Uncategorized

Interview with Jessica Lee Anderson

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When I last visited with Jessica Lee Anderson, she was celebrating her first novel, Trudy, being plucked from the slush pile and winning the Milkweed Prize for Children’s Literature. Four years later, Jessica is celebrating another creation – the birth of her beautiful daughter. Recently I caught up with Jessica and chatted with her about motherhood, creativity and managing your time.

 

What has changed in your life since the last time we chatted in 2010?

 

Forgive me for starting with a cliché, but wow, these years flew by! Since 2010, my young adult novel, Calli, released from Milkweed Editions, and I had the honor of presenting at several events like the Texas Book Festival, Austin Teen Book Festival, YAK Fest, and YAB Fest. I attended several writing retreats with an inspiring group of writers and worked on an assortment of manuscripts to include some work-for-hire projects. In 2013, I celebrated the most exciting of releases—my beautiful baby girl! 

 

Has being a mother changed you as a writer? If so, how?

 

My schedule has definitely changed the most. I write from home, so I revolve my writing around my daughter’s naps during the day and try to get some writing in after she goes to sleep in the evenings. Thirty minutes or an hour here or there can really add up. When I have childcare available, I head to a coffee shop for a short while. With time being so limited, it is easier to pass on watching those cute puppy videos on YouTube. One thing I’ve been trying to work on is eliminating that feeling of “writer’s guilt” (feeling guilty that I’m not writing when there is a down moment) so I can cherish this time with my little miracle. I also broke down and bought a smart phone to use technology to my advantage. 

 

What is a normal “writing” workday like for you?

 

My daughter usually takes her first nap around 9 a.m., so I try to get some plotting/brainstorming/goal setting time in and jump on the page for as long as I can (which can be as little as a twenty minutes or an hour plus). The same goes for the afternoon, and then I get about an hour or two of writing in after she falls asleep in the evening. Her nap schedule is constantly changing, so my “writing” workday changes too and consists of taking advantage of free moments when they’re available. While I haven’t been meeting my group regularly at coffee shops like I used to, I now periodically host writing workdays at my house. Fellow Coop-mate Carmen Oliver is coming over for a writing date this week!

 

You’ve written for all types of audiences. How does your writing process differ as your audience changes?

 

I enjoy writing for a variety of ages and like the challenge of writing sparse yet rich texts for younger readers as well as the challenge of developing characters, settings, plots, and dialogue in longer works for older readers. While I read my writing out loud when writing for older readers, I find this is critical when writing for younger readers. I agonize over word counts, vocabulary choices, and reading levels for this age group. This process can flow into how I write for older readers, so I often write longhand in a notebook to help avoid my internal editor from taking over.

 

What are you working on now?

 

I’m currently revising an early chapter book about a girl who experiences some surprises when she moves on a farm as well as working on a coming of age novel middle grade novel. 

 

Do you have any upcoming appearances or events?

 

I don’t know any specific details about my schedule yet, but I’ll be at the TLA annual conference this April and look forward to seeing many friends and making many new ones!

 

 

Please check-out Jessica’s website at http://jessicaleeanderson.com for more information. Jessica’s books are all available online or at your favorite indie bookseller!

 

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Writing General

Four Tips to Improve Your Writing Life

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January is a time for resolutions and diets. I love resolutions. Diets, not so much. If one of your new year’s resolutions is to start a journal, complete a rough draft or begin a blog, I’ve put together four of the best pieces of writing advice that I’ve ever heard, read or stolen.

1. Feel the Fear and Create Anyway

Making art is scary. In fact it’s so frightening that most people aren’t able to muster the courage to begin. How many cocktail parties conversations have include the phrase “I would love write a book but I don’t have the time, talent etc…”?

Contrary to common belief, everyone has a creative capacity within them.  Yes, even you. And if that creativity goes unused for any reason, who know the masterpieces the world will unknowingly miss?

Once you accept that the art of creation comes with a wheelbarrow of fear and terror, somehow that nasty monster under the bed becomes a little less scary.

2. First Draft = Trash 

Or to quote the wonderful Anne Lamott, “the only way I can get anything written is to write really, really shitty first drafts.” No one sits down to the computer and writes anything that without revision and editing should see the light of day. Instead, sit with the fear and write whatever comes out. Don’t judge it. Just continue. Put one word down after the other. Turn off the inner critic or at least drown it out with loud music, prayer or your family’s pleas for attention. You have to teach yourself how to get down word after word on the page, screen or tablet until a sentence finally appears on the page. That’s the only way the next War and Peace or even 50 Shades of Grey will be written, one word, sentence, paragraph at a time.

3. Regular Practice with Small Goals

I used to fantasize about living in a writers’ colony. In my mind it would be a cross between a spa and a meditation center, where meals would be delivered to my door and my living quarters scoured daily by invisible elves.  But the truth is that art is made by ordinary people and our writing lives are not lived in writers’ colonies, no matter how pleasant the fantasy. We live amongst loud telephone calls, banging pots and quarreling children.

