Friday, May 15, 2009

Cynsational News & Giveaways

Enter to win one of TWENTY copies of The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams (St. Martin's Press, 2009)! Read a Cynsations interview with Carol.

From the promotional copy:

Thirteen-year-old Kyra has grown up in an isolated community without questioning the fact that her father has three wives and she has twenty brothers and sisters, with two more on the way. That is, without questioning them much---if you don’t count her secret visits to the Mobile Library on Wheels to read forbidden books, or her meetings with Joshua, the boy she hopes to choose for herself instead of having a man chosen for her.

But when the Prophet decrees that she must marry her sixty-year-old uncle---who already has six wives---Kyra must make a desperate choice in the face of violence and her own fears of losing her family forever.

To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address and type "The Chosen One" in the subject line. Deadline: May 25!

More News & Giveaways

Congratulations to Nancy Thalia Reynolds on the release of Mixed Heritage in Young Adult Literature (Scarecrow, 2009)! From the promotional copy: "Mixed-heritage people are one of the fastest-growing groups in the United States, yet culturally they have been largely invisible, especially in young adult literature. Mixed Heritage in Young Adult Literature is a critical exploration of how mixed-heritage characters (those of mixed race, ethnicity, religion, and/or adoption) and real-life people have been portrayed in young adult fiction and nonfiction."

Sara Jane Boyers has been working for the past nine years, photographing Chinatowns of the U.S. and Canada. Sarah's books include Teen Power Politics: Make Yourself Heard (Sagebush, 2000). Read a Cynsations interview with Sarah.

What I did to keep myself on the level as I queried agents by Amanda Coppedge from Wrapped Up In Books. Peek: "...reminded myself that a bad agent is worse than no agent, and that I didn't just want any agent--I wanted an agent who really loved my book and who was interested in my career as a whole. You don't find somebody like that overnight."

Interview with Flux Editor Brian Farrey from Karen Kincy at Crowe's Nest. Peek: "You can learn from writers whose material you don’t care for just as much as you can from writers whose material you adore. Know what’s out there. It’s very, very easy for me to spot a submission written by someone who hasn't read a contemporary YA novel. Ever." Note: attribution correction.

Author Susane Colasanti talks about Waiting for You (Viking, 2009)(excerpt).

First Annual Stanford Publishing Courses Writers Workshop sponsored by the Stanford Publishing Courses Writers Workshop will be held July 31 and Aug. 1 at Stanford University in Palo Alto. Note: the workshop will "explore both craft and new media tools for marketing fiction and nonfiction for children and young adults, books for adults, magazine journalism, writing for the Web, and creating blog and Web videos." Note: editor Deborah Brodie will be teaching "Books for Children and Young Adults."

Interview with S.E. Hinton from Nathan Bransford - Literary Agent. Peek: "I had to look out for myself and other people at an early age, so it was a great relief that I had Marilyn [Marlow] to deal with the business side of things, who was a tough lady (and I emphasize 'lady' because she always conducted herself as such) and a very thorough agent. Nothing got by her."

Meet Three Amazing Editors from the Class of 2k9. Interviews with Anica Rissi of Simon Pulse, Madeline Smoot of CBAY Books, and Miriam Hees of Blooming Tree Press. Peek from Anica: "I am a sucker for quirky or dark humor, smart writing, compelling storytelling, and characters that I can’t get out of my head." See also a 2k9 interview with Molly O'Neal of HarperCollins. Peek: "I really respond to books with a strong sense of place, where setting is woven into every part of the book--books where I feel like I'm stepping not just into a story, but a whole world, where the setting is far more than the just a static backdrop, but is as active a part of the story as the characters and plot."

Congratulations to Shutta Crum on the release of Thunder-Boomer, illustrated by Carol Thompson (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009)! From the promotional copy: "It's a hot day on the farm, and a little girl, her brother, and their mother are trying to cool off by the pond. Suddenly, dark clouds roll in. A thunder-boomer is on the way! The storm brings pounding rain and hail—and an unexpected visitor: a soggy wet stray kitten. Colorful descriptions of the storm are accompanied by lots of playful sound effects, making this free-verse poem perfect for reading aloud. Charming watercolor illustrations capture all the drama, humor, and tenderness of the text."

Hoops v. Hints from Nathan Bransford - Literary Agent. Peek: "I use the extreme example to illustrate a single point: these query rules we blogging agents blog about? They're not about making you jump through hoops or because we hate pink paper or because we're meanies. We're just trying to help you improve your odds."

