Author Interview: Brian Yansky on Wonders of the World

Brian Yansky on Brian Yansky: “It’s an old story. I was born and I was very small and then I got larger and then one day I stopped growing and, with minor adjustments, I’ve stayed about the same size ever since. All of this growing happened in Iowa where, I once read, there are eight pigs for every person. I didn’t really notice at the time, but I still felt compelled to leave at my earliest opportunity. I had wanderlust.

“I moved around a lot for several years. Eventually, I ended up in Texas. I got a couple of degrees along the way. One at the University of Texas. One at Vermont College–an MFA in Writing [adult program]. I wrote a lot of unpublished manuscripts before I wrote a published one. Like being born and growing and having wanderlust, this is very common, at least among writers.

“My first published novel was My Road Trip to The Pretty Girl Capital of the World (Cricket, 2003). My second published novel is Wonders of the World (Flux, June 2007). I live in Austin, Texas with my wife, Frances Hill, and some dogs and a cat named Chaos.”

How did the writing life first call to you? Did you shout, “yes!” Or run the other way?

I shouted “yes” in a quiet kind of way. I loved to write. I didn’t love to do many things, so finding something I loved to do was cathartic. It changed everything.

Why did you decide to write for teen readers specifically?

My Road Trip to the Pretty Girl Capital of the World was written as an adult novel but accepted for publication as a Young Adult. I started reading YA novels then, and I loved reading about characters that age. I discovered a lot of amazing novels and writers. I became a YA reader. I wanted to write another YA novel. This time I wanted to be aware I was writing a YA novel while I was writing it.

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

I’m the poster person for try, try again. I wrote five novels before I published my first novel. I wrote dozens of stories before I got one published in a literary journal.

Stumbles? Oh yeah. I kept myself going by telling myself this was what I wanted to do. If no one else was interested, I was still going to keep doing it for me. Being blindly obstinate can be helpful to a writer. The other thing that kept me going is that I love to write; I love the whole struggle to get a story down on paper.

Your first novel was My Road Trip to the Pretty Girl Capital of the World (Cricket, 2003). What was the book about?

Identity. The main character is adopted (like I was) and is getting into trouble at school and with his parents and with the law. His girlfriend drops him and he decides to take off on a road trip to find his birth parents. He has some adventures along the way and ends up in the Pretty Girl Capital of the World, which is Austin, Texas, my adopted hometown.

Congratulations on your new release, Wonders of the World (Flux, 2007). What was the initial inspiration for this book?

The novel is about street kids and takes place on the street. I worked at the University of Texas for a while and I used to see this group of street kids getting up in the morning in a park across from campus. There were a lot of them some mornings, and some of them were very young. I wondered what their stories were. I thought about my own youth when, for a time, I hitchhiked around the country. When I was passing through cities, I sometimes stayed in the same places as street kids did.

Even back then there were kids living on the street. I decided that I wanted to tell a story about a teen who ended up on the street and his struggle to find a way off it.

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

I guess it took me a little over a year to write the novel and then another few months for my agent to sell it. Then it was a year and a half after that to publication. There are always major events of the imagination while working on a novel. You struggle with a certain point in the plot or a character and you find your way (at least you hope you do). Besides these internal struggles, I attended a workshop called Writefest that was very helpful in motivating me to finish the novel.

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

I did some research on street kids. Nothing in depth, but read a few articles and books and looked around on the web. I discovered a very useful site called Stand Up For Kids, an outreach group for children and teens who are homeless and living on the street.

I was appalled by this statistic: about 1.5 million kids and teens live on the street in America. It confirmed my sense that there are a lot more teens and kids living on the street than most people think. My biggest challenge was creating the world my characters live in. I hope I got it right.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

Try to write the kind of work you love to read. Read. A lot. Write. Rewrite. Listen to everything writers you admire say about writing, then only use what works for you. This will take patient experimentation. Some of the best advice I got was try to find what your characters yearns for and let that direct the story. Characters will not always be up-front about this, so sometimes you will have to write a lot to figure out what they really want. Another good piece of advice for me was try to get to the place inside you that allows you to write intutitively in a kind of continous dream. Rewrite looking for places where you seem to have lost the flow of that dream.

How about YA novelists specifically?

For me, writing YA fiction is no different from writing adult fiction except that it’s about young people. It has a different feel because if you’re true to voice and character your characters will see the world through the eyes of someone who is a teenager regardless of how old you are.

Like me, you’re married to a fellow author. How do you relate to each other in the writing part of your lives?

Wonderfully. We support each other and read for each other. There are some parts of the writing business that are very difficult, and we help each other through these. I feel very lucky to be married to someone who walks into the room where I’m supposed to be writing and sees me staring out the window (at length) and does not feel obligated to point out that I do not seem to be writing, or for that matter doing anything. I seem to be lost in space. She understands that writing, in fact, requires that you stare out the window a lot. At least for me. When I start talking about a character as if he or she is a real person, she does not suggest I see a therapist or covertly call friends and family for an intervention. She understands. I feel very lucky to be married to another writer.

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

Teach, watch movies, travel, exercise, eat out, listen to music, play with my new Old English Sheepdog.

Author Interview: Deborah Davis on Not Like You

Deborah Davis on Deborah Davis: “I write contemporary, realistic fiction about teens who think seriously about themselves and the world, who take risks, make mistakes, figure out what they love, and learn to laugh at themselves. My books contain a lot of ‘issues,’ but they contain humor as well.

“When I teach writing workshops, I teach from the belief that everyone can write well, given the right support and encouragement. I love working with reluctant writers. As a teen, I was a reluctant writer. Terrified, even. Now I believe that the scared or hesitant writers usually have the most to say.

“I recently moved from Seattle to Berkeley, California, an area that is rich with writers and literary events. I’ve been warmly welcomed here, and I’m thrilled to be launching Not Like You (Clarion, 2007) from the Bay area.”

What about the writing life first called to you?

As a child and young teen I loved making up stories, but I had such bad experiences in high school English classes that by the time I graduated I believed I couldn’t write and was not creative in any way. In college, I studied history and Latin American literature, and after college I wanted only to be outside and helping people. That desire led me to work with adjudicated and “at risk” teens in wilderness programs.

After a few years doing that, I began having ideas for stories about young people and felt an irrepressible need to write them down. I felt so strongly that I had something to say, that I had to say it through writing stories, and that I needed to have those stories read by others. I quit working with teens, took several writing workshops and classes, spent many hours free-writing, and eventually found a job editing magazine articles. While working on the magazine, I wrote my first novel for young people.

What made you decide to write for young adults?

Most stories that come to me are through the point of view of teenagers. It’s just the way I imagine them. Or maybe that’s simply what interests me: a time of life when you are figuring out who you are, what’s important to you, and how you are both separate and connected to others.

Could you fill us in on your path to publication–any sprints or stumbles along the way?

I’ve alternately sprinted and stumbled–or maybe sprinted and paused–since I began writing my first novel, a chapter book titled The Secret of the Seal (Crown, 1989), in 1985. I write quickly, but I revise a lot and sometimes I need to let a story sit before I can work on it more.

I wrote The Secret of the Seal mostly on Sundays over a year, and the book sold fairly quickly–I had two offers within two and a half months of sending it out.

My second book, My Brother Has AIDS (Atheneum, 1994), went through several major revisions, but I got to develop that story under the brilliant guidance of Atheneum editor Jean Karl, who eventually offered me a contract for it. I took time off from writing when my son was young, and unfortunately Jean died right when I was finishing a third book, one that she and I had been working on together.

That manuscript still needs a lot of work, and I eventually set it aside to write Not Like You (Clarion, 2007). I did my fastest and longest sprint on Not Like You–writing 200 pages of the first draft in 18 days–but ultimately it was a five-year process from concept to publication, one interrupted by a half-year living in India, a major move, and editing an anthology.

For those new to your work, could you briefly highlight your backlist as you see fit?

The Secret of the Seal (Crown, 1989) is a sweet chapter book about an Inuit boy who encounters an unusual seal while hunting. It was an IRA Teacher’s Choice and a Notable Trade Book in Social Studies and has been used in elementary classrooms across the country. My Brother Has AIDS (Atheneum, 1994), which was included in the NYPL’s Books for the Teen Age, tells the story of a 13-year-old swimmer named Lacy who courageously faces a family tragedy and learns how to move beyond it. My third book, You Look Too Young to be a Mom: Teen Mothers Speak Out on Love, Learning, and Success (Perigee, 2004), is a collection of true stories by women ages 20 to 60 who became mothers in their teen years. I worked with more than 100 women to create that book, which was also included in the NYPL’s Books for the Teen Age.

