Interview with Jo Whittemore

It’s not everyday you meet an official Texas Sweetheart! Author and Texas Sweetheart, Jo Whittemore stopped by recently to celebrate the publication of her novel Front Page Face-Off that is already raking in sparkling reviews. In addition we visited about why she writes, when she writes and how she got her big break.


Why are you a writer?

For me, writing has always been a great escape and free form of entertainment. If I’m stressed at work, I can grab a fresh sheet of paper and write a character into a ridiculous situation. Instantly, I’ll feel better. Knowing that my writing brings amusement to someone else is also a great impetus. I love to hear people laugh and make them smile. And oftentimes if I narrate a situation for a character that’s similar to one I’m going through, it forces me to see both sides of the story (no pun intended) and gets me better perspective on my own life.


Describe your road to publication. Was it full of potholes or a smooth easy ride?

I’m embarrassed to admit that I started writing at 23 with the full intention of being published by 25 and a bestseller by the time I was 27. Talk about lofty goals! I didn’t actually get published until I was 28, and I’m still scanning that bestseller list for my name at 32! It’s important for writers to understand that this is not an overnight business. Nor is it an easy one. After I attended a book signing in 2000 where my favorite fantasy author, Terry Brooks, was speaking, I was inspired to start working on a fantasy novel of my own. The success of the Harry Potter series was encouraging because it meant not only that fantasy novels were doing well but also that children’s fantasy novels were doing well. It took me roughly a year and a half to get my first copy of the manuscript written to send off to agents and publishers.
When I received my first pile of rejection letters, I was shocked and personally hurt that everyone didn’t like my story. My ego was shattered, and I considered just trashing the whole project and writing a different story. Then, in 2003, I went to the SCBWI annual summer conference and had my work critiqued by a former editor and SCBWI advisor. She gave me encouraging advice and complimented my work, which made me feel a bit better. At the same conference, Megan Atwood, the acquisitions editor for Llewellyn/Flux at the time, stood and announced that her publishing house was looking for middle grade and young adult fantasy novels. With a bit of my confidence restored from my meeting, I walked up to Megan and spoke with her about my book. She gave me her business card and told me to read their submission guideline and send in my work. When I got home, I sent her my manuscript. In 2004, I got a response that they had enjoyed the work but couldn’t publish it in its current state. They suggested a few changes, and after I did a bit more revision, I got “the call” in 2005 with an offer for a contract. Roughly a year later, my first novel was in stores.

Tell us about the Texas Sweethearts.

The Texas Sweethearts (http://www.texassweethearts.com/) are a trio of Texas authors (myself, Jessica Lee Anderson, and Tricia Hoover) who support literacy and the literary community at large. On our blog (http://texassweethearts.blogspot.com/), we interview people who have made an impact in the literary world, be they librarians, educators, booksellers, etc. We also give talks on ways to raise literacy in the schools and ways to tackle the ups and downs that come with the writing life. The Texas Sweethearts are advocates for librarians/educators and a support network for writers.


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

Since I have a day job, a normal writing workday for me happens in fits and starts. I’ll do a little thinking and scribbling on breaks and at lunch, but the majority of my writing has to wait until the evenings and weekends. Then, of course, I’m having to balance it with emails and conferences and school visits and…But it’s funny. When I’m not working on a project, I feel like there’s NOTHING going on. I purposely add to the chaos just for that satisfaction.

Who are your favorite authors and why?

My favorite author depends on the genre. If it’s humor, I’m a big fan of John Green and Douglas Adams, and if it’s fantasy, I like Jonathan Stroud and Suzanne Collins. John Green is fantastic with a turn-of-phrase and painting the most awkward teen scenes to make them amusing. Douglas Adams was simply a genius…and he knew where his towel was. Jonathan Stroud can make the footnote almost as captivating a read as the text and Suzanne Collins can create a dystopian society that offers chaos and hope.

What project are you working on now?


Right now I’m working on revisions for a book I’ll have coming out next year from Simon & Schuster’s Aladdin MIX line. After that, I’ll tackle another humorous manuscript that’s on a topic near and dear to my heart…theater. 

What advice would you give aspiring authors?


Read lots of kid’s books so you get a feel for various styles and what’s working. Listen to kids so you understand their hopes and fears, likes and dislikes. Be willing to re-visit the dark places of your childhood so you can write with real emotion and conviction. Educate yourself…always. You can never know too much about writing.


You can learn even more about Jo, her books and writing by visiting her website at http://www.jowhittemore.com. All her books are available online or at your favorite local bookstore.


Interview with Vicki Sansum

December is definitely a busy month. Between the holidays and the end of the year celebrations, there is always too much to do and too little time. Author Vicki Sansum is no stranger to a hectic lifestyle. In addition to her full time advertising job, Vicki Sansum finds time to read, write and organize writing events in the greater Houston area. Recently we caught-up with Vicki and visited with her about finding inspiration in the midst of a busy life.
Where did you grow up?

I was born in Schenectady, NY, moved to Houston when I was three years old and have been here ever since. My father still lives in the same house in Oak Forest where we grew up. My sister lives in Garden Oaks. I love living in Houston, it’s a great mix of people and cultures.

