James Preller Interviews . . . Deborah Kovacs, Part One

Back during the Archaean eon, the earth received a heavy bombardment of meteorites.

That’s about when Deborah Kovacs and I first met to discuss co-authoring a book for Scholastic Professional Books, eventually titled: Meet the Authors and Illustrators.

Wait, no, it wasn’t that long ago. Existence back then was not possible for current life forms due to the lack of oxygen, the absence of an ozone layer, and shortages of good, strong coffee. So let’s place this publishing event in 1991. A couple of years later, Deborah and I followed up with Meet the Authors and Illustrators: Volume Two. After that, we became more like Kiss during the solo album stage.

My sections from the previous two books, which concentrated on picture book authors and illustrators, was revised, updated, and recollected along with 15 new profiles for The Big Book of Picture-Book Authors & Illustrators (2001). Deborah went solo and wrote Meet the Authors, concentrating on writers of upper elementary and middle school books (there’s a bunch of sample pages here).

You can find the above titles where used books are sold. And you’d be fortunate, because those books are small treasures, filled with insights from the best artists and writers in children’s literature. For Deborah and I, working on those books was both an inspiration and a perspiration. It’s been a long time since Deborah and I chatted. But watch out, folks, here she comes strolling up my front walk! And guess what? These days she prefers to be called DJ (she’s like Sean Combs Puff Daddy P. Diddy that way — keeping it real).

Deborah Kovacs, er, I mean, DJ! So great to see you again. You know, we did a couple of books together, our roles neatly divided, and now I feel forever linked to you. It’s sort of like we went to the 8th grade dance together only to stand at opposite ends of the same gymnasium.

I was the envy of all the girls in my class . . .

Not really us, but should have been.

I think of those interviews all the time. I took the picture book folks, while you profiled authors of longer works, including such luminaries as Jean Craighead George, Katherine Paterson, Madeleine L’Engle, Lloyd Alexander, and many more.  Who were some of your favorites?

I think of those interviews all the time too. I did 80 interviews in all — really all the greats of that time (early 1990’s). Along with those you mentioned, I often think of the conversations I had with Joan Aiken, Lynn Reid Banks, Virginia Hamilton, Elizabeth George Speare, really everyone involved. They were all so friendly, accessible, interested in the project, and above all generous. Every one of them a hero(ine) of mine, then and now.

I agree. I only intensely disliked one very famous author. Considering the ratio, that’s pretty good.

My ratio was the same. But I still enjoy that author’s work, and realize that it’s not an author’s responsibility to be personable.

It was such a privilege to talk to those people. I keep remembering snatches of advice, different comments that authors or illustrators made. That must happen for you, too. Can you think of any examples?

I was just thinking this morning about Jerry Spinelli telling me he wrote his first novels during his lunch hour at his job at Rodale, shutting his office door for one hour every day.

I remember Kevin Henkes almost sheepishly explaining that he could never get his young children down for a nap. So he’d drive them around in the car until they dozed off. Then he’d park, pull out a notebook, and write. When there’s a will, there’s a way.

I remember Elaine Konigsburg telling me that “the difference between being a writer and being a person of talent is the discipline it takes to apply the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair and finish.”

Very true. Sooner or later, the butt has to find the chair.

I remember William Armstrong explaining that central to his method of cogitation was the fact that he wrote in pencil and kept his pencil sharpener at the farthest possible place in his house from his workroom, so he would be forced to get up and walk around when he was thinking of an idea.

Oh, I like that. Charlotte Zolotow once gave me a phrase that I think of all the time. She was trying to answer that impossible question, where ideas come from. She talked about how they came to her when she was walking around, doing the dishes or any manual task, and said almost as an aside: “When you’re thinking that you’re not thinking.”

Even though I’m not an illustrator, I sometimes brainstorm by drawing pictures. There’s also a huge rock out in the field next to my house that has helped spark more than one good idea (you sit on it and do nothing at all, and usually, “something” comes).

Man, I’ve got to get one of those idea rocks. The truth is, I’ve never been good at sitting and thinking. It always seems to flow better when I’m involved in something physical — when I’m doing other stuff. You know what’s funny? I often think of a reference that author Phoebe Gilman said on this topic. She compared it to that classic Sesame Street skit, featuring Don Music. He bangs his head on the piano in despair, “Oh, I’ll never get it right!”

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This could start a whole other flood of conversation, but did you know that I started my career at Sesame Street, in the days when Don Music (and his gang) were in full force?

Was that you? I thought it was Beaker.

Beaker was on the Muppet Show, silly. Though he had some close relations on Sesame Street, specifically the Martians and the Two-Headed Monster. I was lucky enough to work at Sesame Street in the early days when all the original Muppet folks were around. Jim Henson has been a lifelong inspiration to me — really to everyone who ever worked with him, I bet.

That must have been a fantastic experience for you. I once worked at a Beefsteak Charlies, so I can relate. I mean, all the beer, wine, and sangria you can drink — that’s a certain kind of genius and the kids loved it, too. Anyway, I’ve always wondered, was Oscar really such a grouch? Any truth to the rumor that Don Music was forced to retire due to post-concussion syndrome? And is it also true that Bert and Ernie couldn’t stand each other off-set?

Those are all nasty, scurrilous rumors. I believe the folks who put this show together were (and are) among the world’s greatest creative and positive forces for the good of children. There are a couple of generations of people walking around the planet who had the benefit of this influence at a very early age. Of course, one could argue that with this great early influence, the world should be in better shape than it is.

Hey, I blame this whole Twilight thing on The Count. The resemblance is uncanny. Same nose, same eyes.

Anything else from those wonderful interviews you’d like to share?

I remember Madeleine L’Engle’s impressive presence, her height, resonant voice and sympathy. I remember Virginia Hamilton talking about how tortuously difficult it was to start writing a new book after M.C. Higgins the Great won the Newbery. Most of all, I will never forget Katherine Paterson describing her anguish at knowing she had to write the scene in Bridge to Terabithia when Leslie was going to die. She put off writing the scene as long as she could, and it broke her heart to have to finally put it in writing, because the story was based on an event in her son David’s childhood.

Also, it’s such a dramatic moment, pulling on those heartstrings, it had to be handled in exactly the right way. And she nailed it.

Many years later, when working at Walden Media (where I still work today)  I got to know Katherine and David and the rest of their family pretty well as we made the film of “Bridge to Terabithia” (on which David was a screenwriter and producer). My colleagues and I were so proud to support the family’s perspective as the film went through the inevitable grind of screenplay development.

I saw that movie! What a daunting task, to take a truly beloved, revered book and turn it into a film. You really don’t want to screw it up.

You just can’t.

Gosh, I wish some publisher would come along and ask us to write one of those books again. There’s been a whole new crop of talented folks.

Word.

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Sorry, faithful reader, but this concludes Part One of our interview with Deborah Kovacs. Scroll through to find Part Two when DJ talks about her own writing, bizarre ocean creatures, Charles Dickens, Sarah Palin, ALA Midwinter, her work at Walden Media, Ingrid Law (Savvy), and much more — including a list of some of her favorite books from 2009.

Okay lazybones, if you prefer, click here to leapfrog over to Part Two.

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