Congratulations on the publication of Not Like You (Clarion, 2007)! What was your initial inspiration for this story?

My stories often begin as images, and it’s hard to say exactly where they come from. For Not Like You, I had an image of a teenage girl finding her mother passed out from drinking on the floor of a trailer in the New Mexico desert. The girl felt a mixture of concern and fury, and that piqued my interest: what was her story? How would she reconcile her conflicting feelings of deep love and intense anger toward her mother? I was also inspired by having lived in New Mexico after college, by my own history with drinking, and by my experience of having an older boyfriend when I was 16.

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

I give a terrific hour-long talk about this timeline, so I’ll try to keep it brief! I began Not Like You in 2001. Simultaneously, I started soliciting essays for You Look Too Young to be a Mom. In early 2002 my husband, my then 8-year-old son, and I lived and traveled in India and Nepal for five months. I worked on the anthology there–when we had power–and had to put Not Like You aside, and when I returned from South Asia I signed a contract for the anthology and had to focus primarily on that.

In the fall of 2003, I got to spend three weeks in a paradise otherwise known as Hedgebrook, a retreat for women writers, and I finished the first draft of Not Like You during that time (that’s where I wrote 200 pages in 18 days). The book went through a round of rejections from publishers in 2004, so I completely revised it, and in 2005 my agent sent it out again. In the summer of that year I received an offer from Jennifer Wingertzahn at Clarion, and over the next year I did four more drafts of the book for her, finishing in fall of 2006. Whew!

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

The biggest challenges were a combination of psychological and literary. For instance, I had to make sure that Kayla, who turns 16 during the story, didn’t sound too mature or too self-aware. As the child of an irresponsible and neglectful alcoholic, Kayla has been exposed to a lot, yet she’s still young emotionally, so I had to show that she was both experienced and naïve. I also felt challenged to make Kayla’s mother, Marilyn, realistic. So many mothers (and fathers) in young adult literature are either absent, neglectful, or thinly drawn.

I had to delve deeply into Kayla’s relationship with her mother, which is at the heart of the story, and it was difficult to balance the love they feel for each other with the far more negative emotions each of them experiences. For both characters, I had to mine my own history of relationships–not the details so much as the feelings and the dynamics. Writing dialogue was particularly gnarly. I probably rewrote the scenes with dialogue more than any others, trying to create both text (what the characters actually say) as well as subtext (what they really mean).

The research challenges included making sure my descriptions of the Southwest settings were accurate–a task accomplished during two writing retreats I did in New Mexico while revising the book. I also spent time reading about alcoholic families and discussing them with a social worker friend.

What do you hope readers take away from the story?

Not Like You is unusual in the YA field in its focus on the mother-daughter relationship. Both Kayla and her mother make bad decisions, yet neither one is a wholly bad person. I hope readers will take heart from Kayla and her mother’s efforts to find their way through a maze of complex emotions.

What advice do you have for beginning novelists?

It’s been said by others, but it’s true: write a lot, read a lot (in your genre and in others), rewrite a lot. And participate in a critique group. Very few people can write and then improve their work entirely on their own.

What do you love about the writing process and why?

I love settling into my ergonomically-designed rolling chair with a mug of hot green tea, the morning sun shining on the cat curled next to my desk, feeling curious and hopeful: what will I discover as I write today? What will my characters discover and say and do? What problems will we solve? Will their lives get messy or juicy or complicated?

The writing process for me is fascinating. It’s the most interesting, challenging, and satisfying work I’ve ever done. It scratches an itch that nothing else can reach. It gives me a sense of purpose that I rarely get from doing anything else–and I’ve done many other kinds of work! I love creating something substantial from an idea, and I love how the truth and beauty inherent in that story resonate with readers. The connection that occurs between me and people who read my writing simply cannot happen in any other way, and it’s really deep and precious. It’s as if I have a part of me that can only be known through my stories, a part that I want known.

Okay, that was a little heavy and off-track at the end, but it’s all true.

What about do you wish you could skip and why?

Only my periodic self-doubt, jealousy of other writers, and lapses in confidence. And the anxiety that accompanies waiting–for my critique group to give me their comments on a new draft, for my editor’s thoughts on my latest revision, or for reviews to come out.

How about publishing? What do you love about it? What do you abhor? And again, in both cases, why?

I’m not sure I can say I love anything about publishing, if you mean the business of it, unless it’s the kind of love one might have for a highly idiosyncratic or even insane relative. Publishing is a wacky, often unpredictable business. I enjoy talking about it, in small doses, and I love being published; otherwise, I try to walk steadily through the ups and downs of publishing, trying not to take anything too personally, trying to keep my focus on writing.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

Aside from reading posts on too many listservs, updating my blogs, procrastinating (what is it about those REI and Sierra Trading Post catalogs?), and checking my refrigerator frequently to see if something decadent has spontaneously appeared, I read a lot, take long bike rides and walks and sometimes a dance class, or work out at the gym. I also hang out with friends and my husband and son, and I love to travel. I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro two years ago and rafted the Colorado through the Grand Canyon last year. I’m aiming to do a 100-mile bike ride this fall.

[Visit Deborah’s LJ and MySpace].

What can your fans look forward to next?

My current work-in-progress is a novel about a 17-year-old named Lina, an ambitious student who hates to see people suffer and aspires to become a doctor. When her parents take her to India during her senior year of high school, she is miserable, and to earn money to return home she takes a job working for an attractive young photographer who photographs what he calls the beauty of suffering. Lina’s experiences in India challenge her beliefs about love and suffering, her confidence in herself, her commitment to her schoolwork, and her desire to pursue her dreams…

Author Interview: April Lurie on Brothers, Boyfriends, and Other Criminal Minds

April Lurie on April Lurie: “I’m a Brooklyn girl. When I write, I’m back in my old neighborhood reinventing my teenage life. But for the past fourteen years my husband and I have been raising our kids in Austin, Texas–a fabulous city with a vibrant and supportive children’s and young adult writers’ community.”

You last spoke to Cynsations in 2002 about your debut novel, Dancing In the Streets of Brooklyn (Delacorte, 2002). Could you fill us in on your writing life since that time?

I’ve had a lot of ups and downs since my fist novel was released. For two years (maybe more, I lost track!) I wrote and revised a summer camp story that never came together.

I’m very stubborn, but when I finally let it go I decided to take a risk and write a story about a shy, Scandinavian girl who gets mixed up with the Italian Mafia. I sent my editor the first three chapters and she loved it! I wrote Brothers, Boyfriends & Other Criminal Minds in nine months and during that time I think I found my voice. At least, I hope I did.

After that, I decided to try something different and write a story from a fifteen-year-old boy’s point of view. It was great fun. That book–The Latent Powers of Dylan Fontaine–will be coming out in May 2008 with Delacorte. I’m very excited.

Congratulations on the publication of Brothers, Boyfriends & Other Criminal Minds (Delacorte, 2007)! Could you tell us about the story?

Thank you! Sure. The year is 1977, and fourteen-year-old April Lundquist lives in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, home of the Colombo and Bonanno crime families. April has always felt safe in her neighborhood (who’s going to mess with the mob?), but when Salvatore “Soft Sal” Luciano, approaches April with a business proposition she can’t refuse, things begin to change.

Not only is April finding hundred-dollar bills in her school books, but now her older brother, Matt, is in serious trouble for dating a crime bosses daughter.On top of this, her long time crush, Dominick DeMao–bad-boy rocker and heart-breaker–is suddenly interested in her.

It’s a bit of a roller-coaster ride, but in the end, April learns a little about family, friends, and choosing the right guy.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

I really put myself out there because this story is partly autobiographical. I grew up in Dyker Heights and several mobsters lived on my block. When I was a kid I thought it was totally normal (doesn’t everyone live this way?), but as I got older I began to realize what a unique experience I had. Finally, I figured, hey, I should write about this!

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

Well, let’s see. It was quicker this time around! I began writing the story in early 2005, and finished by the end of the year. I have a wonderful editor at Delacorte who was kind enough to read parts of it along the way and offer advice. The only problem was the cover art. It was difficult to find a concept that worked. Then, right before the catalogs were about to be printed, my editor sent me a jpeg of the final art. I loved it! Definitely worth the wait.

