Friday, August 29, 2008

Debut Author of the Month: Laurel Snyder...

This month's debut author Laurel Snyder's first two books have release dates just a few months apart. Her picture book Inside the Slidy Diner is an October release from Tricycle, and her mid-grade Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains is coming in October from Random House. Both books were slush piles submissions. Here she explains her almost simulteanous first books; talks about finding her agent, waiting tables, and writing poetry; and offers advice to those seeking publication.

How did you end up with your first books being published so close together?

Oh, it's a funny situation, but for a good reason! Basically, both books were pulled from slush, about a year apart. Tricycle accepted Slidy a year ahead of Random House contacting me about Scratchy. So then Slidy was due to come out last fall, in time for Halloween (it's a spooky kind of book) and Scratchy was supposed to follow about a year later. But the artist working on Slidy threw herself into it like you wouldn't believe. The pages are very involved, hand painted with with collage elements, and some crazy details. There are recurring images like a mouse you have to hunt for on each page, and all sorts of little jokes... it's wonderful, a work of art (that I really can't take credit for at all). So it took a long time, and at first I think the press wanted to speed her up. But when they saw what she was doing, they decided to let her take her time so she could maintain that level of complexity, and they gave her another year!

Please tell me and my readers a little about both of your first books.

Inside the Slidy Diner is a picture book about a little girl named Edie who lives in a macabre sort of diner where the lady fingers really are! Watch out for the Wigglepedes!

Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains is a lower middle grade novel, an old-fashioned fairy tale set in a place called "The Bewilderness"—about a milkmaid named Lucy and a prince named Wynston. When Wynston has to pick a queen, and Lucy is deemed too common for the job, Lucy runs away in search of her mother. So of course Wynston chases after her, and they have all sorts of silly adventures. It has wonderful pictures by Greg Call, and a lot of silly songs. There's a sniffly prairie dog named Cat, a sweet but ornery cow, and some cautionary tales about living life too rigidly.

You started out submitting on your own, but you have an agent now. How did you find her?

When you get pulled from the slush at Random House, it suddenly becomes easier to find an agent! I queried about 30 of them in one whirlwind weekend, got offers from several great folks, and was lucky enough to be able to choose. I'm very very very happy with my amazing agent, Tina Wexler. I picked Tina because she didn't scare me. She talked to me like a person, laughed a lot, and felt immediately like a friend. One of the best decisions I ever made. But I was rejected by a lot of people before that all happened (some of whom sleazily offered to rep me after the book was in committee, but I'll never say who!).

Tell me about getting your first BFYR contract.

They never tell you how long it'll take to get the actual contract, do they? The formal offer came one day while I was teaching comp at a community college in Atlanta, and I actually got the message as I was dashing from school to pick up my son at his babysitter. I must have looked like a crazy lady, screaming my face off in the gridlock traffic all the way home. But the contract came about four decades later, in the heaviest envelope ever, and I just signed where I was supposed to, and sent it back. Maybe that's dumb but I figure that's why I have an agent.

How must inspiration did Slidy Diner draw from your experience waiting tables in several greasy spoons?

It really is a kind of encoded memoir of those years. I guess its a lesson in how anything can be interesting, and how we need to collect details wherever we go. Show Don't Tell, and all that. Rotten grill grease, tattooed waitresses, and sad patrons who sleep in their oatmeal don't sound like things you'd put in a children's book, but somehow it worked. I should say, for the record, that I love waiting tables, and plan to do it again when my kids are a little older. The Hamburg Inn, where I worked in Iowa City, was a second home to me. For me, living in a world of non-writers is important, so I have something to write about.

How have SCBWI, the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and the Class of 2k8 each helped to shape your writing career?

I could write a whole book about the Workshop. I really have a love/hate relationship with that world. I love poetry, and I love Iowa City, and I cannot imagine my life without some of the friends I made in those years. But the climate of that MFA program made me a little nutso. Not the program itself, but the weird competitive stuff that happens among the students. It made me so crazy I stopped trying to keep up and dove into children's books, my touchstones, and that's really how I began writing for kids. So I have to thank them for that! Also, although I didn't share with anyone else, my teacher Marvin Bell was very supportive of Scratchy Mountains. I'll never forget that!

