Alchemy and Karen Cushman!

Oh, this is so much fun! Not only is there a brand-new book out from one of my all-time favorite authors, but I got to read an ear­ly copy (squeee!) and inter­view the author for my blog (huz­zah)!

First, let me gush a lit­tle about how much I enjoyed read­ing Alche­my and Meg­gy Swann. There’s an awful lot for read­ers of any age to love in this lit­tle book: from the open­ing scene where we start right in with action and a bit of a mys­tery, to the feisty but kind-heart­ed hero­ine, to the his­tor­i­cal rich­ness, to the won­der­ful array of cre­ative insults. It’s tru­ly got some­thing for every­one. If you’re not already a fan of Karen Cush­man, this book will sure­ly trans­form you into one. And now, let’s meet the alchemist herself—welcome, Karen!

LT: First, I love the par­al­lels between the father’s search for alchem­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion and Meggy’s per­son­al trans­for­ma­tion. What made you start think­ing about alche­my as a book sub­ject, and was the par­al­lel planned from the outset?
KC: I found alche­my an intrigu­ing idea but did­n’t real­ly have an idea about how I’d use it in a book until I thought more about trans­for­ma­tion, about that very par­al­lel between alchem­i­cal and per­son­al trans­for­ma­tion.  I love how the ides of change works for both and how trans­for­ma­tion may not hap­pen exact­ly as they want­ed or expected.


LT: I think you real­ly gave us an accu­rate por­tray­al at what it’s like to feel dif­fer­ent and/or unwant­ed and the mis­guid­ed but all-too-com­mon defense mech­a­nism of push­ing peo­ple away before they can reject us, and it is these under­stand­able flaws that make Meg­gy such an inter­est­ing and uni­ver­sal­ly appeal­ing char­ac­ter. Did you know you were shoot­ing for that at the start, or did those aspects of char­ac­ter evolve nat­u­ral­ly as you wrote the story?
KC: Meg­gy start­ed out much sweet­er and more com­pli­ant but as I under­stood more about her and her strug­gles, I real­ized she prob­a­bly would not have respond­ed or act­ed in such under­stand­ing ways.  So, yes, those aspects of char­ac­ter evolved as I wrote the story.


LT: I find it fair­ly dif­fi­cult (but extreme­ly enter­tain­ing) to pic­ture you hurl­ing insults at any­one, but Meg­gy seems to have no trou­ble what­so­ev­er. How exact­ly did you come up with Meggy’s many inven­tive invectives?
KC: I found an invalu­able lit­tle book called Shake­speare’s Insults and bor­rowed some of those.  And there is a web­site called the Shake­speare­an Insult Kit ( that allowed me to come up with intrigu­ing com­bi­na­tions.  It was great fun.


LT: I can tell you did a ton of research for this book. Do you think you’ll reuse any of it in future sto­ries? Will we see Meg­gy again? (I need to see her reunit­ed with her goose!)
KC: I had­n’t planned on a Meg­gy sequel but young read­ers have said they like the idea.  First I’d have to fin­ish a new book, Will Spar­row’s Road, where I will use a lot of what I learned about Eliz­a­bethan England.


LT: How about non­fic­tion? I’m a pri­mar­i­ly non­fic­tion writer who dab­bles in research-based fic­tion when some­thing I’m research­ing gets my imag­i­na­tion going. Have you ever or do you think you will ever dab­ble in non­fic­tion? You’ve cer­tain­ly got the research part down!
KC: So far it’s the “what if?” of sto­ries that has my atten­tion.  I love sit­ting in my chair and mak­ing things up.  But I dab­ble in non­fic­tion when I write my author’s notes.  The notes for Meg­gy Swann were espe­cial­ly fun to do.


LT: I love that you “like to write about gut­sy girls fig­ur­ing out who they are,” and I love gut­sy girls, even if some of us don’t get gut­sy or fig­ure out who we are until we’re actu­al­ly mid­dle-aged women (who, me?). Which real-life gut­sy girls (and women) have inspired you most?
KC: Some of my female heroes are Jane Addams of Chicago’s Hull House, the anthro­pol­o­gist Mar­garet Mead, Eleanor Roo­sevelt, and genius illus­tra­tor Tri­na Schart Hyman—all gut­sy girls.


