Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Editor Spotlight on: Jennifer Rees

It's no secret that I love every book Suzanne Collins has ever written. I've blogged about it here, here and here. So I was thrilled to meet one of her editors this summer in L.A. When I found out that Jen Rees also acquired Jordan Sonnenblick's book Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie (which I raved about here), I knew I wanted to talk more to her because she obviously has great taste in books!

Even with all the flurry surrounding the release of Mockingjay yesterday, Jen was kind enough to take the time to answer a few questions, dish about the release party and offer up some advice for writers.

Photo: Rita Crayon Huang, ©2010, SCBWI
Okay, so not to go all fan-girl on you, but you’ve edited two of my favorite authors. Both are amazingly talented writers. What do you think makes their stories so irresistible?
Well, it’s nice to hear you’re a fan, thank you! I think readers seriously connect with both Jordan and Suzanne on levels that are deeply personal, intellectual, and emotional. I never get a lukewarm reaction to either writer. With Jordan it’s always something like, “Jordan’s book made me laugh and cry so hard I went through a whole box of tissues!” And with Suzanne it’s usually something like, “I couldn’t stop reading her book—it kept me up all night!” This sort of readability and connection is something I’m always looking for in a manuscript.

Yes, well I did get up at 1:30 to start reading Mockingjay on my Kindle. Who needs sleep? :)

I know entire families (son, daughter, mother, father) who are obsessed with The Hunger Games. When Suzanne Collins proposed her trilogy concept to you, did you have any idea that it would find such a huge audience, both young and old?  

The varied audience of The Hunger Games trilogy is certainly a thing to marvel at. We hear a lot of stories about parents and teens stealing copies from each other so they can finish the book. Talk about putting a spin on typical family dynamics! When Suzanne told me and fellow editor David Levithan about the project, we loved it right away—the project sounded intense and incredibly cool. We believed in Suzanne because of how much we love her Gregor the Overlander books—and we knew her new trilogy would be fantastic. It wasn’t until she delivered the manuscript for The Hunger Games, however, that we truly realized just how big and wide-reaching a project this was. We literally walked around with goosebumps for days.

I can just imagine. I've been blown away by that book every time I read it. And Gregor—well, anyone who can make me cry over a cockroach is an amazing writer!

People who read my blog know I love Jordan Sonnenblick. I couldn't stop raving about Drums once I finished it and then he was so kind when I emailed him for an interview. Were you surprised when he decided to write a sequel to Drums?  

I wasn’t surprised as much as I was extraordinarily happy! Having Jordan work on the sequel felt just right. Over the years, devoted fans have asked about Jeffrey as if he were a real kid. “What happens to Jeffrey? Is he okay?” is a question we both entertained a lot. So, when Jordan told me he had an idea for Jeffrey’s story, it felt like the perfect bookend to Drums, Girls, & Dangerous Pie. The story is remarkable and fans are pleased!
It's in my pile! I know I won't be disappointed.

Have you ever fallen in love with a manuscript but not an author? Or vice versa? Do you have to love both the writing and the person to be able to work with them as an editor?

Oh this is a tough one! There have been a few instances where I like a manuscript, but for whatever reason an author and I don’t have a shared vision for their project. I’ve also admired many a writer but for whatever reason haven’t connected with their story. Before I acquire a project (that I’m wild about!), I like to be sure that the author and I will be able to work well together and that we agree on the work that needs to be done for their book. I’m fortunate to have a wonderful list of authors! But I also only work with people who you’d want to be out there writing books for kids. No jerks allowed! :)

Have you ever published a slush pile story?
I have never published something that I found in the slush. I keep hoping, though! I just love those success stories.

 Me too. But you have your own impressive success story for landing at Scholastic Press. I mean, for you to look at the spine of Out of the Dust, see that it was a Scholastic Press book, and decide that you had to move to New York and work there—that's amazing! What was your first job there?  
My first job was as an editorial assistant at Scholastic Press to then Editorial Director Liz Szabla (now at Feiwel & Friends). From the very beginning Liz was a mentor to me—I feel very fortunate to have had that experience which gave me room to grow and spread my own wings. Becoming a children’s book editor was definitely one of those rare things in life where everything aligns perfectly. One minute I was working as a children’s bookseller at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Cincinnati, and the next I was in New York City sleeping on a friend’s couch with a dream of becoming an editor. I interviewed at several houses, but Scholastic Press felt just right. I still have my tattered copy of Out of the Dust, the book that pointed me in the right direction.
I love that story!

You’ve attended a number of conferences and always have great advice for writers. What do you think is the most important take away for attendees?
I always try to impress upon attendees that if they aren’t feeling passionate about a project, there’s a reason why. Maybe it simply is not the story they personally need to tell right then, or maybe they need to rethink certain aspects of the story. I always ask attendees to keep an open mind. It’s important that they listen to editors and agents, but also to their peer groups. You never know what piece of advice might click and make your story better. A lot of writers unfortunately attend conferences with hopes of selling their book, but if you’re shut down to revisions, or are inflexible over your vision, that’s going to be a tough road to go down. Take the advice that feels right and leave the rest behind! Writing a novel or picture book is hard work, but if a writer listens to himself or herself, as well as others, hopefully with hard work and dedication it will be a successful and satisfying journey.

