By Cynthia Leitich Smith
Candice Ransom is the author of 115 books for young people, in every genre, from board books to young adult literature.
She holds an M.F.A. in writing for children from Vermont College and an M.A. in children’s literature from Hollins University. Currently she teaches in the M.F.A./M.A. children’s literature program at Hollins University.
A ninth generation Virginian, Candice writes about her home state and life in the South (which she has boiled down to the three F’s: food, family, and funerals). She lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia (“America’s Most Historic City”) with her husband Frank and cats Winchester and Persnickety.
Her latest releases are Iva Honeysuckle Discovers the World and Rebel McKenzie (both Hyperion, 2012). Check out the publication day party for Iva and Candice’s insights on the book from Children’s Literature Network.
Would you describe your career as a hike up a mountain, a winding road, a path of hills and valleys or hop-scotching from rock to rock across the rapids?
How about a hike up a mountain that has a winding road at the top?
Sometimes that road goes downhill, other times it leads nowhere.
|Candice, age 13
I started so early, at age 15, so the mountain was steep and rocky because I knew nothing and had no talent, only strong desire. Because I was young, I just pushed myself from handgrip to handgrip.
In those days there were no writing classes, no groups, very few books on writing. My only guide was Writer’s Digest magazine (actually digest-sized), which I read at the library.
I made lots of mistakes, like sending my very first poem to The New Yorker, without an SASE—the person who got my little offering wrote me a note, setting me on the right track. And there was the picture book I wrote and illustrated with colored pens and sent grandly off to Albert Whitman.
Gradually, I figured out what I was doing. It was still a long scrabble, but I was a “pro” by age 24 when I sold my very first piece to Highlights. I landed my first book contract at age 29. Near the top of the mountain, at last.
From the second book on, I’ve been on a very long winding road. For years I wrote between four and six books a year—the road seemed like a straightaway with no end in sight. But there were significant curves, such as when my first editor, the one who kept me busy so many years, retired and my work for my major publisher sank like a stone.
As time wound on, I negotiated more curves: editors that quit or were fired, imprints that disappeared, publishers that went bankrupt, good reviews, stinker reviews, years with more money than I could count, years in which I thought I’d have to sell pencils on a street corner (like this one).
I’m not sure where the true top of the mountain is or if I’d recognize if I climbed that high. I’m a Thursday’s child, for one thing, which means I’ll never get where I’m going anyway. But that’s fine—it’s all about the journey.
How have you grown as a writer? What skills have you seen improve over time? What did you do to reach new levels? What are areas that still flummox you at times?
|Candice, at age 7, reading
Since I started as a kid, with no education, I’ve done nothing but grow! I had to learn everything! One lesson I learned early on—write what you like to read.
Although I would totally forget this with my first “real” novel, which was a rip-off of Daniel Pinkwater, Dungeons and Dragons, and riots at rock concerts.
After the huge failure of “The Doomsday Kid” (an apt title), I tried to figure out what I was doing wrong. My work lacked heart and plot. Plot I prayed would come, but heart I could fix by turning to my past, jotting incidents from my childhood that I would later parlay into books or parts of books. I learned to draw upon authentic emotions and add authentic detail.
Then I fell into a stretch of what I call “Boxcars and Biographies.” I had great success writing series books and nonfiction. But after a while I felt my “soul” work fading.
One day I sat down to write something of my own and found the words had dried up. I was in a rut and needed help getting out. I applied to Vermont College. I’d had 80 books published when I arrived and people (including some of my advisors) didn’t know what to make of me.
I left Writer Candice at home and became Student Candice at Vermont. It was hard, continuing to write contract books while pulling myself through the creative knothole. I worked on contract books five days a week and did my program work on weekends. When I graduated, there were eleven books in my thesis. I sold five of them (three while I was still in the program).
