Author Interview: Varian Johnson on My Life as a Rhombus

Varian Johnson on Varian Johnson: “I was born in the thriving metropolis of Florence, South Carolina; in the late seventies. I had always enjoyed writing, but I gravitated toward math and science in middle and high school.

“While pursuing a B.S. in Civil Engineering at the University of Oklahoma, I started writing novels in my free time—not that I had much free time.

“The first novel I ever completed sits safely in a file cabinet in my home office. The second full novel I completed, A Red Polka Dot In A World Full of Plaid (Genesis Press), was published in 2005.

“A few months after I sold my second novel, My Life as a Rhombus (Flux/Llewellyn, 2008), I decided to go back to school to get my MFA in Creating Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

“So now I write books and design bridges and give workshops and write articles and go to school…and every once in a while I get around to seeing my wife and mowing my lawn.”

Read Varian’s blog, and visit him at MySpace!

What kind of young reader were you?

I was a voracious reader. Library visits were a big deal in my house–my brother and I would routinely fight over who would get to read certain books first. I remember being a big fan of Susan Cooper‘s The Dark is Rising Sequence (Simon Pulse, 2003).

However, I found that the books that really resonated with me were Judy Blume‘s novels, especially Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (Yearling, 1986) and Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself (Yearling, 1986).

As I grew older, I actively sought out books featuring African-American teens. Two novels that I fondly remember are Virginia Hamilton‘s Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush (Amistad, 1983) and Walter Dean Myers‘s Motown and Didi (Laurel Leaf, 1987).

What led to your decision to become a writer?

Well, I had always enjoyed writing, but it wasn’t until college that I really tried to write something for publication.

I had been a big fan of YA literature, but my work tended to waffle between YA and adult.

Then I read Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger (Simon & Schuster, 1999)(author interview), and I knew that YA was where I belonged. I wouldn’t be a YA author today if I hadn’t read that novel.

What about the young adult audience appeals to you?

Everything seems so immediate and fresh and awe-inspiring when you’re a teenager. The teen years are when most people are figuring out who and what they’re destined to be. It’s an age where the simplest things can cause the most spectacular results.

I love trying to capture those key things that define who we are. Looking back at my own teen years, I clearly remember certain people and events that had profound effects on who I am today. The teen years really are a time of wonder and enlightenment.

Could you tell us about your path to publication? Any sprints or stumbles along the way?

Sprints—no. Stumbles—yeah, a bunch. When I first tried to write, I didn’t know nearly enough about the craft or the industry, and what little research I did on becoming a writer was based mainly on adult publishing.

I tried writing mysteries, literary fiction, and science fiction for about two years before I finally found my voice in contemporary teen fiction.

Even then, my work teetered on the edge of YA and adult, mainly because at the time I had no idea what I was doing.

After I graduated from college, I moved to Dallas, and got involved with a few local writing groups. More importantly, I joined SCBWI and attended my first local and national conferences.

I worked on A Red Polka Dot for a few more years, and finally the manuscript landed me an agent. We sold the novel in 2002, but due to lags in the publication schedule, the novel wasn’t released until November 2005.

I was happy with the novel, but in my heart, I knew that I didn’t belong in the adult publishing industry. So after careful consideration, I cut my ties with my agent and publisher, and went about writing a true YA novel.

In Feb 2006, I landed my current agent, Sara Crowe (agent interview), and a few months later, she sold My Life as a Rhombus to Flux, Llewellyn’s new teen imprint. [Read a Cynsations interview with Flux editor Andrew Karre.]

Congratulations on the publication of My Life As a Rhombus (Flux, 2008)! Could you fill us in on the story?

When people ask me about the novel, I like to say that the novel is about friendship and forgiveness, but plot-wise, it’s about math tutor Rhonda Lee, and how through her friendship with Sarah and David Gamble, she slowly comes to terms with the abortion that her father encouraged her to have three years ago.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

Well, the novel was inspired by a lot of events, but the main premise of the novel was inspired by a friend that was mulling over the decision of whether or not to terminate her pregnancy. I wanted to be the best friend for her that I could, which meant I sometimes gave advice when it wasn’t warranted. Finally, she told me that there were just some problems that I couldn’t fix—this was her decision, and she would be the one that lived with the decision, not me. She reminded me that sometimes the best thing a friend could do was to just listen, which is exactly what I forced myself to do after that point.

A few months later, I found myself thinking about my friend’s situation, and I started to wonder what would have happened if she were younger, and if someone had forced that decision on her. After a few weeks of loose plotting and daydreaming, I had the nuts and bolts of the novel that would become My Life as a Rhombus.

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

Let’s see…I started the novel sometime in the summer of 2003. I had a great critique with Allyn Johnston (then with Harcourt, now with Simon & Schuster) at the 2003 SCBWI Summer Conference in LA. Based on her notes, I decided to re-write the entire novel.

I got married in November 2003, and the day after I got back from my honeymoon, I started on a fresh manuscript. I had numerous obligations that delayed my work on the novel—I took four months off to prepare for my state licensing exam in civil engineering, then I took another few months off to prepare for the Fall 2005 release of my first novel. I’d say that I finally completed a serviceable manuscript in November 2005.

I was really worried about getting the voice right, so in December 2005, I hired writing coach Esther Hershenhorn (author interview) to critique and edit the manuscript. In addition to making a lot of good suggestions, especially concerning plot issues and the incorporation of the “rhombus” theme in the manuscript, she gave me confidence and a much-needed shot in the arm.

I finished editing the manuscript and started sending it out, and within six months, I had a new agent and a sale.

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

For a long time, I struggled with whether or not I should tell this story. Finally, I decided that if I was going to do it, I was going to be as accurate as possible. I conducted phone interviews with women’s clinics, consulted state laws concerning abortion rights, and read as much as I could on both pro and anti-abortion positions. Sometimes I still worry if I got everything right, but so far, reaction to the novel has been pretty positive.

Your previous novel, A Red Polka Dot in a World Full of Plaid (Genesis Press/Black Coral, 2005) was published for adults. Could you tell us about it?

A Red Polka Dot In A World Full of Plaid is a coming-of-age story about a girl that finds out her father is alive, after believing that he was dead for most of her life. She rushes cross-country from her home in South Carolina to Oklahoma, where she finds a man that is nothing like she expected. However, she decides to stay in order to get to know him, and in the process, she learns a lot about herself and her view of the world.

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were a beginning writer, what advice would you offer?

I would tell myself to calm down and to enjoy the ride. I would also encourage myself to really study the craft of writing. Lastly, I would encourage myself to surround myself with other writers that really understood writing for children and young adults.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

I work at an engineering firm where I design bridges and other transportation-related structures. If you live in Dallas or Austin, you’ve probably driven over one of the bridges that I designed.

How do you balance your life as a writer with the responsibilities (speaking, promotion, etc.) of being an author?

I don’t.

Seriously, I’ve yet to find a good balance between writing and everything else. When I’m really passionate about a novel in progress, I tend to ignore everything else about the business. When I’m stuck on a novel, I throw myself into promotion.

So far, it seems to have worked out pretty well, but my goal for this year is to have a more organized plan—or rather, a plan in general—for juggling all of my writer responsibilities.

What can your readers look forward to next?

Stephanie Lane at Delacorte just acquired my latest novel. It’s tentatively called The Path of the Righteous, and it’s a coming of age story about a preacher’s kid set in South Carolina. And this time, the main character is a boy!

