Kim Ventrella – Author Interview

I’m so happy to be interviewing the delightful Kim Ventrella, today. Kim is an SCBWI Oklahoma region member I’m just getting to know, and I’ve been dying to ask her some in-depth questions. Like what’s behind her extensive skeleton collection? How much does her dog, Hera, actually help her writing process? And more importantly, what inspired her highly anticipated debut novel, SKELETON TREE, which comes out this month?

Let’s find out.

 

About Kim

Kim lives in Oklahoma City with her faithful furry companion, Hera. She moonlights as a children’s librarian when she’s not writing books, fighting crime, or killing houseplants. (I’m beginning to think her bio has been padded. That houseplants thing is a little far-fetched, if you ask me.)

She has been know to actually seek out places where skeletons dwell. To even pose for pictures with them, and dress them up in fancy hats and wigs. Some might call that weird, I call that amazing! How else would we get such an awesome-looking book?

 

Before the interview, let’s take a closer look at Kim’s book:

SKELETON TREE by Kim Ventrella

Release Date: September 26, 2017

Publisher: Scholastic Press

Genres: Middle Grade, Fantasy

BOOK AVAILABLE FOR PREORDER:
indieboundbn-24h-80amazon
Plot Summary:

Twelve-year-old Stanly knows the bone growing in his yard is a little weird, but that’s okay, because now he’ll have the perfect photo to submit to the Young Discoverer’s Competition. With such a unique find, he’s sure to win the grand prize.

But, oddly, the bone doesn’t appear in any photos. Even stranger, it seems to be growing into a full skeleton…one that only children can see.

There’s just one person who doesn’t find any of this weird–Stanly’s little sister. Mischievous Miren adopts the skeleton as a friend, and soon, the two become inseparable playmates.

When Miren starts to grow sick, Stanly suspects that the skeleton is responsible and does everything in his power to drive the creature away. However, Miren is desperate not to lose her friend, forcing Stanly to question everything he’s ever believed about life, love, and the mysterious forces that connect us. (Plot summary from Goodreads.)


 

The Interview

Valerie Lawson: Your debut novel, SKELETON TREE, has such an intriguing premise, what sparked the idea for this story?

Kim Ventrella: I wondered what would happen if a boy discovered a finger bone growing in his backyard. The story evolved from there, becoming much more than I had anticipated.

VL: What a great beginning. I can’t wait to read where the story goes from there!

I absolutely love the book trailer for THE SKELETON TREE, what can you tell us about it? (You can view the book trailer below.)

KV: Artist Jerry Bennett and Filmmaker Zac Davis did an amazing job putting together the trailer. I had gone to see their award-winning short film, Even in Death, and after that I knew they would be perfect for the job. It captures just the right mix of wonder, spookiness and whimsy.

VL: You seem more than fascinated (dare we say obsessed?) with skeletons – I love following your hashtag #skeletonspotting, by the way – where did this deep interest in skeletons come from?

KV: I don’t know if it’s a deep interest (ha!), but I have always been fascinated with the macabre. Scary stories are a great way to confront monsters in a safe environment. Readers can learn from the character’s journey that it’s possible to overcome those spooky skeletons we all have in our closets.

VL: So true! Better to tackle them in the pages of fiction than in real life. (Checks closet for skeletons.)

Your story tackles the difficult subject of death, one not many adults are comfortable dealing with. Talk about why you thought it important to address this issue in a children’s book.

KV: My grandfather passed away suddenly not long before I started Skeleton Tree. I didn’t initially intend for it to be a book about death, but that was just how the story unfolded. It became a sort of canvas on which I could put forward my own vision of how Death could look, if we chose to experience it through a different lens.

I wanted to create a Death full of meaning, beauty, friendship and understanding. I strongly believe that books are one of the best ways for children to make sense of the world around them, to experience tough topics in a safe space, and that includes dealing with death.

VL: How beautiful. That’s quite an homage to your grandfather, too. I just love that.

What were some of your biggest fears as a kid? Were you ever afraid of the dark, of anything under your bed or in your closet?

KV: I was very scared of ghosts in particular when I was a child, which is perhaps why I embraced the macabre. I used to have night terrors, night paralysis and visual disturbances (i.e. I very vividly ‘saw’ ghosts on several occasions as a child).

