Friday, March 30, 2012

An Interview with Author Tara Lazar

Already, Tara Lazar has made an indelible mark on the world of picture books--both via publishing and also by helping to inspire others as we craft and create. As the founder of PiBoIdMo, the equivalent to National Novel Writing Month for picture book writers, Tara is steeped in wisdom, passion, and perseverence. She currently has two picture books slated for publication, both from Aladdin / Simon and Schuster: THE MONSTORE (coming in 2013) in I THOUGHT THIS WAS A BEAR BOOK (coming in 2014). Her witty and wise blog, Writing for Kids (While Raising Them) features Tara's engaging writing style, great interviews and guest bloggers, and already has 982 followers. I'm deeply delighted to welcome Tara to Intersections today as she shares her inspiring journey with us!

Where and how did you first conceive of the idea for your first picture book now under contract with Aladdin/Simon and Schuster, THE MONSTORE?

I love word play. I spew out phrases like "picture book palooza" and "ballyhoo of boisterous beasts". So one day the title THE MONSTORE just came to me. I can't think of anything particularly special about that moment. But I had that title in my brain for several months before I ever did anything with it.

I had made friends with author and agent Jill Corcoran via social media and had the pleasure of meeting her in person at the 2009 NJ-SCBWI annual conference. I asked her if she would look at my picture book premises and suggest which might be the best ones to pursue as manuscripts. As I was writing up that email, I realized I had NO PREMISE for THE MONSTORE. So I quickly devised one: "A boy wants to return the monster he bought because it doesn't spook his little sister." Jill told me it was a winner. But I still didn't write it.

Then one day I just sat down and pumped it out. It flew from my fingertips. Everything just fell into place, from the "no returns, no exchanges" refrain to the perfect ending (which I won't reveal). My friend and critique partner Corey Rosen Schwartz read it an said "this will sell"! And I should mention that Corey has super-accurate publishing radar.

Can you share about your personal journey towards your current passion for picture books?

My journey began when I was very young. As soon as I was able to write, I was telling stories. When teachers announced we had a creative writing project, I literally cheered (I kept pom-poms in my desk). When I was about 8 years old, my friend Francine and I wrote a picture book. We lied and said it was published. Too funny. But I do remember reading Ally Sheedy's "She Was Nice to Mice" over and over again and realizing it was published by a KID. She was only 12 years old. If she could do it, I could. So I kept writing.

In high school I got in trouble for my creative writing. I wrote a scathing story about all the populars that went viral in the old-fashioned way: read for a buck in the bathroom. The story was such a hit that my AP History teacher read it to all his classes. It didn't have my name on it, but everyone knew it was my doing.

I used to meet with my 10th grade English teacher to talk about writing but I really didn't know what I was doing back then. I just wrote without any structure. That she actually read my drivel and encouraged me was miraculous.

In college I studied English and Creative Writing and it was my intention to work in children's publishing. But when I graduated and I had to take whatever job I could find, and jobs were scarce. I landed in computer books and quickly grew bored. My career then veered toward high-tech and it wasn't until I was pregnant with my second daughter that I finally decided it was time to pursue my life-long goal of becoming a children's author. That was in 2006 and I joined a kidlit critique group. I took a year off once my daughter was born and got really serious in late 2007. I started my blog, began attending events, and read craft books. In 2008 I was accepted to the RUCCL conference and that's when I knew I maybe had what it takes. And I am thrilled to report that I'll be the "success story" speaker at this year's RUCCL conference! Somebody pinch me!

How did you respond to rejections you may have received while submitting both THE MONSTORE and I THOUGHT THIS WAS A BEAR BOOK?

I was lucky because THE MONSTORE didn't receive many rejections, but that's because I didn't send it out many places. In January 2010 I submitted it to a NJ-SCBWI Mentor Conference but got very sick and couldn't attend. The organizers sent the editor critique to me anyway. When I got the envelope is was very thick and I thought, "Great. The editor hated it." So I didn't even touch it for a week! When I finally did zip it open, I saw lots of bullet points. But they were GOOD bullet points like, "Love the title and the premise. I was hooked on the first page." I couldn't believe it. She asked to see again it once I had revised.

That's when I thought it was time to get an agent. One agent got back to me right away with a "no" but said "I think this will sell, definitely." So that gave me another boost of confidence. I revised again, making the story stronger.

In the meantime, Corey had won a critique from author Jean Reidy and didn't have anything to send, so she sent THE MONSTORE. Jean loved it and tweeted about it. Ammi-Joan Paquette, who is an author and agent, saw the tweet and asked about the manuscript. So I received a referral to Joan, with whom I clicked immediately. I had other agents interested, too, but they had declined for various reasons---too similar to an existing client's work, not interested in my other manuscripts. I signed with Joan at the end of March 2010.

I THOUGHT THIS WAS A BEAR BOOK never got a rejection. It was a lucky score with my current editor. She loved the premise and I did a revision for her before going to acquisitions. But she did decline other projects I submitted between MONSTORE and BEAR. One of those projects is elsewhere waiting for a green light.

If you could share any advice with people in the following categories, what would you say to:

Writers: Go with your gut instinct.

 Parents: Go with your gut instinct.

Teachers: I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.

12-year olds: Don't be in a rush to become an adult. It's not better than being 12. Nothing's better than being 12.

Finally, can you share some of your most joyful and fun aspects of the writing process, and some of your most difficult parts?

The most joyful times are when I start a project full of hope and the best intentions. I get excited about new ideas with high-concept potential.

The most difficult part is when those stories just don't turn out the way you expected them to. I have a fabulous premise, but the right story for the setting and characters hasn't yet emerged. I'm on my fourth major rewrite. It can be very frustrating. I know this could be a hit and I'm eager to get it out there, but I also have to be patient and make sure I get it right.

