Author Interview: Ann Angel on Such a Pretty Face: Short Stories About Beauty

Ann Angel on Ann Angel: “I’m a writer of young adult fiction and nonfiction with books that include Such A Pretty Face: Short Stories about Beauty (Abrams, 2007), Robert Cormier: Writer of the Chocolate War (Enslow, 2007). A biography of Amy Tan will be coming out with Enslow in 2008, and a biography of Janis Joplin, tentatively titled ‘Under the Influence,’ will be published by Abrams in 2009.

“When I’m not pushing a deadline, I’m teaching writing at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin or working with some of the greatest local writers through SCBWI-Wisconsin. You can also find me hanging out with my husband Jeff and whichever of our four twenty-somethings happens to be wandering around the house. You can read more about my years as one of nine kids growing up in Wisconsin on my website.”

Could you tell us about your path to publication, any sprints or stumbles along the way?

I earned a degree in English Education and worked as a junior high teacher while pursuing a master in arts in journalism. So I began my career as a teacher and then a journalist writing for newspapers and magazines. I was the reporter that the Milwaukee Sentinel would send to cover nursing homes, schools and foster care stories because I loved learning everything I could about people. On the other hand, I was awful at writing about government. I just couldn’t figure out what was so important about housing codes, or election practices, or tax incremental finance districts.

My own kids were adopted from around the country and then the world at a time when little was written on the subject. I wrote stories and read them to my kids to help them understand their own beginnings. Some of those stories became my first publication, Real For Sure Sister, an early chapter book published by a small adoption and foster care press, Perspectives Press, in 1989.

From there, I began teaching college classes and working as a writer-for-hire and freelance editor with school supplemental publishers such as Raintree Books, Gareth Stevens, and the Sight and Sound Division of Disney-owned Webster Publishing, where I wrote the front matter and games at the end of the Hercules sight and sound books.

But I really wanted to get back into fiction and realized I needed more training. I joined the ranks of the first graduating class of Vermont College’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. There I wrote a young adult novel manuscript, “Bella’s Spirit Guide” (which is being viewed, maybe even as we speak–or I as write this, by an editor I love to work with). That was the first of six novel manuscripts I’ve completed and which my agent has.

Congratulations on the release of Such a Pretty Face: Short Stories about Beauty (Abrams, 2007)! Could you tell us about this new title? Who are the contributors? What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

It was in the spirit of mentorship between new and known writers that I came up with the idea of creating an anthology that brought the work of new writers into the world alongside that of known writers. In the spirit of the program, it made sense to work on stories about beauty.

I loved the beauty of mentorship and ultimate friendships that formed at Vermont College. But with four children who don’t look like one another and because of teaching in a women’s college, I saw the effect of our culture and media’s idealization of impossible standards of beauty.

It made sense to create a book that offered readers the chance to expand on their own visions of beauty. And so, Such A Pretty Face was born. Contributors include: Ron Koertge (author interview), who wrote a story about the unwritten rules of beauty; Mary Ann Rodman, Norma Fox Mazer (author interview), Chris Lynch, J. James Keels, Ellen Wittlinger (author interview), and Jamie Pittel, who wrote stories that recognize how we stack up in a world that prizes physical beauty; Tim Wynne-Jones (author interview), Lauren Myracle (author interview), Louise Hawes (author interview), and Anita Riggio, who wrote stories about seeing beauty even in the ugliest of situations; and Jacqueline Woodson, who wrote a story about finding beauty in difference.

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

I look back and find that, while I can recall the moment I came up with the idea of this anthology, I can no longer put a year to it. (I think this is similar to the way our minds work when we forget the pain of childbirth or a wicked accident.)

I imagine the idea formed shortly after I graduated from Vermont College, which goes all the way back to 1999. It took almost two years to find the stories and work with writers to create stories that wouldn’t repeat specific themes or plots.

The collection sold to Abrams with the help of my agent, Barry Goldblatt, in 2005. Susan Van Metre, executive editor of Amulet, the imprint for Abrams Books for Young Readers, and I collaborated on final revisions over the next year. The book made its debut last May.

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

I was amazingly fortunate to know writers who believed I could make this happen. They encouraged me and, in turn, gave me their very best writing efforts. Every one of them turned in stories filled with heart and soul and memorable characters.

