Archive for Interviews & Appreciations

A CONVERSATION WITH AUTHOR JAN CARR: Celebrating Her New Picture Book & Recalling the Good Old Days at Scholastic (1980s)

In this interview with author Jan Carr, I wanted to celebrate her new picture book, Star of the Party: The Solar System Celebrates!, illustrated by Juana Medina. But I confess that I mostly wanted to catch up with an old friend. We shared some time together at Scholastic in the 80s. It was a time of great change in publishing — and we were just getting started.

 

Jan, it’s so nice get reacquainted with you. We first met back in 1985, I believe. I was a newly-hired junior copywriter at Scholastic pulling down $11,500 a year and you were . . . I don’t know exactly what you were.

I was an Associate Editor in the book group, first on Lucky Book Club, and later in trade books. At that time, the clubs published some of their own books.

Eva Moore was the editor of Lucky at that time, right? Maybe it was always true, but there was a real changing of the guard taking place at that time at Scholastic. Those older, wiser, more experienced editors working side-by-side with much younger people and their new-fangled ways.

Yes, Eva was editor of Lucky. And she herself had gotten her start under the famous Beatrice Schenk de Regniers, founding editor of Lucky.

Craig Walker used to tell Beatrice stories, truly from a quieter age in children’s publishing. I remember starting at Scholastic when we didn’t yet have computers. I had a typewriter and about six bottles of Wite- Out. After a few months, I was learning about MS-DOS and floppy disks.

Oy, those typewriters. I was a hopeless typist.

So was that your dream at the time? Children’s books? I seem to recall . . . leg warmers. Maybe I was mistaken, but I had the sense that you were an aspirational dancer.

Leg warmers? Ha! In true 80s style, they were probably ripped. When I left Scholastic at the end of the day, I’d zip off to ballet class, but since I hadn’t started studying until I was an adult, there was no chance of a professional career. But I definitely loved, and continue to love, kids’ books, and literature in general. I’d been taking a writing class, and trying my hand at fiction, and was also writing articles about theater and dance for Stagebill, Playbill, and other arts publications. One weekend, I’d been assigned an article about someone –- Martha Clarke? I spent the whole weekend researching in the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, and writing the article. On Monday morning, I arrived at Scholastic feeling proud, and showed it to Regina Griffin, who immediately corrected some fact I’d gotten wrong. And I remember feeling deflated. When you write about the arts in NYC, you’re writing for a wildly knowledgeable audience. Regina and I ended up working together later as editor and writer when she moved to Holiday House, and she acquired some of my picture books.

Those were very happy days at Scholastic. There was a certain amount of looseness and creativity. When I wasn’t busy counting all that money I was earning — my rent was $200 a month for a railroad apartment in Brooklyn that I shared with two other slobs guys — I would sometimes look around at all the creative young people in the room. Just a lot sharp, caring, creative people carving their own path in the world of children’s books. Ellen Miles, Phoebe Yeh, Holly Kowitt, Bethany Buck, Brenda Bowen . . . a lot of them with big jobs still today . . . Hey, wait a minute. Was I the only young, male heterosexual on all three floors of that 730 Broadway office?!

You, Greg Holch, and R.L. Stine!

Old “Jovial Bob” Stine was a little before my time. And he wasn’t exactly young — even back then. I wonder what ever happened to him?

Dropped into obscurity, poor fella.

I hope he’s still jovial.

Photo taken from a 2003 reunion gathering. Many of these faces were at Scholastic during the late 80s. JP not present. So, yeah, maybe a Diverse Books movement was a necessary idea!

 

I love your characterization of the people, sharp and creative. I recently had dinner with Holly Kowitt and we were talking about that very thing, that we were so lucky to be in a place that gave us a bit of creative room, both professionally and otherwise.

Holly was the funniest person in that building. I’m so glad to see that she’s putting out books that feature her twisted humor and illustrative talent. I’m a huge fan, love her. Holly had a basement apartment on East 7th next door to those great Ukranian dive bars. When asked to describe where she lived, Holly would often say, “You probably urinated on my bedroom window at 3:00 in the morning.” Ah, New York in the mid-80s!

       

Scholastic tolerated and was accepting of a range of employees, including those of us who were a little more oddball or out of the mold. Before Scholastic, I’d worked at Children’s Television Workshop (now called Sesame Workshop) and it was similarly accepting. At CTW, some of the assistants were aspiring actors, and on days they had auditions, they used to come to the office wearing curlers. It was a more forgiving time.