Once I found myself writing for kids, I didn't feel like I could show anyone at the Workshop the things I was working on. And that's where the SCBWI came in. It provided, along with the Verla Kay Blueboards and the CWIM, a community and a set of instructions for how to think about publishing. I don't know how I would have ever found a home for my work without SCBWI. I don't actively participate in the physical world, but as a virtual community it was critical for me.

2k8 is awesome, but that happened very late in the game. I was already into several other books by the time I joined 2k8, and it's a nice way to meet people and get the word out, but I don't feel it had any effect on my publishing career, per se. Though another class member from Iowa, Sarah Prineas, was an early reader for my second novel (Any Which Wall, 2009) and she's become a good friend, so that's wonderful!

You have a lot of experience writing material for adult readers, having published in Salon, Utne Reader, The Iowa Review and others. What led you to write for children?

Children's books are some of the best, most innovative books in the world. I read them myself, and I find that there's a spark of magic in them. I just love them. I'd say that 80 percent of the most important books in my life are things I read before I was 12. I hate the division between children's books and the literary institutions. I just don't think the divide makes sense. Also, writing for kids feels almost political to me. Helping to shape the future--not writing political books and offering "messages," but providing the right stimulus for kids. Giving them something to chew on.

You've said that writing children's books is not as lucrative as you thought it would be when you were in fourth grade. Since (so far) writing for young readers has not helped you buy a mansion or become a gajillionaire, what keeps you interested?

Well, it's a lot more lucrative than poetry!

No, seriously, one benefit to beginning as a poet is that poets don't write to earn. They write to write. I don't think about money or the market when I write. As a result, I have written some books you will never see, like a morbid picture book called, The Boy Who Caught His Death. I always assumed I'd write, and make my money some other way--whether teaching, waitressing, or writing schlock for hire.

You have a book release party coming up and have a string of promotional events on the horizon. What's your plan for engaging your audience?

Oh, I don't know that I have a plan. I just think meeting kids and seeing them excited about books is the most exiting thing in the world. I want to believe that if I work hard, I'll write good books, and that if I write good books, they will find their way into people's hands. It has been explained to me, in so many words, that I'm not a "bestseller" kind of author. I can live with that. It's a great gift to me that I can write the books I most want to write, and I have an editor and an agent who will help them reach people. Especially since more copies have already been pre-ordered than were even printed when I published my book of poems. Poetry really does make you appreciate having a wider readership of any kind. Based on anything I've ever experienced, both of my books have already been successful.

What's your advice for those working toward publication?

I think the trick is a very careful balance--between writing hard without thinking about selling, and then selling hard (by which I mean hunting for a book deal) without thinking about the possibility of failure. I do believe that a good writer who plugs away will someday publish. You can only fail if you set quantitative expectations like, "I'll publish before I'm 30" or "I'll send this to 51 agents and then quit." I do think you have to listen to your most honest readers and friends, and if one books isn't working, try another. But you can't quit. I have about 30 "dead" picture book manuscripts in a drawer and Scratchy Mountains went through draft after draft before it was accepted. In fact, you can go to my blog and see a rejection letter from the very editor who acquired it! I figure if I can have two books pulled from slush by two different editors, it still happens a good bit.


cindy said...

congratulations, laurel! and great interview!! both books sound like a lot of fun.

Rita said...

What a great, great interview. I have been eagerly awaiting The Slidy Diner because I am a huge fan of the illustrator, Jaime Zollars. How delightful to find this perspective by the author! Now I can't wait to look up Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains as well. I love the word Bewilderness!!

Thanks for sharing the great insight!

anna j said...

indeed, congratulations to you, Laurel! i'm so excited to hear your good news as it's been many years now since i got to benefit from your editing genius: you are a wonderful writer and deserving of many more successes!