New Voice: Lisa Railsback on Noonie’s Masterpiece and Betti on the High Wire

Lisa Railsback is the first-time author of Noonie’s Masterpiece, illustrated by Sarajo Frieden (Chronicle, 2010) and Betti on the High Wire (Dial, 2010). From the promotional copy of Noonie’s Masterpiece:

Fantastic illustrations with a fresh, contemporary look enrich this debut novel about a 10-year-old aspiring artist stuck living with an aunt, uncle, and cousin who clearly don’t recognize her genius.

A humorous and heartfelt reminder that “a brilliant artist is never afraid,” this book reveals that sometimes our greatest masterpieces are the bonds we unexpectedly forge with the people in our lives.

What is it like to be a debut author? What do you love about it? What are the challenges? The biggest surprise? Why?

I wish there’d been a How to be a Debut Author for Dummies book written just for me.

I’ve always felt that as a writer I only have a few singular tasks: to sit at my desk and stare out the window and drink coffee and pat my dog’s head under my desk. And…to write, of course, which is exactly why I love this job.

When the last galleys arrived in the mail for my first book, Noonie’s Masterpiece, illustrated by Sarajo Frieden (Chronicle, 2010). I was very excited to see the final color version.

But then…(dramatic music)…I found a note inside, from my sweet editor: “Congratulations! And now the work begins.”

Uh, what?

My stomach dropped, just a little. “But I’m done,” I mumbled to myself more than once. Done done done. After years of laboring on this first book. Years.

I suddenly felt as I did at confirmation class in the seventh grade when the youth minister pulled me aside and said, “Lisa, something is not sinking in here.”

My English professor at college did the same thing when I was failing my Beowulf class. “Lisa, there are only so many ways that I can explain.”

Now, I refuse to believe that I’m a dummy. The truth is, I simply have a little problem with escapism. There are certain concepts that don’t grasp my attention until I’m konked on the head with a spoon. In the case of being a debut author and having two books come out in 2010, the concepts had to konk me twice.

First Lesson: How to grasp that publishers don’t usually have tons of money: I had no clue. They’re the experts who are supposed to sell the book, right? And get me on “The Oprah Show” and whatnot? A writer trying to sell her book is obviously counter-intuitive. Yet, this was to be my next job, commencing pronto. This was definitely not in my job description. Or maybe it was, but I forgot. Now visualize me chewing on my nails at my desk…

How to Be a Primo Saleswoman

I was recruited to go to the Texas Library Association conference in San Antonio. It was to be my first book signing. But before I signed any books, people actually had to buy one.

The most difficult question I’ve ever heard is: “So what is your book about?”

Which is unfortunate because I hear this question all the time. What came rambling out of my mouth at TLA were minute-long tangents about all sorts of scattered Noonie trivia. By the end, I was practically begging people not to buy my book, because it obviously made no sense.

The very patient marketing folks from Chronicle rehearsed with me as if I were Eliza Doolittle. They asked me to go to my hotel room that night and practice. That is, to practice a few sentences over and over versus giving a crazy book report. I was proud of myself because I actually did sell a few more books the second day and I did get to sign them.

How to Create Internet Bling

A website? Seriously? Who knew I was supposed to have my own Lisa Railsback website? I wasn’t sure why I needed one, but everyone else seemed to have one.

When I found out how expensive it is to construct a website, I recruited my dear friend, Johnny. He’d never constructed a website either, but I coerced him to try. For free. Or rather, for lots of free dinners.

What emerged is a very simple website. Basic facts about me. And my books. And I’ve even had at least a handful of people, including kids, contact me through this site.

I’m very proud of us, Johnny and I, and proud of my website, even though nothing is animated or talks or pops out. Yet.

How to Create Even More Bling

So much bling flying around for authors. Who knew? Bookmarks? How does one go about creating a bookmark? A video trailer? Really? I paid for enough free dinners for the simple website.

I’m lucky that one of my publishing companies actually did these things for me. That’s the only reason I even know about this extra bling. But then I wondered why my second publisher didn’t provide the bling too?

Power Point presentations for school visits? I barely know the ins and outs of Microsoft Word. What happened to good old-fashioned authors, reading dramatically from their books?

Maybe I’ll tackle the extra bling for my fourth or fifth book. In the meantime, one thing I have been able to do is to connect with bloggers across the country. I love bloggers. They love kids’ books, and they’ve taken the time to read my books, and they’ve written their opinions. I feel proud for tapping into this wonderful world of bloggers.

How to Handle Harsh Critics

Maybe I imagined a panel of one hundred ten-year-olds sitting on the floor. They’d clap and raise their hands and have intellectual discussions about my books. My books would obviously leave profound impressions on them for the rest of their lives.

Who knew that most of the reviewers would be adults? I didn’t know.

Granted, most of my reviewers have been exceptionally kind. To the couple who weren’t, I found myself mumbling like a ten year old. Exactly like the artist in my book, Noonie Norton. “Of course that lady is clueless. She obviously doesn’t understand anything at all. Kids are obviously a hundred times smarter and should be the real critics….”

