Welcome to the third installment of my interview show, Waffles with Writers! Every month I chat with a working writer over a nice, waffle-centric meal.
Today’s brunch companion is Susanna Leonard Hill, the award winning author of nearly a dozen books for children, including Punxsutawney Phyllis (A Book List Children’s Pick and Amelia Bloomer Project choice), No Sword Fighting In The House (a Junior Library Guild selection), Can’t Sleep Without Sheep (a Children’s Book of the Month), and Not Yet, Rose (a Gold Mom’s Choice Award Winner). Her books have been translated into French, Dutch, German, and Japanese, with one hopefully forthcoming in Korean. Susanna is also a blogger extraordinare, who generously uses her internet bully pulpit to answer questions about the writing process, improve manuscript pitches, and promote perfect picture books.
Welcome, Susanna! The waffles just came out of the iron. What toppings would you like?
Thanks, Mike! I do love a good waffle. I guess I’m an unoriginal purist – I like maple syrup. But only the real kind, preferably from Vermont – none of that fake Aunt Jemima/Mrs. Butterworth stuff. Option B for toppings, coming in at a close second, is blueberry yogurt.
No worries. We serve Grade A maple syrup here. I’d love to start things off by asking you about the lovely Punxsutawney Phyllis, who has taken the world by storm. Literally. How on earth does one arrange a world tour for a groundhog?
I belong to a wonderful community of enthusiastic and creative writers who are always ready for some fun — even at a moment’s notice. Really, it was kind of a last minute idea on my part. My book, April Fool, Phyllis! had come out in 2011 a little behind schedule, and so did not make the sales Holiday House was hoping for. I knew that in 2012 the book would no longer be a new release and wouldn’t get any attention, so I wondered what I could do to help and thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun to send Phyllis around to visit all the lovely people I’ve become so fond of in the blogosphere? They could take pictures of her and blog about her visit and it would be like she was a world traveler.”
And everyone was so incredibly nice about going along with my harebrained scheme, especially because we had to get it together and pull it off in about two weeks time with no notice!
Why two weeks? It was two weeks before April Fools’ Day?
Uh, yep! That would be why. I am known for my harebrained schemes, and harebrained, by definition, includes last minute.
I was afraid no one would want to do it, so I offered a free picture book manuscript critique for up to 10 people if they signed up. I think around 40 ended up doing it, most of them just for fun. I gathered addresses, printed out sheets of mailing labels and notes of instructions, and ended up sending four copies of the book out to various places. Two went through the U.S. and Canada; one went to Australia, New Zealand, and South Korea; and one went to the UK. Many other people joined in by using their own copy or getting one from the library. It was tons of fun! If you want to see some of the highlights and links to the posts you can look here.
Your book, Can’t Sleep Without Sheep makes a compelling argument on behalf of counting sheep – and only sheep. But, come on, sheep need vacations, too. Which animal would be a decent, if not entirely perfect, sheep understudy?
Hm… That is a tough question since, as you know, I am very partial to sheep. They line up nicely, jump calmly, and are fluffy and peaceful and perfect. But if not sheep, oh perfect wooly sleepy-time critters that they are, I guess I’d have to go with slow lorises. Or is it slow lorae? Whatever the plural of slow loris is. They are furry and cute (much cuter than sloths!), and move in slow motion, so graceful and athletic. They make me want to be good at yoga. Which I am not, because I am way too impatient.
On your blog you mentioned how Sarah Dessen described her writing process as a “crazy train.” How would you describe your own process?
I think the reason I quoted that line was because I related to it so intimately. My writing process is very akin to a crazy train. I get bits and pieces of ideas from all over the place that sometimes seem to take forever to gel into anything usable. On rare occasions, when the writing is flowing, I can barrel along at 100 mph and nothing can cause me to veer from my course. On the majority of days, when the writing is not flowing, I feel like I’m on a local train that stops and interrupts the trip every two minutes. But since Sarah already used the crazy train, I’ll go with runaway horse – that works too – an uncontrollable, wild ride that is sometimes scary but always fun.
One thing I really like about your blog is the way your department “Oh, Susanna” helps writers to navigate the publishing process. If you weren’t Susanna, what “Oh, Susanna” question would you ask yourself?
I actually think I may have tried to cover this as Oh Susanna, but I would love to know how to fit 72 hours of work into one afternoon. Seriously, I never seem to have enough time for all the things I want to do. I think I need a personal assistant to manage my time for me since I clearly don’t do it well myself. Possibly the PA would need an electric cattle prod to keep me on track. Or maybe a donut on a stick.
You are the founder of “Perfect Picture Book Friday.” Do you have an imperfect picture book that is a perfect fit for you personally?
I’m going to smoothly avoid this question, Mike, by saying that by definition any book that fits me personally is a book I love and is perfect for me. I only review books I love because I know how hard they are to write. I don’t like to be critical when I know someone poured his/her heart and soul into the story. A book that I consider imperfect may still appeal to many people, and I’m not about to throw anyone under the bus for writing an imperfect book. That said, I love funny books (like Z Is For Moose) and sweet books (like All The Places To Love) and older titles I grew up with (like Mike Mulligan And His Steam Shovel, Make Way For Ducklings, Blueberries For Sal, and The Story Of Ferdinand and I’ll just stop because I could go on for a while.
I hear that you are known as The Black Thumb of Poughquag. Please describe your most vicious flora murder.
Okay. I’ll tell you. But this is not a story for the faint of heart, and definitely not for children, so anyone with delicate sensibilities should not subject themselves to this horror!
When my kids were little, there was a fourth grade science teacher who felt that everyone should be doing his or her part to help the plight of the American chestnut tree. Her plan was, have the kids plant their trees in little pots and then send them home to mom. What was she thinking? Hadn’t she heard of my reputation as The Black Thumb of Poughquag? So not once, not twice, but FIVE TIMES, home came these hopeful little baby American Chestnut Trees in their little pots. I tried so hard. I really did. But kids and dogs are much more vocal about reminding you they need water than plants are. And every single time a day would come when I happened to look in that pot and see a shriveled up brown dried out husk of dead baby American Chestnut Tree.
So sad. *sniff* I’m sorry. I need a tissue.
Here you are. You don’t have to —
Anyway, when I got to number five, after four baby tree murders, I thought, this time I’ll plant it outside where at least it will have a chance of rain. Maybe it can survive better on its own. Alas, it wasn’t to be. Whatever the reason was for the American Chestnut Tree’s struggles, apparently planting them outside at a tender age was not the answer. So I was not at all helpful in the plight of the American Chestnut Tree. May they rest in peace.
That was going to be my last question but I really don’t want to end things on such a somber note. So! What kind of donut did you eat on National Donut Day?
Well, Mike, it wasn’t an exciting one. On National Donut Day I had a plain old ordinary glazed donut, which is my second favorite kind. My first favorite kind are those fresh cider donuts with the cinnamon sugar on them, but those are hard to come by in June.
Thanks for stopping by Susanna!
Thank you so very much for having me over. I am honored to be a guest here. I always look forward to your posts and enjoy them so much!
Oh, you! Here. Have another waffle for the road.