What made you want to become a writer?

I have loved to read all my life. As a child, I’d go to the library every week and check out as many books as they allowed. We always had tons of books in our house so I think it was a natural step for me to want to write. I loved making up stories and writing them down.

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

In today’s world, it’s hard to have a ‘normal’ day. I work full-time so I grab whatever free time I can find to write. Sometimes it’s not until the weekends when I can sit and write. I’m always thinking about my books, you never completely turn off your brain when you’re working on a manuscript.

Where do you get your inspiration?

I find inspiration everywhere. It can be a phrase I hear on the TV, or the radio or something I overhear in the mall. I’ve gotten ideas from stories I’ve read in the newspaper or even noticing an unusual name. Occasionally my husband will say something funny and I’ll file it away for the future. I keep a notebook in the car so I can jot down ideas when they come to me. I have scraps of paper and sticky notes all over my desk, in my purse and on my computer with names, words and phrases so I won’t forget anything.

Who are your favorite writers and why?

I love an author who tells a great story. Whether it’s a children’s book or an adult book, I want the writer to compel me to turn the page to find out what’s next. J.K. Rowling is one of the most remarkable authors I’ve ever read. She has the talent of great storytelling and brilliant writing skills. Recently I’ve enjoyed reading the Luxe series by Anna Godberson and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I loved the Lemony Snicket series. I have read all of Joan Lowery Nixon’s books. Years ago, I read an article in the paper about Joan and saw that she lived in my neighborhood. Having such a well-known author living just blocks away from my house made the dream of becoming an author seem more real. I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and have been a member ever since.

What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Never give up. Keep writing and honing your skills. Join a good critique group. Attend conferences and workshops and get the support of fellow writers. Read, read and read. Writing is a skill, just like playing the piano. The more you practice, the better you get. Follow your dreams, they will come true.

Vicki Sansum is not only an author; she is also the head of the Houston chapter of the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators. Check out information about Vicki and the chapter at http://www.scbwi-houston.org.


Interview with PJ Hoover on Book Addict

The Austin-based author PJ Hoover didn’t follow the normal path to publication. Instead, after getting a degree in electrical engineering and then years of designing computer chips, she decided to try her hand at writing. Fast forward a few years later and people around the country are reading her Forgotten Worlds trilogy. We caught up with PJ recently and visited with her about Cub Scouts, field trips and finding inspiration.


Describe a normal “writing” workday.

It starts when the kids are off to school. Normally I make coffee and oatmeal and get my emailing and blogging out of the way. After that, I tend to divide my time into chunks. If I need to work on revisions, I’ll revise most of the day. If marketing is key (for example, when a new book is coming out), I’ll focus on mailing lists, interviews, speeches, or postcard design. When revisions and marketing are out of the way, I get to focus on new projects. Depending on what this entails, I can spend the day researching ancient mythology, touring a museum, or jumping into a fun first draft!


Where do you find inspiration?

Great question!  I find inspiration everywhere. In books, TV, nature and art. I think about the pictures my kids draw and see what I can make out of them. I listen to the nonsense worlds they sometimes make up. I take pictures of ironic things in everyday life. I go on field trips (many times with the Cub Scouts; Cub Scouts can get in for tours of so many cool places). I try to picture my characters in cool, off-the-beaten-path places, making decisions or falling in love. I keep my eyes and ears open, and while I’m doing all this, I remember to take the time to throw a penny in a fountain whenever I can. After all, wishes can only come true if they exist.

Who are your favorite writers and why?

There’s always Homer because he was one of the first. The longevity of his epics is…epic. In more modern times, I think Suzanne Collins (author of GREGOR and THE HUNGER GAMES) is brilliant. Ditto Rick Riordan (of Percy Jackson fame). Although there are many debut authors whose initial books are wonderful and have made a huge impact, I love seeing authors who are evolving in front of my eyes. These are the authors that have made writing their careers. I can see them grow and succeed which in itself is inspirational.

What do you consider your greatest “creative” success up until now and why?

This would have to be continuing to write. Writing a first book is a great accomplishment, but to keep on writing is even more so. I love that I’ve kept writing. I hope to improve with each book I write. Getting a book published has its share of ups and downs, and to persist in this livelihood is something I am proud of.
What do you consider your greatest “creative” failure up until now and why?

Anything not a direct success is a failure. So my road to success was paved with failure after failure after failure. As for creativity in failures, one key piece of advice I try to keep in mind when things are not going as they should is this: take a negative situation and ask yourself, "How can I use this to my advantage?" Ponder this question as long as it takes, and an answer will almost certainly come to you. 

What advice would you give aspiring writers?

Read a ton in your genre. Write as often as you can. Reading and writing are ways of practicing. And like with anything and everything in life, with practice makes perfect! And on your revisions, take as much time between drafts as you can. A week. A month. A year. The longer you take, the more objective you’ll be when you come back to it.


Be sure to visit P.J. Hoover online at http://www.pjhoover.com and

This interview also appears in the November 2009 edition of The Houston Banner.