Sunday, September 20, 2009

Author Spotlight on: Laurel Snyder

Some people have to write. They start as children and they never stop. Laurel Snyder is one of those people.

Starting with an anthology in 2006 called,Half/Life: Jew-ish Tales from Interfaith Homes, Snyder has had at least one book come out every year. Her book of poetry, The Myth of the Simple Machines, was published in 2007. A picture book, Inside the Slidy Diner, came out the following year. Her first novel for children, Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains, was recognized as a 2008 Smithsonian Notable Book, and was also nominated for a Cybil (Children’s and Young Adult Bloggers Awards). Her newest book, Any Which Wall, came out in May and was listed as a Junior Library Guild selection.

After reading Any Which Wall earlier this summer, I knew I wanted to "talk" to Laurel. While the book is full of magic and adventure, it takes place in the real world. And even though the story is current, it reads like a instant classic, the kind you want to lay in the grass and spend the afternoon with.

The best part? Laurel is a slush pile success story. Read on to find out how genres are like dancing, imitation is a conversation and why Batman books might be in her pile!

My inlaws are from Iowa (and I’ve visited a few times myself!) so when I saw that your new book ANY WHICH WALL takes place there, I had to read it. What made you decide to set the story in Iowa?
Iowa isn't really my home state, but it's my adopted home state, since I lived there for 7 years, and my husband is from there. I visit often.

Basically, Iowa (and Iowa City in particular) is just a perfect kind of place for an adventure. It's big and open and green and safe-but-wild. Kids nowadays read all these tales of free-range-kids who roam and ramble, but in fact many kids don't get to have that sort of wild-adventure-summertime anymore. Certainly they don't here in Atlanta. I lived in Iowa for seven years, and I almost never locked my front door there. So it seemed more likely that in Iowa, my characters might actually be allowed to ride their bikes to the library. It's also just a beautifu wonderful town, and I wanted to pay it tribute.

I grew up in Ohio and we actually had a cornfield on part of our 40 acres. When the kids go down a row in search of adventure, I could absolutely remember doing this as a child. Only I wasn’t lucky enough to find a magic wall! This story is so unique in how they find and use the magic. How did you come up with the idea?
I think it's mostly just Iowa memories--of long drives and walks down B roads--blended together with the books of Edward Eager. I always loved how in Eager's books the magic had RULES. So I wanted a device with guidelines. But I think that the wall itself came from my memories of Jerusalem. My wall isn't the first wall anyone ever touched with a hand and whispered to, you know?

I know you’re a huge Edward Eager fan, but there’s a scene near the end of ANY WHICH WALL that reminded me of the end of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." How much do you think we as writers are influenced by what has been written before, especially when it comes to the “rules” of magic?
I can't speak to anyone else's writing. Maybe some people are wholly imaginative. But I'm an imitative sort of writer. My background is in poetry, and as a poet, I've always seen my writing as a conversation with the writers of the past. I'm almost writing TO them. I think it's interesting to start with another person's work, and attempt to translate it into my own voice, or update it, or give it a new slant. I am what I eat, you know? And there are so many moments when I catch myself sounding like Lewis or Dahl or Streatfield or Travers or Thurber. In some ways, those are the best moments! I think it makes more sense to own that, play with it, challenge it, than to avoid it.

You’ve managed to bridge several genres with a picture book, MG fiction and adult nonfiction. How did you manage to do so much genre-hopping?
People always ask that, and it makes me want to turn around and ask, "Why don't YOU dabble?" I guess, to me, it feels weird and unnatural to me to "pick" a genre. I'm just interested in language, and the language chooses its best form. Don't you find that if you go dancing one night, you want to stay home the next? Each genre feels like a kind of relief from the others. Right now, having finished my next novel, I'm working on poems. It uses a different part of my brain...

Do you plan to add YA to the list?
Heh. Nobody ever asks THAT! The answer is that of all the genres, YA appeals the least to me as a writer. I think I'm more likely to try an adult novel than a YA novel. My next book, the one I'll start later this fall, is intended for a slightly older reader. But it isn't YA. No kissing. No internal drama. And there's a big magical box of wishes in it. I love watching kids explore, attempt to understand the big world beyond them. YA tends to be mostly inward-looking. I love to read books like that, but I don't think that sort of writing is my strength. Not yet, anyway... One never knows.

What genre is your favorite to write? To read?
I'm a poet at heart. I'll always think in poems, I think. I love the puzzle of a poem, and the revsion process, that tightening and tweaking. Though with each novel, I find the logic-problem of prose more interesting.

As a reader I'm all over the place. I can't choose a genre to read. A really sublime adult novel is probably most consuming. I can spend an entire day in bed with Wallace Stegner. But the most important lines, the lines that roam my brain, are poetry. And the books I return to most often are middle grade books.

