Friday, May 20, 2011

Writer Profile: Pam Smallcomb

I met Pam Smallcomb at a SCBWI-sponsored ABC (Author Book Club) event in March and liked her good humor and practical advice so much, I asked her for an interview.

Pam is the author of several middle-grade novels including The Trimoni Twins series. She has recently begun writing picture books—I’m Not was published in January of this year and Earth to Clunk was published this month. Pam was an art major in college who later became a computer programmer (after growing weary of being a starving artist). Later, while raising her children and reading to them at night, her love of children’s books was reawakened. For more on Pam, see her web site.

Why did you decide to write children’s books? Was there an a-ha moment for you or did it come as a slower realization of something you could and wanted to do?

Actually, my initial interest in children’s books came from my art background. I thought I wanted to illustrate children’s books; hopefully my own children’s books. However, over time, the words took simply over, and the illustrating desire fell by the wayside. I love art, and it is big part of my life, as big a part as writing, but for me, the two have not yet blended. So not so much an “a-ha” moment, as it was that I found the words calling my name more than the pictures. For now.

What did you do to prepare? Did you take classes?

Although I took one children’s literature class in college, I think most of my preparation has been slanted toward what I could learn while I was at home with four small kids. I did take a picture book writing class with Deborah Nourse Lattimore through UCLA Extension. It was on Saturdays, and it was bliss. There was a Starbucks next door! Child-free for the morning AND I had coffee!. I have also attended writer workshops and retreats (through the SCBWI) when I could.

I spent a lot of my time reading. While my little ones grabbed their favorites at the library, I loaded up, too. I read books on writing. I read books written for kids, of all genres, but I was initially drawn to middle grade. Before I published my first book, I had read a ton of early readers and middle grade novels. I was also very lucky to have a group of friends that were interested in writing for kids. They were my first critique group.

How did you get the idea for the Trimoni Twins books? Do you think magic is a universal theme in children’s literature?

Yikes. Let me think. Some part of it had to be the triplets that attended my grade school in California. I was fascinated with them, and completely jealous that I didn’t have two identical sisters. For one thing, they never had to worry about who to play with at recess! As for the setting, I have always loved the artwork in old circus posters. I love those black and white photos of traveling circuses. Some part of me has romanticized that life. Later, in college, I actually knew a few magicians. One of them was very good at sleight of hand. I thought it would be fun if sisters that knew how to perform magic were also in possession of some actual magic as well.

I think magic appeals to kids because, for the most part, they are powerless in our world. Magic literally opens up portals. It throws them into adventures, and changes their surroundings. A little magic can make a kid the equal of an adult and then some. The concept of a real magical object appeals to us all. Who wouldn’t want to get their hands on one? I sure would. I think another aspect of magic that appeals to kids (and one that writers need to be careful to respect) is that magic always has rules. A magic spell can’t work one way one time, and then do something completely different the next time. Harry and Hermione know exactly which spells to use under the circumstances.

What have you done to market your books? Of the time you devote to being a writer, how much do you devote to marketing and publicity?

I have to confess that I am not very good about marketing my books. The truth is I would rather be writing than marketing. The majority of my time is spent on writing. I know this is not the popular (or even wise!) view, but there is only so much free time in life, and I would like to spend it creating, and not selling. Of course, the paradox is that if you don’t keep trying to sell your books, then editors might not be that excited to get another one from you, so I do try and get out there and do presentations. I have done SCBWI presentations, geared toward writers. I like talking to writers. I know some of what they are going through, and I like to share my own experiences and thoughts. I do give presentations to schools, although I really prefer to talk to one class at a time. I have more fun if I can ‘get to know’ the kids a little. I have also done book festivals, and presented to students at a local college. I think the trick is to not spend so much time doing all these events that you are no longer writing on a regular basis.

How did you find a publisher for your first book?

I heard that Bloomsbury US was looking for “humorous boy books.” At about the same time, my then-agent heard the same thing, and we decided to send in my manuscript for The Last Burp of Mac McGerp.

What’s a typical day of writing like for you? Do you keep to a schedule every day, or concentrate on writing only when you have a project already defined?

I try very hard to keep to a schedule, but as everyone knows, life sometimes has other plans. I know from experience that writing every day has many benefits. It is easier for me to look someone in the eye when they ask “What do you do?” and I answer “I’m a writer.” If I write every day, I make some progress, however small, toward my writing goal. If I write every day, I don’t lose the thread of my story. More importantly, I don’t lose the passion I have for my story.

I always have more than one project going, with one project taking center stage (being written) and the other one being in the planning/plotting phase. Or maybe I have a novel I am writing, and a picture book idea going at the same time. If something comes up, and I know I won’t be able to work on a project for a few days (or weeks!), I spend some time making notes about what I thought I was going to do next (in the plot, etc.).

Do you keep a writer’s notebook? If so, what do you jot in it?

