Monday, January 11, 2010
Bobbi Miller ~ Guest Author Interview
Bobbi will be checking in periodically, so take the time to ask her questions or leave comments. She's looking forward to interacting with the visitors of Write What Inspires You!
DMc: What or whom inspires you to write?
BM: I read many books, on all kinds of subjects in all kinds of genres. Many of the best adventures are on our own landscape! The western frontier, the Mississippi, the Civil War, the Revolutionary War, New Orleans, Boston, Chicago, New York, the Midwest and the Southwest, the coming together of many cultures, many languages and many stories — why, we have the BEST stories in our own front yard! This inspires me to write.
When I write, I travel. I go to the landscapes where my stories take place. The key to inspiration is becoming engaged in the life and landscape surrounding you. Inspiration and motivation does not come out of the ether, and is not created in a vacuum.
I spend my time exploring the American landscape and the grand voices that make up the American story. The language that creates these stories is as big and grand as the landscape itself. It is this audacious, bodacious, just splendiferous landscape and language that inspire me to write.
DMc: How did you get started?
BM: I am one of those nerds who knew how to read and write by kindergarten. I have always read and written stories. I studied hard to hone my craft, too. As an undergraduate, I studied writing and anthropology.
I went to Simmons College, the Masters of Children’s Literature Program, where I studied the folklore process in children’s literature. I investigated voice and perspective, and most of all, the language of the storytelling process!
I also went to Vermont College (now the Vermont College of Fine Arts) MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Program. To tell you the truth, I think everything I learned up to that moment was preparing me for this experience. I studied under true masters. Eric Kimmel and Marion Dane Bauer. I owe them for my life, true enough. It sounds sappy, yes. But when everything – every moment, experience, understanding – comes together to finally make sense and direction, it does become a sappy life-altering moment. I continue to call Eric my Guru, and Marion my ultimate Mentor. I also call them dear friends. That’s the experience of Vermont College, and I sense that everyone who attends the program walks away with a similar sappy moment. For my creative thesis, I wrote nine picturebooks, four of which were eventually sold.
DMc: What did you find to be the most frustrating step/process of getting your first book published?
BM: The business of publishing is the most frustrating for me. It’s more than just understanding contract language, various rights and clauses, which is complex enough for me! But the business, as any business, is constantly changing in reaction to economic stresses, consumer demands, and constantly changing technology. It’s hard to keep up. But writers need to understand how the business of publishing works just as any one engaged in a career should stay informed on what influences how she works. I try to educate myself accordingly, and found many resources that help me do this. I’m not shy about asking friends and people in the know about how things work. I belong to the Author’s Guild and to Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), who offer resources about this topic. Harold Underdown has a wonderful website that discusses this aspect: http://www.underdown.org/. Cynthia Leitich Smith’s website is another incredibly valuable resource: http://www.cynthialeitichsmith.com/.
Now that my first two books are out, I find myself engaged in marketing these books. Marketing is an important aspect of the business, but Luddite that I am, the technology confuses me at times, so this is my challenge. I have a wonderful web goddess, Lisa Firke, who designed my website. We are creating an inspirational site, I think, a resource for educators, students and writers, and not just a promo for my books. I’m quite excited about how it’s coming together.
DMc: Do you have an agent? If yes, how long did it take for you to find one?
BM: I do not have an agent. As any writer would, I have written to a couple that I thought a good fit. Alas, they did not think so! From what I’ve heard, it’s tougher to get an agent than to get an editor. I think it’ll happen when it happens, just like any relationship. Meanwhile, I am working with the bestest, wonderfullest editor with my picturebooks. I just Love her to pieces. And, I’m talking with other editors, equally wonderful, about my older reader projects. I’m looking forward to building a relationship with them, too.
DMc: How long did it take for you to write One Fine Trade and Davy Crockett Gets Hitched?
