Author Interview: Helen Hemphill on Long Gone Daddy

Debut novelist Helen Hemphill grew up in (Bridgeport, then Wichita Falls) Texas and now lives with her family in Nashville and Austin. She is a graduate of the Vermont College M.F.A. program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Her first book is Long Gone Daddy (Front Street, 2006). Read Helen’s blog.

What inspired you to write for young readers?

Two unrelated things steered me into writing for young readers. Early on, I toyed with writing adult short fiction, but I found a lot of stories being published were pretty grim in terms of subject and tone. It was depressing.

I read a lot of Tony Earley and Pam Houston because I found humor and hope present in their work, even when the subject matter was difficult, and I tried to model that tone in my own writing.

At the same time, I was teaching sixth grade. Every day, kids would come in with funny, quirky perspectives that really grabbed me. There was just so much sheer optimism in them, even when the realities of their lives weren’t always so sunny.

Somewhere in there, I started writing short fiction for a younger audience and sort of found my groove. I write about difficult situations and relationships, but I also try to leave readers with something positive. There is hope for all of us.

Could you describe your path to publication? Any sprints and/or stumbles along the way?

I was doing a Harcourt post-graduate semester at Vermont College, working on two separate manuscripts. One had been my creative thesis for my MFA and was a somewhat finished manuscript and the other was a new novel–very green.

Just as a kind of networking opportunity, I attended the One-on-One Conference put on by Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature and met an agent who offered to take a look at my work. At the same time, a dear friend offered an introduction to another agent, and both were interested. The situation was a catalyst for my getting Stephen Roxburgh‘s attention. Front Street had rejected an earlier manuscript of mine, so it was all a little bit serendipitous. I sold my second novel, which became Long Gone Daddy, to Front Street right after the semester ended and did extensive revisions on the text—cutting 100 pages, reworking the chronology, revamping characters.

In the course of the semester, I ended up ditching the finished manuscript of my first novel for a total rewrite. Harcourt had a first right of refusal on that book. Jeannette Larson at Harcourt was very supportive and gracious to me, but ultimately passed on the story. Some weeks later, Stephen bought it with the awareness that the book needed more work–I think our revisions on Long Gone Daddy convinced him I could do what he wanted. That book, called Runaround, will be out with Front Street next year.

Rita Mae Brown says “Don’t hope more than you’re willing to work.” I have that quote on my screensaver.

Congratulations on the release of your debut novel, Long Gone Daddy (Front Street, 2006)! Could you tell us a bit about the story?

Long Gone Daddy is a road trip with dark comedy around every turn.

Grandfather’s will stipulates he must be buried in Las Vegas to get a chunk of money and a Cadillac, so 14-year-old Harlan Q is ready to make the trip from north Texas to Las Vegas in order to get away from Paps, his bible-thumping father. Paps and Harlan Q transport the ripening body of the grandfather in their station wagon, and along the way, pick up Warrior, a Zen-minded actor-in-training. The heart of the book is the relationship between the father and the son, and Warrior is both the foil to the father’s rigid beliefs and the confident who helps Harlan Q understand his father.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

Actually, the novel is based on a true story. Late one night, some friends sat around swapping stories about adolescence, and someone began telling a wild tale about living in a funeral home the night his grandfather died.

His dad and uncle drove the body from Florida up the east coast in the back of the family station wagon rather than pay for the funeral home’s services. It was hilarious. When he finished, I asked him if I could use the idea, and Long Gone Daddy is dedicated to him. The book took three years from start to finish, but many times during the first draft, I felt I was just the typist because the story was so clear in my mind.

What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

Some of the logistics were very specific. Would a casket fit into the back of a Chervolet station wagon? Was it legal for Paps and Harlan Q to just drive a dead body across country? Obviously, I did research like any other writer of historical fiction, contacting a funeral home director and a parts manager at a Chevrolet dealership, both of whom were great in tracking down details.