New Interviews: Cynthia Leitich Smith; Join Me at the ALAN Chat Tonight

Please join me in chatting live about Tantalize at The ALAN Book Chat tonight–July 30th at 9 p.m. Eastern, 8 p.m. Central.

I’ll cross fingers and fangs that I “see” you there! Note: You do not have to be a member of ALAN to join the online Book Chat.

Author Interview: Cynthia Leitich Smith from Jaden Nation at the underground[unrest]. Peek: “I try to pick music that suits the book I’m writing. Tantalize [Candlewick, 2007 2008] was written to a lot of Eartha Kitt, a lot of Willie Nelson, Los Lonely Boys, and the soundtrack to ‘Frances Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.’ Eternal [Candlewick, March 2009] was written to, again, the ‘Dracula’ soundtrack as well as to Johnny Cash, a bit of swing, and the soundtrack for ‘The Blues Brothers.’

Cynthia Leitich Smith on Writing Horror/Fantasy: a Poised at the Edge Author Interview by Melissa from Hello Ma’am. Peek: “What new voices in horror would you recommend to your readers?” Find out which of the many spectacular speculative fiction authors I highlight, (sorry I couldn’t list them all!) and check out my tip for writing horror.

Cynsational Notes

Shooting Stars Mag offers Tantalize giveaway contest! Deadline: Aug. 1 at midnight EST! See also Genre of July — Vampires at Genre of the Month.

Author Interview: Monica Roe on Thaw

“Monica Roe works as a traveling physical therapist. Originally from the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, she now works here and there around the country.

“She spent last winter in the northwoods of Wisconsin, learning to build wooden furniture and being educated about the finer points of Packers football.

“Last month, she moved to Nome, Alaska, where she just saw the finish of the Iditarod dogsled race. She currently kills and eats one king crab every week and tries to stay warm while she waits for the halibut fishing to get good….”

How would you describe yourself as a teenager?

I was an observer. I spent a lot of time watching the interactions between people around me and wondering about what motivated them. I always chose the company of a few good friends over a lot of casual acquaintances.

I had the good fortune to grow up in a beautiful, rural part of New York state, and the outdoors was always right in my backyard. As a teenager, it wasn’t uncommon for me to take a book and a blanket out to our field and spend an afternoon reading on top of a hay bale.

Could you tell us about your apprenticeship as a writer? What helped you the most? What might you do differently, given the opportunity?

Well, I started scribbling stories almost as soon as I learned how to write, though I wouldn’t exactly describe my early efforts as good! Several middle- and high-school English teachers encouraged me to pursue writing further. I was a biology/pre-med major as an undergraduate, with a dual minor in chemistry and English writing.

Looking back, I’m really glad to have had the chance to pursue coursework in both science and the arts, because I think it made me more well-rounded, both as a person and as an author.

Also, the years of science coursework (seven so far, and I’m still not quite finished) have given me a pretty strong work ethic that I’ve found very helpful as a writer, especially when I’m stuck in the middle of a manuscript and it feels as though there’s no end in sight.

Could you tell us about your path to publication? Any sprints or stumbles along the way?

I started submitting short stories to children’s and young adult magazines in college and collected a pretty impressive stack of rejection letters. Now I wish I’d saved them all so I could show them to people who tell me that they’d like to write but are afraid of rejection! I think I sold my first short story when I was about 24, then a few more in the three years after that.

I was very, very, lucky when it came to getting Thaw published. It ended up being bought by the first house I submitted to, which was absolutely fantastic.

Congratulations on the release of your debut novel, Thaw (Front Street, 2008)! Could you tell us a bit about it?

Sure. The book centers around a character who believes in natural selection over interdependence, self-reliance over human interaction. He’s never had to deal with imperfection in himself, so he has very little tolerance for it in others, which is apparent in his method of dealing with the people in his life, particularly the ones who care about him.

Of course, he ends up forced into a situation where he loses control over most areas of his life and, therefore, has to rethink his isolationist views regarding himself, others, and the world around him.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

As a physical therapist, I often work with people who are trying to rebuild themselves. Usually that means physically, but how we define ourselves as people is often very much tied together with our physical abilities.

I was interested in writing about a character who would have very little tolerance for sub-optimal performance–particularly from himself–and how that would affect how well he would do in a rehabilitation setting.

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

The initial idea for the book occurred to me early in 2004, during my last clinical rotation of PT school. I spent about two months just outlining, then maybe a year writing the initial draft.

After that I think I took around six months to revise (that’s actually my favorite part of the whole process–I can’t stand first drafts!).

Front Street bought the manuscript in the summer of 2006, which started another round of revisions between myself and my editor.

Without giving too much away, how did you frame the psychology of your main characters? Do you do a lot of pre-writing?

When I created Dane (my main character), I wanted to form a character who was initially not at all user-friendly. I believe that an early reader referred to him as an “anti-hero,” which is about right. He’s one of those individuals who is smart and skilled at almost anything he tries, but he’s lacking a certain humanity, especially in terms of empathy for other people (or for himself, for that matter). Yet he’s very dynamic and draws people to him, even though he doesn’t really treat them very well.

I chose to write a character like Dane because I’m interested in people who shy away from close human relationships–interested in what motivates them to choose absolute self-reliance over friendships. Is the choice a matter of conscious preference, or are they driven by other factors beyond their control? And do their choices make them happy, or merely keep them safe? Those were some of the questions I explored with Dane.

Yes, I prewrite. A lot.

Do you outline first? Do you just begin writing and see where it goes? Or, put another way, are you a plotter or a plunger and why?

Definitely a plotter. I do a huge amount of outlining before I try to write any prose. I learned this one the hard way–I once ended up scrapping almost 150 pages of a novel I’d spent a year working on (ouch!) because I’d tried to just jump in and start writing without doing any outlining beforehand. I know that some very successful writers are able to plunge right in and I admire them for that, but I, unfortunately, don’t seem to have that talent. Too left-brained, I suppose.

It also seems to work better for me if I spend a lot of time mulling over characters in my head before starting to write about them. If I try to get them down on paper too quickly, their voices don’t really feel distinct or authentic to me.

It seems that a common challenge among writers is fighting their instinct to protect your characters. After all, the bigger the obstacle, the stronger the conflict and, often, the protagonist’s growth. Did you ever have to push yourself to push the characters? How did you deal with these dynamics? Or were they an issue at all?

My protagonist wasn’t exactly the most likable character at the outset of the story. In this case, therefore, my biggest challenge was trying to make him sufficiently engaging for an audience to even care enough to stick with him through the book, even if they thought he was a jerk.

That said, it was actually a lot of fun to try and develop Dane into a character capable of personal growth, and to change him (believably) enough to elicit empathy from an audience.

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were beginning writer, what advice would you offer?

When I was younger, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to be a writer since I’d chosen not to major in English. Looking back, I’d tell myself to relax and just write about the things I know and love.

What advice do you have for YA novelists?

Find at least one writing friend to partner with. Even if you don’t write the same type of things, you can help keep each other motivated, offer an outside pair of eyes, and get each other through the times when you’re blocked or frustrated (if you’re anything like me, you will have those times in abundance).

Do you work within a community of writers (a critique or workshop group), with an editorial agent, or solo before submitting to a publisher? Why? What are the benefits to you?

My most solid writing partner is my friend Tessa. She and I don’t write in the same genre, but we trade manuscripts back and forth and critique one another pretty regularly.

The greatest thing about working with one of your best friends is that you can expect (and give) brutal honesty and nobody’s feelings are hurt. I know that the criticism she offers will only make my work better, and vice versa.