Thanks for sharing your journey with us, Tara, and I am gleefully giddy about the release of both your books. THE MONSTORE and I THOUGHT THIS WAS A BEAR BOOK will both become well-read books in our home!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

On a Clear Morning

The bird swoops downward
Without fear.
He knows a rising arc
Arrives as soon as
Ground is near.

Friday, March 23, 2012

What Love Does

There's an awful lot in our world telling us what can't happen, what isn't possible--feeding us an endless progression of stats, probability, facts, past occurrences. And we tend to bank our lives on these numbers. These narratives. We give a heck of a lot of credence to what's been done, in other words.

And we often make a throne to disbelief. Consider: to discredit something, to critique something, to interrogate a text or a person or a dream or an idea--all these are afforded high regard. Respect.

When James Meredith attended the University of Mississippi as the school's first black student--enduring relentless attacks both verbal and physical--there was no fallback. There was no past occurrence of this event. No stats other than this one: zero percent of the university was black.

When Dave Eggers wrote his heartwrenchingly beautiful A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, there was no example of a literary work that came before like it: a memoir that read like a novel which was searingly honest, ironic, and postmodern.

When Anita Hill demanded the right to defend her own dignity against male oppression and power, there was little evidence of this kind of speaking truth to power. Few statistics that would tell her it was okay to speak so openly, so boldly against that ever-present and deeply forceful institution of power the world over: patriarchy.

The thing about love is this: it doesn't bank on stats. Love doesn't calculate cost-effectiveness or probability of success or even cultural laws and norms. In the words of Lewis Smedes in his powerful book Love Within Limits: "Love shatters disbelief."

As a young man, I felt the constant pressure that a lot of young men feel: to be tough, to hide emotional truth, to pretend. When I became an (older) man, teaching high school and middle school students, I saw the very same tendency in the young men I taught: towards a fake stance of power rather than an acceptance of who they really are. Jackson Katz documents the horrifying cultural norm of violent masculinity, patriarchal power in his documentary Tough Guise.

And for young women, Jean Kilbourne has movingly documented the absurd pressures women must face every second in her Killing Us Softly documentaries.

In a sense, we're trained from a young age to disbelieve: to disbelieve ourselves, to disbelieve the possibilities for different paths, different ways of being and living and working and growing. Instead, fear pressures us into a very narrow life-journey--fear that's abusively proffered by people like Rush Limbaugh. In his recent attacks on women (and, his historical attacks on women, which have been ongoing for decades), he urges people to disbelieve: don't think men can change; don't think the world can change; don;t think there are other narratives to tell, other ways to live.

The beauty of novels by remarkable writers like Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, Gary D. Schmidt, Neesha Meminger, Harper Lee, A.S. King, and so many other fabulous writers is this: they're telling stories about other possibilities. They're sharing the narratives of the lives we know are possible--the belief that we long to embody in ourselves--and they're doing it in the face of a culture that pressures the status quo relentlessly.

There is little more beautiful in life than watching someone love or be loved. And one way love happens, I think, is when we come across a narrative that echoes something in our soul. It might be something we sensed as kids, but which got buried by pressures to act certain ways as males or females, as members of a certain culture or race or religion. It got buried by people who peddle fear, knowing that the marketplace looks so favorably on that wizard of oz.

But love shatters disbelief. And one place love emerges for us is in the imaginative narratives that haven't historically happened yet--but might. Love leaps off pages of novels where we find characters taking the chances we long to take, rejecting the norms we long to reject, and becoming the people we long to become.

When I first met Atticus Finch a decade ago, his journey leapt like that for me. It showed me a different way to be a man. Not by trying to attain patriarchal power, but by following the cause of justice in the world. Not by violence, but by defending the rights of the marginalized and the silenced. Not by bravado but by inner strength of conviction.

Not by disbelief, but by faith. Because the work of love, if it does anything, shatters disbelief.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Keep Calm and Query On is Available!

I'm thrilled that KEEP CALM AND QUERY ON: NOTES ON WRITING (AND LIVING) WITH HOPE is officially out! So grateful to John Dufresne for writing the Foreword; and to Francisco Stork, Ej Levy, Betsy Lerner, and Sarah Stone for offering kind words of endorsement; and to the many writers who allowed me to interview them for the book!

On another note, here is a fascinating video exploring the delightful resurfacing of the WWII slogan, sent to me by Kathy Erskine and John Dufresne. Worth three minutes of time, to be sure!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

An Ode to York

The Way York Walks, Remembers
The footfalls gather like moths to fire
While stone walls walk canvassing the city:
Entire. Complete. History—as they say—
On Coney Street the masses gather,
Arching forwards towards
A café where they can stay, sway,
Share the moment that momentum
Has claimed already.
On Stonegate, purple pencils
The lines of our faces,
Traces each emotion like rain
That fades only after days.
In an endless chorus of robust
Street performers:
Fire, Drums, and the Beginning of Days
That reach like nights into
Memories that like living,
Always living.
Never repeating.
And York, like a man unadorned,
Finally stands in the deep end of the pool:
School term over,
Harried living ends,
And the messengers in pigeon suits
Gather round the fluted breadcrumbs.
Eating, eating, always eating—
Digesting the history, the you,
And the me.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Rambo, Atticus, and Raskolnikov

In the March/April issue of the Believer magazine, I wrote a review of the Rambo IV tagline: "Heroes don't die...they just reload." Ever since I first saw the movie poster--four years ago now--that tagline has haunted me as a dangerous message of what media tells men: act tough, be invulnerable, hide who you really are.

Here's a link to the full essay at the Believer's site.