A Writer at Home: Gail Carson Levine from Kimberly Willis Holt at A Pen and A Nest. Peek: "I write everywhere: hotels, airports, trains. But I have my reference material at home: my English usage books, costume books, art books that I refer to when I want to describe a character physically, my own books that I sometimes need to go back to. I’m frustrated when these things aren’t there and I need them." Note: also in honor of Children's Book Week, Kimberly asks authors to highlight their favorite out-of-print titles; see more here and here.

Writers Academy 2009 (PDF) at West Texas A&M University. The first WT Writers' Academy (WTWA) will be held June 8 to June 12. Four classes will be offered including "Writing and Publishing Books for Young Readers," which will be taught by author Dian Curtis Regan. Peek: "Regan will foster writers who want to learn to write for a generation raised in CyberSpace through instruction in voice, character and plot development. She will also emphasize marketing tools and how to connect with agents and editors."

Leaving Glorytown: One Boy's Struggle Under Castro by Eduardo Calcines (FSG, 2009): a recommendation by Greg Leitich Smith from GregLSBlog. Peek: "Calcines's humor and love for family and friends shine through, even in the toughest of times."

Selected Poems written and read by Joseph Bruchac from Joe's official site. Peek: "For over thirty years Joseph Bruchac has been creating poetry, short stories, novels, anthologies and music that reflect his Abenaki Indian heritage and Native American traditions." Note: go listen!

An Index Guide to Bubble Stampede!: Two Authors, Two Books, and a 9-month Conversation about...aack!...PROMOTION from Fiona Bayrock and Laura Purdie Salas. A listing of links to posts on everything from Audience to Word of Mouth.

Cynsational Note: attention authors: online book retailers that list everything, well, list everything. Keep in mind that brick-and-mortar stores may consider your on-site numbers in deciding whether to stock your future titles. You may want to direct your readers to them.

Congratulations to Lili St. Crow on the release of Strange Angels (Razorbill, 2009)! See excerpt. Source: The Compulsive Reader.

How Would I Know What I Like Until I've Read It? by Nathan Bransford - Literary Agent. Peek: "...let's say I could spell out precisely what I wanted, right down to the shade of your protagonist's eyes. Is this really a world you'd want to write in?"

Kim Norman's Crocodaddy!: an author interview from Elizabeth O. Dulemba. Peek: "Is anyone ever an established writer? I know so many writers, some with many volumes to their name, who still struggle with uncertainties. But it does feel a bit more settled, this time. Less fleeting, like, 'Hey, I can do this!'"

Take a peek at this trailer for Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin (Little, Brown, June 2009).

Bridget Zinn Auction Update

Bridget Zinn Auction is taking place between now and 12 a.m. PST May 31. Bid to win critiques from award-winning and "big name" authors, signed books, promotional services, and much more. Recent additions to auction items include: a personalized book launch consult with Mitali Perkins, a lifetime subscription to Children's Book Insider Clubhouse, Web design by Kristina Romero, a children's poetry mauscript critique by Kami Kinard, an end-paper illustration by Carolyn Digby Conohan, books and painting by Grace Lin, an author-and-editor team critique by Dori Chaconas and Andrea Tompa of Candlewick Press, a custom teacher guide for your book, a manuscript critique by Roaring Brook editor Nancy Mercado, and much more!

Author Janet S. Fox has donated a Texas Author Basket featuring The Underneath by Kathi Appelt, Eternal by Cynthia Leitich Smith, and her own book, Get Organized Without Losing It!

More Personally

Book Review: Eternal from Janet S. Fox at Through the Wardrobe. Janet gives Eternal 5 out of 5 stars! Peek: "...Smith's blend of fantasy, current cultural references, literary and Biblical analogies, and a ripping (pardon the pun) good story make this novel a winner."


Enter to win a paperback copy of Sacajawea by Joseph Bruchac (Harcourt, 2008)! To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address and type "Sacajawea" in the subject line. Deadline: May 30! Read a Cynsational interview with Joe.

Enter to win an ARC of Pure by Terra Elan McVoy (Simon Pulse, 2009)! To enter, email me (scroll and click envelope) with your name and snail/street mail address and type "Pure" in the subject line. Deadline: May 30.

The Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers' Conference Fourteenth Annual Event will be held from Aug. 11 to Aug. 17. The award-winning YA faculty for summer 2009 are Newbery Honor author and National Book Award finalist Kathi Appelt and Printz Winner and National Book Award Finalist An Na.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

New Voice: Erin Dionne on Models Don't Eat Chocolate Cookies

Erin Dionne is the first-time author of Models Don't Eat Chocolate Cookies (Dial, 2009). From the promotional copy:

Thirteen-year-old Celeste Harris is no string bean, but comfy sweatpants and a daily chocolate cookie suit her just fine. Her under-the-radar lifestyle could have continued too, if her aunt hadn't entered her in the HuskyPeach Modeling Challenge.

To get out of it, she's forced to launch Operation Skinny Celeste—because, after all, a thin girl can’t be a fat model! What Celeste never imagined was that losing weight would help her gain a backbone...or that all she needed to shine was a spotlight.

A hilarious debut featuring friendship, family, mean girls and even celebrity crushes, Celeste’s story is a delicious treat that doesn't add a pound.

Was there one writing workshop or conference that led to an "ah-ha!" moment in your craft?

By 2005, I'd been writing for years and years, submitting short stories, working with a critique group, tinkering with the same middle grade novel I'd finished in grad school (which I finished in 1999!), and freelancing. I decided that it was time to get serious about selling that novel.

So I signed up to attend the Santa Barbara Writer's Conference as a way to mark my renewed commitment to my writing. I went with my completed middle grade, several short stories, and a lot of enthusiasm.

During the course of that week, I sat in on several workshops, networked, listened to agents and editors, and really tried to absorb as much as I could about the industry: Where was my quiet, kind of dark, family drama-based middle grade book going to go? Who should I send it to? How should I market it?

One day, I went to a humor/chick lit workshop taught by writer Wendy French. I didn't consider my work to be a humorous or chick lit, but I had a short story in my folder that did have a funny element or I brought it and read it during the session.

"Have you ever considered turning this into a novel?" Wendy said when I was done.

"Uh, no," I said. "I have a novel. It's completed." In my head, I added: And it's not funny. It's dark and sad.

"But this could be a novel," she said. Others in the class nodded.

"But I have a novel," I repeated, all the while, thinking, what is she talking about?! Why would I want to turn this funny story into a novel? How could I even do that?!

To make a long story short, I went home, revised and sent out Dark and Sad Middle Grade Novel and searched around for another project to start.

Wendy's comments still floated around my brain. I pulled out the short story, "On BBQ Day, No One Brings a Lunch," and took a look at it. I had a good conflict (girl losing her best friend to school bully), a character that I loved (Celeste--wry and smart), and room to grow.

I sat down one day with a blank journal and started making notes about what I knew and where I could go. A few days later, I started writing the draft. It poured out of me in six weeks. The book basically wrote itself and became Models Don't Eat Chocolate Cookies.

I give Wendy so much credit for shining a light on what I couldn't see: that my style and voice had evolved over time. I had been hanging onto that finished Dark and Sad Middle Grade because it was done, not because it fit who I was or had become as a writer in the intervening years.

Humor is what works for me--something I never would have expected. That Dark and Sad novel--in a drawer, where it belongs.

As someone with a MFA, how did your education help you advance in your craft? What advice do you have for other MFA students/graduates in making the transition between school and publishing?

My MFA is actually in straight Creative Writing (Emerson College, 1999), but I concentrated my coursework in writing for children, even though they didn't have an official designation for that.

An understanding of process, honing of my editorial skills, and being a strong critical reader were all elements that I took away from my master's program.

My classes really taught me how to edit my work and what I needed to do in order to create a strong piece of writing. I learned how to identify the holes in my story. I learned how to read others' work and look at it for ways to improve my own writing.

I really learned how to take criticism in a workshop, how to listen to what readers were saying about how to make my story stronger.

MFA programs come under fire a lot. Some say they churn out "cookie cutter" writers. I guess I can see how that can happen, but that wasn't the case at Emerson. I felt as though everyone there had a very strong, unique voice, and we were able to support one another and learn from others' work.

However, the biggest challenge, once you leave the cocoon of an MFA, is actually writing. Without a course or thesis to motivate you, life and work and everything else can easily usurp your writing time. You need to commit to your work in order to bring it to the level of publication, so protect and treasure the time that you have during your program--and carry that beyond graduation.

