Author Interview: Kim Norman on Jack of All Tails

Kim Norman is the author of Jack of All Tails, (Dutton, 2007), illustrated by David Clark. Her second book, The Crocodaddy, illustrated by David Walker, is scheduled for publication by Sterling, a subsidiary of Barnes & Noble, in 2009.

2010 will see the release of her 2nd book with Dutton, I Know a Wee Piggy Who Wallowed in Brown, illustrated by Henry Cole, whose many credits include illustrating two books written by Julie Andrews.

Over the years, she has won awards at the Christopher Newport University Writers’ Conference and now serves on their advisory council. For three years, she was the editor of the Mid-Atlantic SCBWI regional newsletter. Currently, she’s graphics editor for the Newport News & Williamsburg Kidsville News.

Kim lives in southeastern Virginia where she is active in community theater. Among her favorite roles were the Mother Superior in “Nunsense” and the singing narrator in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” She spent a few years as a vocalist in a big band, but her “day job” has always been graphic arts.

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

I can only say, I wish it hadn’t taken me so long. Because I’m kind of a maverick, (“Mother! I’ll do it myself!” my favorite phrase as a toddler, I’m told), I learned about the children’s writing biz very gradually, reading books about writing, attending conferences.

I’d say it was when I joined my online critique group in 2001 that I started to grow more rapidly as a writer. I felt like a bit of an impostor, in awe of these professional, accomplished writers and illustrators! I’m still in awe of their talents, and definitely indebted, considering the brilliant suggestions they’ve offered over the years to improve my work.

Congratulations on the release of Jack of All Tails, illustrated by David Clark (Dutton, 2007). Could you fill us in on the story?

It’s a picture book about a human family who makes a living renting themselves out as pets, pretending to be dogs, cats, lizards, pigs…you name it! The main character is Kristi, a little girl who tends to get carried away, getting herself fired from some jobs. She has to assess her talents to figure out which pet she’d be best at impersonating.

What was your initial inspiration for writing the book?

During school visits, I pique the kids’ interest by whispering conspiratorially into the microphone: “I stole it.” Then I explain that, no, I actually just borrowed the kernel of an idea and made it my own.

I have a book of letters written by early 20th century author P.G. Wodehouse. In one letter, he tells of a visit with playwright Lord Dunsany, who describes one of his plays, which had yet to be produced. It’s about a man who loses his job and becomes a watchdog. A real dog–chasing cats, even. I have no idea what the play was called or if it was ever produced. But it was a funny idea that really stuck with me until I wrote a story of my own borrowing the same premise.

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

Funny you should ask. I just found my journals from 2001, when I was being very good about walking and journaling every morning. So it’s intriguing to find my first entry about reading the Wodehouse passage in August of 2001. I was so inspired by it that I’d finished the first draft within a week. I joined my critique group a few months later.

“Jack” wasn’t the first story I submitted, as I recall, but once I did submit it, my group helped in strengthening the story. They were positively heroic about reading countless revisions.

In October of 2002, I met my (future) editor at the Mid-Atlantic SCBWI conference. We had a great meeting. She liked “Jack” and already had in hand a revision letter for me. I think I revised it for her two more times, and she made an offer in April of 2003.

It took four years for the book to come out, but I think that’s partly because she liked the story but didn’t really have any place for it in their line for some time, especially with a lot of other books already in the pipeline. In fact, I’d say the sale happened at the height of the picture book slump, so I feel fortunate it was bought at all!

We did a couple of tweaking revisions after the sale, and David Clark was hired as the illustrator about a year later. It was a lot of fun to see his hilarious sketches as they came in. One thing that delighted me about the project was that everyone involved was on the same page. Everyone (my editor, her assistant, and the illustrator) really got the humor of the book; the dry, matter-of-fact way Kristi talks about her nutty family as though people impersonating pigs is an everyday thing.

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

One major reason there were so many revisions (more than 20, I estimate) was because–initially– it was more a slice-of-life story–a first-person narrative by Kristi, (named after my niece): “Here I am; here’s my family; here’s this nutty thing we do.” I was worried editors would say, “It’s funny…but where’s the plot?”

So, for several sets of revisions, I tried to wedge in various plots. I remember there was a lost dad-the-dog at one point; there was even a monkey in there for a while.

Finally, Joe Kulka, the lone male in our group, pitched a fit, saying, “No no no! You’re ruining it!”

And his instincts were correct. The plot(s) felt artificial and forced.

(I love that my group does not pull their punches. If something isn’t working for them, they bluntly say so; no sugar-coating. A critique group is useless if people aren’t honest.)

I thought long and hard about what Joe had said and decided he was right. So, I took the story back much closer to its slice-of-life roots. But it still needed some form of conflict, to hold the readers’ interest. Finally I found it: Kristi’s uncertainty about her pet-impersonating talents. (She keeps getting fired.)

My group made great suggestions with the latter revisions, too, like when illustrator Terri Murphy suggested I add some repetition to the text by having people say, “No! No! Bad dog/cat/pig/lizard!” every time Kristi got fired. I think that strengthened the manuscript immensely.

What did David Clark’s illustrations bring to your text?

Because of the antics of this zany family, it’s a story with a lot illustration potential. David Clark did a marvelous job illustrating all those funny scenes.

When I do school visits, kids laugh uproariously at his illustrations. I like pointing out details that aren’t in my text. I also love the exaggerated physical characteristics, like Kristi’s brother with the long lizard tongue or Kristi’s wide mouth, looking just like a hippo’s when she’s roaring.

