Waffles With Writers

Waffles With Writers: Susanna Leonard Hill

Scrum-dilly-umptious!
Scrum-dilly-umptious!

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

***

Phyllis, Susanna, and adorable moppets.
Phyllis, Susanna, and adorable moppets.

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.

Somebody has insomnia? The sheep are on their union-designated coffee break?  Here's my big chance!
Somebody has insomnia? The sheep are on a coffee break? Jeepers! Here’s my big chance!

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.

Susanna strikes again!
Susanna strikes again!

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. 

Waffles With Writers

Waffles With Writers: Tara Lazar

Yummers!
Yummers!

Welcome to the second 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 Tara Lazar, whose first book, The Monstore, hits stores this week. Two other titles are hot on its heels: I Thought This Was a Bear Book (Aladdin, 2014) and Little Red Gliding Hood (Random House, 2015). If that wasn’t enough, this September her essay “Grow Up. Be Serious. Oh, Nevermind!” will be published in the YA anthology Break These Rules (Chicago Review Press).

Long story short, Tara is busy.

***

Mike: Good morning, Tara! The waffles are just about ready and– Um…I know I’m serving breakfast food, but I didn’t expect you to arrive wearing jammies. Do you find that jammies work well with your writing lifestyle?

Tara: Of course! All my life I wanted a job that required me to work in jammies. Since the Macy’s mannequin and midnight boogeyman assassin positions were already filled, being a children’s author was the next best thing.

Congrats on your first book, The Monstore, by the way! I’ve always liked monsters. If you could customize your very own monster, what would be some of his main attributes?

I think I will borrow a monsterly attribute dreamed up by a student from Mrs. Mozer’s second grade class: a monster that shoots cupcakes out of its foot.

Why its foot?

Well, it’s better than from the mouth, I say. That would be an ABC Cupcake (Already Been Chewed).

Seriously, how cool is this Monstore illustration?
Seriously, how cool is this Monstore illustration?

In addition to your writing skills, you are also an accomplished figure skater. If you were to compete at the 2016 Winter Olympics, which 1980s pop ballad would you choose to accompany your routine?

“Rio” by Duran Duran. Because she “dances on the sand,” so it would be a hot, beachy number. If you haven’t noticed, ice arenas are really, really cold.

You recently introduced your daughter to a number of episodes from The Brady Bunch – and shame on you. Is there anything about that show that could help a writer improve his craft?

You can often learn by non-example. The Brady Bunch writers came right out with the lesson, smacking you the way Alice whacked that award-winning sculpture of Mr. Brady’s head.

Mike Brady would tell his kids the lesson with a stern yet loving stare, or the kids would repeat the lessons aloud for themselves (and the audience). When Jan campaigned for most popular girl, she made many promises but didn’t keep them. Her entire family admonished her for not making good on her promises, but she ignored them. At the end of the show, Jan finally learns her lesson and reads a speech apologizing for her selfish ways. Instead of showing that Jan was sorry, the writers told everyone she was sorry. I guess they only had 22 minutes and had to tie things up neatly with a bow. I say leave neat bows for gifts, not stories. Nothing ends on that perfect a note.

Have you ever discovered a good nugget of writing on The Brady Bunch?

How about “Oh, my nose!”?

In addition to the children’s book thing, you and I have something in common: we both headed up public relations departments. Let’s see if you still have the old magic: You work for BP. In 100 words or less, please put a positive spin on a two million-gallon oil spill off the coast of Atlantic City.

Come on down the shore! Just bring a bottle of balsamic and there’s free salad dressing for all! Bon appetite!

Yep. You’ve still got it. You once mentioned that you collect junk for inspiration. What is the junkiest thing that has ever inspired you?

Junkiest thing that ever inspired me has to be a piece of shriveled pepperoni.

What did it inspire?

A pizza story, silly! What else?

What is the junkiest thing you own that you hoped would provide inspiration, but hasn’t?

A chipped, miniature ceramic kitten with a ball of blue and red string. I thought it was really cute and would make a good writing mascot, but I’m perplexed because I don’t even like cats and I have no intention of writing a cat manuscript. Yes, we writers can be strange.

Bad cat.
Uninspiring.

Well, thank you so much for stopping by, Tara! It was a pleasure. Would you like to grab a piece of junk from my house as a souvenir?

May I have that rusty bicycle wheel in your garage? With writing, you gotta just keep rolling on…

Waffles With Writers

Waffles With Writers: Madame Weebles

Dee-licious!
Dee-licious!

Welcome to my new interview show, Waffles with Writers! Every month I will chat with a working writer over a nice, waffle-centric meal.

Today’s brunch guest is Madame Weebles, who is best known for having recently taken the blogging world by storm with her sometimes profound, sometimes profane, and always compulsively readable posts. Decades before she named herself after a 1970s choking hazard, however, Weebles’ writing credentials were firmly in place; her career includes long tenures as both a professional historian and medical editor. These days, in addition to her regular posts, Weebles works as a reiki master and geeks out over the life stories of Hot Dead Guys.