I also have a wonderful teacher who’s been immeasurably helpful to me as a writer, and I bounce a lot of things off her when I’m in the middle of a project.

What do you do when you’re not in the book world?

I travel a lot for my job, so I always enjoy seeing new places. I do make it a point to get back to New York every few months to spend some time with my wonderful family. Visiting my closest friends is also very important to me–they’re spread out across the country (the world, in some cases), but I try to see all of them at least every year or so.

Outdoors, I love to canoe, fish, hike, camp, snowshoe, and cross-country ski. I’ve also gotten pretty good at growing portable vegetable gardens (tomatoes in pots, peas in hanging baskets–that sort of thing). I live at at least part of each year in Alaska, which is an absolute playground for the types of outdoor things that I love to do.

Indoors, I enjoy woodworking, cooking, and lounging in front of the fireplace with a good book or movie.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I’m working on a novel that revisits a few characters from Thaw a couple of years down the road. I wouldn’t exactly call it a sequel, but I think it’ll address a few ends that were left hanging at the end of the first book.

The Green Earth Book Award: 2009 Call for Entries, 2008 Winners

Nominations are now being accepted for the Newton Marasco Foundation’s 2009 Green Earth Book Award!

NMF created the Green Earth Book Award in conjunction with Salisbury University to promote books that inspire children to grow a deeper appreciation, respect, and responsibility for their natural environment.

This is an annual award started in 2005 for books that best raise awareness of the beauty of our natural world and the responsibility that we have to protect it. In 2009, the Green Earth Book Award will be awarded in four categories:

Picture Book: for books for children from pre-school to age 8 where the pictures and illustrations are as important as the text

Children’s Fiction: encompasses novels for young readers up to age 12

Young Adult Fiction: includes books for readers from age 13 to 21

Nonfiction: includes books for readers from infancy to age 21

See eligibility requirements, award criteria, nomination instructions, and schedule here.

Cynsational Notes

The 2008 winners were:

in the children’s fiction category: Winston of Churchill: One Bear’s Battle Against Global Warming by Jean Davies Okimoto, illustrated by Jeremiah Trammell (Sasquatch Books);

in the young adult fiction category: The Light-Bearer’s Daughter by O. R. Melling (Abrams);

in the non-fiction category: The Down to Earth Guide to Global Warming by Laurie David and Cambria Gordon (Scholastic).

The honor books were: Adventures of Riley: Polar Bear Puzzle by Amanda Lumry and Laura Hurwitz (Eaglemont Press); An Inconvenient Truth: The Crisis of Global Warming by Al Gore, adapted by Jane O’Connor (Viking); On Meadowview Street by Henry Cole (Greenwillow); Secrets of the Sirens by Julia Golding (Marshall Cavendish); and The Sorta Sisters by Adrian Fogelin (Peachtree).

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Enter to win one of two autographed copies of The Very Ordered Existence of Merilee Marvelous by Suzanne Crowley (Greenwillow, 2007)! Note: they also include dragons drawn by Caitlin, the author’s daughter to whom the book is dedicated.

To enter the giveaway, email me (scroll for address) with your name and snail/street mail address by 10 p.m. CST July 28! One copy will go to a teacher, librarian, or university professor of youth literature (please indicate), and the other will go to any Cynsational reader. Please also type “VOE” in the subject line. Read a Cynsations interview with Suzanne.

Additional giveaways are ongoing! See below for more information! Note: international entries are eligible.

More News & Links

Here’s YA author John Green. Favorite quote: “…if anyone is thinking of dropping out of college, get thee to the Steak ‘n Shake.” Source: HipWriterMama. Read a Cynsations interview with John.

Young Adult Author Neesha Meminger: official author site features an About Me page with short and long biographies, a Contests page, Fun Stuff, links, etc. Meminger’s debut novel, Shine, Coconut Moon is due for release March 2009 from Margaret K. McElderry Books (Simon & Schuster). From the promotional copy: “Samar–a.k.a. Sam–is an Indian-American teenager whose mom has kept her away from her old-fashioned family. It’s never bothered Sam, who is busy with school, friends, and a demanding boyfriend. But things change after 9/11. A guy in a turban shows up at Sam’s house–and turns out to be her uncle. He wants to reconcile the family and teach Sam about her Sikh heritage. Sam is eager, but when boys attack her uncle, chanting ‘Go back home, Osama!,’ Sam realizes she could be in danger–and also discovers how dangerous ignorance is.” See also Needsha’s LiveJournal,Word (f)Light: (Self)Discovery Through Wordplay.

The Horn Book Podcast page is a must-visit-and-listen online destination. In the latest installment “Beach Bag Books,” “Roger Sutton and Martha Parravano talk with Kitty Flynn about twelve great new books for summer.” Read a Cynsations interview with Roger.

State Awards for Children’s and Young Adult Books: Links to U.S. Readers’-Choice & Other-Criteria Awards, by state from Cynthia Leitich Smith Children’s Literature Resources. Note: this is hands-down the most difficult page on the site to keep current. If you know of new awards or URLs, please (scroll to) email me. See also U.S. National and Canadian Awards for Children’s and YA Literature.

Cover Girls by Rebecca Bengal from Print Magazine. Peek: “Publishers face a conundrum: The high literary value of the best of these books aside, how can they help a YA novel speak to the latest group of teen readers, across generations, cultural shifts, and trends?” Source: A Chair, A Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy. Note: I can’t get the ad at the top to close, but you should be able to just scroll for the article.

Negotiations by Libby Koponen at the Blue Rose Girls. Peek: “… when one person does a job for less than she deserves, it makes things harder for everyone else.”

I enjoyed “What Good Is the Big, Bad Wolf? This Predator Helps Its Habitat. by Linda Zajac on pgs. 6-7 of the July 2008 issue of Highlights for Children. It also was a treat to check out the question-and-answer with Austin’s own Dr. Brian Anderson. Shana from Illinois asked Brian, “How do mood rings know when to change? Read a Cynsations interview with Brian.

Is Kazuo Ishiguro a Hyphenated Writer? by Mitali Perkins from Mitali’s Fire Escape. Peek: “I’ve also marveled that as an Asian-born immigrant writer, Ishiguro has managed to escape being classified as such. Are Brit writers given more freedom than Americans to create protagonists of many ethnicities, I’ve wondered?” Read a Cynsations interview with Mitali.

“I’m Y.A., and I’m O.K.” by Margo Rabb from The New York Times. Peek: “One morning in the dining room, another writer asked who was publishing my book; I told her that it was Random House, and that it was being published as young adult. ‘Oh, God,’ she said. ‘That’s such a shame.'” See also interview outtakes at Books, Chocolates, Sundries: the blog of Margo Rabb.

“YA Stigma” by Justine Larbalestier; peek: “Here in the U.S., I run into adults who read lots of YA all the time. In fact, the majority of my fan mail comes from adults. The ‘stigma’ of being published as YA does not seem to be stopping them from reading my books. The same does not seem to be true in the U.K. or Australia for that matter.” Read a Cynsations interview with Justine.

Query Trends: I’m Seeing Triple from Nathan Bransford – Literary Agent. Peek: “The third category is a bit more inexplicable and tantalizing. And this is the ‘simultaneous thought’ type of query that doesn’t necessarily have a root in a popular book, but nevertheless keeps showing up again and again.” Read a Cynsations interview with Nathan.