I think it's a journey that all of us writers want to take. What’s the biggest mistake you see in submissions from people who have attended conferences?  
Photo: Rita Crayon Huang, ©2010, SCBWI
Mostly, I get things that simply aren’t right for me or Scholastic Press—even after I speak to an audience for an hour about what I’m looking for! I understand the drive that’s behind that kind of submissions blanketing, but it’s really just a waste of everyone’s time. And it means the writer isn’t listening. Part of the necessary hard work behind getting published is in doing mass amounts of research and soul-searching to find a house and an editor that’s right for you. You worked really hard on your project, so you’re going to want it to end up in the right hands.  

You’ve said that voice is the number one thing you respond to in writing, regardless of the genre. Is there a type of book that you haven’t seen yet on your list, where you’re looking for someone with a great voice?  
I’d love to see more middle grade and YA boy books on my list, but I also like variety. So, for me, when I find an author and a story with a great voice, it almost transcends genre. I love to say to people, “This author has an amazing voice—you are going to love this story,” even if the story is in a genre that they maybe wouldn’t normally read. That’s the magic of voice. If you can hook a reader, that reader will follow. The Hunger Games trilogy, of course, is a perfect example.

My son wanted me to ask this: What is the one question you’ve never been asked in an interview that you think someone ought to ask? Ah, your son is a journalist in the making—I like that! Let’s see, I always thought someone ought to ask me what else besides The Hunger Games I am excited about on my list! And then I’d have to say, “Well, how thoughtful of you to ask! Everlasting by Angie Frazier, Sellout by Ebony Wilkins, Life, After by Sarah Darer Littman, Finally by Wendy Mass, Sunny Holiday by Coleen Murtagh Paratore, and an amazing new picture book called Swim! Swim! by Lerch (aka James Proimos), just to name a few.”

Sounds like a great list!

So tell me, how was the release party last night at Books of Wonder?

The Mockingjay party was amazing! Fans clearly adore Suzanne and were so eager to hear her read the first chapter of Mockingjay and get their copies of the book. Some enthusiasts even dressed up—one fan came dressed as Effie and another was wearing Katniss’s wedding dress! At one point in the evening, I got tangled up in someone’s bow! Now that’s a good event . . .

I saw that photo of the girl in the wedding dress. I love that people were so into it...and a bit jealous that I couldn't be there :)

Thanks so much, Jen. I've enjoyed getting to know you better!

Thanks, Sherrie, this has been fun!


Jennifer Shirk said...

Nothing from the slush yet, huh? That's interesting.

Thanks for sharing your insight. Always nice to see what goes on in publishing from all sides. :)

Tess said...

thanks Sherrie and Jennifer! I bet that was soooome release party.

And, Sherrie, I bought/read DRUMS just because of your review (and was so touched by that story). thanks.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Thanks for a wonderful interview. And, thanks to the question from Sherrie's son, I have a new list of books to read. I love the recommendations we share, because through them I've read many a good book I otherwise might have missed.

Vivian Mahoney said...

Great questions and answers. Always love your interviews! Thanks for sharing with us.

Anonymous said...

Another excellent interview, Sherrie! There's a book in the making, you know, when you pull similar strands from all your different interviews. . .

I love that she loved your son's input!

Kristan said...

Great interview! And can I just say that I am now WICKED proud of Cincinnati's Jo-Beth for nurturing such an obviously good talent. ;)

Laura Pauling said...

Great interview! And perfect timing. Overall, I'd love to see more interviews with the editors behind the big books!

C.R. Evers said...

I just luv Jennifer Rees! She did a 10 pg critique for me at a retreat this year. She's just fabulous!

great post!

Cialina at said...

LOVE this interview. I had a chance to intern for Jen this past year and learned so much from her!

Suzanne Casamento said...

Great interview! I love your son's question and that it revealed that Jen's list has lots of great books to be excited about.

Sherrie Petersen said...

Jennifer: Jen also gave a great workshop at SCBWI that I'll post my notes from at some point.

Tess: Yay! I'm glad you liked it!!

Tricia: My list grew too :)

Vivian: Thanks-I'm glad you enjoyed the interview!

Val: I've actually given that some thought...

Kristan: It has to be that Ohio connection :)

Laura: I'll see what I can do!!

Christy: I couldn't agree more. She is one of the nicest people and obviously a brilliant editor as well!

Cialina: You are so lucky to have interned with her!

Suzanne: The woman has great taste in books, doesn't she?

Lori W. said...

Thanks Sherrie and Jennifer. The advice to consider moving on from a project you aren't passionate about is great.

Like so many others, The Hunger Games trilogy has kept me up all hours, so the picture book Swim! Swim! sounds very appealing to me if only because I know I can finish it before bedtime! :) Thank you for the list of recommended reads.

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