Also, keep in touch with your classmates! Two of my classmates from Emerson have gone on to be really successful in the field--Laurie Faria Stolarz and Lara M. Zeises--and they were my role models when I was struggling through the publication process.

Cynsational Notes

The New Voices Series is a celebration of debut authors of 2009. First-timers may also be featured in more traditional author interviews over the course of the year.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Agent Interview: Mark McVeigh on The McVeigh Agency

Mark McVeigh spent two post-collegiate years in Paris, working for a jewelry designer, before returning to the U.S. east coast, for a master's in education at NYU. He taught sixth grade at PS 20 in Fort Greene, Brooklyn for four years before taking a job as editorial assistant at Golden Books.

Since then he has worked at Scholastic, Random House, HarperCollins, Dutton, and most recently as editorial director at Aladdin, a hardcover imprint at Simon & Schuster. Mark is now a literary agent at The McVeigh Agency.

What led you to specialize in youth literature? Could you give us a snapshot of your career?

When I taught sixth grade, the best part of every day--for all of us--was when I would read aloud from books we chose together. My kids weren't all reading on grade level, so the time spent reading to them was the one time everyone was focusing on the same work. It led to some amazing discussions.

How long have you been in the business? How has it changed?

I started at Golden Books just before Thanksgiving of 1997, so this fall I'll have been in the industry 12 years. I've worked through a boom period: Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket, Olivia, The Spiderwick Chronicles, Fancy Nancy, which both made it very exciting but also brought the focus increasingly on the bottom line.

That's not always a bad thing, but with the recent spate of layoffs of some of the most brilliant editors in our field (we all know the people I'm taking about, and I am not including myself in that list), I'm beginning to wonder just how traumatic the current financial situation will be to the industry.

Good books will continue to come out and the geniuses will find even better places to work their magic, but it is a bit unsettling.

What led to your transition from editor to agent?

Ha--Simon & Schuster let me go! Sadly, all of the people involved in my hiring, from president to publisher to associate publisher were gone (in the first two cases) or retiring any minute (in the case of the amazing Ellen Krieger, who is retiring this summer), and it was pretty clear to me that my days--and the idea we all had about what Aladdin could be--were numbered.

So the first thing I did was have breakfast with Charlotte Sheedy, surely one of the smartest people in our business, and she suggested I start my own agency.

I'd always wanted to be an agent, there was nary a job available, and when Charlotte makes a suggestion, only a fool doesn't take it.

So that day I bought my domain name and started calling all the authors and illustrators I've worked with for years who were unagented and told them what I was up to. Just about everyone signed on!

What sort of work are you looking to represent?

The easy answer is to have your readers visit my website. I'm very specific there.

You mention an interest in picture books, which have been a depressed market of late. What is your rationale?

There will always be a market for picture books--although it's a very tight one right now.

If you have the right idea, anything is possible. Look at Fancy Nancy by my beloved Jane O'Connor.

What "model" books would you suggest to prospective clients for "study" purposes?

I always suggest reading everything on the Times list, everything that is made into a movie, everything that wins a Caldecott, a Newbery, a Printz, and everything that they see kids talking about, carrying around, sharing. That last one is very important.

Would you describe yourself as an "editorial agent," one who comments on manuscripts, or one who concentrates more exclusively on publishing issues?

I'm a mix. Nothing goes out that I haven't edited, but I love the business of agenting--negotiating contracts, dealing with royalties and sub rights, and so on.

Is your approach more manuscript by manuscript or do you see yourself as a career builder?

Totally career-building. I've been asking my clients to think about where they want to be in two, five and ten years . . . and keeping that in mind as we work together.

And, of course, for writers that are open to suggestion, I'm always tossing out ideas that I think they could run with and turn into a hit.

What do you see as the ingredients for a "breakout" book in terms of commercial success, literary acclaim, and/or both?

For commercial success, the book must touch something in young readers in a major way, take them someplace new, introduce them to someone they are glad they met and can't forget--any of these things.

(Of course in many, if not most, cases, it needs a big push from a publishing house that has made an educated guess that the book will do just that.)

Literary acclaim is harder to bet on for a brand-new writer, since the way a person--including a reviewer--responds to a book is so subjective.

Are you accepting unsolicited submissions? What is the best way for a prospective client to get in touch with you?

They can e-mail a query letter to the address on the contact page of my website.

Do you have any particular submissions preferences or pet peeves?

