red flags in my talk at the conference–so for more info, please come!
VL: Yes! You definitely don’t want to miss out on this conference!
What’s one major aspect of a manuscript that hooks you? What doesn’t?
LB: What hooks me right away is an immediate voice that cleverly and organically reveals details (even better if they’re unexpected details!) about the characters, setting, situation, etc.
What doesn’t hook me is a tepid opening that feels too familiar or unintriguing or takes too long to reveal its purpose.
VL: What type of manuscript would you love to find in your inbox?
LB: I’d love to find more magical realism YA novels with literary bents. I’m very interested in books set in the South or Kentucky, as that’s where I’m originally from. I’d also love to find a literary YA with Romani characters. I’m searching for more middle grade, too, but the voice, characters, and plot must be stand out; quiet middle grade novels can be very challenging. I’m also always glad to find more humorous picture books in the vein of Jon Klassen or with heartwarming, big-voiced characters, and early chapter books.
VL: Oh, those are are intriguing ideas – a Romani character in Kentucky. Hmm. Thoughts are churning here…
Tell us what happens after an author signs with you; what’s the next step?
LB: It’s always so exciting after an author signs with me!
If I think the manuscript needs some revision before I submit it out to editors, I’ll send detailed feedback and discuss it all with the author and we’ll work on revising the manuscript until it’s ready. Then I’ll create a list of the best editors to go to for submissions and get them excited about the book. There are many more steps afterwards, including negotiating the deal and contract, selling subrights, working with editors on getting my authors the best publicity and marketing possible for their books, and more.
To learn more behind-the-scenes details about what an agent does for her clients, please come to my talk at the conference!
VL: I for one, cannot wait to learn more.
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us, Laura.
ONLY A FEW SPOTS LEFT BEFORE CONFERENCE IS SOLD OUT!
For more details on the conference or to register online, click here. I hope to see you there!
And for those who’d like more enticements, another one of our speakers for the conference this up-coming weekend, Editor Erica Finkel of Abrams Books for Young Readers will be our special guest this evening on our 2nd official OK SCBWI Twitter chat! Join us from 7-8pm CST and use the hashtag #okscbwichat. Follow Erica on Twitter here.
***If you missed the chat, CLICK HERE to view the recap on Storify. Enjoy!
Next up in the series celebrating fantastic local SCBWI talent, I give you the dynamic Anna Myers. Anna is my first repeat interviewee on the blog, so she’s a pro at answering in-depth questions. I’m so happy to have her back!
Anna is stopping by to tell us all about her latest book, TUMBLEWEED BABY, which was just released this month. It is her 20th book. It is also her first picture book. (Stay tuned! At the end of this post, Anna is giving away a copy of her book.) There’s quite a difference between writing picture books and writing historical fiction novels – like her story set during the Tulsa race riots in TULSA BURNING or the one where she created a fictional character that existed during the time of Abraham Lincoln in ASSASIN.
But don’t take my word for it.
Before we get to the Q&A, let’s learn more about Anna’s debut picture book. One could say that this is the tall tale of how Anna herself came into the fold of her own large family. For those of us who know Anna and have had the pleasure of watching this story’s evolution, it is such a delight to see this become a living, breathing picture book.
A large, loving family in the 1930s Dust Bowl finds a “tumbleweed baby”—a wild baby—in the plains near their cozy farm home. The baby’s new siblings discover the ways she fits and doesn’t fit into the family, ultimately deciding that her wildness makes her one of them. The rhythm and voice of the text make this feel like a classic tall tale, and it pairs perfectly with the dreamy, warm art from master illustrator Charles Vess. (Plot summary from Goodreads.)
A family gets a new addition in a tall-tale sort of way.
The Upagainstit family (say it out loud) has five children in their “falling-apart house.” Coming home from school one day, they discover a baby in a tumbleweed, and they promptly bring her home. “She’s a wild-all-over baby,” says the “littlest-of-all girl,” and she is, with hair down to her little naked ankles. Tumbleweed Baby does not take well to bathing or to sleeping, although she is very enthusiastic about dinner—messily so. The next morning, the littlest-of-all girl is still insistent that the family cannot keep her, although the “biggish boy,” the “not-so-big girl” and all the other siblings find ways that they can help to do so. When Tumbleweed Baby kisses Papa’s cheek, it’s all over but finding the right name for her. Much later, the littlest-of-all girl shares a secret that will not surprise adult readers and will probably delight the younger ones. Myers’ consistently idiosyncratic nomenclature is charming, as is her matter-of-fact tone. Vess does the most expressive hair—each Upagainstit has distinctive locks, but none more so than Tumbleweed Baby’s. As usual, his color and line are expressive and rich while staying within a gently rainbowed palette.
