Saturday, September 03, 2005

Author Update: Diane Gonzales Bertrand

Author Diane Gonzales Bertrand writes award-winning books for family reading. Even her novels that feature adult characters, such as Sweet Fifteen (1995) and Lessons of the Game (1998), as well as her romantic novel, Close To The Heart (2002), have found a strong readership among teens and senior citizens alike. Her novels for middle school readers, Alicia's Treasure (1995)(PDF file), Trino's Choice (1999)(PDF file), and Trino's Time (2001) were inspired by requests by Texas teachers and librarians who wanted more variety in the literature for their students. She has also published bilingual picture books, Sip, Slurp, Soup, Soup/Caldo, Caldo, Caldo (1997)(PDF file), Family, Familia (1999), The Last Doll (2001), and Uncle Chente's Picnic (2001). Diane's books are published by Arte Publico Press in Houston. She lives in San Antonio.

I last interviewed Diane in March 2002. At that time, she was taking a year off school visits to work on a novel manuscript. That summer, Arte Publico had scheduled the release of an updated reprint of Diane's novel Close To The Heart. See An Interview with Children's and YA Book Author Diane Gonzales Bertrand. (Note: my site is being redesigned in fall 2005, so if this link doesn't work, simply check the site guide and/or search engine).

What is new in your writing life since we last chatted?

At the American Library Association meeting held in Chicago in late June 2005, I was presented with the Schneider Family Book Award for my book, My Pal Victor (Raven Tree Press, 2004).

This award recognizes a book that depicts a positive look at the disability experience for children. This manuscript was rejected by a variety of publishers before tiny Raven Tree Press in Wisconsin took it, so I was very pleased by the response of the library committee to this story. It is a bilingual book with one of the first Latino characters who is a child with a disability.

Do you have a new book(s) to tell us about?

Three new books are in the process at Arte Publico Press. In Fall 2006, my new novel, The Ruiz Street Kids, will be published. In spring 2007, my first picture book biography, Ricardo's Race will be published. In Spring 2008, another bilingual picture book, We are Cousins/Somos Primos will be out.

If so, could you give us some insights into how this book(s) came to be?

The Ruiz Street Kids celebrates the neighborhood where I spent my childhood. It was a multicultural mix of kids. It's a humorous story, just meant for the readers to enjoy.

Ricardo's Race is the story of Dr. Ricardo Romo, president of the University of Texas at San Antonio. He earned recogition as a runner and after an injury, became an educator. He is also a San Antonio native like me, so I am thrilled to share his inspiring story.

We are Cousins/Somos Primos is a simple book for preschoolers about a group of cousins who explain the relationship they share as family.

How about children's or YA books that you've read lately? Which are your favorites and why?

I got a sneak peek at Pat Mora's new picture book about St. Francis of Assisi and a book called Dona Flor (Knopf, October 2005). Beautifully illustrated!

The Meaning of Consuelo by Judith Ortiz Cofer was another favorite YA title I read this sumer.

However, my favorite book for my summer reading was Zorro by Isabel Allende (HarperCollins). I can't remember when I was so charmed by a book.

What are your writing goals for the immediate future?

I am still being rejected by New York publishers, but the library groups keep me so busy with speaking engagements, I can't dwell on it for long. Lucky for me, Arte Publico is publishing my work, understands my goals, and continues to maintain an excellent reputation for distribution and promotion.

Cynsational News & Links

Meet the Authors and Illustrators: Diane Gonzales Bertrand from Children's Literature. See the Diane Gonzales Bertrand Teacher Resource File from the Internet School Library Media Center. See also Diane Gonzales Bertrand from Arte Publico Press.

Interview with Joanne Yates Russell, Associate Art Director of Random House/Golden Books from childrensillustrators.com.

Writer's Block Begone! by Kimberly Pauley at Young Adult Books Central.

Seventh Annual Jewish Children's Book Writers' Conference

The Seventh Annual Jewish Children's Book Writers' Conference will take place Sunday, Nov. 20 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the 92nd Street Y at 1395 Lexington Avenue in Manhattan (New York City).

The event is co-sponsored by the 92nd Street Y Buttenwieser Library and the Jewish Book Council. The cost is $80 before Nov. 1, and $95 after Nov. 1. The fee includes a kosher breakfast and lunch.