Happy 50th to Susan Taylor Brown at Susan Writes! Susan has a request for us all. Peek: “…would you please help me celebrate my birthday by sharing a special memory with me? It doesn’t have to be long.” Read a Cynsations interview with Susan.

“Don’t Call It a Comeback” a Vermont College of Fine Arts residency report from author (and third-semester student) Varian Johnson. Peek: “I just got back from my latest Vermont College Residency, as like always, I riddled with a mix of joy at being back at home, and at sadness for leaving such a magical place.” Notes: (1) Rita Williams-Garcia fans, don’t miss the pic of her with Varian; (2) congratulations to Varian on winning the alumni award!

Gang of Erin 2008 Retreat from Anne Broyles Blog. Peek: “I’ve just spent a glorious, rejuvenating weekend retreat with my literary agent, Erin Murphy, and nine of her other clients (only one of whom I have met before). We came from eight states to the Rolling Ridge Retreat and Conference Center in Massachusetts to hang out, discuss writing projects, and focus on building a writing career, school visits, and online/other marketing techniques.” See also Chris Barton’s report at Bartography. Read a Cynsations interview with Erin.

Questions to Ask About a Story: Do the illustrations or cover art make the characters seem either more or less foreign than the story? from Mitali Perkins at Mitali’s Fire Escape. Peek: “Why did the publisher feel they had to make her look more Japanese than American, especially when a girl in jeans behind barbed wire would be more historically accurate and powerful?” Read a Cynsations interview with Mitali.

Interview with Jen Robinson by Marjorie Coughlan at Papertigers. Peek: “I spread myself too thin so last year I made a decision to cut back on some of these outside activities, and focus on the things that I’m most passionate about: my core mission, if you will, which is helping parents and teachers and librarians to help kids to love books.” Source: Mitali’s Fire Escape.

Conference Survival Tips from Shrinking Violet Promotions. Peek: “Plan some down time into your conference schedule. Yes, you’ll be tempted to squeeze everything in, but then you run the risk of short-circuiting.”

Interview: Claudia Gray from Teen Libris. Peek: “I used to live in New Orleans, so I learned a lot about the city’s history then. That history inspired Patrice’s character, more as who she was when she was still alive than as the vampire she became.” Note: Win a copy of Immortal: Love Stories with Bite edited by P. C. Cast (BenBella, Aug. 2008)(PDF excerpt)(exclusive to Borders) from Teen Libris! Deadline: July 31.

Cold Hard Facts About the Writing Life and More Financial Truth by Laurie Halse Anderson from Mad Woman in the Forest. Peek: “…your take-home pay is around $12,5000…. for a year’s worth of work. And remember: it’s an advance against your royalties. Your book has to sell around 10,000 copies to pay your publisher back. (…the average middle grade or YA novel in America sells 5000 copies a year…).”

“Hellooooo? Anyone there????” by author-editor Lisa Graff at The Longstockings. Peek: “What is the proper protocol when you query an editor, they request the manuscript, months go by, you send a status, and still more months go by? Do you chalk it up or still hold out hope? Do you try and contact that editor again? I have this same problem with the same manuscript with at least four different publishers. Any suggestions?”

One Writer’s Process: Linda Urban from Bruce Black at Wordswimmer. Peek: “‘Guidebooks have their place,’ Urban warns, ‘but if you’re at all like me, thinking about the writing is fatal to writing a first draft of a story.'”

My Own Soapbox Moment: Depicting Class in Contemporary Lit from Chasing Ray. Peek: “Why do writers continue to write above the means of the average American kid, and why do kids continue to want to read them?”

Interview with Brooke Taylor from In Bed with Books. Peek: “I think it is unrealistic to have a book or movie where the character only has to get their one big issue under control and then life will be perfect. It’s never that simple.” See also And Another Awesome Author Visit: Brooke Taylor from And Another Book Read.

Vintage Kids’ Books My Kid Loves: “I write about obsessively seeking children’s books of old from thrift shops, library sales, book stores, online and elsewhere to share with my son.” Source:

Linda Joy Singleton Book Spotlight and Author Interview from Zensanity. Peek: “I stopped writing from about age 17 to 27, gaining experiences of love, marriage, family. Then I reclaimed my writing dreams, joined a writing group, critique group, worked very hard, and sold my first book at age 30.” Read a Cynsations interview with Linda Joy Singleton.

Niki Grimes Talks About Promotion from Laura Purdie Salas at Writing the World for Kids. Peek: “I psych myself up for it. I was not gonna not write. So the question became, How do I make a living at it?”

Agent Questions/Agent Answers from Ask Allison. Peek: “here are some questions off the top of my head that I think are perfectly valid (and good) issues to be raised once you’ve received an offer of representation…” See also Putting Your Agent To Work. Note: Ask Allison is: “The place to post questions and find answers on all of your too-afraid-to-ask concerns, hesitancies and worries about breaking into the publishing field.”

Harry Potter fans pay £1,000 a night to stay in hotel room where JK Rowling finished series by Simon Johnson from The Telegram. Peek: “Despite living in Edinburgh, Miss Rowling, 42, checked into room 552 at the city’s Balmoral Hotel to complete the series in January last year.” Source: Bookshelves of Doom.

Welcome to the kidlitosphere, Plot This: Two small town southern gals discuss their quest for fame and fortune. No, we really just chat about writing books for children, and screenplays for bigger kids, namely us. AKA Sarah and Katie!

Jennifer Hunt: Little, Brown editor charts her own course by John A. Sellers. Peek: “So what’s it like for an editor to be at the National Book Award ceremony with two authors up for the same prize?”

Boy Books, Girl Books by Liz B at A Chair, A Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy. Peek: “But to turn all the research and good ideas by people like Sullivan, Smith and Wilhelm into ‘boys don’t read books about girls’ mindset is both simplistic and disrespectful to male and female readers.” Summer’s End Contest: enter to win “a Zelda Wii Game, autographed books by Holly Black, an autographed Spiderwick poster, a ‘Spiderwick’ movie poster, assorted goods from other authors, Bad Girls Club by Judy Gregerson, and a Macbook Tithe Case!” Enter here. Read a Cynsations interview with Holly.

Eye for a God’s Eye: The Bold Choice of the Omniscient Point of View in Fiction for Young Adults by Gwenda Bond at Shaken and Stirred (PDF file). Peek: “I’d love any thoughts and reactions, either here or via e-mail. I’d also say enjoy, but this is an academic paper we’re talking about here.” Note: this is Gwenda’s critical thesis for Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Books Lists: newly updated from Wired for Youth at the Austin Public Library. Categories include: African-American authors; fairy tales with a twist; fantasy; ghosts; GLBTQ; Hispanic Teen fiction; horror; humor; multicultural fiction; mysteries and thrillers; novels in verse; science fiction; Texas authors; vampires; werewolves and shapeshifters; biography; and much more! Note: avid readers, collection builders, and MFA students may want to bookmark.

Event Reminders

“The primary focus of ArmadilloCon is literary science fiction, but that’s not all we do — we also pay attention to art, animation, science, media, and gaming. Every year, dozens of professional writers, artists and editors attend the convention. We invite you to attend the convention especially if you are a fan of reading, writing, meeting, sighting, feeding, knighting, and all the other things folks do at a sci-f/fantasy convention.” Note: I’ll be on the program (not sure of the specifics yet), and I hope to see y’all there!

