(me, reading a chapter from Bigger than a Bread Box, at the Sanibel Island Writers’ Conference. Flipping my hair and gulping a little too much)
(me, reading a chapter from Bigger than a Bread Box, at the Sanibel Island Writers’ Conference. Flipping my hair and gulping a little too much)
When writing a book, I almost always have a quote I stare at. For Bigger than a Bread Box we weren’t allowed to use the quote in the front matter of the book.
“Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true?” (Springsteen)
For the new book, Seven Stories Up, I’m staring at three quotes now. I think it’s most likely that two of them won’t appear in the book, but that the third will. Still, they’re all informing my process, and the tone of the book.
Which is a little scary…
See for yourself:
“There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.”
“Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.”
“Depression is the inability to construct a future.”
Then she wrote back, asking if I would be willing to answer a questionaire for a project at school.
I was happy to respond to the questions, but asked her for permission to repost them (and my answers) here. Because I found it so interesting to consider writing as a Job-with-a-big-J.
I don’t think about writing like this very often. I have always written. I will always write. The combination of my childcarelessness and my pathetic salary history, combined with my good fortune selling books, has led me to this funny place where writing is my Job. But never, in my wildest dreams, did I actually think that would ever be the case.
I wonder– how many of the authors I know thought they’d be able to support themselves with their writing… I wonder how many of them actually do…
2. Describe your average daily routine or a typical day at work?
3. Why did you choose this particular career?
Because it was all I ever wanted to do, really. I’ve wanted to be a writer since 4th grade, and went to college and grad school for this.
4. What is the best advice you could give someone who is thinking about going into this line of
Sit still. Turn off the internet and the TV and the phone and the music. You have to be alone if you really want to write. You have to listen to silence. Then be patient. You will try and fail and try and fail and each time you fail you’ll learn things and grow. It will take years. If you want to become an author, it won’t work. You actually have to want to write, even if you never get paid for it. If you don’t love it, it will be too hard.
5. If you could go back and change anything about entering or staying in your career, what would it be?
I wouldn’t change a thing! Everything I’ve done has made me who I am! I’ve waited tables and had books rejected over and over. I’ve hit low points, and gotten so frustrated I wanted to scream. I use ALL of that.
6. What areas do you like least about your career?
The waiting, I guess. Publishing is a slow business. And I have trouble with how much authors are required to think about marketing and selling. I don’t exactly mind doing that stuff, but I think it distracts us from the writing itself. And I think sometimes, when authors think about “success” in terms of sales, it inhibits the creative process. It makes our books less risky.
7. What areas do you like most about your career?
I love meeting kids, and hearing about how they felt when they read my books. I love their questions. I love that I have a flexible job, and can stay home with my own kids. I love meeting other writers. But the best part is either when I have a BRAND NEW IDEA and I just have to go scribble it down, or when I’m at the end of a book, and I can finally see it coming together, after all that work. There’s a lot of faith involved in writing a novel. It;s nie, at the end, when the faith is rewarded.
8. What benefits, aside from making money, does your career offer?
I get to do what I love. I get to talk to kids. I get to make up stories. I get to spend a lot of time following my own wildest thoughts to their conclusions. I get to hang out with my heroes! How many people get to say that?
9. What kind of personal qualities, strengths and skills do employers look for in a person being
I think editors look for authors who are willing to work hard, and work well with others. People sometimes have this idea of the artist/writer as a prima donna, someone who’s hard to work with because they’re a creative genius. But an author is part of a team. Editors and artisits, designers and sales reps, publishers and marketing directors– an author has a lot of input from other people, and needs to be able to listed, to make deadlines, to be flexible sometimes.
10. What are some other possible related occupations to this career?
Illustrators, obviously, but also editors, researchers, designers, sales reps (who have to be very smart, literate, and thoughtful, in publishing), marketing and publicity people. Booksellers. But also teachers and librarians! SO many people are part of literature and literacy for kids!
11. What is the best way to acquire an entry-level position and then to advance in this career?
As an author? Write. And then write some more and then write some more, and then read, and then write some more. That’s it. If you do that enough, you’ll grow and learn and make something awesome.
I woke up this morning to see that the Sydney Taylor Awards had been announced. Recently, the National Jewish Book Awards were also announced.
And I love the books on these lists! I love that we have these awards! But while I’m always so excited to see who’ll win… they often leave me with a big question:
Where is the contemporary Jewish voice? Where is our daily depiction of what it means to be a kid today?
These books are almost entirely unified by the fact they’re set in the Jewish past. From holocaust narratives to biographies. And we need these books, to be sure, and they’re awesome… Kids need to learn about these many chapters of Jewish history, from biblical stories through our various diasporas, into the atrocities and great Jewish strides of the early twentieth century. But…
What are Jews today?
