Craft, Career & Cheer: Libba Bray

Learn more about Libba Bray, and read her LJ.

Could you tell us about your writing community—your critique group or critique partner or other sources of creative support?

I’m really grateful for my fellow writers, both local and far-flung. I love that they understand this insane process and so, mid-freak-out, you can make a series of desperate grunts and hand gestures at them, and they will know exactly what you mean and will give you a cookie.

When I say, “Aaahhh! This is ghastly! I wouldn’t line my cat box with this!”

They can counter with, “Calm down, young Padawan. That may, in fact, be an excellent cat-box liner.” Or some such.

When possible, I write with Maureen Johnson, Robin Wasserman, E. Lockhart, Coe Booth, Scott Westerfeld, Justine Larbalestier, Cassie Clare, and Lauren McLaughlin. That’s sort of the core NYC group. I always feel like we’re that old Looney Tunes cartoon with the sheep dogs punching in and out, “‘Morning Ralph.’ ‘Morning Sam.’”

(No word on who gets to spank Wile E. Coyote. Oh wait, I think I’m Wile E.)

Holly Black is my Obi-Wan Kenobi. She is such a genius of structure and logical, linear follow-through, which I lack utterly. I can call her up and once we get past the whimpering, she will ask me hardcore structure questions and get me thinking about whether B follows A and, if so, how B follows A. Sometimes you just can’t see your way through your own book, and so you need somebody else to slap you out of your hysteria.

Jennifer Hubert Swan ( is an uber-librarian and good pal, and she–being the pragmatic, Midwestern, tough love gal she is–also tells me to get off the crazy train. And she does it in a Midwestern accent.

And if I want to feel that warm bunnies are nuzzling my toes, I call the lovely and comforting Jo Knowles.

Then there are the writers with whom it’s great to get together and not talk about writing. Rachel Cohn and I play with her cats and do yoga. (Well, she does yoga, and I watch her glide into positions not natural to womankind and try to follow her through my laughter.)

I enjoy going to the theater and for food with Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman. Tanya Lee Stone and I like to gab on the phone about motherhood and time management, or lack thereof.

David Levithan and I will go for lunch and talk music.

I’m also in a band comprised of the YA authors Daniel Ehrenhaft, Natalie Standiford, and Barney Miller (yes, he’s really Barney Miller). We get together in the spirit of YA rock—HELLO CLEVELAND! Any creative juice is good as far as I’m concerned. As long as you don’t put wheat grass in that creative juice. ‘Cause then it’s just icky.

Sara Ryan, who lives in Portland, and I are doing a work-in-progress manuscript exchange. It’s the first time I’ve really done that, and I’m curious to see how it works out.

Mostly, I’m looking forward to being inside Sara’s brain for a while, because that is a delightfully weird and creative place to be. Plus, she likes The Mountain Goats.

I’ve met writers through list servs like YA Writer. There is something comforting about knowing writers all over the country, like having a “safe house” anywhere.

What is the one craft book that you refer to again and again? Why?

I’m not a reader of craft books, per se, my feeling being that when you read wonderful writers, you are already reading their craft books. However, I did enjoy Stephen King‘s On Writing (July, 2002).

He’s so generous and unpretentious. It feels like your favorite uncle has come to visit, the one who makes your mother go a bit pinch-faced with wariness.

He’s just given you your present—a naughty ballpoint pen that, when turned, causes the floating sailor inside to lose his drawers.

It is a pen obtained under nefarious circumstances, and now Uncle Steve’s going to tell you about his adventures, but those stories are going to make you laugh and gasp and nod in identification and then vow to go out and make your own adventures because, suddenly, it seems possible to do so.

So, um, yeah. I recommend On Writing.

When and where do you write? Why does that time and space work for you?

I’ve always loved to write in funky little coffee shops where multiply pierced/tattooed baristas play an eclectic music mix that ranges from steampunk electronica to Icelandic folk ballads. I love the people-watching and the white noise.

But now, I’m starting to appreciate the enforced discipline of a nice, quiet room. I’ve been thinking about renting a little corner in a writer’s space. It would be nice to ping-pong between the two environments.

I often write better when I’m plunked down in a new environment—I once visited Holly Black’s house and it was an amazingly creative space.

The one place I find incredibly distracting? Home. Unless there are other people there to keep me on the straight and narrow, I’m useless at home.

