Today at Cynsations, I’m honored to feature a conversation between Egmont USA publisher Elizabeth Law and her author Allen Zadoff.
Elizabeth Law is Vice President and Publisher of Egmont USA, where their motto is “we turn writers into authors and children into lifelong readers.”
Egmont specializes in fiction for ages 8 and up, and among the authors Elizabeth currently works with are Mike A. Lancaster, J&P Voelkel, Cara Chow, Micol Ostow and Allen Zadoff.
Follow her on Twitter @EgmontGal. Read a 2008 Cynsations interview with Elizabeth.
EL photo cutline: With regard to My Life, The Theater, and Other Tragedies: “We were very relieved when the final jacket was chosen!” Note: keep reading to find out why!
Allen Zadoff is the author of the memoir Hungry: Lessons Learned on the Journey from Fat to Thin (Da Capo Press, 2007), and his young adult novel Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can’t Have (Egmont, 2009, 2011)(excerpt) received the 2010 Sid Fleischman Humor Award and has been optioned for a feature film. His new novel, My Life, The Theater, and Other Tragedies, is available now from Egmont USA.
He currently works as a writer and writing coach in Los Angeles.
To both, what were you like as a teen—both as a reader and more generally?
EL photo cutline: “Here I am in ninth or tenth grade, on that most joyful of holidays, Christmas Day. (Historians note I am wearing a mood ring!).”
EL: Let’s just say that as a teen I experienced plenty of the misery and rejection that have made me an empathetic editor of YA novels.
Fortunately, in those years, the groundbreaking YA books were just coming out. They were about dark subjects that a lot of people in those days thought teenagers shouldn’t be hearing about — things like drugs and rape and being gay.
In seventh grade, a neighbor even called my mother and told her I shouldn’t be reading Go Ask Alice (Simon Pulse, 1971). But I was very drawn to books that showed kids rebelling at all the pressure to achieve and fit in that I was feeling.
Two books that I remember really expressed my anger at the time were a long-forgotten novel of Rosemary Wells’ called None of the Above (1974), and the M.E. Kerr classic Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack! (1972).
AZ: I was a relaxed, happy teen. Thin and well adjusted.
Photo cutline: see left.
Elizabeth and Allen, how did you connect with one another?
AZ: Elizabeth says that when she read my memoir Hungry she thought “this guy could write YA.” When she became publisher at Egmont, she asked me to bring her something.
It was the YA equivalent of an actor getting the call from Spielberg. I didn’t know that at the time because I didn’t know much about the field. I called it “Y What?” But I knew I was supposed to write about my teen years, and that was very natural to me. The voice was natural.
I showed up with fifty pages of the book that was to become Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can’t Have. Elizabeth must have liked what she saw because she signed me to a two-book deal at Egmont. That’s a lot of faith in a new author! The second book of that deal is coming out now. It’s called My Life, The Theater, and Other Tragedies.
Elizabeth, what were your thoughts on first reading Allen’s work? What about it appealed to you?
EL: Food, Girls was called “Invisible” when it came in to me, and I know exactly when I decided to acquire it. There’s a scene where Andy is standing in the back of his homeroom wondering whether he can fit into his school’s new desks. The school has just switched over to those little half-desks where the chair is attached, and Andy weighs 306 pounds. What if he can’t take his seat? I felt so much heartache for that kid.
I didn’t really know what a star we had in Allen, though, till his first revision came in. When I sent him the first editorial letter on Food, Girls, I asked for a stronger final third of the book, and I had sort of pointed out that a few of the characters were a bit two-dimensional. But I didn’t really ask him for too much rewriting–the story was funny and working well already.
Then the revision blew me away. Supporting characters I had barely noticed were now fully rounded people, jokes were sharper, there was a new, painful scene with Andy’s best friend, and the ending was wonderful. Allen hadn’t approached my edits like a checklist, he had taken what I said and then gone much further.
By the way, after I sent off that first editorial letter to Allen, he said “your notes were helpful.”
I thought “‘Notes’? He’s calling my carefully crafted editorial letter ‘notes’?”
Now I realize that’s how people in the TV and theater business refer to feedback. As notes. So I’ve stopped taking it personally.
AZ: Right, we call them “notes” in television and film. I didn’t know you were insulted by that.
EL: This interview is getting more interesting!
Photo cutline: Doug Pocock, Managing Director of Egmont USA, Allen Zadoff, and Allen’s literary agent Stuart Krichevsky.
Elizabeth, could you share with us how you approach a manuscript in preparing feedback?
EL: I hope I’m not giving away an industry secret, but Deborah Brodie at Viking taught me to first praise, praise, praise the author before asking any questions about the story or even beginning to hint that an aspect of the book might need to be rethought. She called it “yummying up” the editorial letter. That was a really important lesson. Now I’m always careful to say nice things but I still probably don’t give enough positive feedback.