LT: I’ve always said that I’ll feel like a suc­cess­ful writer when I receive one let­ter from a read­er say­ing that my book helped them in some way, and you’ve said that con­nect­ing with read­ers is what makes you feel proud­est of your work. What’s the best let­ter you’ve ever received from a reader?
KC: I got a won­der­ful let­ter that said, “I nev­er read one of your books but now that you’ve come to my school, I am con­sid­er­ing try­ing to read one.”  But I trea­sure the ones that say “I nev­er thought about that before but…” or “Since I read your book, I know there are oth­er peo­ple who feel like I do.”


LT: Alche­my and Meg­gy Swann, even more so than your oth­er books, I think, is a short­er book with more dif­fi­cult lan­guage. Was there ever any ques­tion, from you or your pub­lish­er, about audi­ence, age, and/or read­ing ability?
KC: No, I think Dinah, my edi­tor, thinks as I do that we should give young peo­ple more cred­it for their under­stand­ing. And I tried to use words that could be under­stood through con­text or ono­matopoeia.  It was great fun search­ing the­saurus­es and the Oxford Eng­lish Dic­tio­nary.


LT: I love that answer and com­plete­ly share the belief that we should chal­lenge and believe in chil­dren rather than sell them short. Since you men­tioned Dinah, can you tell us what it’s like to work with the leg­endary Dinah Steven­son?
KC: Leg­endary?  Is Dinah old enough to be leg­endary?  I was assigned to work with Dinah when Clar­i­on bought my first book–an amaz­ing stroke of luck.  Dinah is a great edi­tor, intel­li­gent, insight­ful, and not at all pushy, and she makes my work much bet­ter and rich­er than it would be with­out her.  That does­n’t mean I don’t snarl and throw things when I get one of her famous 17-page edi­to­r­i­al let­ters, and I don’t fol­low every sug­ges­tion she makes but I do think about them care­ful­ly.  And she always reminds me it’s my book and I should write it my way.


LT: Age has noth­ing to do with it—only the esteem she’s earned with­in the indus­try! You’ve been very loy­al to Dinah and to Clar­i­on over the years (and I must admit that Clar­i­on is one of my dream pub­lish­ers!). They’re inter­est­ing because they’re a rather small imprint with a small list, but owned by a huge con­glom­er­ate. How do think this has helped or hurt you?
KC: I think Clar­i­on’s small size has meant there’s a small­er list and few­er oth­er authors.  I can have a per­son­al rela­tion­ship with every­one on the staff and feel they know me.  I like that.  And I’m sure the sup­port Clar­i­on gets from Houghton Mif­flin Har­court ben­e­fits me in ways I don’t even know.  So far I have felt no drawbacks.


LT: Final­ly, any advice for up-and-com­ing wanna-be’s?
KC: I tell most women who come to me for advice that they prob­a­bly are just too young yetI was fifty, after all, before I start­ed writ­ing.  Beyond that I rec­om­mend what most writ­ers dolots of read­ing, much writ­ing, cri­tique groups, and sup­port groups of like-mind­ed folks like the SCBWI.


LT: Phew, that’s good to knowI’ve got a few more years yet. What a relief! Thanks so much, Karen. As always, it was won­der­ful to talk with you, made even more so by hav­ing such a delight­ful book to discuss. 



** Dis­claimer: I received a free advance review copy of this book from the publisher.

Interview with Michael Bourret, agent

Michael Bour­ret is an agent with Dys­tel and Goderich, and recent­ly opened their brand-new West Coast office. I’ve heard Michael speak at a few of the nation­al SCBWI con­fer­ences, and it’s always a plea­sure. Don’t miss him at the SCBWI West­ern Wash­ing­ton con­fer­ence this weekend!

