Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Join Us for an Interview With Jim Averbeck, Author of IN A BLUE ROOM

Lynn: Hi Jim. Welcome to the Imaginary Blog and congratulations on the launch of your new picture book, In a Blue Room, illustrated by Tricia Tusa.

Jim: Thanks. Nice to be here.

Lynn: Could you please give us a little background on your inspiration for this book? What sparked your first ideas? Do your ideas usually come first in words or images?

Jim: I belong to a critique group, the Revisionaries, and I had a due date coming up for turning something in. I thought about a remarkable book by my friend and fellow Revisionary, Yuyi Morales, called “Just a Minute.” Yuyi had begun that as an assignment for an illustration class we took together with Ashley Wolff. The assignment was to create a series of thumbnail sketches for a concept book- that is a book about an abstract concept. Yuyi’s was a counting book, but told a fascinating story. So I thought, what if I took that assignment and also came up with a story that was, at its heart, a concept book. I decided to try a book about colors.

Then I remembered how when I was a kid, the teacher told us that “they” had done experiments showing how different colors elicited different responses from people. Blue was supposed to be soothing. So I decided I would write a soothing book about a blue room. It even sounded calming--bluuuuue rooooom. I was at my house in the country at the time and I remember looking out and noticing how the landscape, so colorful during the day, was rendered blue by the full moon. I guess all these things just jumbled around in my head and I wrote the first draft in a couple of hours.

Lynn: Since this is an imaginary blog—could you please offer aspiring authors any imagination advice, for example how do you keep going when what you are imagining is not yet showing up for real on the page?

Jim: The gap between imagination and reality is a big one. That’s because our brain is such an amazing organ that it leaps over all the holes and fills in all the inconsistencies so we think what we are imagining is a whole, coherent thing. Unfortunately, bringing what is in our brain into reality reveals all those holes and inconsistencies. But this isn’t a bad thing, really. Holes revealed can be filled. In writing, you fill the gaps with stepping stones called revision. Put down what you can, then go back again and again and imagine the stones needed to fill things in. Soon you will have a nice little path from beginning to end and your story will be there.

Lynn: I have to ask, is blue your favorite color?

Jim: Yes. I tend to be a fairly stressed out guy, so I like to have soothing blue things around me. In fact, when I write at home I am indeed “in a blue room.”

Lynn: What music, environment, or food feeds your imagination?

Jim: Sometimes when I write I listen to trance-y music with no words or words in a language I don’t understand. Dead Can Dance inspires me. Also Kitka, a bay area group who sings Eastern European folk music. I listen to classical a lot. Sometimes I match what I listen to with what I am writing. I listened to African music while writing my picture book “The Market Bowl” set in Cameroon. I listened to blues while writing a story about Bessie Smith.

As for environment, I have a house in the country where I love to write. There are no distractions. No gym. No TV. Just me, 40 acres of land and lots of wild bunnies. And if bunnies don’t put you in the mood to write children’s books, nothing will.

Food never inspires me to write, just to procrastinate. The brownie break is practically a form of punctuation when I write, I have so many of them.

Lynn: It seems (and reviewers agree) you’ve chosen the perfect spare words to tell the story and allow room for Tricia Tusa’s art to magically weave it all together. Has your wording and word count changed much from the first draft to final manuscript? Please tell us about your revision process.

Jim: The oldest draft I could find was 270 words. The final story is 221 words. The first wave of revision was done with my critique group, the aforementioned Revisionaries. I remember that early on, they wanted more relationship between Mama and Alice and also that they needed more clarity about Alice being obsessed with the color blue. The next wave was with my editor, the incredibly gifted Samantha McFerrin. Even though the manuscript submitted to her was no more than 270 words, she felt the beginning wasn’t spare and lyrical enough to match the ending.

I realized that one thing that everyone seemed to be overlooking was the fact that each item Mama offered Alice appealed to a different sense – smell, taste, touch, hearing and finally sight. So I chucked out a whole bunch of banter between Mama and Alice and made explicit the focus on the sensual aspects of the comforts Mama was offering Alice. It made the relationship between the two less wordy and more universal - emphasizing the comfort and care that our mothers give us. And it cut 49 words out in the process. Then Sam and I went through every word making sure each one was just right. I have a folder full of emails about whether Mama should bring Alice a blanket or a cover. Which was the most comforting? Which sound the most soothing? (I finally decided on quilt.)

Lynn: As a child did you have any memorable moon connections or experiences?