For me, reading scary stories has always been the equivalent of performing a big Riddikulus spell on those creepy real-life monsters. Seeing others triumph over evil, whether it’s watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer or reading Roald Dahl, gives me confidence that I can also defeat the big baddies out there.

VL: Wow! Very in touch with your spooky side, even as a kid. Destined to write this genre! I love that seeing others conquer their fears in books gave you courage, too. Books are so powerful!

You discussed in a post recently that you like to begin writing a story by thinking about its emotional catharsis and working back from there. That’s almost like starting at the ending and working your way back to the beginning. I love this idea. Can you expand on this?

KV: My writing style has changed and continues to change a ton. I always used to write completely organically, with no plotting ahead of time, like with Skeleton Tree. Now that I have to send off proposals for stories before I start writing (for the most part), I’ve started thinking more strategically.

In the end, the important aspect of a story for me is what emotional impact readers will feel after they turn the last page. Has the book changed the way they see the world? Has the character’s journey taught them something about themselves?

Starting with that in mind can speed up the process, but it’s not always possible, because sometimes you can reach a more powerful conclusion if your destination is unplanned.

VL: Excellent advice, to focus on the emotional impact.

Your dog Hera features prominently in your Instagram posts, how does she factor into your writing process? (I have heard tale that you like to write in her dog bed.)

KV: Yes, I wrote Skeleton Tree sitting in a dog bed, while Hera sat on the couch behind me looking over my shoulder. I now have an office chair, ha!, but my dog is still a big help. I even mention her in the acknowledgements of my book. She’s sweet, silly and scared of everything, but most of all she’s the perfect co-writer.

VL: Who were your childhood heroes/role models?

KV: I don’t know about role models, but I was obsessed with Billy the Kid, Al Capone and Charlie Chaplin. I also loved Agatha Christie’s famous detective, Hercule Poirot, and his sidekick, Hastings. The Addams Family was another huge favorite, as were Shel Silverstein and Roald Dahl.

VL: What a wonderfully eclectic collection! I’m also a huge Agatha Christie fan! I read so many of her books when I was a kid.

What has been your favorite book to read/book you’ve been most excited about over the past year?

KV: I love The Poet’s Dog by Patricia MacLachlan. It’s a sad, happy, heartfelt story about a poet who lives in a cabin in the woods with his dog. It’s practically my life story.

VL: Beautiful cover. Thanks for recommending it. 🙂

And thank you so much for joining us, today, Kim! It’s been such a pleasure talking with you and getting to know you better!

 

The Trailer

And now for your viewing pleasure…

The official book trailer for Skeleton Tree!

Local talents Jerry Bennett and Zac Davis created this trailer for Kim. They both worked on the award-winning short film, Even in Death. Jerry is an amazing comic book artist and illustrator who’s done work for companies like Marvel, Lucasfilm, and Topps. Zac Davis is a filmmaker and program director for Invisible Layers productions, a pre-employment program for young adults on the autism spectrum with an interest in film, video production, or animation.

Enjoy the trailer!

 

Don’t forget to pre-order Kim’s book SKELETON TREE! It releases on September 26th!

 

indieboundbn-24h-80amazon

 

 

 

Learn more about Kim Ventrella here.

Follow Kim on Twitter here.

Follow Kim on Facebook here.

Follow Kim on Instagram here.

 

 

 

The Amazing Jerry Bennett – Illustrator of Magnificence – The Interview, Part Two

JerryWelcome back to Part Two, the Question & Answer portion of our interview with illustrator and exotic beard cultivator, Jerry Bennett. (To catch up with the goodies you missed in Part One, click here.)

Valerie Lawson: Thanks for stopping by on your busy schedule, Jerry. Welcome back from the New Orleans Comic Con. I hope you enjoyed your time in The Big Easy.

Let’s get right to the questions, shall we?  You’ve recently been appointed to the position of Oklahoma SCBWI Regional Illustrator Coordinator; tell us about the role you play in Oklahoma SCBWI. How do you see that changing?

