5 QUESTIONS with Susan Verde, author of “The Water Princess”

 

 

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I fell hard for the book The Water Princess by Susan Verde, illustrated by Peter Reynolds and inspired by the life experience of Georgie Badiel. It struck me as timely, important, age-appropriate and lovingly, respectfully told. The tone felt right, the writing strong: “I can almost touch the sharp edges of the stars.” So I plucked up my courage and reached out to Susan for an interview.

Susan Verde, thanks for stopping by.

Thank you so much. I’m really beyond thrilled to be here!

Though we’ve never met, it seems like we have more than a few connections, including our love for Greenwich Village. These days you live in Easthampton on the south fork of Long Island. I’ve spent a lot of time out there. After retirement, my parents moved from my childhood home in Wantagh to Southampton. “Near the dump,” as my Queens-raised mother would hasten to point out. Don’t get the wrong idea, nothing fancy about us Prellers!

HAHAHA! When I was a child going to the dump was a big deal! We would sing “to the dump to the dump to the dump dump dump.”

I can hear it now, the Lone Ranger theme. Every visit my father would turn to the grandchildren and ask, “Who wants to go to the dump with me?” They were always eager to go. A magical place, I guess.

The dump is a bonding experience for sure. My dad used to take my kids there too. They loved the seagulls and the adventure. Hmmm . . . sounds like a story in the making, no?

It’s funny. On Facebook this morning, someone posted a writing prompt. And because I’m cranky and dislike that sort of thing, I wrote, “The whole world is a writing prompt.”

I couldn’t agree more! Need a good writing prompt? All you have to do is be present in the world. Doesn’t mean it will turn into a published manuscript but it doesn’t mean it won’t.

I admire your writing so much, and was especially impressed by The Water Princess, which was the result of a unique collaboration between Peter Reynolds, Georgie Badiel (whom I refuse to refer to as a “supermodel”), and you.

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Yes, it was kind of a random but interesting meeting of minds and souls. Peter met Georgie at a fundraising event, and she told him of her dream to share her story with children. They met again in Manhattan at the Women of the World conference. It was then that Peter really got a sense that Georgie had an important story to tell. He felt it needed a lyrical touch and knowing my style and knowing how to connect people (he really has a gift) he emailed me and told me, “You need to call this woman right now.”

Tell us about that first meeting.

Georgie and I met at at a Starbucks (where many of my projects begin) in midtown and she walked in so tall and striking and she just couldn’t wait to talk. I hugged her upon meeting because there was a wonderful familiarity about her (it was a hug around the knees basically as I am not so tall). We sat. She spoke. I listened. Her story was sad and hopeful and funny and beautiful. We were both crying after a good hour or so. I knew right away I wanted to tell this story and understood why Peter brought us together.

 

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You must have felt daunted, the idea of telling someone else’s story.

I had never really told someone else’s story so directly. My main concern was that I told it right. I was very careful with the gift of this story that Georgie gave me. I felt protective of it. She didn’t hesitate to share anything. I had lots of questions . . . wanted all of the details of the journey, the songs she sang, the kind of trees she saw and what she snacked on, what she felt like as she walked. Georgie was extremely generous and had no restrictions or rules or suggestions about style. It was very special to have a story like hers and then the opportunity to play with it and make it accessible to the picture book audience. I didn’t take that lightly.

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You did an incredible job. I sometimes think of a picture book idea as that black slab in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” no doors, no windows. How do you get inside? Then maybe a phrase comes to mind, a sentence that establishes tone –- you jot that down — and you’re in!

Honestly the “way in” for this story was the sky. It was really the secret doorway. I have been to Africa and I had my own memories of the African sky. It was really insane the way it felt so incredibly close and the colors and stars. I know that the sky was not the central message of the story or even anything Georgie talked about but for me it provided a context and a starting place. I imagined what this child, this princess, would feel about the sky (her kingdom) and what she — what Georgie — had to endure under this sky and the juxtaposition of the hardships and the beauty of the world. It informed the ultimate message of hope and gave me my entry point.

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I have such respect for writers who can take such a complex story and somehow find that essence. A distillation that uncovers a clear, uncluttered pathway. The storyline — like finding a path through the dark mysterious woods. Your manuscript is simple, poetic, and powerful. How do you that? I mean, what’s the thinking process for you?

Thank you! That is such a huge compliment! I took lots of notes as Georgie spoke. Just words and images and then as soon as we parted after that first meeting the story just poured out. I tend to have a more lyrical style of writing. I like slices of life and the emotions they evoke so it was very natural to approach The Water Princess as a poem of sorts. I am also very connected to water and its movement. Because water is so central to this story it felt natural to have a certain flow but it wasn’t forced. I just kind of let the story direct me. The only sticky place was the title. Georgie really wanted the main character to be a princess as there was some royalty in her lineage but it also felt like a nice part of the message that even a princess needs to work hard and have hope to solve a problem. It was my son, who was 10 at the time, who said, “Why don’t you just call it The Water Princess?” Smart boy. In retrospect it seemed pretty obvious but that doesn’t mean we always see it!

