Here’s your chance to take the 30-picture-book-ideas-in-30-days challenge! What could be more fun? Registration is open now through November 4th. For details and to sign up, go to: http://taralazar.com/
Few people do everything, and do it well. Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen is the exception. She has 24 published titles under her belt, running the gamut from picture books to fiction and non-fiction for both children and adults, to an upcoming chapter book series, to speaking and teaching engagements, not to mention she is super mom to three awesome, amazing, wonderful children, has an endearment for pigs, fowl, the color pink and shoes. And to top it off, she’s a Jersey girl with an imaginary pony named Penny!
I put on my running shoes (and even gave myself a head start! Ok, I cheated!) to catch up with this wonder woman in high heels.
How and when did you start writing? Did you always want to be a writer?
I didn’t start writing until pretty late in life since becoming a writer was just about the last thing I ever expected to be doing. I was a PhD candidate in developmental neurobiology at Caltech when I had one baby. And then 14 months later, I had another baby. Babies have this way of changing your life and turning everything you had planned on its ear. All of a sudden, I didn’t want to be a biologist so much as I wanted to be a mother.
About six months after Brooklyn (my second) was born, I decided that just being home being a mom wasn’t what I wanted – I definitely cherished my time with my kids, but I wanted to have something more, something that was mine. I thought I could write with two babies in the house – which was utterly silly because you can’t do anything with two babies in the house!
What was your big break as an author?
I’m still waiting for my “big” break!
Seriously, though, every day, even now, I struggle with trying to figure out whether I am any good at this — so I suppose I haven’t really decided yet if I’ve had a big break. In fact, I’m not sure every day if this writing thing is even what I want to do when I grow up!
I was in the library doing research for one of the science experiment books I’ve written – which actually means that I was doing anything but researching science experiments. Instead, I was flipping through vintage magazines and actually came across one from decades ago that had an ad for the circus. There were pictures of pigs doing different acts – dressed up as clowns, playing the xylophone, walking on a tightrope. That’s where the idea of a piglet who wanted to be star at the circus was born.
Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process? How do you develop your stories from beginning to end?
I typically start with character. In my opinion, having a strong main character is the single most important thing for any book, whether it be a picture book, a chapter book, or a novel. But don’t confuse “strong” with “perfect.” The first thing I do to my main characters is to infuse them with flaws. No one wants to read about little miss perfect who never does anything wrong or has anything bad happen to her. No, we like to read about characters who are just like us – messed up, crazy, unlucky, sometimes dumb, etc. A flawed character is an endearing character.
It is only after I establish character and flaws do I start thinking about the plot itself. The plot should flow logically out of the character and his flaws – meaning the character’s flaws both create a problem and then somehow redeems him. That’s what creates the strongest plots.
Also, in almost every book I work on, I carefully consider whether there is a way to work a platypus or a pig into the story. To make it better. 🙂
How many books do you work on at a time?
Oh, that depends on the type (picture book vs. novel, for example), but typically I have between four and six projects going at any given time.
Once your editor has selected an illustrator, do you get to share your ideas with the illustrator?
Not usually! I try to respect the illustrator’s need for space to create by not crowding it, though I am always here to offer suggestions if requested!
One thing that I love about your picture books is that they touch on very important every day issues confronting both parents and children alike: the joys of bedtime , sharing , being yourself , fear of the unknown , fear of becoming a parent , and the unexpected perils of having a new sibling .
Where do you find the inspiration for your stories?
Most of my inspiration comes from my life, which is a fairly boring answer. But as you point out, the books are typically about everyday issues – you know, the ones I face every day. 🙂 Chicks Run Wild is an autobiography – every night, I kiss my kids goodnight, I tuck them in, I turn off the lights, I shut the door – and five minutes later, I hear someone yell, “She’s touching me!” Which wouldn’t bother me so much if my children didn’t have their own rooms!
I could basically do this over and over and tell you a story about each of my books and tie it into my life. Like how trying to get two toddlers 14 months apart in age to share inspired me to think of a selfish dinosaur who only knows how to say MINE, otherwise known as The Mine-O-Saur. This is a story about recognizing your faults and correcting them, about learning to consider the feelings of others and determining what is most important in life – possessions, or friends.
In another case, a lifetime of weighing the need for a midnight snack against the possibility of a monster in my kitchen led to a book called Hampire! This is a story about making assumptions and about acceptance. And how funny vegetarianism can be in the right context.
For Quackenstein Hatches a Family, I was inspired when I was expecting my third child. I’d already had two children, daughters, perfect little princesses, and I was convinced I was about to have daughter number 3. That’s when I found out that the new she was actually going to be a he. And like Quackenstein, what I got wasn’t what I expected.