“Five Things To Consider When Plotting a Novel” with Helen Hemphill from Austin SCBWI on Aug. 16 at Barnes and Noble Westlake. “It’s thrilling to begin a new novel, but most writers know it’s the middle and the ending that can make or break a story. A great plot is both planned and discovered. This mini workshop will offer up practical strategies for plotting a middle grade or young adult novel and suggest five things you’ll want to consider as you plot your novel.” Helen is the author of the middle grade novel Runaround (2007) and the young adult novel Long Gone Daddy (2006), both published by Front Street. Her new novel, The Adventurous Deeds of Deadwood Jones (Front Street, 2008), will be published this fall. Helen holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College.

April Lurie will celebrate the release of her latest book, The Latent Powers of Dylan Fontaine (Delacorte, 2008), with a book signing from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Aug. 30 at the Barnes and Noble in Round Rock! Note: see you there!

Slumber Party @ Teen Fest: April Lurie (author interview), Jennifer Ziegler (author interview), and Cynthia Leitich Smith will join forces in a “lively, intimate discussion about books and writing for teen girls” at noon Aug. 2 at Carver Branch Library/Austin Public Library in Austin, Texas. The event will include a book signing, “games, snacks, beauty tips, and even a passionate reading contest. Pajamas and pillows optional!”

Warning: Only Two Non-Critique Spots Remain! Austin SCBWI‘s “A Day with an Editor” featuring Jill Santopolo, author and senior editor at Laura Geringer/HarperCollins, and author Cynthia Leitich Smith will be Sept. 13. Jill is interested in literary novels, quirky middle grades, and picture books. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College and is the author of Alec Flint, Super Sleuth: The Nina, The Pinta and the Vanishing Treasure (Scholastic/Orchard, 2008). Note: as of this past Wednesday (the 23th), there were only two non-critique spots left! This event will sell out before the early-bird deadline! If you’re interested, the time to commit is now!

SCBWI Houston is sponsoring a “Nuts and Bolts” Picture Book Writing Workshop taught by award-winning author, Kathi Appelt Sept. 6. The workshop will run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., lunch included. See details. Read a Cynsations interview with Kathi.

From BookPeople: author Eoin Colfer will be presenting his “hilarious one-man show” at 7 p.m. July 27 at St. Edward’s University in Austin. “During the show Eoin will give the audience a rare peek at the inspiration for the teenage criminal mastermind, Artemis Fowl.” Tickets are $25 and include a copy of Artemis Fowl: The Time Paradox (Hyperion, 2008). A signing will follow. Tickets are now available at BookPeople. Note: general admission tickets will be $8 the evening of the event at St. Edward’s (until sold out).

More Cynsational Giveaways

The Cynsations grand prize giveaways for July are two signed copies of Wake by Lisa McMann (Simon Pulse, 2008). To enter the giveaway, email me (scroll for address) with your name and snail/street mail address by 10 p.m. CST July 31! Please also type “Wake” in the subject line. Note: one autographed copy will be awarded to a YA public librarian (please specify library with entry) and one autographed copy will be awarded to any Cynsations YA reader.

Enter to win an autographed copy of A Thousand Never Evers by Shana Burg (Delacorte, 2008)! To enter the giveaway, email me (scroll for address) with your name and snail/street mail address by 10 p.m. CST July 28! Please also type “A Thousand Never Evers” in the subject line. Read Shana’s blog and a Cynsations interview with Shana. Visit Shana at MySpace!

Note: International entries are eligible for Cynsations giveaways unless otherwise specified.

The winners of the Tantalize paperback launch giveaway were: Alana at the James Blackstone Memorial Library in Connecticut; Jessica in Minnesota; Geena in Hawaii; and Stephanie in Florida! The winner of Australia-New Zealand giveaway was Sherryl in Australia! Note: the most popular T-shirt for teachers/librarians was Cell Phones will Be Eaten. The most popular T-shirt for those who’d already read the novel was I “Heart” Baby Squirrel, and the most popular among those who hadn’t read the novel yet was the Sanguini’s shirt with flowers.

Didn’t win? Enter one of the two ongoing Tantalize paperback (Candlewick, July 2008) giveaways! See below under “more personally”!

Attention: members of Tantalize Fans Unite! at MySpace! Enter to win a copy of Zombie Blondes by Brian James (Feiwel and Friends, 2008). Read a Cynsations interview with Brian.

Peek: “I wanted to write a horror novel that felt extremely real. So the main character Hannah isn’t unlike the characters of my previous books, which would fall into the realistic fiction genre. She’s a girl who moves around a lot and has trouble fitting in wherever she goes. The book deals with a lot of the normal problems of being in high school, but Hannah has the unfortunate luck to happen upon a school attended primarily by zombies who are very clever and devious when it comes to hiding themselves.”

All members of the group are eligible to win. Bonus points will go to those who make a comment on the boards between now and midnight Aug. 1.

Note: Don’t miss the Summer’s End contest (see above for details).

More Personally

Cynthia Leitich Smith on Writing Horror/Fantasy: a Poised at the Edge Author Interview from Hello Ma’am. Peek: “What new voices in horror would you recommend to your readers?” Find out which seven of the many spectacular speculative fiction authors I highlight, (sorry I couldn’t list them all!) and check out my tip for writing horror.

Thank you for the cheers on the sale of Blessed (Candlewick, TBA) and on the Tantalize paperback release! It was an honor to hear privately and in comments from so many folks, including TadMack at Finding Wonderland: The WritingYA Weblog. Note: the Tantalize paperback includes an excerpt of Eternal (Candlewick, March 2009).

On a related note, I’ll be chatting live about Tantalize at The ALAN Book Chat on Wednesday, July 30th at 9 p.m. Eastern, 8 p.m. Central.

The Book Girl Reviews: a Place for the Book Obsessed is sponsoring a giveaway of Tantalize by Cynthia Leitich Smith (Candlewick, 2007, 2008). Peek: “By midnight EST on Friday July 25th, you have to write a short summary of your favorite YA book and post it here.”

Shooting Stars Mag offers Tantalize giveaway contest! Deadline: Aug. 1 at midnight EST! See also Genre of July — Vampires at Genre of the Month.

Win a copy of Immortal: Love Stories with Bite edited by P. C. Cast (BenBella, Aug. 2008)(PDF excerpt)(exclusive to Borders) from Teen Libris! Deadline: July 31.

Even More Personally

I saw “Batman: The Dark Knight” Sunday morning at the Alamo Drafthouse Theater on South Lamar in Austin. It was reminiscent of the 1980s blockbuster scene. A line snaked out of the theater and into the Texas July heat for even the 12:20 a.m. show. Greg and I had arrived almost an hour early, and we still ended up in the last row (not that it mattered; every seat is a good one).

True to form, the Alamo Drafthouse, which is a restaurant-theater, served up a menu inspired by the film, which included: “Batwings: Fried wings in a dark and spicy sauce of reduced soy sauce, chile arbol, toasted sesame and ginger plum sauce for dippin’.”

I won’t offer spoilers, but I will say that Heath Ledger‘s performance is much more than just hype. I couldn’t even “see” the actor through the role. It was simply the Joker, which was of course scary as all get out. I wasn’t bothered by the “darkness,” possibly because my primary reference to Batman’s Gotham is through the comic books [I subscribe to all of them]. On the other hand, it did wear on me that every woman in the storyline was a victim of some kind. That aside, it’s an excellent film. Don’t miss “A Brief History of the Joker” from the LA Times.

We’re off to “The X-Files: I Want to Believe” this weekend.

And finally, Dracula meets IKEA… Source: Vampiress.

