Author Interview: Franny Billingsley on Big Bad Bunny

Franny Billingsley on Franny Billingsley: “Franny was successfully rehabilitated from the practice of law 25 years ago and has never once relapsed. In the intervening couple of decades, she’s published two fantasy novels for upper-elementary and junior-high readers, Well Wished Wished (Atheneum, 1997) and The Folk Keeper (Atheneum, 1999).

“Her picture book, Big Bad Bunny (Atheneum, 2008), has just been released, so she’s developing a school-and-library program for K-3rd grades and having a blast memorizing all the words to Little Bunny Foo Foo.

“Her novel-in-progress, The Chime Child (working title), has had an elephantine gestation, but she hopes it will be released in the fall of 2009.”

I last interviewed you in June 2000, not long after the release of The Folk Keeper (Atheneum, 1999), which was published two years after your debut novel, Well Wished (Atheneum, 1997). It merits noting that The Folk Keeper was winner of the 2000 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award in fiction. Looking back, what have each of those novels come to mean to you over time?

It took me an astonishingly long time to realize that the novels, although very different in many ways (tone, reading level, point of view, etc.), share something that goes to the core of each story: in each, the protagonist is looking for her skin.

If Corinna, the half-selkie, half-human protagonist of The Folk Keeper, finds her sealskin, she’ll not only be able to shift from her human form to that of a seal, she’ll have the option of redefining her identity, ‹choosing to live as a creature of the sea rather than as a creature of land.

When Nuria, the harum-scarum, high-energy protagonist of Well Wished, gets stuck in the body of a girl whose personality and physical relationship to the world are completely opposite to that of Nuria’s, ‹of a girl who, in fact, can’t even walk‹, Nuria has the opportunity to find out who she is at her core. Who is she when she’s divorced from the physical vessel in which she used to reside? Can she, for example, still sing? Why is it that her dog recognizes her?

So they are both novels that address issues of identity. And then still later, I realized that I’d twice-over written my own story, which is that of shedding my skin as corporate lawyer to try one on that fit better, the skin of a children’s book writer.

How have you grown as a writer in the years since?

On a practical level, the success of Folk Keeper has made it difficult to write my new novel (which I’ve been writing for almost ten years).

The Folk Keeper set a bar that I’ve felt I had to jump over, and so when I’m writing, I keep second-guessing myself, “Oh, I’m not doing what I did in the Folk Keeper; it therefore will not be as good a book as Folk Keeper.”

This kind of thinking is deadly. The success of Folk Keeper was in great part due to the fact that it’s rather unlike other fantasy novels, and here I am, imitating myself! Perhaps with a great deal of chocolate and psychotherapy, I’ll manage to stop.

I did, however, write a picture book, ‹something I never thought I had the ability to do; and I do think that now I am inching away from Folk Keeper and honoring the integrity of my new novel. So I’m writing differently, which, to my way of thinking, is growth.

Congratulations on the release of your debut picture book, Big Bad Bunny, illustrated by G. Brian Karas (Atheneum, 2008)! Could you tell us a little about the book?

Thanks! I guess I have to say that it’s yet another story about identity!

It begins with two seemingly parallel stories: Big Bad Bunny rampaging through the forest while Mama Mouse scurries through the forest to find baby mouse. I hope that as the parallel stories unfold, the audience is worried that Big Bad Bunny will “get” (whatever that means) baby mouse. But then the stories merge, and guess what?

Big Bad Bunny turns out to be baby mouse, who’s sick and tired of being treated as a baby.

It’s sort of a mirror image of my novel Well Wished. There, Nuria is essentially spread between two bodies‹–there’s her physical self, which is now occupied by Catty (the girl who can’t walk), and there’s her spiritual self (for want of a better word), the part of her that includes her memories, personality, values, etc. Those now occupy Catty’s body.

In Big Bad Bunny, the Well Wished situation is turned inside out: both Big Bad Bunny and baby mouse occupy the same body. There are two identities in a single body.

But don’t ask me if it’s Big Bad Bunny’s body or baby mouse’s body. I’d have to get a degree in philosophy to figure that out.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this story?

The straightforward answer is that it arose from a meeting with my writers group in which we were trying to remember the words to Little Bunny Foo Foo (for reasons I no longer recall).

One of the group members called her daughter in D.C., who took valuable time away from her government job to tell us the words (so we are probably to blame for the country being in such a mess). When we read the words aloud, I really took them in for the first time, and it came to me what a funny idea it was to have a mice-boinking rabbit; and thus the seed was planted.

But after I’d written Big Bad Bunny and it was being illustrated, I went through some old computer files and saw a draft of a big bad bunny story that I’d written years earlier! So I’d had the idea for ages, forgotten it, then came back to it. I have no idea of what sparked that earlier draft or, indeed, any memory of writing it. Hmm, the human brain is certainly mysterious.