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

I was a teenager in 1977, but I still had to do quite a bit of research about the time period, i.e., fashion, movies, music. It was kind of like a refresher course. I read books about the Mob and watched all my favorite gangster flicks–“Goodfellas,” “Donnie Brasco,” “The Godfather”–which was very enjoyable. Of course, growing up around the Mafia helped a lot–I basically knew about their family life, what cars they drove, what clothes they wore, the lingo, the gestures, but of course the challenge was making it real for the reader. Hopefully, I did.

What do you love about the writing process and why?

I love coming up with an idea that excites me, and I love finding the voice of my protagonist. Writing is very solitary and sometimes I get lonely, so I enjoy the whole process of getting to know my characters so they seem like friends. I love working with my editor, who always seems to know how to make a story better.

What about do you wish you could skip and why?

The first draft can be daunting. Staring at the blank page when you’ve had a bad week and would rather be out having lunch with a friend is tough. But I wouldn’t skip any of it, really. Writing is a long, messy process and I suppose even the bad times are necessary.

How about publishing? What do you love about it? What do you abhor? And again, in both cases, why?

Hmm, publishing. Yes, I suppose we do have a love/hate relationship. I’ll admit, having a book published is a fabulous feeling. Kind of like giving birth. But then there are reviews and marketing pressures and (sometimes embarrassing) book signings. The highs and lows can be hard to deal with, especially when you are trying to be creative!

If you could go back in time to your beginning author self, what would you tell her?

Relax. Don’t worry so much. Take your time and enjoy life.

Author Interview: David Lubar on True Talents

David Lubar on David Lubar: “I write novels and short stories for anyone with a sense of humor or a sense of wonder. My hobbies include procrastination, complaining, and voting for myself on teen-choice book lists.”

You last spoke to Cynsations in 2005 about your YA novel, Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie (Dutton, 2005). Could you fill us in on your writing life since that time?

I’ve spent the last two years working ceaselessly on developing a neuro-linguist method for responding to interview question with answers that will be so captivating and charming that they will inspire everyone who reads them to immediately buy multiple copies of all my books. (Psssst. Hey you. You need True Talents (Starscape, 2007).) Where was I? Oh, yeah… Beyond that, my writing life involves far more writing than it did when last we spoke. Back then, I was on the road way too much. I’ve stopped doing school visits for a while. I now have much more time to write, and a deeper appreciation of the finer aspects of poverty.

Congratulations on the publication of True Talents (Starscape, 2007)! It’s a sequel to Hidden Talents (Tor, 1999)(Starscape, 2007), so let’s start there! Could you tell us about Hidden Talents, and why you wanted to continue the story?

Hidden Talents, at its heart, is about the way that society is so quick to cast off kids and to slap labels on them. With Edgeview Alternative School, I created a place where the kids, the teachers, and even the building itself is a cast off. But these kids have been badly mislabled. And that’s where the magic shows up. The kids aren’t behavior problems. Instead, they have these amazing, unrecognized gifts.

I honestly didn’t have any plans to continue the story. But there was a demand for a sequel, both from readers, and from my publisher. Kids wanted to know what happened next. My publisher wanted to build on the momentum and success of the first book.

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

The spark didn’t happen until somewhere near the middle of the timeline. I started writing the book in July, 2003, and finished the first draft that October. It took up with the same narrator, Martin Anderson, as he was about to start high school. I kept working on it through October of 2004. I normally don’t take that long with a book, but two things were working against me. I was traveling constantly, and I didn’t like the way the book turned out. Meanwhile, my editor left Tor.

After talking with my new editor, I decided to start from scratch. I put aside the book I’d written, and began a new one focusing on a different character–Eddie “Trash” Thalmayer. The spark came when I thought about someone waking up from a drugged stupor in a research lab. When the first book ended, the guys still had a secret they were trying to keep from the world. Now, the secret was out. I had a first draft three months later. But it still didn’t go into copy editing until last July.

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

The biggest challenge was psychological. Hidden Talents is still growing in popularity. There was no way I was going to sully it with a crappy sequel. I think that’s why I dragged my feet for so long.

As for literary challenges, I wanted immediacy, but I also wanted to show what had happened to all of the guys from the first book. I decided to combine a first-person narrative from the main character with third-person sections from the other characters. I’ve always loved the whole “Roshomon” aspect of showing a story through more than one set of eyes. Since the book switches viewpoints so much, I put a lot of time into arranging these sections in a way I hoped wouldn’t feel awkward to the reader.

I also took a big risk with the opening. Eddie is emerging from a drugged stupor. He’s hallucinating, and his mind is wandering. The scene doesn’t immediately make sense. That’s a big risk, and I’m still worried I’ll lose a few potential readers, but it seems to have worked out. Besides, how can you resist a book that opens with: “The gorilla who clung to the ceiling was wearing a Princeton T-shirt”?

How long have you been writing with an eye toward publication?

I was collecting rejection slips back when I was in high school. I got serious about publication when I got out of college 1976. I made my first fiction sale in 1978. So I’m far closer to my expiration date than many of the current novelists.

What do you love about the writing process and why?

I love writing dialogue, especially when my characters’ personalities begin to emerge. I’ll have this kid who’s little more than a lump of clay, and he’ll say something that suddenly defines a part of him. Often, my supporting characters will take over. I’m really fond of Ellis from Flip (Starscape, 2004), and Malcolm from Dunk (Clarion, 2002)(excerpt). I’m really bad with tools, and less than marginal with a drawing pencil, so I find it extremely rewarding that I can build things out of words.

What about do you wish you could skip and why?

I’d love to skip the delay that happens before I get feedback. I wish people could take in a novel like a painting and respond immediately.

How about publishing? What do you love about it? What do you abhor? And again, in both cases, why?

I love they way I’m treated. Tor, especially, makes me feel like I stumbled into someone else’s dream. They take me places, promote my books, and just treat me wonderfully. I love going out to dinner with my publisher because she has incredibly good taste in wine. And I love hearing from people who felt my books made a difference, because I didn’t set out to change the world. I set out to entertain people. It’s nice to know that my work has positive side effects.

As for things I abhor, I dislike not winning major awards, because I am pathetically needy and drink validation the way a vampire drinks blood.

How has the business changed over time, for worse and better?

It’s tough for me to judge that, since my own relationship to the industry had changed over time. When I started, I was unknown. Then I became a rumor. Now, I’m vaguely familiar. The only constant change I’ve noticed is that more and more of the editors are the same age as my daughter.

If you could go back in time to your beginning author self, what would you tell him?

Buy Berkshire Hathaway. Stay off the Internet.

Author Feature: Olivia Birdsall

Olivia Birdsall on Olivia Birdsall: “I was born and raised in Orange County, CA, the second of ten children. (People always ask me, ‘Sooo ten kids, how was that?’ like my parents must have been cousins, or lived on a commune or a dirt farm, or something…

“I really loved having all of those brothers and sisters. They’re all amazingly smart and beautiful and funny. That’s probably the most annoying part about it: too many superstars.)

“My family moved to Utah while I was in high school, which was difficult, but interesting. Growing up, I never thought I’d be a writer; I always thought I was destined to make lots of money and be very important, but beyond that, my career aspirations weren’t very consistent.

“I decided to major in English in college when I realized that I really loved reading, and talking about books and stories more than almost anything. I graduated from NYU with an MFA in Creative Writing in 2005, and I now teach writing at NYU full-time (which means about two or three days a week, seven months a year–it’s a dream job!).

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

I began working on Notes on a Near-Life Experience (Delacorte, 2007) during my last year as an undergraduate. Back then it was a book about a dancer with an eating disorder whose older brother ran away and was living in a video arcade (I still want to write the story of the kid who runs away to live in a bizarre place like that).

I took a year off from writing it to work full-time and apply to grad school, and I worked on it off and on for two years at NYU. I sent it to the 2004 Delacorte contest (without an ending, but with a note that said I’d be more than happy to write a really great ending if they published it), and it was rejected. I re-submitted it the next year with a different first scene and with a pretty weak ending, and they took it. That made me a big believer in the importance of first scenes/chapters.

Was there anything during your apprenticeship that you felt was especially helpful? Was there anything you wish you’d skipped?