An adoption story, a feral child story, a foundling story, a child-of-difference story—perhaps any and all of these; certainly wise and full of delight. (Picture book. 4-8)
Valerie Lawson: What was the inspiration for this book?
Anna Myers: I was born in west Texas, and my big brother always told me that he found me in a tumbleweed.
VL: And I bet for years, you actually believed him. Aren’t older brothers wonderful?
After writing 19 novels, what was the biggest challenge of writing a picture book? How did you go about learning to write a picture book?
AM: Getting a story down to picture-book length is hard. I had some help from writing buddies during the writing. One friend told me I didn’t leave enough to the illustrator in my first draft.
Another friend gave me an idea for the ending.
VL: That was a surprising thing to learn about picture book writing, that you needed to leave part of the story out so the illustrator could fill it in.
What surprised you most working in this different medium?
AM: I am surprised how excited I am about this book. Only my very first book made me more excited. I love having my words turned into such beautiful pictures.
VL: Working in a different medium invigorated you, that’s so wonderful. We should all strive to remember to keep trying new things.
Tell us about the difference between how you imagined the illustrations and how they turned out. What did you learn about the art of illustration?
AM: If I had been choosing illustrations, I would probably have chosen bright colors and a cherub-like baby. Neither of those would have been right for the story. Charles Vess knew what colors went with the story and how the characters in a tall tale should look. I learned writers should have nothing to do with the illustrations.
VL: And what gorgeous illustrations – those southwest landscapes! Vess really knows how to evoke a mood.
Tell us about your story of the Tumbleweed Baby.
AM: On their way home from school, five siblings find a baby in a tumbleweed. The smallest girl declares that the baby is a “wild-all-over baby” and that they should
put her back. They take her home. The baby is indeed wild. The question is whether or not the family can keep such a baby. Of course, they do keep her, and the story
ends with a surprise revealed by the girl who used to be the smallest.
VL: Your use of language is just so playful and perfect for the setting, like the Upagainsit family. I love it.
What are you currently working on?
AM: I am revising Trashy Women, a book for adults about three teachers who form a garbage company to supplement their teaching income. I thought the book was
finished, but I don’t want it to be a pretty good book. I want it to be the best book I can make it.
VL: I’m so excited about TRASHY WOMEN! I’m glad you’re working on it. And it’s your first novel for adults, too. More playing with new mediums.
What has been your favorite book to read/book you’ve been most excited about over the past year?
AM: I think my favorite book this year has been The Book Thief.
I have also read lots of books written for adults and have loved all of the books by Alice Hoffman.
VL: THE BOOK THIEF is just wonderful, isn’t it? And I do like Alice Hoffman. I’ve read about four of her adult novels. I didn’t even realize until recently that she wrote teen novels, too.
What would be your dream assignment/what would you most like to write about?
AM: I would like to write another picture book, but I have to find the right story. The idea for a picture book needs to be unique.
VL: Thank you stopping by, Anna, and for sharing TUMBLEWEED BABY with us. We wish her a very successful journey.
For those of you lucky enough to be within driving distance of the Oklahoma City area, Anna is having her book launch party, today, at Best of Books in Edmond. The fun starts at 5:30pm, where I’ve heard tale that there will be a readers’ theatre, answers to weedy questions, and refreshments with tumbleweed tea. Meet Anna and pick up an autographed copy of her book.
For those not so lucky, you can still order your own copy here:
Anna has graciously donated a copy of TUMBLEWEED BABY to giveaway here on the blog. To enter, simply click on the link below and follow the instructions. Contest is open to everyone! Deadline for entering is Tuesday, October 28th.
Continuing our celebration of phenomenal local talent plucked from the branches of our SCBWI Oklahoma family tree comes debut author Jennifer Latham. Her first novel, SCARLETT UNDERCOVER, comes out this spring on May 19, 2015, and I for one am thrilled. I met Jen a few years ago at a local Tulsa schmooze and immediately took to her. I’ve had the privilege of getting a sneak peek at some of her manuscripts for critique sessions and I love the way she writes fully developed characters and scenes that evoke a mood. I’m so glad she was able to take time out of her hectic schedule and stop by to answer some probing questions.
First, a little bit about her upcoming novel.
SCARLETT UNDERCOVER by Jennifer Latham
Published by: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release Date: May 19, 2015
Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary, Mystery
When 15-year-old Muslim-American detective Scarlett agrees to investigate a local teen’s suicide, she figures she’s in for an easy case and a quick buck. But it doesn’t take long for that suicide to start looking a lot like murder, and for cults, ancient artifacts, and a very private billionaire to figure into things. To save the scared little girl who hires her, Scarlett has to face her family’s brave past, her own future, and maybe even a jinni or two. (Plot summary from author’s website.)