I just notice the dust bunnies and burn a trail between the couch and the refrigerator and occasionally decide that now would be the time to arrange my books according to some random taxonomy that will make no sense to anyone, not even me, later.

As for time, I work during the hours my son is in school out of necessity. My favorite time to write is first thing in the morning when everything feels possible.

My least favorite time to write is late afternoon because my brain goes to “scan” then.

Sometimes I can get a second wind in the evening, but only if I am somewhere other than home or I’m with others who are also writing and so it would be bad form to say, “Hey, do you think I can get this whole sandwich in my mouth? Huh? Huh?’ Usually, my drool cup’s in place by that time.

How do you define artistic success?

When, during the writing process, I am surprised by the discovery of something true that I hadn’t realized before. When a reader tells me s/he has been affected by something I’ve written. The other day, someone told me that the characters I’d written felt like real people, and that was a gold-star day for me.

So far, as a reader, what is your favorite children’s-YA book (other than your own) of 2009 and why?

I’m woefully behind on my reading—woefully behind! I’m embarrassed!—but I really enjoyed How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford (Scholastic, 2009). It was quirky and odd in all the best ways with two characters I’d not met but felt as if I did know and wanted to continue knowing. And it had such heart.

I really love reading a book that doesn’t tie things up so neatly, that lets me walk away with some empty spaces it doesn’t try to fill.

I was also deeply affected by Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me (Wendy Lamb, 2009). I had jury duty—I actually love jury duty because it’s enforced reading time and no one can bother me—and I sat in the Kings County Courthouse in downtown Brooklyn wiping away tears while people wondered why I was so emotional about my civic duty.

That book…well, “haunted me” is the phrase. It stayed with me for a long time afterward.

God, aren’t books wonderful?

Why is your agent the right agent for you?

Because he takes out the trash.

Other than his domestic duties, I love Barry‘s passion for children’s and teen literature. He lives it, breathes it, lives for it.

Because he comes from a background in publishing, he has an exhaustive knowledge of how the industry works—and how it doesn’t. He is not a slash-and-burn sort of agent, a let’s-make-money-at-all-costs-and-who-cares-about-your-career sort.

He wants to know that his clients will continue to grow and thrive. I think he really takes into consideration who his clients are individually and works from there.

He really thinks about the author-agent relationship, playing matchmaker.

And when things on the publishing surface seem to be going crazy in some way, when we think, well, gee, maybe we should write those Rabid, Post-Apocalyptic Koala Bear novels that are selling like hot cakes right now, he’ll say, no, you should write the book you need to write. Write what speaks to your soul. That’s why we’re here.

So, obviously, I agree with his philosophy. But I also value him editorially. He can sniff out what’s not true in your work lightning-quick. I’ve had him tell me where I’m pulling punches.

I always tell the story—with a laugh—about when I was in the death throes of writing The Sweet Far Thing (Delacorte, 2009). For the umpteenth time, I had cornered him into letting me talk out the ever-changing plot. I got about midway into the description when he stopped me cold.

“That’s never going to work,” he said.

I felt, oh, a soupçon of annoyance, and I said, with the sweetest little fang-baring snarl, “It has to work. It is the fulcrum upon which this plot rests.” So there, Agent Man.

Now, he knows me well, and so he said, “Then you are seriously up the creek, babe, because that is not going to work.”

He then proceeded to tell me why it wasn’t going to work and how I was making it hard on myself and asked me questions that of course I couldn’t answer because my plot was built on sand.

And then, with the greatest amount of love and affection, I told him to take a hike.

After ten minutes of feeling very sorry for myself for being married to someone so clearly unable to see how very tenable my plot was, I realized he was right and I was wrong and now I was free to get rid of this hideous albatross of a plot device and find something that really would work. He freed me with his clear-headed, tough love.

But if he had said, “well, gee, why don’t you see where that goes, Kum Ba Yah with your bad self, you’re a beautiful, beautiful flower, my delicate Writer Grrrl,” I would have wandered in the wilderness for another forty, torturous years while rending my garments.

I find, by and large, that Barry is really able to zero in on that thing that isn’t working and will take the lumps for telling you so. He’s brave that way.

He also gives great pep talks and is a fantastic cook.

You know what?

I’m gonna keep him. I’ve just decided.

So far, what has been the highlight of your professional career? Why?

Well, it’s hard to top walking the streets of New York City in a cow suit.