With chaos as a constant, you must set a time everyday to write. I like to work early in the morning before everyone wakes up. Others work late at night. Whatever time you choose, make your daily goal small. If you miss a day, forgive yourself and restart the next day. Don’t try to make up your lost time, it won’t happen. Instead you will find yourself frustrated and even more afraid of the double word count in front of you. Shrug off your missed time and continue. Remember, if you write only 150 words a day you will have written a novel in one year. Small efforts daily add up to much more than the occasional Herculean effort.

4. Finish Your Project

It is easy to give up. You say to yourself, “if this project was really meant to be then it would be easier to write…” In fact, nothing is further from the truth. To quote the award winning author Neil Gaiman, “Whatever it takes to finish things, finish. You will learn more from a glorious failure than you ever will from something you never finished.” Sometimes it is right after things get tough, that things get right.

Wishing you all a new year full of projects completed and dreams realized!

Holiday Post

Last Minute Gift Ideas for Everyone on Your List…..

There is no better time than the holidays to give books. Ten times better than a gift card, a well-chosen book is a gift that entertains, inspires and can even change a life.

Here are my favorite books to give:

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The True Adventures of Charlotte Doyle by Avi

If you have a middle school girl in your family, this is the perfect girl for her. Charlotte starts off as prim and proper young lady and ends the novel as a kick-butt wonder woman.

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Waiting for the Magic by Patricia MacLachan

MacLachan’s sparse and eloquent prose makes this short novel a perfect choice for readers from grade second through fifth. It would also make a wonderful read-aloud as long as you aren’t prone to weeping during MacLachan’s many poignant passages.

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Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech

Although published almost over twenty years ago, this Newbery winner is a favorite I re-read every year. Creech weaves together two separate stories which unite for a surprises and satisfying ending. Be sure to have a box of tissues near-by while reading this treasure.

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Bird by Bird by Anne Lament

One of the best books about writing I have ever had the luck to read, Bird by Bird offers no nonsense common sense to those of us (aka everyone) who struggle with the fear and anguish of writing. Lamott’s self-depreciating voice guarantees many laugh out-loud as well as inspirational moments.

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Kiss, Kiss by Margaret Wild and illustrated by Bridget Strevens-Marzo

Baby Hippo is dismayed to discover that he has forgotten to kiss his mother good-bye! The simple text and adorable illustrations make this board book an important part of any young child’s library.

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Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones

I love all of Diana Wynne Jones’ books, but I have to admit this is my favorite. A fantastical story set in modern day London, Polly has two sets of memories. In one set, she has a strictly normal and boring life. In her second set of memories, she is entangled in the life of the eccentric Thomas Lynn. Only when she begins to forget her second set of memories does she realize that magic, which endangers the life of Thomas, is the reason for her memory loss. A wonderful story for grades sixth through adult.

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Half-Magic by Edgar Eager

I was beyond happy to discover this book a few years ago. Originally published in 1954, the novel is a surprisingly modern read. When four siblings discover a magic coin that grants half-wishes, adventures and hilarity ensue. Perfect for boys and girls from 8-12 years old.

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The Chocolat Series by Joanne Harris

Three books follow the adventures of chocolate and magic maker Vianne through battles with priests, radicals and small minded people. A wonderful gift who anyone who loves France, magic and especially chocolate!

All of these books can be purchased online or at your favorite indie bookstore. Wishing you  all a new year full of happiness, good health and many, many books!

Uncategorized

Interview with Ann Jacobus

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If author Ann Jacobus wasn’t such a nice person, it would be really easy to dislike her. Talented and beautiful, Ann is not only an award-winning writer, she is also at the helm of one of the most popular and successful children’s book blogs, Readerkidz. Recently I caught up with Ann and we got to chat about her influences and inspiration.

Where did you grow-up and where do you live now?

I was born in Midland, Texas and spent my formative childhood years in Little Rock, Arkansas. My mother’s family all lived in Texas, so it has been a constant throughout my peripatetic life. I live now in San Francisco with my family but spent many years overseas. A friend has a theory that a significant percentage of writers moved around a lot as kids or young adults. It makes you flexible and observational. You have to relearn how people think and operate in each new place to fit in. That’s excellent practice for a writer.

What is a normal “writing” workday like for you?

I’ll speak to ideal. As soon as I get family members off to school or work, I’m at my desk as early as 7:30 am, i.e. a comfy chair and a big old-fashioned atlas, on top of which rests my laptop. My best working hours are in the morning for producing awful first drafts of—or revising—manuscripts, blog posts, essays, proposals, etc. By early afternoon I read books, or the manuscripts I review for a fiction journal, my writing group, publishers or contests. I’ll do email and social media until grocery shopping and soccer games call.

You’ve written for all types of audiences. How does your writing process differ as your audience changes?

It’s true that in writing a middle grade novel aimed at eight- and nine-year-old boys, I can use more potty humor than in writing an adult essay. And fiction aimed at fifteen-year-olds again requires a different mindset and voice. I think it comes down to the same shift you use between talking to an eight-year-old (successfully), or a sixteen-year-old or a forty-five-year-old. So I’m aware of my audience as I compose. Right now I’m picturing you and a bunch of your readers.

Who are your favorite writers and why?