Author Interview: Liz Gallagher on The Opposite of Invisible

From the Class of 2k8: “Liz Gallagher grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia and was an English major at Penn State. She worked on the editorial staff of Highlights for Children. She is a graduate of the University of Denver Publishing Institute and the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Her home in Seattle is within chomping distance of the Fremont Troll.” Learn more here.

What kind of teenager were you?

I was the kind who has friends across different groups, but isn’t really part of any one clique. I loved to go bowling and shopping (still do!). I was New Kids on the Block‘s biggest fan. I played softball. I watched way too much TV, but now I think that experience prepped me for the pop-culture prowess that I enjoy today. I know that I read a lot as a kid and teenager, but I can’t remember exactly what I read except for Kurt Vonnegut, late in high school.

Could you tell us about your apprenticeship as a writer?

I’ve been so lucky. I’d have to say that my apprenticeship started with my amazing kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Niccolo; she taught me to love writing. At Penn State, I took three fiction workshops with the same professor; that’s the point at which I started reading like a writer. Later, I worked at Highlights for Children as part of the editorial team; reading submissions helped me think more critically about writing. Then, I went to Vermont College and got to work with Lisa Jahn-Clough, Ron Koertge, M.T. Anderson (author interview), some lady named Cynthia Leitich Smith, and the rest of the faculty there; that’s where I gained the power to believe in myself as a writer.

I had the honor of being one of your advisors at the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Why did you decide to get an MFA? How would you describe the experience?

And I had the honor of being one of your students! I thought, correctly, that being in an MFA program would give me permission–in my own mind–to prioritize writing. I wanted the structure and the feedback.

I was led to Vermont after falling head over heels for Feed (Candlewick, 2004) by M. T. Anderson and finding out that he was faculty head at Vermont. Then it seemed as if every book I was reading and enjoying was written by a faculty member or grad of the program, so it was a no-brainer to apply.

I would describe the experience as school that doesn’t feel like school because it’s so much fun and you get to read and talk about reading and write and talk about writing. I learned from all of the faculty and from many of the other students, and I grew so much as a writer.

Could you tell us about your path to publication? Any sprints or stumbles along the way?

It wasn’t very stumbly, actually. I think I managed to meet great mentors along the way, so that when I was ready to submit my manuscript, it went smoothly. Lara Zeises (author interview) has become a close friend and she’s the one who guided me through the submission process.

We’re both students of Lisa’s (me at Vermont; Lara at Emerson). Toward the end of my time at Vermont, I started submitting to agents. Rosemary Stimola (agent interview) signed me right before graduation, and I think it only took her two weeks to sell Opposite to Wendy Lamb [Wendy Lamb Books at Random House]; I’d call that a sprint.

Congratulations on the release of your debut novel, The Opposite of Invisible (Wendy Lamb, 2008)! Could you tell us a bit about it?

Thank you! I wrote most of it during the Vermont program. It’s set in Seattle–I live here and it’s my love letter to the city. It’s about a fifteen-year-old girl, Alice, who’s coming out of the cocoon she’s (metaphorically) lived in with her best friend, an artist boy named Jewel. Her world is getting bigger as she makes new friends and tries new directions in art. She’s figuring out the difference between a crush and love, and love and best friendship.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

I love Halloween time and wanted to set a story then. While walking past a big junk shop in Fremont (the neighborhood of the book, and the one where I live now, though I didn’t at the time), I realized that it was the perfect setting for a Halloween story. The original first line–“It all started with this dress.”–came to me on the page, and I just kept going.

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

I started writing this story as a short story for my first Vermont workshop, so that means I started writing in the late fall/early winter of 2005. It was published in January 2008.

The whole ride seems like a major event! Having feedback from Lisa, Ron, Tobin, and then you, Cyn, was always amazing. My first rejection from an agent, over the phone, was a major event; it was disappointing but I knew that even getting a phone call was a big step forward.

Once sold, I’ve loved attending ALA conferences and meeting librarians. I’ve also enjoyed meeting lots of Seattle’s booksellers. And I became a member of The Class of 2k8 (co-presidents’ interview)–I get to celebrate 27 releases this year, not just my own!

Actually, seeing Vermont friends’ books come out while waiting on my own — especially Sarah Aronson‘s Head Case (Roaring Brook, 2007)(author interview) and Carrie Jones‘ (Flux, 2007)(Tips on Having a Gay (Ex) Boyfriend (Flux, 2007)(author interview) and Love (and Other Uses for Duct Tape)(Flux, 2008), and Zu Vincent‘s The Lucky Place (Front Street, 2008)–has been so wonderful.

Early on, Vermont grad Andy Auseon was a big role model for me. I love his Funny Little Monkey (Harcourt, 2005), and I think he has another one coming out soon [Jo-Jo and the Fiendish Lot (HarperCollins, 2009)].

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

A lot of my roadblocks are psychological. I’m the type of writer who can type and type but not be sure what I’m saying. I need someone who I trust to reflect it back to me–to say, this is what you’ve got on the page. I’m much more talented with character and voice than I am with plot. So it takes a lot for me to feel as if I’ve succeeded in making something happen in the narrative and seem like it isn’t too mechanical or forced.

Logistically, having deadlines for Vermont really helped me. The whole “butt-in-chair” thing can be hard for me when I’m only beholden to myself.

What has surprised you most about being a published author?

That I’m still just me! I honestly forget that I’m a published author sometimes. It’s a dream come true and I love it and I’m proud, but on a day to day basis, I’m just Liz. I don’t feel any different–which I see as proof that a writer is a writer, published or not.

It also surprises me how often people who aren’t in the YA book world ask why I write for teenagers, as opposed to adults.

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were beginning writer, what advice would you offer?

Read a lot across genres. Read constantly! Keep a notebook for ideas that hit you add odd times. I still need to start on the notebook one.

What do you do when you’re not in the book world?

I used to work at a Montessori school. For the past year, I’ve been freelancing for magazines (mostly Seattle magazine) and a web site called Red Tricycle. I also worked on writing with seventh graders this year through Seattle Arts and Lectures’ Writers in the Schools program. Now, I have a full-time job as a product copywriter, writing about shoes all day. I still write and edit for Red Tricycle. I watch a lot of reality TV, ride my Vespa, go out to brunch, read, and hang out in coffee shops. Sometimes, I knit.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I’m working on a companion to Opposite. Then I hope to get back to work on the manuscript that I started during our semester together, Cyn. It’s the story of a girl who’s dealing with the tragic death of her best friend, an artist who pushed everything to the edge until he fell off.

Cynsational Notes

Visit Liz Gallagher’s official site, read her LJ, and visit Liz at MySpace!

Goal Setting, Time Management, Tongue Tattoos, and ALAN Chat

Miriam Hees, publisher of Blooming Tree Press, debut author P. J. Hoover, and her editor Madeline Smoot show off the cover to P. J.’s upcoming novel The Emerald Tablet (Blooming Tree, October 2008).

P. J. spoke last Saturday to a full house at Austin SCBWI‘s monthly meeting. Her topic was “Create Your Own Future with Goals and Time Management.”

P. J. emphasized identifying goals, focusing on goals, implementing steps to achieve them, and making the most out of your time.

What I appreciated most about her presentation was the personal-responsibility theme. She emphasized owning what you can do to facilitate your success, both professionally and more broadly as a well-rounded person. Of course we have important partners–critique groups, agents, publishers, booksellers, teachers, and librarians–but as youth literature creators, ultimately we are accountable to our art and our readers.