Jim: I was 6 when we first landed on the moon. That was something that fired the imagination of the world, and I was no exception. What child doesn’t experience the moon as an object of wonder? It gets bigger and smaller. It is filled with crater pictures. It follows your car when you are driving. For all its heat the sun is a distant cold thing. You can’t even look at it. But the moon….the moon is your friend.

Jim in his spacey-cool shades viewing a total solar eclipse in March of 2006. Jim says he was "watching the moon traverse the sun. I was at the Jalu oasis in Libya."

Lynn: Do you currently have any favorite moon-viewing spots in San Francisco or elsewhere?

Jim: My house in San Francisco is on the southern slope of a hill. We have big windows and, when the fog isn’t in, the moon shines right onto my bed at night. I love to just lie there and watch it travel across the sky.

Lynn: I hear you're writing a novel. Is that a top-secret project or could you tell us a little about it?

Jim: It’s a mystery thriller set in the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco in 1956. An orphan boy’s aunt is kidnapped. The protagonist Jack finds help from a most unusual source. That’s all I’ll say now.

Jim, working on his new middle grade novel.
That's all we'll say!

Lynn: What were your favorite books as a child?

Jim: Richard Scarry did a book called “365 Stories, One for Each Day of the Year” that I loved. Each story was tied to a certain date, but I am afraid I was a bad boy and broke the rules. I read the ones I loved best over and over, no matter what the date. There was one about a tiger up a tree that I loved. Also “D’Aulaires’ Norse Gods and Giants” which was in my school library in the 3rd grade. Mighty Thor! Wise Odin! Gentle Balder. I checked it out so often that the librarian had to tell me to give someone else a chance.

Lynn: What childhood experience(s) influenced you in deciding to become an author?

Jim: Nothing from my childhood. I was a late bloomer. I didn’t realize I wanted to write until I was 30.

Lynn: Did you have any “back up” career plan(s)?

Jim: Well, I have a degree in engineering and I used to design bridges and roads. I guess I could go back to that, but hopefully enough people will buy my book that I won’t have to.

Lynn: Did you experience any unusual surprises on your journey to publication?

Jim: I’ve experienced a lot of kind encouragement from editors- Allyn Johnston, Arthur Levine, Patti Gauch, Sam to name a few. But I don’t think that is unusual or surprising. Kid’s lit is a pretty kind industry.

Lynn: There is a wonderful surprise for the reader both text and illustration-wise at the end of In a Blue Room. Were you surprised too? Any thoughts on how Tricia Tusa captured your story in the illustrations?

Jim: Tricia’s interpretation brought the story to a new level. At the end, when she zooms out and we see that the blue room is the planet earth- that is masterly. It added a more universal layer to the end and also, I think, a subtle environmental message. It is really beautiful. One reviewer was concerned that the text at the beginning reads “in a blue room” but Alice’s walls are yellow. I don’t think the reviewer understood that, in Tricia’s interpretation, Alice was in a figurative blue room the whole time – the planet earth. Or perhaps she just felt children would be too literal to see that. But I have faith in children. They’re smarter than most people think. And surely the parents of the more literal-minded ones will be able to explain.

Lynn: If sleepy Alice of In a Blue Moon were to give advice to another (not quite fully actualized) children's book character regarding how to make one’s author capture the right words on the page, what would Alice’s advice be?

Jim: Alice would likely not understand this question any more than I do.

Alice & In a Blue Room cover illus copyright by Tricia Tusa

Lynn: Okay then, what question do you often ask yourself--and what is the current answer?

Q: What’s my Amazon Ranking?
A: 85,362. No- 22,456. No- 15,721. No- 86,111.....

Now what's Jim doing?
Is he checking his Amazon Ranking again??

Lynn: Your jacket flap bio on In a Blue Room mentions your dog. Is this by any chance an imaginary dog?

Jim: I can’t let you in on all my secrets.

Let's make Jim's Amazon Ranking go up and down by buying IN A BLUE ROOM .

Today's Forecast: Increased Chances of Wild Bunnies,
Imaginary Dogs, & Increased Interest in Jim's Mystery Novel
(that's all we'll say!)

Monday, April 28, 2008

Speaking of Chickens-- Evil Twins Celebrate Spring

That’s right, Evil Twins, Ellen Yeomans & Lynn Hazen are having a little spring chat right here on the Imaginary Blog. Please join us.

Lynn: So Ellen, I hear you rise quite early in the morning.
Is that to jump right into your writing routine, practice a
new-age writers’ meditation ritual, or are you doing something else in those early hours?