L: Wel­come, Michael! Thanks so much for tak­ing the time to answer some ques­tions for me! Your var­i­ous bios and mar­ket list­ings say you accept all kinds of non­fic­tion, and I know you rep­re­sent adult non­fic­tion, but I don’t see any non­fic­tion for kids among your titles. Why is that? Please give us some insight on the juve­nile non­fic­tion mar­ket from an agent’s perspective.
M: Thanks for hav­ing me, Lau­rie! And I’m excit­ed that you’re ask­ing about juve­nile non­fic­tion, and I’ll be real­ly hon­est: I don’t know much about it. It isn’t a cat­e­go­ry that I’ve pur­sued, aside from the amaz­ing pic­ture books of Anne Rockwell’s. I think that juve­nile non­fic­tion has most­ly been left to the aca­d­e­m­ic pub­lish­ers, in part because it isn’t as glam­orous as nov­els. But that may well be chang­ing, as is the very def­i­n­i­tion of cat­e­go­ry. I’m see­ing a lot more inno­va­tion and a new approach, includ­ing more mem­oir and oth­er nar­ra­tive nonfiction.
L: Sev­er­al children’s non­fic­tion titles received quite a lot of atten­tion this year, espe­cial­ly Phillip Hoose’s CLAUDETTE COLVIN and Deb­o­rah Heiligman’s CHARLES AND EMMA. Do you think this will have any effect on the market?
M: Any com­mer­cial suc­cess will have an effect on the mar­ket, and the crit­i­cal and com­mer­cial response to both of these books cer­tain­ly got my atten­tion. I’m not sure we’ll see a flood of non­fic­tion, but I do think we’ll see some smart books com­ing from major pub­lish­ers bet­ter known for their fiction.
L: You don’t rep­re­sent pic­ture books, either—is that a per­son­al pref­er­ence, a mat­ter of indus­try knowl­edge and exper­tise, or a pure­ly finan­cial deci­sion  (or one of the oth­er rea­sons fel­low agent Michael Stearns blogged about here)?
M: I do rep­re­sent some pic­ture books, actu­al­ly, but it’s not an area in which I’m look­ing to grown. The mar­ket is dif­fi­cult, espe­cial­ly for writ­ers, and since they’re the ones I rep­re­sent, it just doesn’t make sense for me to con­tin­ue look­ing for new clients.
L: Is there any­thing you wish would show up your query pile that just hasn’t been there (be care­ful what you wish for!)?
M: As I said in anoth­er inter­view recent­ly, with how many queries I get, it’s hard to say that there’s any­thing I haven’t seen! I’d rather not see books that chase trends, but that said, I love to see how peo­ple can approach well-worn ideas in a new way. I recent­ly signed up a nov­el based on a Poe sto­ry that I’m very excit­ed about, and I’d love to see more dark, psy­cho­log­i­cal thrillers. Some­thing that makes my skin crawl would be great!
L: Tell us about your agent­ing style: Are you very edi­to­r­i­al? Phone or email? Hands-on through­out the whole process or mitts off until the final product?
M: All agents have to be edi­to­r­i­al, but I’m not some­one who’s going to line edit a man­u­script. It’s just not where my skills lie. I do love to devel­op ideas with authors—helping them to turn a vague notion into some­thing that sup­ports a book-length nar­ra­tive. I’m more of a phone than email per­son, but I spend much more time on email! I wish peo­ple uti­lized the phone more; a con­ver­sa­tion has a cer­tain give-and-take that can help get to the point more quick­ly. I’m pret­ty hands on, and as I say to new clients, I like to know every­thing. That way I can antic­i­pate and pre­empt issues they may not even see arising.
L: What aspects do you like most about being an agent? Least? Pet peeves (please don’t say blog inter­views, please don’t say blog interviews…)?
M: I like that every day is dif­fer­ent. I like pitch­ing to edi­tors, I like dis­cussing ideas with clients, I love find­ing new voic­es. I love build­ing rela­tion­ships and match­ing authors and edi­tors. I like dis­cussing big-pic­ture ideas with my col­leagues, both in-house at DGLM and with the pub­lish­ing world at large on Twit­ter and through our blog. It’s hard to say that I don’t like a part of my job, but I don’t like how long things take. I’m real­ly impa­tient. I don’t have any major pub­lish­ing pet peeves, but I do wish we could all be more kind and respect­ful. It’s a chal­leng­ing busi­ness, and emo­tions run high, but we need to remem­ber that we’re all in it together.
L: Besides the man­u­script itself, what oth­er fac­tors do you con­sid­er when decid­ing whether or not to offer rep­re­sen­ta­tion (plat­form, online pres­ence, pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, spe­cial­iza­tion, rec­om­men­da­tions, affil­i­a­tions, etc.)?
M: The man­u­script is what mat­ters. If that doesn’t knock my socks off, noth­ing else mat­ters. In a query, how­ev­er, men­tion­ing a large plat­form, and award win, or even mem­ber­ship in rep­utable orga­ni­za­tions like SCBWI will make me pay more atten­tion. But then it comes back to the man­u­script again. It’s got to be great.
L: Besides care­ful­ly read­ing mar­ket guides, surf­ing the web and send­ing tar­get­ed queries, what can we authors do to ensure a good fit, both when sub­mit­ting and when con­sid­er­ing an offer of representation?
M: If you’re doing your home­work and research in advance, the only oth­er thing you need to do is inter­view the agent. It’s impor­tant for both writer and agent to chat and make sure that they get along and can have a con­ver­sa­tion. If you’re afraid of your agent, the rela­tion­ship isn’t going to work. If you don’t feel like your agent is enthu­si­as­tic about your sub­mis­sion, the rela­tion­ship won’t work. I tell peo­ple all the time that they should wait for a good match and not just take the first offer. It’s hard to do, I know, but I think the advice is sound.
L: I think authors put so much time and effort into find­ing an agent, that then inter­view­ing an inter­est­ed agent feels a bit intim­i­dat­ing. What kinds of ques­tions do you think authors should ask to deter­mine if an agent will be a good match?
M: Authors should ask agents about the edi­to­r­i­al vision for the book, how they work day-to-day and how the sub­mis­sion will work, how often they can expect to be in touch, and then they should dis­cuss the future—what do both the author and agent see for the author’s career down the line? It’s impor­tant that you’re on the same page as your agent about these things.
L: Do you have any upcom­ing client titles you’d like to high­light for us?

