Dear Imaginary Readers,
Please meet Deborah Underwood, the author of the wonderful new picture book, The Quiet Book, and Kate O'Sullivan, Deborah's editor at Houghton Mifflin. I completely love everything about The Quiet Book including the illustrations by Renata Liwska. And I am not alone! The Quiet Book is getting rave reviews everywhere and it's a NY Times Bestseller (#5 on May 2nd, and it'll be #2 on May 16th). Whoo hoo!
Hi Deborah and Kate. Welcome to the Imaginary Blog.
Lynn: To start us off, can you each please tell us a little about yourselves, your career, and one unusual thing that few people know about you?
Deborah: I grew up in a small town in Washington state, attended Pomona College, then moved to San Francisco, where I've been ever since. I've been writing for kids since 2001, but before that I did various other types of writing--everything from adult articles to greeting cards and puzzles. Not many people know that the first few years after college, I made my living as a street musician, playing guitar and singing (and freezing) down at Fisherman's Wharf. I still sing, but now it's with a chamber choir (we get to perform inside, where it's warm!).
Photo of Deborah credit: John Vias
Kate: I grew up in Lexington, MA, went to college in CT, and haven’t strayed too far by working at Houghton Mifflin in Boston . . . Bill Peet wrote and illustrated some of my favorite childhood books and he’s the reason why I landed here. I wish I could play guitar and sing like Deborah does; alas, I have a guitar in my living room corner that I bought in college and intended to learn how to play - but I guess I’ve been too busy reading!
Lynn: Deborah, could you please tell us about your inspiration for The Quiet Book?
Deborah: I got the idea for The Quiet Book while I was sitting in a church, waiting for a classical guitar concert to start. As I sat there, I noticed several types of quiet--the hushed whispers before the performer entered, the audience's polite silence while he was tuning, and then that expectant, almost-electric silence right before he started to play. During the concert, I started thinking about other kinds of quiet, and wondered if there were enough varieties to make a picture book. I scribbled some notes down, and the manuscript took shape over the next month or so.
Lynn: So many authors, including myself have been rejected by editors or agents with a comment along the lines of, "We love this or that about your story but in the end found it too quiet." Oh, the dreaded "Too quiet" editorial brush-off! Deborah, did you have any such responses from your crit group, agent or editors when you first completed The Quiet Book?
Deborah: My critique groups were extremely supportive, thank goodness. Their faith in the idea helped keep me from losing confidence when the expected "too quiet" rejections from editors started to roll in. I was thrilled that Kate understood what I was trying to do and wanted to work with me. She gave me one of my very first "good" (i.e. personal) rejections when I was just starting out, so it was great to finally get to work with her after all those years.
Lynn: Kate, what did you think when you first saw Deborah's ms? Was it love at first reading? Did you have any challenges getting everyone on board at the acquisitions or marketing meetings?
Kate: I have to say that it was love at first reading for me – I found Deborah’s quiets so unique, so authentic and true to children’s lives that I knew they would draw readers in. Luckily, my publisher and editorial director have a lot of faith and trust in my passion for particular projects, so I didn’t encounter any of the dreaded “too quiet” resistance.
Lynn: Deborah & Kate, Did you always imagine animals for the illustrations? What was your process on choosing such a perfect illustrator?
Deborah: I'd always assumed the characters would be people. But then Kate said they'd found an illustrator who did wonderful animals and asked if I'd be open to animal characters, and I said absolutely. I'm not a particularly visual writer--I don't usually have strong ideas about how my characters should look--and I love animals. Now it's hard to imagine the book any other way.
Kate: When I read Deborah’s manuscript, I immediately pictured it with Renata Liwska’s wonderful, gentle – and quiet – animal characters. I have been crazy about her artwork since she and I worked on LITTLE PANDA and knew that it would be just right for Deborah’s whimsical observations. Matching illustrators to manuscripts is one of my favorite parts of my job and I have to say that Renata and Deborah are a dream team.