That was another fertile training ground for future children’s authors and illustrators. Susan Hood, Deborah Kovacs. There must be dozens.

So, so many!

Can you tell me any stories from the Scholastic days?

This isn’t strictly publishing related, but it definitely fits with your description of the atmosphere of “looseness and creativity.” I had a birthday one year, and I hadn’t yet told my Scholastic friends that I’d recently started dating someone. So Holly and others, for fun, placed a personal ad in the Village Voice to get me dates. It described me as wearing red high tops or something. When the responses started pouring in, we tacked those hard copy letters up on the outside of the cubicles, dividing them into categories: Cream of the Crop, Fat Chance, etc. And every day, everyone would file by to read the letters and see if there were any new ones. We were curating an evolving exhibit! I remember one incarcerated guy who responded and charmed us all by introducing himself saying: “I live in a big house with a big yard.”

Hilarious.

I think I remember people adding Post-It notes with comments? So it was kind of performance art-y? Musta been cuz we were in the East Village.

One of my favorite stories features Ed Monagle, who was a chief financial officer instrumental in helping to turn the company around in the 80s and early 90s along with the leadership of Barbara Marcus, Jean Feiwel, Dick Spaulding and Dick Krinsely. Ed was a sweet man, very kind, but, you know, a numbers person. Not really a book guy. Well, I moved upstate in 1990 and started freelancing. One day Ed stopped me with some advice: “Jimmy, you know what you gotta do. You need to make up a character like Clifford the Big Red Dog. I see the royalty checks we send out to Norman Bridwell twice a year. He’s not complaining, let me tell you. That’s what you need to do. I mean, come on: he’s a dog, he’s big, he’s red. How hard can it be?”

Ha ha, so how hard can it be? And why haven’t you and I come up with a Clifford-level idea? Ooh, I just had a cringe memory involving another Scholastic book that was popular at the time, not nearly as popular as Clifford, but the art was simple and bold. One day, we got final art in, but it was so simple and rudimentary that I thought it was sketches, so I fed it through the copy machine to make copies. Whoops. I was just lucky that the final art didn’t rip!

We recently saw the passing of Dick Robinson, President and CEO of Scholastic. The end of an era. Did you feel a pang at the news? Dick was a guy who, whenever he saw me in the elevator, would ask: “How are you, Jim? Writing lots of copy?”

I know DR had a reputation for knowing all of his employees, but once, when I got a promotion, he announced it in a group of others, and it was very clear to me he had absolutely no idea who this Jan Carr from the Book Group was.

Don’t feel too bad, all the mail room workers certainly knew who you were — all those love letters from the Big House!

But I have another funny story about that promotion, which wasn’t actually a promotion. I was moving from book clubs to trade books, but staying at my title, Associate Editor.

Same glorious cubicle?

Of course. And when Craig Walker heard, he stopped me in the hallway, and fixed me with one of his signature sly smiles that signaled he was about to zing one at you, and said, “Jan! I want to congratulate you on that incredible lateral move!”

Craig, sigh. I still get teary thinking about him. That warm pressure behind the eyes.

Scholastic, 1986.

We all miss the one and only Craig. This is a good spot to recall the editorial meeting where he actually pitched the idea for The Magic School Bus series to Jean Feiwel. I was there! I was witness! In editorial meetings, we’d all perk up when it was Craig’s turn to present because he was so entertaining, even when he was proposing something as ordinary as a classic tale for the 8×8 paperback picture book line. He could make me laugh just by saying, “And then, of course, the fox eats the Gingerbread Boy!”

I wasn’t in those meetings, since I was in the marketing department, but Craig and I ate lunch together 2-3 times a week. Hilarity ensued. 

And as for historically significant editorial meetings, I also remember being at the one where The Baby-Sitters Club was proposed.

And you thought to yourself, “Yeah, that’ll never fly.”

Obviously I had no idea it heralded the arrival of the phenomenon that would be BSC!

That’s how Scholastic worked at its best. One random book with “babysitter” in the title did exceptionally well on a Lucky Book Club offering. So Jean Feiwel zeroed in on that word and said, “Let’s create a series.” Then Jean was smart enough to give the idea to Ann M. Martin and get out of the way. 

That’s right, Ann did an amazing job.

So, please, catch me up. Have you stayed in children’s books all this time?

