Author-Editor Interview: Lisa Graff

Lisa Graff on Lisa Graff: “I grew up in a town called Big Bear, which is a tiny ski resort in Southern California where everyone knows everyone.

“After high school I moved to Los Angeles, where I studied Linguistics and Cognitive Psychology at UCLA. Then I switched gears completely and entered the MFA program in Writing for Children at the New School in Manhattan.

“I was just finishing up my thesis semester when I landed an editorial job at Farrar, Straus & Giroux Books for Young Readers, where I’ve been ever since (now as an Associate Editor). And right around that same time, I sold my first two middle grade novels to HarperCollins.

“Now I’m living in Brooklyn with a crazy cat named ‘Henry,’ and trying to balance my editorial life with my writing one (and loving pretty much every minute of it).”

What kind of young reader were you?

My older brother, Ryan, was (and still is) a complete genius, so growing up, there were always stories about how he had started to read at two by watching “Sesame Street” and blah blah blah (love you, Ryan!). This drove me insane, since I was three years younger and most certainly not a genius. So, when I could finally read by myself, I devoured everything I could find.

My mom is a librarian, so we always had plenty of reading material around the house, and for several years I went through a phase for where I only wanted to read “grown up books.”

In third grade, all the other kids had Amelia Bedelia [by Peggy and Herman Parish (HarperCollins) on their reading logs, and I had Moby Dick [by Herman Melville (1851). Not that I understood a single word, but I thought it was pretty impressive.

Anyway, I think it was because of all of this overachieving that, by the time I got to middle school, I didn’t want to read anything that taxed my brain too much (at that point I went through a very intense Baby-Sitters Club [by Ann M. Martin] phase, which lasted about three years).

In high school I was a rather schizophrenic reader, switching between adult books like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest [by Ken Kesey (1962)], and those I’d missed out on as a kid, like Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret [by Judy Blume (Bradbury Press, 1970)].

How did the writing life first call to you? Did you shout “yes!” or run the other way?

I’d always loved writing as a child, again because my older brother did it and I wanted to be just like him. When I was fourteen, my half-brother, Robert was born, and I decided I’d write him a children’s novel, just for fun. It took three years, and the book turned out to be pretty terrible, but I had lots of fun doing it, so I continued writing children’s books all through college.

I think I enjoyed it because it set me apart from everyone I knew, and it was a nice break from my studies (I was on a science track for most of college).

While I was in Italy studying abroad my junior year, my Italian professor there encouraged me to translate a children’s novel I’d written into Italian for my year-long language project, and this was what ultimately hooked me into writing.

The novel was, again, fairly awful (as was my translation of it, I’m sure), but spending that much time thinking about every single word I’d written gave me a new appreciation for the craft and made me realize just how much I loved it.

What inspired you to make youth literature in particular your career focus?

When I got back from Italy I started to look into graduate schools for children’s writing. There are a handful [see education], but I only found two at the time (the New School, where I ended up, and Mills College in Oakland).

I think I had this idea that if I was accepted into graduate school, then I really could be successful as a writer, and if not, well, I’d have to figure out something else to do with myself.

Luckily for me, I got in, or I may have very well have ended up a Linguistics professor in Massachusetts (Lisa’s life plan #2).

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

I actually had a pretty smooth ride, once I started down that path. My first year of grad school I sent out lots of queries and submissions to various publishers in a by-the-book, unsolicited submission sort of way. All I got back were form rejection letters, but I wasn’t too discouraged by it, since I knew I was just starting out.

I was in my second year at the New School when I attended a graduate-reading night and did a five-minute reading of the novel I was working on at the time.

Well, who should be in the audience but one Mr. Stephen Barbara (agent interview), who was looking for new clients? He handed me his card, and I (inwardly) squealed a whole bunch, and he signed me up at his agency pretty much right away. (He is still my agent, by the way, and I love him oodles.)

Stephen told me that the novel I’d been sending out wasn’t very good (it wasn’t), but that the other novel I’d written, The Thing About Georgie, seemed pretty promising. So we started to send that one to publishers. And for almost five months, I continued to get rejection letters–but at least those ones had my name in them, so I was pretty excited about that.

Finally, we wised up and sent the book to Jill Santopolo (author-editor interview) at Harper, who not only loved it, but ended up signing me for a two-book deal (for Georgie, and my second novel, The Life and Crimes of Bernetta Wallflower, which I was working on at the time for my master’s thesis).

First, let’s focus on your recent debut. Could you tell us a little about The Thing About Georgie (Laura Geringer/HarperCollins, 2007)?

The book is about Georgie, a ten-year-old boy with dwarfism, and it mostly centers around his reaction to the news that his parents are having a second child–one who will not be a dwarf.

But at its core I think it’s a traditional school story, with friendship troubles (Georgie and his best friend Andy get into a big fight, which threatens the success of their dog-walking business) and first crushes (Allison Houseman, the prettiest girl in the seventh grade), and that kid who drives you nuts (Jeanie the Meanie, who of course gets paired up with Georgie for their Abraham Lincoln project).

