Author-Editor Interview: Jill Santopolo

Jill Santopolo is the author of The Nina, The Pinta, and The Vanishing Treasure (Book One: Alec Flint: Super Sleuth)(Orchard, 2008), an editor at Laura Geringer/HarperCollins, and a graduate of the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. She makes her home in New York City. Learn more about Jill.

What were you like as a young reader?

When I was a kid, I read everything, all the time. I have memories of stretching out along the top edge of the couch and balancing there for whole Saturdays, reading.

My favorites (I had a lot of them) were the Encyclopedia Brown series, the Bobbsey Twins series, the Boxcar Children series, the Nancy Drew books, Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (Random House, 1964), Matilda by Roald Dahl (Viking, 1988), Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson (HarperCollins, 1990) and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (HarperCollins, 1943).

I loved the worlds these books took me to, and I loved the things I learned when I read–like what dumbwaiters were, and that if you put lotion on your hands and then wore white cotton gloves to bed, your skin would get softer. I saw books as portals to other times and other places and adored reading because of that.

Why do you write for kids today?

I write for kids today because I know how much I loved reading as a kid and want to pay it forward, so to speak. I also think that reading is one of those things that, once you’re hooked, is a love you can take with you your whole life.

What about young fictional heroes appeals to you as a writer?

What I love about young, fictional heroes is also what I love about the kids I meet when I do school visits–they are energetic and creative and can explore tons of different paths.

They’re still shaping themselves and their future, and that exploration of the world is such a fun thing to write about.

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

My path to publication was a relatively uneventful one, as far as sprints and stumbles go. Since I work as an editor at HarperCollins, I knew some agents before I started writing.

I was lucky enough to get in touch with one of them, Jodi Reamer, who loved Alec Flint as much as I did, and after a bit of revising of the initial manuscript on my part–Alec started out as a 25-page story and grew substantially, thanks to Jodi–she found a fabulous editor at Scholastic, Lisa Sandell, who loved Alec Flint as much as both of us did.

The most exciting part about the whole process was that shortly after Jodi sent the manuscript out to editors, I went on a trip to Italy for my birthday. I found out that Scholastic made an offer from an Internet cafe in Rome a few days before my 25th birthday. It took a little more than two years from that day for Alec to make it into bookstores.

Looking back on your apprenticeship as a writer, is there anything you wish you’d done differently? If so, what and why?

I wish I’d taken more writing classes in college. I took one writing class during the summer before I began college with a professor who said, “If you want to be a writer, the best thing to do is to read everything you can. It’s only by knowing what has been done by the writers who came before you that you can write something that will make an impact.”

And I took that professor at her word and majored in English literature in college–basically, I read my way through school. And I did find all of that reading very helpful as a writer.

But still, if I had it to do over again, I would’ve taken some writing classes, too. I think that’s a bit part of why I decided to go back to school to get an MFA.

On the flip side, what was most helpful to you in terms of developing your craft?

I’d have to say two things were most helpful to me: One is the friends I have in the children’s publishing field who gave me notes on my stories and helped me to craft them in the just the right way, and the other is the MFA in writing for Children and Young Adults program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. The community there is wonderful, and the faculty and students really informed my writing and helped me to grow and fine-tune my skills.

Congratulations on the publication of The Nina, The Pinta, and The Vanishing Treasure (Book One: Alec Flint: Super Sleuth)(Orchard, 2008)! Could you tell us a little about the story?

Of course! The Nina, the Pinta and The Vanishing Treasure is about a fourth grade Super Sleuth-in-Training named Alec Flint whose father is an officer on the Laurel Hollows Police Force. One day, a whole exhibit on Christopher Columbus goes missing from the museum, and Alec’s dad can’t figure out what happened. Alec decides that he needs to solve the mystery–with the aid of his new best friend Gina Rossi–before something even worse happens.

What was your initial inspiration for writing these books?

As I mentioned earlier, I loved reading mysteries as a kid. I loved trying to solve them as I went along, I loved learning new facts, and I loved finding out what happened in the end.

So when I sat down to write a book for kids, I thought about the kid I was and what I would’ve loved reading if I were eight- or nine-years-old now.

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

Yikes, I don’t even know. I guess…I first started thinking about Alec Flint as a character in the summer of 2004. So, spark to publication took four years.

Scholastic bought Alec in the spring of 2006, so deal to publication too a little over two years. It seemed so far away when I first heard the publication date, but the two years have gone by very quickly.

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

Well, there was definitely research on Christopher Columbus involved, and then choosing what information to include from the facts I’d learned. I also was having a trouble with the order the scenes, which a wonderful writer-friend helped me out with a lot.

