Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Interview Wednesday Portal Right Here Today on WWBT

The magic window to today's Interview Wednesday posts on Kidlitosphere is right here on Writing With a Broken Tusk.

First up, Holly Thompson talks about food, influence, life in Japan, operating in two cultures, and more on Gathering Books.

On Playing By the Book, Victoria Griffith, author of The Fabulous Flying Machines of Alberto Santos Dumont, talks to Zoe about her journalism background, research, and books that inspire her.

A five-way interview with Candlewick authors Paul Janeczko and Ruth Thomson, editors, and a publicist on The Whole Megillah, the writer's resource for Jewish-themed books.

Watch for additional interview links during the day.

This post itself will be an all-day group interview in response to a single question. Years ago, Mem Fox wrote a piece in Bookbird journal titled "For Whom Do We Write?" It can also be found in variant grammatical mode under the title, "So Who Are We Writing For?" In it she talked about sending all potential readers out of the room when you write a book--silencing all those possible voices that hover around the writer, seeking to influence the work. She says only then can she allow the work itself to take shape. Audience has always been of interest to writers, perhaps most of all to those whose work is read by young readers. Maurice Sendak once used to hate being called a children's writer. 

I'm asking a group of children's and YA writers to think of one of their books--any one--as they answer these two questions:
  1. Who was your audience when you wrote this book? 
  2. At what stage in the life of the work in progress did you allow that potential audience into your mind?
Kathi Appelt wrote The Underneath over the span of three years. She writes:
My original audience was a boy, someone who resembled my own son when he was around thirteen or fourteen years old. It was an incident that occurred with him that gave me the impetus for the story to begin with. So I had him in the back of my mind over the course of writing, but I confess that as I got deeper into the story, I actually lost track of any audience at all. It felt as though I was writing for the story itself and the characters in the story, as if they were the only “audience” that mattered. I kept writing and writing and writing until it seemed like I got the characters’ stories right within the context of the bigger story. I was writing to find the stories that my characters had to show me. It seems like the intended audience was the first and then the last thing that I kept in mind.
Tom Birdseye's most recent novel, Storm Mountain (trailer here) began on a the 41-mile Timberline Trail that circles Mt. Hood, the highest mountain in Oregon. He describes the experience:
Halfway around, gazing up at yet another stunning view of the iconic peak, it suddenly occurred to me that although I loved mountains and scaling them, I had, in fact, never written anything with a climbing focus. What was with that? Why not combine two of my passions -- writing and the alpine realm? It was a head-slapping moment, and in it a book idea was born. I'll write a middle-grade adventure story, I declared, set in the high Cascades. So the audience, middle grade readers, was set in my mind very quickly. 
It wasn't until I was well into the first draft that it began to dawn on me that this wasn't just a climbing adventure, it was also a story about the grief that the protagonist, Cat, feels at the loss of her father. My father died when I was young. I never really processed his passing -- I didn't know how -- and instead pushed the pain aside and moved on with my life. Writing Storm Mountain became a conduit for finally dealing with a scarred-over wound. In the end it was a much for an audience of one -- me -- as it was for kids.
Shutta Crum comments on the differences in audience awareness between novels and picture books. Her picture book, Mine! just made School Library Journal's list of Best Books of 2011.
I'd hazard a guess that most writers don't think of a particular audience--other than themselves--when they are first creating. I don't. Sometimes I don't even start to think about the audience until my editor makes me think about it. At some point, when a novel is ready to submit, I simply give it over to my agent/editor. I always figure that a good book will find its audience. It is not until after the editor has her hands on it that I worry about word choice, white space, sentence length, etc., all those kinds of things that one worries about with an audience of a particular age. The one exception to this, I find, is when I am working on a picture book for the very young, such as Mine! (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011). For that book my editor challenged me to write for the very youngest of audiences. So I had my audience firmly in mind. The book ended up only having 10 1/2 words.
When Sharon Darrow was writing her YA novel Trash, she thought the audience might be the same people who read The Painters of Lexieville because they had some characters and settings in common. But, she says:
I found that Trash had more boy readers than Painters did, at least I got more mail from boys. At first I thought that might be because of the graffiti writing in it, but later I learned that the boys liked the poetry, too. Just about all the readers who wrote to me mentioned liking the white space on the page.
 

I thought a lot more about the audience when I was writing Trash than when I was writing Painters, partly because I was thinking about how the words looked on the page, almost as if that were a part of the graphic aspect of the book and I was hoping my audience would enjoy that.

When I was writing Painters, I felt like I was the audience for the character as she 'told' me her story, then when I was revising the words for the readers so that they might be able to 'hear' her voice, I thought about how words sound when spoken and about how feelings come through the sounds a voice gives to words. I hoped my audience would be able to experience Pert's voice in a way similar to the way it had come to me, except I wanted the reader to feel much more like she or he were living the story along with Pert as it happened. The revisions were for my imagined young teen-aged reader, mostly girls I thought, but, in a way, I imagined Pert herself reading and deciding if I'd done a good job writing her story!
Jane Kurtz has written two picture books with her brother, Only a Pigeon (soon to have a new edition with a new title, Pigeon Boys of Ethiopia) and Water Hole Waiting. They've also worked on a novel together. Here's Jane's take on audience and co-authorship:
We've also worked on a novel together. One of the interesting things that happens with a co-author is that we both get audience reaction right away...from each other! I will think some word or sentence is funny or apt or touching or just right in some other way, only to discover that it falls flat for Chris--and vice versa. We argue for our choices. Often we talk about audience as part of that because it's useless to say, "Well, I'm doing this because it pleases ME" if it doesn't please the other person. With this new edition of Only a Pigeon, we had the advantage of having tried our story with lots of actual elementary aged kids so we talked about what confused or frustrated or interested or amused kids as we revised. I kind of wish I could now re-do all my books.
Julie Larios says she wrote her second picture book, Have You Ever Done That? in response to a prompt at a small writing workshop conducted at the home of her friend and colleague Laura Kvasnosky:
As a general target audience, I had in mind young children who have hesitated when asked to do something brave, as a way to suggest that courage often comes in small packages and doesn't look like what we think it's going to look like. I knew right away that what I had to say was for a young audience, picture book age, because I imagined it as a series of questions that could be talked over at bedtime.  I love questions, no matter what the age of the audience, and the read-aloud moments before bed, when a parent lingers and talks over what's been read, those feel especially important to me. Why not put the kind of questions out there that can be pondered while falling asleep? And if I'm going to be perfectly honest, I'll admit that the specific target audience was actually the child I was at about four years old, staying with my family at the beach cabin my grandparents built. One hot summer night, I was granted the special privilege of sleeping outside on the open porch; I could hear the waves and see the moon and stars. It should have been Heaven, but I was terrified. So I wrote the book for the little girl I was that night, as a way of holding her hand across the years and telling her it would be alright. And I knew from the moment I had the idea - before a word was ever written - who the audience was. 
David Lubar (Attack of the Vampire Weenies and Other Warped and Creepy Tales--see this great review on A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy)says:
I am going to answer the question by explaining that I have no answer. (So let's call this a meta-answer.) Perhaps it marks me as a mutant, curmudgeon, or semi-solipsist, but I generally write with no audience in mind. I have a story to tell. It seizes me, and I set out to write it. The only time an imagined audience becomes an issue is when I get sidetracked by worrying that some group, such as the award givers, or the fans of whatever genre my last book fell into, will not like my current work. Then, I have to heave that audience from my mind and get back to telling a story. That approach seems to be working out pretty well, so far. 
Leda Schubert admits to having trouble with the idea of audience when she wrote Ballet of the Elephants:
I think, as many writers seem to think, that I write for myself. I become passionate about something and have to get it down on the page. Then I try to figure out what I've got. With Ballet of the Elephants, for example, I didn't know what I would find when I began to do what would turn out to be months of research. It took a very long time to figure out how to tell the story in a way that might make sense for children, knitting together disparate elements into a whole. When I realized the story was in the performance itself--in the coming together of all these geniuses (including Modoc, the elephant and prima ballerina)--I began to think about the child reader. I'm still not entirely positive that it's a children's book, and I always promise myself to do better next time. With my three newer books, Reading to Peanut, The Princess of Borscht, and Feeding the Sheep, I began with the idea of the child.
Keep coming back, audience! There may be more.

6 comments:

  1. Hi Uma! What an intriguing and thought-provoking question indeed. Alas, I don't think I'm qualified to even write a response since I am neither a children's book nor a YA author, just an avid reader/bibliophile who unfortunately is shushed out of the room. Hahaha.

    Here's our interview with Holly Thompson up on GatheringBooks:
    http://behindthebooks.gatheringbooks.org/?p=586

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  2. Thanks Myra. Only a temporary shushing, never fear! What use is a book without a reader?

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  3. Here's my contribution to Interview Wednesday:
    http://www.playingbythebook.net/2011/11/13/an-interview-with-victoria-griffith/
    Thanks for hosting.
    I don't know about writing books, but when I write my blog posts I'm very aware of my audience. I try to respect them, but not change fundamentally what I write because of what I think they may or may not like to read - it's about remaining true to me too as well as being appreciative of those who spend some of their precious time reading my words.

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  4. Here's the link to a five-way interview with Candlewick authors, editors, and publicist from The Whole Megillah, the writer's resource for Jewish-themed books. The interview focuses on two books recently published about the concentration camp, Terezin. http://wp.me/pUBjo-iq

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  5. Thanks Barbara. What a wonderful conversation! The permissions quest is a story in itself.

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