I also used original source newspapers. I went to the Dallas Public Library and made copies of newspaper microfilm, all from the first two weeks of August, 1972. I did the same thing in Las Vegas. Newspaper research really helped with context, and gave me some fun ideas. Elvis was opening at the Hilton, and Watergate was very much in the headlines, although no one seemed to understand its implications. Both of those details are referenced in the book.

I also did quite a lot of reading on the psychology of adolescent boys since I was writing across gender. The plot came pretty quickly to me, but the emotional depth of the book was harder. I wanted to explore father and son relationships as authentically as I could, so I had to reopen some of my old wounds about my own family. That was difficult.

The flap copy notes that you drove from Dallas to Las Vegas to research the novel; what can you tell us about that?

It was a blast of a trip. A girlfriend and I drove a convertible on the same route that Harlan, Warrior and Paps drive in the book, plus a lot of side trips. It was June, but it was already hot—113 degrees in Tuba City, Arizona.

It was also beautiful. We drove a stretch of countryside from Tucumcari, New Mexico to Las Vegas that was one of the most beautiful places on earth. My girlfriend did lots of the driving, so I took pictures and notes and met lots of wonderful people.

On the last day, the last turn before we were in the rental car parking lot, we wrecked the convertible in Las Vegas. Fortunately, no one was hurt. But it was like something out of a novel…

You did such a powerful job with the varied father-son relationships in the novel. Did this focus evolve in the writing, or was it something that you wanted to explore going in? What about it called to you?

As I said, I did a lot of research on male adolescence, plus I have a son and stepson of my own. I used my own relationship with my father as a jumping off point for the story, but I would say most of the focus evolved as I began going deeper with the emotional aspects of the characters. I think we all have some unfinished business with our parents, and that helped me, but I wrote a lot of the story as Jane Resh Thomas says, “behind my back.” I didn’t know really where I was going at the time, I only knew I had to go there.

I’m fascinated with religion, faith, the quest for answers–all of which is touched upon in this book as Harlan Q tangles with Paps (a hard-driving preacher), Paps rails against the “sins” of his own father, and a stranger named Warren/Warrior appears on the scene with gentle questions. What does this novel say about these forces within us and our society? Or perhaps I should say, what does it ask?

I wrote the book more concerned about the issue of doubt than that of faith.

As human beings in a post modern world, I think we all struggle with doubt at one point or another in some form or another. How we struggle may be very different. Warrior gives in to doubt, without dismissing his own spirituality. Paps can’t leave room for doubt, yet his “sure” vision is often incorrect. Harlan Q is all over the road. We are all searching for the right answer, the meaning of life, the theory of everything, but it’s in the doubt that we move forward. There’s the irony: it’s the doubt that pushes us to discern what we really think. I would hope that the book would encourage readers to be a bit more skeptical and to be more tolerant of one another’s questioning.

Your publisher is Front Street, a small, high-quality literary trade publisher. For those less familiar with the house, could you tell us about it and your experiences as one of its authors?

Front Street had been in business about ten years under the guidance and ownership of Stephen Roxburgh when it merged with Boyds Mills Press about two years ago.

Now Front Street is the young adult imprint of Boyds Mills and is part of a bigger organization, but there is the same focus on quality and literary merit that has always been part of its reputation. When I signed my first contract, I went to Honesdale to do my own due diligence–I wanted to know the organization behind Stephen. I was impressed with the commitment to children’s literature from everyone at Boyds Mills, and I think the two companies have tremendous strengths that complement one another. As an author, I feel very fortunate to work with Stephen as my editor, but I also feel really lucky to have the whole team at both Front Street and Boyds Mills behind me.

You’re a graduate of the Vermont College M.F.A. program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Could you describe your experience as a student? Looking back, what did you gain as a writer?

It was hard work. There was a component of the program that required extensive reading, research, and scholarly writing, in addition to the creative writing packets each month. I also came to the program wanting more depth in my knowledge of children’s literature so I worked hard on that as well, reading everything I could. Maybe I could have done less, but I was so ready to do it all. I didn’t get much sleep the week before a packet was due.

As a writer, I was transformed. I don’t even know if I can accurately describe the metamorphosis because it wasn’t overnight or immediate. I just started seeing things differently. I started reading like a writer. I paid attention in a different way. And I began to have confidence and courage that I could write–that was huge!

What would you tell other writers considering an M.F.A. program? What should they consider?

I would never hesitate to say go for it, but I would suggest that a writer consider his or her own goals carefully. Are you willing to spend the money and the time to learn to write as an end in itself? Learning the craft and networking with a writing community are really what make an M.F.A. program worth doing. Publishing is icing on the cake.

In raving about your writing this week, I said, “Think: Kimberly Willis Holt-meets-Joan Bauer.” That was the closest I could come without just handing over the book so your own unique talent could shine through (and I wasn’t done with it yet!). How would you describe your style?

First off, let me say that I’m thrilled with the comparisons. I don’t know that I can describe my style just yet. I can say I use humor as a way to express myself. I have deep feelings about the fragile nature of families in our complex world, and I enjoy a good story, with heroes and villains and surprises along the way. Does all that combine to make a style? Maybe…we’ll see.

As a reader, what are your favorite recent children’s and YA books? Your favorite authors?

Texas writer Kathi Appelt (author interview) because she does it all so well—from picture books to memoir to young adult fiction. I love Deb Wiles‘s Southern voice and humor, but then even her emails make me laugh. As for recent YA books, I’m reading Markus Zusak‘s The Book Thief (Knopf, 2006) (excerpt), like everyone else on the planet, and I enjoyed Ronald Kidd’s Monkey Town: The Summer of the Scopes Trial (Simon & Schuster, 2006)(excerpt) very much. No surprise ending, but Kidd does a seamless job of weaving history into the text. I also loved Jan Cheripko‘s Sun Moon Stars Rain (Front Street, 2005). The writing is spare with beautiful imagery.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I iron really well–it’s my mother’s fault. I also play golf, although not so well. I hang out with my husband and children, read, knit, and I like to cook and have people over to the house. I make a really nice pear tart.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I have a novel out next year with Front Street called Runaround. It takes place in Falls of Rough, Kentucky in 1964 and is a story of romance magazines and sister sibling rivalry. I’m also drafting a wild-west story and having too much fun with that.

Cynsational Notes

See more author/illustrator interviews and more Texas authors.

Cynsational News & Links

Bookseller Chick: “the alter-ego of a mild-mannered bookseller, Bookseller Chick (known to those who love and hate her as BS Chick) fights for literacy, freedom, originality, and a paycheck in the corporate confines of a retail book chain.”

Congratuations to Dianna Hutts Aston (author interview) on the publication of Mama Inside, Mama Outside, illustrated by Susan Gaber (Henry Holt, 2006). School Library Journal calls it “irresistible.”

My husband, author Greg Leitich Smith, and I will be speaking on “The Kid In You: Writing for the Children’s and Young Adult Literary Trade Book Market” from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. June 24 at the Writers’ League of Texas Agents and Editors Conference. In addition, Kathi Appelt (author interview), Anne Bustard (author interview), Chris Barton, and moderator Mark G. Mitchell (author interview) will offer a panel on “Breaking into the Children’s Book Market” at 11 a.m. that same day.

Interview with Children’s Fantasy Author Laura Williams McCaffrey from Debbi Michiko Florence. Laura is the author of Alia Waking (Clarion, 2003) and Water Shaper (Clarion, 2006). Learn more about Laura.

Summer Bites: “Young Adult Paranormal Writers Dish about Everything.” Six authors celebrate light-hearted, original paperback gothic fantasy for teens. Learn more about Serena Robar, Marianne Mancusi, Gena Showalter, MaryJanice Davidson and Anthony Alongi, PC and Kristen Cast, and Bev Rosenbaum.