Featured speakers are editor-in-chief Regina Griffin of Holiday House, editor Jodi Kreitzman of Delacorte Press, marketing and sales director Michael J. Miller of Pitspopany Press, publicist Susan Salzman Raab of Raab Associates, literary agent Rebecca Sherman of Writers House, and production editor Aviva Werner of BabagaNewz magazine.

Author Michelle Edwards, winner of a National Jewish Book Award, will give opening remarks, and the day will include the popular "Query Letter Clinic and First Pages" with the editors, sessions on Sippurim: Israel Books for Kids and the Association of Jewish Libraries' Sydney Taylor Manuscript Competition, and door prizes.

The registration form is available for download (PDF file). Call 212-415-5544 or e-mail library@92y.org for additional information or to request the form by mail. The final registration deadline is Nov. 14. The conference filled up quickly last year, so register early.

Cynsational News & Links

Thanks to author Lisa Yee for complimenting yesterday's author interview with D.L. Garfinkle on Storky: How I Lost My Nickname and Won The Girl (Putnam, 2005)!

"Nonfiction in its Infinite Variety" by Shari Lyle-Soffe, in the Writing Nonfiction section of Writing Tips from the Institute of Children's Literature.

"Children's Writing: Poetry, Plays, Picture Books, and Middle-Grade Novels:" a chat with Sue Alexander from the Institute of Children's Literature. September 2005.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Author Interview: D. L. Garfinkle on Storky: How I Lost My Nickname and Won The Girl

Storky: How I Lost My Nickname and Won The Girl by D.L. Garfinkle (Putnam, 2005). Told in a diary format by high school freshman Michael "Storky" Pomerantz, this sparkling debut novel chronicles its hero (1) befriending a Scrabble geezer, (2) embracing a family that "includes" Mom's boyfriend "Dr. Vermin" and Dad's rotating bimbos delight, (3) landing a first girlfriend (which one?), and (4) finding self-acceptance. It's funny, real, and unapologetically boy-like with a solid heart. Great for avid readers and reluctant ones. Strongest on voice and humor, jam-packed with "life lessons," Storky is a must-read from a novelist to watch. Ages 12-up. Highly recommended. See more of my thoughts on Storky.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

I’ve always been a bookworm. Three novels in particular inspired Storky: Catcher In The Rye, Bridget Jones' Diary, and Anne Tyler’s A Patchwork Planet. All three books have great humor and sweet but misguided characters, which is what I attempted. I tried to capture a strong voice like Salinger had done, the journal format of Bridget Jones' Diary, and A Patchwork Planet’s plot twist in which the main character fails at his goals but realizes they weren’t the right goals for him anyway. Of course, I don’t claim to have succeeded as well as Salinger, Fielding, or Tyler. But their novels inspired me.

Also, I wanted to do more than entertain readers. I didn’t want to write a preachy book, but I didn’t want to write pure fluff either. It took me into my mid-twenties to learn a very important truth: that if people treated me poorly, it was a reflection of their personalities rather than my shortcomings. Storky learns this at the end of the novel. With this lesson, I hope to shave a few years and maybe some therapy sessions off of my teen readers’ learning curve.

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

Sigh. Would you believe 21 years? Okay, but from starting to write in a dedicated manner to getting an offer from Putnam was “only” four years, so I guess that’s not too bad.

The spark began in 1984. My creative writing teacher gave us seven words to use in a one-page short story. I wrote about Mike, a teenage boy who was spending his first Thanksgiving without his father. The teacher liked the story so much, she kept it as an example for future classes.

Years later, after concentrating on law school and beginning my legal career, I took another creative writing class and wrote a ten-page short story about Mike going out on his first date while grieving for his father.

A few years later, I decided to write a novel. I told it from the points of view of Mike and his sister, Amanda. Because I wanted my book to be humorous, I decided to make the father absent by divorce rather than by death. I wrote 40 pages, got frustrated, and stopped writing.

In 1997 I had a 3-year-old and an infant. I was working part-time as a lawyer. I had given away my maternity clothes, confident that I didn’t want a third child. Then I was diagnosed with cystosarcoma, a rare form of breast cancer. Typical symptoms are the discovery of a very large tumor while pregnant in the upper, outside quadrant of the breast. I had all the symptoms. Fortunately, cystosarcoma has a very low mortality rate. But I figured with my luck I was a goner.