This is a business, so I prefer query letters that are business-like in tone: get to the point (your manuscript and what it's about) and give me as much info in as simple a way as possible. It's about the story--nothing else.

Describe your dream client.

Someone who has both a voice and a message, is willing to work at both their craft and the business of publishing, and knows it takes time to build a career.

How much contact will you have with your clients? Emails, phone calls, retreats, listservs?

I'm not a big listserv person, but I e-mail a lot and talk on the phone.

It really depends on where you are in the process of a manuscript. The people I'm editing/submitting right at this moment--we talk every day. The people who are writing or ruminating over a piece or researching, much less so.

What kind of relationship are you looking to build and why?

Creative people need support, since what they are doing is so emotionally taxing, so I guess it's a combination of tough-minded business colleague to protect and guide them and friend/ shoulder to cry on or celebrate with, depending on the situation.

Many of my clients--particularly on my adult list--started as friends, but one reason it has worked so well with them is that they are all able to switch between friendship and business and back again without a problem.

Do you expect your writers to develop a market brand and stick to it? Or are you open to them pursuing a diversity of stories within their body of work?

A mixture of both, really. If an author has developed a series of successful books in a similar genre and made some money for their publishing house, it gives us the muscle to convince them to get behind something new, should the writer decide to stretch themselves, which I totally encourage.

But if you've had one hit, my suggestion is always to build on that for a book or two.

What do you anticipate will prove the greatest challenge of being an agent?

Keeping up with the volume of work until I can hire an assistant!

What do you think you'll love about it?

I have always loved being an advocate for creative people, and now I can do that in a very direct way.

(From left to right: editor Arthur A. Levine, author-illustrator Maurice Sendak, and literary agent Mark McVeigh.)

What do you do outside the world of youth literature?

I'm on the board of directors of the Ali Forney Center, an organization that houses and educates homeless LGBT youth. That takes up a lot of my time.

I go to the gym to retain my emotional equilibrium (and because bathing-suit season is upon us). And I try to sleep--but not much these days!

Is there anything you'd like to add?

Only that committing oneself to an artistic endeavor--writing, painting, acting, dance, whatever--and letting the world see what's in your head is the bravest act out there and one that doesn't receive much respect in this country.

I respect and love all my clients and all the people who submit to me for their bravery and their contribution to this world.

Even if your writing never makes it past the submission stage, you've added something to the world by being a person who believes in the power of art and exercises their right to create--and that's an amazing thing!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Author Interview: Carol Lynch Williams on The Chosen One

Carol Lynch Williams is the author of several books for young readers, most recently including The Chosen One (St. Martin's, 2009). From the promotional copy:

Thirteen-year-old Kyra has grown up in an isolated community without questioning the fact that her father has three wives and she has twenty brothers and sisters, with two more on the way. That is, without questioning them much---if you don’t count her secret visits to the Mobile Library on Wheels to read forbidden books, or her meetings with Joshua, the boy she hopes to choose for herself instead of having a man chosen for her.

But when the Prophet decrees that she must marry her sixty-year-old uncle---who already has six wives---Kyra must make a desperate choice in the face of violence and her own fears of losing her family forever.

What were you like as a young reader?

I was an avid reader. I loved books, and still do. I read several novels at a time.

I can remember, as a child, going to the library with my grandmother. Nana would take me to the library in New Smyrna, and I would check out the limit of books. I loved stacking the novels next to my bed, propping up on the pillows and reading.

I can remember Nana would come in when the sun had nearly set and say, “Girl, you are going to go blind reading in the dark.”

And I would read until I couldn't see by the sun anymore, then I’d switch on the lamp.

Why do you write for kids and young adults today?

I guess because my true voice is that of a 12-year-old.

Could you fill us in on your back-list titles, highlighting as you see fit?

My first novel came out in 1993. It's called Kelly and Me (Delacorte, 1993), and it had some nice reviews. I worked on that book for so many years . . .

(then sent it to the Delacorte Young Adult Novel Contest, knowing it was a middle grade but hoping for a read. I was pulled out of that contest and worked with my first wonderful editor, Mary Cash, for several years and books.)

. . . that I felt it needed a sequel because the ending so surprised me.

Adeline Street (Delacorte, 1995) was next. Then The True Colors of Caitlynne Jackson (Delacorte, 1997). After that came If I Forget, You Remember (Delacorte 1998) and then My Angelica (Delacorte, 1999)—My Angelica is my first real, true, lovey-dovey, extra special, romance novel. What a fun book to write!