I have. Though I’ve had various side jobs. Some of my additional work has been kid-book related – work-for-hire novelizations, ghostwriting for series. Interestingly, on my original projects, I’ve ended up working with a number of the people I met when we all worked together at Scholastic. Andrea Cascardi, now of Transatlantic Agency, is my agent. And years ago, when she was an editor at Hyperion, Andrea acquired my very first original picture book, Dark Day, Light Night, illustrated by James Ransome. And the editor of my latest picture book, Star of the Party: The Solar System Celebrates!, was Phoebe Yeh. I think you’ve ended up working with some Scholastic folks, too?

Most of them won’t return my emails. There’s been legal action. These editors play fast and loose with the term “stalker.”

The squeaky wheel gets the book contract.

Today we’re celebrating your most recent book, Star of the Party: The Solar System Celebrates! Where did this book begin for you? I mean, what was your initial idea?

I’d read that the sun was 4.6 billion years old, and I thought, that star deserves a birthday party! What if the planets in the solar system planned one in appreciation? This book is, of course, in the category of informational fiction, not non-fiction. So though I had to understand the facts, and get them right, I also got to anthropomorphize the planets and give them speech balloons, and build a story around them. Sometimes, when I read about astronomy, it seems vast and complicated. Do young readers ever feel that way? I thought it might help to make the story cozy, limit it to our solar system. In certain ways, our solar system is not unlike a family. And the personality traits ascribed to the planets might help readers remember some of the facts. Jupiter? He’s a bulky braggadocio. Because he’s the biggest planet, a gas giant!

Yes, I was proud to see that you were able to work a fart joke into the book.

I put it in for you, Jimmy. And for all the fart-joke lovers out there.

To be clear, I don’t believe anyone has ever farted in one of my books. Or burped. My characters do projectile vomit from time to time. That’s been known to happen. Always hilarious, the gushing firehouse of spew. So, hey, Pluto didn’t get an invite to the party?

He did get an invite, but he’s at the kids’ table. Is Pluto a planet? There’s still disagreement. One of the challenges of writing about the solar system is that the information is always changing and shifting, and will continue to do so after the book gets published. After this manuscript was acquired, astronomers discovered more moons for both Jupiter and Saturn. And since that information figured prominently in the story, I not only had to update the numbers, I also had to fiddle with the story. Thankfully, that happened before publication. But that’s the challenge when you’re dealing with non- fiction content. Years ago, I wrote a book about punctuation, Greedy Apostrophe: A Cautionary Tale. Regina was my editor and she corrected one of my punctuation facts in her notes. I challenged her and referred her to Chicago Manual of Style. But she pointed out that a newer edition had recently been published. So even punctuation rules change!

Uh-oh, let’s hope that Regina never comes across this blog! We’re a little lax with typos and minor errors here at James Preller Corporate. Tell me, Jan. When you wrote Star, did you have a vision for how in the world someone would illustrate it? Or did you just think, “Not my problem!”

I love to envision the art, and love seeing the list of illustrators the art director and editor come up with, being invited into their conversation. I usually have confidence in their ultimate choice, since they have so much more experience pairing manuscripts with illustrators. And I was ecstatic with the choice of Juana Medina for Star, since I’m a huge fan of her Juana & Lucas books. She’s a charming writer as well as illustrator.

Who were the writers — or the books — that you most admired early on? For myself, I still think my sense of a picture book comes from those early years. Writers like Arnold Lobel and James Marshall, Ruth Krauss, Bernard Waber, Vera Williams. So many.

I have so many favorites. I feel so much affection for kids’ books old and new. You have to love a form to write it. You know what amuses me? How picture book fashion has changed over time. Books are now spare, very little text. But some of the old ones have full pages of very tightly packed text. For instance, Mike Mulligan and The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes. I only recently realized that the author of Country Bunny, DuBose Heyward, was also the book writer for “Porgy and Bess.” I mean, Wow! Country Bunny has so much heart, and was ahead of its time in pushing forward a mom of 21 for an important, high-profile job –- Easter Bunny! Lots of illustrators have fun sprinkling their books with “Easter eggs,” but that book has actual Easter eggs!

I miss the longer texts. The role of the writer feels diminished. Picture books have gotten younger, with fewer words. I wonder how someone like William Steig would manage in today’s climate.

I know. I see the beauty of the spare, airy texts, but as a writer I like words. And I know that when I was a young reader, that’s how I acquired my love of language, from the rich texts I was reading.