I re-evaluated my life. I realized I was most proud of my children and a short story I’d gotten published in 1985. I decided to quit my job, have another baby, and finish writing my novel. The doctors removed the tumor and surrounding tissue, and then discovered the tumor was benign. Of course, I was thrilled. I still quit my job and started writing my novel. I got pregnant a few months later and borrowed a bunch of maternity clothes. My friends were so generous that my borrowed wardrobe was much bigger and better than the wardrobe I’d given away.

I wrote my novel in a weekly critique class, titling it “Michael A. Pomerantz’s Lame Journal.” I finished it fourteen months later and set out to get an agent. Instead of querying, I bound my 200-page manuscript at Kinko’s and sent it to agents listed in a directory. My agent signed me up in February 2001.

After revising my manuscript at her suggestion, she sent it to publishers and there was a bidding war. Just kidding. Actually, I got a bunch of rejections. Most said they liked the humor and the voice, but that the plot was weak or Mike’s problems were too “ordinary.”

Worried that my agent was going to drop me, I entered the manuscript in the San Diego Book Awards. It won for Best Unpublished Novel. Along with attaining confidence in my book again (one of the judges wrote “sure to be published”), I also got 100 dollars and critiques from the three judges. One of the judges said my manuscript needed a better narrative arc. My agent independently came to the same conclusion. I spent the summer of 2002 revising it solely to build an arc. My critique group jokingly called me "Noah" or "Joan of Arc."

My agent sent it out again, and an editor from a big publisher requested a rewrite, telling me she hadn’t been so excited about a manuscript in years. I don’t know if that’s her standard line, but it sure got me excited. I spent another few months revising to her specifications. I even changed the title, which she thought was too negative, and deleted my favorite scene, which she thought was too maudlin. She loved the revision. Unfortunately, the acquisitions committee did not.

My agent sent out the revised manuscript, and John Rudolph at Putnam made an offer in August 2003. After I had a contract, I did two revisions for John and one for the copyeditor. The title changed again. When I sneaked back my favorite scene into the first revision and John put exclamation points all over it, I knew that I’d found the right match.

Finally, my first novel, featuring Mike “Storky” Pomerantz, was published in April 2005, 21 years after I first created Mike for the one-page writing assignment.

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

I didn’t have to do a lot of research. Because I was writing about someone of the opposite sex and decades younger than me, for my own sanity I decided to “write what you know.” I made Mike’s mother a law student, I made Mike and his family Jewish, and I made his hobbies Scrabble, bowling, and reading, just like mine. I even included a pregnancy in the book.

It was challenging to write in first person as a male. Luckily, I had two guys in my critique group. They kept telling me to add more sex. And my male editor wanted more added also. Reading aloud the scene in which Mike gets an erection at the whiteboard in Spanish class was really embarrassing. It was also embarrassing discussing it with my editor. It’s not the typical conversation one dreams about when one thinks about publishing a novel.

Writing humor is a lot of fun for me. Getting used to rejection and the slow pace of publishing was not. Seeing my book in stores and getting fan mail from readers makes all the challenges pay off. And it sure beats practicing law.

Cynsational News & Links

"The Child in the Attic" by Katherine Paterson from the National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance. Presented at the Ohio State University's Chldren's Literature Festival, February 2000. See also An Interview with Katherine Paterson by Mary Brigid Barrett from the NCBLA.

The Louisiana Library Association Disaster Relief Fund is now accepting monetary donations to assist school, public, and academic library restoration efforts in southeastern Louisiana. Please make checks payable to: LLA-Disaster Relief and mail to: LLA; 421 South 4th St.; Eunice, LA 70535.

The South Dakota State Library Staff Best Reads Book List for National Library Week 2005 includes Rain Is Not My Indian Name by Cynthia Leitich Smith (HarperCollins, 2001).

Lately on spookcyn, I'm blogging about the Buffy The Vampire Sing-A-Long, and on GLSBlog, Greg is blogging about his Round Rock book signing.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Secrets of Success: An Interview with Greg Leitich Smith

My husband, children's book author Greg Leitich Smith, is the focus of the September 2005 edition of Secrets of Success, a wonderful column from children's author Ellen Jackson that each month offers the inside scoop from "a children’s writer who is breaking new ground in his or her career and who is willing to share her secrets with the rest of us."

Greg talks about my influence (yikes!), how he gets and frames ideas for novels, connecting with a publisher, writing humor, our upcoming picture book, and tips for writers trying to break into the business today.

Greg is the author of Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo (Little Brown, 2003, 2005)(Recorded Books, 2004) and Tofu and T. rex (Little Brown, 2005). The interview is a great read and offers an insightful peek into his experiences as a children's writer breaking into publishing in the past few years.

Read Greg Leitich Smith's interview on his Secrets of Success.

Learn more about Ellen Jackson, sign her guest book, and read her blog (September's post is a must read about Writing Non-Fiction for Children)!

Cynsational News & Links

Meet The Author: T. A. Barron: The Writer's Magic Wand from CBC Magazine. See also Hot off the Press: New Books from CBC (cheers for Sketches From A Spy Tree by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer, illustrated by Andrew Glass (Clarion, 2005)).

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The World According To Kaley by Dian Curtis Regan

The World According To Kaley by Dian Curtis Regan (Darby Creek, 2005). Mr. Serrano has asked Kaley to write essays about world history, and she's filling her notebook with them--doodles and all. She's including FACTS and footnotes and graphs and maps (okay, with maybe a little urging), and, more importantly, she's including her unique and spirited interpretation of times past. Meanwhile, Kaley has a home to find for a puppy, adjust to her new baby brother (not sister!), and deal with her messy cousin Cal. Smart, funny, vulnerable, and energetic, Kaley's notebook is a first-rate read, and that's a FACT! Ages 9-up.

My Thoughts

An example of Kaley's historical analysis: "The next age was called the Stone Age. It got its name because people made stuff out of rocks. Rock chairs, rock cars, rock TVs. It was during this era that rock-and-roll began."

And another: "Oddly enough, the word 'hieroglyphics' is completely impossible to illustrate. You'd think they would've called this type of writing 'cat' or something easier to draw."

One more: "When people hear the term 'Middle Ages,' they usually think of grown-ups in their thirties. (No offense, Mr. S.)."

I love, love, love, love this book!

My other favorite book by Dian Curtis Regan is Chance, illustrated by Dee Huxley (Philomel, 2003).

Cynsational News & Links

Reviews are coming in for the anthology Moccasin Thunder: American Indian Stories For Today edited by Lori M. Carlson (HarperCollins, 2005), which includes my short story "A Real-Live Blond Cherokee and His Equally Annoyed Soul Mate." Booklist says the stories, "show teens--lost, loving, funny, uncertain--coming of age on the reservation and in the city." ITEPP says, "a reader could not go wrong when choosing this wonderful book!"

Ask the Author: Dian Curtis Regan from write4kids.com. See also AchUKa special guest Dian Curtis Regan; includes biography, book list, and interview.

Interview with David Caplan, Art Director of HarperCollins Children's Books from childrensillustrators.com.

Nandini Nayar on the children's literature of India from AchUKa.

Point Well Taken by Kathy Greer, in the Story POV section of Writing Tips (Three points of view on POV) from the Institue of Children's Literature. See also POV: Pride of Victory? Puffed Out Verbs? by Nancy Julien Kopp, in the Story POV section of Writing Tips from ICL.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Author Interview: Shutta Crum on The Bravest Of The Brave

The Bravest Of The Brave by Shutta Crum, illustrated by Tim Bowers (Knopf, 2005). From the catalog copy: A young skunk heads home through the woods—alone. Or maybe not… Could there be robbers, or pirates, or ghosts, or trappers in the woods? And is our hero brave enough to keep them away? With bouncy rhymes, charming art, a subtle counting theme, and a surprise ending, this story will entertain and reassure any child who’s ever been afraid." Ages 4-up.

What was your inspiration for The Bravest Of The Brave?

What I like to do periodically is challenge myself to do something with a classic rhythm from a poem or song, or take a piece of writing in the public domain, and play with it to see if I can get inspired to come up with something new.

So one day I start playing around in my head with an old fingerplay that I had done for years in my library storytimes. (Note: I was a youth librarian for 24 years and the recipient of the Michigan Library Assoc.’s Award of Merit as Youth Librarian of the Year, for 2002.) That fingerplay goes like this: (First you make two fists and hold them up high.) "Way up high in an apple tree, two little apples smiled down at me. So I shook that tree as hard as I could, and down fell the apples hmmm . . . were they good!" (Pretend to bite into your fists.)

In my storytimes I take that and make it sillier—I like cranking up the silliness factor whenever I can. After the apple verse I do bananas and catch the kids biting into their pretend bananas (their thumbs) before they peel the bananas. Then I do “Way up high in a donut tree . . .” to great giggles. (One small boy told me, “Donuts don’t grow in trees! They grow in boxes." What a great idea!) Anyway, I started thinking more seriously about it. What else could be up in a tree? What kinds of trees? And who would be the character seeing what was up in the trees?

I thought of nocturnal animals. And then I wanted it to be a counting book because it was for the very young, but also because I wanted a framework that would provide additional progression to the plot.

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

This was a very early idea of mine; I had just realized that I really wanted to get back to writing again in the late 1990s. I played with it a good bit in my head before writing anything down, which must have been in 1998 or even the latter part of 1997. It came out in January of 2005 to great reviews—so there was at least seven years from spark to publication.

The manuscript was rejected a couple times. Perhaps the most important event that happened with the book prior to publication (See below for some fun things that have happened after its release.) is one that allowed me to sell it to Knopf, a division of Random House—and that was that I’d gotten an agent in the fall of 2002. It was my agent, Liza Pulitzer Voges of Kirchoff/Wohlberg, Inc. who subbed it to the right editor at Random House, Michelle Frye. Michelle was very enthusiastic.

I just recently learned, when I finally got to meet her in person, that she presented the manuscript to the acquisitions meeting as Meryl Streep. Hah! She told me she held up my manuscript and said: “You know what this is? This is Meryl Streep.”

Michelle went on to elaborate that on the surface the story is smooth and works beautifully. What you don’t see is all the hard work, the fine-tuning and experience that can bring a command performance. Perhaps the most telling fact when she was pitching it to the company was that she said she almost forgot to tell them it was a counting book! That is saying a lot, because usually the most obvious aspect of a counting book is the counting pattern. Sometimes it is super-imposed over the demands of the story, rather than incorporated naturally. She felt there was so much more going on . . . that the counting was only one small part of it, and almost forgot to mention it.

I was glad to hear that! The story does have several layers. In fact, integrating the various aspects of the story so that it read seamlessly was part of what was so challenging in writing this book; which leads me to . . .

What were the challenges in bringing The Bravest Of The Brave to life?

My first challenge was in finding the right hero/heroine. (Note: there are no gender specific pronouns in the book. And I asked that they be taken out of the flap copy as well.) I started out with—don’t laugh—a large moth! Gads! What was I thinking? Then I went to a mouse, and finally realized a skunk would be perfect. That took quite a while to arrive at. Once I had a skunk I realized that I wanted to turn the tables on the reader a bit.

Many children view skunks as, if not aggressors, at least fearless problem-makers. But this is a skunk that has its own fears to overcome. And like many young children, it is trying to remember everything he/she was taught to do when confronted with a scary situation.

Also, while doing my research, I discovered that skunks have many ways they communicate and protect themselves in addition to spraying. So it was fun to incorporate a lot of the science.

Once I had the main character and the nocturnal setting, the writing itself was not hard. What was more difficult was getting the editors to really “see” what was happening, because there is the whole element of mistaken identities and self-delusion that is also going on in the story. This was something that was not in the text. So I had to write notes in parentheses on the manuscript—which is usually considered verboten when submitting a story. For example; our hero thinks he has frightened away a robber, when it was only a raccoon. In fact, all the animals he frightens off are later seen at a party at his “house”—a party that is not mentioned until we get past the critical turning point of the story—after he almost has to do the “ultimate.” In the case of this manuscript, I had to do what we are always told not to do—tell the editor and illustrator what was happening by incorporating short notes.

Of the few editors that rejected it, almost all said it would be too hard to illustrate nighttime animals in the woods at night. But I persevered, because I felt it could be done. After all, we watch movies and television shows that take place at night with characters dressed in black—so how is that done? I really felt it could work.

Finally the manuscript found an editor with the vision to see how it could work. Then Michelle and Knopf found the illustrator, Tim Bowers, who knew how to make it work and how to draw animals with a lot of charm. Tim created a light foreground so we can see the action easily as it happens. The background is dark. And I LOVE that skunk—such personality—just tooling along through the woods.