So many things to love about that! I am a sucker for a great detective novel. And throw in a great female character and I’m pushing people out of the way to grab it off the shelf. (Well, maybe, kindly nudging them, and at the same time pointing out what fab book I’m reaching for.)
Let’s hear some details about how this creation came into being, shall we?
Valerie Lawson: What was the inspiration for this book?
Jennifer Latham: Honestly, I’m not sure there was any one particular inspiration – it’s more like my brain spent a long time gathering bits and pieces and then, when I started playing around with actual words on a page, they collided and made a book. Some of those bits and pieces were: a little girl playing in a giant sandbox at the state fair with her biker-dude grandfather (they became Scarlett and Manny); my obsession with hardboiled detective stories; my disappointment over all the vitriol aimed at Muslim-Americans; the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy; and the sudden rash of jinn sightings across the country.
Well, OK…I made that last one up.
VL: Ha! you had me worried for a moment. It sounds like Scarlett was a great conglomeration that came together at just the right time, with just the right ingredients.
I love the idea of a young female detective and Scarlett sound like my kind of sassy; tell us more about her.
JL: This seemed like such an easy question when I first saw it. Then I realized it is so not. Because, corny as this may sounds, talking about Scarlett is like talking about my kids. I mean, to me, she’s amazing. Brave. Imperfect. Generous. Stubborn. Kind. Short-tempered. Strong. And entirely capable of being a complete pain in the ass. But I have no clue how other people are going to see her. My one great hope is that she’ll be more to readers than just a smart aleck, or a black, or a Muslim. I want them to see her for what she is: a complex teenage girl
VL: In essence, she’s feels very real to you. I’m sure this will translate to your readers.
How much research did you have to do to create an authentic character of such a diverse background?
JL: A lot. I’ve worked really hard to be accurate and respectful when it comes to Islam, Middle Eastern folklore, and religious texts. I even hired a Muslim PhD student in English Lit to consult on the manuscript. There were some tricky issues to navigate; as I mentioned, Scarlett is complex. She’s not a “perfect” Muslim. But when she’s doing things that a more devout Muslim wouldn’t, I’ve done my best to point the discrepancy out.
VL: Fantastic! Extensive research for something like this is so vital. I’m thrilled that this book will add to the much-needed diversity landscape in our literary world. I also love that although her Muslim heritage and her struggle with it is part of her, and it does come into play, but it’s not the main focus of the story. The mystery is the focus.
What has been the most surprising thing you’ve learned during this process to get your first book to publication?
JL: How long everything in traditional publishing takes. And that there is nothing – nothing — you can do to change it.
VL: Amen to that!
Thinking back to your childhood heroes /role models when you were a kid, who were they? What drew you to them? What powers/abilities did they have that you wished you could have? Do you still feel that way about them now?
JL: True confession: most of my heroes were authors. Their power was that they could tell stories that people wanted to read. And I feel even more like that now. My favorite writers are rock stars.
VL: Mine, too! I’d stand out in the rain to see an author I love, probably not for my favorite bands – priorities!
When did you know you wanted to be a writer? When did you start pursuing that seriously?
JL: I always knew, I was just afraid to really try. So I worked a lot of strange jobs after college. Then went to grad school (I’m half a dissertation short of being a PhD in Psychology) Then had babies. But when my older daughter turned three and it still felt like she was brand new, I realized how fast babies grow up. That was ten years ago. And it’s when I started drafting my first (still unsold) manuscript.
VL: Tell me about your most memorable adventure you had with your friends outside of school.
JL: Hmm…there was the time Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which used the tesseract to transport me across space. And the time that mean girl at school dumped a bucket of pig blood on me at prom…
Oh wait. That’s right. I didn’t actually have a lot of friends. My best adventures were the ones I lived through books.
VL: Ha! That sounds eerily familiar.
What was the scariest thing that you ever experienced as a kid?
JL: I don’t think anything was really scary. Hard, yes. But not scary. The really bad stuff has happened to me as a grown-up.
VL: My teen-aged daughter would agree that becoming an adult IS the scariest thing.
Tell me about the most interesting place you have ever lived. What did you like/hate most about it?
JL: So here’s where I’ve lived: NYC; San Francisco: West Point, NY; Augusta, Georgia; Buffalo, NY, Philadelphia; Madrid; Rhode Island (4 different towns); and Tulsa, OK. Honestly, Tulsa wins. Maybe its because I’ve been here longer than anywhere else. Or maybe it’s because this place refuses to be defined, and manages to both frustrate and surprise me (in good ways) every day. Someone once told me, “It’s a great place to live, but you wouldn’t want to visit.” And that kind of fits.