What’s up next for you?

Something really fun! But I can’t announce it yet. I hate it when people say that, don’t you? But I have to. Because… Publishing made me do it! What’s up next for you?

Thanks for asking. I have a middle-grade novel coming up with Macmillan (just need to, you know, actually get it done), some work with the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure people, and an upcoming series with Scholastic, “Exit 13,” which I’m thinking of as a mix between Stephen King, “Schitt’s Creek,” and “Stranger Things.” I also keep writing picture book manuscripts that no one wants to publish. Just because!

Ooh, those all sound great! Exit 13 sounds amazing!

We shall see. It’s my first book with Scholastic in more than 10 years, so a coming home for me. Thanks for your time, Jan. I guess I’m getting at the age when nostalgia tugs at my sleeve. I’ve enjoyed being back in touch with you. Here’s to many more books in your future.

Thank you, Jimmy. It’s a pleasure to have this conversation, and so fun to be back in touch. Here’s to many books in your future, too! Thanks for the interview!

Pro Tip: Eudora Welty

“The first act of insight is throw away the labels.
In fiction, while we do not necessarily write about ourselves,
we write out of ourselves,
using ourselves;
what we learn from, what we are sensitive to,
what we feel strongly about —
these become our characters
and go to make our plots.”
Eudora Welty
Wow, Eudora Welty explains it so simply with one clear distinction.
We don’t write about ourselves . . .
we write out of ourselves.
Exactly!
So well expressed that it clangs like a bell in the skull.

LISTEN NOW: Check Out My Interview on Spotify & All Your Wildest Dreams Will Come True!

Bob Nuse and Anna Van Scoyoc are librarians in the Mercer Country Library System. Which I believe is somewhere in deepest, darkest New Jersey.

I first encountered Bob in the early months of the pandemic. At the time, many of us in the children’s book world were trying to figure out how to proceed, how to connect, how to keep the book thing alive — and, yes, how to contribute something positive to this awful situation. I made a bunch of videos and created a Youtube channel. Bob began by enlisting authors to make short videos for their locked-out library patrons. That initiative eventually grew into a podcast, “Behind the Books,” which is extremely well done and  incredibly impressive.

I hope that other librarians take note of the possibilities (and contact me if you need a guinea pig).

When Bob invited me to talk about my new book, Upstander, a prequel/sequel to Bystander, I didn’t hesitate. After all, I have a face for podcasting. I hope you give it a listen. I’m on at about 14:30, so you can skip that other stuff and jump to yours truly. It’s a ten-minute conversation. We also talk a bit about my book of linked haiku, All Welcome Here

I’m usually somebody who can’t stand to look at or hear myself — I was on “The Today Show” once with Katie Couric, long ago, and I’ve never watched it. But here, thanks to Anna’s expert editing, deleting all my stammering, fumbling mutterings, I come off as sober and reasonably intelligent. I can live with that!

I assume you might need to open Spotify in order to listen. Not sure about that. Thanks again, Bob and Anna, I’m grateful for the work you do.

TALKING ABOUT WRITING with David Lubar: On Revision, Rejection, and the Rewards of an Extraordinary Career

 

David Lubar knows a lot about writing books for children. And not just any books — but books that young people will eagerly (and actually!) read. He’s a productive, unpretentious, forthright and seriously funny man who continues to enjoy a remarkably successful career. I thought that I’d invite David to talk about his work and craft. He keeps a terrific, informative website, so we bypassed most of the biographical info that a reader can easily find elsewhere. Look: Here he comes now. Um, yeah. That’s David on the right. He hangs with a well-heeled crowd.

(And no, he didn’t write the Clifford the Big Red Dog books. They’re just friends.)

 

David, you strike me as a writer who thinks about pleasing the reader.

I think about pleasing the stranger who took a seat across the aisle from me on a bus. I’m pathetically eager to please everyone. So, yeah, I want to please my readers.

I don’t mean to be glib. It’s just that we’ll hear from authors who will say, oh, I write only for myself. Or for posterity or to please the muse. Obviously I’m forced to generalize — you’ve written a wide range of books — but you seem front-and-center with your intention to connect with readers, share some laughs, a fright, entertain.