Jerry Bennett: That’s a good question, as I am still trying to get a feel for the position, since Oklahoma’s never had one before. It’s a tough pair of shoes to fill when the few and gifted group of illustrators we have are spread out across the state. My ultimate goal would be create a united group of Oklahoma illustrators that are able to encourage and fellowship together in our like-minded goals. I have a feeling the best way will be to do that through social media, so I’m in the process of building the best forms of internet communication for the illustrators to share what they are doing, and can help critique and promote each other’s work to strengthen and enable them to be the very best at what they do…I’m in the process of getting some events going that can be done for little expense and can yield valuable time of camaraderie and skill-building. One will be a sketchcrawl, where the artists will meet, whether it be a zoo, a mall or other scenic spot, and draw on location for skill-building, for reference researching or simply for fun. It can be a great chance to get to know the other illustrators and critique and encourage one another.

VL: That’s fantastic. Even though the full title of SCBWI is Society of Book Writers and Illustrators the focus seems to have been more on Dr Who Steampunkedwriters than illustrators in the past. Since you’ve become involved, there have already been exciting opportunities for illustrators at our annual spring conferences, including working with an art director on an art piece prior to the conference, just like one would for a book project. The feedback on that one in particular had to be amazing. How many novices get that kind of interaction? You’ve really helped to energize the illustrator portion of our group. I really look forward to seeing what great things you bring next.

Let’s go back to the beginning of your illustrious career. When did you know you wanted to be an illustrator? When did you start pursuing that seriously?

JB: I’ve always loved to draw. Always. It was in eighth grade, after trying to impress a girl by drawing a portrait of her, and all the gushing from everyone who saw it, made me realize that I could possibly do this as a career. [After the girl saw and loved the portrait, I chanced a request to a school dance with her. She said no.]

VL: I love getting to know someone better by probing into their childhood for embarrassing stories – what can I say, my father was a therapist and I have issues. So, here they come:

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?

JB: I see what you did there; ‘Drew’ you to them? 🙂

I was very heavy into knowing who made all my favorite movies. I was ‘drawn’ to the process of animation and special effects for the Star Wars movies as far back as elementary school! The power to bring anything, any creature, any ship, to life astounded me.

VL: What did you want to be when you were in grade school? What influenced this choice?

JB: I wanted to be a comic book artist! (All this time and nothing has changed!) Star Wars and Marvel Comics was my main source of influence. Still is.

Jerry Spidey
Jerry’s Favorite Hero

VL: Are you saying you haven’t grown up, yet? Never mind.

 As a young kid, what was the worst trouble you ever got into? And what was your punishment?

JB: Me? I never got into trouble. 🙂

The worst I can think of was when my brother and I decided to spray graffiti with graphite on our neighbor’s wall. Our mom caught us, and told to clean it up and go next door to apologize. (We pretended we apologized, and quickly cleaned it up!)

VL: Even when you were getting into trouble you were drawing. Nice.

Were you ever afraid of the dark, of anything under your bed or in your closet?

JB: I think I was, but I also remember waking up under the bed often, so was I afraid of myself?

VL: Bah ha ha! Maybe you were battling monsters in your sleep.

 Tell me about your most memorable adventure you had with your friends outside of school.

JB: When I was with my high school choir in Hawaii, my best friend was having issues with his girlfriend, and he wanted me to fix things with her, and had locked me on our seventh floor balcony until I promised I’d help. I would do no such thing, and climbed over to the next balcony and escaped. Yes, that was crazy and dumb. I was able to enjoy the rest of the trip after that, when he realized I wanted nothing to do with their problems.

Splatter BatVL: Hawaii??!!! I don’t know what kind of budget your school had, but my only band trips were to…oh, wait, I quit band in my sophomore year. Man, I hope they didn’t go to Hawaii. Maybe I should have joined the choir. And that was some crazy spidey stunt climbing over the balcony, if I say so myself. Crazy. Peter Parker wold have been proud.

Did you ever have a clubhouse or secret place of your own? What did you do there?

JB: My brother and I made forts out of our beds with blankets. Does that count? (Yes, it does!)

VL: Oh! Love blanket forts! Definitely counts.

VL: Did you ever have to deal with a bully? How did you handle it?