Thanks to fellow bloggers who’ve recently mentioned and/or featured links to Cynsations: Book Moot and A Chair, A Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy to my interview with author Michelle Lord on Little Sap and Monsieur Rodin, illustrated by Felicia Hoshimo (Lee & Low, 2006); … h20boro lib blog from the Waterboro Public Library (ME) recommending Cynsations; Jen Robinson’s Book Page on Sue Corbett‘s 12 Again (Dutton, 2002) winning the California Young Readers Medal (author interview); Gotta Book with more praise for Cynsations; a_suen on my interview with Ellen Howard; Kat’s Eye to my interview with Stephenie Meyer; pbwriter to my article on children’s and YA literary agents; and to Chicken Spaghetti to my interview with Marina Budhos.

The June giveaway at YA Books Central is Secrets of My Hollywood Life by Jen Calonita (Little Brown, 2006).

Meet Jeff Newman, author-illustrator of Hippo! No, Rhino (Little Brown, 2006), from BookPage.

Rising Star Julie Anne Peters from The Bulletin of the Center of Children’s Books. See a Cynsations interview with Julie. See also “Let Me Tell You ‘Bout My Best Friend:” A Father and Son Dozen, selected by Cindy Welch from the Bulletin.

Publicist Interview: Susan Salzman Raab

Susan Salzman Raab is a widely respected expert in children’s book promotion. Twenty years ago, she founded Raab Associates, then the only agency dedicated to that goal. Today, Raab Associates Inc. provides “marketing, consulting, and publicity for children’s and parenting books and children’s specialty products.”

Susan is the Marketing Advisor to SCBWI National and the author of the “To Market” column in its bi-monthly newsletter. She is a radio correspondent for “Recess! Radio,” which is syndicated nationally, and she is the author of An Author’s Guide to Children’s Book Promotion (Two Lives Publishing, 2005). Her company also hosts ReviewersChecklist.com, a search database of new and forthcoming books for children, teens and parents from publishers across the industry. Learn more about Susan.

Congratulations on the twentieth anniversary of Raab Associates! Your experience in advertising, as a book-buyer for an independent bookstore, and in publicity and marketing for such companies as Dell, Scholastic, and Bantam certainly prepared you for the transition to founder of your own agency. But what inspired you to make the jump to your own shop?

I decided to start the agency because I was pregnant with my oldest son, and I knew I wanted to work part-time from home so I could be with him. At the time, I was working as an account executive for a large ad agency in Philadelphia, and I missed being part of the New York publishing world. I had a wonderful boss who–when I told her I wanted to work from home and told her how much I missed working with children’s books–recommended I try doing both. I’ve always been grateful to her for that and for being so supportive.

How has Raab Associates grown over the years? What new directions do you anticipate?

Well, my initial plan, which was to work three-to-four hours a day, take long weekends and have beach vacations never did seem to happen. Once I started getting projects, the business grew, and I needed staff and to expand our systems to manage the load. Since returning to the New York area, we’ve had substantial growth both in the size of the staff and in the range of services we provide. I think that’s because companies want a broader range of marketing services and so do individual authors and illustrators.

We’ve also launched ReviewersChecklist.com, which required coming up with new ways to present and promote publisher data online and has involved working with a broad range of contacts, including 175 publishers, as well as authors, illustrators, educators, librarians and media contacts. We’ve met many new people and have been evolving new marketing techniques for reaching them.

New directions have involved corporate consulting and working with authors and illustrators on strategic career planning, and I think there’s a lot more that can be done in those areas. We also have a lot of plans for Reviewers Checklist.

Why children’s books specifically? What fueled your passion to support books for young readers?