You’re not glib at all. I write to entertain. I have friends who do that, and I have friends who write to feed their soul. Obviously, those things are not mutually exclusive. I love exploring ideas. My muse most often catches fire when I have a high concept to play with. If an idea excites, intrigues, or astonishes me, I figure it will have some sort of effect on my readers. That also means I’m often forging ahead without a road map. It’s all about discovery.

Yes! I wrote a chapter last week that completely surprised me. Totally unexpected. Off the map. It was thrilling and, I think, lifted the story up. These days, I often grumble (to myself: I’m a professional!) when asked to provide a plot synopsis and full outline before the real writing — and the discovery — begins. I’m always like, “They know I haven’t written this yet, right?”

Same here. Though this can lead to problems for me, since I can end up trying to stuff too many threads into a book. I get sidetracked very easily. I often make charts after the first draft so I can track the plot threads.

Maybe this connects with your previous life when you worked as a video game programmer. In that context, of course you are trying to please the consumer. Everything is designed to give pleasure — active engagement — of one kind or another.

That’s an interesting observation. And you’re absolutely right –- I always wanted my games to be fun. And I wanted to make the player think. There should be problems and obstacles, but they should always be a fun type of problems to solving. “How can I use this water pistol, a jar of honey, and a gutted trout to slay this cyclops?” (Not a real example from any of my games. Yet.)

The artist as a young magician.

How do you stay in touch with your audience? Is it tapping into something internal within you — that poor 12-year-old trapped in David Lubar’s body?

I used to do a lot of school visits. (I had the amazing good fortune to decide to stop traveling a year or so before the pandemic.) Having lunch with a group of readers in the library is a great way to keep in touch with kids. It’s also a great insight into how vital it is for every school to have a library, and a librarian. Since schools have two or three lunch periods, you can meet a lot of kids in one day. Having said all of that, I do think my inner 12-year-old is pretty close to the surface.

Beyond the standard large-group presentations, I often ask for an added session that I call, “Cookies and Conversation.” It’s 25-30 minutes with a small group of students who are willing to give up recess to hang out with an author, kids who need to be there, where we talk informally about writing and anything else under the sun. It’s always a highlight for me, because I’m not broadcasting, I’m receiving. And, also: cookies!

That’s a great idea. I know that the lunches where the kids are the ones who want to come are the most fun and interesting.  

Yes, but I never get to eat — and all that chewing!

I try to grab a slice of pizza (it’s almost always pizza, except when they make hotdogs because of the Weenies connection) and eat it before the kids arrive. Otherwise, I’d just do that between groups. 

Unlike some writers I’ve met, you seem to actually enjoy writing.

I love it. When things flow, time disappears. I love the deep journey of exploring the world in a novel, the speedy gratification of banging out a short story, and the instant thrill of crafting a good one liner. While I tend to speed through first drafts of stories, I should add that I am a compulsive reviser. I’ll go over a story ten or fifteen times throughout the process. And that’s before anyone else sees it.  Having said that, I also love playing video games. I’m perfectly capable of enjoying things that might strike others as a waste of time.

I recently talked with Andrew Smith in another “Talking About Writing” interview, and we both revise as we go, continually. There’s no clear distinction between “first draft” and “revision.” Is that true for you?

Absolutely. It’s a major change from when I started. Back in the 1970s, all I had was a typewriter. I’d type my whole first draft. Then make changes on the whole manuscript before retyping it. These days, I always go over the previous day’s work before pushing ahead. Until the ms. gets too long, I might reread the whole thing each morning. The first page or two will inevitably be much more polished than the last.

Same for me. You make a distinction between “serious story writers” and “writers of serious stories.” Do you feel that humor and scary and strange — the types of things you tend to write — and readers tend to love — are generally disrespected? Not by the kids, but, you know, by “them.”

There is definitely a hierarchy of respect. The stories that few people read, and even fewer understand (often because the writer has forgotten to relate an understandable sequence of events) get the most respect from the academic world. (This is changing, thanks to the many wonderful people in colleges and universities who have a passion for a broader range of literature.) Humor is looked down upon in many of the arts, though many of our greatest artists understood joy, play, and delight. A lot of my work could be categorized as funny short-fiction horror for young readers. That’s not exactly fodder for respect and awards. But I can’t complain about that. I’m doing my work with my eyes open.

It’s good work. You have dedicated readers.

