Author Update: Susan Taylor Brown

Hugging the Rock by Susan Taylor Brown (Tricycle Press, 2006)(PDF excerpt). When Rachel’s mom runs away from home, she’s left to make sense of it with her best friend, the family dog, and her father (“the rock”). This novel in poems is a rare and powerful father-daughter book. It’s also a whole-heart book. You feel your whole heart break and re-knit as you read. It’s that good. Ages 9-up. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

We last spoke to author Susan Taylor Brown after the publication of Oliver’s Must-Do List, illustrated by Mary Sullivan (Boyds Mills, 2005)(author-illustrator interview).

Congratulations on the publication of Hugging the Rock (Tricycle, 2006)! Could you tell readers a little about the book?

When her mom runs away from home, Rachel is left behind with her emotionally distant father, a father her mother tells her is a rock that she can always lean on. In the course of the first year without her mom, Rachel learns the truth about her mom and why she left. But the real truth, the truth that changes Rachel and helps her grow, comes when she learns the truth about her dad.

It is a story I don’t see a lot of in children’s literature, a story that focuses on a positive father/daughter relationship. Some people have told me that it isn’t easy to read because of the emotional content. It might make you cry, but it is also a story of hope.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this story?

I wanted a dad who loved me like Rachel’s dad loved her. I’ve always wanted that.

Instead I had a dad I never knew. All my life I’ve played “what if” and wondered what kind of person he was (is?). The few facts I heard about him while growing up didn’t paint him in the most flattering of pictures. Still, with a stubbornness born in a lack of knowledge, I wanted to know. But I never did, never will, and as a result much of my writing deals with a missing parent (emotionally, physically, or both) even when I try not to.

So part of the inspiration in this book was wondering what a good father/daughter relationship would be like, where the father was the primary caregiver and where the daughter realized how much her father loved her. As long as I have written, I have had secret writings about what might life might be like if I had known my dad.

Another part of the inspiration is the fact that I’m divorced. And I have kids. And I remember all too well the pain of watching them struggle with the divorce and try to come to terms with being part of a broken family.

I’ve never been very good at keeping a journal and I couldn’t really write about my divorce when it happened, but at the time I was working through Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way. My morning pages were all about my divorce and the pain I felt, the pain I saw my children having to deal with. For a few years those pages sat unread in an envelope in my file cabinet. I think I had to get to a place in my life where I felt safe enough to write about all the painful things. When I did, when I felt safe enough to reread all the words about my divorce and about my longing for a dad, well the first thing that came out was a poem called “The Stranger.” That poem is still in the book, very close to the original version. At the time I felt that the one poem was all I was supposed to do with that material so I saved it in the notebook (this funky little notebook that was one-of-a-kind and I wrote much of the book in) and turned to a blank page to work on my regular novel, which was how I first envisioned the book.

So the seed for the story comes from my need to know a father I’ll never know.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I always love reading other people’s answers to this question but hadn’t realized how much I might have to say when it came to my own book.

In December of 2002, I sent my agent a much shorter version of Hugging the Rock. At that time it had 40 poems. She immediately started to shop it around. I was thrilled when we had some terrific emails from editors as early as January 2003 telling us how much they loved the book. But instead of a quick sale there were many rejections. Some of trouble then was that the verse novel genre was still fairly new and editors were waiting to see how it would unfold. Some editors wondered if the genre would be around to stay and some felt the market had been hit too much too soon with verse novels, some of which perhaps shouldn’t have been published as such.

In June of 2003, Tricycle Press wrote and asked if the book was still available. It was, and at the end of October Tricycle wrote again and said that they had some comments for me about the manuscript and would get back to us. That time stretched out a lot longer than any of us would have liked. In February of 2004 I attended my local NORCA SCBWI conference. My editor, Nicole Geiger, was a speaker there and gave me the manuscript back in person. It was lovely to be able to rush back to my room and read all her notes and then have some time to talk to her, one-on-one, at the conference.

Patricia Lee Gauch was another speaker at that conference and spoke to us about going out on limb, risking all, and Nicole told me I had gone out there, but not far enough. I needed to risk showing more. I went home energized and ready to revise but by the end of March I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. In an email to a friend I wrote that the characters were flat, I didn’t care why they did what they did and that the entire plot smelled worse than the stinky stuff in-between an ogre’s toes. I was not having a good time.