It’s interesting because working in children’s books was not at all trendy when I started in the business. In fact, at Dell, all my predecessors had used the job as a springboard to get to “real jobs” in adult books. I stayed because I loved the field and because I felt children’s books should get more attention–plus I was working with the best authors! That list included Judy Blume (author interview), Beverly Cleary, Madeleine L’Engle, Lloyd Alexander, Paula Danziger, Richard Peck, Jane Yolen (author interview)–literally a hundred authors whose work I adored. I also thought they were much nicer than the adult authors my counterparts were working with, and I saw the commitment it took to try to get kids excited about reading.

The other thing that intrigued me was that it was much more challenging to get attention for kid’s books–you couldn’t depend on the author’s name being a household word, or the support of a big marketing budget. You had to find ways of personally connecting with people who cared about kids and create mutually beneficial opportunities. Sounds exhausting probably, but I loved it–and still do.

The attention that children’s books have gotten in recent years has made the marketing easier in some areas, but it can still be quite tough in others.

You’ve worked with many publishers and companies–Annick Press, Bloomsbury Books, Golden Books, Kane Miller, Kids Can Press, Henry Holt, National Geographic, Penguin, Pleasant Company, and Simon & Schuster, just to name a few. What kinds of services do you provide to them?

We’ve done product launches, marketing consulting, market surveys, developed and designed websites, run focus groups, produced teacher’s guides, launched product lines and handled author tours and publicity campaigns. Companies have also hired us to consult with authors and work with staff on presentations and media preparation.

Do you handle individual clients as well? If so, what services are provided to these authors? What should an author consider in hiring a publicist to promote his or her work?

We work with a lot of authors at all stages of their career. We’ve worked on first books to help establish an author in the marketplace, and have been hired by established authors and illustrators who want to market at a new level. The work varies depending on the type of book, the author or illustrator’s background and objectives, the involvement of the publisher, the potential we see in the market, the budget and the time frame. We have some clients who we’ve worked with for many years and others who hire us to handle a particular book. We’ve provided many of the same services to authors and illustrators that we do to corporations.

I think the most important thing to consider when hiring a publicist, or any marketing professional, is to find someone who is honest with you about what’s viable for your book, clear about the work they’ll do, and who cares about the authors they take on. It’s also helpful to work with someone who can educate you about the role you can play in the process because campaigns work best when they’re done synergistically.

What information and assistance do you provide to individual authors and/or illustrators, including perhaps those who aren’t clients per se?

We offer a series of telecourses that have been developed in response to author/illustrator requests for more specific information on the market. Those are listed at our website, www.raabassociates.com. We often adapt these to the specific needs of an author or group.

You’re the author of An Author’s Guide To Children’s Book Promotion, Ninth Edition (Two Lives Publishing, 2005). Could you give us a sense of what this book offers? Why is it a must-buy for the author serious about building a publishing career?

The Author’s Guide is meant to serve as a handbook for people who want an overview of the children’s book field. This is a quirky business because we need to appeal to parents, teachers, librarians, booksellers as well as kids themselves, so the outreach needs to happen on many levels and still be part of an overall strategy. There are lots of good books on the market now that explain various aspects of the business, including Harold Underdown’s Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books (Alpha, 2004) and lots of information out on the web that can help as well.

Much of your energy is directed to media relations. Could you tell us about Reviewers Checklist? How does it work? What’s great about it?

The idea for Reviewers Checklist came from many conversations with reporters who wanted to cover a variety of children’s books, but found it tough to keep track of current contacts at the publishing houses. We often tried to help when questions came up about particular topics by referring them to individuals we knew and asking to have books sent, even if the source was not always a publisher we were currently working with. Sometimes it helped complete a story with books we had sent, and other times it was just to try to help the reporter get the story done. It finally occurred to me that it would be great to provide a source that would offer one-stop-shopping for the media to put through their requests and that was the start of Reviewers Checklist.

The site, which is accessible to everyone, is an online search database that houses publisher catalog data. We currently have 175 publishers participating, including all the major houses and there are between 9,000-9,500 titles for children, teens and families.