I wrote Quackenstein in the months that I was pregnant with Sawyer, and I can honestly say that there are several themes at play in the book that are personal to me. How a parent can both be excited about having a child and terrified by the prospect. How a parent can make assumptions about a child and then be surprised by the reality. It is a story about acceptance, about what it means to be a family, and about how freakish yet cute platypuses really are. And in case it isn’t obvious, my son is a delight, a joy, and a blessing, all contained in the outer packaging of a beautiful, adorable, monster.
I hope I’ve shown you how much a writer draws from her own life to create art, and how if I had not had the experiences I’ve had, I could not write the books that I write.
Ahoy Mateys! It seems you have pirates and treasure trove on the brain these days. Can you please tell us how Half-Pint Pete the Pirate and the Pirate Princess came about?
Who doesn’t like a pirate? They swash and they buckle, they pillage and loot. How great is that?
Despite their shared piratical theme, Pete and Pirate Princess are actually quite different. Pete is the story of a pirate who is in search of something to complete him. Unfortunately for him, he just doesn’t know what it is that he is searching for. He thinks it’s treasure, but with only half a treasure map, how can he ever feel whole? Of course, Pete turns out to be very wrong about where he will find happiness . . . but it makes for a fun-filled journey.
Pete was inspired by my daughters’ inability to share their dress-up toys. One day, this lead to me cutting everything in dispute in half – the princess skirt, the knight’s shield, the treasure map, everything. One of them complained that you can’t do anything with half a treasure map, and, in that moment, “Half-Pint Pete, the Idea” was born.
Pirate Princess is much more a story about following your dreams – no matter how crazy or far-fetched they might be. And what could be more far-fetched than a princess who dreams of becoming a pirate? Somehow Princess Bea finds her sea legs, so to speak – though not before some serious brushes with danger and seasickness . . .This book is somewhat autobiographical – not only have I faced situations in life where I wanted to do something that seemed crazy (like having three kids before 30. Or shifting from PhD candidate in developmental neurobiology to children’s book writer) but that also seemed right. Also, I’m not a particularly good cook or housekeeper, and I get seasick.
There’s been a buzz about your upcoming chapter book series, Spectacles of Destiny. Can you give us the scoop on the series?
These books are about a girl named Destiny who gets a magic pair of eyeglasses that let her see bits of the future. Intrigued? I hope so!
When can we get our hands on our first copy?
Fall 2014 – keep an eye out!
Are there any other books in the works?
Many, many! Disney-Hyperion will be publishing a book called Duck Duck Moose, illustrated by the incomparable Noah Z. Jones. HarperCollins will publish Snoring Beauty with Jane Manning doing the illustrations. Other forthcoming titles include Splatypus, Tyrannosaurus Wrecks! and Orangutangled. I’m a busy girl!
How did you first get involved doing school visits?
I’ve been doing school visits for years, though every passing year seems to bring more than the previous one. The first visits I did were after Tightrope Poppy came out, and if memory serves, the very first ones were part of the Virginia Festival of the Book. Since then, I’ve probably given hundreds of author talks to kids from preschool through college. It’s a wonderful career to have.
I can say first-hand that your school visits are AWESOME! My son and his classmates are still talking about your visit to his preschool two years ago. How can schools, bookshops, and your fans get a hold of you, if they would like you to do a visit?
You are so sweet! All my contact information is on my website, www.sudipta.com. In addition, I welcome emails from anyone who is interested in discussing a school visit. My email address is email@example.com.
How did you get involved teaching writer workshops?
As I became more successful, I felt very strongly that I wanted to give back to my community of writers and I thought that sharing my experience/tips/expertise as openly and as honestly as I could was the best way to accomplish that. Also, there is an ulterior motive to teaching – the more I teach, the better I am able to understand my craft, which in turn makes me a better writer.
What’s your best advice for new authors?
Learn the industry. Being a writer is an art; being an author is a business.
A bonus piece of advice is that you should enjoy the ride. In my job, I get to create something from nothing. Most jobs involve pushing papers from one end of your desk to the other, or executing against someone else’s list of deliverables. In what I do, I start with what is in my mind and my heart and I turn it into something real that hopefully will touch the lives of my readers. If that is not something worth cherishing, I don’t know what is.
I understand you have an imaginary pony. How is Penny?
Believe it or not, she’s much messier than you’d expect! My house looks like a train wreck!
Lastly, what’s your favorite shoe? And how do you keep up with three children in high-heeled shoes?
Oh, that one may be as hard as which is my favorite child . . . hmmm, let me see . . . the pair I am enjoying the most right now is a pair of calf-length black leather boots with lots of straps and a 6-in platform heel. As for keeping up with three children, I decided a long time ago not to chase them. They come to me, when they get hungry enough . . . . 🙂
Sudipta, thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions. I cannot wait to get my hands on a copy of Spectacles of Destiny!