She also cheered the power of positive thinking. That got me thinking…

Over the years, I’ve met a lot of folks in the youth writing community, and hands-down, those who were forward-thinking, upbeat, and had the strongest, most cheerful work ethic have been the most successful by any measure.

I also must mention P. J.’s innovative book giveaway, a Fruit Roll up that creates a tongue-tattoo. What will authors think of next? Note: the tattoos were both effective and tasty.

Don’t miss: P. J.’s report, I’m Ready to Set My Goals; Carmen Oliver‘s report, Goal Setting and Time Management; and Alison Dellenbaugh’s report Time management, tongue tattoos, and video. Check out Roots in Myth, P. J.’s blog. Read a Cynsations interview with Miriam.

In other news, author Lila Guzman is celebrating the release of George Lopez: Latino King of Comedy (Enslow, 2008)! Read a Cynsations interview with Lila.

As usual, it was a great turn out for the meeting. Local luminaries included authors Brian Anderson, Anne Bustard, Jane Ann Peddicord, and author-illustrator Mark G. Mitchell.

I’d like to send out a special welcome to first-timer LaShun Gaines! (I hope to see you again soon!).

More Personally

The ALAN Book Chat is pleased to feature Cynthia Leitich Smith and her novel Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007)[now available in paperback, 2008] in the July book chat.

“The live chat to discuss Tantalize will be held at 9 p.m. Eastern, 8 p.m. Central on July 23. The live chat with Cynthia Leitich Smith will be held one week later, July 30th at 9 p.m. Eastern, 8 p.m. Central.

“You do not have to be a member of ALAN to participate in the Book Chat. To join the conversation, click on this link. ” Check out the readers’ guide to Tantalize.

New Sale: Blessed to Follow Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Tantalize and Eternal

Tantalize Now Available in Paperback from Candlewick Press

I’m thrilled to announce that Candlewick Press will be publishing Blessed by Cynthia Leitich Smith!

The young adult prose novel will set be in the same universe as Tantalize (Candlewick, 2007, 2008) and Eternal (Candlewick, 2009).

The books are interconnected Gothic fantasy suspense novels with strong romantic elements and some humor.

For context, Deborah Noyes in the forward to Gothic: Ten Original Dark Tales (Candlewick, 2004)(author interview) writes: “…think of Gothic as a room within the larger house of horror. Its decor is distinctive. It insists on the burden of the past. It also gleefully turns our ideas of good and evil on end.”

I’ve been informally referring to these books as a “loose trilogy” or “books in a universe.”

The overarching story was inspired by Bram Stoker‘s Dracula (1897). I’m a big believer in “the conversation between books,” and interested readers may want to reread Stoker’s classic before Eternal.

The main characters in Tantalize and Eternal are different. However, members of both casts will come together for Blessed, which will pick up at the fictional vampire restaurant, Sanguini’s.

Status Check

Tantalize is now available in hardcover and–as of today–in paperback (see sources below)! The paperback includes a short excerpt of Eternal at the back of the book.

In addition, a graphic-novel adaptation of Tantalize is in the works. It will be retold with new scenes from the character Kieren’s point of view. No word yet on an illustrator yet, but I’ll keep you posted.

Eternal is in the midst of production. Eternal is told in alternating point of view by male and female leads.

Blessed is in progress and under contract.

Between books, you can check out my related short stories: “Haunted Love” from Immortal: Love Stories with Bite, edited by P. C. Cast (BenBella, August 2008)(exclusive to Borders); and “Cat Calls” from Cabinet of Curiosities, edited by Deborah Noyes (Candlewick, 2009). Note: both stories feature new characters.


In the U.S. and Canada, Tantalize is available in prose from Candlewick Press and on audio from Listening Library. You also can order the book in hardcover from Walker Books Australia and New Zealand (it looks like the company will be carrying a paperback edition in 2009). In addition, the novel will be released by Walker U.K. this fall, and more overseas editions are pending–I’m just waiting for the final paperwork to announce another one.


The Book Girl Reviews: a Place for the Book Obsessed is sponsoring a giveaway of Tantalize. Peek: “By midnight EST on Friday July 25th, you have to write a short summary of your favorite YA book and post it here.”

Teen Libris is sponsoring a giveaway of Immortal: Love Stories with Bite. Learn more here!

And I’m giving away three signed copies of Tantalize in paperback, each with a Sanguini’s T-shirt of the winner’s choice!

In addition to the popular Sanguini’s logo shirts, Gene Brenek has created the all-new “I ‘heart’ Baby Squirrel” shirt; the “Cell Phones Will Be Eaten” shirt; the “Drop In for a Late Night Bite” shirt; and both a birds-theme and a dragon-theme “predator or prey” shirt. Note: I don’t make any money off the sale of the shirts.

To enter the Tantalize paperback and Sanguini’s T-shirt giveaway, email me (scroll for address) with your name, snail/street mail address, and preferred T-shirt design by midnight CST July 22! Please also type “Tantalize Paperback and Sanguini’s T-shirt” in the subject line.

One prize will be awarded to a YA teacher or librarian (please specify school/library with entry; university professors are eligible) and two prizes will be awarded to any Cynsations YA readers.

Additional Sanguini’s T-shirts of the winners’ choice will be awarded to a member of Tantalize Fans Unite! at MySpace and to any YA bookseller.

To enter the Sanguini’s T-shirt (only) giveaway, email me (scroll for address) with your name, snail/street mail address, and preferred T-shirt design by midnight CST July 22! If you are a member of TFU! please indicate that, and if you are a bookseller, please specify your bookstore. Please also type “Sanguini’s T-shirt” in the subject line.

I’m also going to give away a signed hardcover copy to one Cynsational YA reader from Australia or New Zealand! To enter, email me (scroll for address) with your name, snail/street mail address, and preferred T-shirt design by midnight CST July 22! Note: if you have already entered the ongoing Tantalize Paperback, Eternal Excerpt, Sanguini’s Giveaway (above), you don’t have to send another email. Your existing entry will count for both giveaway programs!

Thanks to all for your ongoing interest, enthusiasm, and support!

The Brown Bookshelf Hosts “Indie and Author”

The Brown Bookshelf: United in Story hosts “Indie and Author” from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. EST July 23 at The Brown Bookshelf forum at MySpace.

Featured guests will be Jennifer Laughran of Books Inc. (the West’s oldest independent bookstore; it has 11 locations) and Not Your Mother’s Book Club and Jaz Vincent, owner of RealEyes Bookstore, based in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Peek: “If you’re interested in learning the best ways to support your local indie as an author, librarian, teacher or simply a lover of books, drop in ask a few questions, make a few suggestions or just listen in to what Jaz and Jenn have to say about literary life among the big whales of industry.”

Read a Cynsations interview with the founders of The Brown Bookshelf.

Author Interview: Suzanne Crowley on The Very Ordered Existence of Merilee Marvelous

Suzanne Crowley on Suzanne Crowley: “I was born in the west Texas town of Uvalde and raised primarily in Austin and Houston. I graduated from The University of Texas with a Journalism degree with an English minor. I met my husband in college (we actually grew up on the same street in Houston), married shortly after college, and began work at an interior design magazine in Austin. The magazine folded, and I stayed at home to have my first child. I wrote freelance magazine articles through the years and two unpublished romance historicals. We also went through five moves across the country. In 2005, we made it back to Texas and are near family once again.”

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

As a little girl I wrote children’s stories. They started out on notebook paper, folded and illustrated, later evolving into handmade, hardback picture books, and then finally chapter books typed on a cheap typewriter, which I’ve kept through the years. I have over forty of these precious books, but they are yellowing with age.