Tim (www.timbowers.com) also extended the story. For I did not have in the rhyming verse any indication of how my character got into the situation he/she is in. There were several scenarios that could have worked. I’d envisioned that the skunk was sent to a store at the last minute and was running late to get back home to the party and got lost. But Tim introduced a butterfly that the skunk chases in the front matter. And then on the dedication page, we see the skunk going one way and the butterfly the opposite. At the end of the book, the butterfly comes to the party and then settles down on the corner of the skunk’s bed as he/she is falling asleep. I loved it! And I love the endpapers with friendly eyes in the forest, and all the haircuts on the skunk family. This book was truly blessed with a wonderful illustrator.

Finally, as writers we are often told: “Death to adverbs!” or given other sage advice about the overuse of adverbs and adjectives. But this book uses adverbs as part of the rhythm. In fact, it depends upon the use of adverbs. So although more of a delight than a challenge, in a kind of secret naughtiness I was very happy writing my story as “adverbly” as I could!

Would you like to share any fun news that has arisen since the publication of The Bravest Of The Brave earlier this year?

This book took off the minute it came out, and in less than four months had to be reprinted. Always good news to get. But one of the best bits of news I got was when my publicist called to tell me that I had been invited to read The Bravest Of The Brave at the 2005 White House Easter Egg Roll in March. At first I could hardly believe what she was saying. I had to have my husband listen in on the phone so I could be sure I wasn’t just dreaming that call.

The Roll itself had to be cancelled that day due to inclement weather for the outside activities. But my husband and I had a wonderful trip to Washington, D.C. and breakfast in the White House with the other writers and Cabinet members who had been invited to read.

Also, I discovered that Cray School in North Carolina bought a copy of The Bravest Of The Brave for the school library in honor of a soldier pen pal who had been corresponding with the students. He was serving in Iraq.

I am so proud of The Bravest Of The Brave. On its surface it is a simple story of a young one’s journey home. But at its heart it is a story about courage that anyone of any age can relate to.

Cynsational News & Links

Mark your calendars! I'll be a guest author online at realwritingteachers@yahoogroups.com (a discussion group of 650 plus writing teachers, children's authors, librarians, homeschoolers, etc. who discuss reading and writing strategies, resources, etc.) during the week of Oct. 23, 2005.

Children's Writer's Marketplace: September 2005 from Write4Kids.com. This issue contains a "a very abbreviated list of markets for children’s fiction."

The Virtually Do-It-Yourself Book Tour by Sue Corbett, author of 12 Again (Dutton, 2002) from Lee & Low Books.

Query This: agent Barry Goldblatt on what he looks for in a query. (Note: I first noticed this link on Anastasia Suen's Create/Relate Blog).

Authors, Illustrators, and Golf Clubs from They Call Me Mr. V (author Varian Johnson's blog) on my husband Greg Leitich Smith's recent signing. A Very Hot Literary Day: writer/illustrator Don Tate blogs about Greg's signing, too. And so does author Chris Barton at Bartography in Tofu, T. rex, and a six-year-old with other plans. What can we say? Austinites rule!

Monday, August 29, 2005

Author Interview: Julie Anne Peters on Far From Xanadu

Far From Xanadu by Julie Anne Peters (Little Brown, 2005). Between working out, playing softball, and keeping up the plumbing business her dad left behind, Mike's days in Coalton, Kansas are if not full, at least familiar. Then one day, she walks into class. Xanadu. The most beautiful, smart-ass, conflicted girl in the world. Mike falls fast, and the two seem to connect. Only problem? Mike's gay and Xanadu's...not. A story of family, friendship, and unrequinted love. Barriers that can be broken and those that should be respected. Ages 12-up. See more of my thoughts on Far From Xanadu.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

It’s hard to know the precise moment when an idea implants onto your subconscious and begins to grow. Like sand in an oyster, layer after layer of ochre may produce a pearl, but in the beginning it’s only a mass of guts and goo.

After my young adult lesbian love story, Keeping You a Secret, was published, I was overwhelmed with the passionate response from readers. At the heart of a number of coming out stories, one particular theme began to emerge. Two excerpts from letters are poignant examples:

“Dear Julie,
“This is going to sound ridiculous because well... I think you’re asked this nearly everyday: How do I get over liking a straight girl? I just don’t know how to deal with it. My heart is still hoping and I can’t stop it from doing that...no matter how hard I try, I can’t stop believing things can and will work out for my liking.”