How to Just Be a Writer Again

There are things I love about being a debut author that I haven’t mentioned yet. It’s wonderful, after years of labor and more than a few rejections, to have my books out in the real world. It’s marvelous having random people appreciate my books, and knowing that a ten-year-old in Moline, Illinois (my hometown) might be reading it in her bed. It’s great to still have the support from my agent, my editors, and all the collaborators from both publishing companies who have always believed in these books.

I still believe in my books, too.

But I’m also excited to not be a debut author anymore. A little notch in my cap, a little weathered and worn.

I’m excited for my next book to come out, even though I’ve just been konked over the head with the nail-chewing concept that sales for a third book are very, very important.

I’ve tucked away all the lessons; I’ll do what I can to push my books into my larger world. And then, thankfully, I can go back to my desk and my window and my coffee and patting my dog’s head and…writing.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you find the voice of your first person protagonist? Did you do character exercises? Did you make an effort to listen to how young people talk? Did you simply free your inner kid or adolescent? And, if it seemed to come by magic, how would you suggest others tap into that power in their own writing?

As of now, I’ve written four books (two published)—all first person for middle-graders with girl protagonists. I know it sounds crazy when a writer admits this, but I usually start off by knowing or hearing my character’s voice.

Sometimes I simply hear the first line of the book.

Betti, from Betti on the High Wire, says: “Some kids have nightmares. But me? I dream about the circus.”

Noonie, from Noonie’s Masterpiece, says, “This is me. My name is Noonie Norton and I’m a brilliant artist. The only small problem is that I haven’t been discovered yet.”

After rounds and rounds of revisions with both books, these lines—my very first impulse of a voice—have remained. And the stories hinge on it.

I don’t do character exercises, per se, but I do make a lot scribbles and take notes when I’m stuck on a character: How she feels about others; how she’d react in certain situations; and particularly what she’d say. To me, the dialogue says a lot about a character.

My protagonists also engage in running stream-of-conscious monologues. In each case, I know what my protagonist’s voice sounds like: Her inflections and her tempo and the pauses and when her voice might crack.

Betti and Noonie are very sassy, and say exactly what they feel. Sometimes they stomp their feet and say way too much.

This is why writing is fun to me. I grew up in a family of four girls, as the baby, where it was very hard to be heard. Instead, I quietly blended in and created characters in the basement.

The protagonists in my next two books are more introverted, perhaps like me. They are observers to a world of craziness around them, and must go through a process of learning how to speak up and how to take action. These characters are interesting to me and good for me as well.

I’ve tried very hard to write a book—just one—in third person, and I can never seem to do it. It makes me feel very distant from my character. I don’t know how to express her feelings and her view of the world at such a distance. It’s like I’m watching her instead of getting to see the world from her eyes, from inside her head.

This all may sound a little psycho, but I attribute it to working in the theater as a playwright. With plays, it’s all about the dialogue. I can know my character’s voice well, but I may have no clue what her face looks like. I can only describe her appearance in vague terms.

Some of my plays have been produced numerous times, in which case a variety of actors have taken on the role of my protagonist. My vision of a character’s appearance must be very flexible. I don’t have a visual for what Noonie’s face looks like up close or even Betti’s face, which is simply described as not-necessarily-white. For Noonie, I am lucky to have had an illustrator who gave my protagonist a very clear and colorful face.

I don’t have kids. In fact, I don’t even hang around with any kids. I don’t think I have a clue as to how kids talk these days, for better or worse.

When I was in grad school at the University of Texas, they didn’t offer a single class in writing for kids. My reading syllabus only covered fiction written for adults, and all my friends and colleagues wrote for adults. So, when I write my books I might be tapping into a combo of how I felt as a kid and how I feel now.

That’s how I would advise other writers to approach their first person protagonist—write what you believe is authentic, how you would speak and feel. Write books that you would enjoy reading as an adult as well as when you were a kid. Never talk down—or write down—or dumb it down. Kids are very smart and articulate and thoughtful, just like you, brilliant writer.

More on Lisa

Lisa Railsback was a Jerome Fellow at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis and a Michener Fellow in Writing at the University of Texas at Austin. Her plays have been performed across the United States. Noonie’s Masterpiece was originally a play. She lives in Austin, Texas.

More on Lisa’s Books

From the promotional copy of Betti on the High Wire:

Ten-year-old Babo and the other “leftover kids” live on an abandoned circus camp in a war-torn country. Babo believes her circus-star parents will come back for her any day now, so she is not one bit happy when an American couple adopts her. She hates her new name (Betti) and is confused by everything in America. She’s determined to run away.

But as Betti slowly begins to trust her new family and even makes a friend, she decides maybe she can stay just one more day. And then maybe another….

Betti on the High Wire is both heartbreaking and hilarious–and completely unforgettable. This brave little storyteller of a girl will wiggle her way straight into your heart.

Check out the book trailer for Noonie’s Masterpiece: