Author Interview: Michelle Knudsen on Library Lion

Michelle Knudsen on Michelle Knudsen: “Who am I… I can’t think of that phrase without hearing Jean Valjean in my head. And then I get a little lost in my own private mental recital of ‘Les Miserables’ and have to shake my head and find my way back to the question. Which was?

“Oh, right. Well, in the beginning, I was born. I grew up in Staten Island, left for Ithaca to go to college at Cornell University, then moved back to Staten Island for one year and Queens for three, then back to Ithaca for five years, and then back to NYC again, this time in Brooklyn, where I’ve been for almost two years now.

“I’ve worked in libraries and publishing houses and bookstores and other kinds of stores, including one of those candy-and-nut kiosks in the middle of the mall. I’m the author of 28 or 38 books for children (depending on whether you count the coloring books) and a handful of published magazine articles and a drawer full of unpublished short stories that will probably stay in that drawer.

“I like snacks. I am easily distracted by shiny objects, often stay up way too late, and very often write too-long sentences. I like semicolons and the em dash. Jean-Luc Picard is my favorite Star Trek captain, and ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ is my favorite Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.”

What about the writing life first called to you? Were you quick to answer or did time pass by?

I started writing when I was really young; long enough ago that I can’t remember what exactly was the first thing that made me love it. My mother likes to tell people (friends, neighbors, acquaintances, strangers, random passersby, etc.) about the “books” I wrote when I was four.

I still have one, written on half-pieces of pinkish construction paper: Mickey and the Broken Lamp. It’s a rousing tale of a certain famous mouse whose lamp breaks, and then he goes and gets a new one. (It’s also an early sign of why I’m not an illustrator.)

I always liked writing projects in school, and wrote in my room and in the back seat of the car on long cross-country driving trips I took with my parents. It probably helped that I was an only child and had a lot of time to myself.

At first it was just something I liked to do, and then at some point, probably after I became addicted to reading, I started to think about Being a Writer as a possible future goal. It helped a lot that I received so much encouragement from my friends and parents and teachers.

As for being “quick to answer,” my first impulse was to say no, that I wasted a lot of time before really getting on with the whole Being a Writer business…

But looking back, I guess that’s not really true. I think it just felt like a long time before I started to find forms of writing that really seemed to fit. I wrote poems and stories and long notes to friends. I wrote bad love poems to unworthy boys in high school and mediocre pieces for the high school yearbook. I wrote arts and entertainment reviews for my college paper, and made my first actual paid sale my senior year of college (an article about online fishkeeping resources in Freshwater and Marine Aquarium), but I also didn’t get into the advanced creative writing course I’d applied for and had pretty much everything I submitted rejected by a student-run literary magazine. There were a lot of ups and downs and wondering whether I was really meant to be a writer, and that was all before I’d even vaguely considered writing for children.

What made you decide to write for young readers?

My first job in publishing was as an editorial assistant in the Random House children’s division. At the time I started, I liked children’s books but didn’t really know much about them beyond the books I remembered from when I was little. I certainly never imagined I’d write them; I’d always dreamed of writing enormous science fiction and fantasy novels of the sort I loved (and still love) to read.

I thought working in children’s books would be a fun job, and it was…but it also turned out to be a really good fit for me as a young writer. I started writing board books and beginning readers while I worked there, and eventually realized that I liked writing children’s books even more than I liked editing them.

For those new to your work, could you briefly summarize your back list, highlighting as you see fit?

I’ve written a lot of different kinds of books over the past eight years or so, including board books, coloring and activity books, and beginning readers. I like different things about all of them…the shiny silly rhymingness of the board books, the challenge of telling a story or presenting information within the tight boundaries of a beginning reader, the fact that working on the Star Wars coloring books meant I got to go to the Skywalker Ranch and read the script of Episode I way before the movie came out.

Library Lion is my first traditional picture book, though, and a very different kind of book than anything else I’ve written.

Congratulations on the publication of Library Lion, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes (Candlewick, 2006)(excerpt). What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

I wish I knew the full answer to this question! I was working nights and weekends at the Cornell University library when I wrote it, and certainly the library aspect comes from that, along with memories of other school and public libraries… But I’m really not sure about the lion.

I had come home after a late-night shift and wasn’t quite ready to crawl into bed, so I made some tea and sat down at the dining room table to unwind. My recollection is that the first line just popped into my head, and I grabbed a pen and scribbled it down on a piece of paper. And then I just kept going, until I had most of the first draft written out.

We did occasionally get animal visitors at the Cornell library–birds, squirrels, the occasional dog that got tired of waiting for its owner to come back out–but never any lions, I’m fairly certain. So the lion’s origin is a bit of a mystery to me. Several people have assumed he’s based on the lions outside the New York Public Library, but honestly I hadn’t been thinking of those guys at all at the time. I think there’s just something about the library–especially lovely old ones, like one of the libraries I was working in at Cornell, and especially being there late at night–that makes it seem as though anything could happen there.

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

I had been trying for a while to write a picture book, but everything I sent to my agent (the fabulous Jodi Reamer) was just not quite right, somehow. And I knew it, I knew it when I sent them out, but I guess I kept hoping I was wrong. They weren’t bad (well, okay, some were bad), but mostly they just weren’t really strong or well put together. They didn’t have that special something that picture books need to really work.

Jodi continued to be encouraging, and I sent myself to the bookstore to browse picture book titles and read and read and figure out what those authors were doing right that I couldn’t seem to figure out. And even though I didn’t come up with any one particular answer, I think it helped to have the voices of all those writers in my head, all those examples of books that worked. I think just immersing myself in good picture books for a while made it easier for me to find the right way to tell this story when the time came.

So the writing part went really quickly, although I forced myself not to send the first draft right to Jodi, which is what I usually did. My (then) husband, Matt, who was always my first reader, read the first draft, and told me he liked it but that it needed something more. And he was right, and I knew it. So I wrote two more drafts, adding and revising, and sent the third draft to Jodi. And she loved it, and said she knew exactly who she wanted to give it to, which was Sarah Ketchersid at Candlewick.

And then I primed myself to be patient, since we all know how long it can sometimes take for editors to have time to read and respond, but in this case it happened amazingly fast. I think it was only about two weeks! Jodi called and said Sarah had loved the story and made an offer on the book. I remember going to work that night at the library, feeling like I was flying through the parking lot and up the library steps.

I did a bit more revising under Sarah’s direction, and then soon it was time to find the illustrator. This was my first experience ever being asked my opinion about an artist–previously my publishers had always let me know who the artist would be after the decision was made. I was nervous when I received the packet of samples from Sarah. What if I didn’t like who Candlewick was suggesting? What would I say?

But of course that didn’t turn out to be an issue at all, since the artist they had in mind was Kevin Hawkes, and I loved his work. So THEN I got to be nervous about whether he would take on the project. Happily, he responded very enthusiastically. In fact, his method of accepting was sending Candlewick a huge sketch of a lion with a note that said he’d love to illustrate the book! Because of the other projects Kevin was already working on, we ended up needing to postpone Library Lion’s pub date a full year…but it was definitely worth it. I’ve become so attached to Kevin’s lovely pictures and can’t imagine the story being illustrated any other way.

What did Kevin Hawkes’s art bring to your text?

Kevin did such an amazing job–it really made me appreciate to a new degree the collaborative nature of picture books. I mean, I liked the way my story turned out once the words were finished, but when Kevin’s illustrations were added there was suddenly this whole other dimension to the story…the characters were more alive, the library was more real, and the classic feel of the style he chose was so perfect! It makes me view Miss Merriweather’s library as both a very specific, particular location but also a symbolic representation of all libraries, especially the ones I went to as a child.

What advice do you have for beginning picture book writers?

Read lots of picture books! I think that’s the most important thing. It’s amazing to me how many people want to write for children but don’t actually spend much time reading the books that are already out there.

It’s also really important to think about the illustrations, even if you’re not an illustrator yourself. The words and the pictures are going to work together, and you need to make sure there’s something for the artist to illustrate on every page or spread. It can help to page out the book in spreads as you work, although I would only recommend doing that as an aid to writing; most editors, I think, prefer to receive manuscripts without page breaks added.

The other side of thinking about the illustrations is to remember that some of the story is going to be told in the artwork, so you wouldn’t necessarily want to spell out every detail in the text, either. Make sure there’s action, something happening for the art to depict, but then also leave enough out so the artist has room to add his or her own elements to the story.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

For the past year or so I’ve been working full-time as managing editor for an educational resources company, but although I love the job, it’s become so all-encompassing that it’s not leaving me any time to write!

So as of November first I’ll be switching to part-time, which will be a big relief. When I’m not working or writing, I love to watch movies, eat Frosted Flakes, play fantasy role-playing computer games, and go out with friends, especially if there is karaoke involved.

I try to get to the gym enough to offset the Frosted Flakes consumption, and lately I’ve been trying to take more advantage of being in New York City, visiting museums and exhibits and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

I also like to perform in community theater sometimes, especially musicals; the last show I did was “Yeomen of the Guard” with the Village Light Opera Group last fall.

Oh, and I read, of course! More science fiction and fantasy than anything else. Fantasy novels are always my favorite escape.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I recently sold my first middle-grade novel (an as-yet-untitled fantasy story) to Candlewick, which I’m really excited about! Sarah will be my editor again, and I couldn’t be happier–she is very wonderful and I love working with her. I’m also working on some new picture book manuscripts, and possibly another beginning reader.

Cynsational News & Links

“Annual Fair Focuses on Disabilities” by Bob Vosseller of the Ocean County Observer. Highlights Liz B of A Chair, A Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy and a diversity program at her library that will feature my picture book Jingle Dancer, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (Morrow, 2000).

“Birthing a Book: Revelations about the Publishing Process” with Bonny Becker, a chat transcript from the Institute of Children’s Literature.

In celebration of Teen Read Week, Bookburger: feeding hungry readers is running a search for “America’s Next Top Librarian.”

Also, Bookburger’s own Covergirl will be picking the winner of the National Book Awards based on which finalist has the best-looking book jacket.

MLA and Photos from author Shutta Crum. See her revision process in action. Read a Cynsations interview with Shutta.

Joint Conference of Librarians of Color

“Gathering at the Waters, Embracing Our Spirits, Telling Our Stories,” The Joint Conference of Librarians of Color, is ongoing this weekend at the Adam’s Mark Hotel in Dallas.

On Thursday afternoon, I spoke on a panel, “Celebrating Our Cultures and Our Children: Authors Share Their Stories,” along with Varsha Bajaj (author interview), Greg Leitich Smith, Asma Mobin-Uddin, and Lori Aurelia Williams. The session was organized by Sylvia Vardell of Texas Woman’s University.

In her introduction, Sylvia pointed to the importance of kids seeing characters like themselves and connecting with other cultures through books. From the individual presentations, I recall…

Varsha’s mentioning that her debut book How Many Kisses Do You Want Tonight? illustrated by Ivan Bates (Little Brown, 2004) has been released in Australian and British editions as well as in a Korean translation and has sold more than 80,000 copies in part because of its universal appeal.

Asma’s observation that Islam may be the second largest religion in the United States, yet picture books about America’s Muslims are still hard to find. Asma is the author of My Name Is Bilal, illustrated by Barbara Kiwak (Boyds Mills, 2005)(recommendation), and she generously shared a bibliography of recommended books with Islamic themes and Muslim characters, which also is available on her website.

Lori stories about her childhood in urban Houston and how she writes to “give voice” to teenagers, like pregnant girls, who would otherwise go unheard. She also discussed the banning of her books, including When Kambia Elaine Flew Down From Neptune (Simon & Schuster, 2000).

And Greg’s report on translation questions–mostly slang related–about the Japanese edition of Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo (Poplar Sha, forthcoming).

I shared some of the stories behind my stories, including requests by some event planners to “skip the death part” in Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001) in the months that followed 9-11.

The next day, it was a thrill to attend the presentation of the first American Indian Youth Literature Awards, given by the American Indian Library Association. The winners were: Beaver Steals Fire: A Salish Coyote Story by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, illustrated by Sam Sandoval, who made a personal appearance at the ceremony, (University of Nebraska Press); The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich (Hyperion); and Hidden Roots by Joseph Bruchac (Scholastic). Winners received $500, and the award will be given every two years.

Afterward, I had the honor of giving a keynote address, followed by another by Lisa Yee, at the children’s author luncheon. I mostly told stories from the front lines of my writing life. Lisa discussed the question of being an “ethnic writer” and absolutely wowed the crowd with her tremendous charm, wit, intelligence, and humor. We each talked for a half hour. Read a Cynsations interview with Lisa.

Celebrity sightings on the exhibit floor included author Diane Gonzales Bertrand and librarian Lisa Mitten, who runs the Native American Home Pages. My one regret is that Greg and I had to check out before author-storyteller Tim Tingle‘s session on Sunday.

Thanks to Dutton for sending Santa Knows (2006) for my signing at Combined Book Exhibit, to Candlewick for shipping the ARCs and gorgeous new promotional bookmarks for Tantalize (2007), and to HarperCollins for graciously sponsoring me to the conference and providing copies of Rain Is Not My Indian Name (2001) for the signing at the Harper booth. Thanks also to Sylvia, new ALA president Loriene Roy, the AILA, and everyone else at the ALA JCLC for their hospitality! What an inspiring event!

Cynsational Notes

Sylvia’s blog is Poetry for Children: About Finding and Sharing Poetry with Young People.

Cynsational News & Links

The buzz is getting louder about my upcoming YA gothic fantasy, Tantalize (Candlewick, February 2007). In her post “a tasty treat,” The Goddess of YA Literature, Teri Lesesne, writes: “…delicious twists and turns to this story. Werecreatures, vampires, unsolved murders, and more are sure to satisfy readers who lust for blood lore and romance and mysteries. …a lovely tale…already causing the two teens here at home to argue about who gets to read it first. Cool, huh? ” I’d also like to thank the YA librarians who’ve of late written me personally with related hurrahs. Your support and enthusiasm are most appreciated!

My new picture book, Santa Knows (Dutton, 2006), continues to win hearts, too. Armchair Interviews says: “Little ones will love this one. The book is delightful, adorable, entertaining…everything you could want in a children’s book about Santa.”

In addition, I’d like to offer thanks to Children’s Writers in the Central U.S. for cheering the release Santa Knows (Dutton, 2006) and to Shaken & Stirred for recommending my recent interview with author-editor Deborah Noyes (Wayshak).

More News & Links

Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith: a recommendation from Debbie Reese of American Indians in Children’s Literature. Note: Debbie also makes a broader point, asking teachers to “consider teaching students about American Indians as we are today.”

“Self-serving students inspire a teacher’s teen novel:” interview by Heidi Henneman from BookPage. Featuring Jordan Sonnenblick on Notes from the Midnight Driver (Scholastic, 2006). Read a Cynsations interview with Jordan.

“Six Simple Ways to Make the Most of Any Writing Workshop or Class” from GenerationB58144.

“Speaking in Voices: Writing a Multiple Viewpoint Novel:” a chat transcript featuring Deborah Lynn Jacobs, author of Powers (Roaring Brook, 2006), from the Institute of Children’s Literature.

The Texas Book Festival is scheduled for Oct. 26 to Oct. 29 at the State Capitol in Austin. Authors will include: Brian Anderson, Dianna Hutts Aston, Avi, Brad Barkley, Sharon Creech, Kathy Duval, Keith Graves, Lila and Rick Guzman, Helen Hemphill, Heather Hepler, David Levithan, Laura Numeroff, Richard Peck, Jane Peddicord, Rick Riordan, Louis Sachar, Lola M. Schaefer, Tanya Lee Stone, Sarah Weeks, and Kathy Whitehead.

National Book Award Finalists Announced

The finalists for the 2006 National Book Award in the category of Young People’s Literature are:

M.T. Anderson, author The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party (Candlewick Press);

Martine Leavitt, author of Keturah and Lord Death (Front Street Books/Boyds Mills Press);

Patricia McCormick, author of Sold (Hyperion Books for Children);

Nancy Werlin, author of The Rules of Survival (Dial/Penguin);

and Gene Luen Yang, American Born Chinese (First Second/Roaring Brook Press/Holtzbrinck).

Congratulations on the finalists! Read recent Cynsations interviews with M.T. Anderson on Whales on Stilts (Harcourt, 2005) and Nancy Werlin on The Rules of Survival (Dial, 2006).

Agent Interview: Anna Olswanger of Liza Dawson Associates

Anna Olswanger wears a number of hats in the book world. In addition to being a literary agent with Liza Dawson Associates in Manhattan, she is the author of Shlemiel Crooks, illustrated by Paula Goodman Koz (Junebug, 2005), a 2006 Sydney Taylor Honor Book and a 2005-2006 Koret International Jewish Book Award Finalist, and is the coordinator of the Jewish Children’s Book Writers’ Conference each fall at the 92nd Street Y in New York. A frequent traveler on Amtrak, she teaches business writing at the Center for Training and Education at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and writing for physicians at Stony Brook University School of Medicine and Hospital. Anna lives in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. Her website is www.olswanger.com.

What inspired you to become a literary agent?

I’ve always enjoyed the business behind books. When I moved to the New York area, I thought I would like to enter book publishing or start a small press. I enrolled in the Certificate in Book Publishing program at New York University, and took a course with a literary agent. I hadn’t thought about being a literary agent, but I enjoyed the course and subsequently interned with the instructor. When that internship ended, I interned with Liza Dawson, who offered to bring me into her agency.

How long have you been agenting?

A little over a year.

Would you describe yourself as an “editorial agent”–one who comments on manuscripts or one who concentrates more exclusively on publishing issues? Why?

This will change, but right now I’m both. As an editorial agent, I work with authors to revise their manuscripts because I want to have a reputation as sending out only the best work. I also concentrate on publishing issues because I like the business behind publishing–finding out which houses are trying new things and then submitting manuscripts to them. As I gain more clients, the publishing issues will take precedence.

Why should unagented writers/authors consider working with an agent?

Some authors don’t need an agent. They may enjoy submitting their manuscripts and getting to know editors; they may also enjoy negotiating their own contracts. Some advantages of working with an agent are that the writer knows the editor will read her submission, she doesn’t have to talk money with her editor, and she has access to people in the book world, such as foreign rights agents, that she wouldn’t have access to on her own.

What questions should a writer have answered before signing with an agent?

Make sure you know what percentage the agent receives (15% domestic and 20% foreign are standard). If the agent charges for other services, such as photocopying or foreign postage, make sure you’re comfortable with these charges.

Are you accepting unsolicited submissions?

I accept email queries at anna@olswanger.com and will respond with my submission guidelines, which will probably change over time. In general, I will look at anything because I’m not convinced that queries do justice to manuscripts. I will almost always ask to see the first five pages, the author’s bio in a paragraph, a book synopsis in a paragraph, email address for my response, and a SASE with 2 oz. postage if the author wants those five pages returned.

In terms of markets (children’s, adult, fiction, nonfiction, genres), what sorts of manuscripts appeal to you?

In all markets I want a strong voice, a strong narrative arc, and writing that reveals an author’s intelligence. Obviously, whether any of that is apparent is my opinion only, so writers should never take a rejection to heart. I’m especially looking for historical fiction, mysteries with an element of fantasy, and text/art packages, whether for children or adults.

What makes a submission stand out? What are you looking for in terms of the cover letter? The writing itself? What, if any, prior writing experience is likely to intrigue you (MFA in writing, prior book publications, prior magazine publications, etc.)? Should authors send previously published books?

Frankly, I’m not much interested in an author’s credentials or marketing ideas. I just want a piece of writing that feels individualistic and tells a good story. Authors don’t need to send me previously published books. I’m not the kind of agent who is interested in signing up an author who looks good on television. I want an author I admire for her creativity and skill, and whose work I want to spend many hours with.

How many writers have you signed since starting off, and how many manuscripts do you receive each month?

I currently have ten clients, and I’m receiving about 100 manuscripts a month.

How much contact do you have with your clients? Just business emails? Regular phone dates? Retreats? What kind of relationships do you look to build and why?

I prefer email contact because that is fast and efficient. I don’t like spending a lot of time talking on the phone because that begins to interfere with my ability to get work done on behalf of my clients. I want a relationship where we both respect each other and work hard for each other. An author has to trust that even when she or he doesn’t hear from me, I am doing what I can to sell the work.

What are your feelings on writers marketing to more than one audience, i.e., children’s and YA or YA and adult?

Writers need to write whatever books they have inside of them, regardless of the market, although I have to say that it’s hard to work for an author who only writes picture book texts and is prolific. It’s not a wise career move for either of us to be sending out that author’s picture book texts constantly and to different editors. It makes the author look as though she can’t be happy with a house (or the house with her), and realistically, neither publishing houses nor the reading public can appreciate more than one book a year from an author.

Cynsational Note

Learn more about children’s and YA literary agents on my website.

Cynsational News & Links

Recent highlights of my writing life included attending Jennifer L. Holm‘s recent signing at BookPeople in Austin as well as lunching with her in a wonderful group that featured the lovely Camille Powell of Book Moot. Read my full report at Spookycyn and Camille’s at Book Moot.

More News & Links

ALA BBYA Nominated Titles 2007: highlights include: Ask Me No Questions by Marina Budhos (Atheneum, 2006)(author interview)(recommendation); Endgame by Nancy Garden (Harcourt, 2006)(author interview); What Happened to Cass McBride? by Gail Giles (Little Brown, 2006)(author interview)(recommendation); St. Iggy by K.L. Going (Harcourt, 2006)(author interview); Weedflower by Cynthia Kadohata (Atheneum, 2006)(author interview); Freaks! Alive on the Inside by Annette Curtis Klause (Margaret McElderry, 2006)(author interview); Eva Underground: A Novel by Dandi Daley Mackall (Harcourt, 2006)(author interview); Wait for Me by An Na (Putnam, 2006)(author interview)(recommendation); The Wall and the Wing and Good Girls, both by Laura Ruby (both HarperCollins, 2006)(author interview); A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl by Tanya Lee Stone (Wendy Lamb/Random House, 2006)(author interview); Casey at the Bat by Ernest L. Thayer, illustrated by Joe Morse (Kids Can, 2006)(illustrator interview); The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin (Dial, 2006)(author interview).

Beauty Among the Weeds: a recommendation of Weedflower by Cynthia Kadohata (Atheneum, 2006)(author interview) from Teen Topix: Book Topics and Teen Programs at Madison Public Library.

Visit Main Street Books in St. Charles, Missouri. They specialize in local history, Western history, and children’s books (though the stock includes much, much more!).

Round Rock (TX) ISD Readers’ Choice Award: highlighted books include Come to My Party and Other Shape Poems by Heidi Roemer, illustrated by Hideko Takahashi (Henry Holt, 2004) (author interview) and Henry and the Buccaneer Bunnies by Carolyn Crimi, illustrated by John Manders (Candlewick, 2005)(author-illustrator interview).

Author Interview: Rachel Caine on Glass Houses (Book One of the Morganville Vampire Series)

Rachel Caine on Rachel Caine: “Rachel Caine is insane. Seriously, if you take a poll of people who know me, they’ll probably agree with you. I’ve been writing a long time (more than 15 years professionally) and I delight in challenges, deadlines, balancing day job/writing/family/friends/fun. In the past 15 years, I’ve put out about 20 books, a bunch of short stories, and even some essays on television shows I love. I’ve got a husband who’s a wonderful artist. I’m a TV-holic and book fanatic. I have four reptiles living in my house (on purpose). Hence: insane.” Read Rachel’s LJ.

Glass Houses (The Morganville Vampires–Book One)(NAL Jam, 2006/Penguin Group). From the promotional copy: “Welcome to Morganville, Texas. Just don’t stay out after dark. College freshman Claire Danvers has had enough of her nightmarish dorm situation, where the popular girls never let her forget just where she ranks in the school’s social scene: somewhere less than zero. When Claire heads off-campus, the imposing old house where she finds a room may not be much better. Her new roommates don’t show many signs of life. But they’ll have Claire’s back when the town’s deepest secrets come crawling out, hungry for fresh blood.”

When and why did you first become a writer? Did you fight it or surrender quickly to the muse?

Fought. Fought hard. Oh, I wrote in secret, in private, and finally in 1991 a friend of mine sent me to go “talk to some writers” because he couldn’t believe that I wrote so much and didn’t plan to do anything with it.

I was, you understand, a serious musician at the time. I wanted to be a classical symphonic musician, not a writer. Writing was just something I did for fun.

But after talking to those writers, I got so excited about it that it began to take over my life, and finally I decided I had to make a decision about which dream to follow. I chose the writing. Must have been the right choice, because within a year, I’d sold my first book.

Why did you decide to write for teens specifically?

Honestly? I didn’t. I wanted to tell a good story, and the best way to tell the story I had in mind was through younger characters. I didn’t know much about the market for young adult fiction, although I’ve been reading a lot in it now…and discovering that there’s amazing stuff out there I’d missed. I didn’t know the rules and conventions of the genre, but the more I wrote, the more I enjoyed working with the characters. They just felt fresh, fun and interesting to me, and I’m really grateful that the series seems to be meeting with some acceptance.

Could you tell us about your path to publication, any sprints or stumbles?

Heh, sure…mine is a twisted, cautionary tale. Okay. I sold my first book to a gaming company, a game tie-in novel (back when those were still popular) and it did okay. I decided then that I wanted to write a vampire book, then a mystery, then another vampire book, then a suspense novel…

I didn’t have a lot of focus, and I was still finding my “voice.” Finding out what it was that I had to say that people wanted to hear. My biggest issue was, I think, that I wanted to be edgy and moody, and yet my strengths lay in creating characters that people wanted to spend time with. Took me a while to figure that out. I never said I was bright.

I got “released” (read “put on waivers,” or “fired”) from one publisher when the books didn’t sell that well, then spent a few years at another publisher and got “released” again. But since I’m insane, I refused to give up. I spent about two years considering what to do, and came up with the Weather Warden series, which sold to a brand new publisher (Roc) in 2001. Since then, the series has done extremely well, and the books include Ill Wind, Heat Stroke, Chill Factor, Windfall, and (most recently) Firestorm. I’m working on the sixth book, Thin Air.

Around the same time, I hooked up with a local Dallas-area publisher, BenBella Books, who was putting out a series called SmartPop–nonfiction essays centered around fan-friendly TV shows like “Buffy,” “Angel,” “Stargate,” “Alias”… I ended up doing a lot of work with them, and am about to do some more for 2007. The essays are big fun to do.