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

I started working on the book at the very beginning of 2004, and it came out in January of 2007, so it was almost exactly three years. I probably wrote the first draft in about three months (this is abnormally fast for me, but I was in grad school at the time so I really had that fire burning), but then Jill and I went through several rather enormous revisions before settling upon something that was really working.

I’m a draft writer, so I tend to plop things down on the page pretty quickly to begin with, and then scoop out all the stuff that’s not working and toss new ideas into the mix to see what will work. With Georgie I’d say that only about 30% of the published book was there from draft one.

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

I did do quite a bit of research for this book (Internet, books, movies, interviews), but I love that sort of thing, so I didn’t find that aspect of it too challenging.

Probably the hardest part was learning how to revise, since this was the first time I’d ever had to do it seriously.

And finding the time to revise was a big issue too, since I’d just started at FSG. I used to leave work on my lunch hour and walk over to the New School cafeteria, because that was the only place I knew of where I could sit for an hour without having to buy anything, and I’d eat my sad little roast beef sandwich and sip at my juice box and scribble away furiously on my manuscript, and then head back to work.

The weekend before my final draft was due to my editor, I stocked up my fridge with of my favorite foods and unplugged my TV and told myself I wasn’t allowed to leave my apartment until 10 o’clock on Sunday evening, when–if I had finished my draft–I could go see a movie. It was pretty grueling, but it was fun too, and I definitely learned a lot from the experience.

Congratulations on your latest book, The Life and Crimes of Bernetta Wallflower (Laura Geringer/HarperCollins, 2008)! How would you describe the novel?

Life and Crimes is about a twelve-year-old girl who is at heart a good kid, but after her supposed best friend, Ashley, frames her for running a school-wide cheating ring and Bernetta loses her scholarship to private school, she decides that the only way to earn her tuition for seventh grade is to join up with a mysterious (and very cute) boy named Gabe and become a con artist for the summer.

It’s mostly fun and silly, with tons of hijinks and magic tricks thrown in (Bernetta’s father is a professional magician, so she’s learned some very useful sleight-of-hand techniques from him). It’s very loosely based on “The Sting,” which is one of my all-time favorite movies.

Many authors struggle with publishing their sophomore novel. How did you manage to meet this challenge so well?

I think it definitely worked to my advantage that I had a finished draft of Bernetta written before I’d even sold Georgie, so I didn’t really have that pressure that new authors so often face, to churn out something as good as their last book.

Still, this was a real doozy of a book to write, much harder than the first book was. A lot of the trouble came out of the fact that the story has such an intricate plot, with twists upon twists, so every time I’d change one tiny plot point, which I did frequently, I’d have to change the entire novel.

But the larger problem was that I wanted to write about a girl who was doing some seriously awful stuff and I needed the reader to like her anyway. It took me forever to figure out how to do this.

Surprisingly, I found that the way the story was structured had a huge influence on how you felt about the character. Originally I had started out the way most con-artist films do, by leaping right into the heart of the action and showing Bernetta in all her con-artist glory, back-pedaling later to tell the reader how she got that way.

But what I ultimately discovered was that in children’s books, we really need to love our protagonist and support her actions from page one. So eventually I made the decision to start the story off more slowly and build up to all the juicy stuff, which I think works much better.

Of course, I had a ton of help from my genius editor throughout it all, and that was probably what saved me from tossing my manuscript down the trash chute on several occasions.

What did you love most about your protagonist?

I love that Bernetta is quirky but still an “every-girl,” and that she never gives up, even when she’s wrong. And that when she finally figures out that she’s wrong, she does her best to fix things, with the exactly the same amount of gusto she set out with in the first place.

What, if anything, scared you about her?

The whole unlikability factor, definitely. I mean, I loved this girl because she sprung from my brain, but would anyone else love her?

I also worried a lot about how to make her tricks and cons fun to read about without making them so appealing that children who read the book would want to run out and try everything in the story. It was a fine line.

In one draft it would be totally jolly and easy, very “Ocean’s 11,” and I’d think, no that’s not quite right. But then in the next draft she’d be so miserable with all her stealing that Jill would write me a note saying, “I don’t get why she doesn’t just stop!” And I’d have to tone that down, too.

What do you hope your readers take away from the book?

Like all of my books, I first and foremost want this to be a fun book to read. And if that’s all readers get out of it, that’s perfectly fine by me.

If they take away anything else, I suppose it would be the idea that all of our decisions have consequences, but that we can change our paths at any moment, no matter how embroiled we become in something.

What advice do you have for first-time authors?

It’s probably the same advice most authors have, which is to read. Read!!!! Four exclamation points.

After that, I’d say that you should do whatever you need to in order to take yourself seriously as a writer. For me it was going to graduate school, but for other writers it might be setting a time to write every day no matter what or finally finishing that rough draft.

Being published doesn’t make you a writer. Writing does.