***

Mike: Welcome, Madame! You’re just in time. The Belgian waffles are just out of the iron and piping hot. What toppings would you prefer?

Madame: Ice cream and chocolate syrup, please. And maybe some strawberries. And bananas. And whipped cream.

Fortunately I have a well-stocked topping supply. Bananas… Ice cr­— Listen, while I’m getting all this stuff, let’s get things started. I hear that you used to work as a military historian. In terms of traditional story structure, which battle in U.S. history is the most dramatically satisfying?

This is an excellent question, and one that I never really thought about. They all have elements of drama, but one of my favorite stories is from the American Revolution, in August 1776. Washington and the Continental Army were getting their butts kicked by the British in the Battle of Brooklyn Heights (it didn’t help that a lot of Loyalists lived in New York and helped the British). They were cornered on the Brooklyn coast with General William Howe and thousands of Redcoats bearing down on them. Instead of surrendering or trying a last-ditch effort to fight, Washington engineered the escape of the entire Continental Army across the East River, at night. In the morning, Howe reached the American camp and found nothing. That’s a pretty neat trick, rowing your whole army away in complete silence, under cover of darkness. The battles weren’t Washington’s finest hour, but the evacuation was pretty darned clever. If he hadn’t done that, his army wouldn’t have lasted to fight another day, and the war would have been largely over.

On your blog you have a peculiar obsession with Hot Dead Guys. In fact, you are writing a story about one such Hot Dead Guy, Robert Cornelius. Can you give me an elevator pitch explaining why Cornelius’ story is worth hearing?

He was smoking hot, for starters. Possibly the hottest dead guy in history. That’s reason enough. But if you need more – although I have no idea why you would – he was a pioneer in pretty much everything he touched. In 1839, he was the first to take a daguerreotype photo of a human being – a huge feat at the time. He had 22 patents – several of which were cutting-edge technology. In 1843 he created a high-quality fuel lamp that burned cheap lard; this was a big deal because people who couldn’t afford lamp fuels like oil, could now have good lighting in their homes. He became a household name for that invention. Also, if you have a gas stove, you know that electric spark that ignites the gas burner? He was using that technology back in 1866. He knew his stuff. And finally, he was SMOKING HOT.

Robert Cornelius: People Magazine's Sexiest Man Not Alive
Robert Cornelius: People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Not Alive

Smoking hot. Yes. What is your plan for Cornelius’ story?

There are a few journals/organizations that have expressed an interest in it, which is nice. But it won’t be long enough for a book, so it will be an article. If I’m ever feeling really ambitious I might write a book with each chapter being another bio of someone who has been lost to history but shouldn’t be.

What three famous people would you like to have dinner wi– No, never mind. Everybody asks that one. How about this? Which famous people would you invite to your mortal enemy’s birthday party?

Another excellent question. I could say something like Hitler or Stalin, but that’s too easy. Instead, I’m going to go with really obnoxious people who would be so annoying that my enemy would pray for death. So I would invite several former co-workers, as well as Justin Bieber, the cast of Jersey Shore and The Kardashians, and Tom Cruise.

Not Alex Trebek?

I forgot about him. Trying to block him out of my head. But yes, I would invite him too.

Is there a story you’d really like to write about but fear you never will?

There is, actually. It’s about Nikola Tesla, when he demonstrated his alternating-current induction motor in 1888. I would love to tell the story of Tesla demonstrating that motor and describing the reaction from the crowd. I mean, this was HUGE. At the time, a few other guys were working on similar projects, but Tesla beat everyone to the punch. I would love to tell the story about the impact of that presentation and the audience response. Was it quiet enough to hear a pin drop? Was there applause? Was there a loud murmur as people talked among themselves about it? Were people saying “WTF?” (or the 19th-century equivalent of WTF)? Did people realize then that they were looking at something that would literally change the world? I don’t know if there are enough first-hand accounts of this event, or even news reports about it, but I want to tell that story.

The motor that made Edison jealous.
The motor that made Edison jealous.

Is the absence of documentation the reason why you haven’t written the Tesla story?

That’s the only reason. If another dig through the records yields any helpful accounts, I will absolutely write it.

You now work as a reiki master, which I find fascinating. Do you find that your skills in that field help you with your writing? Does it help you to fight what you once described as the “Judgmental Brain of Madame Weebles?”

It hasn’t helped with the writing so much, but it does help ground me when the judgmental brain starts spouting off. It helps to remind me that my brain isn’t that smart sometimes.

Thank you so much for visiting Madame! It’s been delightful. Would you like some waffles for the road?

Yes please! These are delicious! I’ll probably finish them before I even get in the car!