The past cou­ple of months have seen the excit­ing releas­es of Eleventh Grade Burns by Heather Brew­er and Gone by Lisa McMann, the release of which got both series onto the New York Times list. The com­ing months will see the release of Restor­ing Har­mo­ny by Joëlle Antho­ny and Shoot­ing Kab­ul by N.H. Sen­zai, two debuts that I’m real­ly proud of. In addi­tion, the fan­tas­tic Suzanne Selfors’s fifth book Smells Like Dog is also out short­ly, along with Dale Basye’s third book in the twist­ed “Heck” series, Blimpo. And that’s just through May!

L: Is there any­thing else you wished that I had asked, but didn’t? Feel free to write your own ques­tion here. =)
M: This has been a ter­rif­ic and thor­ough inter­view. I’ve got noth­ing to add, but thanks so much for think­ing of me!
L: Thank YOU, Michael! I real­ly appre­ci­ate the time and thought you put into this, and we’re look­ing for­ward to hear­ing more at the con­fer­ence this weekend. 

Interview with Sara Crowe, agent

Sara is an agent with Har­vey Klinger, Inc. in New York City. I was lucky enough to be able to hang out with Sara last Jan­u­ary pri­or to the 11th Annu­al SCBWI Inter­na­tion­al Win­ter Con­fer­ence. Yes, she is every bit as cute and friend­ly as she appears in the pho­to below, so if you’re going to attend our con­fer­ence this April, be sure to tell her hello!

L: Wel­come, Sara! Thanks so much for tak­ing the time to answer some ques­tions for me! Let’s jump right in at the top of my list… with a rather tricky one. Your var­i­ous bios and list­ings say you accept non­fic­tion, but I don’t see any non­fic­tion for kids among your titles. Am I miss­ing it? If not, what do you sup­pose are the rea­sons? Do you just not get many non­fic­tion sub­mis­sions, are they hard­er to sell, is it just hard­er to find one that grabs you per­son­al­ly, or some com­bi­na­tion of those? Give us some insight on the juve­nile non­fic­tion mar­ket from an agent’s perspective.

S: Hi Lau­rie! Thanks for hav­ing me! What my web­site says about what I rep­re­sent is this: I am an agent with Har­vey Klinger, Inc., a full ser­vice bou­tique lit­er­ary agency in New York where I rep­re­sent both adult and chil­dren’s titles. On the adult side, I rep­re­sent com­mer­cial and lit­er­ary fic­tion and a range of non­fic­tion. On the chil­dren’s side, my list includes YA and mid­dle grade fic­tion, as well as pic­ture books.
S: So, I am upfront about my lack of non­fic­tion on the chil­dren’s side. How­ev­er, I am very open to queries for chil­dren’s non­fic­tion, and do hope to find more. Many of my favorite books as a child were non­fic­tion, and it is some­thing I remain inter­est­ed in read­ing. My client Erin Vin­cent’s debut YA, GRIEF GIRL (Dela­corte, 2007) is a mem­oir, and I would love to see more YA mem­oir. I am also work­ing on two non­fic­tion projects at the moment—one pic­ture book and one biog­ra­phy for children.
S: I do rep­re­sent a lot more fic­tion, though, so when it comes down to it, I am not as famil­iar with the juve­nile non­fic­tion mar­ket, and the chances are slim­mer that I will be the right fit for a non­fic­tion book. If it does grab me per­son­al­ly, and if I can come up with a great list of edi­tors to send it to and am 100% sure there is a mar­ket for it, I will take it on!