JB: Ugh. I remember when I rode the bus, two kids wanted to look at my Swatch, and I was naive enough to show them. They never gave it back, as they got off the bus and pretended they didn’t have it. When I pressed, one got in my face, while the other got behind me on his knees to trip me as I was pushed over. Days passed as I fantasized what I wanted to do, but eventually resigned that my Swatch was gone, and I went on with life, thinking that they will end up in prison one day while I lived a better life than them.

VL: Wow, that was pretty was a pretty mature attitude. I probably would have made an ineffective voodoo doll or something.

Tell me about the most interesting place you have ever lived. What did you like/hate most about it?

JB: I was born and raised in Oklahoma City, and at the time, found nothing interesting about living here. It may be why I

OKC Gazette Cover - OKC Thunder Avenger Style
Oklahoma City Gazette Cover – OKC Thunder Avenger Style

drew and played video games all the time: to get away from such a boring world I lived in. But now I can look with grown up eyes at all the awesomeness we have here now. The culture, the diversity, the friendliness that is a trademark for Okies.

VL: 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?

JB: In high school, I worked at Foleys (which is now Macys) as a sales associate, and I loved it! Friends did come by, but it was never embarrassing, though I was glad they never came by when I worked in handbags. I had always worked in the men’s and young men’s departments, then soon started working in all these women’s departments, housewares, and Godiva. I think they thought I was gay and better suited to work in ladies’ clothing. I didn’t mind it one bit. 🙂

VL: Ha! I can so see you selling the heck out of some ladies’ clothing. Best way to meet girls, too.

What is the most embarrassing thing one of your friends ever did to you?

JB: I remember in sixth grade, while stuttering and getting the nerve up to ask a girl to be my girlfriend, my brother, who was waiting impatiently to walk home with me, piped up and asked her if she wanted to be my girlfriend. She politely refused, citing she already had a boyfriend.

VL: Who was your childhood best friend? Are you still friends today?

JB: Honestly, I think my brother was my best friend. He was killed in a plane crash over 17 years ago now. It was understandably difficult.

VL: Very understandably. He must have been a great guy.

What would be your dream illustrating assignment?

Star Wars Tee Design
Star Wars Tee Design

JB: I’ve always wanted to draw a Spider-Man or Superman story, but now I’d throw in a Star Wars story into that mix, since Star Wars is a huge comic book property now, too! It would be amazing if I was approached by Scholastic to do a graphic novel series based on the Gregor the Overlander series by Suzanne Collins!

VL: Oh! Gregor the Overlander, that would be very cool as a graphic novel.

What has been your favorite book to read/book you’ve been most excited about over the past year?

JB: I have really enjoyed the graphic novels of Doug TenNapel. I’ve discovered and read several this year, with Cardboard being my favorite, but they all have such heart, humor and action, all packed in very well flowing panels. Check ’em out!

VL: Speaking of graphic novels, what are you currently working on?

JB: I’m multi-tasking, creating a sci-fi comic book, Nadir’s Zenith, creating several tee designs, selling prints of my work at comic book conventions, and deciding if I want to do another picture book for a local author. Something I’m very excited about is I’m writing, or more accurately, learning to write a graphic novel I will illustrate.

VL: I hear that you and your lovely wife are working on writing every week. If you’re putting in the work, then you ARE writing it! I am really looking forward to the graphic novel, Jerry. It sounds exciting. Thanks so much for taking the time to stop by!

Check out more of Jerry’s artwork here.

Become a fan of Jerry’s on Facebook here.

The Amazing Jerry Bennett – Ilustrator of Magnificence – The Interview, Part One

If you are ever anywhere near Jerry Bennett’s vicinity, you will know it when you hear his boisterous and unmistakable laughter. His is a personality that fills up a room and yet graciously makes plenty of space for others to share in his bright light. Jerry is the Regional Illustrator Coordinator for Oklahoma SCBWI and recently he did a fantastic presentation for our Tulsa group where he walked us through the illustration process of a picture book manuscript. One lucky soul had her words chosen at random for Jerry to bring to life right before our eyes as he talked with us about his process and his history of being an illustrator. I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t write a story while telling others how I write a story.