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I’ve been making a serious effort over the past year to get back into picture books. I have so many failed manuscripts, false starts, abandoned ideas. At a certain point I just look up and think, “Yeah, this one’s not happening.” Am I doing something wrong? Help me, Susan.

Haha! I have a lot of those too but don’t give up! Keep getting it all out and ultimately something will click. You will feel it in your gut! Is that the way it works with writing for older kids? I would LOVE to tap into that process! I too have a lot of ideas and false starts in that arena. Maybe you can share your secret?

If I figure anything out, I’ll let you know. I liked that you were once an elementary school teacher. You’ve got your bona fides. I’m envious of teachers, because they are surrounded by stories, swimming in stories. There’s a great tradition of former teachers who go on to become excellent storytellers. It’s like: they know.

Being a teacher was one of the best times of my life. First of all it gave me a great excuse to buy tons and tons of picture books! It also gave me a chance to really observe what kids connect with and how to reach them where they are. What I learned and what still guides me is that kids are so intuitive and intelligent. They deserve stories that don’t talk down to them. They deserve stories that challenge them and also have deep themes and messages. Kids are a lot less “cluttered” and full of cynicism and doubt than adults. They understand more than they are often given credit for and they have a natural sense of empathy and ability which leads them to solve problems or at least attempt to solve problems more readily and creatively

For this book, you had a rare opportunity for a picture book author: you knew who was going to illustrate it. Usually we’re typing in the dark, without any clue how it will be presented visually. Do you think it guided you as a writer?

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Yes, Peter and I have been really fortunate to have such a special creative relationship. I know it’s rare for sure. I think it did guide my writing because I had a sense of the illustrations and wanted to write in a way that allowed him to “see” the story. Working with Peter is a wonderful collaboration and a complete joy. We have a very similar sensibility and mission and it feels like a dance in a way. We guide each other’s steps but put our own flare into the process. I also know how incredibly thoughtful he is with his art and the way it reflects and captures and moves along the emotion of a story. This particular project involved a lot of research and conversation among the three of us so it was especially collaborative.

You were instrumental in making the connection with the good folks at Ryan’s Well. Why was that important for this project?

img_0620That was not an easy task at all. Part of Georgie’s vision for this project was to actually bring water to her specific village first and foremost. I went to organization after organization to try and find a way to give them money from our advances to start creating wells and then continuing as the book sold. Much to our surprise it was super difficult to find an organization that went to Burkina Faso in the first place. Finally I just started cold calling water charities and happened upon Ryan’s Well. They were AMAZING! Incredibly receptive and willing to go to Burkina Faso directly. They were also a family-run organization started by Ryan when he was eight. It really captured everything about this project — the wells, the power of children, really a match made in heaven. In the meantime out of frustration Georgie started to create her own foundation, and has continued the mission.

So what’s next for you? There’s a new book about sneakers, right?

Yes, My Kicks will be out April 13th, illustrated by Katie Kath. I didn’t see the art until I got the proofs and was thrilled!

That’s typical for most authors, but very different from your work with Peter Reynolds.

Kathy captured the story and the part of me that is still a city girl and I couldn’t be happier but it was very odd and slightly nerve-wracking not speaking about anything after I handed in the text.

That’s such an essential childhood experience. Buying those squeaky new (too clean) sneakers, getting home, dirtying them up, and then running much faster than you ever have in your entire life. “Look at me go!”

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Right?!? I remember it in myself when I was a kid and I see it in my own children. They have sneakers that represent different parts of themselves and with every new pair I see them grow as personalities (not just in shoe size), challenging themselves in new ways. Sneakers are a kind of cool transitional items and vehicles for self-expression.

You’ve obviously given it some thought. Anything else coming up?

Peter and I have a sequel to I Am Yoga called I Am Peace out in September and then I have something with John Parra about street art and a few more special things in the pipeline. Also trying to keep the kid’s yoga and mindfulness alive and raising three wonderfully crazy children! Life isn’t dull that’s for sure. I am very grateful for it all and especially grateful to have been invited to speak here with you!

Believe me, most people are not that excited. I’m truly glad we got this chance to hang out together. I knew from your books that we’d get along.

Thank you James! I’ve enjoyed this so much!

 

headshot3SUSAN VERDE keeps a website that’s worth visiting. She’s published a number books, including I Am Yoga, You and Me, The Museum, and coming in April, My Kicks: A Sneaker Story. In other words, she’s awesome and she’s my new friend.

Authors and illustrators previously interviewed in my “5 Questions” series include: Hudson Talbott, Hazel Mitchell, Susan Hood, Matthew McElligott, Jessica Olien, Nancy Castaldo, Aaron Becker, Matthew Cordell, Jeff Newman, Matt Phelan, Lizzy Rockwell, Jeff Mack, London Ladd, John Coy, Bruce Coville, and Matt Faulkner. To find past interviews, click on the “5 Questions” link on the right sidebar, under CATEGORIES. Or use the “Search” function. 

Coming soon: Elizabeth Zunon, Robin Pulver, Susan Wood, Hannah Barnaby, Kevin Lewis and more.

 

 

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