L: Okay, that was sort of a doozy—thanks for play­ing along and giv­ing such a can­did answer! Unfor­tu­nate­ly, this one is prob­a­bly even worse. I see you’re not tak­ing pic­ture book sub­mis­sions at this time, which seems to be a trend among agents. Can you tell us why? What do you think about the cur­rent state of the pic­ture-book indus­try? What can pic­ture-book authors do to help them break in?
S: I prob­a­bly should take that off my site and the agen­cy’s site. I get many pic­ture book queries, what­ev­er it says online, and they did not seem to slow at all when I post­ed that notice. (Inci­den­tal­ly, it says every­where online that I do not like to receive snail mail queries, but those keep com­ing too, and I respond to them!)
S: I sold a debut pic­ture book recent­ly, by Matthea Har­vey, to Schwartz & Wade, and one of my cur­rent pic­ture books, on sub­mis­sion now, is non­fic­tion. I just took on a pic­ture book from a query that real­ly grabbed me. So like with non­fic­tion, I will take on the right pic­ture book project for me—but I will take on much few­er pic­ture books than nov­els, and so it’s less like­ly I will be the right fit.


L: Okay, you made that one seem easy, so this one should be a piece of cake… Tell us about your agent­ing style: Are you very edi­to­r­i­al? Phone or email? Hands-on through­out the whole process or mitts off until the final prod­uct? It’s clear your clients LOVE you, so what­ev­er it is, it’s working!
S: Thank you! I am an edi­to­r­i­al agent and do think I am very hands-on. I edit every­thing I take on before it goes out to edi­tors. If I see any sweep­ing changes that I think need to be made before sub­mis­sion, I talk to the writer about that when we dis­cuss rep­re­sen­ta­tion. And the edit­ing does not stop with the first sale. I con­tin­ue to edit my authors’ books, and to dis­cuss their new book ideas with them. I usu­al­ly read major revi­sions before we send to the edi­tor, and I read and dis­cuss syn­opses and par­tials, or some­times just ideas, about what the author should do next. I am always on email, but some­times a phone call is the best thing for the sit­u­a­tion, and I am always hap­py to be on the phone.


L: What aspects do you like most about being an agent? Least? Pet peeves?
S: I tru­ly feel lucky every­day to have a job that is nev­er bor­ing, always chal­leng­ing, and that involves read­ing books that I love and talk­ing them up to any­one who will lis­ten. I love find­ing a new client, a new book to be excit­ed about. Call­ing an author, espe­cial­ly a debut author, to tell them their book will be pub­lished nev­er gets old. I love all of my agent roles: edit­ing, match­mak­ing, mak­ing deals, nego­ti­at­ing con­tracts. Its the kind of job that does­n’t end at the end of a day or week, though, and agents are always work­ing, even when they are try­ing to read for plea­sure. It is a job with­out bound­aries. That applies to every­one in pub­lish­ing, I think, writ­ers, too. I wish there were time to read when I am actu­al­ly at work! Real­ly, I just need there to be more time in a day.


L: Oh, I think we all could use some of that! Besides the man­u­script itself, what oth­er fac­tors do you con­sid­er when decid­ing whether or not to offer rep­re­sen­ta­tion (plat­form, online pres­ence, pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, spe­cial­iza­tion, rec­om­men­da­tions, affil­i­a­tions, etc.)?
S: Unless it is adult non­fic­tion, where plat­form tru­ly mat­ters, I am only look­ing at the book first—and if I love it and feel con­fi­dent I can sell it, I am not con­cerned about a plat­form or an online pres­ence. I think for the most part, those things can wait until after the sale of the book to the pub­lish­er. Once we have sold it, I do think all authors should get online. Of course a blurb or rec­om­men­da­tion from a well known author is appeal­ing, as it might make the book eas­i­er to sell, but its not necessary.