I try not to boast too often, but I can honestly say I feel that I’ve created some excellent stories and novels. The people in the trenches, the librarians, teachers, and parents who give books to kids, have validated this. Early in my career, I really wanted to win the big awards. I desperately wanted institutional accolades and validation. But I get that from my readers. And somewhere between the fart joke on page seven and the slapstick accident on page thirteen, there’s an insight into Zeno’s paradox, time travel, fish biology, or some other dose of mind candy that worked its way into the narrative. The Weenies collections have given me a playing field where I can try all sorts of forms and structures. I doubt I’d want to write a novel that’s nothing but dialogue or a monologue, or one that’s told from the viewpoint of an inanimate object. But I can do that in a story. One of my favorites of my stories, “M.U.B.,” is a dialogue between a girl and the monster under her bead. I discovered it’s a fun read-aloud at schools if I get a kid to read the kid part and I do the monster part. I’d never have written it if I hadn’t been in the mood to experiment with that format.

I love your sense of playfulness, of trying out ideas just to see what might happen. I sometimes amuse myself by asking the question, “Are you are real writer or just making stuff up?”

I think writing is the only thing I’ve ever done where I never felt like an imposter. Though it pleases and amuses me that I can earn a living by making stuff up. 

Earlier in your life, you had a persistent dream — to be a writer. You seem like a methodical, passionate, “all in” type of guy. How did you go about learning to become a writer?

I wrote. I read. I read lots of great writing, and I read lots of books about writing. It wasn’t a direct path. I wanted to be a cartoonist, and I wanted to be a song writer. I have very little drawing ability. Back in the 1970s, when I was sending out cartoons, that was a liability. I’m sure I gave the cartoon editors at various magazines a lot of laughs, but not in the way I’d intended. As for song writing, I have no sense of pitch, and no real feel for song structure beyond ballads. So I failed pretty spectacularly at both those career paths. But I managed to break in with short humor. I did well with light verse, and sold jokes to comedy services. (There were places that sold packets of jokes to places like radio stations.) I managed to sell some magazine humor, and eventually wrote tutorial articles about programming after I got an Apple II and taught myself to program it. I also wrote five novels that are still taking up a drawer in a file cabinet. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say I typed them.

Near where I live, the local college frequently hosts guest authors. They come, talk, read something, answer questions from the audience. Great writers, the best in the world. And I always want to ask (but never do): Are you happy with how things turned out? Was it what you had hoped?

That’s a great question. It really gets to the heart of the writing life. And I’ve thought about it from somewhat of a sideways angle. If I could magically go back to the beginning of my writing career, knowing everything I know now, I don’t think things would have turned out any differently. I’ve had plenty of opportunities to break through to a higher level. For example, I was one of the writers who were invited to do a series when Scholastic created their Branches imprint. The imprint, aimed at kids who are just moving from easy readers to chapter books, has been wildly popular. Some of the titles in the series have gone well beyond their initial set of four volumes. If I’d written something with broad appeal, I’d still be writing Branches books today. But I went for the rather metaphysical concept of a kid who finds a coin that gives him the power to make those around him do strange things. It was fun and funny, and it found an audience, but it was definitely not suited for general readership. So you could say I blew a huge opportunity. But I had fun writing the books, I reached some readers who might have needed that sort of story, and I paid my bills through honest labor. I have no gift for generating mass appeal, and I have no skill at the sort of self promotion that can bring national attention. But that’s okay. I’m happily married, debt free, I have an amazing daughter who will play video games with me, and I have enough retirement savings to live comfortably. Several of my books are still selling well, decades after they were released. So I’d be a fool to feel any other way than satisfied. I did what I loved, it worked out, and a lot of young readers enjoyed my books.

I’m glad to hear that. Are there aspects to this business that have disappointed you?

Sure. I’ve waded through all sorts of shit storms. Writers, publishers, and editors are people. Some people are wonderful. Some aren’t. Some want to help you. Some want to hurt you. Some are excellent at their job. Others are terrible. Publishing is a business. You’re either an asset or a liability. If your publisher needs to throw you under a bus for the sake of the bottom line, the passengers on the bus are going to feel a bit of a bump in the road. Editing is a profession. Editors answer to publishers. Your editors will never love you as much as they love their paycheck.

Whoa, I’m italicizing that one. My great pal, Craig Walker, an editor at Scholastic, once told me that I needed to think not about what Scholastic could do for me, but about what I could do for them. That is, make them money.