Later, I tried my hand at historical romances (a Victorian and a regency), but was too scared to make a serious effort at getting them published.

After 9/11, I wanted to go in a new direction–back to my roots of writing children’s stories. I especially wanted something my young children and future grandchildren could read.

Craft-wise, how did you approach your apprenticeship as a writer?

I’m not the first to say this, but I think you learn the most about writing from reading. I’ve always been an avid reader and continue to be so. It’s one of life’s greatest pleasures for me, except for maybe chocolate (Dove and Godiva, if you please).

And secondly, you learn the most about writing from the practice of writing. Not “talking” about writing, actually doing it, rear in the chair, as often as possible. I have many people tell me about the book they are going to write someday, and I tell them over and over, “well then, sit down and do it!”

I just finished Bird by Bird by Anne Lamont, and she has some very wise things to say about the craft of writing. She stresses the importance of getting that first draft down, no matter how terrible it is, and then going from there.

Congratulations on the success of The Very Ordered Existence of Merilee Marvelous (HarperCollins, 2007)! Could you tell us a little about it?

It’s about an autistic girl, Merilee Monroe, age 13, who lives a very ordered life in her small dusty west Texas town of Jumbo (Marfa) until three strangers come to town and she learns to let friendship in.

There’s a little bit of southern magical realism, lots of folktales, dragon myths, urban legends, and funny Texas sayings stuffed in, too. And a cast of quirky, but lovable (except for maybe Grandma Birdy, who is cat-scratch mean) characters.

Ultimately, I think it is about finding magic, or hope in one’s life, the power of imagination, and the love of one’s family, no matter what form they come in.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

Two major things. My oldest daughter, thirteen at the time I wrote the first draft, inspired Merilee, the main character. She is somewhere high on the autism spectrum (probably Asperger’s [Syndrome]) and has always been an unusually gifted and unique child, almost like a savant in many ways.

She went through many obsessions but was in love with dragons at the time I started thinking about writing a children’s novel. She drew dragons on everything–her homework, tests, any piece of paper she came into contact with.

Her fifth grade teacher, who really “got” her, said to me at a conference that the only problem he had with her was that she daydreamed a lot and he had to “call her back from dragonland.”

Dragons were very popular at the time (and still are), and I thought, at that very moment, this is it! A story about an autistic girl living in an imaginary world of dragons.

“Dragonlands” was the working title for a long time, but it was nixed eventually because it had the connotation of a fantasy and it is not.

(My daughter is now 18 and will be attending SMU next year to study creative writing and then graduate school hopefully to study cartooning and illustration. She wants to write science fiction and fantasy novels and also write and illustrate her own graphic novels.)

So now I had a premise but where was I going to set it? About this time I went to a girl’s-only retreat in Marfa that a sister-in-law hosted. One very dark night on the way home from a dinner in Alpine, she took us to see the famous “Marfa Lights off the highway at a state viewing point. They were visible that night–hovering faraway on the west Texas horizon. Simply magical, and I knew then that west Texas was the perfect setting for my book and the “lights” would make an appearance somewhere.

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

I started writing VOE (our nickname at Greenwillow) around February of 2003. I wrote a first draft, almost stream of consciousness style, in three months. It was really a solid outline, I realized much later. We were about to move to Florida from California, and my husband had already transferred. I stayed up late at night and worked and also wrote when my then eighteen-month-old son napped.

After we joined my husband in Florida, I put the draft away in a drawer. But when my then fourteen-year old started writing her own fantasy novel, which ended up being 550 pages, I decided to pull my draft out, dust it off, and figure out the children’s publishing world for her sake.

I joined SCBWI, sent out 25 queries to publishers listed in the booklet I was given, and eventually had interest from seven publishers.

I noticed in one of the SCBWI newsletters that one of my high school friends was writing picture books–Dianna Hutts Aston (author interview). I contacted her and we started emailing back and forth about what was going on in our writing lives.

When I started to get my any manuscript requests, she suggested I query Greenwillow–she knew one of the editors there. They asked for the manuscript, too, and it was actually Greenwillow who I first heard back from–a short two-line memo that left me breathless and giddy for days.

Based on this email, Dianna felt it was time I had an agent so she told Rosemary Stimola (agent interview) about me, and Rosemary, after reading the manuscript, quickly signed me up. I had several publishers actually interested in VOE, but they all wanted revisions (in different directions). Something felt right about Greenwillow, so we went with them, thank goodness.

For a year and a half, in which time I went though yet another move and my editor went on maternity leave, I did revisions. Eventually, I was asigned a new editor, Virginia Duncan, who loved my manuscript.

Coincidentally, she knew about Marfa because one of the author-poets that Greenwillow publishes, Naomi Shihab Nye, had recently been a poet-in-residence in Marfa and would send Virginia emails describing the beautiful landscape and the Marfa Lights. I also have a poet-in-residence in my book, but he gets into a lot of trouble! Everything just clicked.

I think it was meant to be. I was offered a contract on March 17, 2006! I still very well remember the phone call from my agent and the feeling of euphoria all day! When I called my mother, she said, “Remember those little books you used to make? Now you’ll have the real thing.”

We worked on new revisions (yes, more), and my book was published August 21 2007.

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

One of the difficulties was getting the autistic voice of an Asperger’s child correct. Sometimes they talk like little professors; other times they speak hardly at all. Trying to get a truthful, natural cadence was something I struggled with for a long time.

In early drafts, Merilee was speaking in full paragraphs. I had to go back and dramatically cut her dialog. But her inner thoughts are still there–I really wanted to convey to the reader that these kids have a rich inner theater and they have stories to tell, if someone will listen.

When my daughter read the advanced reader copy of VOE, I was a little fearful of what she would think. She came downstairs after reading the first 60 pages and said to me, “It’s eerie. You have me nailed. How did you know all my inner thoughts and processes?”

This was the real test and I passed it. I truly want to honor these different kids.

I know now the revisions process made the book 100 times stronger, but along the way I struggled with self-doubt about my writing abilities. And I procrastinated too. Sometimes a week or two would go by, and I could barely look at my work in progress. But it was all worth it.

Anytime someone tells me about a favorite moment in the book, it has been birthed from a revision. And I’ve had several librarians tell me they love the first line of the book, and that is something that got added late in the process. So I’m actually looking forward to the revisions for book two!

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were beginning writer, what advice would you offer?

Hold on, hold on, it will happen. And if it doesn’t, that’s okay. It’s what you learn on the journey that is the most important.

How do you balance your life as a writer with the responsibilities (speaking, promotion, etc.) of being an author?

I’m still struggling with that. When my first book debuted, I started my second book and was under deadline. I think it helps to do school visits and book-signings in clusters and spurts and spend most of your time writing. But I still worry about the promoting every day–am I doing enough? At some point, you just have to let it go.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I’m waiting any day now for revision notes from my editor for book two, which is a YA historical set in Elizabethan England. It’s rich with detail of the era, especially the embroidery and making of Queen Elizabeth’s dresses. There is a bit a mystery, too, but it is a love story at heart. I guess I’ve come full circle.

Cynsational Notes

BookSense Fall Children’s Pick for 2007 – #3

KLIATT’s Editor’s Choice: Best of the Year’s Hardocver YA Fiction

The Best Children’s Books of the Year–Bank Street College 2008 Edition

Audio of VOE by HarperAudio

VOE Published in Germany in February 2008