Ellen: Mostly I’m shoveling manure at that hour. One might easily imagine that this refers to my writing, but I am instead referring to the farm where I work. I need to clean up after calves, sheep, goats, pigs and bunnies.

Luckily, I get to feed all of these souls too. This part of my job is quite gratifying because all of my barnyard friends express their love for me at feeding time. It can be quite loud as they all call out their baas and maas and moos of adoration. Some might think they are saying, “hurry up and feed me first,” but I am quite certain they are saying something along the lines of, “We love you, yes we do and you look incredibly lovely too.” Or something pretty close to that. Spring means babies, so that keeps me hopping.

Lynn: We just heard from M.T. Anderson about a one-legged chicken named Peg. Do you have any poems or news about chickens?

Ellen: Well as a matter of fact, I do. I will be raising chickens for the first time ever. I’ve ordered Buff Orpingtons, Silver Laced Wyandottes, Red Stars and Cornish Rock Game Hens. This will make a colorful flock. And as taken as I was with Tobin’s elegy, I am hoping for two legs a piece on all of these birds. I haven’t a chicken poem as yet; I shall wait until I am actually raising these fine ladies before composing their ode.

Lynn: We hope you'll send us photos of your new feathery friends. In the meantime, what are you working on now? Any new novels, picture books, or web sites?

Ellen: Ugh, web sites. Yeah, yeah, I’m getting to that. Soon. I’m sure. Yeah, soon. On a more optimistic note, I have just finished the first draft of a mid-grade novel. I am revising a picture book and I am back to work on my next YA novel. Ooh, and Full Cast Audio just recorded my YA novel RUBBER HOUSES, so that will be out soon.

Lynn: Since this is an imaginary blog, (with probably more imaginary than real readers), do you have any secrets to share for those real readers tuning in who might be imagining a high-powered career as a children’s book author?

Ellen: Take off your muck boots before you go inside and wash your hands well before touching your keyboard. Falling snippets of hay can wreak havoc between the keys so brush off your hair and shoulders first, and then get a pot of tea going. Now write.

Lynn: Aha, now I see what you mean about all that hay.

Lynn: We also heard from M.T. Anderson about the many virtues of broccoli. Do you have any quirky food or drink preferences, or writing rituals that feed your creativity?

Ellen: There is nothing quirky about me or any of my practices. Just ask the rooster perched here on my desk.

Lynn: What are your current thoughts on punctuation?

Ellen: When in doubt, employ a hyphen. Really, what else need be said?

Lynn: Is it true you are cited in a dictionary--or is that just a rumor?

Ellen: It is true. I am oddly and unduly proud of this citation. Go here and read for your self:
Scroll down towards the bottom for the references until you find me and RUBBER HOUSES.

Lynn: Ellen, another rumor has it you are the lead commentator of the “Poetry Police” on our Bad Poetry Friday contest hosted right here on the Imaginary Blog. Of course you have the right to remain silent, but do you have any thoughts about Bad Poetry Friday or how we might encourage more bad poets to send in their bad poems?


Lynn: Okay folks, it looks like Ellen has chosen to remain silent on that one.

Lynn: I hear you have gloves for many occasions. Could you please tell us a little more about that?

Ellen: Why yes I do. I have my winter gloves of course, living here on the outskirts of snowy Syracuse, NY. I have a few pairs of work gloves for the farm. And I have white gloves for all of my lady-like occasions. Owing to a stint in charm school, I am well-prepared for all eventualities requiring such attire, and can be called-up should my country be in need of my services. (You know, in case the queen drops by or there is some other diplomatic emergency.)

Lynn: What question do you often ask yourself and what is the current answer?

Q. Should I have another cup of tea and would a cookie go well with it?
A. Yes.

If you're confused as to which Evil Twin is which...
That's Ellen on the left and Lynn on the right enjoying
"The Queen's Tea" at Lovejoy's Teahouse in San Francisco.

Hey, wait a minute--is Ellen wearing her farm gloves????
Oh well.

Today's Forecast: More tea? Hold the hay, please.

And an update: Ellen has a website! Check out

Friday, April 11, 2008

We Are Back Yet Again with Bad Poetry Friday. . . And a Touching Poem by M.T. Anderson

How bad is it?

As you recall, earlier this week we were interviewing M.T. Anderson about all kinds of things including a fascinating discussion on the creative value of broccoli, yes, broccoli. (scroll down to see the earlier interview, following this post in a weird reverse time warp of blogging)

We're now happy to present this week's winner of our Bad Poetry Friday contest (and our only contestant--hint-hint--send us your bad poetry please).