Besides Edward Eager (who of course is brilliant!) who are some of the authors you enjoy reading?
All the ones I named above, the classics of my own childhood. Nesbit and Dahl and McDonald and Enright and Konigsberg and Voight and so on... but there are some current authors who blow me away too. Victoria Forrester and Ellen Potter and Polly Horvath spring to mind. And I'm as blown away by Rebecca Stead as everyone else is. She's terrific.

One week during #kidlitchat we were discussing how you know when you’re done editing a book and your response cracked me up: “I’m never done, never. I still make changes when I do reading of a published book. I edit in red pen and read aloud that version.” Care to elaborate now that you can use more than 140 characters?
Heh. I don't think I'm the only one. It's hard to translate the written word into a public reading sometimes, and so I'll find myself shortening long sections of exposition when the crowd seems restless, or choosing more exciting language. Then, later, I'll go back and think, "Darn it! Why didn't I think of that BEFORE we sent it to the copyeditor." With poetry this is even more true. Poems from a published book will later be anthologized or published in a magazine, and I'll revise the poem send them a newer draft than was in the book. I did this just yesterday! Changed the title of a published poem, to submit to an anthology of new Jewish poetry.

Those of us who are still unpublished always want to know this: How long did it take for you to get your first book published and how did you get your foot in the door?
From the day I started writing? Or from the day I finished a book? I've been writing since 4th grade. I took my first workshop class when I was 15. I went to college and grad school in creative writing. The first book I finished was a book of poems called "The Girl in the Flattened World." It was published 7 years later under the title, "Myth of the Simple Machines." My first novel was finished in 2002 I think, and it pubbed five years later, after several rounds of on-spec revisions, and maybe thirty rejections. I'm just guessing. The nice part of the story is that it was pulled from slush, as was my picture book. The part of the story people probably don't want to hear is that I'm not sure if the editor would have paid so much attention to my query if I didn't have an MFA. But I didn't have an "in" or anything. I submitted the book cold, to a complete stranger, who wrote me a long letter back. So that CAN happen. I think a strong standout query goes a long way.

What are you working on right now?
I just handed in the next novel. It's called Penny Dreadful, and it'll be out next fall. I have a picture book coming out about the same time, called Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted to Be Kosher.

I know there are some children’s books out there that you, uh, really don’t like :) What do you look for in books that you read to your own kids?
For my kids? For my KIDS I read anything they want to read. I really think the best book for any person at any time is the book they most want to read. It's different when you're in school, and you're "studying" something. But for-pleasure reading should be just that. I HATE that my son wants to get "Batman books" at the library, instead of, say, Esio Trot. But I want him to read whatever makes him a reader.

That said, in picture books I look for something where the language is doing something fresh and funny. I love when they memorize a book without meaning to. Good examples of this are the Donut Chef and the Elephant Wish. They make us all happy.

Learn more about Laurel at her website:


Tess said...

Great interview! I love stories about slush-pile-successes. And, it seems Laurel is quite a success. Kudos!

Susan R. Mills said...

Thanks for the interview. I love hearing success stories. (Especially from the slush)

Jen Robinson said...

Great interview, Sherrie and Laurel! I especially liked Laurel's response to the last question, about reading with her kids. One day, he'll outgrow those Batman books, I'm pretty sure...

Yat-Yee said...

Another informative interview, Sherrie. Thanks!

PJ Hoover said...

Great interview! And I love the idea of genre hopping. That's where I want to be also.

Kelly Polark said...

Amazing interview, Sherrie. What a talented writer she is. I love that she reads to her kids books of their choosing. I do that too, and sometimes feel guilty about it. Sometimes I do choose a book I think they SHOULD read, but mostly it's their choice. LIke she said, you want them to love what they are reading!

Sherrie Petersen said...

Tess: I love slush pile successes too!

Susan: Glad you enjoyed :)

Jen: Laurel is a great interviewee. And it's a happy day when they move on to the books we want to read, too!

Yat-Yee: You're welcome =)

PJ: Wouldn't it be great to reach so many different audiences?

Kelly: No more guilt--they're reading!

Kelly H-Y said...

I LOVE to hear from slush pile success stories! Thanks for the great interview!

C.R. Evers said...

Awesome interview. I love hearing down to earth interviews.

Barrie said...

What a very fun interview! I loved learning more about Laurel! (my fellow 2k8er)

Melissa Wiley said...

Delightful interview! Laurel is such fun to read---and read about, in any context.

As for those Batman the wife of a guy who wrote a bunch of them, I can attest to their being more depth there than you might expect. ;)

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