The site provides details on books nine months in advance of the publication date, which makes it a unique information source. There’s no charge for membership, and while membership is not required to search on the site, there are additional features available to those who do sign up.

We’ve been delighted to find that many people in the industry have registered – reviewers in all media categories, librarians, educators, booksellers, authors, illustrators, agents, and even some people who license for television and other media. Anyone visiting it can search new and forthcoming titles (including books coming out the following season), get information on authors, illustrators and publishers when that’s been provided, and keep track of searches they’ve done. Media contacts, who must first be vetted into the system, get special privileges that allow them to make review copy requests directly through the system to publishers. They can also use the system to send back clips or notification of their stories or segments.

We have had a very enthusiastic response to Reviewers Checklist from people across the industry as a reference tool and as a media tool. It’s also been used to announce industry news and to post special Calls for Information for survey topics. We have lots of plans for it, including in the short-term moving the system to a new platform to make it much faster and more flexible.

What noteworthy changes in children’s book promotion have you seen over the years? What are your predictions for the future?

The biggest changes have been that children’s books are now are seen as having much more potential, so there are some very large budgets for a select number of books. There are more books and the business is more competitive. There are also a lot more self-published books and a lot of small, specialty publishers. Authors and illustrators have also become a lot more proactive in marketing their books, which I think is a good and necessary change because publishers have grown in size, and it’s tough to get to the top of the lists.

The Internet has also had a tremendous impact on marketing. Author and illustrator websites, online stores, review sites, blogs, email marketing, and other vehicles provide new ways of creating excitement about new books and making more personal connections with consumers. I think the Internet will be increasingly important along with other electronic messaging. I also think that there will be more direct interaction with consumers.

As long as we’re talking about books, are there any great new titles you’d like to highlight?

We’re working on a number of very interesting novels right now, including My Childhood Under Fire: A Sarajevo Diary by Nadja Haglilbegovich (Kids Can, 2006)(excerpt), Strange Happenings: Five Tales of Transformation by Avi (Harcourt, 2006), Trigger (Bloomsbury, 2006), which is by Susan Vaught and about teen suicide, Stay With Me by Garret Freymann-Weyr (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), and Anatopsis by first-time author Chris Abouzeid (Dutton, 2006). There’s also a new cookbook and fairytale collection, entitled Fairytale Feasts, which is by Jane Yolen, and a political spoof, Wilky: The White House Cockroach, by syndicated cartoonist Howie Schneider (Putnam, 2006). Others for young children are Robie Harris’s It’s Not the Stork!: A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families, and Friends (Candlewick, 2006), which was previewed in a New York Times feature article; Ed Young’s family story My Mei Mei (Philomel, 2006)(author-illustrator interview); a Greek myths series by I Spy Author Jean Marzollo, and there’s Susan Goldman Rubin’s forthcoming biography of Andy Warhol – plus great books from National Geographic, Kane Miller and Kids Can Press.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Just that children need books now more than ever to help them understand the larger world, and that we need to ensure they have access to excellent books in all genres in bookstores, libraries, schools and homes.

Cynsational Notes

See also school visits and other events as well as promotion resources.

Winners of the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature Named

The Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature Committee of the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association has announced the winner and honor books of 2006. These awards honor and recognize individual works published in 2004 and 2005 about Asian/Pacific Americans and their heritages based on literary and artistic merit.

Young adult title winner: Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata (Antheneum, 2004)(author interview)(excerpt). The honor books were: Project Mulberry by Linda Sue Park (Clarion, 2005)(author interview); Shanghai Messenger by Andrea Cheng (Lee & Low, 2005).

Young readers illustration only: The Firekeeper’s Son by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by Julie Downing (Clarion, 2004). The honor books were Bread Song by Frederick Lipp, illustrated by Jason Gaillard (Mondo, 2004); Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds by Paula Yoo, illustrated by Dom Lee (Lee & Low, 2005)(excerpt).

The Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association is an affiliate of the American Library Association (ALA).