With more reverse blogging, we'll start where we left off at the end of our last interview with M.T. Anderson...

Lynn: One more request—We’ve begun a Bad Poetry Friday contest on the Imaginary Blog. Do you happen to have a bad poem handy that you’d like to contribute?

M.T.A.: I am not much of a poet. However, I have written one poem. It is an elegy.

Kathy Nuzum, the author of the acclaimed A SMALL, WHITE SCAR, once sent me a horror movie she had made with her family in which a man turned into a man-eating fungus. At one point in the movie, there was a moody, tender little scene set at the town's Annual Picnic for Orphans and Their Crippled Pets. Children played. Dogs ambled by with their heads in cones. And a one-legged chicken hopped across the screen.

Needless to say, I was wowed by the chicken. I made inquiries of the casting director. The chicken's name, as it turned out, was Peg, and she belonged to Kathy. From time to time, I would ask about Peg, hear how she was enjoying her scratching and feed, etc.

Then came the day when Peg passed on. So I wrote this elegy.


We mourn the late, lamented Peg
Who hopped around on just one leg
And as with hobbled gait she ambled
Laid her eggs, which were pre-scrambled.

A hen of grit, of sass, of mettle,
Though cock-eyed, thin, and unipedal,
When at the last she faced the worst,
She somehow put her best foot first.

We all shall miss her haughty hop
Now heav'nly Manna fills her crop;
But someday, when the dead shall quicken
We'll see her, plump and finger-lickin.

For on that day, when we're returning
Completed, whole, and without yearning,
On that day shall Peg be sighted,
Thigh with drumstick reunited.


Thank you, M.T.A.
And now for commentary by our Poultry Police--
I mean Poetry Police.

At first the Poetry Police were stunned, speechless, unable to comment at all. After some deliberation, they were able to say:
“Not only did we have to look up the definition of M.T.A.’s title, which we loathe to do—as we’d rather make stuff up--but his is the best (or worst) kind of bad poetry. It beguiles with flawless meter and rhyme and panders to poultry partisans. First we’re roosting, no--roasting, no--rooting for this inspiring one-legged chicken named Peg, then M.T. Anderson is pulling our leg."

So come back next Friday folks, when we hope to offer more bad, better bad, most likely an even worse--Bad Poetry Friday!
In the meantime, here’s how to play…

Forecast: Increased chances of bad poetry all month long. After all, isn't April National Poetry Month?

Sunday, April 6, 2008

An Interview With M.T. Anderson

photo from Candlewick's site

M.T. Anderson, Award Winning Author of FEED &
(and many other titles) discusses:
Why it's Important to get "Knocked Around Mentally"
The Merits of Broccoli
Writing in Various Children's Genres
Back-up Career Plans (or lack thereof)
Playing Twister For Plot Points
His Next Books
and More...

Lynn: Since this is an imaginary blog—and you clearly have a vivid imagination, could you please offer aspiring authors any imagination advice, for example how do you keep going when what you are imagining is not yet showing up for real on the page?

M.T.A.: The only advice I have for this is to go read something you're not accustomed to reading. I mean, go to the library and peruse magazines on subjects that you can't stand, or just walk through the aisles, pick out a book on something obscure, and sit down and read a few chapters. It's important that we all prod ourselves so we don't keep trundling along in the same rut. Startle yourself, so you recall how various and strange the world is.

Maybe you'll use something you read -- as part of a conversation or an image -- and maybe you won't. But either way, it's important to get knocked around mentally.

Lynn: You write across many genres and age ranges in children’s literature. Do you juggle several projects at once? Any advice on managing that kind of juggle?

M.T.A.: Yes, I find it tremendously productive to work on several things in rotation. When one thing gets too serious, too constraining, then I do something zany and young where I can make up anything. Then, after a few weeks, when that starts to seem exhaustingly frivolous, I turn back to something with more substance.

As my editor always says, "A change is as good as a rest."

Lynn: We notice you don’t yet have an author website. Are you a reclusive writer or purposely resisting The Feed? Any thoughts on websites, blogs & information overload?

M.T.A.: Yeah. I kind of dislike the whole part of being a writer that involves self-promotion.

Having said that, websites are important these days since so many kids have to do reports on authors, and I have no real excuse for not having one. Except laziness.

Lynn: What food, drink or quirky rituals feed your creativity?