That's when you and I met, Cynthia. I think you were twelve. Gosh, I was probably way, way younger. After that came Christmas in Heaven (Penguin, 2001) and Carolina Autumn (Delacorte, 2001). I remember thinking when I got your book Rain is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001) how strange it was that you and I had written such similar stories. I was like, "This is so cool! I'm thinking like Cynthia Leitich Smith!"

In between these books, I was writing for the Latter-day Saint marketplace, too. I have about ten or so titles there. Then I had a long dry spell.

I sold some non-fiction (I mention this later), and then I went to school at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I sold Pretty Like Us (Peachtree Press, 2008) at the start of school.

Before I graduated, I had sold what is now known as The Chosen One (St Martin's Press, 2009), and a book that is tentatively titled Lost in Peace (SMP, TBA).

About a month ago, I sold A Glimpse is All I Can Stand to Paula Wiseman books. That book is due out next year.

Looking back on your apprenticeship as a writer, is there anything you wish you'd done differently? If so, what and why?

I think the timing I experienced as a writer was exactly right for me, even including the long dry spell I had (though I couldn't know that at the time).

At the beginning of my career, I published consistently. Then, in 2002, I couldn't sell anything. Nothing.

For a moment, I had a slight change in the dry spell. I sold a non-fiction book called 24 Games You Can Play on a Checkerboard (2007).

But nothing fiction was selling. And fiction is my true love. I have to admit, though—I really do like the non-fiction book. It's published by Gibbs-Smith, and they did a terrific job on the book itself. Also my editor, Jennifer Grillone, was a delight to work with.

On the flip side, what was most helpful to you in terms of developing your craft?

All the reading I did helped me to be a writer, I think. One of the best things for a writer to do is read. Read everything you can get your hands on.

My first teachers were Faulkner, Twain, Steinbeck, Welty, O’Connor.

When I realized that I was going to be a children’s writer I started reading everything else. I am usually reading several books at a time (right now I’m reading four titles).

Also, I'd like to mention my agent Steve Fraser. He has been a truly supportive agent through some pretty dark times. He has a keen eye. He's known the houses my books should go to. It was Steve who truly believed St Martin's Press and my wonderful editor, Hope Dellon, would be a good place for me to land. And he was so right. This is an important part of writing, I think. Hooking up with the person that can represent you well and that you can work with well.

Congratulations on The Chosen One (St. Martin's, May 2009)! The early buzz has been deafening! Could you tell us about the novel?

I am all about relationships. And I write what tends to be emotion-packed for me. This book was no different. It's about 13-year-old Kyra Leigh Carlson, who lives in a polygamist community where everything the prophet says is law. She has a secret boyfriend, and she's found books (any kind of reading material has been banned from the community).

When Kyra gets the news that she will be chosen to marry someone else, she decides to do something few in her sect have the courage to do: she stands up for herself.

What was your initial inspiration for writing the book?

Long ago, I heard about a girl who had run from her home because she didn't want to marry a much-older family member. The moment I heard that story, I was like, I'll write a book about that some day. But the story stayed just a kernel of an idea for many, many years.

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

As a writer, one of the things I think makes for a good story is when the author feels emotionally connected to what she’s writing about. And, boy, I did feel attached to what I worked on. The research was depressing, and I have to admit, the topic is strange. "Yes, we want to share our husband."

Of course there are groups where pedophilia is not part of their beliefs. But the research I did uncovered some ugly truths about some communities. And, at it times, it was heartbreaking. I can still remember watching a documentary on TV and feeling so sad about what the reporters spoke about.

Then there was the problem of telling an interesting story that most don’t understand. I had to unfold plenty of back story, and how was I going to do that and not lose the reader?

Most authors feel there are troubles in the unfolding of their books. We are, after all, creating something from nothing. And there certainly were stumbling blocks for me in the researching and writing of this novel.

Am I right that St. Martin's is just now moving into publishing young adult novels? Could you tell us a little about that?

I know that SMP does do some YA, but not a lot. At the end of last year, they published Courtney Summers's debut novel, Cracked Up to Be (December 2008). I really like that book, thought the voice was dead-on. I'm still thinking about the ending. Wow!

I noticed that Jenna Lamia is the narrator for the audio production (MacMillan, May). What did you think of the audio adaptation?