I really, really valued the encouragement and advice of my workshop groups and professors. I think I would have given up if they hadn’t told me time and again that I wasn’t a complete loser. I wish I hadn’t been so scared and critical of myself. I still feel as if I am my own worst critic and that the constant criticism and doubt that comes from my own brain prevents me from writing more, writing better, and taking bigger risks.

Congratulations on the publication of Notes on a Near-Life Experience (Delacorte, 2007)! Where did you get the initial idea for this book?

I wanted to write about redefining and reconstructing family because my own experiences with an evolving concept of family (divorce, the death of a sibling) were the ones that shaped me the most as a person. I think one of the most difficult things we face as we’re trying to figure out how to grow up is making sense of things that don’t look the way they do on TV, that don’t turn out the way you expected them to.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way? In particular, could you tell us about your experience with the Delacorte Press contest?

I think I did that in the publishing question above… But, I do love to talk about myself, so…. Winning Delacorte was like having a dream fall out of nowhere into my lap. I didn’t feel like I had earned publication…. I thought I’d have to send out my manuscript to every publishing house on the planet and be rejected by all of them twice before I’d ever have anything published.

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

I’m not a very consistent writer. If I sat down and wrote, even for an hour, every day I’d churn out thousands of pages (albeit mediocre ones) a year. However, I am lazy and most often write under the gun (which is why having a workshop group, deadlines, etc. is still SO crucial for me); my biggest challenge is my own laziness and fickleness.

What is it like to be a debut author in 2007? What moments already stand out?

I really loved my book party. I organized it as a combination thirtieth birthday party and book party–it had a prom theme (in honor of the book)–we had a balloon arch where we took Polaroid pictures of all of the guests, a punch bowl, cookies, music from when I was in junior high and high school; my friends read anecdotes about their own high school experiences; we even ended it with a cheesy, awkward slow dance. It was pretty much the awesomest book party I’ve ever attended.

Are you doing anything special to promote your new release?

I’ve tried talking to everyone I know in journalism to get them to talk about my book and say nice things about it. I’ve offered free kissing lessons to anyone who’ll buy the book, but, come to think of it, no one has taken me up on it…strange. If you have any promotional suggestions, or if you know of a place that will let me a stage a Notes on a Near-Life Experience bake/book sale or car wash, please let me know. Seriously. Call me.

What do you love about the writing process and why?

I love what the process has the power to illicit from me. I love it when an especially beautiful, powerful, or hilarious turn of phrase shows up on my screen out of nowhere, like a gift. I love it when my characters refuse to do what I want them to, and ask me to tell a different story than the one I was planning on. I love all of this because it says writing really is about something more than self-gratification and self-indulgence; it can transcend the writer.

What about do you wish you could skip and why?

I wish I could skip the Internet surfing that I do to distract myself from writing, and the lack of confidence… I love the writing; I even enjoy revising to some degree, what bothers me is the time that I waste, that I just can’t bring myself to stop wasting.

How about publishing? What do you love about it? What do you abhor? And again, in both cases, why?

My experience with publishing is so limited. I wish that it moved faster, I guess. I wish that the publicity/promotion stuff was easier to figure out.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

Write, write, write. Get a great workshop group. Give yourself deadlines. SUBMIT your work. And don’t beat yourself up; everyone sucks sometimes, and plenty of people who are writing worse books than yours have been published. Louise Plummer used to tell our class: “Good writers borrow; the best writers steal!” I think that’s great advice.

How about those interested in writing for the young adult audience in particular?

Don’t preach or moralize. Try to find out how teenagers live, talk, and interact NOW rather than relying solely on your own experience. Remember how smart your readers are.

Author Follow-up: Tanya Lee Stone on A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl

Author Tanya Lee Stone last spoke to Cynsations about her debut novel in February 2006. She updates us on the latest news of the book.

Congratulations on the release of the paperback edition of A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl (Wendy Lamb/Random House, 2007)! What’s new for your readers in the soft cover?

The first thing you will notice is its hot and sexy new cover! With the boy’s eyes open and the girl’s eyes closed, it kind of says it all about our resident predator Bad Boy, don’t you think?

There is also a bonus Reading Guide in the back, with questions from the fabulous Tracie Vaughn Zimmer. I’m excited about that, as a lot of the feedback I get is how the book is serving as a way to jump-start what can sometimes be hard discussions about love and sex. The reading guide should also appeal to book clubs, and I’m planning on making myself available (virtually) to some book club discussions. Some high schools are already looking ahead to do this for next year. Anyone who has a book club (school or otherwise) and is interested in that option should just email me!

Since we last talked, what kind of response has the book generated among readers?

You know, the book is really about how the choices we make affect who we are and who we want to be. And that we learn from every experience we have, good or bad. The response I’ve gotten in relation to this has been incredibly touching. I’ve had girls write and tell me the book helped them avoid a bad situation, or that they gave it to a friend they were worried about. I’ve also had teens write and tell me they wish they had read the book earlier, but that it really helped them understand some of the emotions they were feeling. I’ve even had parents say it gave them a concrete way to reach out to their kids and communicate with them better about these issues of teen sex.

Some people have expressed surprise that the book hasn’t generated any challenges (that I’m aware of), and I’m hoping it’s because people understand that although I didn’t shy away from the sex scenes (after all, the book is about love and sex!) readers agreed that there was nothing gratuitous in there, and that I take my responsibility to my readers very seriously.

Also, I often get wind of a school where the book is making its rounds and the girls are passing it to each other. There’s nothing better than finding out teens are saying “you’ve got to read this” to their friends. And I’ve been told by librarians that some of their copies are mysteriously “disappearing.” Always a promising sign (grin).

What have been the highlights of your journey with the book to date?

I’d have to say one of the major highlights was getting to know Judy Blume a little bit. Random House sent her a copy of the book, which, I must admit, initially freaked me out. I mean, it had never occurred to me that she might read it. And since I had threaded her book Forever as a theme in my book, I had a moment of panic. What if she hated that I did that?

Thankfully, she didn’t. She loved the book and even mentioned it in an interview. We were put in touch with each other and met for breakfast, where we had a long talk about life and books, books and life. And she was every bit as fabulous as the image I had of her in my head.

The other big highlight has been all the positive personal responses I’ve been sent from teenagers, parents, and even grandparents. There was also the amazing news I got one day telling me that girls were writing in the back of their library copy of my book (a la, the trend I had Josie start in the back of Forever). That copy is now filled with the same kind of support messages I fictionalized! How cool is that?

I blogged about it in a letter to librarians, asking them to please forgive me and consider it a good exception to the rule of never writing in library books!

Also, although I’ve been publishing books for awhile, Bad Boy was my foray into YA fiction and I’ve been thrilled with the welcome I’ve gotten from that community. I’ve made a lot of new writer friends.

What can your fans look forward to next?

I have a few more books that feature strong girls on the horizon; this time nonfiction. Elizabeth Leads the Way is a picture book about Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who was the person who started the whole suffrage movement to get women the right to vote. That book has fantastic, quirky illustrations by Rebecca Gibbon.

Also out next spring is a Young Adult biography of Ella Fitzgerald. If you don’t know much about how she went from being a homeless teenager to being one of the most well-known singers on the planet, you’ll have to check that out. An incredibly inspiring story.

The third in this theme of amazing women is a book called Almost Astronauts, about the women who began astronaut testing in 1961 but were not allowed to continue. It was another 20 years before the first women were let into the space program. And I am almost finished with the next novel, but I’m not giving any teasers about that! My website is being redesigned as we speak, so look for new things there, too.

Cynsational Notes

So far, A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl has been named to the following state lists: Texas Tayshas, Kentucky Bluegrass Master Award List, and Maryland’s Great Books for Teens 2006. It also has been listed among New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age, ALA Quick Picks, and nominated for ALA Best Books for Young Adults and Popular Paperbacks.

Author Update: Nancy Garden

Nancy Garden on Nancy Garden: “I was born in 1938 in Boston, Mass., and have lived all my life in New England and New York, although I’ve traveled a fair amount in the US and abroad.

“When I was little I wanted to be a vet, and designed my own animal hospital; when I was older, I wanted to be in theater and indeed spent quite a few years as an actress, lighting designer, and Jill of all trades–but no matter what else I’ve done (teaching, office work), I’ve always written. I think the first thing I wrote for fun outside of school, in addition to a few poems, was a story I wrote when I was around eight, called something like ‘The Valley that Turned into a Mountain.’ Later, at around thirteen, I wrote a ‘book,’ called Dogs I Have Known.

