By Lena Coakley
Richard Ungar is the author and illustrator of four children’s picture books, but he’s switched gears to debut his first novel, the middle-grade time travel, Time Snatchers (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2012).
From the promotional copy:
The year is 2061, and Caleb’s world is crashing down around him. The small group of orphans who were also “adopted” by Uncle used to feel like family, but both the competition to be the top time snatcher and the punishment for failure have gotten fierce.
Time traveling to steal priceless objects can be a thrill, but with bully Frank trying to steal his snatches, his partner Abbie falling for Frank’s slimy charms, and Uncle planning to kidnap innocent kids to grow his business, Caleb starts thinking about getting out.
But there is no place on earth, past or present, that is safe from Uncle’s tentacles, and runaways get the harshest punishment of all. Will Caleb risk everything to fight for the future he dreams about?
You are a published picture-book author, but Time Snatchers is your first novel. What made you decide to switch genres and what did you learn in the process?
I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of time travel and I wanted to write about it.
In its earliest stages, Time Snatchers started as a writing exercise in one of Peter Carver’s writing classes. The exercise was to write a story based on one of the images in Chris Van Allsburg’s picture book, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (Houghton Mifflin, 1984). I chose the picture called “Another Place, Another Time,” showing a group of boys riding a sail-propelled handcar along a railway track that seemed to go on forever. For whatever reason, that picture screamed “Time Travel” to me.
So if I was classifying Time Snatchers in terms of genres, I’d say it started off as a short story and then evolved into a novel.
The difference I find between writing a picture book versus writing a novel is that picture books are more like solving puzzles. Once you have everything in place (including the right ending, which I find to be the toughest) everything clicks and the writing flows. But writing a novel is like organizing an unruly mob – everyone’s going off in a different direction and someone put me in charge of bringing them all together – an impossible task.
Well, almost impossible I guess since I did (eventually) get it done.
|Richard’s picture books|
I love that analogy!
You mentioned the editor Peter Carver, who has recently retired from teaching writing for children at Mabel’s Fables Bookstore. Those classes have turned out so many published authors that they’ve become something of a legend in Toronto. Can you talk about your experience with Peter?
|Peter Carver – editor & writing teacher|
Peter has been a wonderful mentor to me (as well as a number of Canadian writers for children) over the last ten years. He really cares about the writing, and he also sees the job of writers for children as an important one.
Peter has a knack for identifying what makes a piece of writing work (or not) and he has always been respectful in the way he communicates that to his community of writers. You can’t help but be affected by Peter’s passion for children’s writing.
The other thing that I like about Peter is he didn’t mind too much when I messed up stacking the chairs after class.
When I heard that Peter was about to retire, I wanted to do something special for him. So on a frigid, snowy day in February I trudged over to Mabel’s Fables and I sketched all afternoon from a little alcove across the street.
Over the next couple of months, working in my home studio from my sketches and also photos taken on location, I completed the watercolor painting “On the Way to the Bookstore” and presented it to Peter at his last class before retirement.
If any of your readers are interested, I’m selling posters of the painting, with the proceeds going to charity. All the details are on my website.
Time Snatchers is also your first book with a large U.S. publisher. Can you talk a little bit about how you landed your agent, Josh Adams, and how you made your U.S. sale?
I went about my agent search fairly systematically – first compiling a list of agents who handled middle grade science fiction or fantasy. I consulted a couple of great websites to make my list: AgentQuery.com and LitMatch (now AuthorAdvance.com). I also borrowed a couple of years worth of “Guides to Literary Agents” from the library.
Once I had my list, I started emailing queries. Some agents wanted a query letter only, some a synopsis and letter, some three chapters and a couple the whole manuscript.
For every ten rejections I received (and believe me, the rejections came in fast and furious!), I sent out ten more queries.
At about the 50 query mark, I got a call from Josh Adams of Adams Literary who said he loved the manuscript – theirs was one of the few agencies that had requested the entire manuscript.