I think, because writing is so personal, and rejections of various flavors, both of manuscripts by publishers and of published works by readers and reviewers, is so woven into the writing life, writers are especially vulnerable to feeling all sorts of bitterness, resentment, and envy. But this also allows for heroic moments and acts of grace. There are writers I’d take a bullet for. There are even writers I’d share my best bourbon with.

Kids often ask about rejection and I try to frame my response around the larger context of life itself. The world rejects us constantly. We get cut from teams, not invited to birthday parties, love someone who doesn’t love us back. We’re too fat, too slow, not attractive enough. Somehow we all have to push through that and believe in ourselves, believe in our value.

Wow. I’ve never thought of it that way, but that’s such an excellent answer. I will definitely share it with anyone it might help.

Let’s be honest. We’re both old white guys, over 60. Not past our prime as writers, but also not the hottest demographic in the marketplace.  I’ve talked to quite a few well-known authors — big, recognizable names — men and women — who have talked about leaving children’s books. There’s just a general sense of disappointment. Of no longer being valued. Do you think that’s just the nature of things? Out with the old, in with the new?

Sure. I definitely got a sense that I was drifting into obscurity and irrelevance during the last few conferences I attended. That’s probably the case in most fields. Each new generation kills and eats their predecessors. Other than one contractual obligation, I’m taking a break from writing at the moment. But if there’s a book I feel I want or need to write, I’ll write it and hope someone loves it enough to publish it. There’s a lot of joy in knowing I can write whatever I want. It could be an adult novel, a light-verse collection for kids, a collection of essays, or even a screenplay. Or none of the above.

You’ve said that revision is your favorite part of writing.

Absolutely. First of all, it’s essential because, as I mentioned earlier, I bang out my first drafts pretty fast. So there’s a lot to clean up and reorganize. My brain doesn’t hand me things in a perfect chronological sequence. I need to put all those afterthoughts where they belong. Or put them out of their misery. And I need to go back and describe important items, places, and people, because I tend to gloss over that in the first draft. Just as important, revision is a pleasure because it’s really an exercise in problem solving. I feel a physical jolt of joy when I solve a tough problem in a story, or when a new plot opportunity hits me. It’s craft. It’s invention and discovery.

To me, that’s the thing that keeps me going in this business. Getting off the floor, dusting myself off. The work. The pleasure of creativity. Making things. All that other noise can get disheartening at times. But writing a story, those moments when we’re leaning in, that’s the part I’ll never give up.

Nicely put. We make new things. It brings us joy. If we’re lucky, it brings joy to other people.

It’s a disconcerting form of self-sabotage, but more and more I’ve been writing things that don’t fit the marketplace. Picture books that are too long. Chapter books that are too literary. Stuff that won’t even get past my agent, because no editor will buy it. And yet I write it anyway. I’m an idiot, clearly. 

Oh yeah. That sounds familiar. I like to say I’ve always worked hard but rarely worked smart. But I got lucky. I am incredibly fortunate to have managed to do well with short stories. Everyone will tell you that stories don’t sell. It’s true, for the most part. Novels sell much better than story collections. And most publishers wouldn’t even consider a collection from an unknown writer. I didn’t care. That’s what I wanted to write. I kept at it. And it worked out.

Yes, I admire that so much. I’m inspired by that. I aspire to that mode of writing. Being true to yourself outside of any conventional ideas of what you “should” be writing (and still managing to survive financially). Somehow you created a format that no one was clamoring for, no one wanted. But you made it work and created your own joyful universe. 

I am incredibly fortunate that it worked out well. And I will happily give a lot of the credit to Bill Mayer. His cover art is what gets kids to pick up those books. It’s my job to keep them reading, but I might never have that chance if the covers weren’t so intriguing.

Last question. I read somewhere that you believed that Character, Driven was your best book.  Tell us why you feel that way.

It’s a visceral thing. The feeling comes from my gut, not my brain. I think, in part, this comes from writing something for the oldest segment of YA readership. I could get as deep, honest, and brutal as I wanted. Not that I’ve held off on anything essential to the story in my younger books, but I think all writers practice some degree of internal censorship. And I think that’s a good thing. We all should have a sense of our audience. The book is also one of my few real-life novels. Dunk, which I considered my best book until I wrote Character, Driven, is also real life. Maybe that’s a clue about what I should write next. Not that I expect to finally start making smart business decisions at this point in my life.

You are beyond that now, aren’t you? You’re free. That’s the wonderful thing. I’m eager to see what comes next.