Other than that, it’s different with every author and every book. My Life, the Theater went through more rounds of revision than Food, Girls. And while I remember tweaking some chapter endings and working through some of the technical theater stuff, most of our discussions in My Life seemed to be character based.
How long ago would the father have died for the kind of grief Adam was going through in the book? Would two characters have time to really fall in love, or would they just be getting together? How much room was there to explore Adam’s relationship with his brother in a book that was more about the loss of his father? How much did we need to know about another character’s back story? Or one of my favorites…if Adam was up in the catwalk all day at one point, where would he go to the bathroom?
Allen, how do you process editorial feedback and apply it?
AZ: I used to process it well, but now that I know the praise thing is a setup, I’m not sure how I feel.
But seriously, the ego is always hurt when first receiving notes. I think it’s natural because the author really only wants to hear one thing: “It’s genius. Don’t change a word.”
But that’s not the real world, and it’s not what makes you a better author. The most important thing I’ve learned is that the hurt reaction is just the first impulse. I don’t have to do anything about it. I let it pass like a summer storm.
Once it’s blown itself out, I move to the more interesting place of sorting out the feedback. They generally fall into four categories.
- 1. Notes I agree with.
- 2. Notes I disagree with.
- 3. Notes I intuitively feel are wrong, but I’m not sure.
- 4. Notes I intuitively feel are right, but I’m not sure.
- As I think about it, there is a fifth category: Notes I don’t understand and I need more clarification.
That happened with some notes for My Life, the Theater, and Other Tragedies. So I categorized them. Then I sat with them for a time. Only then did I talk through everything with my editor and determine a course of action.
Earlier EL, described getting a Food, Girls draft back from me that had much deeper changes than what she’d asked for in her editorial letter. That’s because I consider notes a jumping-off point. A great set of notes will open up story ideas I hadn’t considered previously or illuminate areas where I had a blind spot.
I consider every rewrite an opportunity to ask myself if I’m telling the story in the best, most dramatic, most interesting, most specific way possible. That’s why I can get four or five notes and come back with a deep rewrite.
This is such an interesting question. I could do a whole seminar on this topic for writers. I think it’s so important to learn how to process notes and use them without it feeling like a personal attack. In fact it’s the writer’s job to learn how to do this. It’s the difference between a professional and an amateur.
Allen, your debut YA novel, Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can’t Have (Egmont, 2009) was winner of the Sid Fleischman Humor Award. Congratulations! What advice do you have for writers on writing humor? (Your answer should be useful and funny—no pressure!)
AZ: Write like your life depends on it…and your zipper is open.
Allen, congratulations on the release of My Life, The Theater, and Other Tragedies (Egmont, 2011)! Could you tell us a little about the book?
AZ: My Life, The Theater is the story of a boy who is hiding out in the theater after the sudden death of his father two years earlier. He’s a techie (a member of the backstage crew), and he falls in love with an actress. That’s forbidden in his school because the actors and techies are at war.
The book is set during a production of “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” and features a 500-pound gay director, an annoying student designer with a fake British accent, and an angry little dog. You know, a typical theater story.
Allen, what was the initial spark? What was the timeline from that spark to completion, and what were the major events—challenges and triumphs—along the way?
AZ: I grew up in the theater, and it was a great passion of mine, first as an actor and later as a director. I wanted to write a book that brought a general audience into the world of the theater, took them behind the scenes to see the passionate, crazy, quirky world that exists there.
I wanted a book that theater people would love, and non-theater people would find amazing in that way great books can introduce you to a world you knew nothing about.
I was also processing my mom’s illness at the time, and I wanted to explore how you move on after a tragedy.
I knew My Life, The Theater was going to be a funny book, too. How do you mix funny and tragic? That was one of the major challenges of writing the book. I did okay with it, but I’m still learning. Luckily, I’ve got great teachers. Chekhov and Shakespeare, to name two.
Allen, what lessons learned from writing your first novel did you apply to your second?
AZ: The main lesson was: Write faster. Elizabeth Law is waiting for a draft.
Elizabeth, how does Allen’s work fit into the greater conversation of YA literature? Who are authors with a parallel vibe? What is he saying that no one else is?
EL: I love this question. I read everything by Chris Crutcher, Adam Rapp, Pete Hautman—they’re all writers I think are terrific.
But they’re also all such tough guys! Allen’s humor is the first thing everyone comments on, and I think it’s what pulls us into his books. But it’s his characters’ vulnerability and openness that give his books such impact.
And that’s a unique aspect of his writing—no one else is depicting the fragile pain of being a guy in high school in quite the same way. And then making us laugh about it.