To make matters more confusing, in May 2004 we moved, which we all know creates havoc before, during, and for a long time after. And I was working hard to meet a deadline for my book Robert Smalls Sails to Freedom (Millbrook, 2006). That book was under contract and took priority for the time being. In June I ended up changing agents which set me back some more in time waiting for the new agent gave me her feedback on yet more revisions before she would send it out. Rather than give a month-by-month, I’ll say that in January 2005 I mailed a revised version of the book to my new agent. She started shopping it around in April and in May, Tricycle Press made an offer that was finalized in July 2005. The book will be released in the fall of 2006.

One comment about the title of the book. Hugging the Rock was the original title I had on the very first manuscript. When Nicole gave it back to me she encouraged me to think hard about changing the title to something else. She didn’t think it worked. Of all the revisions I did, that was the hardest but I did change it and I liked the new title. I would have been happy to see it published with that title. Yet when she made the offer on the book she also asked if I would consider going back to the original title which she now felt was the perfect one for the book. I agreed and have to admit I’m glad that my first title is the published one. Also the finished book jumped from the initial 40 poems to 77.

What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

Oh the pain. The pain of going so deep in order to write the really tough stuff. I’m a mom and to have to write the scenes where Rachel was so desperate for her mother’s love and to have her mother deny her, well they ripped my heart out. I would work on the book with tears streaming down my face. Even now, there are a couple of poems I can’t read without choking up. I’m also a daughter who grew up without a dad so I have no experience with a father/daughter relationship except as it relates to my daughter and her father. In this book I gave myself the father I wish I had had while growing up.

And I fought with the plot a lot. I had people doing things that I couldn’t back up with good reasons for doing them. I wrote the book first from pure emotion and then had to go back and find a way to weave in a plot and character motivation for the mom and the dad. Rachel I knew. I had felt that pain but it was difficult to find the right balance in the parents. In various versions I had them each so unlikable that the story didn’t work at all.

It was a huge challenge to be willing to go as deep as I did with this book, to revisit a lot of painful memories in my own past so that I could bring that emotion to the book. It would have been easier to skim the surface but then, of course, the book wouldn’t be as strong.

Why did you decide to tell your story in poems?

The short answer is that I couldn’t tell it any other way, and believe me, I tried. The poems were really only going to be an exercise, not the book. I was struggling to find Rachel’s voice. No matter what I tried she just wouldn’t talk to me. I knew sort of what the story was going to be about but without the voice, I had nothing. I was also working a lot of extra hours on the day job so my small amount of free time was even smaller.

Janet Wong suggested that I play with poems to see if they would help unlock the voice, the advantage being that poems were short and would fit into the bits of time I had available for writing. Once I started with poems Rachel’s voice came to me loud and clear. To be honest, I was afraid to think about doing the book with poems. But the more I wrote the more I realized that it was the best vehicle for telling Rachel’s story.

What should writers keep in mind when crafting a novel in poems?

I can’t speak to all writers but I can share what I had to keep in mind, that I was still telling a story. Each poem had to be strong on its own but they all had to build upon one another to make a story. It was easy for me to drift off and want to write pretty words that had no place in the story. But they didn’t move the action forward and they didn’t build the story arc or character development. Less is more and the right word, the absolutely right word, is even more important when writing in verse.

Are there other novels in poems for young readers that you especially recommend? If so, could you tell us which ones and a bit about why you love them?

My two all-time favorites are the YA Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy by Sonya Sones (HarperCollins, 1999)(excerpt) and the middle grade Loose Threads by Lorie Ann Grover (Margaret K. McElderry, 2002).

I can tell you why I love them in two words: emotional honesty. Stop Pretending is based on the author’s experiences when her sister had a nervous breakdown and Loose Threads is based on the author’s experiences when her grandmother got breast cancer.

Both authors tell are brave enough to go to the edge and tell their stories with stark emotional honestly. I believe that free verse lends itself well to cutting to the very heart of the story and allowing the reader to feel the same depth of emotions that the authors had to have felt while writing them. But I also believe that the power of those emotions came from tapping into events that had such a strong impact on their own lives. The blood we bring to our stories to give them life is our own.

For those who want to explore verse novels, I have a list of more on my blog.

I’ve heard of Tricycle Press, but I’m not that familiar with them. Could you tell us about the house and your experience as one of its authors?

Tricycle Press is an independent publisher located in Berkeley, California. They are the children’s offshoot of Ten Speed Press. The majority of their list is picture books though they do some middle grade literary fiction as well. They don’t publish young adult.