VL: That is some serious globe-trotting. I’ve never thought of Tulsa like that before, and yet, I totally see it.
In your bio, you mentioned that you’ve had some really weird jobs, tell us about the worst job you ever had while going to school?
JL: This is a tie. Both jobs came after I’d graduated from college. The first was cleaning up in a virology lab at Brown University. It wasn’t so much the work (though autoclaving test tubes is a joy, let me tell you) as the nasty woman I worked for. I thought the job would give me an inside track if I decided to apply to the med school there. It didn’t. And I didn’t apply, either.
The second was working for this nutball guy who ran an interior decorating business. I literally spent days peeling stickers off the backs of carpet samples and gluing new ones on. See, he didn’t want customers to be able to find the same carpet at other stores, so he changed the product info. Again, it wasn’t so much the actual work as it was the way he treated me. No matter how menial the job, people who work hard deserve respect. And neither of those two crazy bosses gave me that.
VL: Bored to tears and no respect? Sounds like my idea of hell on Earth!
What are you currently working on?
JL: Well, I’ve been fiddling around with a second Scarlett mystery, and a historical fiction story set in Tulsa. I’ve also finished about 1/3 of a noir mystery for older young adults that’s kind of The Black Dahlia meets Oklahoma!
VL: What has been your favorite book to read/book you’ve been most excited about over the past year?
JL: I loved GOING BOVINE, by Libba Bray. And MY SISTER LIVES ON THE MANTLEPIECE by Annabel Pitcher. But those are just the first two that popped into my head. There are so many amazing books out there. It blows me away.
VL: GOING BOVINE was fantastic! (Of course, I love anything Libba Bray writes.) I will have to add the other to my must check out list. Always looking for interesting titles.
What would be your dream assignment/what would you most like to write about?
JL: Not a clue. I guess I’ll just keep writing until I figure that out. 🙂
VL: Jennifer, thank you for so much for joining us and sharing your story with us, today. I wish you well with your debut of SCARLETT UNDERCOVER and look forward to its release date this spring.
Anna Myers is fond of saying she has a great opening line for her autobiography, “I was born in Pinky George’s liquor store.” It definitely grabs your attention and there’s a funny story behind it. Anna is always telling great stories, especially ones that revolve around her family. She grew up surrounded by storytellers; stories are in her blood.
Thankfully, she shares her talents with us, her writing community.
Anna Myers is not only an award-winning author of nineteen novels for young adults, including Assassin, Time of the Witches, Spy, Tulsa Burning, The Keeping Room, and her latest title, The Grave Robber’s Secret,but she is also the SCBWI Regional Advisor for our motley crew of writers here in Oklahoma. A job she is very well suited for. The skills she acquired wrangling a classroom of rowdy eighth graders into submission often come in handy when addressing a bunch of children’s writers. Although she may call us out to sit down and behave, she is also there to offer support and guidance to those of us who have found a similar calling. One thing she doesn’t do is sugar coat the life of a writer. Many times I have heard her say, “If you can be a truck driver, be a truck driver.” But if you have to write, you cannot live without writing in your life, be prepared to work hard. Study your craft. Get your writing critiqued and be prepared to listen to the critiques. Many times beginning writers send out their work too soon. It’s the biggest mistake she sees them make.
The best thing Anna Myers ever did for me was comment on some of my writing she heard at an informal gathering one night. I was a little more than nervous because she has a reputation for giving very direct critiques – the non-sugarcoating kind.
She doesn’t subscribe to the sandwich method.
After I read my pages – voice shaking, hands sweating – I waited for the ripping to start. One of the first things she said to me was,
“Wow! You are a writer!”
Everything else fell away. I was ecstatic. An actual writer that I respected had called me a writer. She saw enough talent in me to encourage me to keep pursuing my dream. That is so huge to someone who is struggling and fumbling and not even sure if they are good enough to keep trying. After that, I stopped saying that I was “trying to write a novel” or “aspiring to be a writer” and started calling myself a writer. It may seem like a simple thing, but many of you may know how hard accepting that label is.
I have never forgotten that evening. Any time I hit a rough patch or I feel like giving up, I remember those words and I keep going.
Mine is only one story. Anna has mentored, encouraged, and cajoled many of us in our SCBWI OK group to reach farther, dig deeper, or to even write something we ourselves aren’t sure we’re capable of writing. She keeps challenging us to be better writers, to keep learning. For our part, we follow her lead. She isn’t often wrong and we wouldn’t be where we are without her.