“One of the wonderful things about writing, which I discovered early, is that you can write just about anywhere, and you can write even if you have to do other things in order to make a living.

“I grew up during World War II, and because my father was in the Red Cross instead of actually in the service (he’d been turned down by the Navy because of poor eyesight), we were victims of the housing shortage when the war ended. We moved a lot, and partly because of that, partly because I had no siblings, partly because I was sick fairly often–and perhaps mostly because I came from a reading family–books very quickly became my friends. I read avidly as a child, and told myself stories most nights before falling asleep.

“I loved working as a classroom teacher, and for a long time I taught a correspondence course in writing. I’ve also worked as an editor, which in a way can be another form of teaching. But my main ‘job’ now is writing, mostly books for young people, although I also write occasional reviews and book-related articles. I also speak at conferences, often about censorship as well as about my books, and I visit schools to talk about writing.

“You can find more extensive biographical information about me in Volumes 6, 8, 12, and 147 of the Gale Research series Something about the Author (available in many libraries); the most recent (Vol. 147) has the most extensive and up-to-date account.”

You last spoke to Cynsations in September 2005, and you were then looking forward to the publication of Endgame (Harcourt, 2006)(see interview). Endgame centers on a boy who becomes a school shooter and the reasons behind that. You said, “Endgame grew out of Columbine and my strong feeling then and for years afterward that not enough attention had been paid to bullying as a causal factor.” Could you tell us about the response you’ve had to the book? What conversations has it prompted (I’m recalling a panel at ALAN last fall)?

I was honored and excited to participate in that discussion, with Patrick Jones, Julie Anne Peters, and moderator C.J. Bott, who’s the author of The Bully in the Book and in the Classroom (Scarecrow Press, 2004).

C.J. opened the discussion by asking for a show of hands from people in the audience who’d been bullied or who had been bullies, and started us off with definitions and some alarming statistics. We covered what bullying is, how it feels, how it’s been ignored and still is ignored; we talked about its long-term effects on bullies, their victims, and bystanders (kids who witness bullying). We also described ways in which some schools and communities have tried to combat bullying.

Patrick and I gave examples from our books and from life, and Julie read poignant letters she’s received from young readers who’ve been bullied.

C.J. closed by giving the audience an assignment: do something about bullying because “the lives of over 32,000 students depends on it.”

Responses to Endgame have been few, but fascinating. I’ve had a small number of letters from kids who’ve indicated, usually reticently, that they’ve had experiences similar to Gray’s (Gray is the book’s main character, and he is a victim of bullies).

I had a letter from a teacher who wanted a paperback edition of Endgame so she could hold a class discussion of it, and one from a student doing “a project” on the book.

One of the most interesting and gratifying responses was from a police officer–a “crime prevention officer”–who runs a literacy program called “Book ‘Em,” which is dedicated to heightening reading skills as a way of combatting crime. He was very interested in Endgame and I believe has booktalked it on several occasions. And a couple of people have been keen on discussing the characters in detail. There have been some good reviews, and the book’s given me the opportunity to have a few informal conversations at conferences about bullying in general.

But bullying is a tough subject, I think, for many people to face, let alone talk about openly, especially since generation after generation in this country has given it tacit approval by treating it as a normal part of childhood–a rite of passage that kids have to weather mostly on their own.

I’ve been encouraged, though, not only to see that the media have in the last few years been more conscious of the role bullying plays in school shootings, but also to see a growth in books and programs that treat bullying more realistically and responsibly than it’s been treated in the past. I hope those developments will continue to raise the public’s consciousness of this serious, ubiquitous problem in our schools and communities.

Congratulations on the 25th anniversary of Annie on My Mind! Could you tell us about the anniversary edition from FSG?

It has a lovely, romantic new cover, and in the back there’s a “conversation” between me and Kathleen T. Horning, Director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

It’s very exciting–amazing, too–that Annie’s still going strong after all these years and that I still regularly get letters from kids who’ve just discovered it, and others from people who describe their first encounter with it years ago and tell me they’ve gone back to it over and over again.

When you think of the book, what are some of the memories that come to mind?

Many memories–let’s see! A special one is of how enthusiastically my Farrar, Straus and Giroux editor, Margaret Ferguson, was about it when she first read it, how completely she understood exactly what I was trying to do and say with the book, and how enormously helpful she was (and still is, always!).

I also remember how I struggled with point of view while I was first drafting Annie. At first I wrote the story in the first person from the main character, Liza’s point of view, then switched to the third person, and finally went back to the first for the main story, which is a flashback, but used the third for the very short sections that take place in the “present.”

I remember being nervous about how the book would be received and how surprised and pleased I was that it was greeted mostly with enthusiasm. And of course I have many memories of the brouhaha that occurred eleven years after Annie was published, when it was burned and banned in schools in Kansas City in both Kansas and Missouri, and of the courageous high school students who sued (successfully) to have it returned to school library shelves in Olathe, Kansas.

If you could go back twenty-five years to the Nancy you were then, what would you tell her?

Oh, my! I guess I’d tell her that Annie was going to have a long life, and that LGBT literature for and about LGBTQ kids and kids growing up with GL parents was going to grow and become a recognized, viable genre. I’d tell her, too, that our community would make great strides in achieving equal rights, and I’d probably also tell her that by the time Annie on My Mind reached its 25th anniversary, its author and her partner would reach their 38th, which would also be their third as a legally married couple in Massachusetts!

Congratulations also on the publication Hear Us Out! Lesbian and Gay Stories of Struggle, Progress, and Hope, 1950 to the Present (FSG, 2007)! What was your initial inspiration for creating this book?

In a way, Hear Us Out! developed over a period of many years, for as I explain in the introduction, way back in the ’60s I started writing what I thought was going to be a collection of short stores, called Aspects, about being gay. But eventually I abandoned that project and concentrated on writing novels instead.

Much later, though, after Marion Dane Bauer (author interview) accepted a story of mine, “Parents Night,” for her wonderful anthology Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence, I began writing stories again, and after a few years, I started thinking of doing a collection of my own.

When I realized story collections need some kind of glue to hold the stories together, I hit on the idea of dividing the book into sections according to decade, introducing each section with an essay describing the gay rights movement in that decade, and following the essay with two stories that could have taken place at around the same time. I started with the ’50s since that was the era in which I was a teen, and went right up to the present.

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

I’m not sure exactly when I started putting the stories together or when I started writing the essays, but I was working pretty extensively on the book for around two years, although I probably started thinking about it and writing notes to myself about it long before that.

I assume that by major events you mean events that I felt were essential to cover in the essays. There were actually many important ones–landmarks, if you will–events like the founding of early gay and lesbian organizations and publications, the beginnings and growth of gay-friendly religious organizations, the early demonstrations and marches, the founding of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop (which was the first gay bookstore in the world), the Stonewall riots, the publication of John Donovan’s I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip (the first kids’ book with gay content), the murder of gay San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, the founding of the Hetrick Martin Institute and the Harvey Milk School, the founding of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, the founding of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, the beginnings of gay-straight alliances in US schools, the removal of homosexuality from the list of mental disorders by the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association, the AIDS epidemic, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the long battle both before and after it over the position of gays in the military, the beginnings and continuation of long battles about gay marriage and about adoption of children by same-sex couples, the major court cases: Romer v. Evans (which defeated an amendment in Colorado that would have prevented gays and lesbians from going to court to fight discrimination), Bowers v. Hardwick and Lawrence v. Texas (both of which were cases about the repeal of sodomy laws; Bowers failed and Lawrence succeeded), and Goodridge v. Department of Health (which established legal gay marriage in Massachusetts), and all along the way, highlights of the ongoing struggle against discrimination against LGBT people.

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

Although I love doing research, it’s the area I found the most challenging as I worked on Hear Us Out! I knew I wanted to include as much material as possible showing the effect of the gay rights movement on kids, but I also knew that for the first few decades, there would be very little in general, and even less that was positive, for of course until the ’80s or so, few if any people believed that kids could genuinely be queer. (I use the term “queer,” by the way, not as the pejorative it used to be, but as a term that includes all of us–gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, transsexual; I also still use the more traditional term “gay” to do that, although that’s often not quite as inclusive.)