Good point. I’m beyond the need to make smart business decision as far as earning a living, but I guess I was thinking in terms of reaching a broader audience. As nice as it is to follow my muse — and if my muse tells me to write 1,000 haiku about banana peppers, so be it — it would also be nice to reach a larger audience, or even to have a bestseller. Admittedly, that’s mostly for the sake of my own ego. As for your eagerness, I appreciate it. That’s most kind of you.  

Well, David, I want to thank you so much for spending this time with me. It’s been fascinating to meet you in this way. I especially appreciate your openness and honesty. I hope we get to hang out in real life someday. And I’m curious about that bourbon you mentioned. 

Currently, the best bourbon on hand is Woodford Double Oaked. That was a splurge. But there’s always Templeton Rye and Basil Hayden’s Dark Rye in the cabinet, for sipping, and Old Overholt for making an old fashioned. I hope I get a chance to enjoy a glass or two with you.

 

 

DAVID LUBAR is the author of more books than, frankly, I care to list. He created the Nathan Abercrombie, Accidental Zombie series, as well as the uproarious Weenies Stories short story collections. For older readers, there’s Hidden Talents; Flip; Character Driven; and many more. He’s renowned for his sense of humor, empathy, and zippy storytelling that reaches even the most hard-to-reach kids. He lives in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Google him to find out more (I’m tired).

 

795.Sch_Jigsaw_jones_0.tif

As for me, James Preller: You might know my Jigsaw Jones mystery series. My most recent book is titled Upstander, a stand-alone novel that also serves as sequel/prequel to Bystander. It follows Mary’s experiences, enters her home life, and includes a strong Substance Use Disorder (SUD) storyline. I’m proud that both books were named Junior Library Guild Selections — ten years apart. 

GREAT NEWS! “UPSTANDER” Steps Into the Spotlight, Including an Interview with Yours Truly!

I’m so pleased to share a link to Judy Bradbury’s impressive, educator-friendly blog. As a writing teacher and literacy specialist — and a children’s author in her own right — Judy’s blog is filled to overflowing with teaching tips, strategies for connecting books with readers, and so much more.

This month, Judy featured my new book, Upstander, and included a very cool interview with yours truly. Maybe that’s more Jimmy than you can stand? Anyway, I hope you can check it out — full link here — and bookmark Judy’s page for future reading.

IN THE MEANTIME, SOME HIGHLIGHTS

From Judy Bradbury’s introduction: 
Upstander by James Preller is the moving prequel/sequel to Bystander. The story captures the nuances of contemporary family relationships and how they can be both tested and strengthened by individual members’ actions and thoughts, as well as their wills, weaknesses, and wishes. Mary–a minor character in Bystander–struggles and ultimately grows from her experiences facing her brother Jonny’s substance use and her own school-related conflicts. Her story is at once heart-wrenching and heartening. 

AND HERE’S A FEW SNIPPETS FROM THE INTERVIEW

(Again, for the whole shebang, stomp on this link . . . right here!)

JB: How did you decide on the title?

JP: With Bystander, I was fortunate to write one of the first realistic middle-grade books on bullying. I stumbled upon the right topic at the right time. That book got a lot of attention and was often a “one book/one school” selection. Which is a mind-blowing honor. On visits, I kept coming across that idea, often expressed as a poster in the halls: “Be an upstander!” Anti-bullying, when it becomes too strident, can become a negative message. Many schools opted to emphasize the positive: kindness and community. I am 100% behind that initiative. Thus, Upstander.

JB: Tell about one hurdle you experienced in the creation of Upstander or provide a memorable (or humorous!) anecdote related to the making of this book.

JP: What happens frequently for me is that I’ll have an idea for a

Young Do and James Preller, after a celebratory lunch at The Cuckoo’s Nest in Albany.

book, then I’ll soon realize that I’m not nearly smart enough to write it. A lot of loose ends fell together when I reached out to Young Do, an executive director who operates a care and substance use treatment facility, Hospitality House, in Albany, NY. Young became a generous source of insight and information. In fact, the opening of the book grew directly from a personal story that Young shared about his own experiences with his brother. He told me a story and I thought, “Oh, that’s how the book begins!”

JB: What did you learn from writing Upstander?

JP: I think my compassion for everyone concerned— friends and family members—deepened significantly. The more I learned, the more empathy I felt. 

TO LEARN MORE ABOUT JUDY BRADBURY, THIS CONVERSATION WILL GET YOU STARTED!