How about those building a career?

My best advice there is to celebrate all your victories. There aren’t a lot of bells and whistles in this business, and it’s easy to get bogged down with fears and insecurities and forget how exciting it all is.

I have a tradition now that whenever I first see my book in a bookstore, I have to treat myself to a waffle. It’s silly, but it makes me remember that, Hey, I did something good. I deserve a treat.

Let’s shift gears! You’re also an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux! How did you prepare for this career?

There wasn’t much in the way of preparation, really, except for being ridiculously analytical and a super fan of children’s books. And again, reading up a storm. All of that helps you figure out what works in a story and what doesn’t and what could work with some tinkering.

What do you see as the job(s) of an editor in the publishing process?

An editor is first and foremost a book’s #1 advocate. We sell the book to the publisher when we’re first attempting to acquire it, then we sell it to the marketing team when they’re deciding how to market it, and lastly we sell it to the sales department so they can go out and push it as hard as possible. That’s why it’s so important for an editor to love a project before she takes it on, because it’s impossible to fake that kind of enthusiasm.

Other than that, an editor helps the author shape the story according to the author’s vision. I like to think of an editor as a baseball coach–the baseball player is the one hitting the ball, but the coach makes sure the player is giving his peek performance, so he can hit the ball as far as humanly possible.

What are its challenges?

Time can be a big challenge–just finding a moment to read new projects. And I think especially since I’m a writer, I always second-guess myself when I’m editing something, wondering if I’m editing according to my personal style or according to what works best for that particular story. I think all this worrying keeps me in check, though, so it’s probably a good thing.

What do you love about it?

I love working with dozens of different authors, all with unique voices and stories to share. And getting to see the way a manuscript morphs into a finished book and how all the various pieces come together to make something beautiful.

Do most of your manuscripts come directly from writers or through agents?

Probably most of them are directly from writers, although I’ve been getting more agented submissions lately.

What recommendations do you have for writers interested in working with you? With your house?

The number one thing to do is to look at our catalogs and website to get a good sense of the kinds of books we publish, because even if I adore your story, if it’s not something we would ever do then I can’t work with you, and you’ve wasted your time and mine.

Besides that, simply being professional and friendly counts for a lot.

What makes FSG special?

We’re a small house, and in the children’s division, we only publish about 80 books a year, so we treat every single one like a work of art. We’re incredibly meticulous, with everything from design to copyediting, and we’re staunchly “literary,” but our books are fun, too.

How does your writer self inform your editor self and vise versa?

As an editor, I read tons and tons (and tons) of children’s books, both finished and in draft form, so this has given me a great sense of the problems other writers have faced, and how they’ve fixed them, and how to avoid them all together.

And as a writer, I know exactly how stressful it can be to send your manuscript off into the dark, scary world of publishing, so I think this has made me more sensitive to the authors I work with.

I also think it’s given me a better idea of what I can expect from an author in terms of revision and what to stress and what to let go.

Let’s shift again! You’re a member of one of my favorite team blogs, The Longstockings! Could you tell us about it?

The Longstockings is a group of eight children’s and young adult authors, all of whom came out of the New School MFA program. We met up in grad school, befriended each other, started a writing workshop after we graduated, and then started a blog.

On the blog we chat about everything from what’s stressing us out that particular week (we’re stressed out a lot) and industry gossip, to exciting news about our books and what’s inspired us, writing-wise. I think it’s a good mix of the serious and the fluffy, and it’s lots of fun.

What does blogging offer you?

In all honesty, I am a horrible blogger. I have a personal blog, which I haven’t posted on for (I just had to check…) a month and a half.

But I love having the Longstockings because: one, there is always someone to pick up the blogging slack when one of us is terribly busy; and two, we are there to support each other when it’s most needed.

I love being in the blogger community for this same reason. Writing is such a lonely profession, so it’s amazing to have people who not only know exactly what you’re going through, but can empathize with you from all over the globe. It’s been wonderful to meet so many writers, readers, and librarians this way, so I feel very lucky.

What do you do outside the world of youth literature?

Since both of my jobs are children’s book related, the answer to this is: not a whole lot.

When I’m not editing, writing, or reading children’s books, I tend to do the normal sit-around-and-loaf things: movies, books, brunch with friends.

Recently I’ve joined a bocce ball team. I am supremely bad at it, but it’s very fun and they haven’t kicked me off yet, so they must not mind too much.

What can your fans look forward to next?

My third novel, Umbrella Summer, is coming out in Summer 2009, again with Laura Geringer/HarperCollins. It’s about a ten-year-old girl named Annie, who’s become a bit of a hypochondriac ever since her older brother died, and it begins to affect the way she interacts with her family, friends, and neighbors.

It takes place in a tiny town that’s based on the one I grew up in, and it’s full of some very fun and funny characters. This one has been a long time in coming (when it’s done, it will be about five years from first draft to publication), so it really is close to my heart and I’m very excited that it’s almost a real book.

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