We aren’t the only ones who think Anna is amazing. Earlier this year, Anna received the Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement award from the Oklahoma Center for the Book. I had the privilege of attending the event, along with several of her other writer friends and many members of her family. Anna’s son, Benjamin Myers, an exceptional poet in his own right, gave her an introduction that didn’t leave many dry eyes in the room. Here’s just a brief excerpt from that speech:
Near the beginning of her masterly novel, Fire in the Hills, Anna Myers gives us this exchange between young Hallie and her dying mother:
“Ma,” said the girl, trying not to scream. “Ma, you can’t die.”
“We all do, child. We all do. There is worst things. Sing to me, Hallie.
It will rest us both.”
This brief bit of dialogue sums up much that is great about my mother’s work. Her novels are rooted in the common human lot of suffering, in the ties that bind us together even in the hardest of times, and in the universal song that transcends the sorrow: “Sing to me, Hallie. It will rest us both.” Anna Myers comes from folks who know suffering and from folks who know how to tell a story, a long line of yarn-spinners and survivors. Thus, her books often begin with sadness, like the gut-wrenching first line of Red Dirt Jessie – “My sister Patsy is dead” – or the heart-rending execution scene with which she opens Spy, her account of the life and death of Nathan Hale. This story structure, this motion from pain to the pleasure of narrative, reminds us that the stories we tell are born from our sorrows and that our strength to face such sorrow is often born from the stories we tell.
When these stories belong to all of us, we call them “history,” and much of my mother’s career has been dedicated to bringing history alive in narrative. Red Dirt Jessie, is set during the Great Depression, a stark backdrop to mirror the emotional depravation of its young protagonist and her father. In Assassin, the turmoil of the Civil War matches the inner turmoil of young adulthood as Bella wrestles with her identity, the possibilities of good and evil in her young soul a microcosm of the equally polar possibilities within her young country at a great moment of crisis. Anna Myers knows that the stories we call history are the stories of individual lives. In Rosie’s Tiger, Rosie herself says so:
I didn’t understand much of what the newsmen said. It took me the
longest time to get it straight that the United States was mad at
North Korea and wanted to help South Korea. But all along I
understood that Ronny might not come home. When I set two
plates out on the table for super, I’d look at his empty chair and
be so awful afraid it might stay empty, always.
My mother’s novels remind us that the stories we share as history are stories of empty chairs and of changed lives.
I asked Anna if she would let me interview her for this little blog and she agreed without hesitation, always willing to help out.
Valerie Lawson: As a young kid, what was the worst trouble you ever got into? And what was your punishment?
Anna Myers: I am afraid this will make me sound terribly dull, but I never really got into trouble as a kid. I was number six in a family of seven. My parents were easy going about rules. Yet, I knew full well that I was expected to behave and use my head. I did not want to disappoint them. At school, I had lots of fun and sometimes went just to the edge of aggravating the teacher, but I always stopped before I got in trouble.
VL: What did you want to be when you were in grade school? What influenced this choice?
AM: The summer before first grade I decided to be a writer because I loved stories better than anything. I also knew it was a lucrative profession because I dictated a story to one of my older sisters. I then charged each of my older siblings, including the one who wrote it down for me, a quarter each to read the piece. I made $1.25, my last big money.
VL: Thinking back to your childhood heroes /role models when you were a kid, who were they? What drew you to them? What powers/abilities did they have that you wished you could have? Do you still feel that way about them now?
AM: Anne of Green Gables comes quickly to mind. I admired her spunk and identified with her imagination. Another of my heroes was my sister Shirley. Six years older than I, she was always quick to protect and help me. When I was in first grade, she taught me to recite “The Night Before Christmas.” Next she took me in before school to recite the piece for my teacher. Shirley also suggested my recitation would be good in the all-school Christmas program, and my teacher agreed. I grew up wanting to be like my sister. I still do. Shirley read Anne of Green Gables to me when I was about eight. A few years ago my two sisters and I went to Prince Edward Island, where the story is set and to see author Lucy Montgomery’s home there.
VL: I wouldn’t mind a sister like that. She really instilled a love of stories in you, in sounds like. Although, I think that pretty much was part of your family tradition wasn’t it? You grew up surrounded by storytellers. One of your first books, Fire in the Hills, is loosely based on your own family, right?
VL: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? When did you start pursuing that seriously?
AM: I always enjoyed writing, but I did not get serious until I was forty. When I attended my first SCBWI conference, I sat by a lady in her seventies. She told me she intended to write someday. I realized I was following in her footsteps, so I went home and got busy.