“Julie,
“The girl I was in love with is now going out with the boy who has been my neighbor since I was two. I’m giving up on her, obviously, but here is the bad part. She kind of knows about me. Not outright KNOWS, but still... And she is always touching me and saying stuff, and my mind wants to follow her but I know it’s just an illusion.
“I know you won’t know, but WHY IS SHE DOING THIS TO ME???”

Oh, but I do know. We have a term in our community: Lesbian baiting. Baiters are straight women who lead lesbians on, who play with our emotions and allow us to believe there’s the possibility of a romantic relationship. They have no intention of pursuing or sustaining a relationship, of course. They’re curious. They’re confused. In the extreme, they’re sexual predators.

I have a lesbian friend who’s been obsessed with a straight woman for twenty years. This woman is flattered by my friend’s attention, I’m sure. Who doesn’t want to feel attractive and desirous? The straight woman finally got married and I thought, Great. This is fantastic. Now she’ll free my friend from her self-imposed bondage of unrequited love. But no, this straight woman still calls and says, “I miss you. I think I made a mistake marrying a man.” Oh brother. Could someone please take her out?

Naturally, the phenomenon of preying on a person’s vulnerability and need isn’t confined to our community. I did think it’d be an interesting topic to explore in YA literature – loving someone who can’t love you back. Manipulation versus obsession. The distance between people, psychological and biological, that never can, and never should, be crossed.

Theme, in this case, was the genesis for Far from Xanadu. The main character, Mike, had been growing inside me for a while, augmented by the ochre of irritation, frustration, and anger.

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

Far from Xanadu was eighteen months in the research and writing, then another three months in revision after my critique group thrashed the manuscript.(Just kidding. They’re kind, astute and trusted readers.) Revisions with my editor, Megan Tingley, took another five or six months. Twelve months in the publication process. Total the column; carry the one; a three-year-plus project. That’s actually the fastest I’ve ever written and published a book.

The major events, as always, were revision, revision, revision.

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

Here’s the weird thing about Far from Xanadu. I don’t remember writing this book. I have the first draft on Big Chief paper if the government comes to check, but I have no recollection of sitting down and putting words on paper. What I remember is the research.

You know how writers are always advised to write what they know? Why don’t I listen to that advice? In this book there were so many situations and areas of expertise where I was lacking basic fundamental knowledge, it was ridiculous. Girls’ softball, strength training, morbid obesity, water towers, wheat farming, Kansas, alcoholism, stock car racing, plumbing...plumbing for God’s sake. I can’t even spell pipe wrench. Why Mike had to be a plumber is a mystery to me. I spent hours in Home Depot, sitting on the floor in the plumbing aisle, taking notes, drawing pictures, making lists of parts and figuring out how they fit together. I talked to plumbers. I asked them, “How can you tell when someone does a half-assed job at installing a shower fixture?”

Originally I wanted to set this book in eastern Colorado, in a small town. But when people think of Colorado, they envision mountains and ski resorts. Those unfamiliar with western geography and lifestyle don’t realize the eastern half of Colorado—and the western slope too—is comprised of farming and ranching communities. I didn’t want to spend a third of the book having to educate or overcome mindsets, so I jumped the border and set the story in Kansas.

I’ve never been to Kansas, other than to drive through. I had to buy maps and gazetteers, study the flora and fauna, the weather patterns, the towns, cities, streets and highway systems. Kansas was the perfect setting for wheat farming. But wheat farming? What’s that about? Bread comes from King Soopers, right?

Secondary research doesn’t always bring your details to life, so I queried all my friends and acquaintances to see if I could find someone who knew someone who knew Kevin Bacon’s relatives in Kansas. One Sunday morning I got a call from this nice man, Dan Depperschmidt (no relation to Kevin), a wheat farmer in western Kansas. He said, “I’m supposed to call this gal and tell her everything I know about growing wheat and living on a farm in Kansas.” I screamed, “I’m that gal!” I grilled Dan for hours about the color and size and smell of wheat. About farm equipment and growing seasons. How farm roads are marked and how people spend their time and money. I had pages and pages of notes, hundreds of invaluable details, which were incorporated into maybe five or six paragraphs in the book. I’ve never infiltrated setting so thoroughly in a story and authenticity was crucial. The town of Coalton, Kansas became a character in my mind—of nonspecific gender.