Back in the ’50s, many of us who knew we were gay or thought we might be soon discovered that it was almost impossible to learn anything about it–again, especially anything that was positive or even anything that made sense.

Homosexuality wasn’t talked about; one didn’t see gay people on TV or in the movies or read about them in books or newspapers, so many kids who felt same-sex attractions thought they were “the only one.” In the early decades, I had to rely primarily on the stories alone to show how being LGBTQ affected kids.

Another research challenge was to reconcile opposing or varying accounts of some incidents. That, of course, is a challenge in almost any research into historical events of any era. And still another challenge, especially in the final essay, was to keep up with the fast-moving developments in the same-sex marriage struggle right down to the last moment–November 13, 2006–that the book’s production schedule could accommodate changes.

I tried my best to include the most up-to-date information possible–but I did have to caution readers in a few places that by the time they read the book, many of those developments will have progressed, changed, and/or even been resolved.

I was blessed all along in having constant help and support from the folks at FSG–my editor, Margaret Ferguson, her assistant, Beth Potter, and FSG’s truly amazing copyeditor, Elaine Chubb.

More globally, as you’ve watched the progress of YA fiction what has delighted you? Surprised you? Frustrated you? What do you anticipate for the future?

What has delighted me is the wonderful progress we’ve made, and the exciting changes: the demise of queer characters as defeated victims, the move toward LGBT novels in which being LGBT is a given or doesn’t overshadow all other parts of the story, the move toward writing about universals from a queer perspective instead of only about about the difficulties of being queer, the fact that we’re beginning to have humor in our books now.

We’re in a transition period as a genre, from the early days when our books were–understandably–dark and gloomy to a time when not only can we concentrate on queer kids who aren’t particularly downtrodden, even when they face homophobia, but can also, I think, join other YA authors in experimenting with literary forms.

We have some really terrific people writing kids’ books with LGBTQ content now, and not only writing them, but also apparently committed to continuing to write them–and that’s truly wonderful. It’s also wonderful that queer characters appear more and more in YAs focused on straight kids, acknowledging and reflecting our presence in the human landscape.

It frustrates me that although there’s a pretty steady stream now of YAs–even young YAs–with LGBTQ content, that stream is still only a brook compared with the torrent of YA books in general. But there’s no sign of that brook’s stopping, and it seems also to be growing, and that’s encouraging.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

Read–read–read–anything and everything, and think about what you read. And write–write–write–anything and everything. Study what you’ve written when you’ve written it, put it aside for a while, study it again, and revise it. Like almost all of us, you’ll probably find it needs revising. Someone once said that writing isn’t writing; it’s rewriting, and I’ve certainly found that to be true. As you grow and develop, make sure to read books, stories, poems, and/or plays of the kinds you think you might like to write, but continue to read other things, too.

How about those building a career?

Do all the above, but also read books about writing, and writers’ magazines, too. Talk to writers, go to writers’ conferences if you can, join a critique group (don’t feel you have to stay if you don’t like it or if you find it isn’t helpful), take a creative writing course, consider joining a professional organization like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, explore authors’ websites and online writing groups and courses. Many of these things can not only help you with the act of writing itself, but can also teach you about the business of writing–especially about how to submit and market your work.

What do you think was the best decision you made for your writing?

Hmm–probably to work toward the day when I could quit my day job and concentrate on writing, and then deciding to actually do it when I finally could.

What would you do differently if you had the chance?

Find a way to be able to spend more time writing! I’m still trying to work that one out. As one progresses as a professional writer, one often finds that other, related activities are important to pursue, too–conferences, school visits, interviews, correspondence, book promotion, etc. These things are fun and valuable, but they do cut into the time one has at one’s desk and in front of one’s computer or typewriter or lined pad!

What are your favorite recent reads and why?

I just finished re-reading a book called A Darker Place by Laurie R. King. The reason I re-read it was that I was going to a writers’ conference and her books are enthralling, well written, and make excellent airplane and escape reading. As I write this, I’ve been reading books I need to read for various work-related events and tasks, but this summer I hope to be able to concentrate on other reading as well. I’d like, for example, to re-read a biography of my favorite author, Virgina Woolf, along with re-reading Woolf’s own books so I can study what the biographer says about them. And I’ll be reading lots of new or almost new YA books this summer, too.

Cynsational Notes

See Nancy’s newly redesigned and relaunched author site at

Author Interview: Ann Bausum on Our Country’s First Ladies

Ann Bausum writes about U.S. history for young people from her home in Beloit, Wisconsin. Her books often examine social justice themes, including the voting rights of women (With Courage and Cloth (National Geographic, 2004)), the struggle to integrate interstate buses during 1961 (Freedom Riders (National Geographic, 2006)), and the power of free speech (Muckrakers (National Geographic, 2007)).

Her books consistently earn awards and recognition, including Sibert Honor designation for Freedom Riders and a Jane Addams Children’s Book Award for With Courage and Cloth. Both titles were designated notable books by the American Library Association (ALA), too, and gained recognition on many other lists of commended books. In addition, Booklist named Freedom Riders “Top of the List” as the best youth nonfiction book of 2006.

Ann graduated from Beloit College in 1979. She and her husband have two teenage sons.

What about the writing life first called to you?

A love of books and reading–from the earliest ages–led directly to my writing life. Even as a kid I wrote picture books, memorized history, and organized neighborhood play productions. I don’t think I could not be a writer. That’s what I’m wired–and inspired–to do.

What made you decide to write for young readers?

After graduating from college, I used my writing skills and interests in very practical ways through public relations work. For ten years I wrote and edited news releases, catalog copy, and magazine stories.

Then I stopped working to stay home with my two young sons. My boys helped reintroduce me to children’s literature during weekly visits to the public library and the reading of hundreds, even thousands, of books for young readers.

Finally I had the dangerous thought: “I could write one of these!” And I was off.

Could you fill us in on your path to publication–any sprints or stumbles along the way?

Thinking I could write a children’s book was one thing; it took me years to figure out exactly how to do it. (And I’m still learning!) Eventually I focused on one topic and learned about the business through that project.

It took me about five years to go from the idea of writing a book about the explorer Roy Chapman Andrews to holding a finished copy of Dragon Bones and Dinosaur Eggs (National Geographic, 2000) in my hands.

Along the way I found the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (a tremendous resource for new authors), developed an understanding of how to write about history, and met my publisher, the National Geographic Society. My children were still pretty young then, so I learned how to work with short blocks of time, background chaos, and interruptions, too.

For those new to your work, could you briefly highlight your backlist as you see fit?

Sure. Dragon Bones and Dinosaur Eggs (National Geographic, 2000) tells the story of an adventurous explorer from the turn of the last century who helped find the first nests of dinosaur eggs. Roy Chapman Andrews made his discoveries during the first motorized expeditions to the Gobi of Mongolia. Camels carried in supplies–including thousands of gallons of gasoline–and hauled away fossils and other finds.

Our Country’s Presidents (National Geographic, 2001, 2005 2nd edition) is just what it sounds like, an introduction to the 42 men who have served our country as chief executive. (Fact: George W. Bush is our 43rd President, but only 42 men have been President. Grover Cleveland is counted twice because his two terms were interrupted by the Presidency of Benjamin Harrison; thus Cleveland counts as #22 and #24). This book is packed with facts, trivia, and details that help to put a human/personal face on our national leaders.

With Courage and Cloth: Winning the Fight for a Woman’s Right to Vote (National Geographic, 2004) grew out of my passion for this subject–and childhood memories of meeting one of the suffragists featured in the book, Alice Paul. I wanted young people to know that women worked and sweated and schemed and dreamed and suffered and persevered for 72 years to gain a right that is too easily taken for granted.

Freedom Riders: John Lewis and Jim Zwerg on the Front Lines of the Civil Rights Movement (National Geographic, 2006) tells two stories–the story of segregated life in the 1940s and ’50s, and the story of how people crossed racial and geographic divides to end the practice of segregated travel in the South. During this struggle Freedom Riders exhibited tremendous courage and a deep commitment to act nonviolently.

See below for more about Our Country’s First Ladies (National Geographic, 2007), a companion book to Our Country’s Presidents, and my upcoming book Muckrakers (National Geographic, September, 2007).

Congratulations on the publication of Our Country’s First Ladies (National Geographic, 2007)! What was your initial inspiration for this book?

