Author-Illustrator Interview: Katie Davis on The Curse of Addy McMahon

Katie Davis on Katie Davis: “I was writing and illustrating lots of really bad picture books and novels for children for a lonnnnng time, until I got a clue and learned how to do it better. Now I’ve gotten eight books published by Harcourt, Inc. and Greenwillow, combined.

“I’ve done freelance projects, including designing, writing, and illustrating literacy programs for children, restaurant activity booklets, and toy products.”

What were you like as a young reader?

I was very influenced–some might say suggestible!–by books and reading. Here is what I remember:

First grade

All the kids sit on the floor, crisscross applesauce, listening to Miss Terwilliger read a story. It’s April, and I’m the new kid. Again. As I stand in the doorway looking in, wondering if I’ll ever make a friend, Deena Teschner sees me, smiles, and waves wildly. I let go of my mom’s hand and go sit next to Deena.

Third Grade

I hate my name, Katey. No one is named Katey! Why couldn’t I be named Cynthia?* Then I read Katie John [by Mary Calhoun, illustrated by Paul Frame (1960)]. I love my name! But I change the spelling.

Fourth Grade

I’m the class scapegoat. I run home crying every day. Mrs. Ciricillo reads Charlie and the Chocolate Factory [by Roald Dahl (1964)] to us for what seems like the whole year. I get lost in the world of chocolate, bad children, and justice for good little kids.

Library Time

Every day we go to Library and listen to Mrs. Lee read to us. I love the smell of the books and learning about the Dewey Decimal System. I like saying “Dewey Decimal. ” I love getting a library card. It’s very official.

*Just a coincidence that it’s the same as yours, Cynthia! I thought it was the most glamorous name I’d ever heard when I was in third grade.

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

You give me an underdog fighting injustice, or the downtrodden getting their due, and I dig in and can’t put the book down, regardless of genre. I find it very satisfying to watch the growth of a character. When I think of the books that made me utchy I realize it’s because the characters didn’t change or jump through hoops to do or get what they needed in order to resolve their issues. I also find that the most difficult thing to do as a writer.

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

I consider my whole life an apprenticeship, and since I’m a slow learner, I’m not sure I could’ve done anything differently. Regrets are a waste of time.

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

When I go for school visits, a child inevitably asks, “How did you get so good at drawing?”

I always answer with the question, “What are you good at? Math? Making friends? Running?”

Whatever the answer, I respond with, “Do you do it a lot?” Yes, they tell me. I say, “That’s called practicing!”

But that is the easy answer. Add working very hard at what I do, plus help from friends, and you get success. For writing, astute readers are crucial. People who critique me on both the forest and the trees really help. In other words, both big stuff like plot and character development as well as punctuation and details often spark ideas I hadn’t expected.

For my art, I have freakishly talented friends like Janie Bynum (author-illustrator interview). She told me about using reference materials. I never went to art school, so I thought I was supposed to know how to draw any position or expression. I thought using a model, or looking at a photograph (i.e., reference materials) was called cheating.

I’m quite proud that I’ve been able to learn to draw better as the years have progressed. If you compare the art in my first versus my most recent picture book, you’ll see a big difference. In Who Hops? (Harcourt) the art is simple outline, no unusual positions,* which, happily, is exactly what that book needed. In Kindergarten Rocks! (Harcourt), I have much more sophisticated perspectives. I had to consciously learn that.

*Okay, except for the giraffe tangled up in knots. But you know what I mean.

I last interviewed you in September 2000. Could you catch us up on your back-list titles, highlighting as you see fit?

I’ve published a total of seven picture books, four of which came out from Harcourt between 2001 and 2005. They were: Scared Stiff; Party Animals (an ant is dying to go to the barnyard party, only to be ignored by all the farm animals. Don’t worry! It’s a surprise party for him); Mabel the Tooth Fairy and How She Got Her Job (self-explanatory, no?); and lastly, Kindergarten Rocks! (a boy full of bravado is actually terrified about kindergarten and learns…guess what? Spoiler alert! That kindergarten rocks!).

I just got some fabulous news about that one. The Georgia education department bought 80,000 copies to give free to every incoming kindergarten student in the state. Nice state, huh?

Congratulations on the publication of The Curse of Addy McMahon (Greenwillow, 2008)! Could you tell us a little about the book?

Well, if you insist! The McMahon family lore revolves around a curse. It started when Addy’s great granddad chopped down what was rumored to be a fairy lair back in Ireland. Addy blames this alleged curse for all the bad things that happen in her life, when maybe she should actually take responsibility for some of them.

Addy keeps her diary in graphic novel format, which she calls her “autobiogra-strip”. Through them we learn that her best friend hates her…the curse caused that? Everyone saw a mean comic she did…was that because of the curse? And worst, her dad died a few years ago, and it looks like her mom may have a new love interest. That’s just gotta be the curse…doesn’t it?

I wanted the book to be funny and heartrending, but they were fighting each other. That’s when I decided to extract the difficult emotional scenes and put them into the graphic sections. It allows the funny stuff to shine, and makes the harder scenes easier to take.

Kind of like Babar – can you imagine that picture book if the characters were human? A mother is shot by a hunter in front of her child. Making them elephants who live in a foreign land eases the burden of the scene.

What was your initial inspiration for writing the novel?

I read an article in the New York Times about an Irish storyteller who was trying to warn the local officials that all kinds of mayhem would erupt if they built a planned road, because it meant cutting down a white hawthorn bush rumored to be a fairy lair.

I instantly thought, “What if there were an Irish American girl whose great-great-grandfather had supposedly chopped just such a tree? Would she blame all her problems on the curse and would that keep her from taking responsibility for her actions?”

What makes it special?