SMP sent out a 12-minute CD with some of the ARCs, so I heard that. Jenna's reading actually gave me chills. She has such a sweet voice. I just got the CD of the book, and I can’t wait to hear it.

You know, Cynthia, this has never happened to any of my books before, and I feel so overwhelmed with it all. What a privilege. What a blessing. A book of mine is on tape.

And I just feel so humbled at the reaction to the novel itself. It's just crazy. But cool. Don't get me wrong! I'm so pleased.

You're a writer who also teaches. Could you fill us in on that?

I teach creative writing part time at Brigham Young University. I've done this only a few semesters, but I hope to teach at least one class a semester as the students are quite talented writers. In fact, I have a few students who have such strong voices and know so much about writing the novel that I only need to point them in the correct direction.

How does teaching inform your own work?

I get to see what's out there in the world of writing and see how other writers are exploring what they want to present. Also, I might know how to do something with a book—I wrote for many, many years before I ever got a degree—but not how to explain it. So I get to figure out what it is that I do as a writer to grab a reader or reveal a character and then pass it on.

What about it appeals to you? Challenges you?

The challenges are first, I always forget that many of my students are beginners. I have to remind myself to teach basics. I want the best for my students, and I work them hard. That means I work hard. Not a bad thing, but that gives me less time to write my own material.

However, I really want to see these writers succeed. Our goal in class is always publishing. I want them to walk out of class with enough material that they can have something solid to work on. And I want them to know about good, strong writing so their stories have power.

If you could go back in time and talk to your beginning-writer self, what would you tell her?

Don't be so afraid, be more adventurous. I was so shy when I first started publishing, I almost didn't go to my first critique group. I had a hard time speaking in front of people. Also, I'd learn how to be more public about my own writing, which is hard for me to do. I just want to write and then spend the rest of the day with my kids!

What do you do outside the world of books?

There's a world outside of books? Hm...most of my world is books. I home-school my girls, and books are a big part of that. And I have a great critique group (but that's books).

Okay, I can do this. I love to watch movies, I love to eat, and if I had someone to go shopping for ingredients and then someone to clean up my mess, I'd love to cook. I like to make bread.

I love my children—all of them. I love to spend time with them, just driving around or watching them play ball, or listening to them talk about books (we do that a lot at my place).

In fact, we were just re-re-re-discussing Ann Dee Ellis's novel, Everything is Fine (Little, Brown, 2009) for the millionth time.

I cross-stitch when I have time. And talk to my friends (I actually have a group of friends where we do not talk writing or reading. Can you imagine?).

I love going to church, but I am glad that I only do it once a week.

Oh! I remembered something. I love to go to garage sales. I will not tell you what I shop for. But I did get a first edition of Animal Farm [by George Orwell (1945)] for a dime once. A dime!

What can your fans look forward to next?

I have another book coming out with St. Martin's that I'm working on right now, the one I spoke of earlier. It's tentatively called Lost in Peace. This is the story of Lacey, her mother who is ill, and a dead grandfather who keeps peeking into the family and stirring things up.

And there's A Glimpse is All I Can Stand. Like I said, I always write about relationships, and this book is no different. It's the story of sister who tries to uncover the reasons why her older sister has attempted to kill herself.

Cynsational Notes

This year's PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship goes to Carol Lynch Williams, author of the forthcoming A Glimpse Is All I Can Stand, for which she is receiving the award.

"The PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship responds to the need for a measure of financial sustenance that can make possible an extended period of time to complete a book-length work in progress. The fellow will receive $5,000 in assistance at a crucial moment in his or her career when monetary support is particularly needed. The fellowship is made possible by a substantial contribution from PEN member Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.

"The judges for this year's award were Lucy Frank, Patricia Reilly Giff, and Ann Martin."

Monday, May 11, 2009

Author Interview: Wendy Lichtman on Do The Math: Secrets, Lies, and Algebra & The Writing on the Wall

Wendy Lichtman on Wendy Lichtman:

"Wendy Lichtman writes personal essays for The Washington Post, The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Good Housekeeping, among other national publications.

"She has also written four previous young adult novels before her Do The Math series. She holds a degree in mathematics and has tutored public-school students in algebra for several years.

"When she decided to write about a teenage girl who realizes that some questions have more than one right answer, algebra, with its unknowns and variables, seemed a perfect metaphor.