All the best and mucho success.
If your teens are aspiring writers, artists, lawyers or judges interested in “how legal matters affect society and influence the artistic imagination,” then you may want to check out the Forum on Law, Culture & Society at Fordham Law School. This year’s festival runs from October 19-25, 2012. Last night’s opening featured a showing and dynamic discussion of HBO’s highly-acclaimed, John Adams, Part I, with guests, Kirk Ellis, Emmy award-winning writer/producer of John Adams, and Judge Denny Chin, U.S. Circuit Judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. For more information on the Forum Film Festival, please check out: http://www.forumonlawcultureandsociety.org/
Me & award-winning writer/producer, Kirk Ellis
Very few people take my breath away and make me say, “Wow!” Tara Lazar is one of them. Hysterically funny and a creative genius, Tara is a prolific blogger, former ice skating champion, super mom of two, and the author of The Monstore and I Thought This Was a Bear Book, to be published by Aladdin/Simon Schuster in 2013 and 2014, respectively, as well as Little Red Gliding Hood, which will be released by Random House Children’s in the fall, 2014. In addition to writing picture books, Tara writes middle grade novels, and has authored short stories for Abe’s Peanut. She is also featured in Break These Rules, an upcoming book of essays for teens, edited by Luke Reynolds. And if you think I’m done, I’m not! Tara also teaches for the Writer’s Circle Workshops and was recently the “Success Story” speaker at the esteemed Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature conference.
I recently had a chance to catch up with this super woman.
Thanks, Robin, you’re too kind. You should see my piles of laundry and dirty dishes. You’d totally rethink that super-woman status!
Inquiring minds want to know: Did you always want to be writer? What were your favorite books as a child? What books have influenced you the most as a writer?
I knew I wanted to be a writer from the moment I read stories like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I hooted and hollered when my teachers announced a creative writing assignment. I didn’t realize the other kids were staring at me like I had a split watermelon for a head. I thought everyone loved to write and create!
Roald Dahl is my biggest influence. I love realistic stories with a sprinkling of magic. I seek out magic every day. I enjoy writing about secret things only kids know about. The adults must remain clueless.
How did The Monstore, I Thought This Was a Bear Book and Little Red Gliding Hood come about?
The Monstore was originally a title in my head. I Thought This Was a Bear Book was written after I found a middle-of-the-night scribble on my bedside dresser: “character who doesn’t belong in the story you’re writing.” And Little Red Gliding Hood was a title my friend Corey Rosen Schwartz created. She said she could do nothing with it. Knowing I had been a figure skater, she gave it to me. In return, I gave her the idea for her next fractured fairy tale…featuring Little Red! We plan to do a “Red” tour together when our books are released.
What’s a “Day in the Writing life of Tara Lazar” like? Do you work on more than one book at a time? Can you give us some insights into your creative process?
I abhor routine of any kind. I can’t even remember to take a vitamin every day, that’s how badly my mind wants to buck routine. It’s like doing the same thing every day sticks me in a trap.
So there is no “typical” writing day for me. I don’t write every day. Some days are set aside for thinking. Or doing mommy & wifey stuff. Or napping. I blog when the mood strikes, there’s no schedule. I find that shunning schedules keeps me open to possibilities while sticking to schedules makes me shut down creatively.
I get ideas all the time and I write them down for future stories. I focus on writing one story at a time, but if I’m really stuck, I’ll write something completely fresh and that frees up my mind. I Thought This Was a Bear Book was written when I got stuck on something else (that I’m STILL stuck on)!
Some writers are planners and some are pantsers. I’m a pantser all the way—I fly by the seat of my pants. I like not knowing what my day will bring.
What was your lucky break as a writer? How did you meet your agent?
My lucky break was receiving a referral to my agent, Ammi-Joan Paquette. My friend Corey sent my manuscript to another author, Jean Reidy, who in turn tweeted about how much she enjoyed it. Joan saw that tweet and asked what Jean was reading. The rest happened fast—I submitted to Joan, she called me, we talked, we clicked, I signed!
What projects are you currently working on?
I currently have a few picture books out on submission, so I’d like to get back to my middle grade novel. I can’t seem to write PBs at the same time as MGs—I need my brain to change gears. So I’m hoping after a couple more PB sales (fingers crossed), I can devote six months (or more) to finishing my novel. I find it a scary prospect, to write more than 500 words at a time, but if I don’t challenge myself, I’ll never grow as a writer.
I am one of the gazillion (we may even be talking a googolplex here!) people who loves your blog. And of course, there’s also your biggest fan, Ryan Gosling! Your blog is funny, heartfelt, educational, and honest. What made you decide to hit the blog scene?