What is it like being a first-time writer in 2007?

Gosh, it has all gone so fast, especially after that long wait! I had worked at our town’s weekly newspaper for a dozen years, and my boss and his wife generously offered to throw me a launch party. Until moments before the party, I was worried no one would show up to eat the food my boss had paid for! But not to worry. It was a gorgeous, cool June evening and dozens arrived to congratulate me. A lovely, memorable evening.

I’ve worked hard to market the book. Sometimes it feels like a full-time job! Because I’m a graphic artist, I’ve created all my own print materials, from brochures and postcards to a full press kit. I’ve gotten “Jack” a bit of national exposure with a write-up in the national Kidsville magazines (it’s a franchise with issues produced in cities all around the country), plus a nice spread as recommended reading in the New Jersey Star Ledger. (Just luck and timing with that one. Struck up an online friendship with the niece of a friend, who happens to work as an editor at the newspaper.)

I’ve also tried to make myself memorable in my own unique way with my song parodies, which people can listen to on my website [scroll to play]. The song parodies brought me to the attention of Alice Pope, editor of the CWIM, who featured me as her Debut Author of the Month in the August 07 CWIM newsletter. She’s a doll, isn’t she?!

There’s been a lot of talk about the ups-and-downs of the picture book market, but you’ve certainly found success. What insights do you have to share on this front?

As I mentioned above, I got my big break right in the middle of the slump in picture book sales. Happily, it seems to be waning, as Boomer grandkids are coming along.

While it’s wise to study the current market, (very different books from the ones we cherished as children), I still believe you must write what’s right for you.

I simply adore picture books and feel very at home writing them. But it’s not the first thing I tried when I started. I wrote light verse and nonfiction articles and even took a stab at romance writing before I found the perfect fit. I encourage new writers to try many different genres, (both reading and writing them) to discover what works for them.

More globally, if you could go back and talk to yourself when you were a beginning writer, what advice would you offer?

Keep track of your revisions! I wish I could find the genesis of all my stories as I found that first reference in my journal the Wodehouse passage. I’m fascinated by the story process–how a story evolves–so I wish I’d done a better job of cataloging my revisions.

Also, don’t waste time trying to illustrate the stories! Because I’m a graphic artist, at first I thought I could illustrate them, too. So I made up some tight dummies. They weren’t terrible, but the more I learned from the true illustrators in my critique group, the more I discovered I did not know about illustrating. (Including having no strongly-defined style.) So, for now, I’m leaving that to the professionals!

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I’ve done a lot of theater over the years, but not so much in the past couple of years. It’s so all-consuming that these days, I’m contented to watch my sons (14 and almost 20) on stage.

If the right role comes along, I could be lured back. I’m just waiting for “Mama Mia!” to be released to amateur theater companies. I’ll will be so there! How perfect is that? A singing lead for a middle aged woman? Those roles are darned few and far between!

I also enjoy gardening, when I get the chance. It’s a quiet, pensive activity that allows my mind to wander, thinking up new plots or ruminating on stories-in-progress.

How do you balance your life as a writer with the responsibilities (speaking, promotion, etc.) of being an author?

Sometimes not very well. I was relieved in October, at our Mid-Atlantic SCBWI conference, to hear Bruce Coville say he doesn’t write every day.

We’ve all been beat over the head with that bossy admonition: “A writer writes every day!” Well, I don’t. Some days, it’s all I can do to take care of my freelance graphic art clients. I try not to beat myself up over the fact that I can’t do it all. I’d probably be more widely published by now if I could but… Oh well, I’ll just have to enjoy being a late bloomer.

Because I mostly write picture books, I can take my work with me in notebooks. So, this past summer, when I took my younger son to mow my mother’s lawn, I’d bring my notebooks with me and scribble in them while he did the yard work.

I’m fortunate that I enjoy public speaking and school presentations. I know some writers have to push themselves to do it, so I feel lucky that I came “pre-installed” as a ham.

You’re quite the musical author! Fill us in on how you’ve put the writer’s journey to song! Note: scroll here to listen.

Right now, I’m in the process of turning one of my songs, “A Writer’s Wish List,” (a parody of Santa Baby)(scroll to listen), into a video. That song has been my biggest “hit” so far, probably because it’s a holiday song. Last year, many people shared the link when folks were in the mood to hear funny holiday songs. Now, I’d like to give the song a second life by creating a video.

I do wish I had time to write more songs for my presentations. People keep telling me I should pitch myself as a performer at one of the national SCBWI conferences–that my song parodies for writers would be a big hit; maybe they would, but I’d like to have a few more songs written and recorded before I do that.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I’m excited that any minute now I’ll be seeing the first sketches for The Crocodaddy, which will be published by Sterling, a subsidiary of Barnes & Noble, in 2009. I can’t wait to see what David Walker has done with the story since it takes place both in the real world, (a boy playing with his dad in the lake) and in the boy’s imagination, where dad is the sly old crocodaddy. I think David Walker’s style is perfect for this book because it’s for a slightly younger crowd than Jack of All Tails was.

Then, in 2010, will come the release of I Know a Wee Piggy Who Wallowed in Brown, a color concept book based on “I know an old lady who swallowed a fly.”

Dutton has hired Henry Cole to illustrate it, which just thrills me! I am so proud that I now can boast sharing an illustrator with my childhood singing idol, Julie Andrews. He’s a prolific illustrator who seems just the right person for the job, having grown up on a farm in Virginia.