Do we know? (maybe we aren’t sure) Do we not think our kids need to see themselves reflected in their books? (maybe we think they’re basically the same as other kids, and so that doesn’t seem important) Do we not think these books are as literary as their historical counterparts? (maybe they aren’t) Do we simply not have books to praise? (are publishers not willing to take a risk on a Jewish contemporary voices, since they can so easily be de-Jewed, for bigger sales?) Or are we simply conditioned to expect the best Jewish books for kids to dwell in the past? And so we reward books like that…
I have thoughts on this, an essay in the works (not about the awards, but about what Jewish books get published). I have, as you might expect, a loud and overwrought opinion… complete with a timeline of Jewish events and a book list…
But I’m curious to know what you guys think, if you think about this at all…
Is an old-fashioned Jew more Jewish than a newfangled Jew? I don’t think this is actually about Jewish observance, exactly, because many of the Jews-of-the-past are far from orthodox.
And I don’t think these are questions about the awards, really. I think these are bigger questions– about what we, as a culture, think “Jewish” means. I think these are questions about how we view our own contemporary identity. And what we choose to showcase for the non-Jewish world. I don’t have answers, and I’m caught up in this too (at work now on an outline for a historical Jewish YA, as well as a biblical picture book).
And I’m probably wrong, as usual.
But I think it’s well worth discussion. And as most Jews will tell you, it’s the QUESTIONS that are most interesting.
(and for the record, I didn’t have a horse in this race. And I haven’t written a Jewish contemporary myself. That’s part of my question, I guess… Why am *I* not writing authentic Jewish contemporary voices? Why aren’t *you*? Hmmm….)
Today is my birthday. I was born 38 years ago today, in Baltimore. It was snowing. I don’t remember it at all.
I had a lot of birthday parties as a kid. All of them in Baltimore. One year my California-grandfather brought a pinata to our house in Govans. One year, in a rowhouse on TV Hill, I had a taffy pull, just like in Little House. The taffy didn’t taste very good, but I was pleased. Another time, my mom took me and my best friend Susan to the Brass Elephant (which is gone now, sadly) for High Tea. We ate ladyfingers and honeydew ices. I never had two birthdays that were quite the same.
When I turned 21 I was in Chattanooga, at the Pickle Barrel. There were raspberries kamikazes. How awful! Brought to me by my favorite waitress, Alisa, who probably doesn’t remember it at all. Kind of amazing that I do…
A lot of birthdays have faded into memory. But then came the most important one.
Because the day I turned 30 I woke up in Vegas, and got hitched! In a cheap black dress, with a silly seedy-pearly hairdo. Prom hair. At the Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel. There was a tacky white limo with an ad on its tinted window, and a purple glow. We said the words, and danced back up the aisle to a song from Mermaid Avenue. Then we ate too much steak, danced a little, and gambled. We won. I don’t mean that to be a metaphor for our love. We WON. At the roulette table. Our wedding basically paid for itself. Not a bad way to begin.
Years since have been less fun, to be honest. Being a mom to small children can make a birthday hard. You can’t stay in bed. You can’t “do whatever you like” Even if your darling husband agrees to go eat Indian food with you, someone is sure to scream about how it’s “too picy.” Or they’ll pee their pants or bite you, or something…
But this year is nice, nice. Mose insisted I not lift a finger at breakfast. He poured his own milk, carried his dishes to the sink. Lew hugged me about 42 times. They went off to school, and now I’m sitting in my PJs. I’m going to take a bath, then write for a few hours. I will not do dishes. I will spend the afternoon watching whatever I like on TV, or reading my books. We’ll go out to eat, and nobody will freak out, because we’re mostly past that now…
So… I’m 38! with deteriorating fingers and a few gray hairs.
And I’m 8 years married, to a man I love. We fight now and then. Often we don’t have much to say. But mostly we feel pretty lucky and kind of smart, for flying to Vegas. For making the choices we’ve made. For doing things our own way.
I’m getting older, but I really don’t mind. Because despite everything my mom told me, I really haven’t grown up very much.
I’m still just as excited by cake. I still feel like a princess (of a sort). And I still believe in wishes. I do. I still believe, every time I blow out a candle, that I’ll get what I ask for, if I ask for the things I actually need.
It’s all about managing your expectations, wishing for the right things. Magic is tricky. You have to play by the rules. You have to figure it out.
(thanks to Carin Berger for the birthday image!)
Okay, so I have to begin by saying that I AM NOT A TEACHER. There are brilliant people out there in the trenches (to whom we owe a great debt) who are, and they know a lot about this stuff. I fear what I am about to say will seem stupid to them.
So I want to phrase it as a question… (that’s a trick I know)
The question: to what degree does the term “reading level” refer to form/format ( stuff like length/ vocabular/ chapter length/sentence length) and to what degree does it refer to complexity of ideas and structure?