BM: My process takes me a long to complete. As I tell my students, it takes as long as it takes. I can take me a year to finish a picturebook, and several years to finish an older reader. Many think because picturebooks are shorter, they are easier to write. But, not so! Picturebook writers have to do everything that the writers for older readers do—create characters, establish setting and point of view – but do so in less than 1000 words. Picturebooks exemplify those devices of style: figurative language, the imagery, symbol, hyperbole. Picturebooks are also a lesson in the conservation of words. Sometimes the difference between a really grand book and an okay book falls upon the choice of a single word. It’s an artform, and one I fear is an endangered species.
For Davy Crockett, I researched both the myth and the man. I researched the historical context, including gender roles, so I have a feel for Miss Sally Ann. I also read his books to get a sense of his language and personality. My story is a combination of many tales, some of which he told, and some of which were told by others. I highlighted the recurring motifs, engaged in the language, and then created a story from that.
Stories tend to be organic, and sometimes outlines, research, and all the ‘great plans of mice and men’ need to be tossed as characters take over. In which case, I tag along for the ride. Miss Sally Ann is not your typical gal, as Davy Crockett discovered, and you’ll discover more about her in my next book, also illustrated by Megan Lloyd and will be published by Holiday House. She demanded to whoop it up, and I whooped right along with her.
I take these lessons into my writing for older readers as well.
DMc: Which is your own favorite book or character?
BM: Because I tend to read a lot, I would say that any book I am reading now is my favorite book. I have always been a heavy reader. I was reading Charles Dickens in the fourth grade, and just loved Oliver Twist. So much so, that I copied the book, making it into a play: “Please, sir. I want some more!” I read Robin Hood stories, and wrote about the daughter of Robin Hood. I read about pirates – and I wrote about the Pirate Queen! None of these stories that I wrote were very good, but the process engaged me in the language of story, how language works.
I am now reading Anita Silvey’s glorious book, Everything I Need to Know I learned from a Children’s Book [Roaring Brook Press, 2009]. This book features 100 leaders from many fields, including publishing, arts, and science, and their recollections of a favorite children’s book and its impact on their lives. This book embodies everything I believe about children’s book writing and publishing: Children’s books change lives. In fact, I was so enamored with this book, I had a conversation with Anita Silvey about the process she underwent on collecting these stories, and posted it on my website, under A Conversation with Anita Silvey: http://www.bobbimillerbooks.com/.
DMc: What advice would you give someone who wants to get a book published?
BM: The best advice: hone your skills. Read as a writer. Deconstruct elements of your favorite stories to understand how these elements fit together. Keep taking classes. There are many online courses, and I list a few on my website. I also teach online courses, both at the undergraduate and graduate level, in writing for children. [Write me for more information] Go to Conferences. I try to go to one or two every year. Recognize that rejection is a function of the business, and everyone gets rejections. Eric Kimmel shares some thoughts on this very element on my website, under A Conversation with Eric Kimmel.
DMc: What would you be if you were not a writer?
BM: I have never NOT wanted to be a writer. I’ve worked at many jobs to pay the bills, but the focus was always to be a writer. Sometimes I get frustrated with the business, and with the process, of writing, and I entertain thoughts of becoming something else. I once thought about becoming a nurse. Well, that lasted for about fifteen minutes. I teach now, and I never thought I would become a teacher. But I teach writing, so even this keeps me engaged in the language of story. It is as poet Rainer Maria Rilke suggests, “Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depth of your heart; confess to yourself you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.”
DMc: A signature request I like to ask every author, illustrator, editor, etc., I interview is for the individual to share with us a tidbit from their lives that the reader will find either humorous or surprising. Bobbi, can you please share one with us?
BM: Most surprising thing: I once thought about becoming a nurse. I decided I’d rather be a pirate.
To learn more about Bobbi Miller visit: http://www.bobbimillerbooks.com/.
Be sure to visit again on January 12th and 13th when I present my book reviews of Davey Crockett Gets Hitched and One Fine Trade. Thanks for visiting.