That’s talent.

He should be talented; he started drawing at the age of two and never stopped. His dad worked at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City while he was growing up so some up his very first drawing were of airplanes. Then came Star Wars. He knew right away that would be a life-long obsession. As he is a part of the JediOKC, an Oklahoma City Star Wars fan club that does some awesome charity things, I guess you can say that was an accurate prediction. Other things influenced his art in his youth – Transformers, Spiderman, Garfield (really? Okay, he’s a fuzzy cat person). Then came a seminal moment when he realized that he might actually make art a career.

It all started with a girl.

It was eighth grade and he was shy. So, how to get her to notice him? By drawing, of course. He drew her portrait and everyone who saw it thought it was great. That gave him the confidence to ask her out.

Yes!

She turned him down.

No!

His first rejection. He took it in stride and thought about how he might actually be able to make money with his art. He was on his way to becoming an artist. He developed an even tougher skin in art school where he learned to accept critiques of his work weekly. Meanwhile he had begun working on t-shirt designs during high school, something he is still doing to this day. His top seller, the Star Wars/Ghostbusters mash-up “It’s a Trap” has sold over 3,300 shirts. Marvel even licensed him.

More recently, he’s done some illustrations for a self-published series of books, The Pirate Bride and its sequel, The Lost Crew. He has also done the illustrations for the comic series Nadir’s Zenith.

We were ecstatic that Jerry was going to share his talents with us.

He began by reading the text aloud.

The first step is to read the story.

Here is all he had to go on:

Two hippos sailed a sky blue boat.

Jack wondered how they stayed afloat.

They only had one ruby oar,

Which made it hard to get to shore.”

(Thanks to Linda Mai for allowing me to share her text.)

You have to understand the plot, the characters, and the details before you can begin to illustrate. Jerry reads through the story several times. He’ll read it aloud with different inflections, using different voices – some funny or silly – to get a range of ideas. He said just as readers get images in their head when they read a novel, so do artists, yet artists are able to translate those images into illustrations.

One thing Jerry mentioned that made the inner editor in me cringe a bit was the reminder that if you’ve received the manuscript from a publisher, you won’t have much say in changing the text. You are stuck with the words you are given. Your job as the illustrator is how to best interpret the words and how to make the biggest impact on the story with images. You have to remember that in the author/illustrator partnership, you have two completely different artists, two owners sharing the same creation, yet working independently of each other.

As an illustrator of picture books, you should always be looking for ways to enhance the story. In the example that Jerry chose, there were hippos in a boat with only one oar. He decided Jack was the observer of the story and the illustration should focus on the hippos. He also thought that it would be funnier if the size of the oar and the boat were exaggerated compared to the hippos to make their predicament seem more outrageous. Nothing in the text said anything about what type of boat or how big it was – that was left up to him, so he took advantage of it to add something visually enticing for the reader.

The second step is to create a thumbnail layout.

For picture books, this is usually a layout of thirty-two pages of quick and simple sketches, just to place things. This can be in any format that works for you – a simple sheet of paper with thirty-two boxes marked out, a mock dummy with pages, etc. Jerry now does this digitally on his Wacom tablet. This purpose of the thumbnail sketching is to figure out the best possible way for the story to look. All aspect of the text is included as well as the imagery.

The third step is creating the individual pages of art for the initial layout.

When drawing free hand, he starts with the lightest sketching. Normally at home his work starts out on his Wacom tablet, then he moves it over to a pro tools program. His workstation is set up in an easel so he can draw naturally. Jerry usually listens to music, often movie soundtracks, while he is creating. The amount of time it takes him to complete a project can vary. For a comic, it takes him about a month while working eight to ten hours a day.

The fourth step is to send layouts to the editor.

If any changes need to be made, the editor will send it back with notes. He will rework it before the final layout. This step can be repeated as needed, just like with novel revisions.

Until at last everyone is happy with the end result.

Not bad for less than sixty minutes while giving a presentation, eh?

Stay tuned  for PART TWO, the Q & A with Jerry!