In the few cases where I asked writers for major revisions, they willingly took the challenge and, each story became stronger, better, more in line with the anthology’s theme. Once the anthology was sold, working with Susan, my editor at Abrams, proved that working with a great editor is a dream. But in between gathering the stories and finding a publisher, I admit, there were moments of panic, anxiety and outright hopelessness on my part.

At first the idea had been to use the anthology to create a young adult writer’s scholarship out of the proceeds. Because of political reasons I won’t go into here, that idea died.

A few publishers looked at the anthology and, while they loved the idea of a collection on beauty, some didn’t want unknown writers, others had a different vision for combining fiction and nonfiction.

It was truly fortune when Susan Van Metre saw the collection and shared the original vision of new and known writers working together to create the collection. But, because of the length of time that had passed since the stories were collected, I discovered some writers had sold their stories or had worked entire novels around their stories. I found that Susan and I were, sometimes, working on brand new stories trying to find the perfect space and order to the collection.

Meanwhile, I was putting together a reader’s guide and an introduction for the book. I loved every step of putting this collection together. It was a creative high to work through the process.

I did have one moment of absolute panic, though, when Susan called and said I had to kill the “teacher-ly or academic” introduction I had originally written. She asked for my own turning point story. My first reaction was to tell Susan, “No one reads introductions anyway.” In the end, I wrote a true story about how, as a truly insecure and dorky teen and the sister of one of the beautiful girls, I was set up to believe I had actually captured the attention of one of the beautiful guys only to learn the beautiful girls had paid him five dollars to kiss me.

Before I sent the story to Susan, I asked my sister to read it and okay it. I should note my sister’s only culpability was that she couldn’t stop the other beautiful girls from carrying out their humiliating plan. Katie told me that it was a beautiful story, and I could certainly have her permission to put it in the book. But she said, “I don’t remember it.” She added, “So it isn’t true.” I remember saying to her, “Oh, Katie. But it is.”

Since then, Katie and I have talked a lot about growing up together and growing up being such different personalities. We both agree our individual turning points are the stories we each recall. But I was amazed to learn she was just as scared and insecure and sure the world found her wanting as I.

What challenges are inherent in putting together an anthology?

The challenge I was most aware of initially was that I wanted the stories to explode traditional ideals of beauty in a way that would make readers think about their own definitions and expectations and possibly change the ways they viewed beauty. I was looking for stories with characters that were real and funny and sad. But the stories needed to be different from each another in a way that each made readers think in new ways.

I received so many excellent stories from both new and known writers. It was really tough to make selections and then to send stories back to writers when they were well written and unique. But I often found myself writing letters that said the story, as strong as it was, really only dealt with beauty on a peripheral level or it was a story that was too close in theme or plot to a story I already had accepted.

What did you learn from the process?

I think the experience gave me confidence in knowing what is good and what is interesting. But I also learned more about my own writing, about what works and doesn’t work, and about how some ideas and ideals are more easily accepted by the world than others. Finally, I learned I love putting together anthologies and I hope I have a chance to do this again.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I’d like to tell you I bungee jump and sky dive–I have a sister who actually does those things. The truth is I teach. I do laundry. I cook. I love to cook. I often find myself at the mall where I say I’m doing fashion research for fiction I’m working on, but I’m probably either heavily into retail therapy or a mall addict. Jeff and I travel, usually to warm climates where he gets a little stir crazy and finds things to do like climbing cliffs or exploring underwater caves full of rocks covered with sea urchins, or para-kiting. I, meanwhile, stand on the beach with my book and stare down into the water or up into the sky feeling a little sick at how high he’s going.

We just went to Italy where I was amazed at all the graffiti and open air markets where knock-off purses and sunglasses are sold. I can’t wait to go back.

What’s next in your writing life?

I’d love to sell some of my fiction and I’m currently working on a novel about two sisters. But I’m also deep into research for Under the Influence, the life and times of Janis Joplin. My deadline is fast approaching. I tend to always be working on one piece of fiction in conjunction with a piece of nonfiction.

Thanks for the chance to talk about Such A Pretty Face and all the wonderful writers I’ve gotten to work with so far. I really, truly, hope this is just the beginning of a trend in anthologies.