Lynn: Deborah, did you include many illustration notes with your manuscript or did you let the words carry Renata's imagination? Were there any early readers, critique group members or others who did not "get" what you were aiming for?
Deborah: I did have some illustration notes, although not many. Working on this book was a great experience, because I got to see sketches early on and make comments. I feel like we all worked collaboratively to make the book the best it could be.
Lynn: Deborah & Kate, since this is an imaginary blog I’m hoping you have some advice for writers on how to keep going when what we are imagining is not yet showing up on the page?
Deborah: I suggest a two-pronged approach: Sometimes you need to just make yourself sit down and write, even though you're not feeling inspired. And sometimes you need to give yourself permission to take time off, even if it's just a few hours, and give your unconscious a chance to work. I find that the latter can be even more challenging than the former. We're conditioned to feel guilty if we're not actively working, yet sometimes the best ideas come when we're not sitting at our desks. I nearly skipped the guitar concert that inspired The Quiet Book because I was really busy and didn't feel I should take the time off. I only went because my dad had already purchased a ticket for me. If I hadn't gone, The Quiet Book might not exist now.
Kate: I’m afraid that I don’t have any new advice on this front; writing about something you’re passionate about is still the way to get the best book. And read, read, read to help you write, write, write! Reading is excellent practice for discovering what you think works (and doesn’t) in a book, what you yourself want to say, and how you’re going to say it. Lastly, know that if one of your manuscripts gets rejected, it’s just that manuscript – not your entire body of work as a writer.
Lynn: Deborah, Can you please tell us a little about whether any of the quiet situations were inspired by real-life people?
Deborah: Not really--I think most of them are situations that almost all kids find themselves in at one time or another. One of my favorite illustrations is the one for "last one to get picked up from school quiet"--the poor moose's forlorn expression perfectly captures that feeling we've all experienced. When I'm with someone who's reading the book for the first time, that's the page where invariably he or she will make a sympathetic noise out loud. "Car ride at night quiet" is one that I remember distinctly from childhood--the peacefulness of leaning against the cool car window and gazing up at the moon.
Lynn: Have either of you thought of any "blooper kinds of quiet" (not intended for a child audience)? If so, please share.
Deborah: Oh, there are so many...I'm fond of "internet date used very old photo quiet" and "first 'Ma’am' quiet."
Kate: Let’s see: “first gray hair quiet,” and “finding out niece’s dance recital is 4 hours long quiet”
Lynn: Kate and Deborah, What aspects of your writing (or editing) career is surprisingly different than you ever imagined?
Deborah: I was probably delusional when I thought that at some point I'd "get" writing. Certain aspects become easier with time, but you never get over the main challenge: you have to sit down and create a fresh story where none existed before. I imagined that by the time I'd sold several books, that whole blank-page thing wouldn't be an issue. Ha!
And on the Pollyanna-ish side, I never expected writing would put me into contact with so many wonderful people. I can't imagine what my life would be like without my amazing children's-writing friends and colleagues.
Kate: To continue with the Pollyanna-ish vibe, I’d have to say that the continual joy I feel, season after season, as new books are created, published, shipped, and put into kid’s hands has caught me by surprise a bit. That, and how difficult it is to actually read and edit at the desk, during working hours . . .
Lynn: Deborah, what are you working on now? What can your readers look forward to next?
Deborah: I'm wrestling with a new picture book at the moment. I also have a number of other picture books and easy readers in various states of disrepair, two more of the Sugar Plum Ballerina chapter books that need to be written, a terrible first draft of a middle-grade novel, and a few other novel and screenplay ideas. So what I'll probably do next is organize my sock drawer.
Lynn: Thank you Deborah and Kate for visiting with us at The Imaginary Blog.
Imaginary Readers, please take a look at The Quiet Book.
Also take a peek at more wonderful sketches by Renata Liwska and tell us what you think.
Writers, have you ever had a manuscript rejected for being "too quiet?"
Can you think of a Blooper-Kind-of-Quiet?
If so, please comment!