I have a notebook that I call “The Brain.” I am hoping that this notebook will become an iPhone with all sorts of apps on it that I can use to stay organized. But for now, a spiral notebook is cheaper. The Brain is next to me most of the time, and I jot down all those things that keep you from concentrating. Things like “remember to set up dental appt.” I also write down ideas, or names for characters. Sometimes I write down a title, or a first sentence that pops into my head. It’s a real mish-mash of stuff. I also doodle in it while I am thinking about my story.

You’ve made the switch from writing middle-grade novels to picture books. Was that a difficult transition? What did you do to prepare for it (did use any brainstorming techniques)?

I think all writing is hard, so whether you are writing a picture book, or a novel, be prepared to sweat blood. Or maybe that’s just me. My preparation for writing a picture book was the same as I used to write middle grade. I read lots of picture books. I wrote lots of really bad picture books, and eventually I learned how to spot the bad ones earlier. I wish I could tell you that now I write really good ones all the time, but that hasn’t been the case, darn it.

I always use brainstorming techniques of one kind or another. I was just trying to think of a picture book idea the other day, and I found myself making lists of opposites. I looked up Romanian names. I looked up good luck charms. I think that I brainstorm in a fiddling fashion. I look up stuff, and make notes in The Brain. I sip my tea. I think about what I have written down. A new thought pops into my head and I look up something else. Hopefully, the seed of a story starts to form. It seems to be how I work, not just with picture books, but with novels, and with art, too. The idea is to tickle your imagination into connecting some of these things. Once you’ve connected them, then you can start moving the pieces around, and try and make them more surprising.

You’ve had two picture books come out recently—what are you working on next?

I’m working on a fictional memoir, and I am trying very hard to get one of my picture book manuscripts to behave. I am also plotting some chapter books that have been swirling around in my head for a while.

When/how did you realize that writing picture book text is a lot like writing ad copy (as you discussed at the SCWBI ABC event)?

My husband and I are one of those nerdy couples that loves a good commercial, or a print ad, or a clever viral YouTube. It was pretty easy to draw a parallel between the goals of a good advertisement, and the goals of a good picture book. You are trying to tell a story in a very short format. You want to grab the attention of the reader right away. You are trying to be original, and say something that has been said a million times before in a new and fresh way.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Molly Bloom sings

As I confessed in a post a while ago, I've never made it entirely through James Joyce's Ulysses. After a few futile attempts to get past the first section, I gave up—but that didn't stop me from reading Molly Bloom's famous soliloquy at the end, a passage that has become a cultural reference (Molly Bloom is the name of at least one bar and one band, and the speech has been widely quoted/recited, including in a Rodney Dangerfield movie).

An NPR segment last week on Kate Bush has me delving back into Ulysses-world, or really, Molly/Kate-world. Bush recorded a song in the late eighties, "The Sensual World" that paraphrased the famous passage (the Joyce estate wouldn't give her permission to do the text verbatim). She has now re-recorded it on her new album, Director's Cut as "Flower of the Mountain" with the original text intact.

I found Bush's video for the original version online and keep listening to/watching it over and over (see below). I can't say why I find it so appealing—it's not got a beat that I can dance to and, even after repeated listening, I still can't sing along with it. Maybe what's gratifying is seeing her attempt at making a literary passage come to life; it's also nice to see a female singer who isn't groveling for approval, but making a video that is a kind of performance art.

To hear the new version, see the NPR segment's track list. (It's not available for purchase until May 31st).

Monday, May 9, 2011

Rediscovering the charm in "Charm City"

As I confessed in an earlier post, I am slightly terrified of Baltimore, based on its fictional portrayal in David Simon's TV shows. Yet I know its reality is far broader and more welcoming than that narrow, menace-filled vision.

So it was with gladness and relief that I attended the American Visionary Art Museum's Kinetic Sculpture Race on Saturday. There I saw families and friends working together to pedal and push giant creations across the city of Baltimore and into its harbor (on a short circuit to prove the seaworthiness of their crafts). Racers were dressed in wacky costumes, matching their sculptures, such as the Amish racers wearing suspenders and fake beards, pedaling their float-able buggy away from the water (below).

Six people dressed in lab coats, from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, piloted the Lobe Trotter (below).

And the museum brought out its Fifi le Poodle—a sculpture on permanent display in one of the museum's annexes—to race again.

Many in the crowd dressed with the same panache. There were men and women in tutus, glitter pants, colorful wigs, and wacky hats. There were more normal types, too, parents and kids, couples, groups of friends.

Even as we walked around Canton, the nearby neighborhood, there wasn't a Stringer Bell or Marlo in sight. Just people walking, sitting on park benches, drinking beer, eating Italian pastries. It was all so normal—and beautiful in its normalcy. It made me realize that any fictional description of a place or time is always going to be limited, no matter how many characters or scenes its features.