"Wendy lives in Berkeley, California."

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

I had a couple of "no, thank yous" from agents because of the mathematical content in this series. One agent who turned it down said, "This is a great book, but sorry, math is a hard sell." The agent who said yes, on the other hand, wrote, "I hate math, but I love this book." He's my guy.

Looking back on your writing apprenticeship, what helped you most in terms of developing your craft?

I've participated in several writing workshops, which are always a shot in the arm, but I think my commitment to continually being in a writing group with colleagues has been the most helpful support for developing my writing skills.

I also teach writing classes, and having to explain things to students helps me conceptualize and clarify my ideas about writing.

Congratulations on the success of Do The Math: Secrets, Lies, and Algebra (HarperCollins, 2007)(excerpt) and The Writing on the Wall (HarperCollins, 2008)! What first inspired you to write these stories?

At the heart of the first book, Secrets, Lies and Algebra, is a murder mystery, based on an actual story from my childhood of an acquaintance of my mother's who appeared to have committed suicide.

Mom, and many other adults in my community believed that the woman's husband may have been involved and that, in fact, the apparent suicide was a murder.

They didn't go to the police with their suspicions, though, and for me, that was the mystery: why didn't these grown-ups report their suspicions?

I always wanted to write this story, but not until I listened to a lecture by Dr. Robert Moses, the director of The Algebra Project and co-author of Radical Equations (Beacon Press, 2001), did I think of telling it through algebraic metaphors.

When I got that idea, I called a friend who was the principal of a school in Oakland, and asked if I could observe an eighth grade math class for a while. I wanted to see both authentic algebra and authentic kids of that age, and my friends said, "yes," as long as I would stay at least three months.

I stayed for two years and found it so satisfying to work with the kids that I continue to volunteer in the public schools in my area.

Did you always know there would be more than one?

No, but by the time I finished Secrets, Lies and Algebra, two things had happened:

1) I was deeply committed to the eighth grade students I was observing and tutoring, and I was getting wonderful response from them about using fiction to understand math (and math to understand fiction!); and

2) I was also deeply committed to my fictional characters and not ready to stop working with this crowd.

How do you balance your writing against the responsibilities of being an author (business, promotion, etc.)?

This is always a juggling act for me. I enjoy the promotional aspect of the business because when I go into schools or speak at conferences of teachers or librarians, I love engaging with my audience--it's a lovely balance to the solitary work of writing.

But I'm less good about online promotion--it feels too much like the solitary job of writing, I guess.

Who are your first manuscript readers and why?

I have both adult readers--other writers with whom I exchange manuscripts--and teen readers, a writing group from a neighborhood school, which acts as my first readers.

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

I guess I'd have to confess how hard the work is and how surprised I am by that.

(I'm afraid I used to believe that the creative act was a great pleasure, without understanding the discipline that's needed as well.)

On the other hand, there is enormous satisfaction in this business. Not only in being able to make something tangible--a book--out of something intangible--an idea, but also in the wonderful response from readers.

It's worth it, I'd tell myself. Stick with it.

What do you do outside the world of books?

I swim daily, bike often with a group of friends, and teach writing (not sure that's "outside the world of books").

What can your fans look forward to next?

I'm hoping there will be one more Do The Math novel. I've started working on that. And also, another middle-school novel in which there is actually no math (!).

Is there anything you would like to add?

The question I'm asked most frequently before people read Secrets, Lies and Algebra, or its sequel The Writing on The Wall, is this: Why use math to tell your stories?

I'm not surprised at the question because I know many readers think of mathematics as a subject that is separate--and distant--from the rest of their lives.

But Tess, the eighth-grade girl at the center of this series, sees it differently. For her, math is all about patterns--and so is human behavior. And, like most teenagers, she faces plenty of problems that need solutions.

Is there a formula that predicts if the boy you like has a crush on you? Does it help to look at things from a new angle when you mess up big-time? How can it be that some questions have more than one correct answer, while others have none at all?

After people read my books, I'm grateful to get a very different response: students often tell me they finally understand a certain math concept because they were able to see it through Tess's unique perspective. Which was exactly my hope.

One of my goals in writing the Do the Math series was to show that mystery, intrigue, romance, and mathematics could be on the same page.

Teen readers--who know very well that many things change as quickly as the variables and unknowns in their algebra books--can appreciate how Tess's view of the world deepens their understanding not only of math but also of life.
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