VL: Wow. That would be a serious wake up call to any writer. Don’t just think about writing or talk about the story you’re going to write, get busy doing it.
On to the next question, were you ever afraid of the dark, of anything under your bed or in your closet?
AM: As number six in a family of seven kids, I was never alone long enough to be afraid.
VL: Who was your childhood best friend? Are you still friends today?
AM: My best friend was Darlene Fast, who lived about ½ mile down the country road from me. A few years ago when I woke after brain surgery, Darlene was standing at the foot of my bed. I told the nurse, “This woman has been with me on every important occasion of my life except my birth, and the only reason she missed that is because I am a month older.”
VL: So many people come and go in our lives. I think that is so rare, to have a friend who has known you from childhood to adulthood. Tell me about your most memorable adventure you had with your friends outside of school.
AM: For a couple of years starting in about 5th grade, my friends and I greeted spring by going on what we called “safari.” We spent days making lists of who would bring what, everything from first aid paraphernalia to food, reading material, and blankets for rest. We met at Darlene’s house because she lived near the creek. Some of us brought wagons belonging to younger siblings. We went to the creek and stayed until dark. Our safaris continued periodically until fall.
VL: That sounds fantastic! And very organized. Did you ever have a clubhouse or secret place of your own? What did you do there?
AM: I grew up in the country, mostly with other kids whose fathers worked in the oil fields with my father. We roamed the countryside, climbed on oil derricks and swam in creeks.
VL: Did you ever have to deal with a bully? How did you handle it?
AM: When I was in junior high, a boy who was a year younger used to spit on my friends and me, usually from steps above us. After that happened several time, we jumped him one day and made him sorry. He yelled loudly, but the duty teacher ignored him. Things were different in those days.
VL: Kids solved their own problems. Interesting. What was the scariest thing that you ever experienced as a kid?
AM: As a small child, I believed that a kid had to stop playing at some point. My older sisters never played with dolls or with dogs outside. They were not pretenders, and I decided they must be beyond the age such things were allowed. I don’t know why I never expressed that fear, but I remember lying in bed at night wondering when I would cross that terrible dividing line.
VL: I think that is one of the most terrifying things I have heard. I wonder why children keep such dark thoughts to themselves. I remember suddenly realizing that everyone I knew would die one day and then that I would die, too. I would lose sleep thinking about it. I didn’t talk to anyone either. I was probably seven or eight.
Tell me about the most interesting place you have ever lived. What did you like/hate most about it?
AM: My current home, a house built around 1920, is the most interesting place I have ever lived. I have lived there with my husband, Johnny, for five years. When we moved in, I felt I had finally come home, as if the house had been waiting for me. Shortly after we moved in, I had a dinner party for several of my close friends from college. I was struck by the number of my old friends who made comments similar to, “This house is so you” as soon as they entered. I feel the spirits of others who have lived here, and when I sit around the dining room table with my writing buddies, I feel especially peaceful.
VL: I would agree that it does have a very comforting, creative vibe.
What was the worst job you ever had while going to school?
AM: I worked my freshman year in college at a two-woman credit union. This was before computers. I am not good with numbers, and I made lots of mistakes. People can get really upset just because you leave off a zero when working with their account or a check.
VL: What is the most embarrassing thing one of your friends ever did to you?
AM: My two best college friends and I did our student teaching in the same high school. I was careful to buy a new heavy tweed suit that I thought made me look really mature. On the first morning, we were walking down the hall together, my arms full of books, when my wrap-around skirt suddenly came off. Rather than helping, my friends stood there laughing while I, dropping my books, collected my skirt, got behind a classroom door, and did a retie. I threw away the skirt when I got back to the dorm, but for some reason, I kept the friends.
VL: HA! The skirt was probably easier to return. Did your parents ever talk to you about the facts of life? What is the most memorable thing they told you?
AM: What facts of life? I don’t know what you mean. No one ever told me anything.
VL: What is happening in your writing life now?
AM: I am finally working hard on a project that I’ve talked about for years, my first novel for adults. It is about three women teachers who form a garbage company to supplement their teaching salary. I wanted to celebrate the camaraderie I enjoyed with the women with whom I worked when I taught. I also wanted to write about the death of a husband from a wife’s point of view. It will be finished by November.
I am also involved with my friend Pati Hailey in a writing business. We hold writing retreats at my home. For information about them go to http://www.critiquecafe.net.
VL: Having heard a short excerpt of this story, and having met the women who inspired this story, I am really looking forward to reading this book when it comes out!
Tell us more about your involvement with SCBWI; what type of events to you sponsor?