I’ve also recently written two books for Silhouette Bombshell, the Action/adventure/romance line, Devil’s Bargain and Devil’s Due. I’ve got another book in their Athena Force series coming out next year, called Trust.

In short, the third time seems to have been the charm, as far as sprinting and stumbling goes!

Congratulations on Glass Houses (The Morganville Vampires–Book One) (NAL Jam, 2006/Penguin Group)! What was the initial inspiration for this series?

I love vampires. In fact, my first original novel, The Undead (Zebra, 1992) was a vampire book. I was a huge geeking Buffy fan, as well as Angel, and although I wanted to do another vampire book I was really hesitant to go there–after all, it’s been “done to death.” Literally. And after Joss Whedon‘s been there, what’s left?

So I decided I wouldn’t do it unless I could come up with a new attitude and a new take on vampires. This is what came out of that determination. Morganville is a planned vampire community, and there’s loads we–and the main characters–don’t know about the town, but find out as we move alone. That’s the fun of it.

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

I’m Tight Turnaround Girl. I think from the time we made the deal for three books to finishing the first draft of Glass Houses was about six months. It took about two months for the writing of that book. I will say there were some major events in and around that, in that I was diagnosed with breast cancer, had two surgeries, and did the whole radiation thing at the same time…me and Kylie Minogue! So it was, to say the least, eventful.

Other day-job-related events took over my life for the first four months of 2006, so I had just about a month and a half to write the second book of the series, The Dead Girls’ Dance. But I’m on track to finish the third book by the end of the year!

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

There are books I’ve suffered over, but Glass Houses definitely isn’t one of them. I had a huge amount of fun doing it. Claire, the main character, turned out to be so natural for me as a viewpoint character than it really just flowed…

I love it when that happens. As far as research, well, I lived a lot of my life in West Texas, so I understand the setting pretty well, and college is still pretty vivid in my mind. I even had my laundry stolen once, just like Claire does in the beginning of the book.

I think the psychological component of it was letting go of all that I’d learned in the past (mumble mumble) years, and taking myself back to the point where everything was new, difficult, and dangerous–whether it was making spaghetti or battling the undead. Or, as is more common in Morganville, making deals with them. The vampires, not spaghetti.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

Learn how to put yourself in your “writing space.” That isn’t a physical place, it’s headspace, and you carry it with you wherever you go. It’s important to be able to use your time effectively, because one thing about writing as a career: you only get busier as it goes along. Time management and developing that mental distance (to use the time you have to your best advantage) is critical, I think.

Oh, and don’t give up. A lot of us fail, over and over. But failure’s just part of the process! Also: don’t take the easy roads. There are a lot of them out there–from e-publishing to self-publishing–and it’s never been simpler to let rejection drive you that direction. But the path to long-term career success in publishing still leads through traditional publishing, in my opinion.

How about those interested in writing gothic fantasy specifically?

Read the classics. Don’t just read what’s out now, go back and see what used to interest (or scare) people. Some of it’s still scary, some isn’t. Also, read history. Read memoirs. Watch old movies, even silent movies, to get a sense of atmosphere. I just re-read a collection of Edgar Allen Poe…he’s really fascinating. One of his themes, surprisingly, has to do with sailing ships and maelstroms, or ships sinking. It’s interesting to me how vividly he describes that kind of thing…and how I saw the same kind of scene pop up recently in the TV show “Surface.”

Also: study language. Words are important in building mood, character, and setting, and gothic writers need to be especially aware of the shades they choose.

And how about YA series writing?

As I said before, I’m still working on understanding the genre myself, so I can’t really advise! I’ve been surprised at how wide the boundaries are for YA these days, and I think that’s very exciting. YA and Romance are the two genres that seem to be actively expanding their borders. It’s very inclusive.

What do you do when you’re not reading or writing?

Mostly, I’m either at my day job for 9 or 10 hours a day, or spending time with my family and friends. And movies and television. I’d like to say I set a good example of running five miles a day or something, but sadly, I’m still working on that. Ack.

What can your fans look forward to next?

Hm, in 2007 we should see the release of the new Athena Force book, Trust, from Silhouette, and the second book of the Morganville Vampires, The Dead Girls’ Dance, from NAL/JAM. Also, of course, the sixth Weather Warden book, Thin Air. And I’ll have another short story in a new Charlaine Harris anthology called Many Bloody Returns. I’m still working on proposals, so there may be some new developments coming later this year.

