Career Achievers: G. Neri on Thriving as a Long-Time, Actively Publishing Children’s-YA Author

Learn more about G. Neri.

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

In children’s-YA writing, maintaining an active publishing career is arguably an even bigger challenge than breaking into the field. 

Reflecting on your personal journey, what bumps did you encounter and how have you managed to defy the odds to achieve continued success?

This November marks a month of many momentous events in my life: It was ten years ago in November 2007, that my first book, Chess Rumble, was published by Lee and Low. This November, my tenth book in ten years comes out: Tru & Nelle: A Christmas Tale (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). And also this November, I will be in the middle of the biggest and most exciting research trip of my writing career: to the bottom of the world, in Antarctica!

That’s a lot of big milestones for someone who never planned on being an author.

Twenty years ago, not only did I not think it possible, it wasn’t even a speck of a notion in my brain that this was something I would do or could do. So extreme of an idea was it that if I was able talk to myself from 20 years ago and show him (me) the books I’d written and the places I’d traveled because of it, I’m pretty sure he would think I was high!

I am an accidental writer in every respect and I have an unexpected career because of it.

How have I survived this long? My training was in filmmaking, which taught me storytelling and endurance. I was part of an innovative entrepreneurial program in college, which taught me the art of branding, pitching and raising money. I was head of production for two internet design agencies which taught me budgets and schedules, and planning for success. My time in animation taught me that story production was all about momentum and energy.

And I’m stubborn as hell and won’t give up.

I have had many ups and downs in this unexpected journey into writing.

While I have ten books in the can and several projects I am working on in different capacities, I also have a good four novels with drafts that I had to abandon for reasons I don’t have time to go into.

I have lost several editors I loved due to layoffs or babies. I’ve had a couple publishing experiences turn ugly to the point I almost quit.

I’ve had many doubts as to my worth as a writer, knowing full well that my refusal to write only one kind of book keeps me away from the bestseller list.

On the plus side, nobody has ever told me what to write, I have an agent who sells whatever I give him, and I get to explore different genres between novels, graphic novels and picture books for audiences of different ages, classes and races.

I may not ever get rich from it, but I am a working writer with a fairly steady income and a continuing source of travel around the U.S. to speak at schools, libraries and conferences.

But the thing that really keeps me going is the readers. Those kids, teachers and librarians that I meet along the way, that’s where the magic happens. It keeps my heart pure, sparks my imagination and beats down the cynicism.

From the beginning, because my books spoke to urban kids, reluctant readers, non-readers, and especially boys, I started getting invited to come speak at schools. It reached a tipping point early on where I didn’t have to do anything but say yes– which seemed crazy to me since I wasn’t, like, famous or anything.

But I was able to connect with my niche and I’ve traveled all over the country (and sometimes to other countries) to tell my story and the stories of others that inspire my books. It’s is a direct and deep connection.

The people and places I visit and the real life stories I stumble across feed my inspiration and motivation. They take me to the most unexpected places in writing. I follow my heart, not the money.

Anytime I ever tried to follow the money didn’t end well. I can only do what my gut tells me. It won’t make me rich but I’ll stand behind every book on my list because of it.

My choices constantly surprise people all the time (He did that?) but all my books are connected: my protagonists are outsiders and my stories spring from real life.

It is the only way my brain seems to work.

The field and body of literature are always evolving. For you, what have been the stand-out changes in the world children’s-YA writing, literature and publishing? What do you think of them and why?

So, what has changed in ten years? It feels like the industry is getting smaller. Borders is gone…. And yet–people still read.

Books survived e-books. Physical books are still being sold, sometimes more than ever. Indies are surviving and doing well. Conferences seem full, schools still buy books and invite me out.

Writers come and go. Some I started with are going strong. Others have slowly disappeared from the landscape or just take longer between books.

Me, I just try to stay fluid. Do as many different kinds of books and hope they will find homes. Because my career started as an accident, I feel lucky to get this far and stay in the game.

The fact that I have more books in the works than ever is astounding but there it is. Have I improved over the ten years (well, more if you count the buildup)?

I can write a novel much faster. I still feel like I have no idea what I am doing when I start one, but I let go and the pages tend to turn up. I stopped trying to predict the future of both publishing and myself. I always think– this is it, the end of publishing is here! But somehow, it still happens.

One thing I’ve seen and always gives me hope is that everyone’s path is different. There is no one way to break in and no one way to survive or be successful. There is only your way. Your vision, along with your guts and refusal to give in are yours.

I heard recently, with all the technological advances slowly taking over jobs, creativity is the one thing that cannot be truly replicated by artificial means.

That magic you hold inside you has real power and you should brandish it like a sword.

It is your weapon for good.

If you had it to do all over again, what—if anything—would you do differently and why?

In reflecting back, I don’t regret anything. Yes, mistakes were made, things didn’t always work out, but nothing is ever lost.

Experience matters. It makes you deeper and stronger and you’d be the lesser without it.

So no, I wouldn’t change anything if I could–even if I wanted to in the moment.

What advice would you give to your beginner self, if that version of you was a debut author this year?

If I were starting today?

God I don’t know. Sometimes I feel “if only I’d published five years earlier…” but hey, every year if different, everything’s always in flux and you just gotta roll with it.

In Canada, where I’m living at the moment, there are loads of bookstores still and tons of graphic novels, which may be why I have two in the works and a third that is some kind of hybrid.

I try not to hold onto the past and I don’t try to predict the future.

I try to stay present, let the stories tell me how they want to be told. Try to make them unique enough where they might stand out as different and fresh. And keep moving ahead, one step at a time.

What do you wish for children’s-YA writers (and readers), looking to the future?

If you keep moving forward, you will end up someplace new.

Where will my journey take me in the next ten years? Who knows. But the unknown is part of the terror…and the fun.

What I wish for everyone is this: may your travels take you to new and unexpected places in your life. You never know what you’ll find there.

Cynsational Notes

The Survivors Interview Series offers in-depth reflections and earned wisdom from children’s-YA book authors who have successfully built long-term, actively-publishing careers.