Author-Editor Interview: Teresa Harris

Teresa Harris on Teresa Harris: “I grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey, a town with a lot of trees, a great library, and two great independent children’s bookstores. I spent a lot of time in the bookstores and the library–but never in the trees. Suffice it to say, I read a lot. And when I wasn’t reading, I wrote, mostly stories about a pair of time-traveling cats named Buster and Twinkles.

“Many years later, I went on to study English and Comparitive Literature at Columbia University, where I also wrote, this time about a pair of fraternal twins named Buster and Twinkles, of course.

“After college I attended Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I received a masters of fine arts in writing for children and young adults. My first novel, Treasure in the Past Tense, will be out in 2010. I still live in Teaneck, New Jersey, with my family and work in children’s editorial at HarperCollins.”

What kind of young reader were you?

I would like to say that I was the kind of kid who read a lot and read everything. Unfortunately, I was the former and not the latter. I was a picky kid: I didn’t like foods that stretched–I took the cheese off of my pizza–and I (mostly) only read series.

To that end, I read first the Baby-Sitters Club, then the Sweet Valley books, and lastly, The Sleepover Friends. There was some R. L. Stine in there, too, for good measure. Of course, one does outgrow series eventually.

That is when I discovered Richard Peck, who I read–and still read–voraciously, Katherine Paterson, Cynthia Voight, and Virginia Hamilton.

What inspired you to make children’s-YA literature your career focus?

This question used to terrify me because I felt I never knew the answer.

Now, I do.

When I look back on my life, it seems that the books that had the most effect on me were the books I read when I was young.

I’ve read some brilliant adult fiction over the years, everything from commercial books to classics. However, it was Bridge to Terabithia (HarperCollins, 1977) that taught me about death, friendship, and imagination. And today, though I still read adult fiction (sometimes), the books that have kept me up until I’ve finished the last page have been books written for young people.

How about editing specifically?

Even as a child, I loved the mechanics of storytelling. I loved the idea of first creating worlds and subsequently, people to populate them.

As I got older, I began to think more and more about how these things were done. How do you create believable characters? How do you create a believable world? Suddenly, I looked at books as more than a form of entertainment and escapism. I began to look at the structure of a story, the ins and outs, and began to pay closer attention to when things worked–and how–and when they didn’t.

By the time I was a junior in college, it became clear to me what job I wanted to do.

How did you prepare for this career?

In undergrad and graduate school, I took a lot of writing workshops, in which you are critiqued and do some critiquing of your own. Reading and dissecting other people’s work–and having the same done to yours–is a great way to learn about editing.

I also read a lot, just about everything I could get my hands on. I read PW, SLJ, and Kirkus Reviews as much as I could. If a book’s summary intrigued me or it got a few great reviews, I’d check it out of the library immediately.

I’ve found that if you want to work in publishing, it is important to know where the market is and which books are getting buzz, even before you land the job.

How did you you break into the publishing?

Publishing is a tough industry to break into because it is so competitive. However, interning at one of the publishing houses is always a great way to break in. I interned at Random House when I was in undergrad, and ended up working there two years later.

How did you get from day one to your current position?

As an editorial assitant, I’m still on the lower end of the publishing food chain. However, I will move up by acquring and editing great books!

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

I think an editor’s primary jobs are to know and anticipate the market and to actively seek and nurture new writing and illustrating talent.

What are its challenges?

The market is fickle; what’s hot now may not be hot when the book is released, and you may have a dud on your hands. Sometimes you absolutely love a writer or illustrator’s work, the book comes out, and no one else does. And that’s hard, believing in someone or something so much and not have others agree.

What are its rewards?

It is incredibly rewarding when everything comes together–great writer/illustrator, great book, great response. It’s like winning the lottery.

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

Because I’m just starting out and don’t have many agent contacts, most of my submissions come directly from writers. However, in the future, I think there will be more of a balance between unsolicited manuscripts and agented submissions.

As a writer who knows how hard it is to land an agent, I don’t think I’ll ever get to a point in my career in which I won’t accept manuscripts directly from writers. Sometimes you find good stuff in the “slush.”

What recommendations do you have for writers in the submission process? What are pitfalls to avoid?

I think it’s important to do your research. Find out as much as you can about and agent or a publishing house and its editors. Have they published a book similar to yours recently?

Work hard on your query letter, especially the part in which you describe your work. Take a look at flap copy. Well-written flap copy should make you want to stop everything and read that book. You should aim to write the description of your work like good flap copy.

Also, follow the rules. If an agent/editor says to send only three chapters, send just the three chapters. If they don’t want email submissions, don’t email your submission. And, for the love of all things holy, make sure you get their name and title right!

Could you tell us more about your specific interests? What kind of manuscripts are you looking for?

I am interested in all kinds of fiction, but especially in multicultural novels. I’d like to edit and publish stories from every possible perspective.

I’m also interested in humorous picture books with short, snappy texts, and high-concept young adult novels, in the vein of Madapple by Christina Meldrum (Knopf, 2008), Graceling by Kristin Cashore (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008), and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic, 2008).

What titles would you recommend for study to writers interested in working with you/the house and why?

Uri Shulevitz‘s Writing With Pictures: How to Write and Illustrate Children’s Books (Watson-Guptill, 1997) because picture book manuscripts require such skill and, unfortunately, the majority of the ones I receive lack that certain magic: the unique voice, brevity, and page-turn-ability. There are also a few novels I suggest to writers as study for voice: Bud Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis (Wendy Lamb/Random House, 2000), Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller (Penguin, 2004), and Repossessed by A. M. Jenkins (HarperCollins, 2007)(author interview) are a few.

So often I receive manuscripts with voices that simply don’t jump off a page. Talk to four different people, and they all sound different. Story should be like that, each with a unique, unmistakable voice.

How would you describe your tastes as a reader?

I tend to read more “quiet” fiction. I love novels about family and everyday people going through everyday things. However, I also like to read some fantasy and, on occasion, some “chick lit.” It all comes down to voice and writing. If I like both of those in a book, I will read anything.

Could you describe your dream writer? Illustrator?

My dream writer is someone innovative and flexible. The market changes, tastes change and writers have to be prepared for that. Therefore, my perfect writer would be someone very skilled in the craft who is daring and ambitious, who can stretch their imagination–and writing abilities–to write in more than one genre.

What do you do outside your editorial/publishing life?

When I’m not working, I’m working on my own writing. Right now I’m revising my debut novel while also trying to write something new. Not an easy feat, to say the least.

You wear more than one hat! You’re also a newly contracted author in your own right. Could you share with us the working title, publisher, and just a hint of what’s to come in your debut novel?

The working title of my novel is Treasure in the Past Tense and will be published by Clarion Books in 2010.

My novel is about a girl named Treasure who wants nothing more than to have a stable home. But with Treasure’s mother, Lisa, that’s just not possible.

Lisa’s always on the run, from bill collectors, land lords, her past and her present.

Soon, Treasure’s grandmother, Granmda Celeste, tells Lisa that she has to send Treasure and her sister away while she gets her life together.

That is how Treasure (12) and Tiffany (6) find themselves down in Black Lake, Virginia, with their crabby Great-aunt Grace.

Treasure in the Past Tense is a story about family and finding a home where you least expect it.