This has been nagging at me. Because I see people talk a lot about how, say, verse-novels appeal to kids who struggle with reading. Because such books offer lots of white space and are short. But this seems odd to me, because shortness doesn’t always indicate easy, does it? Or I pick up graphic novels that I’m told also appeal to such kids, because kids like pictures, and I find them (on occasion) disjointed and hard to follow.
So I wonder– are these really the best books for kids who have trouble reading, and (maybe as a result) don’t love to read? It seems like the best book for such a reader might be one with simple words, straightforward structure, and short chapters, but really interesting ideas. Just because someone is a slow reader doesn’t mean they’re a slow thinker, right?
I find myself reciting poetry to myself, mulling over what the AR level for a “simple” poet like WCWilliams might be. Or Creeley? I mean– they have simple words in them, and they’re SHORT and stuff.
Like, have you read I KNOW A MAN?
so much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.
I want to ask you all– what are some things that really work well for a kid who’s struggling to read? I don’t want to know the best books. I want to know what you think makes them the best books. What are the elements of a great book for a reluctant reader. (understanding, of course, that these readers are all distinct individuals with specific tastes. But generally, what do you see as successful?)
I am predicting the Newbery and Caldecott.
Why is that hard to believe?
See, here’s the thing…
When you are an author of books for kids, you spend a lot of time at festivals and conferences with other writers (and illustrators). You get to know and love these great people, who also happen to be your heros. It’s exciting!
But the kidlit world is not like the adult literary universe. It’s SOOO overwhelmingly friendly and supportive. By and large we all pretty much like each other and want each other to do well. We do! We’re ALL IN for literacy and kids and making the future brighter, and if that sounds cheesey to you, screw you. Because we really are nice people who believe we’re doing important work in the world, and we love each other, and our important shared project.
When award season comes around, we don’t know what to do with ourselves. We want everyone to win! We do. And because of the aforementioned conferences and festivals, we know everyone, for the most part, so the idea that some people will win and some won’t (especially when those people are friends, and their books have been especially buzzy, so maybe they are feeling hopeful) is tricky.
It feels safer to just keep your mouth shut.
But here’s the reason I play along anyway…
The awards actually matter. At least I think they do. Without awards for innovation and excellence and merit, that drive sales and impress librarians and newspapers and fancypants types… it might be even harder to convince publishers to take a risk on something quiet or new or old-fashioned or, well… anything but whatever hit the bestseller list this year.
But also because people work hard, and they dream of being noticed for their hard work, and so it is inspiring to all of us when sometimes they actually are noticed. After the awards are announced, the people who didn’t win fade away into the background, and everyone–really, everyone–cheers for the winner.
And that’s nice.
I am going to make my predictions, with the understanding that there were many amazing books this year. I love many new books. I love many authors. Often, the books that win (and should win) are not the books kids love best. People like to wank about that fact, and have esoteric conversation about the nature of quality, and that’s okay. But it doesn’t matter, because the books kids love best–the Percy Jackson and Wimpy Kid type books–generally sell pretty well without a shiny gold sticker. Often the most literary books (in the eyes of the grownups) also do not win. That’s trickier for me to puzzle out, but it’s also true that these books aren’t written for grownup literary critics either. So they (the critics) can sit around in tweed jackets if they like and bemoan the fact that kids don’t read Mrs. Molesworth anymore, and feel superior. It’s what they want to do anyway…
If you aren’t sure what the Newbery and Caldecott evaluate, you can read up on it... it’s no simple thing to explain.
But so, now that I’ve rambled forever, here we go:
Is it eligible? I hope so. Is it really a book for middle grade readers? I would have read it as a kid. Let’s not assume kids can’t handle scary books. Sadly, lots of kids have scary lives. What I do know is that this book is brilliantly written, weaving fantasy elements into a frightening truth about the world. People like to toss around the term magic realism lately. This is the book that comes closest to being magic realism.
Newbery Honor (only one!)
Okay, yeah, Anne is my buddy, but if you think that’s why I’m predicting it, you’re wrong. I’m jealous as hell over this. I read this book nervously, because people kept mixing it up with my book. I didn’t want it to be better than mine, dammit. Both are purple magical books about recently separated parents and lonely kids with Bread in the title. They pubbed the same day and we share an agent and everyone kept calling my book BREADCRUMBS. I am confessing here. It was hard. But you know what? It’s an AMAZING book. I could not put it down. I stayed awake in bed all night reading. Anne took some real risks in this book. She didn’t wrap things up neatly. She allowed the magic and the story to guide her. And for sheer care in language, for lovely prose, this is the book of the year. I didn’t love the distant storytelling sections so much, but they served a purpose. And it isn’t my book. It’s Anne’s. She can do what she wants. I’d have followed her anywhere…
There were lots of other great books this year, but nothing else I read matched these two. I look for a book to be a solid mix of quality prose and exciting/compelling story. Nothing else I read kept me awake all night, turning pages, but then… also lingered. Both of these were exciting stories, but then they stayed with me. I have beent thinking about them ever since I finished them. I bet I can recite lines from them even now…
Many people have said it isn’t a Caldecottish book, and that it won’t get the gold, but I refuse to accept that. Because I love simplicity. I love humor. And this book has transformed the way a lot of people see a “bestselling picture book.” It looks NOTHING like anything else on the bestsellers lists, and has somehow become a household joke anyway. I’ll confess I don’t know much about art (which is what they give the Caldecott for, not the text) but the dry humor and the edge delight me. I cannot wait to see the imitations of this “surprise hit.” Ha.