Grief, the End of November, NaNoWriMo and #writemotivation

Grief can hit you at the strangest times. You think you’ve got a handle on it; you’ve been through the worst parts. You survived the funeral, the graveside service, the well-wishers’ comments – all with minimal tissue involvement. After all, this loss was not totally unexpected. On some level, you’re relieved she’s no longer suffering – no longer lost. You’re not a callous person; you do feel sad, empty inside even, but you’re able to function without falling apart.

Then a few weeks pass and you’re making dinner using a recipe given to you by the person you lost or, like my husband, you’re at work passing out medication for an Alzheimer’s patient when you realize it’s the same drug your mother was taking – Bam! You’re weeping uncontrollably in a heap on the floor.

It’s always the little things that get you in the end.

Those small moments we share – making dinner together, taking care of each other when we’re sick, the silly moments every family has – they mean so much. I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated a Thanksgiving more than I have this year, when it felt like there was something off kilter; wrong. It took my slow grieving brain all week to figure out that it was because there was someone important missing.

So for those of you who’ve endured more hugs from me than normal or weepy phone calls or even silence because I couldn’t find the right words…thank you and I love you.

And I’m sure I’ll be more myself eventually. To help me with this, I’ve turned to things like poetry. Here’s a great one.

“Heavy,” by Mary Oliver

That time
I thought I could not
go any closer to grief
without dying

I went closer,
and I did not die.
Surely God
had his hand in this,

as well as friends.
Still, I was bent,
and my laughter,
as the poet said,

was nowhere to be found.
Then said my friend Daniel,
(brave even among lions),
“It’s not the weight you carry

but how you carry it –
books, bricks, grief –
it’s all in the way
you embrace it, balance it, carry it

when you cannot, and would not,
put it down.”
So I went practicing.
Have you noticed?

Have you heard
the laughter
that comes, now and again,
out of my startled mouth?

How I linger
to admire, admire, admire
the things of this world
that are kind, and maybe

also troubled –
roses in the wind,
the sea geese on the steep waves,
a love
to which there is no reply?

Somehow I did actually find time for writing amidst the emotional upheaval this week. So let’s just look over those writing goals, shall we?

let’s make it a half nano

Here are my #writemotivation goals:

1. Write at least 12,000 words on nanowrimo project each week. It looks like I may actually make it to a half NaNo – 25,000 words – by the end of November. That’s not bad, considering. Almost good, even.
2. Write blog post at least once a week. Yay! One goal met.
3. Read and comment on other blogs. I did better, but still room for improvement.
4. Exercise four times a week. Muscles are aching so we’re back in the game – well, more like we’ve had a great couple of practices and if some of the key players are injured, THEN we’ll be back in the game. (Too much of a stretch?)

On a final note, the long awaited Jerry Bennett interview will post this week! Stay tuned!

The briefest of updates for nanowrimo and #writemotivation

Life has been fairly disruptive and sad around our house over the past few weeks. Mourning will do that. Still, I’ve found a renewed sense of dedication to my work returning. Maybe that brush with mortality is now pushing me forward; I don’t know. Understandably, I am really far behind on my writing goals for the month. I’m going to be okay with that and just embrace this new, energetic writing phase I’m entering now. We’ll see how far I get in the next nine days.

Here my #writemotivation goals that need updating:

1. Write at least 12,000 words on nanowrimo project each week. Ouch! Well, I have written over 14,000 words, but not much more than that. I have to write over 3600 words a day going forward to reach the ultimate 50,000 word goal. It could happen. If not, I won’t cry about it. I will give it my best effort. I do have to say, that before all the sad stuff happened, I attended my first local NaNoWriMo Write-In and it was really fun. I loved finally meeting folks I’ve just known online. I WILL make some more Write-Ins before the month is over. You guys are great.
2. Write blog post at least once a week. This is the only goal I have accomplished completely so far. Good thing I kept it simple.
3. Read and comment on other blogs. I did well the first week…I will do better this week.
4. Exercise four times a week. NO COMMENT.

Coming soon – as promised – I will have an interview with The Jerry Bennett, illustrator and overall talent extraordinaire. For a preview of his work, you can check out his website here and his Facebook page here.

During this season of being thankful, I want to make sure to say that I am beyond thankful for all of my writing friends and my readers, like you.

Happy Thanksgiving.