The biggest challenge, really, was finding time to write. But this book was–and still is–very important to me, so I made writing a priority.

Although Christopher Columbus is by no means the focus of the story, he is mentioned and related to it. I was struck by your decision to clarify in the text that Columbus isn’t seen as a hero by all and that you further underscored that in the author’s note. Why did you think it was an important consideration?

One of the reasons Christopher Columbus has always interested me is the fact that he’s a very important figure in American history, but that he did some very questionable things very publicly. I chose to include that information, because I think it’s important for kids to be as informed as possible about history–and about everything, really–so they can make their own decisions–like Alec does–instead of believing something just because it’s what an adult tells them to believe.

I also think it’s important for kids to understand that people–even famous people–are far from perfect, and that one person’s hero may be another person’s villain.

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

I would tell myself to calm down and enjoy the ride.

What is it like being a debut author in 2008?

I’ve had a great time being a debut author! I’ve done some signings, visited some schools, gotten interviewed on some blogs, had some nice reviews–it’s really been a blast.

I guess the biggest difference between being a debut author in 2008 and being a debut author in, say, 1988, is the Internet. It’s still incredible to me how quickly and easily word can spread about anything on the Internet–including a children’s book.

In today’s crowded market, it’s essential for authors to promote their work. How have you taken on each of these challenges?

Well, I started a website that has information about me and my books on it. I also spread the word about being available to do author visits in schools and have gotten a great response to that. I’ve gone into a few schools already and talked to kids about writing and helped them write their own mysteries.

I also connected with a bunch of great bloggers (like you!) who write about children’s literature, and I had a book launch party at Books of Wonder in New York City. I also started some pages on social networking sites, but I haven’t been very good about updating all of them that often.

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

Because I still have a full-time job, and because I was also pursuing and MFA while I was working on the Alec Flint books, I’ve been able to train myself to write in short bursts pretty much anywhere. As long as I have my laptop and an outlet, I’m fine.

When I’m in full swing with a manuscript, I try to write a little bit every day–two pages is my goal–and that doesn’t change if I’m speaking at conference or answering interview questions online or doing school visits. I make sure to remember that without the writing, there’s no reason to do the rest of the stuff.

What can your fans look forward to next?

The next book in the Alec Flint series is coming out in Summer 2009–it’s called The Ransom Note Blues: An Alec Flint Mystery.

In the book, something has gone missing from Alec and Gina’s town, but no one knows exactly what it is. It’s up to the two super sleuths-in-training to figure out what the missing something is before the villain makes good on the threat to “turn the town blue.”

I’ve got some other Alec Flint ideas, and a few non-mystery manuscripts floating around half-finished on my computer, but I don’t know if those will make the transformation from e-file to finished book anytime soon.

You have a double identity: Jill Santopolo, author, and Jill Santopolo, editor at Laura Geringer Books/HarperCollins. How do your inner author and inner editor work together?

My inner author and my inner editor seem to be pretty good friends and help each other out a lot. Experiencing the process from both sides keeps both my inner author and my inner editor in check, I think. Though I do wish I could edit my own writing a bit better than I can.

What are the challenges of a dual identity?

The main challenge is finding time to write! But I’ve separated my life so that I edit in the office and write at home, which seems to be working out well for me.

The only issue is that it often means late nights in the office so I can get editing done before I head home to write.

What qualities do you look for in a manuscript? What sorts of books most intrigue your editorial eye?

I look for three main things when I’m scanning submissions. The first and most important is good, solid writing. The second is a really compelling character and voice. And the third is a story that’s new, different, and surprising.

I’m a big fan of quirky middle grade novels and YA manuscripts with strong female protagonists. One of the things that I think the books I write and the books I edit have in common is a sense of empowerment. I love when readers can leave novels feeling stronger.

What do you see as the jobs of an editor in the publishing process?

I think the editor plays the role of Book Auntie. She’s there to provide objectivity and to help guide the book (and the author) so that the novel can be the best version of itself.

Then after the writing process is done, the editor is there to make sure the novel is getting as much attention as possible by people inside and outside the publishing house.

What do you do outside the world of books?

So much of my life revolves around books, it’s a little crazy.

Outside of writing and editing, I’m also teaching–one class is through Media Bistro on writing YA novels, and the other is a writing class for teens through Writopia Lab in New York City.

Completely non-writing-related, I play dodgeball on an organized dodgeball team, and once in a while I play kickball and touch football, too.

I learned recently that you can take trapeze lessons in downtown Manhattan, and think that might be a lot of fun. But I’ve got some more writing–and editing–to do before I look into that.