AM: For twelve years I have served as the region advisor for the Oklahoma chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. We sponsor two major events each year. In the spring we bring in editors and agents from New York who speak to us about writing and who critique our manuscripts and art. This fall we will hold retreats for picture book writers and for people who write novels. We also have small, informal gatherings each month in both Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Anyone who wants to write or illustrate books for children or young adults needs to join SCBWI. Check out the international organization at www.scbwi.org and our local group at www.scbwiok.org.
VL: It is the best thing I ever did for my writing, for sure. I’ve met so many fantastic writers through SCBWI. That’s also where I found my phenomenal critique group.
Why are you willing to put so much time into helping other writers?
AM: I believe in paying forward. I was lucky to be born to very supportive parents and to be given siblings who have always done a great deal for me. My late husband, Paul, had more writing ability in his little finger than I have in my whole body. He taught me to write. Besides, after I gave up teaching, I needed to do something to satisfy what I call a “sick need to teach.” The main plus of working in SCBWI is that I’ve gotten to know so many great people. I treasure my SCBWI friends.
VL: Anna, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today. It has been a pleasure.
As I hope one day to interview fellow authors and other amazing people who have touched my life, shaping my character in various ways – for good or bad to be determined later – I wanted to test out some sample questions that were more probing, more revealing and less banal than the common, “Have you always wanted to be a writer?” and “Where do you get your ideas from?” that everyone else always asks. What I needed was a brave soul to subject to my arduous questions, someone to practice my interviewing skills on. I sent out a call for volunteers. I had one person come forward with the condition that “he” remains anonymous. Reluctantly, I agreed. Herein follows my first attempt at an in-depth interview. Enjoy.
Me: Thank you for joining me today, Mr. Quixote, or may I call you Don?
DQ: Sure, Don is fine.
Me: Great. Don, could you start out by telling us a little bit about your experiences from childhood? Did you have any hero or roles models when you were a kid?
DQ: Sgt. Rock of Easy Company was my favorite comic book. I saw my brother as the coolest person around and I wanted to be like him. I learned early on to be careful what you wish for. For many years I idolized him. Later I realized my Step-father was the better role model.
Me: Interesting. At one point when I was young, I wanted to be Wonder Woman. I think I liked the idea of her being powerful, deflecting bullets and all that and she was the only girl super hero.
Did you ever have clubhouse or secret place of your own? What did you do there?
DQ: Yep, one summer’s vacation away from my grade school at Kaiser Elementary. I talked some neighborhood buddies into building a fort in our back yard. We didn’t have any wood but there was a new house being built down the street and there were piles of scrap and new wood laying about. We started with the scrap and quickly realized that wouldn’t be enough so we started walking away with long planks of new wood off their stacks they were using for framing the house. I know the workers saw us doing this but they never said a thing. I remember thinking this was not a right or wrong thing as it was just logical that we get what we needed for the fort. Kinda puzzled to this day as to what those workers were thinking about us kids hauling off all that wood. The fort turned out to be shaped like a pig pen (long and narrow with missing slats to use for shooting Indians from.)
Me: So, tell me Don, what was your most memorable adventure that you had with your friends outside of school.
DQ: It would have to be the night a few of us decided to use my Dad’s car to go hunting rabbits at night. This was, and still is I think, called “spotlighting”. A deer or rabbit when hit with a spotlight will freeze in place long enough to get it’s ass shot off. We were out behind Lake Overholser dam outside of Oklahoma City when we spotted a rabbit. I pointed the car’s high beams at the luckless creature and one of my friends jumped out of the car on the right side with a semi-auto .22 cal rifle and started shooting at the rabbit. Unfortunately for me the rabbit started running to the left of the front of the car and my friend began shooting rapidly trying to catch up to the rabbit. Well, as he swung his rifle towards the escaping rabbit his line of fire swept over the front of my Dad’s 1959 Desoto neatly plugging the left hood ornament three times. I’m pretty sure my first words were something like “Oh Shit! You shot my car!” It took my Dad about a month to discover the bullet holes and when he asked me about it I had a really good story ready. He bought it … I think.
Me: Wow! That kind of makes any trouble I got into not seem quite so dangerous. At least there was no gunfire involved with mine. I’d love to hear the story your dad swallowed about the bullet holes that didn’t land you in trouble. I’m picturing something about witnessing a bank robbery followed by a police shootout, but then my imagination tends to leap a little on the wild side.
DQ: It’s probably better if that remains a mystery.
Me: I understand. Can’t blame me for asking. Tell me about the most interesting place you have ever lived. What did you like/hate most about it?