Sometimes you have to go to extraordinary lengths to reach new levels. My time at Vermont helped me deepen my work. I followed my M.F.A with an M.A. in children’s literature at Hollins. That degree helped me figure out the work I was meant to be doing.
As for areas that still need tightening, plot! Every day when I go to my computer, I pray to the god of plot to send me one!
Have you ever made an affirmative decision to alter your creative focus? What inspired this decision? What were the challenges?
In high school, I was going to be a writer and an illustrator of children’s books. I could teach myself to write, but realized I’d need to go to art school to learn illustration.
After I became a full-time writer, I hung around illustrators more than writers. Though we were both in the same field, the level of competition was different. Plus illustrators had better stuff. Gradually, I let go of my dream to be an artist. It wasn’t going to happen.
Then one day I walked into a store devoted to scrapbook supplies, found a group of women who worked on their albums every Friday night, and fell down that rabbit hole without a backward glance. I was never a very good scrapbooker, instead spent my Friday nights creating mixed media projects related to children’s literature.
While I worked with my hands, my brain mulled over problems in my writing. It was a wonderful experience discovering my right and left brains could actually work together.
Since I always seem to do things out of sequence, or go through the back door, I used my Friday-night skills to illustrate my own (unpublished) board books with cut-paper collage. Thinking visually opened up a new avenue in my writing. If I got stuck, I’d doodle or draw or cut paper shapes. I made maps. I created scrapbooks and illustrated journals for my characters. The process of making things or fiddling with illustration-like things fed into my writing.
Now I always include some sort of visual project with my novels. I cover my notebooks with collages. When my latest book, Rebel McKenzie, included my own crude comic strips (supposedly created by a seven-year-old boy who’s not too bright, my level of art!), I was beyond thrilled.
The challenge was letting myself dream again. You realize after a certain age you can’t do everything. And then a few more years roll by and you realize maybe you can. Just try one more time.
How have you built an audience over time?
|Candice’s desk and reading nook
Pffffft! What audience? Years ago, when my contemporary fiction was in book clubs and in bookstores and libraries, I had quite an audience. Fan mail kept me busy every Saturday morning. Fans actually came to my door. But those were kids who bought my books themselves through the school book clubs or in the paperback section of bookstores.
Then I began writing picture books and my audience sort of shrank. It’s hard to reach the little kids. And then all sorts of things happened: bookstores disappeared, libraries had budget cuts, and other things like video games vied for kids’ attention. I wrote books that didn’t draw huge, adoring audiences—nonfiction, biographies. I wrote under pseudonyms.
To be honest, I don’t know where my audience is. I write mostly mid-grade now. Unlike YA audiences, kids 8 to 12 aren’t that tuned into the Internet, aren’t that influenced by blogs. I still go to bookstores, though not as much simply because there aren’t as many, and still do school visits, though not as many as I used because of slashed author-visit budgets.
But I’m still writing. I know the kids are out there. Somewhere.
Have you ever considered giving up? What happened? What kept you going?
I’ve flirted with giving up many times, but those were mostly snits that I got over. But once I did give up. Nobody noticed because I was still working and still publishing.
In the mid-90s, I had a spate of bad luck: seven books (with different publishers) were canceled, some right before publication. My long-term editor left and my long-term publisher had no use for me any more, despite twenty-plus books, including many bestsellers.
I’d been toiling in the field for nearly 15 years and felt disillusioned. Hurt, actually, as if the publishing world had turned its back on me.
So I turned my back on it. I stopped going into the children’s section of bookstores, ignored the children’s section of the library. But those were my two favorite places and it was painful for me to shut myself away from the world I’d loved my whole life.
At the time, adult cozy mysteries were taking off and I thought I’d switch careers in midstream. The fact I’d never written for adults, except for articles, didn’t bother me. I tried to learn the new field, hung around mystery writers (professional lunches were so much fun, talking about murder instead of how to nurture the young child’s mind). After I wrung out half of a really bad mystery novel, my adult agent and my adult editor told me, “Don’t bother finishing.”
