Cynthia Cotten on Cynthia Cotten: “I was born and raised in the small city of Lockport, New York, on the banks of the Erie Canal. My dad was a high school art teacher and a painter. My mother started out as a stay-home mom, but over the years, her love of needlework led her to open a shop and become a teacher, judge and designer. I’m the oldest of three kids–my brother is an attorney, which involves writing and–kind of–acting, and my sister is an opera singer. So you can see there was a lot of creativity swirling around our house.
“Books have always been a big part of my life. I was sick a lot when I was young, and my mother believed that a sick kid should stay in bed, which I did–with a stack of books. My idea of the perfect summer vacation was to ride my bike to the library once a week, take out as many books as my bike basket could hold, then spend the rest of the week reading, usually in a cool, out-of-the-way place such as under the piano in the living room. I studied music from an early age, too, and play several instruments.
“I have two children, a daughter and a son. While neither of them has pursued a career in the arts, the creative gene was passed on to them: my daughter is a bagpiper, and my son was involved in band and theater all through school. And I was blessed with a husband who (a) was able to help with science and math homework, and (b) was not only able to support the family, but was willing to, so that I could stay home with the kids and pursue my writing.”
What about the writing life first called to you?
I was a tall, skinny, big-footed band geek, completely lacking in self-confidence. I always loved reading, but never gave much thought to writing. Then, in eighth grade, I had a half-year course called “English Composition.” Stories came bubbling up–and when it was my turn to read my work out loud, the other kids–even the popular ones–noticed me. I could actually make them say, “wow.” And I liked that. Today, more years later than I want to count, I think there’s still a bit of that geeky kid lurking inside me–and she still likes it when people say “wow.”
What made you decide to write for young readers?
My husband and I were living in a small college town near Utica, New York in the early 1980’s. I was constantly reading to our daughter, who was two at the time, and the more I read to her, the more I began to read critically, discovering what I liked, what I didn’t, what worked for me, and what didn’t. As the holidays approached that year, I was looking for a picture book retelling of the Christmas story. The town’s library was tiny, and the only nearby bookstore was one of the small chains, about ten miles away. I couldn’t find anything I liked. Finally, in exasperation, I uttered those fateful words: “I could do that.” (However, it took a long time for that Christmas book to materialize.)
For those new to your work, could you briefly summarize your back list, highlighting as you see fit?
So far, all my published books have been picture books. The first one, Snow Ponies, illustrated by Jason Cockcroft (Henry Holt, 2001), is about Old Man Winter going out to the barn and letting the ponies out to play. After six years, it’s still going strong–it was a wonderful way to come out of the starting gate. At The Edge of the Woods: A Counting Book, illustrated by Reg Cartwright (Holt, 2002) was next. Then, in 2006, two came out: Abbie in Stitches, illustrated by Beth Peck (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), about a girl in the 1820’s working her first sampler and hating every minute of it–she wants books; and This Is The Stable, illustrated by Delana Bettoli.
Congratulations on the publication of This Is The Stable, illustrated by Delana Bettoli (Henry Holt, 2006)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?
Sometimes I get a phrase in my head, and it plays itself over and over until I do something about it. In this case, it was “the stable, dusty and brown”–I was packing away the creche we set up on our piano every Christmas. The figures are from eastern Europe, made of corn husks, and Steve and I made a three-sided stable out of wild grapevine. It’s very rustic, very dusty and brown-looking.
What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?
The initial spark was probably that “I could do that” moment when my daughter was two–and she just turned 27! But that phrase came to me (I think) in 2003. The words came to me fairly quickly–I had a final draft in about three weeks. My editor at Holt, Reka Simonsen, is great about keeping me in the loop as things progress. I love getting things in the mail from Reka. In this book’s case, the first envelope had a note saying something on the order of, “This is the illustrator we’ve chosen, and a couple of examples of her work.” Later, she sent me photocopies of Delana’s sketches, then the first pictures in color, then the color proofs, and–finally–a finished book. I think the whole process took not quite three years.
What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?
Since it’s in rhymed verse, one of the biggest challenges is getting that right–the rhythm, the scanning, making the rhyme fresh. One of the members of my writers’ group at the time tossed me a challenge, wondering if I really wanted to keep bringing the reader’s focus back to that dusty stable rather than the baby. I thought about that for a bit, and realized that, for me, an important part of this story is the idea of something great coming from something very humble.
What did Delana Bettoli’s art bring to your text?
As someone who has found success in writing picture books, I find it strange that, when I write, I don’t see pictures in my head. (I don’t even dream in pictures–my dreams are like running narrations.) So I’m always amazed by what an illustrator sees when s/he reads my words.
Delana brought ‘oh, wow’ moments in every spread–from big things (I was delighted that the people look as if they’re from that part of the world, and I never would have thought that one of the wise men might have ridden an elephant!) to small details (the mouse in the stable, and–at the bottom of each page–an accent taken from the main illustration. What I love most, though, is how she’s hidden wings in almost every illustration–it’s as if she knew I’ve collected angels for almost twenty years.
What advice do you have for beginning picture book writers?
Read picture books–stacks of them. Take some you like and type their texts out–it gives a feel for the rhythm and flow. Do a word count on the ones you’ve typed–you’ll probably find they’re a lot shorter than you thought. Then go read some more.
How about those building a career?
In addition to “read, read, read!”, I think I would pass along three quotes I have over my desk. From Jane Yolen: “Write the damn book.” From Graham Salisbury: “…revise, revise, revise — until the words sing to you.” From Phyllis Root, “What is the emotional heart of your story?”
What do you do when you’re not writing?
I spend time with my husband of 31 years. I read. I curl up with a good movie–I think that Turner Classic Movies and Netflix are two of the greatest things going. I love traditional Irish music, and play tin whistle and a round, flat drum called a bodhran. And I play with, and do obedience work with, my three year old Glen of Imaal terrier.
What can your fans look forward to next?
I have a lullaby-type of picture book, Some Babies Sleep, coming from Philomel in January 2007. And my first novel, a middle-grade titled Fair Has Nothing to Do With It, will be out from Farrar Straus in April 2007.
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