DQ: Other than where I live today, which is more wonderful than interesting, it would be when [I] lived in Tacoma Washington. We were poor as church mice; living on food stamps…We were surrounded by beautiful and exciting natural and free things to do. Clam digging on Puget Sound, watching big trawlers unload; crossing the Narrows Bridge after being told of how the last one built was destroyed by wind, sending cars and people to the depths of the Sound. Hiking up parts of Mt. Rainer, inner tube sliding in the snow on Mt. Rainer. Any car trip in that area was a treat. Eventually, [I] began to hate the constant rain, cloudy days, and wood pulp mill smog that permeated the area…
Me: What was the worst job you ever had while going to school? Did your friends ever come by while you were working and embarrass you?
DQ: [The worst job I ever had was] Bus Boy at Kip’s Big Boy restaurant. It was a special kind of humiliation to be cleaning up the messes that the cool popular guys and their dates from school left. These BMOC’s assholes would come in with the very girls I spent the majority of my waking hours fantasizing about.
Me: Sounds a bit like my least favorite job; McDonald’s. I especially loved working the drive thru when they made us wear these ridiculous foam Chinese hats to promote some new nugget sauce. The stupid things caught on everything and choked the crap out of you. On Friday night, during peak cruising time, every other carload of (intoxicated) popular kids asked me – with dripping sarcasm – if they could have my awesome hat. Thank God they didn’t have Facebook back then. I’m sure my picture would’ve been snapped and uploaded a thousand times.
Along this same line, what is the most embarrassing thing one of your friends ever did? Especially when trying to impress members of the opposite sex?
DQ: [My friend] Jonny was always experimenting with weird ways of communicating. He decided to spend the day juxtaposing the letter “F” in front of every word in any sentence he spoke. It blew up on him when he asked the Homeroom teacher, “Say, where’s Bucket Face?”
Me: Ouch! I’m guessing you were Bucket Face?
(Silence, followed by icy glare)
Next I’d like to move on to more serious subjects. Did you ever have to deal with a bully? How did you handle it?
DQ: There was a time I was riding a 50cc motorcycle to school and the only way I had of locking it was with a combination lock. Apparently one of the local n’er-do-wells watched me unlock it enough times to get the combination and I began finding my cycle parked differently each day with extra miles on it. I figured someone was taking my bike at lunch time for rides and then bringing it back. I told the vice-principal about it and he said he would come out with me the next day and help me catch the guys doing it. Well here’s where trusting authority didn’t pay off. The vp didn’t show but a friend and I staked out the parking area and waited for my bike to come back. The guy driving the bike was the local bully and I confronted him (most unlike me) and we got into a shoving match and were about to begin [throwing] punches when his friend who was riding on the back jumped in with some lame excuse about borrowing the bike. About that time the vp finally showed up and took the bully and his friend away. I felt good about standing up to the bully.
Me: That must have been a very satisfying feeling – solving your own problem and standing up to your bully. It was nice of the vice principal to show up in time to stop the violence from happening. At least he was good for something.
Me: As a kid, what was the worst trouble you ever got into? And what was your punishment?
DQ: There were so many…I guess when I shot a BB gun at a neighbor’s window and broke it. I was about 9 years old. I think I was grounded for that.
Me: Were you ever afraid of the dark, of anything under your bed or in your closet?
DQ: After watching The Blob at the movies I imagined it was under my bed so I walked on top of my furniture to get out of the bedroom the next morning.
Me: Aah! The slow-moving atomic jello is coming to get you! This leads us to the next question, what was the scariest thing that you ever experienced as a kid?
DQ: This would be the time when I was younger than 9 (as it happened before we moved to OKC). I was taking my nightly bath in the summertime. We didn’t have air-conditioning so the high bathroom window was open. I was minding my own business when suddenly a monster with huge claws was scraping at the screen trying to get in and devour me. I screamed and everyone came running as I cried, “There’s a monster trying to get in the window!!” While he never confessed to me I’m pretty sure it was my brother using the garden shears to scrape on the screen.
Me: That sounds terrifying. Why was it again that you looked up to your brother as a hero figure?
(Another silence, punctured by an icy glare.)
Ahem, next question. Have you ever had a near-death experience?
DQ: Yes, being married to your mother.
Me: We-ell, that answer may have just given away your secret identity, so I think we’ll end there.
DQ: Thanks alot, I’ve successfully repressed all of those things and you just had to dredge them up. I know my mind will work on this and open up those vaults of pain during my sleep and I will visit them again, and again, and again. Like I don’t have enough angst in my life you had to get all this going?
Me: That’s all we have time for. Thanks for being my guest, today, “Don”. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you. May some of the windmills you tilt at in the future actually be ferocious giants.