Interview conducted by Amber Ponomar
Laurie Lawlor may have “spent kindergarten under the piano,” but when she decided to be a writer in third grade, she made the right choice. She trained as a journalist at Northwestern University, then went on to author over thirty books for young readers. Testament to her abilities, Lawlor was the recipient of the Prairie State Award in Excellence for Writing for Children in 2010. She now teaches, both artist-in-residence workshops for elementary and middle-schoolers, and at college-level, teaching Young Adult Fiction and Writing for Children at Columbia College Chicago.
In this interview, she talks about picture books, the importance of agents, and what she wished she knew when she was starting out.
Publishing Lab: On your web site, you say you were “the only one with stage fright” in a theatrical family. Inventing creepy characters was how you struck your revenge on gullible siblings and the neighbor boy who “howled like a dog” in fear. Do you continue to use your storytelling skills to break through that “stage fright?” Such as in interactions with publishers?
Laurie Lawlor: Stage fright in a family of very theatrical people can be a blessing in disguise. If we’re aware of what’s happening to our emotions and the presence of fear, we can convert the apprehension into a different kind of energy—total presence—something I need when I speak in public or in front of a group of rowdy teenagers or energetic grade school kids. I think of Samuel Johnson’s observation: "Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."
Interactions with publishers are handled by my agent, who is the one
who has to deal with stage fright at that point. The interactions I
have with publishers after a book is sold are with editors. I have no
fear about them because they have selected the book and are
PL: How important is an agent for an emerging writer with their first manuscript?
LL: More and more important. Many houses will not accept unsolicited manuscripts and this is a difficult thing for someone without an agent who can jump that hurdle. Finding the right agent takes a lot of work and effort—and time. There are conferences sponsored by SCBWI that offer beginning writers direct contact and make submissions to agents and editors presenting at the conference. This can be really helpful because you meet face-to-face and you get to hear what they’re looking for.
PL: What’s something that people tend to gloss over, take for granted, or misinterpret about young readers and the writers who write for them?
LL: This group of readers is very demanding—much more so than adult readers, who tend to put up with more mediocre products and are more forgiving about “glitz.” It’s important to tell a good story, to not be condescending in any way (they can sniff this out in a minute.) Children and young adults—unlike adults—don’t really care if your book has won 500 Caldecott or Printz Awards. They just want to be transported, to discover a kind of truth that perhaps they never knew existed. The literature we provide for them has to reflect our deep-felt attempt to create a multi-layered world.
PL: You’ve published over thirty books, including your newest nonfiction picture book, Rachel Carson and Her Book that Changed the World. How do you pitch a nonfiction book to a publisher? How does it differ from pitching fiction?
LL: The process for pitching nonfiction requires that you know your subject, your audience, your competition. In a proposal you provide your agent with all the information he or she needs to relay not only what you know about the subject but the angle you’re going to take that’s fresh and original. Your proposal has to reveal your enthusiasm, your expertise, and sample chapters that demonstrate all of these. You are basically revealing the skeleton of the nonfiction book you intend to create—giving the editor enough to pique his/her curiosity. With fiction you are pitching a one-page letter that describes your novel. That’s a key skill that should be part of the Columbia Fiction Department curriculum before anyone graduates. A pitch letter has to be honest, fascinating and totally spot-on to capture that editor’s attention in a very short amount of time.
PL: What’s your experience working with different types of presses (the Big Six, mid-size and small, indie presses)? Which do you like the best?
LL: I’ve worked with very large operations, like Simon & Schuster, small independent houses like Holiday House, and university presses like University of Wisconsin Press and University of Nebraska Press. Each do different things well. The small houses have small budgets for promotion but you have more of an immediate contact with your editor and others on the staff, such as the designers and copy editors. It’s a mixed bag really. I think all writers have to think about the long-term relationships they establish based on how professional and competent their work and interactions are with editors. Editors remember this. Editors change jobs frequently. It’s a small world in publishing—and it is always the best course of action to act professionally. Word gets out regarding “difficult” authors. What you’re trying to do is create a long-term working relationship—not act like a diva.
PL: It’s well known that picture book authors and illustrators don’t collaborate closely. A publisher assigns an illustrator, and the author may have a chance to approve the images before publication. What should an author keep in mind while writing a picture book?
LL: Picture books are among the most difficult forms to attempt—contrary to most popular opinion. I think that editors often can make brilliant “marriages” of the author’s text and the illustrator’s images. It’s truly a seamless joining of the two to make a terrific picture book. What you “see” and experience as the author creating the words is never going to match with the illustrator will see. We have to let go of our ironbound concepts, our pre-conditions as writers and that’s tough some times. The real challenge is for the picture book author to create a story that is like a good poem—vivid and original and fresh—and distilled. Concentrate on the words. You’ll see your own image in your mind and the reader (and illustrator) will as well.
PL: What are some challenges you’ve faced working with an illustrator?
LL: I’ve worked with illustrators from Australia and South America and closer to home here in Illinois. Because of the Internet, it’s not that difficult any more to check sketches for accuracy the way it once was ten or twenty years ago. The editor is really the go-between and doesn’t often promote communication between the author and illustrator in the early stages. And that makes sense. The illustrator needs his/her own space to reflect on what they “see” in the text.
PL: As a teacher, what markets do you recommend to your students who wish to go on to publish their work in magazines?
LL: Carus Publishing offers a variety of wonderful, well-done magazines for all age levels. Their standards are very high. This is a great way into the market and something to mention when trying to get an agent or offering a nonfiction proposal. Highlights Magazine is another source. These can all be investigated online or through Literary Market Place (LMP) to find out their editorial requirements. [PL note: LMP is available in the Publishing Lab.] These must be followed closely. Do your research—see what’s out there before submitting.
PL: Writing, as is always said, is a solitary art. Where can someone interested in YA or Children’s fiction go to break away from the computer screen?
LL: Everyone needs to have a life and interests in order to be a writer. (What are we going to write about after all?) After being a published author for more than 30 years, it’s key to find ways to cultivate your own curiosity and what feeds your creative insights. That’s going to be different for everybody. I’m a big fan of long hikes in the woods, swimming, and helping out with my grandchildren. I enjoy poetry and meditation and traveling and visiting friends. As writers we’re constantly on the lookout for story ideas and these always involve people and the life we discover directly all around us. I think it’s really important for young writers to foster healthy habits and relationships that help them keep creating so that they can write throughout their lives.
PL: Speaking of “the computer screen:” what’s your relationship with technology? What do you think about e-books, and how do you think they’ll help or hurt the YA and Children’s industry?
LL: I’m still learning about the digital age of publishing—something that has really changed the making of books enormously. What’s been more “damaging” to YA and children’s books has been the effect of technology on readers, who often have very limited attention spans and are accustomed to electronic bombardment. This makes our job as writers (and storytellers) more challenging. How to reach young people who may be text-apprehensive?
PL: What do you wish someone told you when you first starting out?
LL: Great question! One of the things that was so important to me starting out in 1986 was the generosity of writers who shared with me their insights and support. The field has changed enormously since I was first published and the rate at which change continues is startling. I never would have predicted the changes I’ve seen.
The advice that I wish I had right from the start: writing requires patience and the long view. Here’s my advice for writers starting out: Tell the truth. Tell it slant. Revise, revise. Don’t give up. Work every day.