I have less to say about these. They’re pretty. I like them. I have a nearly impossible time divorcing the art from the text, because text matters so much more to me, but all five of these books delighted me visually when I picked them up. I feel a little bad about how very Caldecottish they mostly are– how quietly lovely, how pastoral, how generally caucasian, etc. But they are the books I was inclined to include, and so here you go…
I will add, interestingly, that one of these books annoys me to no end, but that I still think it should win. Isn’t that interesting… (don’t ask, I won’t tell you which one)
(Full disclosure: Kate and Lauren are both friends of mine in the inter-web-world)
NOW! TELL ME! WHAT ARE YOUR PREDICTIONS???
As I type this, I’m sitting beside a window, still in my pajamas, drinking coffee. On the other side of the window, Mose and Lew are playing “football” with their dad. I can hear them all hooting and screaming and running. At one point a little while ago, they “paused the show” to catch a snake. The snake is now inside, with me. In a box. Poor snake.
It’s an afternoon, a sunday breezy afternoon. In Atlanta. Tonight the temperature will drop and we’ll make a fire, maybe order a pizza. Tomorrow I’ll try to get to work again. I have a book to finish.
Can I say this, without bringing the wrath of the fates down on my own head? Can I say that all is well, that I’ve never been so content in my life? That this is the sort of happy-island-of-time I imagine people look back on, when they get older, and remember with a halo, a golden glow. These are sweet years, honey years. Time to breathe, to relax, to make work and feel hopeful.
Still climbing, but now a little slower up the hill… with a little more time to notice the view.
There’s a scene in Brideshead Revisited (a book I quote far too often) where Sebastian and Charles are sitting in the grass, and Sebastian says, ‘I should like to bury something precious in every place where I’ve been happy and then, when I was old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember.’
I’ve always loved those lines, but I think for a loooooooong time I loved them as exotica. I couldn’t really imagine feeling that calm myself. I was always looking for BIG, for LOUD, for NEW, for things that trembled and threatened and promised danger or emotion or huge experience. The things that made me happiest were usually in the past or the future. I never sat still enough to notice them in the now.
Now is now.
Now I’m older. Life feels different, and ta-dah! I’m there, suddenly sitting in the grass! It’s this year, this place. “Just the place to bury a crock of gold.” The fact that I’m present enough to notice my happiness is maybe the greatest gift, for a girl like me (which is to say a woman like me).
I’m really happy right now. I am. I have work to do, that I love. I have a healthy happy family. I have friends and a neighborhood that brings me joy. I have books to read and tea to drink and bourbon in a glass, when I want it. I am full.
And though my house is small, though it would be nice to have a second bathroom, or family in the area. Though I worry about paying for the boys to go to college, and about my own health a little. Though it would be nice to finish this book tomorrow, or have a flash of genius about a bestselling picture book series… each time I get a chance to wish (a star, a candle) lately, I only ever wish for things to stay. Just stay. Like this.
Of course, that’s folly. Because things can’t stay, ever. Things have to change. That’s why a girl might need to bury a crock of gold. Because alongside joy there is always awareness: when you are truly contentedly happy, you are only waiting for the end of that particular moment.
But today I don’t feel it, that knowledge. I have it, know it, but I don’t feel it. I don’t feel worried or superstitious or anything else but good.
It is a new year, 2012, and I’m beginning it with joy and calm and excitement. My kids are amazing. I have a book to finish writing, and new ideas to begin thinking about. Chris and I are reading George RR MArtin and making silly jokes to each other, about dragons and swords. Our house is snug and the ground beneath it feels sturdy.
And for now, the weather… is holding.
So I want to leave you with this, a little O’Hara.
Happy New Year! May your weather hold.
You do not always know what I am feeling. Last night in the warm spring air while I was blazing my tirade against someone who doesn't interest me, it was love for you that set me afire, and isn't it odd? for in rooms full of strangers my most tender feelings writhe and bear the fruit of screaming. Put out your hand, isn't there an ashtray, suddenly, there? beside the bed? And someone you love enters the room and says wouldn't you like the eggs a little different today? And when they arrive they are just plain scrambled eggs and the warm weather is holding.