I stayed away from children’s publishing at least four years, though I still cranked out series books. On New Year’s Eve, 1999, I wrote letters. As midnight neared, I wrote a long letter to myself. Basically I told myself to get over myself and go back to the thing I loved most.
And so I did.
On January 1, 2000, I leaped out of bed, eager to be in my field again.
I was a born-again children’s book writer.
Share an aspect of your process.
I always create notebooks for each project. This is the notebook for the sequel to Iva Honeysuckle. I buy binders with a clear-view window, make a collage, and slip it inside the window. I also cover composition notebooks in a similar theme to carry with me.
And I always have “icons” for each book. This book has a beach theme–the bracelet was mine as a child. The postcard is of a house we used to rent at Ocean City when I was a child.
Authentic details make my work . . . well, authentic.
How have you handled being a player in the world of youth literature? Fans, reviews, jealousies, acclaim, etc.
Dealing with acclaim and a gigantic bunch of fans has been like finding dinosaurs in my backyard—hasn’t happened yet. Probably won’t happen.
But jealousy, bad reviews, and all that other tawdry stuff, yes, I’ve had more than my fair share. Once upon a time, I read all my reviews. I’m prone to obsessive thinking, and the bad ones would send me off on a tangent that lasted for days.
If I heard about someone I knew getting a multi-book contract for millions of dollars when I hadn’t broken the $5000 advance mark, I’d sink into a decline (I’m a Southerner, we are very good at declines). Worse, these things disrupted my work. I couldn’t do anything about a bad review or someone else’s huge success.
So I simply shut off the flow of information. I stopped reading my reviews, good and bad. If I believed in the good ones, I had to believe in the bad ones (if a review is really good, I tell my editor to send it on). I quit reading about other people’s successes.
But then along came the Internet and Facebook and again I was barraged with things I didn’t want to know. So I cut them off, though it’s not easy.
While I’m happy for other writers—and I am, really—I need to have the news when I’m ready for it. First thing in the morning when I’m starting my work, no. At a luncheon or a conference or in emails when my work day is done, yes.
Where do you want to go from here? What are your short-and long-term goals? Your strategies for achieving them?
|Winchester — world’s most photogenic cat
Since I’ve quit writing to trends, it’s been pretty quiet in my world. I’ve had lots of time to think. After more than a hundred published books, I’m thinking more about what I want to do with the time I have left.
I don’t write as fast as I did. My projects are longer and deeper. If I write a book a year, I’m doing well. I want to continue on my current path, writing funny Southern novels (something I know about!). It’s enough I keep working, staying the course.
I’d like to create a long-term workshop or write a book (or both!) on what I’ve learned over the years as a writer. I love teaching and feel I have much to pass along.
I’d call it the Turkey Buzzard School of Writing. Turkey buzzards aren’t much to look at on the ground, but when they fly . . . they are wizards in the air. They don’t even flap their wings.
The nuts and bolts of writing aren’t very glamorous, but when a piece works . . . you don’t detect a single wing-flap.
Of all of your books today, which one are you the most proud of? Why?
I’m most proud of Rebel McKenzie, my latest book, and not because it’s my latest.
Rebel was a book I wrote to satisfy myself, not an editor or publisher (though it was nice they liked it!).
I began with an episode from my life (yes, that’s me in the seven pairs of underpants with the leeches on my ankles, getting advice from a convict), then moved into a sort of endless summer from my teenage years, using people and places from memory.
But then the first lovely thing happened. The character became not-me and the story became not-mine. It grew into its own wonderful self.
The second lovely thing was figuring out how to tell all the characters’ stories without slowing down the plot or using flashbacks: Rudy drew comic strips, Bambi sent unsolicited beauty advice newsletters, Rebel kept a field notebook.
The third lovely thing was that the big cross-eyed kink-tailed Siamese cat, Doublewide, tried to run away with the book. It was so much fun chasing him.
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