Marlane Kennedy decided to become an author when she was in the 4th grade, but it took 14 years from the time she got serious about writing until she got her first book contract with Greenwillow for Me and the Pumpkin Queen. Here she talks about her path to publication, finding an agent--and learning everything there is to know about growing super gigantic pumpkins.
You wrote for a long time before getting Me and the Pumpkin Queen published. I guess that makes you the Persistence Queen! What kept you going?
Yes, I'm the Persistence Queen. Or maybe just plain stubborn. It seemed like every rejection somehow made me even more determined. But along with my fair share of form rejections, I did receive personal notes from editors and invitations to send more manuscripts their way. I found that encouraging. They must see something in my writing, I thought. Something worthwhile. Something with potential. So I kept on plugging away. And I kept on finding more projects to become excited about. I did not get hung up on one manuscript--I was able to eventually let go and move ahead if something wasn't working. I have seven unpublished middle grades lying in peace under my bed. But I learned something with each one. They are the building blocks that made me the writer I am today. I do not regret a single one. All the time and effort I put into those fourteen years were well worth the moment I got to see my novel on a bookstore shelf for the first time.
How did you find your agent? Please talk about your path to publication.
I had an agent relationship early on when I first started writing that did not work out. So for a long time I submitted to publishers on my own. Finally I got frustrated with the fact so many houses were closed and decided to bite the bullet and try again. When I was researching agents, I came across Sue Stauffacher's site. She talked about her agent, Wendy Schmalz, and how loyal she was. Sue had hit some dry patches and Wendy did not give up on her. That is the kind of agent I want, I thought. So off I sent a query letter and sample chapters to Wendy--no referral, no connections. Within a week, I was her client. After the phone call I started jumping willy nilly around the house, which embarrassed my two teenage sons greatly. They did not appreciate my happy dance, but they were really excited for me nonetheless. Unfortunately, Wendy was not able to sell the manuscript she originally took me on with. But she liked my new project, about a giant pumpkin growing girl, and it sold fairly quickly during the first round of submissions.
Once you signed your contract, what was the publication process like for Pumpkin Queen? Were there any surprises?
Everything went super smooth and on schedule--I guess in a way that was a surprise. I had heard in publishing it is quite common to experience delays and that editors come and go in the blink of an eye, but I was pleased to find out none of that was in store for me. All the editorial suggestions made during the revision stage made sense and made the book stronger, though I was asked to change the ending and that was a challenge. Another surprise was the cover. Since the story takes place in a real setting, I always imagined it being realistic in depiction. But I fell in love with Marla Frazee's interpretation the moment I saw it. I can't imagine it having any other cover now!
You had to do a lot of research about growing pumpkins as you worked on your book. Do you know enough about pumpkins to fill a 1000-pound-er?
Whew! How about filling two 1000-pound-ers? When I was about 3/4 of the way done with the manuscript I was tempted to throw up my hands and say, "I give up! This is way too complicated!" There are entire books dedicated to the art of growing giant pumpkins and new theories are continually being added and tested. What details do I include? What do I leave out? I didn't want the book to come across as a pumpkin growing manual, but at the same time I wanted to portray how difficult it truly is and all the hard work and dedication involved. Somehow I muddled on through and found the right balance of story and facts. Funny thing about me writing this book, though, is that I can't even keep a houseplant alive. For all I've learned, I'm not sure I'd actually be successful at growing a giant pumpkin.
Tell my readers a little bit about your novel? Is your main character Mildred anything like you when you were a girl?
In Me and the Pumpkin Queen, eleven-year-old Mildred is on a quest to grow a giant pumpkin big enough to enter into her hometown's festival weigh-off. She has tried for years and has only met with disappointment. Something always goes wrong and by the time the Pumpkin Show comes around Mildred 's giant pumpkin dreams are squashed. But she refuses to give up. Growing the giants makes her feel close to her mother, who died when she was only six. Her aunt calls her hobby an obsession, but to Mildred her time in the pumpkin patch is important in a way her aunt isn't able to understand. Mildred is a bit on the serious side and enjoys the animals her father cares for in his veterinary practice. She is not a girly girl and does not aspire to be one. Like Mildred, I was on the quiet side. I wasn't a super bubbly, perky kid. And I loved being around animals. I grew up around dairy cows, pigs, horses, dogs, and cats. I was a country girl through and through--though unlike Mildred I did have an affinity for clothes and shopping for them!
You grew up in Circleville, Ohio, home of the Pumpkin Show, which is the setting for your book. Do you remember what it was like attending your first Pumpkin Show as a kid?