It’s hard to pick, but In Children’s literature I greatly admire: 

Dav Pilkey-his Captain Underpants series is responsible for turning all three of my sons into readers. He’s subversive and so hysterical (if you are a seven year-old boy) they thought they were getting away with something highly illicit by opening his books. I pretended I was outraged, and that really got them hooked.

Richard Peck (A Year Down Yonder, Secrets at Sea): He’s a prolific, classic children’s author whose books never disappoint and always contain something essential and amusing about the world between their covers.

Rita Williams Garcia (Jumped, One Crazy Summer, P.S. Be Eleven) always gets to the heart of things and usually with humor. Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan and Holly Goldberg Sloan’s Counting by 7s are two recent excellent additions to the middle grade canon.

Nancy Farmer, (The House of Scorpions, The Sea of Trolls) are two personal favorites, because of the brilliant storytelling, and in the latter, the humor. Olaf OneBrow makes me laugh whenever I think of him.

YA authors Laurie Halse Anderson (Speak, Chains, Winter Girls) and Walter Dean Meyers (Monster, Lockdown) are masters. They keep it real in the way YA readers demand, and do it so well.  Martine Leavitt’s books (Keturah and Lord Death, My Book of Life by Angel) are intense, beautiful, and brilliantly written.  

Some adult writers: I love Thorton Wilder’s ability to probe the ineffable universal through the particular and personal (The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Our Town). Ursula LeGuin writes so beautifully in her compelling fantasy stories. Never a word wasted. Annie Dillard does the same with nonfiction. I’m a Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy fan. J.R.R.Tolkien, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jane Austen—

I’ll stop but I could go on and on.

Where did you get the idea/inspiration for your blog www.readerkidz.com?

Readerkidz was started by a group of us who graduated together from the Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adult graduate program. My co-bloggers have decades of experience with education and psychology for younger children (kindergarten through fifth grade) and they determined a need for more online reading and book recommendation information for this group. They kindly asked me to join them.

Who is the intended audience?

The blog is aimed at parents, teachers and librarians of K-5 kids, and provides book reviews and recommendations, as well as teacher’s guides, author interviews, and other ideas for promoting a love of reading in the classroom and at home.

What has been your favorite thing about the blog so far?

I love working with my co-bloggers. I get to read more delightful children’s literature than I might otherwise be doing, since my own kids can mostly drive, and/or drink. I’m introduced to outstanding authors and illustrators and can ask them personal questions. I edit the “Librarian’s Corner” and get to see dedicated children’s librarians in action. 

 

You can learn more about Ann Jacobus and her work at www.annjacobus.com or follow her blog at www.readerkidz.com.

 

 

 

Uncategorized

Interview with Janine Burgan

 

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Janine Burgan is a teacher and author that finds words delicious and the act of creating a story better than a meal in a Michelin starred restaurant. Recently Janine had a moment to answer some questions about creating art, both from a teacher’s and author’s perspective.

 

Where did you grow-up and where do you live now?

 

I grew up in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. After making my home in Indiana, the Pennsylvania Poconos, and Okinawa, Japan, I am right back where I started and am loving it.

 

How has where you live and have lived influenced your writing?

 

I write fiction, but I draw quite a bit of inspiration from the places I have lived or visited. I often find myself memorializing these places through setting. More importantly, though, they affect the ethos of my writing. Many of the themes found in my writing are inspired by my own experiences in these places. A love for adventure; the importance of family; grief and loss–these are an example of ideas have turned up in my writing. In this way, my writing is very connected to my experiences and the places I have called home. I may write fiction, but in an emotional sense, my stories are my memoir.

 

What is a normal “writing and teaching” workday like for you?

 

Right now, I am working to find a new pattern. After the arrival of my first child eight months ago, what was normal is now obsolete. I have gone from teaching composition at the university 2-3 days a week and filling the other days with grading papers, answering emails and fitting in my own writing, to snuggling with a little boy all day long. It was an abrupt and utter life-style shift. It’s wonderful, but at times I feel that my creative life and mind are lost to me. Recently, the answer to this has been to find a baby-sitter. I get a four-hour block to write each week, then I try to fill in a few more hours during naps or on the weekend. It’s refreshing to have this time devoted to writing again.

 

How has your career as a writing teacher shaped your career as a writer? 

 

As a writing teacher, I want my students to get to know their own idiosyncratic writing processes and to learn to use their process to their advantage. We talk about the act of writing–how writing begets more writing–and we free-write a lot. Over the years, I have realized that I need to take my own advice. Through my classes, I have learned to honor my own process. To let go of writing it right the first time. To just get words on the page–lots of words. To allow time for good ideas to grow and mature. I am my biggest critic and teaching writing has taught me that I need to turn that off. 

 

Who are your favorite writers and why?

 

Oh, wow. This list is certainly not exhaustive. I’ll name two contemporary and two no longer living.

 

JRR Tolkien–for his poetry; his rich characters; his world-building; his ability to spin a captivating plot while also addressing big moral questions; for, well, everything.

Lucy Maud Montgomery–for her charming characters and skilled world-building. So fanciful.