I have had the time of my life working with Tricycle Press. It’s been hard work but for a common goal of publishing a beautiful book we can all be proud of and that makes it fun. I’ve been very involved in the entire process each step of the way which has been educational as well as making me really feel like a part of the Tricycle family. Nicole Geiger told me Tricycle had a reputation of being heavy-handed when it came to editing. I think we did three full edits AFTER the big revision I did without a contract. Then two more times through on the galleys. We debated words many times and when we finally made a decision on which would was the
right word we both felt like it was the right decision. She refused to accept anything less than the best FROM me and FOR the book. And she’s a brilliant brainstormer. When I was stumped on how to do what she wanted me to do we would talk it back and forth and it almost always unlocked what I needed to move on. I have never felt more like a writer than I have while working on this book and much of that has to do with the terrific editing I received from Nicole.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s writers?

Read. Write. Repeat. I know that sounds trite and simplistic but it’s the truth. The answer might be easy but the execution, now there’s the tough part. Sometimes people just getting started think that because they can remember being a kid, they don’t have to read today’s kids books. And nothing could be farther from the truth. If you want to write picture books, read, as Anastasia Suen recommends, 100 picture books. If you are writing for the middle grades, read tons and tons of middle grade books before you start your own. It sounds obvious but I have met a lot of beginning writers that couldn’t name five current books they had read in their chosen genre.

How about those building a career?

All of the above plus act like a professional long before you are published, right from the start. The children’s publishing world is a small one. People move around all the time. Writers become editors and editors become agents and you never know who you will meet that will help you grow.

You have a wonderful resource-oriented website. Could you tell prospective visitors what’s to be found there?

Thank you. The teaching guides database is a searchable your link to many teaching and reading guides connecting your classroom curriculum with children’s books. New entries are being added all the time.

There are a lot of writing exercises and prompts, including my favorite, Story Parts, which generates a character, plot and setting to help you get started. Story Parts is terrific to use in the classroom. For fun try to match the childhood picture of a children’s author with their current picture in the author’s matchgame.

You’re one of the many author bloggers. What can readers expect from your blog? What purpose does it fill in your writing life?

I try hard to make my blog only about my writing life. It’s a way for me to give a glimpse into how I create as well as keep readers up-to-date on my latest news. I blog on LiveJournal because I really enjoy being able to connect easily (via the friends feature) with other writers and readers. Writing is such a solitary occupation. It’s fun to take a break and go read other author blogs, sometimes to follow their progress and sometimes to just say hello. It’s a virtual water-cooler for me because I can blog a question I have about something and get nearly instant feedback. It also helps in building a network and just getting my name out there. I started blogging with an idea to be able to have a record of my literary life. I’ve never been good at keep a paper journal or diary with any regularity. Blogging seems to be working better for me.

I’d like to look back at my blog in five years, ten years, and be able to watch books unfold from ideas to finish project and remember what I was thinking and how I felt through it all.

What blogs do you read?

Oh gosh… I read so many for different reasons. Some of my regular ones are, for starters, yours. Also:

Book Blogs: A Chair, A Fireplace and A Tea Cozy; Bec’s Book Blog; Boot Moot; Fuse Number 8; Professor Nana; Swarm of Beasts.

Children’s Writers: Cecil Castellucci (author interview); Cynthia Lord (author interview); Don Tate (illustrator interview)(click here, too); Janni Lee Simner; Jo Knowles – Monday Morning warmups; Kelly Fineman; Kerry Madden (author interview); Lara M. Zeises (author interview); Lisa Yee (author interview); Sarah Darer Littman; Sara Zarr; Tracie Vaughn Zimmer.

What can your fans expect next?

A few years ago I had the opportunity, through a grant from the Arts Council Silicon Valley, to spend a year working on writing with at-risk students at an alternative school in downtown San Jose. It was a wonderfully, gut-wrenching time in my life and I am trying to capture that experience in a new middle grade verse novel about a girl who wants to break free of negative family patterns.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

Oh dear, is there ever a time that I’m not writing? I mean, driving back and forth to work, I’m writing. Washing dishes and pulling weeds, I’m writing. My free time is fairly limited because of my full time job. A day off for me is puttering in my native plants garden or trekking over the hill with my husband to Santa Cruz to visit the bookstores then sit at The Crepe Place, sipping chai and reading in their garden.

Is there anything you would like to add?

I would like to invite readers to subscribe to my free monthly newsletter Susan Writes. Right now I’m running a contest for subscribers to win a galley copy of Hugging the Rock.

Cynsational Notes

See also the Review of the Day on Hugging the Rock from A Fuse #8 Production.