National Geographic proposed the idea for Our Country’s Presidents, and Our Country’s First Ladies is a natural extension of that book. A Wisconsin bookseller (from Harry Schwartz Books) first suggested doing a companion book about the President’s wives, and I thought it sounded like a great idea. The same thought bubbled up through National Geographic staff members, too. I loved the notion of giving equal time to the women who partnered with our Presidents.

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

Actually we produced this book twice, once in 2005 as a 64-page supplement to a special edition of Our Country’s Presidents, and again two years later as a stand-alone edition. We knew from the beginning that the supplement might turn into its own book, so I collected sources and notes during the first production that would enhance an expanded edition. It took about six months to reinvent the book into its new 128-page layout.

One highlight during my second round of research was attending a conference about the First Ladies at a new museum in Ohio, the National First Ladies’ Library, that is devoted to all aspects of First Lady history. Not only did I meet and hear presentations by a number of First Lady historians, but I participated in behind-the-scenes peeks at the library’s collection of photographs, correspondence, memorabilia, and clothing that had been worn by the First Ladies.

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

Number one challenge: Space. The design for this book designates a specific amount of space for each profile. I always try to “write tight” but a project like this requires constant reliance on that Strunk and White (The Elements of Style (Longman, 2000, 4th edition)) mantra of “omit needless words.” I shoe-horned favorite stories and trivia into fact boxes, photo captions, even the blank spaces on the last lines of paragraphs.

Number two challenge: Logistics. A project like this requires a tremendous focus on detail. Are we being consistent in our presentation of facts in fact boxes? Have we duplicated information between section, e.g. in the case where a point of trivia that was shared by multiple First Ladies? (I try not to duplicate the same facts within a book.) Is any text running over the allotted space? (Text overages are easy to miss during proofing unless you systematically compare new and old versions.) Keeping consistent within our own parameters–such as how to list family members or earlier marriages–requires a lot of double-checking, too.

Number three challenge: What are the facts? You would think that a fact is a fact is a fact, but facts are subject to all sorts of interpretation–and error. I consult many respected sources when I write, but even the best books can contain mistakes. About two-thirds of the way through the production process on this book I discovered a series of math errors in my source for the ages at which women had become First Ladies. I went back through and recalculated every age myself–as well as all the other ages I had taken from this book, like age at marriage and age at death. Children rely on a book like mine for school report writing, so I work hard to make sure it presents accurate information.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

I encourage young people to do three things.

First, read: Read a lot, read for variety, read for fun–just read! Readers soak up the way our language works without even realizing it. Reading builds vocabulary, too.

Second, learn the mechanics: All those spelling lists and grammar drills make a difference. Do them! You can’t play a game if you don’t know the rules.

Third, practice: Keep a journal, find a pen pal, write your grandmother. Writing is like music, or sports, or any other skill–you get better with practice.

One final bit of advice: Step outside your comfort zone. By reading the book you think you won’t like, trying that food that looks suspicious, and visiting the place you never thought you’d want to see (as three examples), you’ll learn and grow in ways that enrich your ability to think and write well.

How about those interested in non-fiction specifically?

Read about your area of interest–discover the facts, interpretations, and opinions others have about it. Ask a librarian to teach you how to find a variety of sources of information. Don’t just rely on the Internet. Learn how to tell a reputable source from an unreliable one. Pay attention when teachers explain how to take notes (I still use note cards, just like I did in high school), plan an outline, and organize your thoughts.

Most of all, keep your passion for the subject. When all the stacks of reference books, note cards, and outlines are swept away, your love of a topic should remain.

What do you love about the writing process and why?

I guess I just touched on part of the answer in my response to the previous question: passion. My connection to a topic fuels my work. A lot of what a writer does is tedious, repetitive, time-consuming, even painful. Typing up all my note cards (which is faster than writing them by hand) isn’t much fun, but I love collecting facts. Sitting all day at a photo archive is uncomfortable, but I’m thrilled to see glimpses of the past. Revising a manuscript is hard work, but I find satisfaction in seeing the text grow stronger and more engaging. My commitment to a topic turns the steps in the process of writing into a pleasure instead of work. If I can share some of my passion with the reader, that’s the best reward of all.

What about the writing process do you wish you could skip and why?

I love doing photo research–finding the images that illustrate my books–and I’ve done that work for all but the presidential titles. I could do without the paperwork, though, that comes with securing permission to reproduce an image. That’s probably my least favorite part of the job. Or cleaning up my office at the completion of a project. I’d rather get going on the next book!

How about publishing? What do you love about it? What do you abhor? And again, in both cases, why?

I love working with my editor at National Geographic, Jennifer Emmett, who pulled my first book out of the mail pile of unsolicited manuscripts and has collaborated with me on every project since. Jennifer makes making books a joy. I love the production phase of a book–it’s fun to feel part of a team after working solo on a project for so long.

What do I abhor? I hate how hard it is for good writers to break into the business of publishing. I’m grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to see my books reach print. Too many other talented writers and illustrators wait too long for that same accomplishment–or never achieve the recognition they deserve.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

When I’m not writing, I’m busy with my family, gardening, hiking, cross-country skiing, traveling, cooking, or…reading. I like to read adult nonfiction U.S. history books–surprise!

What can your fans look forward to next?

There’s no need to wait long; my next book will be out later this year. It’s called: Muckrakers: How Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, and Lincoln Steffens Helped Expose Scandal, Inspire Reform, and Invent Investigative Journalism (National Geographic, September, 2007). This book grew out of a devotion to the power of news writing that dates back to my childhood. I came of age reading news reports about assassinations, the Vietnam War, and Watergate. This book examines an earlier period of in-depth reporting (from the turn of the last century) and places the tradition of investigative journalism into its historical context.

One of my favorite parts of any book is the back matter, that stuff that follows the “end” of the story. Of my own books, I think Muckrakers has my favorite back matter yet. We interspersed a lengthy chronology of significant investigative news stories with profiles of my favorite muckraker journalists. The book designer did a great job making this section–and the rest of the book–come alive. I hope readers can have their own sense of investigation and research as they explore the ending of this book (not to mention the rest of it!). Enjoy!

Author Interview: Dian Curtis Regan on Princess Nevermore and Cam’s Quest

Dian Curtis Regan on Dian Curtis Regan: “I’m writing this on a tornado-y afternoon in Kansas, where I’ve lived for six years. Before that, I lived in Venezuela, Oklahoma, Texas (in backward order) and grew up in Colorado.

“This year marks the publication of my 50th book, plus the publication (finally!) of the sequel to Princess Nevermore (Darby Creek, 2006; updated and expanded re-release edition). My life pretty much revolves around writing and reading, thinking about writing and reading, discussing writing and reading with friends, and longing for more time to write and read.

“Oh, and a cat who could care less about books unless they happen to be in her favorite napping spot…”

Our last interview was in September 2005, shortly after the publication of The World According to Kaley (Darby Creek, 2005). How has Kaley been since?

Kaley is doing fantastic. The book was one of three finalists for the Benjamin Franklin Award. It landed on the Texas Horned Toad Tale List, and will be in Scholastic book clubs and book fairs. There will also be a Spanish edition. The sequel, CyberPals According to Kaley (Darby Creek, 2006) is on the shelves.

What else has been happening in your writing life?

Currently working on the 3rd Kaley book: Love According to Kaley. Up next is Fourth Grade According to Kaley. Both will be out in 2008. I also have two board books coming out this year, Peek-a-Boo Zoo and Nice Catch (TransGlobal 2007).

Congratulations on the re-release of Princess Nevermore (Darby Creek, 2007) and the publication of Cam’s Quest (Darby Creek, 2007)! For those readers new to Princess Nevermore, could you tell them a little about the book?

How great to be given the opportunity to go back to a novel I started writing when I, myself, was a young reader. The new edition of Princess Nevermore is about 6,000 words longer and has been updated to the 21st century. Characters who play a role in the sequel are introduced, and many scenes in the original story have been expanded.

Could you also explain the history of Princess Nevermore, its relationship to Cam’s Quest, and the path these two novels have taken?

In the dozen years since Princess Nevermore was published, I’ve received piles of letters and emails from readers asking for a sequel (and a movie, but that’s a whole other interview…). I admit that I left the reader hanging at the end of Princess Nevermore. I’d always intended to continue the story, but I never meant to wait so long.