Grace Lin–Her books are full of charm. They are fun, funny, sweet and poignant all at once.

Maggie Stiefvater–Always exciting. Great balance of commercial and literary appeal. Rich characters and lots of tension.

 

 

What advice would you give aspiring writers?

 

Show up and be brave. By show up, I mean do the work. Sit at your desk or wherever you write, stop censoring yourself, and get something on the page. It probably won’t be glorious–a first draft rarely is–but it will give you something to work with. To do this, you have to be brave. A creative life is a vulnerable life. A writer must accept that criticism and rejection are part of the deal; otherwise, you will probably never write anything.

 

What are you working on now?

 

I have a few open projects right now, but most of my time is focused on a middle grade fantasy set in a world inspired by ancient Japan.

 

 

You can discover more about Janine Burgan by checking out her blog at http://www.firstnovelsclub.com.  

 

Uncategorized

Interview with Kate Banks

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Summer is over and everyone is home from their travels. But not Kate Banks, prolific and award-winning author for children and young adults. An expat for most of her adult life, Ms. Banks now lives near the Italian border in southern France. A few weeks ago, Ms. Banks and I had the opportunity to chat about her writing life and how her environment, be it Menton, France or Maine, USA, influences and impacts her writing. 

 

Where did you grow up and where do you live now?

 

I grew up in Maine and graduated from Wellesley College and Columbia University.  I worked in the children’s book department of Alfred A. Knopf, and at the National Geographic Society before moving to Rome in 1988 where I lived for 9 years.  Home is now in Menton, a small city close to the Italian border in southern France.

 

 

How has where you live and have lived influenced your writing?

 

As a child I was a keen observer of nature and wildlife, and growing up in Maine I had plenty of opportunity to spend time in the woods, at the seashore, in the mountains.  This dialogue with nature has accompanied me through adulthood and it’s an important theme running through many of my books.  THAT’S PAPA’S WAY, THE GREAT BLUE HOUSE, A GIFT FROM THE SEA all hearken back to experiences I had as a child.  I think that getting children to explore and engage in their natural habitat can help them to understand their place in the world, not only as residents, but as part of a big beautiful whole.

 

I’ve spent most of my adult life in Europe and meeting new people and seeing new things has been both challenging and inspiring.  The challenges have helped me grow as a person and that, in turn, has nurtured and instructed my writing.  Most of the settings for my stories come from places where I’ve lived or visited.  DILLON DILLON was my summer house in Camden Maine and FRIENDS OF THE HEART takes place in and outside of Rome.  THE CAT THAT WALKED ACROSS FRANCE details the journey of a cat from the Riviera north to Normandy.  And CITY CAT which is due out in November chronicles the journey of another cat—a stray– who follows a family on a European holiday. 

 

 

What is a normal writing workday like for you?

 

I have a loose routine in that I write for a few hours every morning.  Afternoons are devoted to my work as a therapist and healer.  I am a nomad and move from room to room in my house.  Sometimes I’ll go out and work at a coffee bar.  I always have notebooks in my bag and am ready to take down an idea or a thought wherever I am.  Oftentimes this happens at night and I’ll wake up and flick on the light just long enough to take a few notes.  My husband has long grown accustomed to this.  I write wherever I go—in airports, while on holiday.  New places and movement seem to keep the flow going. I usually have several projects in the works at any one time. I like to wake up and know that I don’t have to return to the same thing I was doing the day or days before.  I tend to get bored laboring over a single story week after week, month after month.  So I jump around a lot.  That enables me to distance myself from each project and go back to it again and again with a fresh eye.  And if I’m stuck on one project I put it aside and move on to something else.  If nothing works, then I play the piano, or try a new recipe.  I’m always planning future books and I have many ideas in the cupboard.  Some I put aside for months, even years.  Some may never be realized but that’s okay.  It’s all part of what I do.

 

 

As a successful writer of picture books, what do you think of the increasingly shorter word counts in picture books?

 

I remember about ten years back there was a push for longer picture books.  It didn’t last long.  I expect it will be the same with this trend.  I’ve written picture books with few words and with many words and I wouldn’t generalize about suitable length.  A story can be told in a few words or in many, but in a picture book there needs to be the right balance among illustrations, words, and the reader’s imagination.  I personally pay no attention to word count until a story is written.  And my experience is that a story usually finds its own length.  I also pay no attention to word count when I buy a book. 

  

 

Who are your favorite writers and why?

 

I grew up with Robert McCloskey’s books.  TIME OF WONDER took place near my summer house in Maine where we had blueberry fields just like Sal (BLUEBERRIES FOR SAL).  I loved Margaret Wise Brown’s THE RUNAWAY BUNNY and GOODNIGHT MOON.  Virginia Burton’ THE LITTLE HOUSE was a favorite as was MIKE MULLIGAN’S STEAM SHOVEL.  When I was able to read by myself I devoured the Mother West Wind Stories and THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS.  I love Thoreau and Wordsworth and Tolstoy and Chekov.   And I read a lot of science and medical literature for my work as a therapist.  