After I revised the manuscript with Josh Adams and Quinlan Lee (my other great agent at Adams Literary) they sent it out and within a couple of weeks it was sold at auction in a two-book deal to G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
I was thrilled of course and celebrated with a tall glass of root beer (three ice cubes).
Fifty rejections! Your persistence is inspiring, Richard!
Can you talk in a little more detail about the revision process, both with the two agents and with your editor?
I worked for a few months with Josh and Quinlan, rounding out the story, developing the characters and world-building. The process intensified once the manuscript was acquired and I went through probably three significant revisions with Putnam.
I have a wonderful editor there – Susan Kochan, and under Susan’s guidance, I reworked much of the novel – i.e. relationships between the main characters, setting and especially the rules for time travel. If word count is any indication, when I first submitted the manuscript to Adams, the wordcount was around 30,000 and by the time I finished the book it had tripled to 90,000!
Caleb, your protagonist, is a wonderful character and thing he wants most throughout the novel is a family. I know you have two sons of your own: Did they inspire the character at all?
I can’t say that my sons directly inspired the character of Caleb, but it is helpful to live with two teenagers when you are writing about teenagers. Of course the downside of living with them is that all the good stuff in the pantry disappears really fast.
Actually, Caleb is a combination of different people I know (including a more adventurous version of myself). He really showed himself to me when, in the early days, I changed the point of view from third person to first person.
Caleb is a time traveler from our future, so you have a lot of fun imagining New York in 2061. How did you go about building that world?
This was one of the toughest parts of the process for me…to create a future world that was original and not done a million times before. My imagining began with two words: “New Beijing.”
Once I had the name, I began to imagine how a city with that name, a composite of Beijing and New York City, might have come to be. Eventually (no bolt of lightning here, unfortunately), I imagined the Great Friendship Treaty between China and the U.S. and how this new friendship affected day-to-day life in New York City, or as it was renamed, “New Beijing.” In the process, I did a lot of fascinating reading about Beijing and also about ancient China.
Caleb also has to travel to many different time periods to steal artifacts and treasures from key moments in history. Did you do a lot of historical research? How accurate did you feel you had to be?
I did quite a bit of historical research which was a lot of fun. With some stuff, the research was easy (there is quite a lot of material out there on how the first photograph was made) but with other things, e.g. the process of firing porcelain in a kiln in ancient China, knowledge was a bit tougher to come by.
I tried to be as accurate as I could with the historical elements of the story but at the same time I gave myself permission to imagine certain elements to better suit the storytelling.
I have to admit though, I got caught a couple of times on some of my loose handling of some of the facts. For example, in one scene Caleb and Abbie are in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1871. I was describing in the scene how a balloon had freed itself from the bunch and floated up into the air. It was a beautiful moment until a copy editor reminded me that balloons weren’t in widespread circulation in 1871!
What’s next and what are you working on now?
Right now (well not this instant but you know what I mean) I’m feverishly working to finish the first draft of the sequel to Time Snatchers. I have much of the draft written but my characters keep wanting to go off and do other things…they hardly ever listen to me. What an unruly mob!
At the same time, I’m working on promoting Time Snatchers, organizing my upcoming (May) “West Coast Tour” of school and library visits in Vancouver and Seattle and planning a book launch!
I’m so glad to hear that there will be a sequel. Best of luck with your tour – and with that unruly mob of yours!
Lena Coakley was born in Milford, Connecticut and grew up on Long Island. In high school, creative writing was the only class she ever failed (nothing was ever good enough to hand in!), but, undeterred, she went on to study writing at Sarah Lawrence College.
She became interested in young adult literature when she moved to Toronto, Canada, and began working for CANSCAIP, the Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers, where she eventually became the Administrative Director. She is now a full-time writer living in Toronto.
Witchlanders, her debut novel, was called “a stunning teen debut” by Kirkus Reviews. It is a Junior Library Guild selection and an ABC new voices selection. See also New Voice: Lena Coakley on Witchlanders from Cynsations.