Three years ago a poker game changed my life. And I don’t even play poker! My husband plays once a month with our neighbors, and while playing mentioned that my writing group was looking for a teacher to lead our critique sessions. As our luck would have it, one of our neighbors said he knew someone who would be perfect.
And that perfect, amazing person is the incredible Jill Davis.
Writer and children’s book editor for 17 years, having worked at many terrific and unique places, including Crown, Knopf, Viking, Bloomsbury, and FSG, as soon as I finished talking to Jill on the phone, I knew she was the ONE. (I hope everyone is hearing the music to A Chorus Line, as I do!)
Three years later, under Jill’s guidance, words can’t describe how much my writing group has grown as storytellers, writers, readers, and editors. When I sit down to work on one of my future masterpieces, I can usually hear Jill’s voice ringing in my head:
Not picture book language
Fix Fix Fix
But then I also see her encouraging smiley faces, “Ha!” and “Love this” when I’m heading in the right direction before I rewrite it another million times until Jill says those magic words: ”Send it out!”
Not every day the student gets the chance to interview her teacher and mentor. So here goes nothing!
What were your favorite books as a kid?
I didn’t have a big book collection at all! Several left a lasting impression. Some were very visual: Little Bear, The Little Mouse Who Tarried (a cumulative tale, also an import maybe from Japan?), The Pushcart War by Jean Merrill. And of course, there was also Dr. Seuss’s Hop on Pop and The Big Red Rock Eater Book of Riddles by Bennett Cerf. Others were moving for me: When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself by Judy Blume. A fourth grade teacher read A Wrinkle in Time. That was really something. I loved Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. My all time go-to book was probably a little tiny yellow book called Children’s Letters to God. I saw myself in those letters, and I went back to it many times a year. But I also loved YA—especially the painful romance: The Summer of the Sky Blue Bikini was a favorite, Forever, and It’s Okay if You Don’t Love Me. There were three books we were all somewhat obsessed with in High School. Our version of Twilight was probably the VC Andrews series: Flowers in the Attic and Petals on the Wind. They were creepy, but talked about the taboo of incest. There was The Reincarnation of Audrey Rose. Loved that one. Creepy! And then there was everyone’s favorite: Go Ask Alice. The so-called anonymous diary of a teen drug addict. I still think of scenes from that book.
What are some of your favorite books now?
In picture books, I’m a sucker for an off-beat illustrator. I love Sergio Ruzzier’s books, especially the ones about Why Mole Shouted by Lore Segal. I am a big William Steig fan. What can you say? His line, his colors, his expressions, his wisdom and irony are all spectacular. Before he died, I wrote a letter to him, and I asked him to please illustrate a book I’d written. I knew he couldn’t, but I just had to write to him and thank him for teaching me how to write. I’m a huge fan of Lauren Child. My goodness, she is amazing—especially Hubert Horatio Bartle Bobton Trent. I also admire Tomi Ungerer. He’s an old guy now, but his books were rereleased by Phaidon, so you’d never know he’s 80! Crictor is great, and The Hat, and Three Robbers. I heard him read from Three Robbers last year and I felt like I was six years old again. He’s magical. One that makes me laugh is Yucka Drucka Droni by Vladimir Radunsky and his wife Eugenia. Get it, you will crack up.
I’m a big fan of Middle Grade fiction. Some favorites are: The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt, Skellig by David Almond, The Canning Season by Polly Horvath, and from a few years back—A Corner of the Universe by Ann Martin. One book I worked on in MG fiction is also a favorite: The Chicken Dance by Jacques Couvillon. A brilliant book.
What kinds of books do you think will stand the test of time?
Stories with a heartbeat, stories where you feel you are the character, stories that make you cry, stories where characters truly communicate are the ones that last for me. I’m a big fan of original voice, for sure, but there has to be a great story to go along with that voice, doesn’t there?
How did you get involved with children’s literature in the first place? Did you always want to be an editor? A writer?
Not at all. I came to NYC as a babysitter for a writer and his wife, a literary agent. I was immersed in this literary world, and it was just too much. What they did, who they knew, how they spent their time—all of it just seemed like the perfect life. They helped me get an interview at Family Circle Magazine, where I spent two years. Eventually, a boyfriend told me I should go into children’s books. He had a friend at Random House who had access to job listings, and I sent in my resume to Simon Boughton at Crown, and he hired me as an assistant editor. That was 1992. A lifetime ago!
I was angry with my husband because I wanted to take a trip to the Caribbean. I went into another room to sleep and decided I’d write and sell a picture book. It was My Busy Day. It was about my two little boys, and described a typical day at their nursery school. Anyway, this manuscript would make millions and pay for a trip! Ronnie Herman had become an agent, and said she liked it, but told me I should show my boss at Viking. I did, and she liked it enough to publish. Melanie Cecka edited and whipped it into shape, and Jill Kastner illustrated. Sadly, it wasn’t a big hit. It was remaindered and I only have one copy left.
The First Rule of Little Brothers came about because of an expression my husband coined to make peace between my kids. When my younger son was big enough to function, he drove his older brother crazy in typical younger brother fashion. So my husband always said the same thing when the older one felt angry: “You know the First Rule of Little Brothers, don’t you? Little brothers always want to do what big brothers are doing!” It didn’t help much at the time, but my sons sure do love each other. So it must have sunk in. Sarah McMenemy illustrated. Cecile Goyette was the editor at Knopf. She and I disagreed about so much. But maybe she was right. The book has sold pretty well.