There are too many favorites to mention them all.  But what I respond to are books that demonstrate a sensibility to place and character and manage to convey a quiet wisdom.  Often beneath their words are the greater truths of our being—much bigger ideas than appear on the surface.  I find it almost magical when a book is able to speak to me beyond its boundaries of page and length. 

 

What advice would you give aspiring writers?

 

Aspiring writers should be readers.  Reading nurtures a sensibility to the tools of the trade—words and language–in the same way that a painter needs to be familiar with his palette and brushes.  Writers should also be familiar with their audience and have something to say to them.   Workshops and formal instruction can convey and refine technique. That said, the most important advice I can give to a writer is to find your own voice.  And that is more likely to be present in your inner world than anywhere outside of you.  For me, this required taking the time to sit quietly in a state of listening and receptivity—shutting out advice and chatter, and seeing what emerged from my own self.  I am struck by how these days we don’t seem to be able to do anything without coaching—from breathing and eating, to relationships and work.  There are so many people out there telling us how to live our lives, to be successful, happy, and on it goes. I, for one, think there’s something to be said about discovery and experience–allowing life to unfold on its own.  And I would apply this same philosophy to writing.  Be proactive, but don’t forget to take the time to sit back and just see what happens.  Because that’s the space of true inspiration and surprise.

 

What are you working on now?

 

I am currently working on a YA novel which originated from my work as a regression therapist.  I also have a few picture books ideas in the works in various stages. 

 

Where can your fans find you?

 

I am rarely in the States but when that happens I am available for book signings and school visits.  I also visit classrooms worldwide on SKYPE.  This fall I hope to be in New York and Boston in October.   My new picture book CITY CAT is out in November, and I urge you all to take a look at the trailer: 

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P6A9JMDF_HI&feature=youtu.be

 

 

 

You can find all of Kate’s books online or at your favorite local bookstore.

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Uncategorized

Interview with Vicky Shiefman

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Vicky Shiefman fell in love with books and learning from her very first days at nursery school. From the start of her time at City and Country, a private school in suburban Detroit, she knew that education would shape her world as a child, as well as an adult. Fast forward years later and now Vicky is a teacher and published author specializing in children’s books and articles for the education market. Still moved by the themes of her early life, Vicky continues to teach, write and learn along with her students. Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Vicky about some of her favorite authors and her advice for writers just starting out.

 

Where did you grow-up and where do you live now? 

I grew up in Detroit, MI.  I now live in New York, NY.  

What is a normal “writing” workday like for you?  

It varies so much.  I rarely sit down at my desk unless I know approximately what I’m going to say.  When I’m stuck, I may go to the library or take a nap or go for a walk to go into that zone where I contact my unconscious.  Then I sit down and type away.

You’ve written for all types of audiences. How does your writing process differ as your audience changes?  

I have to picture a young child, if it’s a picture book or middle school kids I know or was if it’s upper middle grade and write or talk to those children or child.

I was a full-time teacher when I sold my first children’s book.  My second, M IS FOR MOVE, actually used many of the children in my first/second grade class in the photographs.  Did working with children of many more than 50 countries (I stopped counting years ago) change my writing?  Not as much in obvious ways as I would have thought. When I wrote about kids from other countries in my class, I only knew them in one way, as students, so the stories weren’t real enough but I do think they inspired me to want to write about immigrants (like my grandmother, my third book) and people going from one culture to another, something I had been interested in since college, where I majored in linguistics as part of anthropology.

Who are your favorite writers and why?  

Harriet Beecher Stowe her UNCLE TOM’S CABIN changed history for the better,  Jane Austen paints a very vivid and authentic picture of her little world, Naguib Mafouz  draws an amazing cast of characters in turn of the 20th century Egypt that draw you into his world and make you want to stay for more,  Rachel Kushner’s new book, THE  FLAMETHROWERS, is just amazing, Margaret Wise Brown created picture book little stories that will last forever, Sarah Dessen captures teenage angst and desire and oversensitivity perfectly, Ellen Hopkins excels in portraits with few works but deep feelings that right true, Ruth White is the best middle grade writer, such great characters and story telling that touch my heart, Meg Rosoff’s HOW WE LIVE NOW is close to perfect.

What advice would you give aspiring writers? 

It’s not easy to enter this field but if you really really really want to write for children, don’t let anything stop you.  Join SCBWI, go to conferences, workshops, critique groups, network, read, read, read, read, read, read.  It is possible.

What are you working on now? 

I’m working on a picture book about a turning point in a deservedly famous American’s life that hasn’t been told for young children. Another project is about a spiritual awakening of a girl about to have her Bat Mitzvah.

Be sure to check out Vicky’s website at www.vickyshiefman.com. All of Vicky’s books are available at your favorite online bookstore or an indie bookstore near you!

Uncategorized

Interview with Jeanne de Sainte Marie

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Jeanne de Sainte Marie is an award-winning author and illustrator based in Paris. In addition to her charming books for children and adults, she has recently published an animated and interactive poetry book with the American poet Orel Protopopescu. Recently I got the chance to chat with Jeanne about her creative life.

Where did you grow-up and where do you live now?

I grew up in Rochester, Michigan, which was then a small town north of Detroit.  The dirt road I lived on had no sidewalks. For years now, I have lived in Paris where a multitude of sidewalks lead me to the marvels and adventure of this city I never tire of. 

What is a normal workday like for you?

Ha! We could have a long discussion about the definition of “normal”, Melissa! Seriously, some days when I am involved in an important project with a deadline, I am glued to my drawing table or computer all day long. I have had days where I went out only once to cross the street for a baguette. 

Usually, however, my creative work schedule (illustrating and writing) is disciplined but sustainable. My studio is at home, so after breakfast and a few chores I work approximately from 9 to noon, then break for lunch and/or exercise and then work again in the afternoon for several hours. At least once a week, if not more, I will see an exhibit or go out to sketch. I find that inspiration and solutions to creative problems come to me when I am out walking or riding the “métro” (subway).

What are the similarities and differences between working on a book versus an app?

There are many different kinds of apps and different ways of developing them, but I can tell you about the one I illustrated. It launched in the App Store this May 16! It’s a totally new creation — as opposed to an iPad adaptation of an existing illustrated book on paper. Some publishers take tried-and- true books and adapt them into apps to save development costs and risk.  

A WORD’S A BIRD, Spring Flies By In Rhymes, an animated, interactive poetry book app, was written by the award-winning American poet and children’s book author, Orel Protopopescu. (Click here for the app!  https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/a-words-a-bird/id645849196?mt=8&ign-mpt=uo%3D2 ) It’s a collection of poems, one for each spring month (April, May, June), plus an introductory poem.  From the start, these poems, all based on rhymed metaphors, evoked many images for me. The author and I conceived the app with a French developer who has a passion for animation and high-end illustrated books. 

Our app uniquely fuses traditional animation with technology. I painted hundreds of watercolors on paper for the scenery and animations. Then the paintings were scanned and programmed for the iPad. This approach was the daring idea of our developer and so far, judging by our reviews, the look we achieved makes it stand out on the marketplace.  

I designed the characters, drew the storyboards and model sheets and researched plants, trees, birds and animals to do homage to the nature I love! 

For the May poem, I did all the animation myself, but two other animators, an engineer and programmers joined me to make the whole app come to life. 

To answer your question, the main difference between a book versus this app was that it was a lot more work. More elements needed to be drawn or written up in the storyboards, so that the whole development team was “on the same page”. Like storyboard for a film, I indicated the animation (more frames than for a book storyboard) and the sound. I also indicated what the interactivity would be. 

Other differences: I had the additional challenge of composing the scenes vertically and horizontally to take into account these two screen positions that are possible on the iPad. The scenery was all done in pieces and mounted in layers, in order to leave open the possibility for movement/animation, either in the present version or for future updates. The layering gives a greater impression of depth than when it’s done on one piece of paper. I love this!   (See our “Making-Of” video). Finally, in a book, an illustrator usually shows one or possibly a few action poses per page, but animation for this project required an average of 15 drawings per second (for movies it’s more). I acquired such admiration for the colossal work professional animators do! They usually work in teams and one of our animators likened it to the work of ants! Even animation done entirely on computer, requires many hours of work. 

The main similarity is that an illustrator of a book or app has to understand, then interpret or enhance the text with images. Pictures can be “read” just as words can be. 

Who are your favorite writers and/or illustrators and why?

This is a hard question. There are so many writers and illustrators I love! And they are all different. It’s like asking me if I prefer to eat chocolate or strawberries or… It depends on my mood and what day you ask me. Here are just a few children’s illustrators I admire: Garth Williams for his line and power to pull my heart strings, Maurice Boutet de Monvel for his elegance, Susan Hill for her detail and sense of place, Quentin Blake for his exuberance, Melissa Sweet for her stylish, kid-friendly and contemporary style, Bridget Strevens Marzo for her sophisticated color sense and characters that make me smile. Oh, and I have a thing about birds, so I always loved J. J. Audubon and Charlie Harper’s stylized birds… and then there’s Winslow Homer for his beautiful watercolors…I could go on and on, but I might make you sorry you asked.   

What advice would you give aspiring artists?

Be prepared for the long haul (have perseverance) and enjoy the ride.

What are you working on now?

I’m having fun, wrapping up a picture-book project about a family of mountain goats. I wrote the text and I’m doing a storyboard and a finished sample. 

To learn more about Jeanne and her work, visit her web site at www.jeannedesaintemarie.com.

To discover how Jeanne and her team created A WORD’S A BIRD, Spring Flies By In Rhymes visit

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yv1traMhNjk&feature=youtu.be

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Interview with Sandra Guy

Sandra Guy photo by Ephrimvael
Sandra Guy photo by Ephrimvael

Long gone are the days when artists were supported by wealthy patrons. Today, anyone involved in the creative arts must find a way to follow their bliss somewhere in between the constraints of a full-time job. Add the extra spice of family responsibilities into the mix and very quickly the artist finds herself wishing for a few extra hours in her day or at the very least a time machine. The theme of balance surfaces often in conversations with writers and this month’s interview is no exception. Recently I had the honor to chat with the talented Sandra Guy. She is a full-time writer, acupuncturist and parent. How she manages to juggle all of her jobs demonstrates not only her commitment, but also the fact that living a creative life is a work of art all by itself.

Where did you grow-up and where do you live now?

I was born and grew up in Hong Kong. At the moment I live in Amsterdam. In between I lived in London, Paris and Rome.

You’ve written for all types of audiences. How does your writing process differ as your audience changes?

I’m not sure it’s the audience that dictates the changes in my writing process so much as the type of project I’m working on.  My process is generally to find the voice of the project (the narration style or the voice of the main character) and keep that in my head until I feel I can slip into that character’s skin. It’s only then that I start writing. Sometimes I get these moments of lucidity when I’m sitting in front of my computer, which is very convenient. At other times it’s happened on the metro or walking to work – and I’ve had to rummage in my bag and find a piece of paper to scribble the voice down fast because I’ve learned that once a character starts talking, you’ve got to catch it quick, otherwise you lose it. This is as true for my fiction, as it is for my poetry, and non-fiction. I wait to hear the voice first, and once I have that, work out how to use it to tell the story. If the project is fiction, then I spend more time working on plot and character and setting.  If it’s non-fiction, then the process is more about finding a way to keep the voice engaging while conveying information in a way that is easy to understand.

In addition to being a successful author, you also work as a licensed acupuncturist. How does your “day job” influence your writing?

I think I mostly use acupuncture as a balance to my writing life as it is a great way to take me out of my head and into the real world. Acupuncture is social because you are working with other people and other people’s problems, it’s intense because you are working one on one and in some ways very precise because the acupuncture points are located in exact places, the needles are small and there are specific techniques to use to achieve certain effects. But it’s also a little like being in a parallel universe where the body’s organs have slightly different functions, the internal weather of a body (we talk about heat, wind and damp) affects health and we work on issues of “qi” which people can’t see or image or even properly define. And I love that quasi-magical side of acupuncture too.

Some of the texts I’ve read concerning the theory of traditional Chinese Medicine are almost 3,000 years old. It’s very interesting to see how similarly and how differently we see the world now. And, of course, the cultural perspective is very different too and that’s always fascinating to think on.

But my study has been packed with stories – case histories, the names of strange herbs, curious political decisions, famous and inspirational doctors. The number of books I’d like to work on whose inspiration has come straight out of my study is huge! I’m currently working on a series of self help books using the secrets of traditional Chinese medicine, and I’m researching a biography I’d like to do about a doctor from the late nineteenth century and a historical piece set during the Chinese cultural revolution.

What are your secrets in balancing your full-time work, family and writing?

Hmm, I’m still trying to work how to balance them! I’ve been told there are ways to find the Flow in time and from there to somehow transcend the limits of it. I haven’t discovered how to do that yet, but I’ll let you know when I do!

I recently abandoned any attempt at timetabling and I’m happy that I did. I’m generally quite structured in my approach to what I have to do, so I thought timetabling would work – you know three hours of acupuncture in the morning, followed by three hours of writing and then going to pick up my son from school etc. But what inevitably happened was that my clients weren’t able to come for their morning appointment the day I’d planned to write in the afternoon, or there was an urgent call out in the middle of my writing time so I’d spend most of it somewhere else.

I think the best trick to time management is to be totally involved with things that you love doing, so you don’t mind what order you do them in. Then it’s a matter of juggling what happens that day which is outside your control with what you’d most like to do as opposed to trying to squeeze something you like doing into a day crammed with things you would rather not have to do at all.

Who are your favorite writers and why?

One of my favorite writers is Jeanette Winterson. She can make language jump off the page at you and she has a wry sense of humor. I also like the storytelling of Susan Price, Melissa Marr, Garth Nix and Cressida Cowell, the sensuality of Francesca Lia Block, and the otherworldliness of Alan Gardner and Ursula Le Guin’s “Earthsea Quartet.”

My favorite poets are T S Eliot, e e cummings and William Carlos Williams. I also love Japanese haikus and zen koans just for the way they can open your mind to the unexpected with so few words.

What advice would you give aspiring writers?

Get naked. Open your senses to the world around you. Really learn to see what is in front of you without thinking you already know what you are looking at. Find the new – again and again – in the everyday things of your life. Feel the quality of the breeze that rushes over your face when you step out of your front door, the texture of your t shirt on your skin. Identify the notes of the smells that make up your hall way or the school car park. Hear that “roar on the other side of silence” that George Eliot wrote of and feel the wonder of life pressing forward in an exuberant wish to manifest. One you are connected to that, nothing can stop you writing and the formalities of structure and technique will be easy enough to learn.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on a collection of quirky contemporary love stories for teenagers where each story is based on a popular film. The stories are poignant and romantic, but also gritty and self referential, pondering the nature of love alongside the structure of story and the development of character. I think it’s a pretty good device and I’m having fun writing them.

As I mentioned earlier I’m also working on a series of self-help books using the secrets of traditional Chinese medicine for a number of our common complaints in the West.

You can learn more about Sandra and her creative work at www.sandraguy.com or if you happened to be in Amsterdam and need an acupuncturist, drop by www.heavenlystaracupuncture.com.

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Interview with Bethany Hegedus

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Most writers long for a dedicated space to write. Some are lucky to have an office. Others make do with the kitchen table or a nook in the laundry room. Author Bethany Hegedus does us all one better – she has a complete barn. Located in Austin, The Writing Barn is a space especially designed for writers and artists to study and work on their craft. Recently I caught up with Bethany and we chatted about the Writing Barn, books and her advice for unpublished writers.

Tell us about what led you to writing and your road to publication.

Ah, the rocky road to publication. Whether it’s a long one or a short one, it all feels uphill as a writer is pursing publication. It can feel uphill after publication, too, but instead of complaining about those darn hills, I try to focus on the writer muscles that are being developed during those apprentice years. Being able to hear “no” and not let it stop our creative selves from exploring and continuing to work, is the muscle that gets developed the most in those early years. When I first began writing seriously, I had wanted to be published within a year. I didn’t know that was unrealistic. Later, I heard Stephanie Owens Lurie, now Editor at Disney Hyperion, say on average it takes about ten years. I began writing in 99 and my first book, Between Us Baxters, came out in 2009 and my second novel Truth with a Capital T in 2010. So ten years was the magic number for me.

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The Writing Barn

 

How did the Writing Barn start? What has been the most exciting thing that has happened so far?

The Writing Barn is the dream I never knew I had and it all happened because I moved to Austin and met and later married my life’s partner who had an incredible 7.5 acres in Austin, where a once working horse barn sat at the back of the property. When I met my husband, he was in the middle of transforming the house on the property into a retreat workshop space for yoga and Sanskrit, which he studies but when we got serious and marriage was in the picture I said, the house should be the house and the Barn, which was to be my office, could be a workshop and retreat center. So we got to work. Or rather our contractor did. We opened in January of 2012 and have grown so much in what we offer in terms of programming, parties, book launches—it’s amazing. The most exciting thing that has happened so far has been hosting the authors and illustrators affiliated with the Texas Book Festival for a welcome party, which included such incredible authors as the new Newbery winner Katherine Applegate and picture book gods Jon Scieszka, Adam Rex, and Bob Shea, and Austrialian author Garth Nix. Oh, and Lisa McMann and Paulo Bacigalupi. The other is the Advanced Writer Weekend Worksops we’re doing. Our April workshop with National Book Award nominee, Sara Zarr, had 32 applicants for 20 workshop spaces. Sara arrives in two weeks and I can’t wait to serve as her teaching assistant and welcome our guests from Texas and out-of-state.

How do you find balance between your writing life and your Writing Barn duties?

Balance? What’s that? Just kidding, I do find that while my writing life and Writing Barn life may not be balanced all the time they do feed one another. When I need a break from drafting, I work on the programming and marketing of the Barn. When there is a big event at the Barn it takes precedence, but with writers coming to write, retreat, workshop and create I am always fed artistically in conversations and in knowing the space is being used creatively by others. I love hearing what retreat guests have to say about how the space allowed them to open up and get hard work done in a serene space.

Who are the writers that inspire you and why?

Sara Zarr is one, which is why I asked her to come teach at the Barn. There is no one better in contemporary realistic fiction and I am excited to hear her lecture on emotional pacing and to read her latest novel, The Lucy Variations. Another, is a writer I am in talks about coming to teach next year. Rebecca Stead. Her voice and her characters are succinct and surprising.

What tips would you give to aspiring writers?

Firstly, that becoming a novelist or a picture book author takes time. My latest book, Grandfather Gandhi, which I co-wrote with Arun Gandhi, grandson to the Mahatma, comes out early next year. I began the project when I was 27 and Arun was 67. When it hits the shelves I will be 41 and Arun 81. I may have been frustrated with the years spent drafting the book, revising, and revising, the near misses at publication and then the contract offer and wait for the illustrator assignment and illustrator vision to be fully realized but I recently saw the final online galleys and the book is a thing of beauty. It’s much more than I could have hoped for in terms of vision and impact and I wouldn’t change one frustrating moment.

Secondly, it’s always, always about craft. A writer must study, read, take classes, participate in workshops, listen to lectures, talk to other writers. Good writers never stop learning and they never stop producing. That’s why I began the Advanced Writer Weekend Workshops to give those who are agented or published, or on the verge of being agented or published a place to go to continue to do the nitty, gritty work of sharpening the tools in our writer toolbox.

What’s next for the Writing Barn?

We have a book release party coming up in May for Ball, written and illustrated by Mary Sullivan. It’s going to be a wonderful day of books, dogs, balls, and a fundraiser for Austin Pets Alive. We’re looking forward to having many writers and writers groups retreat with us this summer and come fall we’ll be hosting the Texas Book Festival Kid Lit Authors & Illustrators again and we’re currently accepting applications for our November workshop with Francisco X. Stork. Slated to be with us in 2014, is agent and author Ammi Joan Paquette and hopefully Rebecca Stead.

You can learn more about Bethany Hegedus and the Writing Barn at http://www.thewritingbarn.com/. Bethany’s books are also available at your favorite online or brick and mortar bookstore.

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