Cynsational Link

Gothic Fantasy and Suspense for Teens and Tweens from my website.

Cynsational News & Links

Spine-tingling Halloween Treats: reviews by Deborah Hopkinson from BookPage. Highlighted titles include: What Are You Afraid Of? Stories about Phobias, edited by Donald R. Gallo (Candlewick, 2006)(excerpt); Scary Stories by Barry Moser (Chronicle, 2006); and All Hallow’s Eve by Vivian Vande Velde (Harcourt, 2006)(excerpt). Read a Cynsations interview with Deborah Hopkinson.

Check out all the great, new teacher guides at Tracie Vaughn Zimmer’s site. New guides include River Friendly, River Wild by Jane Kurtz, illustrated by Neil Brennan; 101 Ways to Bug Your Parents by Lee Wardlaw; Hugging the Rock by Susan Taylor Brown; The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan; Tofu and T. rex by Greg Leitich Smith; Vive La Paris by Esme Raji Codell; and Blind Faith by Ellen Wittlinger.

What else you should be reading this month: All Hallows Eve: 13 Stories by Vivian Vande Velde (Harcourt, 2006). Or, in other words, “Thirteen tales of Halloween horrors, including ghosts, vampires, and pranks gone awry.”

The YA Authors Cafe Chat on October 10 will have a supernatural theme in honor of Halloween. Guest host Marlene Perez (author of the forthcoming Dead Is The New Black) will interview Melissa de la Cruz, author of Blue Bloods, and Bev Katz Rosenbaum, author of I Was a Teenaged Popsicle (Berkley, 2006). The chats are held on Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m. EST, 7:30 CST, 5:30 Pacific. Go to www.yaauthorscafe.com and click the chatroom icon to enter the chat.

Cynsational News & Links

“You Better Watch Out!” a review by Kim Peek of Santa Knows by Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith, illustrated by Steve Bjorkman (Dutton, 2006). Find out why Kim calls it “a must-have for your Christmas collection!” Visit Kim at One Over-Caffeinated Mom.

“Educators Brainstorm Ways to Inject Culture in the Classroom” from the Billings Gazette. Article mentions my picture book, Jingle Dancer, illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu (Morrow, 2000):

Thanks to the Stettler Public Library in Alberta for recently recommending my tween novel, Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001). Thanks also to the Andover (CT) Public Library for adding my new picture book, Santa Knows, co-authored by Greg Leitich Smith, illustrated by Steve Bjorkman (Dutton, 2006) to its stock; see all the new books there. And finally, thanks to Lara Zeises for recommending my interview with author Laurie Faria Stolarz on Bleed (Hyperion, 2006).

More News & Links

Heather Brewer’s Blog has moved! She’s the author of The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod, a YA vampire series (Dutton, August 2007). See her recent post on How To Get An Agent 101.

BookSmart: Marketing Intervention for Books by Justina Chen Headley. Read a Cynsations interview with Justina.

Congratulations to the following authors on their October releases: Niki Burnham on Do-Over (Simon Pulse)(author interview); Dorian Cirrone on Lindy Blues: The Big Scoop (Marshall Cavendish)(author interview); Alex Flinn on Diva (HarperCollins)(author interview); and Terie Garrison on AutumnQuest (Book I of The DragonSpawn Cycle )(Flux, 2006).

Kathy Duval: official site of the author of The Three Bears’ Christmas (Holiday House, 2005) and The Three Bears’ Halloween (Holiday House, 2007). Kathy was born in Oklahoma. She grew up in Texas and makes her home in the Houston area. Note: site slow loading on dial-up.

Susan K. Mitchell: Children’s Author: official site from the author of Stone Pizza, illustrated by McNevin Hayes (The RGU Group, 2006) and The Rainforest Grew All Around, illustrated by Connie McLennan (Sylvan Dell, 2007). Susan is based in north Houston.

“On Publishing Purgatory” by Robin Friedman from Absolute Write. Robin explains: “I couldn’t apply for ‘unpublished writer’ contests or ‘unpublished writer’ grants or ‘unpublished writer’ conferences, because, technically, I did have one book published. At the same time, though, I had ZERO books in the pipeline. I was trapped in a kind of Publishing Purgatory–and I felt alone, ashamed, and lost.”

Author Answers Interview with Dianne Ochiltree by Debbi Michiko Florence. Don’t miss Dianne’s tips for writing in rhyme. See a recent Cynsations interview with Dianne.

Tanya Lee Stone…Between the Buns from Bookburger. Read a Cynsations interview with Tanya.