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

I wrote it in the summer of 2004; my editor accepted it right away and soon thereafter (late summer/early fall) lined up Brian Karas to illustrate it. I guess the major events were receiving and commenting on a series of increasingly-polished sketches and paintings from Brian. It was a low-maintenance publication experience. The book was published in Feb ’08.

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

It felt easy; it felt like a gift. It was basically a two-draft book.

There was the first draft, which had no spine, and the second draft, which did. The spine just came to me; I don’t really know how. The work my editor and I did together amounted to little word fidgets, nothing more.

If you ask me, Brian did all the heavy lifting. He faced the challenge of depicting Big Bad Bunny and baby mouse so that you couldn’t tell they were one and the same, but at the same time, sharing enough similarities that when Big Bad Bunny’s identity is revealed the reader will have that satisfying “Aha!” moment‹–the moment when the pieces of the puzzle fall into place.

Brian did lots of drafts (if that’s what one calls the stages of an illustrator’s process), and with each new draft, he and I and our editor talked about how to tweak it to make it still more subtle and, at the same time, more obvious.

Talking is easy: it was Brian who had to actually do the work! I think he did a fantastic job: I’m so glad my editor thought of pairing him with my manuscript.

In 2000, you told me, “I don’t think I’ll ever write for younger than a middle-grader reader.” What changed?

That comment came from a notion I had that I’d never have any picture-book-sized ideas. I used to think that I was built to be a marathoner. ‹I’m slow and steady and long-winded ‹and that I didn’t have what it takes to be a sprinter. And I do still sort of believe that. I certainly believe that there are narrative forms that fit certain people better than others.

Someone once told me (although I’ve never checked on the truth of it) that Henry James wanted to write a play but could never carry it off; and it makes sense to me that takes one kind of DNA stew to write a novel versus and another kind to write a play (which I guess doesn’t quite work as a metaphor as, to my knowledge, no stew has ever succeeded in writing anything
at all).

So how did I break free of my DNA? How did I jump out of this metaphorically-unsuccessful stew? I think it was three things.

One is that I was so frustrated with my novel-in-progress (on which I had then been working for a mere six years) that I had to turn to a successful project or I’d explode.

Second, the goofiness of the idea of a big bad bunny generated a lot of energy; and I remember thinking that giving it a shot wouldn’t be a huge investment. I could scribble for a few weeks, and if it went nowhere, no big deal.

Third, I’d also read lots of picture books (more on that below), and I knew that I had an understanding of picture books even if I didn’t have an innate instinct for them.

How did you go about learning to write a picture book?

I didn’t set myself to learn: I realized that I already knew. I was lucky ‹I learned without knowing that I was learning.

I had managed the children’s-book section of an independent bookstore for 12 years, and part of my job was doing two story-hours a week. I think the essence of what makes a good picture book got into my bones. I saw what worked, I saw what flopped. I saw how pattern can captivate and engage kids; I saw how kids love goofy ideas, etc.

So when I set myself to put this goofy idea into picture-book form, the structure came very naturally, as did my leaving room for the illustrator to tell his part of the story.

Had I not read so many picture books, I’m sure I would have thought I had to explain everything.

What about the process surprised you? Delighted you? Made you want to pull out your hair?

Neither of my novels felt as though it were a gift. Writing them made me feel as though I were digging in a quarry with a teaspoon. So the ease with which this came was a terrific surprise. You don’t always have to suffer in the name of art! You don’t have to cut off your ear!

I have no illusions that, should I undertake another picture book, it will be as flow-y and fun as this one was. But it’s for sure easier (for me) to write and structure 500 words than 40,000.

Big Bad Bunny reminds me a bit of Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (Harper & Row, 1963). It’s the exploration of imagination and reassuring mother’s love that triggers the connection in my mind. Were there children’s picture books that especially inspired you? If so, which ones and why?

Thank you! I’d never thought about that before until you, and then someone else, mentioned it.

I do love the lovey-dovey books (as one of my friends calls them), but only those that have some punch to them ‹as Where The Wild Things Are certainly does.

One lovey-dovey book I really admire is So Much by Trish Cooke, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury (Candlewick, 1994). I’ve learned a lot from that book–‹fantastic language, wonderful pattern.

I adore Pete’s Pizza by William Steig (HarperCollins, 1998), which is a very different look at parental love‹. Talk about the transformative power of the imagination, not to mention a fantastically goofy idea!

I also love books in which there’s conflict between parent (or parent stand-in) and kid, such as The Baby Blue Cat Who Said No! by Ainslie Pryor‹ (Viking, 1998)(out of print). The kids love anticipating the coming of the “no!” and then yelling it out. And the Baby Blue Cat has the last word (which is “no!”). ‹I love that!

Another somewhat different twist on the same idea is Goodnight Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1994). Again, the kid stand-in (the gorilla, in this case) gets what s/he wants‹–ha!