More recently, I’m receiving letters from readers in their 20s, telling me that they discovered the book when they were in middle school or high school, and how much the story meant to them‹enough to go back and re-read it year after year. They always ask about a sequel, so I’m happy I can finally answer, “Yes, it exists!”

How would you describe Cam’s Quest?

At the end of Princess Nevermore, all we know about the wizard’s apprentice is that his heritage is very cryptic and unknown to him, and that he’s smitten with the princess, yet will never be considered a proper suitor since he does not come from nobility.

The sequel sends Cam off on a quest to unlock the secrets of his past so he can find his future. I love stories with twists and turns and surprises, so I promise that his (multiple) quests are fraught with all of the above. And, just when the reader thinks Cam is home free–well, he isn’t.

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

I’m not a fan of novels that switch viewpoint characters, but it was necessary in Princess Nevermore so that readers would know what was happening in Mandria and on Outer Earth at the same time.

Likewise in the sequel, while Cam is off on his mission in our world, the princess, still in Mandria, steals away from the kingdom. Viewpoint switches allow readers to follow both stories at the same time as Cam’s experiences and memories weave together with those from the princess’s point of view.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

I just attended an SCBWI conference–which was excellent. However, questions from attendees all centered around marketing. Beginning writers should immerse themselves in learning the craft, not be overly concerned with how to submit a manuscript or acquire an agent. Believe me, if you put in the weeks, months, or years necessary to produce an outstanding book for young readers, you will not have difficulty finding a publisher.

How do you balance your writing life (research, drafting, revisions, etc.) with your responsibilities as an author (marketing, promotion, etc.)?

Ah, balance! I don’t think I’ve taken a day off since 1993, so I’m not the best person to give advice. For now, I’m making myself stop and focus on promoting the new edition of Princess Nevermore and Cam’s Quest because these feel like important books for me. I’m doing a lot of promo myself, plus I’ve hired a publicist and am signing at both BEA and ALA.

I don’t know how to work any way other than constantly. Fortunately or unfortunately, my husband tends to work in other countries, so I have lots of time at home alone.

What tips do you have for newcomers in this regard?

As soon as writers have a book published (or in production), they should definitely put up a website to consolidate information about themselves and their books. They should make themselves available for school visits, and also go to conferences because networking is so important.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

Travel to a book conventions, conferences, family gatherings, or whatever country my husband is in. READ. Hug my cat. And, oh, yeah, watch “American Idol.”

What can your fans look forward to next?

There’s a possibility of a third book about Mandria, making the story a trilogy. In the meantime, I’m enjoying writing shorter books. I have two picture books in production at Holiday House and am working on a possible chapter book series, much shorter than writing long fantasy adventure sagas!

Also, I am pleased to have loyal fans who have put up a fansite for Princess
Nevermore and Cam’s Quest:

And also a forum for readers to visit and discuss the books:

What an honor to have readers who connect so strongly with these books.

Author-Editor Interview: Harold Underdown on The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books

Harold Underdown on Harold Underdown: “I was born in Sewanee, Tennessee, home of the University of the South, and my family moved around on the East Coast as my dad moved into different jobs in his field–English History. I’m the oldest of three boys.

“We also spent one year and some summers in England, and I read a lot, both US and UK authors. See The Editor as Reader, on my site, which goes into my childhood reading in more detail.

“I was an English major in college, but did not go straight into publishing, unlike many editors. I taught and did social work before deciding that being involved in making books was something that appealed to me.”

Could you fill us in on your experience as a children’s book editor?

I started out at Macmillan Children’s Books, nearly twenty years ago, as an assistant. Macmillan at that time was a large, general-purpose imprint with a long history, that published everything from reference books for children to the youngest picture books. Good mentors there–Neal Porter, Judith Whipple, Beverly Reingold. I worked there for a few years, and then at Orchard, got downsized, freelanced for a while, and then had a great job at Charlesbridge as senior editor and then editorial director.

The only problem with that wonderful job at Charlesbridge was that I was commuting to Boston from Brooklyn, and I left that job so that my wife and I could start a family. I worked for a start-up children’s ebook company until it went bankrupt, and since then have returned to freelancing, doing projects both for individuals and publishing companies.

See a list, somewhat out-of-date, of some of the books I’ve edited.

You’re also the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books (Second Edition)(Alpha, 2004)! What was your initial inspiration for writing this title?

The inspiration wasn’t mine, actually! I was contacted by an editor from the company that publishes the Idiot’s Guides. They had done a guide on publishing in general, and after they succeed with a broad subject they often publish guides on smaller parts of that wider topic. Once they come up with a subject, the find someone who they think can write about it. I believe that they found me through The Purple Crayon, saw that I was already providing basic information about children’s publishing, and thought I’d be a good match.

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

By the time the Idiot’s editor contacted me, they were already running late–the book was on their schedule for early spring 2001 and she first emailed me in late March of 2000!

Once we sorted out the contract, the first major event was the outline. This is standard procedure for these guides. The author does a detailed outline–in my case over ten pages long–which becomes the blueprint for the book. And then my coauthor and I just wrote. it was all done electronically. We started writing in May, and finished the manuscript by the beginning of November. And the book was on sale by February 2001.

The second edition was not quite as hectic.

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

One big challenge for me was just finding time to write! I was working at Charlesbridge at the time. I wrote in the evenings. I wrote all weekend.

Writing fast was also a challenge for me. I don’t write fast, usually. But having the outline helped. Some of the chapters were about things I do every day, and I could almost write them straight from the outline. Others did require research and anecdote gathering but I knew where to go to gather the information I needed.

Perhaps the biggest challenge, though, was believing that I could write a 300-page book, since I’d never written anything anywhere near that length before. The Idiots provided a co-author, who drafted some of the chapters, and that did help, but since she wasn’t as familiar with the field as I am I still had to review everything.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s book writers?

Well, they’ll find a lot on The Purple Crayon, but here are a few key points:

–Understand that it will take time and persistence to get anywhere. Be ready to stick it out.

–Join the SCBWI. Go to a local conference. Get to know other writers. It helps enormously to have a support network.

–Write, write, and write some more. Don’t accept “good enough.” Get your writing critiqued by a pro at a conference or elsewhere before deciding it’s ready to be sent in.

–Get three books to start your writing shelf: a market guide, a writer’s “how-to,” and a guide to the business such as my book.

–Read lots of recently published books to get a sense of what’s being published today in the market.

How about those authors building a career?

Now, that’s hard. I don’t think there’s even one piece of advice that will apply to everyone in that situation. But here is something worth keeping in mind: you’re a professional writer, and don’t let anyone treat you as anything less.

You’re the creator of The Purple Crayon, a site dedicated to writing, illustrating, and publishing children’s books. For those new to it, could you give us an overview?

The site consists mostly of articles I’ve written or that have been contributed. These are organized by subject matter, from Basics to Writing, on about a dozen index pages (all listed here: I also have a blog, a publishing glossary (from my Idiot’s Guide), some interviews, some book reviews, a section about award-winning children’s books, information about my editorial services, and some links pages, but the articles are the core of the site.

How did the site evolve?

That’s a long story. It’s been around since the early years of the Web. I started it with some links and a few articles and presentations that I converted to HTML, and it’s just grown since then. People ask questions, and sometimes an article comes out of that, or someone sends me an article on a topic that the site doesn’t cover. So I’ve just kept adding, and occasionally reorganizing.

As a children’s literature person, what else do you do? Other hats do you wear?

Gee, isn’t three hats enough? Well, I haven’t said much about my work as an editorial freelancer and consultant, actually. The Purple Crayon and The Idiot’s Guide are not my full-time work. Editing is. I do everything from picture book critiques to editing and project managing teacher’s editions of textbooks.

Also, I speak at conferences, which I enjoy.

What do you do outside of the book world?

I try to make sure my family is happy. We have a child in kindergarten, who over the past several months has learned to read, mostly on her own initiative. I stay involved with that. It’s satisfying and challenging and nothing at all like any job I’ve ever had.

In case you’re wondering, being a father hasn’t changed how I approach my work as an editor. I’ve greatly enjoyed discovering books I didn’t know about, though, and re-discovering favorites from my childhood. The Editor as Reader, which I mentioned earlier, goes into some of the discoveries.

What can we expect from you next?

Eventually, I’ll be back in an acquiring position at a publisher. That could happen tomorrow or five years from now.

And you can expect a new edition of my Idiot’s Guide. I’ll announce details on my web site and via an email newsletter I put out occasionally.