M.T.A.: We all must eat broccoli before we begin. Broccoli contains formidable doses of vitamin A, vitamin C, folic acid, calcium, iron, potassium, and beta carotene. The vitamin C facilitates the easy absorption of the iron. The phytochemicals incite detoxifying enzyme production.

I hate the taste. Disgusting. Like plastic pellets, autumn rot, or, at best, the loam of the good road. Nonetheless, it confers an almost supernatural clarity of thought and engagement with the senses.

Drusius, son of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, abjured all other foods and ate only broccoli for a year. His urine became bright green.

The vegetable’s name in Italian means “little, well-muscled arm”; Romans called it “the Five Green Fingers of Jupiter.”

We should eat it for the clarity, but also because in its form it ramifies, and so reminds us of causality. We should eat it because it is cruciferous, and we all have our little rood to carry. What better thing for a writer to ingest than a miniature tree? If only, before every stint of writing, we devoured not simply this tiny woodland but also diminutive houses, little lawns, trinket people, taking them all within us, holding landscapes and continents in acid, observed by the stomach, applauded by the intestines – and ushered thence to their final glory, their new form, their re-emancipation.

Also, it is worth pointing out that the producer of the Bond films was Albert R. Broccoli.

Lynn: Interesting. And is it true that playing Twister is one of your strategies for scheming up unusual plot twists and turns?

M.T.A.: That would be an incredible way to write a novel. On each circle, you could put a different plot point. You know, "Gets kitten," "gets pregnant," or "dies in a freak accident."

Then, on your hands and feet, you write the names of the characters. You're all set! Spin the spinner -- and off you go!

M.T. Anderson & Jill Santopolo, participating in
Game Night at Vermont College's MFA Program
in Writing For Children & Young Adults.
Are they just playing Twister? Or working out plot points?

Lynn: Do you listen to music while you work? Any favorites?

M.T.A.: I don't listen to music while I'm writing, but I listen to it beforehand to get into my own kind of writer's trance. It varies with the book I'm writing and the texture I'm trying to produce. So when I was writing FEED, which needed a kind of scrambled, angry, distracted voice, I created a mix for myself with things like Charles Mingus, Cecil Taylor, George Antheil, and John Zorn. For THE CLUE OF THE LINOLEUM LEDERHOSEN, which I wanted to give a kind of early 20th C adventure feel, I listened to Bix Beiderbecke and Fletcher Henderson. For the OCTAVIAN books, I listened to Scottish and English folk music of that period, and things like Corelli and Tartini (O's favorites), and African music which resemble what scholars presume African-American music of the period sounded like. I tried to imagine cities in which those very different forms all coexisted.

Lynn: What childhood experience(s) influenced you in deciding to become an author? Did you have any “back up” career plan?

M.T.A.: I have always wanted to become an author. I don't know what I would do if I couldn't. I don't have any other skills. I can stack firewood, I guess. So maybe I could be a houseboy. Except my lung once collapsed when I was dusting someone's piano. I really don't know.

Now you've got me worried.

Lynn: Don't worry. Your fans are very happy you are an author and we want to know about your next books. What are you working on now? What can we look forward to?

M.T.A.: I'm currently correcting the copy-editing for the second and final OCTAVIAN NOTHING book, THE KINGDOM ON THE WAVES, in which our hero is reunited with friends, learns secrets of the past, and takes up arms in the Revolution.

And I'm working on the third of my THRILLING TALES, this one entitled JASPER DASH AND THE FLAME-PITS OF DELAWARE. It's about an expedition which penetrates into the hidden heart of the Blue Hen State.

Lynn: One more request—We’ve begun a Bad Poetry Friday contest on the Imaginary Blog. Do you happen to have a bad poem handy that you’d like to contribute?

(Well, imaginary readers of the Imaginary Blog, we are in luck. M.T. Anderson sent us a sure-to-inspire-poem, but we are not posting it until Friday because as I'm sure you recall, every Friday--well most Fridays--hmm, let's just say on some Fridays, "The Rhymes, They are a Changing."

So folks, come back this Friday to see M.T. Anderson's poem. I'll give you a hint--it's about a one-legged chicken named Peg!)

Today's Forecast: Broccoli with a chance of more broccoli!

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Today is Cinder Rabbit's Birthday!

Whoo-hoo. Today was the launch day of my new young chapter book, Cinder Rabbit.
I celebrated with carrot cake with my crit buddies, The Revisionaries. I was also interviewed by Sarah Sullivan at the "Through the Tollbooth" blog. Hop on over there and please take a look. More later.

Illustrations by Elyse Pastel