I began the blog in the fall of 2007, at the same time I began writing for children. It seemed like a natural thing to do. I didn’t think about it, I just did it. Which shows from the name of the blog. Wish I would’ve come up with something more clever.
How did you come up with the idea for PiboIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month)? Can you give us the scoop on how folks can get involved with it?
I was jealous! Many of my friends did NaNoWriMo every November and there was no writing challenge for picture book writers. So in November 2008, I tried to create 30 picture book ideas in 30 days (since writing one picture book in a month was not a challenge and writing 30 was impossible). Then in 2009, I put it on my blog. I figured I might get 10 people to do it with me. I had no idea it would become so popular! NONE.
Registration for PiBoIdMo 2012 will begin October 24th on my blog. Registration closes November 4th. You can still join in the fun after that date by visiting my blog daily, but you won’t be eligible for the BIG prizes, like an agent consultation. Follow taralazar.com and you won’t miss a thing.
One of your funniest blog entries is your kidlitionary, which defines terms for folks working in children’s literature. Some of my favorite terms are:
Blubbergasted: When you cannot believe someone has never read a Judy Blume book.
Caldecutt: Being snubbed for a Caldecott honor.
Dahlings: Fans of Roald Dahl, particularly those of the female persuasion.
For the complete kidlitionary, please check out: http://taralazar.com/2012/10/04/kidlitionary/
What was your inspiration for the kidlitionary?
I love word play and puns. One night I read a comment online: “I’ve never read a Judy Blume book” and I immediately thought, “I’m BLUBBERgasted!” I wrote it down in a document called “Kidlitionary” and then promptly forgot about it. Then one day I was organizing my files and found it. I added a few more terms and posted it on my blog. It was a hit—even the ALA mentioned it in their newsletter—so I plan to make another installment soon…
Your “Success Story” Speech at the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature was extremely moving, funny and inspiring. http://taralazar.com/2012/10/14/rutgers-council-on-childrens-literature-success-story-speech/
What’s your best advice for new writers?
Read as many books in your genre as you can. And then don’t read at all. Seriously, I give a lot of conflicting advice. But for writing picture books, reading hundreds of them with my kids is what got me in the right zone for writing my own. But then don’t read too many that someone else’s style seeps into yours. You don’t want to be “the next so-and-so.” You want to be the one and only YOU.
What’s the best way for someone to get in touch with you?
Through my blog/website at taralazar.com. Leave a comment or click the envelope icon above my picture to email me.
Tara, thanks so much for answering my questions. I cannot wait to get my signed copies of The Monstore, I Thought This Was a Bear Book, and Little Red Gliding Hood.
Thank you! I am thrilled you asked me!
For those of us occasionally afflicted with the condition Escribene Blockius, from the Not-So-Latin Escribene Blockius, here are some of my crazy solutions for overcoming the condition.
GET HELP! For me this means talking it out. To anyone or anything that will listen.
“So, two mice walk into a donut shop and . . . .”
HAVE NOTEPAD, WILL TRAVEL. I love writing on mass transit. Bus, train, zebra, yak, you name it. Short spurts of travel have always helped me get something on paper. (This, of course, includes the word, something.)
And if still afflicted with you-know-what, I highly recommend striking up a conversation with the person riding on the neighboring yak.
“Do you really think closet monsters are overdone?”
READ ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING! After a while, something will click.
SWITCH GEARS. If you’re working on a picture book, and you’re having one of those no good very bad writing days and all you want to do is move to Australia, then it may be time to switch gears and write something else. (Of course, I mean write the words, something else.) But sometimes going off course, can lead you back on track.
ENTER A CONTEST. I love writing contests because you need to write something by a set deadline. And you never know. You may win.
PUT THE MANUSCRIPT DOWN, AND SLOWLY WALK AWAY. Sometimes you just need to put things away and give them time to percolate. (Of course, this point does not apply to impatient writers like myself.)
SEEK OUT INSPIRATION. Visit the library or your local bookshop. (I love you Bank Street Bookstore!!!)
Talk to the librarian. Get help!
QUESTION EVERYTHING. Why are you writing? The money? That’s a good one! Because you love to write and you can’t wait for that amazing day when a child picks up your book and says that it’s the best thing he or she has ever read. Priceless!
If all else fails, and you’re beyond desperate, write a blog post about your writer’s block.
For an inspiring story about how one principal’s commitment to teach writing skills turned a failing school around, please see Peg Tyre’s, The Writing Revolution at http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/10/the-writing-revolution/309090/
Have you been searching for a free first page critique of your MG or YA novel? How about free press for your published picture book or illustrations? Look no further. It’s Kathy Temean’s Free Fall Friday! To get the scoop, hot off the presses, check out: http://kathytemean.wordpress.com/2012/10/05/free-fall-friday-36/