Maybe it’s that I like books that are subversive in nature, that challenge the usual power hierarchy, as in the two just mentioned, and also in Bootsie Barker Bites by Barbara Bottner, illustrated by Peggy Rathmann (Putnam, 1997). The sympathetic kid gets what she needs by turning the tables on the bully kid, in a way that her mother (blind to what’s going on) would certainly not approve.

I also love books in which the kids, themselves, drive away the monsters, such as in The Secret in the Matchbox by Val Willis, illustrated by John Shelley (FSG, 1998)(out of print) or Go Away Big Green Monster by Edward R. Emberley (Little Brown, 1993). Big Green Monster is sheer genius. Why didn’t I write that?

Anyway, I think there are bits of all those ideas in Big Bad Bunny.

What do you love about being a writer?

I don’t know that I could do anything else very well. I’m the kind of person who dwells a lot in her head, her imagination, and I don’t pay much attention what’s going on in the outside world. So a job that requires that I live in my imagination is perfect.

I love making something out of nothing, surrounding it with the just-right details to make it seem as though this invented world must exist, weaving the threads together so that there are no chinks or holes through which the reader could peer to see the machinery cranking away behind the scenes.

What for you are its greatest challenges?

It’s the same thing, really, making something out of nothing. When I begin a new novel, it takes ages for it to feel “right.” I blunder along for a long time‹, years–‹choosing names, choosing settings, figuring out the nature of the magic, etc.

At the beginning, it all seems so made up, not organic to the story, and I often despair that I’ll never hit upon the right combination of details that will feel true to me (it’s a kind of an I-know-it-when-I see-it thing).

But I keep at it, and then the “true” details come bubbling to the surface, and the more true ones there are, the more easily others appear. And that’s when I start to believe in the story and start to believe that others might believe in the story, and it becomes fun‹-magic.

Do you have a critique group or work only with your editor? If the former, what makes the group work for you and why? What advice do you have for writers in working with peers?

I do have a critique group‹–it’s very important to me. It’s not just that I receive valuable feedback on my writing, although I do, it’s a place where I can get lots of support and shots of love and reality checks (e.g. just because I haven’t heard from my editor for a week doesn’t mean that she hates me!), and advice about fabulous new books to read, and great vats of humor and chocolate. I always leave feeling more hopeful and ready to take on the next writing challenge.

As for advice, two things are important to me about a writing group.

You want to be sure that the members share in a general your understanding about writing and books. This does not at all mean that, for example, if you’re published, they have to be published. It means that you share a common vocabulary and sensibility. It means that they understand the art and craft of how a book is put together and can intelligently and articulately and kindly tell you what needs to change for the book to work best.

Getting feedback from people who think very differently from you or else just don’t get what it is that you do (for example, I write fantasy, and lots of people just don’t “get” fantasy) can be really hurtful to your writing. You certainly don’t have to take every suggestion, not even from your editor, but generally you want to be able to trust the response of your group.

The other thing has to do with group dynamics. Some groups don’t work out because someone needs to be the boss, to run the show, and power struggles emerge. I don’t know how you guard against that, but it’s something to be aware of. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in that regard.

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were beginning author, what advice would you offer?

This is what I think is most important: keep writing, keep submitting, don’t give up, keep writing, keep submitting, don’t give up, keep writing, keep submitting, don’t give up, keep writing, keep submitting, don’t give up, keep writing, keep submitting, don’t give up, keep writing, keep submitting, don’t give up, keep writing, keep submitting, don’t give up, keep writing, keep submitting, don’t give up, keep . . . .

What advice do you have for fellow picture book writers?

I guess I can only suggest that they do what I did: read a million picture books (more or less). Read them aloud for the getting-it-in-your-bones thing I mentioned.

If there are a few spare children around, use them! See how easily (or not) you can get them to participate in the story, ‹i.e., will they chime in on the predictable pattered bits? See what they love (just see what happens if you mention diapers…).

Even without a kid audience, read your draft(s) aloud to see how it sounds, how easy it is to predict the pattern, try to analyze the fun (diaper) quotient, etc. And then read a million more.

What do you do when you’re not in the book world?

Nothing very exciting. Taking care of two kids (18 and 13) takes some time, as does the hideously quotidian issue of having to shop and prepare food (I love to eat but I hate the steps leading thereto). Two dogs also take some time, but their meals are easy; and unlike my children, they think I’m a goddess!

I haven’t read as much as I’d like recently, or kept up with what’s new in children’s books. I used to be very on top of that.

I’m looking forward to a house renovation next year‹, and I really mean looking forward! Because I’m stuck in my imagination, I’m always re-envisioning spaces; and I’ve been re-envisioning our own space for a long time now. I love both the vision and the carrying out of it, which will include stencils applied by my own fair hand, the one that probably ought to be writing.

What can your fans look forward to next?

The tentatively-titled The Chime Child, which is the albatross that’s been digging its talons (do they have talons?) into my shoulder for ten long years.

I also have a chapter book in the works (third-grade-ish) and another fantasy that I hope will be funny, light-hearted‹, which is not how one would describe either Well Wished or the Folk Keeper.