Anne Schwartz called me one day to ask if I’d consider writing the text to go along with these amazing animal photos. I had been laid off from Bloomsbury, and was feeling like a lowly worm, so it was a great boost to be asked. It was the first time I had to write to go with pictures. I learned so much about the most common animals. My favorites were the elephants. What an incredible animal. So sensitive. Steve is so talented. His stories are terrific. The worst pain he suffered at the (mouth) of an animal was . . . Guess? Yes, a hamster!! Lee Wade was the editor, and her great designer, Rachael Cole, created the stenciled lettering, herself.
We’ve been extremely fortunate to reap the benefits of your having attended the MFA program at Hamline (including becoming huge fans of Gary Schmidt!). How has your MFA changed you as a writer?
That’s a whole book, truly. As an editor, I learned from working with other editors and I learned from talented writers. Editing a novel by instinct and writing a novel while you focus on learning craft are two experiences that are completely unique to one another. Sounds cliché, but once I tried to write a novel, my respect for writers and all of the painful feedback they endure quadrupled. What I learned at Hamline that I use in my writing every day is to balance narrative, dialogue, and internal monologue, while trying to stay focused on knowing at any moment what your character would do.
Can you tell us a little bit about the middle grade novel you’ve been working on?
It feels like an epic journey. Right now, it’s resting. I didn’t choose a simple story to tell. It’s one that involves friendship, sibling rivalry, families, city parks with locked gates, ghosts, dead parents, and Doctor Who. When my writing group read it, they had so many questions about areas I hadn’t cared much about, it made me realize I had a lot of work to do. I hope to go back to it in the next few weeks, once my new agent’s had time to read it. Showing a book to too many people can sometimes be a mistake. It’s overwhelming.
What is your creative process? Can you give us a hint of how you develop your stories from beginning to end?
It’s been more than three years now. Maybe four. I started with a school story about four friends—inspired by my suburban fourth grade experience in Massachusetts—but everything I wrote imitated my older son’s school life. Talent show, Colonial Day . . . I found myself trying to write my characters into his life.
At thirty pages, I started Hamline. In my first semester, with Marsha Wilson Chall, I looked for the heart of the story. It was a secondary character who I liked more than my main character. So I changed main characters, and made the former main character into the best friend. Here’s where I tried to figure out what her story was. I gave her life-long issue—something to do with a lost parent. That made it easier to focus on what she wanted. Once I knew she yearned for a more complete family, I could make great use of some of the other characters. Suddenly it was going to be set in NYC, but I don’t recall how I decided this. I guess I didn’t have time to travel and do research, and I didn’t want to set it in my old town.
But neither did I want it set where I live on the Upper West Side, so I set it in my favorite neighborhoods, which all border one another—from Sullivan Street in Soho all the way up to Gramercy Park. Characters began to appear, and I’d try and get to know them. I used Donald Maas’s How to Write the Breakout Novel Workbook. This is a great tool. Get it if you want to work on a novel. He teaches you so many tricks.
In my second semester, I went from 30 pages to 100. They weren’t particularly strong. I told instead of showed, but that’s okay for a first draft. You need something to work on. Mary Logue helped me by insisting I narrow my focus. She asked me: “What does your character want? What gets in her way?” So I used that as a starting point for writing what I called the guts. My chart for these questions had somewhere near 27 steps. Tension on the page is so important. This is where I learned how to do it.
In my last two semesters, I learned to go back and slow down with Anne Ursu. Anne showed me how I was speeding through a scene that had so much more to explore. She had so many writing tips. She showed me how to fix so many of my ticks.
Each time I revise, I focus on a particular issue—problems in the plot, holes in my characters’ motivations, credibility issues—all these things. But with a 240 page manuscript, at least I can say I know I’ll finish it some day—even if it doesn’t feel like it today.
Do you have any other projects in the works? Do you work on one or more books at a time?
I have lots of picture book manuscript drafts in my drop box. I have a beginning for a nontraditional nonfiction book about a famous dead nontraditional rock star. I wish I could start a new novel, but I fear I won’t be able to until the current one is solved.
Do you have any advice for new and up and coming writers?
Do an MFA or take classes with master writers if you can. They are geniuses! Do a small writing group if you can. Read lots of different types of craft books. I loved Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream. It showed me that when I don’t know what comes next, I can take a nap and think about it. Then it will come to me. Carry a notebook and force yourself to write down things you see, hear, and think. They become your stories, I promise you. Practice patience. It’s a long road, but all the small steps you take eventually get you there.
Congratulations on signing with Erin Murphy’s Literary Agency! How did you team up with Erin?
I knew her when I was an editor at Bloomsbury, where she had a wide and interesting array of writers. But it wasn’t until I saw her on Facebook that I realized how compatible she seemed.
For the whole story, I wrote all about Erin in my blog (see below). I did have a lovely agent before Erin, but I guess I felt I needed someone who really loved my work. Erin had commented on my blog before, and I had a sense she really got me.
Where can your fans purchase your books? And how can your fans get in touch with you?
The First Rule of Little Brothers and Orangutans Are Ticklish are both available online at Amazon or B&N.com. On the Upper West Side, I know that Bank Street Bookstore carries them, too!
I can be reached at email@example.com.
By the way, I am a HUGE fan of your blog: “The World According to Jill Davis” because it covers your frank journey through life as mom, wife, daughter, and author. If anyone wants to check it out, it’s: http://extrabloggage.blogspot.com/
Jill, thanks so much for answering my questions. And for everything else! I can’t wait to get my hands on your new novel.
I’d also like to thank Jacki Morris for her contributions to this interview.
Thanks for including me on your awesome blog. You made me think of some of my old stories. Your questions were so much fun to answer. Thanks, Jacki! Thanks, Robin.