I remember parking in an outlying downtown neighborhood and being enchanted before I even reached the blocked off streets of the Pumpkin Show. All the houses were dressed for the event--front porches, windows and doors all decked out in fall themes and lots of orange and of course, pumpkins. It was as if the entire town had caught pumpkin fever. Amazing. And once I walked onto the actual festival grounds I couldn't believe how huge it was--and how crowded. The parades were something else, too. So many decorated floats and all the different marching bands that had traveled to my new hometown to perform. And I got several days off from school! I soon learned that everyone in Circleville and the surrounding area was passionate, almost crazy, about their Pumpkin Show and for good reason--it really is the "greatest free show on earth."
Why do middle-grade novels appeal to you as a writer and as a reader?
Books about pre-teens are so fresh and fun and full of wonder. They do sometimes address serious issues, but it is done in a very different way than young adult books. There isn't the heavy cynicism or the deep questioning or the dark moods. I do appreciate older, edgier stuff (for example I loved Speak), but my heart belongs with middle grades. There is something about that age group--you're not a little kid anymore and you're developing a world outside of your parents and a sense of independence. There is this belief you can do anything if you put your mind to it--the world is wide open. Middle grades capture this. It's about exploration and discovery. It's about the magic and freedom of being your own person. It's about saying, "Look out world, here I come!" There is an energy to middle grades that draws me in and puts me in a good mood--I haven't outgrown middle grades yet. I hope I never will. I guess part of the appeal is that they keep me young in heart.
How has your membership in the Class of 2k7 helped you as a debut author? Do you have any special promotions coming in October (the greatest pumpkin month)?
It's been wonderful to share the experience of being a first time author with others. It's like a built in support group! We truly understand each other. It's also been terrific to have the additional marketing the group provides. There have been articles about us in various trade publications (there's more than a few mentions of the group in the new CWIM) and our members have been invited to speak at several conferences. It's been an extra added boost in getting my title out there and noticed. As for special promotions, the end of September through October will keep me hopping. Of course I will be at the Pumpkin Show signing books. I also will be doing a book signing at the Polaris Barnes and Noble in Columbus, Ohio, on September 28 at 7 p.m. and a joint event at Rhoads Farm Market in Circleville with my expert pumpkin grower, Dr. Robert Liggett, on September 30 at 2 p.m.. Then there will be various school visits and I will be attending the Ohio Educational Library Media Association conference on October 19. I'm doing a contest on my website as well to celebrate the Pumpkin Show and my book. Just look under NEWS on the homepage. One lucky winner will receive an autographed copy of my book along with 10 Atlantic Giant pumpkin seeds. All you have to do is guess the weight of this year's winning pumpkin for a chance to win.
I saw Pumpkin Queen on the Book Sense Picks list for Autumn 2007. It's also a Junior Library Guild Selection, and has gotten some favorable reviews. What's it like to hear the reactions to your first book?
Before the honors and reviews came in it was a scary, nerve-racking time. You know you are so incredibly lucky just to have a book published, yet you so long for your "baby" to be loved by others. I had read reviews of other books that used descriptions like not compelling, flat characters, and weak plot. So I tried to prepare myself for the worst. I think most writers battle self-doubt. I know I did. Fortunately, the reviews have all been positive. Some actual made me cry with the nice things they said! And being a Junior Library Guild Selection and Book Sense Pick is icing on the cake. It's been incredibly reaffirming, but I have to admit there are still days when I question myself and my writing. I've accepted, though, that that is a normal part of the process. I have another book coming out with Greenwillow in 2009 and already I am full of excitement and worry over how it will be received!
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors, particularly those writing mid-grade books?
First of all read, read, read. Go to the library and get an armful of middle grades on a regular basis. I don't think I'd be where I'm at today without reading Kate Dicamillo, Jerry Spinelli, Lois Lowry, Patricia McLachlan, Sharon Creech and too many others to mention. Immerse yourself in the business--join SCBWI, go to a conference or two if possible, visit the message boards at verlakay.com. And most importantly, just write! I knew I wanted to become an author yet I spent most of my twenties finding excuses not to write. I was the Procrastination Queen before I became the Persistence Queen. You don't have to have everything perfectly figured out before putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. That is what a first draft is for--making mistakes. And don't fear rejection. For most of us it is inevitable. Of course it stings, it hurts, but each rejection I got put me closer to becoming published. It was a long journey, but well worth it. So put on that Persistence Crown and keep at it--just like Mildred did with her pumpkins!