Monday, June 30, 2008

Debut Author of the Month: Daphne Grab...

First-time author Daphne Grab's novel, Alive and Well in Prague, New York was an early June release from HarperTeen. The book's main character, Matisse Oswood, has a lot to adjust to. Her father has Parkinson's Disease and her family has just relocated from her beloved New York City to a small town so "she's taking on a whole new social scene in addition to trying to come to terms with her dad's illness," says Grab. "There are boys and evil cheerleaders involved as well."

Tell me about how you found your agent, Alyssa Eisner-Henken, and about getting your first book contract with Harper.

When I was getting my MFA at The New School our teacher had Jill Santopolo, senior editor at the Harper imprint Laura Geringer Books, do a mock submission with us. We each sent her a cover letter and five pages of our manuscripts. Mine was one of the ones she liked, so after I graduated I queried her and she ended up wanting the manuscript. It was a pretty thrilling thing!

I found Alyssa when I wanted to sell my second book (I did have an agent to handle my contract stuff with Harper but we were not a good fit and amicably parted ways). I queried about seven agents via e-mail and met with most of them, just to get a feel of how we’d work together. Everyone was nice and it’s always amazing to talk to people who like your work (not everyone did of course—one woman passed and another never had time to read it so the idea must not have really grabbed her). Ultimately I chose Alyssa because it seemed like we were on the same page career-wise and I really liked her critique of my manuscript. I wanted an agent who could edit me and Alyssa was more than up to the task. I love working with her!

You’ve said that when you decided to get an MFA and read that The New School offered a concentration in writing for children, bells went off. Why do you think you suddenly realized this was the right direction for you?

Long after I’d left my middle grade and teen years I was still reading teen and middle grade books. I read adult books too but I was always drawn to teen stories and couldn’t seem to kick the habit. I’d ride the subway hiding the cover of my book so no one would see that the thirty-something woman across the aisle was reading a book for twelve year olds.

Alongside this obsession was my desire to write a book. I knew for a long time that I wanted to be a writer but I could never think of an adult story worth writing. When I saw the concentration in writing for children in the New School catalog bells went off because I realized that I was meant to write books for kids, not adults. As soon as I realized that, the ideas flowed. I now read about 95% teen and MG books, holding them up proudly on the subway so all around me can see the great books I’m reading!

Tell me about your experience in the MFA program. You worked on Alive and Well during that time, correct?

The MFA was a great experience for me. I think the two best things I got were an amazing critique group that still meets bi-monthly, and the ability to use criticism of my work to make it better. When I first started the program I felt wounded whenever a flaw was pointed out in my submissions. But over time I realized that knowing those flaws meant I could fix them and make my work better. I think my writing has improved because of it.

There were other things that were great about the program too. It gave me deadlines and the discipline to write every day, it exposed me to books I’d never have otherwise read and new ways to think about writing. I had some amazing teachers like David Levithan and Sarah Weeks who gave me advice when I sold my book. Navigating the business side of things can be overwhelming and it was really helpful to have their input. I don’t think every writer needs to do an MFA but I think I did.

Your main character Matisse moves from Manhattan to a small town; you did the opposite, growing up in a small town and ending up in New York. What are some of the most challenging small town vs. big city adjustments?

I think the hardest thing for me to adjust to is the change in pace. In the city people are sprinting for subways or walking so fast you can get stepped on if you don’t keep up. In the country there’s less of a rushed feeling in the air. Not that people don’t have places to get to fast but that hurry-up feeling isn’t pulsing the way it does in the city. Personally I love the fast pace—it makes me feel vital and alive. But I know a lot of people, including some in my family, who can’t stand it.

What’s funny to me now is the things I do wrong when I go visit my mom in my hometown in upstate New York. I always wear the wrong shoes for hiking and pack too much black in the summer (who wants to be wearing black when you’re relaxing on the deck in the sun? Black is for subways and air conditioned shows). It always surprises me how loud the birds are and how early stores close.

I love living in the city and being able to visit the country often; for me that is the perfect balance.