L: Besides care­ful­ly read­ing mar­ket guides, surf­ing the web and send­ing tar­get­ed queries, what can we authors do to ensure a good fit, both when sub­mit­ting and when con­sid­er­ing an offer of representation?
S: I think that what you want to find is an agent who is pas­sion­ate about your book and your writ­ing, who has knowl­edge of the mar­ket­place, expe­ri­ence with your type of book and whose list is a place you think you belong and where you want to be. You can find much of this out with research, talk­ing with his or her oth­er clients, and by ask­ing the right ques­tions when you speak to the agent on the phone. As for queries, make them count! Spend the most time on your book descrip­tion as its the most impor­tant thing. And do not make it all about the query—make sure the man­u­script is in great shape before you start querying.


L: Do you have any clients or titles you’d like to high­light for us?
S: Two chil­dren’s books out in March: a mid­dle grade and a YA. IT’S RAINING CUPCAKES (Aladdin), Lisa Schroed­er’s mid­dle grade debut, is about Isabel, who dreams of see­ing the world but she’s nev­er left Ore­gon. When her best friend, Sophie, tells her of a bak­ing con­test whose win­ners trav­el to New York City, she eager­ly enters despite con­cerns about her moth­er, who is open­ing a cup­cake bak­ery. And SAVING MADDIE by Var­i­an John­son, just out with Dela­corte, about Josh, a preacher’s son, whose best child­hood friend, Mad­die has come back home a new person—gorgeous and trou­bled and with­out her faith. Can you save some­one who doesn’t want to be saved? And more impor­tant­ly, how do you save some­one with­out los­ing yourself?


S: In April, I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER by Dan Wells is out with Tor Books. It is about a boy who is con­cerned he might be a ser­i­al killer, and so makes rules for him­self to avoid becom­ing one — but then a real one comes into town and starts killing peo­ple, and he has to break some of his rules to find the killer. Its a def­i­nite crossover title–a hor­ror nov­el with a lov­able teen pro­tag­o­nist and a great YA voice, though will be pub­lished here as an adult book. Its already out in Ger­many where its a best­seller, and is also out in the UK– where it was pub­lished as YA. Kirkus just gave it a starred review and wrote: “(An) unabashed­ly gory gem.… Buy mul­ti­ples where it won’t be banned.”

S: Final­ly, Hol­ly Nicole Hox­ter’s YA debut, THE SNOWBALL EFFECT will be out from Harp­er in April! It’s about Lainey Pike, who is try­ing to make peace with her dead moth­er (not easy), take care of her five-year old broth­er who is now an orphan, and to learn to love with her estranged old­er sis­ter who is now back in her life as her guardian until she turns 18.


L: Is there any­thing else you wished that I had asked, but didn’t?
S: I have too much read­ing to do to come up with anoth­er question—but I loved answer­ing all of yours. Thanks so much, Lau­rie! I am real­ly look­ing for­ward to the conference!
L: Thank YOU, Sara, for being so open, hon­est, and approach­able! I’m look­ing for­ward to see­ing you again in April and show­ing you around our neck of the woods.

Interview with Deborah Hopkinson

I became a fan of Deb­o­rah Hop­kin­son in 2007, when I start­ed Anas­ta­sia Suen’s Easy Read­ers and Chap­ter Books course. For the first assign­ment, we had to read five chap­ter books then choose one to ana­lyze. I chose PIONEER SUMMER because it was my favorite. Years lat­er, when I became co-region­al advi­sor for SCBWI West­ern Wash­ing­ton, I knew I had to bring Deb­o­rah up to talk to us. I’m thrilled that she’ll be com­ing to our con­fer­ence this April, and that I’ll final­ly get to meet her in per­son! I’m going to try not to go all fan-girl on her, but you nev­er know. 
I thought I’d take this oppor­tu­ni­ty to ask her a few ques­tions that have been on my mind and share them with you, so we can all get to know her a lit­tle better…

L: From oth­er sources I found online, it sounds like you start­ed writ­ing for chil­dren when your own chil­dren were young, just like I did. Is that right? Did you always know you want­ed to be a writer? Tell us how you got started.
D: I want­ed to be a writer from the time I was in the fourth grade, but it wasn’t until my daugh­ter, Rebekah, was born that I real­ized I want­ed to write for chil­dren.  As a young moth­er with a full time job, pic­ture books seemed short enough to be doable with my busy sched­ule. It took me about two years to sell my first mag­a­zine sto­ry, and anoth­er cou­ple of years to sell my first pic­ture book.