AZ: Hey! I want to be a tough guy, too!
Allen, you have a blog and tweet. How do you approach each? What is your strategy toward author promotion more generally?
AZ: I’m still working on defining what those things are for me. Right now, readers can visit my blog or follow me on Twitter to find out more about me, my passions and preoccupations, and get some behind-the-scenes snapshots of the author’s life. I share reviews, photos, links, events, and everything that’s going on with me and the books.
But I don’t know. Maybe that’s a little boring. I might start tweeting as page 27 of my book. “@p.27 says: Who the hell is p. 28? Why is he always breathing down my neck? Creepy.”
To both, there’s a lot of talk about attracting and holding boy readers. What do you see as the challenges? The bright spots? Is there anything you’d like to add to that conversation?
EL: I’ll tell you a particular challenge with what we call “boy novels”—doing jackets that a girl reader will find appealing but that a boy won’t be embarrassed to carry around.
We went through many iterations of the jacket of My Life, The Theater….
In fact the galley has an entirely different cover than the final book. The designer would try different things and show us, and every time I really liked one, Allen and his agent rejected it. It was a classic example of girl taste vs. boy taste.
EL photo cutline: “The galley for My Life, the Theater and Other Tragedies had to be printed for the sales reps and reviewers before the jacket was finalized. This looks nothing like the final jacket!”
AZ: I don’t know how to attract boy readers; I only know how to write, and I hope if I do it honestly, both guys and girls will be into the books. But on the more practical question of book covers, I want them to have some cool factor.
I’m very open to input from the publisher and salespeople on this because they really know their business, but if something makes me cringe, I have to speak up!
EL photo cutline: “Some of the rejected covers for My Life, the Theater, and Other Tragedies. Astute eyes will see that the novel was called ‘Lighting Summer’ at one point.”
Allen, if you could go back and talk to your beginner writer self, what would you tell him?
AZ: Your mom is right about medical school. Apply.
But if you persist in wanting to be a writer (like I know you will), remember this: Don’t try to write like other people. Let go of the idea you have to be literary or make words dance like Cormac McCarthy. Just write like you. Your job is learning how to do that.
A hint to get you started: Write like you speak.
Elizabeth, what other Egmont USA authors and books should we know about?
Ooh, it’s hard to pick just a few, but if you like Sarah Dessen, check out The Sweetest Thing by debut author Christina Mandelski (May, 2011).
If you’re hungry for more funny YA after reading Allen’s books, try Notes from the Blender by Trish Cook and Brendan Halpin (May, 2011).
If you want a haunting read about a girl who gets pulled into a cult, you must get family by Micol Ostow (April, 2011).
And whatever you like to read, don’t miss Ashes by Ilsa J. Bick. That’s coming in September and it will blow your mind.
AZ: Those are great authors. Micol’s book gave me nightmares for a week. But hey, you haven’t sent me Ashes, EL. I want to read it!
To both, is there anything you’d like to add?
EL: Well, yes. Editors dream of finding real writing talent and then working with that author over many books. Those chances don’t come along every day. I feel so lucky to have that opportunity with Allen Zadoff.
AZ: And writers dream of having a long-term collaboration with an editor with a keen eye, a passion for your work, who really has your back. I’ve got all three of those things with EL. Which is probably why I’m writing a third book for Egmont (currently top secret), which you should look for in about a year.
One hint: It’s my first book set in Los Angeles, where I’ve lived for the last twelve years. Expect a lot of yoga, cars, beautiful girls, and dieting.
Cynsational Manuscript Critique Giveaway
Photo cutline: EL and AZ have a drink to celebrate surviving adolescence.
Elizabeth Law is offering a thirty-page manuscript critique giveaway.
(That’s thirty pages of your manuscript, not thirty pages of her feedback.)
Her response will include a thirty-minute phone call with the author and short, written notes about the submitted work, which can be fiction, nonfiction, or chapter book.
The winner will have two weeks to submit an excerpt for critique. The phone call/feedback will occur within a week after that.
Submissions should be writing targeted to young readers, ages 8 and up.
The phone call may also touch on any questions the author has about the audience or market for the book, the publishing and submitting process, etc. In other words, anything the author wants to cover!
To enter, comment on this entry and include an email address (formatted like: cynthia at cynthialeitichsmith dot com) to foil spanners or a link to an email address. In the alternative, you can also email me directly, if you’re especially concerned about privacy. I won’t use the emails for any future purpose.
An extra entry will go to those who comment to ask Elizabeth and/or Allen a thoughtful question or make another, related thoughtful comment. Additional extra entries will go to those who tweet, blog, or otherwise promote this link/giveaway. Please indicate your efforts/URLs in your comment.
Enter deadline: May 31.
This giveaway is international–writers from all over the world are eligible.