I’m a systems engineer by trade and I love architecture and design, the science of systems and dynamics of logic. Weaving disparate elements into a cohesive theme is what I consider the intellectual challenge of creating a novel. Details add dimension. Language and style add artistry and texture. Far from Xanadu was an exhilarating exercise in bringing order to chaos. Practical application of research is a different branch of science. Don’t ever ask me to replace the ballcock assembly in your toilet.

Cynsational Note

Recent YA author interviews of 2005 titles include: Cecil Castellucci on Boy Proof (Candlewick, 2005); Louise Hawes on The Vanishing Point (Houghton Mifflin, 2005); Jennifer Richard Jacobson on Stained (Atheneum, 2005); Ron Koertge on Boy Girl Boy (Harcourt, 2005); David Lubar on Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie (Dutton, 2005); R. A. Nelson on Teach Me (Razorbill, 2005); Mary E. Pearson on A Room On Lorelei Street (Henry Holt, 2005); Lara M. Zeises on Anyone But You (Delacorte, 2005).

Cynsational News & Links

Austin writer Sean Petrie is a finalist for the ABCs Book Competition for his manuscript, "This Class Is A Zoo." (Yes, that was a hint). Read all the stories, and vote.

The June Franklin Naylor Award for the Best Book for Children on Texas History: "Given annually to the author/illustrator of the most distinguished book for children and young adults, grades K-12, that accurately portrays the history of Texas, whether fiction or nonfiction." The award is "endowed by the family of June Franklin Naylor and sponsored by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library." Scroll for more information and 2005 entry guidelines. Note: The deadline is Jan. 31, 2006.

Not Everyone Has A Novel Inside Them by Tim Clare from The Guardian. Not for the uber sensitive.

2005 SmartWriters.com Short Story Competition: Because the annual Write It Now! Competition has been so successful in helping new writers and illustrators get their work in front of the editors who helped launch their careers, SmartWriters.com wants to do that for short story writers, too! Three Categories: Young Adult Readers, ages 15+; Mid-grade Readers, 11 - 14; Young Readers, ages 7 - 10. Grand Prize: $200, plus a 2006 Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market; First Prize, each category: $50, plus a 2006 Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market. Entry Fee: $10 per manuscript. Plus, the 1st - 3rd place finishers in the MG and YA categories will be published in a 2007 anthology by Blooming Tree Press. Entry Deadline: Oct. 31, 2005; Email entries are welcome and encouraged. See Rules, FAQ, submission guidelines, and entry form.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Jose! Born to Dance by Susanna Reich, illustrated by Raul Colon

Jose! Born to Dance by Susanna Reich, illustrated by Raul Colon (Simon & Schuster, 2005). Vibrantly illustrated, this picture book biography chronicles the life of Jose Limon, one of the greatest dancers of all time. It begins with his birth in Culiacan, Mexico and continues through civil war and immigration to the New York stage. Includes Historical Note and Bibliography. Ages 5-up.

My Thoughts

Jose! Born to Dance reminds me of El Chino by Allen Say (Houghton Mifflin, 1996). Both are lively, well written and illustrated picture book biographies that defy expectations and stereotypes.

Learn more about Jose Limon.

Apologies for my electronic inability to make the appropriate accent marks!

Cynsational News & Links

My husband Greg Leitich Smith's signing at the Barnes & Noble Round Rock (TX) was a great success. He had an enthusiastic crowd, including Austin area writers/illustrators: Chris Barton, author of The Day-Glo Brothers (Charlesbridge, 2007); Tim Crow; Frances Hill, author of The Bug Cemetery (Henry Holt, 2002); Varian Johnson, author of Red Polka Dot In A World Full Of Plaid (Genesis Press/Black Coral, 2005); April Lurie, author of Dancing In The Streets of Brooklyn (Delacorte, 2002); Mark Mitchell, author of Raising La Belle (Eakin, 2002); Nancy Jean Okunami; Sean Petrie; Don Tate, illustrator of numerous picture books; and Brian Yansky, author of My Road Trip To The Pretty Girl Capital of the World (Cricket, 2003). Greg sold out of the new paperbacks of Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo (Little Brown, 2003, 2005) and almost sold out (three, four stock to sign?) of Tofu and T. rex (Little Brown, 2005).

Interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith from The Marion Star (OH); focus on multicultural children's/YA literature. (Yes, they spelled my name as Cynthis Leitich, and I believe I said 1980s for the boom; I've already written the Web designer with the correction).
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