L: When­ev­er I’m not writ­ing, I feel like I should be, but when­ev­er I am writ­ing, I feel­ing like I’m tak­ing valu­able time away from oth­er things. What tricks have you learned for find­ing a bal­ance between your own cre­ative pur­suits and the demands of keep­ing up with the indus­try, work­ing full time, tak­ing care of your home and fam­i­ly, etc.? 
D: Well, I don’t lis­ten to or wor­ry about peo­ple who have firm guide­lines about how one must write every day.  But I once read a great arti­cle where the author rec­om­mend­ed two kinds of writ­ing goals: out­put and process.  I use a com­bi­na­tion of those strate­gies to bal­ance my life.  Out­put goals might be expressed as: “I am going to sub­mit a man­u­script this month.”  And then you do what­ev­er it takes to meet that dead­line.  Process goals are: “I am going to write for three hours every week­end.”  It also just works to put your ener­gies in the direc­tion you want to go as much as you can.

L: Many of your books are his­tor­i­cal and obvi­ous­ly heav­i­ly researched, yet they end up in the fic­tion sec­tion. How and when do you decide when to go straight non­fic­tion ver­sus when to fictionalize? 
D: Whether a book is his­tor­i­cal fic­tion or non­fic­tion often is deter­mined by how the sto­ry is pro­gress­ing, I think.  Many times the demands of a dra­mat­ic arc make it a bit dif­fi­cult to tell a com­pelling sto­ry for young read­ers in a non­fic­tion format. 

L: What do you think about the cur­rent state of the pic­ture book indus­try?
D: Well, I am not sure I know enough to be an expert on that!  I feel for­tu­nate to still be able to occa­sion­al­ly sell pic­ture books.  I also try to have some cur­ricu­lum tie-in so that my books are appro­pri­ate to schools and libraries. 

L: I noticed the warm ded­i­ca­tion in STAGECOACH SAL to your amaz­ing super­a­gent, Steven Malk at Writ­ers House (who was at our con­fer­ence last year—thanks, Steven!). Tell us how you snagged him, and if you can, give us a peek inside your author-agent relationship!
D: I called Steven up some years ago at the rec­om­men­da­tion of a fel­low writer, and feel very for­tu­nate to be able to work with him.  Steven is won­der­ful.  I have had many doors opened thanks to his hard work, and I also make an effort to work hard on my own to under­stand what my edi­tors need and want. 

L: My hus­band once asked me what I would con­sid­er suc­cess in this indus­try. I told him I will know I’ve made it when I receive one let­ter from one child say­ing that some­thing I wrote made a pos­i­tive dif­fer­ence in his or her life. (Of course, I’d love truck­loads of let­ters like that, but if I can get at least one, I’ll die hap­py.) You’ve got a long and var­ied book list, with an impres­sive list of awards to go with it. So, how do you define suc­cess? Do you feel like you’ve achieved your dream? If not, what’s left on your to-do list?
D: Well, I try to be very grate­ful for the luck and suc­cess that I have had.  Right now I am vice pres­i­dent for Advance­ment at the Pacif­ic North­west Col­lege of Art.  I have sev­en peo­ple report­ing to me, and it is cer­tain­ly one of those “big jobs.”  I do feel for­tu­nate to have had, in a way, two careers.  How­ev­er, that doesn’t mean I still don’t dream of becom­ing a full time writer!  But with a kid in col­lege and one in grad­u­ate school, that may not ever happen. 

L: What tips would you like to share with aspir­ing children’s book writ­ers, espe­cial­ly those of us writ­ing non­fic­tion or fic­tion based on facts for grades preK‑5?
D: Well, I think it is very impor­tant to under­stand as much as pos­si­ble about how pub­lish­ing works as ear­ly in one’s career as pos­si­ble. Also it helps to under­stand the cru­cial role of teach­ers and librar­i­ans in children’s lit­er­a­ture.  And I would give writ­ers the same advice I give stu­dents dur­ing author vis­its: Read!

L: What’s com­ing up next for you?

My newest book is The Hum­ble­bee Hunter, illus­trat­ed by Jen Corace. It’s based on the fam­i­ly life of Charles Dar­win and his chil­dren at Down House. It was recent­ly reviewed in the New York Times, which was excit­ing.  My oth­er forth­com­ing books include Annie and Helen, to be illus­trat­ed by Raul Colon, and A Boy Called Dick­ens, illus­trat­ed by John Hen­drix, who also did the art­work for Abe Lin­coln Cross­es a Creek.

L: Those sound won­der­ful! I can’t wait to see them. Thanks so much for chat­ting with me, Deb­o­rah. See you in April!