Another experience you have in common with Matisse is that fact that both of your fathers suffered with degenerative diseases. You’ve said that your experience during your father’s illness and passing was and is a huge influence on your writing. Did writing Alive and Well in some way play a part in your grieving and healing process?

I wrote Alive and Well four years after my dad had died so I was through with the more raw part of grieving. I missed my dad every day (as I still do now) but it wasn’t as all encompassing as it was those first years. So when I was writing it wasn’t the emotional experience I think it would’ve been had I written it closer to his death. I think if I’d written the story earlier it would’ve ended up being my story, not Matisse’s. But in making it hers I was free to channel some of my feelings in different directions and explore them in new ways, and I think that was a good thing for me.

How did the Longstockings form? When did you all start blogging? Tell me about the group.

The Longstockings are my critique group and my writing support system. We met at the New School and have been buddies and blogging partners ever since. It’s an amazing thing to be part of a group of writers who help each other every step of the way, and I feel really invested in every one else’s books because I have seen them go from scenes to drafts to an actual book. We all celebrate when another person’s book comes out.

The blog
is a place where we discuss things related to writing, be it problems we are having with different aspects of the writing process, questions we have about the business or discussing kidlit trends and ideas. We have a lot of fun doing it.

Your book was released earlier this month, and you’ve already done some signings. How are they going? What else do you have coming up in the way of promotion?

I have done two signings so far, one at the Bank Street Bookstore in NYC and one at Merritt Books in my hometown of Red Hook, NY. In both places friends and family came out so it was a supportive and fun audience. I was still nervous, especially because the one in my hometown got filmed for the local cable channel, but I ended up really enjoying it, especially the q&a part.

In the next few weeks I’m doing a few more signings, this time in front of people I don’t know, so I’m trying to stay calm about that. I love sharing the book with people but I get shy in front of crowds. Though obviously I’m hoping for a small crowd as opposed to no one being there at all! I’m also on some panels at a couple of upcoming conferences and I’ve done a lot of blog interviews and guest blogs— those have been really fun since I can do them at home in pajamas.

Do you have any school visits lined up? Drawing on your teaching background, what advice can you give YA authors who’ve never been in front of a class of teens or tweens?

I have a few school visits lined up with fellow debut authors Donna Freitas and Courtney Sheinmel, two writers I met through the Class of 2k8. We are going to do auditorium presentations and then break off into classroom writing workshops. I’m really looking forward to it because I love talking with teens. I hope we end up scheduling more!

And my advice for doing that is to be straight and keep it honest. Kids can tell when you’re sugar coating things or when you’re holding back, so just tell it like it is, answer questions honestly and don’t be afraid to have fun. I had a great time teaching high school and am planning to do it again when my kids are a little older.

You have a healthy love of sports and your next novel has a sports element. Tell us about your second book, which will be published by Delacorte.

This book came about when my husband and I were driving home from a vacation last summer. I was going on and on about the upcoming football season and my husband, who is not a fan, suggested I write a book about a kid who is a football fan. I knew he was just hoping I’d start writing about football and stop talking about it, but the idea intrigued me and I came up with Halftime. It’s about a boy who is a big football fan and a bit of a social loser who finds out that the baby his mother gave up for adoption 22 years ago is the best college football player in the country. Ultimately it’s a coming of age story, like Alive and Well.

What’s your advice for YA writers working toward publication?

In terms of writing I’d say to write the story you have to write, not the one you think will sell. Do what you can to get critique and take it seriously. You don’t have to listen to every bit of advice but there will always be things that resonate and those are the ones to go in and adjust.

When the manuscript is as good as it can be, start querying agents. I can’t stress how important it is to have an agent—an agent is your teammate, cheerleader and the one who handles the business side so that your relationship with your editor is just about the artistic, the way it should be. Do research to find your agent, to be sure he or she reps the kind of story you are hoping to sell. Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market is the bible for this. When you have your list, start querying! And when you get that first offer, don’t jump right on it. You want to find an agent who is a good fit for you. You want to have clear communication and share the same vision for the future of your career.

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