I think it’s that juxtaposition of humor and poignancy. I wanted to make readers laugh out loud, yet still feel a tug at their hearts for Addy. It was a tough thing to balance. I also think the “autobiogra-strips” are pretty cool, and I’ve had lots of nice compliments on that part of the book. An unexpected (to me) bonus has been that boys are liking the book as much as girls, and that older teens are liking it, too.

But the most special thing for me is getting kudos from kids. My favorite, written by a teen who reviews books online was: “I wouldn’t be surprised if the author, Katie Davis, just stole a (very literate) 12-year-old’s journal and published it as fiction. It was that genuine.”

Being accused of theft and plagiarism turns out to be my greatest honor!

What was the timeline between spark and each publication, and what were the major events along the way? What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing each of these books to life?

Who Hops? came from a game I played with my kids in the car. They were babies at the time. That one was quick – it took about 18 months.

Mabel the Tooth Fairy came from my vast research flying around the world with the tooth fairy. That was the hardest book I’ve written. Not because I was working nights, either.

With Kindergarten Rocks! I made a thank-you dinner at the end of the school year for my daughter’s kindergarten teacher and all our kids.

I was just trying to make conversation when I asked the children, “What would be a great title for a book about kindergarten?”

All the kids hollered out their answers, except my daughter, who raised her hand (don’t forget, her teacher was sitting right there).

She said, “Kindergarten Rocks!,” and the idea hit me in the head like a bag of hammers.

Within two weeks I’d written and sold it. ‘Course, then it took me years to get the illustrations just right. That one was about equal in difficulty to Mabel.

The Curse of Addy McMahon: I read the article in the New York Times in 1999, and it came out in 2008. You do the math!

More specifically, how did you make the transition from picture-book creator to novelist?

Once I had the idea for this novel, it wouldn’t let me go. It took a very long time for me to figure out what was best for the story (see above math challenge). But that isn’t what I would consider the real transition.

When I decided to put Addy’s diary in a graphic format, I studied comic books. I read Scott McCloud‘s books cover to cover. I read Eisner. Then I sat down to the drawing board and did it all wrong!

I illustrated it as I would a picture book. It took a while for me to realize why it wasn’t working. I needed to slow it down, and remember that comics are like movies: frame by frame. Even though you’d think that would be my transition from picture books to graphic novels, it was really what made me see the delineation between picture books and novels.

In today’s crowded market, it’s essential for authors to promote their work. How have you taken on this challenge?

Boy are you right! I’ve taken the last nine months to only work on marketing for this book. I’ve never taken that kind of time for a book, but with the changing market, it feels necessary. Here are some of the more productive things I’ve done.

– I learned Flash in order to create a book trailer (see below) and uploaded it all over the internet.

– I announced it by creating a newsletter, which I’ve decided to continue, planning to make it more global by including interviews and tips from other authors and illustrators.

– I have semi-regular author soirees or beach days or dessert parties where we can all get together and schmooze.

– I am about to launch, a site where kids can make their own autobiograstrips, upload them to the gallery and win prizes each month. I hope that other artists will submit their art so they can be promoted as well.

– I registered on all the friending sites and met people who love kid’s books and invited me to be the guest during live chats.

Marketing can lead to exciting things. For example, I emailed all the resident and day camps and summer programs for kids on Cape Cod because I have a signing there this summer. I want the camps to bring the kids to the store for the event. One woman who runs a theater camp wrote back asking about producing it as a play.

And of course, I have this interview on your site!

Phew, I’m tired just reading that.

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

I’ve finally conceded that I can’t do it all, but I try to balance and also remember to include down time within that mix. When I’m asked to speak, I always try to go. When I’m home, I’m working.

Right now, I’m concentrating on Addy, but this summer I hope to start to ease back into writing (I miss it!) by reworking a middle grade manuscript I haven’t looked at in years. I’m excited about that.

When fall rolls around, I assume I’ll be fully consumed and obsessive with that manuscript and will schedule writing time every day before I get to all the other stuff on my to-do list.

What advice do you have for other writer-illustrators–both beginners and those who’re established in their careers?

For beginners, I recommend two basic steps: joining SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) and going to their local bookstore and see what is relevant to their interests. I think people who are well established know about glomming onto friends for support, joining listservs, going to conferences.

The one thing I think published authors underestimate, even now, is the importance of having a web site. It’s crucial. Unless you’re J.K. Rowling.

As a reader, so far what are your favorite books of 2008?

I loved The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex (Hyperion, 2007) and The Facttracker by Jason Carter Eaton, illustrated by Pascale Constantin (HarperCollins, 2008). Also, Lessons From A Dead Girl by Jo Knowles (Candlewick, 2007)(author interview), A Book of A Thousand Days by Shannon Hale (Bloomsbury, 2007)(…there are so many! I know I’ll see this online and think, Ack! I forgot those 20 others I adored!).

How about as an illustrator?

I’ve been amazed by Mo Willems work. It’s so simple, yet so effective. It’s really quite stunning. Also Brian Selznick is just…beyond. I’m also drawn to quirkier work like Timothy Basil Ering and Yumi Heo. I haven’t been concentrating on picture books this year, though, so I’m a bit behind.

What do you do outside the world of books?

There’s a world outside of books?

Okay, I admit it, I do have other passions. I love my garden. I can think and listen to the birds, and smell the dirt and feel responsible for beautiful things growing. I love to knit, and make beaded jewelry, do mosaics… actually, you can see all my outside-of-the-world-of-books creative efforts on my site. Navigate to Info/ Sketchbook/Art of Life.

And of course there is my family, and my dog, Mango, the cutest dog on the planet.

What can your fans look forward to next?

Maybe my summer project! I’ve also been fiddling around on a really fun manuscript–a graphic novel format easy reader. I’ll tell you though, graphic novels are really hard!