Debbie Leland is the author of AGGIE GOOSE RHYMES (Wild Run, 1998) and THE JALAPENO MAN (Wildflower Run, 2000), both illustrated by Ann Hollis Rife. She formed Wildflower Run Publishing in 1998. THE JALAPENO MAN was voted Favorite New Children’s Book at the Mid-South Independent Booksellers’ Trade Show. This interview was conducted via email in 2000. Visit: Debbie Leland.
Tell us a bit about your writing background. How did you get started writing for children? What were your earliest influences?
I started writing when I was in elementary school. I used to write stories and then read them to my family at home.
I had three brothers. I was quite surprised one day when I went to my younger brother, Steve’s Open House and read one of his stories that his teacher had posted on the bulletin board. Steve had copied one of my stories and used it for his own. I was quite upset at first, but I guess he must have thought it was pretty good to copy it. And he did get an A on it, so I didn’t stay mad for too long.
When I was in the sixth grade, I won a story contest in my English class. My teacher, Mrs. Herbert wrote on my paper that ‘she hoped this was the beginning of a writing career.’ I still have that story, and her comments stayed with me all this time.
What are your favorite books as a reader? What qualities in them appeal to you?
I loved to read Mark Twain. I lived in Kansas City, Missouri when I was growing up. And since Mark Twain was from Missouri, he was one of my heroes. I loved the adventure and the humor in his books, MARK TWAIN and HUCKLEBERRY FINN.
What were the biggest challenges in writing AGGIE GOOSE RHYMES?
The biggest challenge was making sure that everything was accurate with the Texas A&M traditions. For example there is no space between the A and the M. We were trying to get the book released before the football season was over, so time was a challenge too.
There were other challenges with AGGIE GOOSE. During one of the proofing processes, the printer sent me a book that showed the binding of the book at the top. So instead of opening the pages from the side, they had the book being read by lifting up the pages.
I thought, Oh no, this can’t be happening. They really are trying to make an Aggie book. But they assured me it was a mistake and the book really would open from the side.
What did you enjoy about it?
I especially liked making up the rhymes. Since I am an Aggie, I loved changing Mother Goose Rhymes to Aggie rhymes because it was fun and clever.
Now when people come by and tell me that AGGIE GOOSE is the book they read to their son or daughter every night, or when they laugh as I see them read it, I feel like I’ve done something that brings laughter and closeness to someone’s life, and that’s a great feeling.
What inspired you to write THE JALAPENO MAN?
I have always wanted to write a Texas gingerbread story.
I played around with the idea for about three or four years in the back of my mind, but I never really wrote anything down. I knew I needed a neat twist to make the story work. At first I thought about using corn bread and having it be the cornbread boy. But that didn’t sound right. And one day during the Christmas holidays, I had a cold and was resting in bed, when I thought of jalapeño bread.
Then I thought of the jalapeño boy and before long it was THE JALAPENO MAN.
What about the book do you think especially distinguishes it?
The book is very Texas. I brainstormed all about Texas, and then tried to incorporate as much of it in the book as I could. I think the book is rich in language and the art is absolutely wonderful. The illustrator, Ann Hollis Rife, and I live in the same town, in College Station. So we talked to each other about the art and the text and by putting our heads together I think our books came out richer.
It’s unusual for the author and illustrator to get to work closely, so we are very fortunate in that regard.
Your regional voice is enthusiastic and charming. What is your sense of the future for books with strong regional ties?
I am currently working on giving another fairy tale a Texas twist. I think Texas is unique in its depth of tradition and culture, that other states are not as fortunate to have. So, I believe Texans will always gobble up good stories that highlight Texas and what is special about our region of the world.
What inspired you to open your own publishing enterprise?
In the big scheme of life, I never pictured myself as a publisher.
However, I realized that New York was not going to understand the Aggie tradition and loyalty, and that a regional press might not publish the book as I would like it to be. So, after considering that the marketing was mostly in College Station and Texas, I put together some numbers and formed a partnership, Wildflower Run.
It seemed kind of like jumping in a hang glider and running off the cliff. I knew I had support from family and friends, but it sure seemed like I just jumped out in the open, feet dangling, kicking my way through mid-air most of the time. But I have loved the process and the books have been very successful.
Do you have any interest in publishing books by other authors? If so, could you elaborate on that?
I would love to be able to be a regional publisher (someday). But as I still have my day job (an elementary physical education teacher) I will not be considering any publishing projects by other authors at this time.
What do you think has helped you compete so effectively with books published by more established and larger trade houses?
I definitely have a niche market with both of my books. AGGIE GOOSE RHYMES of course has a built in market and THE JALAPENO MAN sells to those who want to know about Texas. But they are also both good quality books with wonderful art and the bottom line, a good story.
What advice would you give to someone interested in self-publishing?
Be brave. Be ready for boxes and boxes and boxes of books in your garage. Be prepared for all the roles, marketing, sales, invoicing, shipping, bookkeeping, etc., as well as famous author. Be brave.
Do you do school visits or other speaking? How can people get in touch with you?
School visits are my favorite. I enjoy sharing my writing experiences with students. As my teachers played such a big role in my writing life, I love the opportunity to share my love for writing as a teacher. Interested parties are welcome to visit www.debbie-leland.com for more information.
What’s up next for your fans?
Hopefully many more Texas books, as well as a few others that I have floating around inside my head as I write this. I’d love to write other types of books such as non-fiction, easy to reads, chapter books and maybe even a screen play.