That’s what we authors call living the dream.

Other than that little surreal book trailer moment, I’d have to say touring with Shannon Hale AKA one of the funniest women in America. For such a sweet, white-picket-fence individual, she is incredibly subversive. And insane–in all the good ways.

Despite the fact that she is represented by my husband, Barry Goldblatt, Shannon and I had never met. She lives in Utah; I live in New York.

Our publicists cooked up the idea of having us do a book tour together as we both had books of a similar feel coming out at the same time. And, as Shannon noted, our covers both featured torsos. That’s reason enough right there. Hence, we became “The Torso Twins.”

The first day of the tour, we were at Walter Mays‘ school in California. There was a piano, and while we were waiting for the teens to file in, we started messing around on it and began spontaneously singing bad eighties songs. This cracked us up.

Most things cracked us up. The problem was getting us to settle down. We set a bad example all across America.

Anyway, we settled on that gold standard of overwrought eighties’ ballads, “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Neither of us knew the words, really. That didn’t stop us. We made up our own.

And so we decided, right there, that we would close every event with what would become our signature song, and we would recruit teens from the audience to be our back-up dancers.

It was a beautiful, beautiful thing. And those kids are doing very well in therapy now.

The whole tour was just surreally delightful. We were exhausted and giddy.

At one bookstore appearance, I wheeled Shannon in on a dolly and nearly killed her. She returned the favor at another event using a rolling ladder. I still have the bruises.

In Seattle, we were so tired that when we got tickled by something at one point, we both burst into uncontrollable, knee-slapping laughter that went on for five, deeply uncomfortable minutes. It took forever to get ourselves under some semblance of control.

Then Shannon made the mistake of saying, about her book, Princess Academy, “…a tutor to the Princess…” and I (because I’m incredibly well-bred and mature) responded with, “heh-heh, you said ‘tooter!'” and we were on the floor convulsed again.

I’m sure they’re very eager to have us back in Seattle. Very eager.

But the kids and teens who came out were fantastic! And that’s the heart of the story—these amazing teens who were passionate about books.

We talked about what they read, what they watch, what they listen to. They gave us suggestions about all of the above. It was a wonderful conversation. And those conversations happened across the country.

Plus, we really got to know these amazing booksellers, librarians, and teachers who are out there fighting the good fight every day. It’s humbling, and it reminds you that there’s a there there. You know?

I just came away feeling incredibly connected to what we do and why it matters. I realize that I was very, very lucky to be able to go on a tour, and that doesn’t always happen.

But the connections I made with real live human beings go on. Those teens come to my blog where we continue the conversation. I talk to those booksellers and librarians. We keep in touch.

By the way, Princess Academy was a Newbery Honor book, and Shannon has that embroidered onto all of her underwear. These are the things you get to know on the road. Feel free to spread that around.

In your own words, could you tell us about your latest book?

Going Bovine
(Delacorte, 2009), AKA the feel-good-mad-cow-disease/string-theory-book-of-fall, is about a 16-year-old slacker named Cameron who is diagnosed with Creutzfeld-Jakob’s disease (the human variant of mad cow).

While in the hospital, he is visited by a punk angel named Dulcie who tells him there is a cure if he is willing to go in search of it. Oh, and also, he’s the only person who can save the world from a band of dark energy from another dimension. No pressure.

Cameron and his new best friend, a death-obsessed video gamer named Gonzo, and a yard gnome who might be the Viking god Balder set off on the mother of all road trips.

Cue smoothie-drinking happiness cults, Jazz musicians, Mardi Gras, philosophical musings, weird sightings, strange signs and coincidences, snow globe vigilantes, bad dudes from other dimensions, exuberant physicists, tabloids, Norse mythology, and true love.

You know, the usual.

What can your fans look forward to next?

Many wonderful things, I hope.

Oh. You mean from me. Right. I’m working on a satire about a planeload of teen beauty queens who crash on a deserted island. Think Lord of the Flies [by William Golding (1954)] meets Lord of the Dance, but with slightly less spandex. Slightly.

You know what? I’m not willing to commit to that. Put me down for spandex. I want to live the dream right on the edge of unnatural fabrics.

Cynsational Notes

The Craft, Career & Cheer series features conversations with children’s-YA book creators about positive aspects of their creative and professional lives.

Here’s the book trailer for The Sweet Far Thing:

And here’s my most treasured gift from Libba: