Linda Urban grew up in suburban Michigan in a house like all the others on her block. At nine, she read Little Women, decided she wanted to be Jo March, and dragged a card table and folding chair into the unheated room above her garage, so she could write in the cold, like Jo did in her attic. Linda has a degree in Journalism and a Master’s in English, both from Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. She studied film and television at UCLA, but preferred working in a bookstore to writing her dissertation. After a decade or so of serving as Marketing Director at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, California, Linda began writing for kids. She and her family now live in a red saltbox house in Central Vermont. She prefers writing in front of her wood stove and stays away from the attic. There are bats up there.
|Linda’s debut novel A CROOKED KIND OF PERFECT is due out from Harcourt on September 1, 2007.
I'd love to know a little about the evolution of A CROOKED KIND OF PERFECT. What sparked the idea, how long did it take you to write it and how much did the story change from conception to publication?
In 2004, back when I was still a bookseller, I was chatting with David Small and Sarah Stewart (*The Money Tree*, *The Gardener*, *The Library*, etc.) We were talking about music and I said that when I was a kid I wanted to play piano, but my dad had been seduced by the gadgetry of the organ during a visit to the mall. David said something about what a good story that would make and how he could just see the illustrations. I guess his comment settled in my subconscious somewhere, because a few weeks later, while driving to work, the first two lines came to me and I rushed into my office and wrote them down. Actually, I wrote the first 3/4 of a picture book in the 30 minutes before my office-mate arrived at her desk and I wrote the rest the next morning.
I polished it up a little and sent it to a publisher and also to friend-of-a-friend Lisa Wheeler (Porcupining, Sixteen Cows, Mammoths on the Move, etc.). Both replied at about the same time with the same comments: this is funny, the voice is just right, this is not a picture book, this is an outline for a novel.
I was focused on writing picture books at the time and did not think I had it in me to write a big long novel, so I put it aside. After I sold my first picture book, *Mouse Was Mad*, my editor, Jeannette Larson, asked to see whatever else I had around. I sent her that manuscript saying, I know this isn't a picture book, but I like it. She said she liked it, too, and no, it isn't a picture book just yet. But maybe it could be, or maybe it could be something else. She said she'd be happy to look at it again if ever I decided to work on it.
Then a bunch of stuff happened. I got pregnant with my second child, I left my job, we sold our house in Southern California, we moved to Vermont. During that time I wrote when I could and was working on a historical novel that earned me the 2005 WIP grant from SCBWI. That paid for child care a couple of mornings a week and I finally had some regular writing time again.
I finished a lousy draft of that historical (which currently resides in a taped-shut box under the guest bed, by the way) and had a little grant money left, so used that babysitting time to see what I could do with this piano story.
Jeannette and I email each other from time to time and in one of those emails she asked what I was working on. I was about 60 pages into Crooked (which I was just calling Piano at the time) and asked if she wanted to see it. She did. So I bullet-pointed the rest of the plot and sent it to her. A couple days later she offered me a contract for it. That was in February of 2006.
How much has the book changed from that point until publication? How has the editorial relationship benefited you as a writer?
If you mean were the chapters super short right from the beginning, the answer is yes. I write short. And that style really suited Zoe's sense of the world -- little episodes, little moments that stack up one on top of another and make us who we are.
Jeannette did notice, however, that the longest chapters were all in the back half of the book and she encouraged me to look at adding just a bit to a couple chapters in the front half in order to balance things.
We didn't really change much about plot or structure. But what Jeannette was so good at was finding all the little changes that added up to a stronger, deeper book. For example, there is a scene late in the book where Zoe's friend Wheeler gives her something that he has made. As I originally wrote it, Zoe's reaction was mostly internal and brief, there mostly to mark the passage of time before another event in the scene. Jeannette, I think, sensed that this moment had potential to be something more. That gift would be a hard thing to make, she said. Even if Wheeler was extremely talented, it would probably still look like something a kid made. Do you think Zoe might comment on that? And the scene that emerged resulted in the title of the book.
Jeannette always asks the right questions and she knows how to nudge. I trust her -- which is probably the most important thing. And she is unflappable, which helps me keep my head where it needs to be. I sent her a partial on Crooked because I trusted her to be able to see what I wanted to do and to be kind if I wasn't quite there. I feel like I can try something ridiculous and she will respect the intention -- even if the output isn't exactly something that belongs between hardcovers.
One of my favorite things about the book is all the hilarious names you come up with for the courses that Dad takes from Living Room University. How much did you have to work for the humor in this book and how much of it just comes naturally? It's not a "jokey" type humor, but more an everyday silliness, a natural quirkiness you've given your characters. Do you consider yourself to be funny or did the humor in the book really just naturally come from your writing true to life characters?
I'm kind of funny, sometimes, but not stand-up comedian funny. In person, I'm most funny with I'm with people I know really well and trust a lot.
Then I feel comfortable being myself and saying whatever idiocy comes to mind and my friends laugh, mostly because it is me being me. But I'm not a joke-teller and I can't be funny-on-demand. I love how you say "everyday silliness". I think that is right on target.
My current WIP is not as funny. The MC is shy and earnest, so it isn't in her voice to comment on the same kinds of things that Zoe does in Crooked. So, yeah, some of the humor comes from voice and story. The other part is setting.
There is an awful lot that is funny about suburbia. Commercial culture is awfully funny, too. The fake enthusiasm, the "clever" wordplay, the world-dominance of mega-brands. That is funny. Okay, and frightening, too. But funny is one of the best ways to beat frightening, I think.
How do you approach each book? Does it start with an idea, a phrase, an image? Do ideas come easily or do you really have to search for them?
I sure wish I knew. Crooked is the first novel I've completed and the second I've started. The other book, a historical, came from an event which interested me. I had access to some information that most people don't get to see and I thought maybe some day I'd write about it. And then one morning a voice showed up on the page and I had two chapters.
That poor novel. It deserves to be written right. The main character is interesting. The historical event is worth exploring. But a very bad thing happened to that book. I started thinking ABOUT it, instead of IN it.
Pretty soon I was doing a lot of Cover Your Ass writing -- explaining things about race and class and gender and religion instead of just letting the character experience them and explain them from her own limited point of view. I kept thinking about My Responsibility To History and What Would the Jazz Community Say or What Would Evangelical Christians Think and not just letting the MC do her thing. I really mucked things up.
Now, back to how books start. My best writing sneaks up on me. A voice appears. A phrase. I slide in. Time goes away. Sounds go away. I am in the story letting it spool out, following where it leads. This doesn't happen as often as I'd like.
Idea books -- the kind where I say: Wouldn't a boy with a blind basset
hound be a great idea for a picture book? -- are DOA. But sometimes a
phrase comes to my head, like:
Elvin Sheldon was born in a bucket.
Okay. Then what?
His mama didn't mean it to happen that way. She was craving peas and thinking that a little trip to the garden might ease the pain, and next thing she was lying flat amongst the lettuce heads and Papa didn't have time to take off his gloves. The bucket was the cleanest thing round for catching a baby.
Again, then what?
Mama always wished there'd have been a catcher's mitt around or a suitcase or something. Then maybe Elvin would have turned out to be an ace ball player or world traveller instead of another dirt-fingered farmer like the rest of them. And then Mama might have taken him with her when she left.
She left? Oh.
Okay, so that was on the spot and fairly lousy, but an illustration of the way it comes -- a phrase cranking up up up the hill of a rollercoaster and then whoosh! following it around and down and hoping you've got enough momentum to get you through the loop-de-loop. Lots of times, I don't.
How many "works-in-progress" do you usually have "in progress" at one time?
When I started writing, I had only one child. She was little. She liked naps. I played around with lots of picture books, most of them lousy, but that was okay. Now I have two kids and deadlines and nobody naps, so I find myself with less time to play, so there are fewer projects going on at once.
Right now, I'm doing one last line edit for Mouse Was Mad (picture book forthcoming from Harcourt in Spring 2009) and working on a novel. That's about enough . . .Except about a week ago I had been butting my head against a particular problem in the WIP novel and decided to spend one evening writing something else to loosen things up. I've got a couple thousand words in that are fun and playful and very different from anything else I've written. Maybe it will turn into another project, but I wouldn't count it as something I'm actively working on at the moment.
I know this is an impossible question but: Whose work do you admire? Poetry? Picture books? Novels?
Yeah, pretty impossible. So I'll just mention a few things that hit me now as I sit at my desk.
Patricia MacLachlan -- oh, to write so powerfully and so economically.
Sharon Creech -- my favorites are those books that are about everyday things that matter in a big way to the people involved.
Cynthia Rylant -- Queen of the Right Word. Mr. Putter had cranky knees.
Cranky. How about that? You don't need to get into age and arthritis and explanations a 7 year old could care less about. But cranky? Seven year olds know from cranky.
Sarah Pennypacker -- I love Clementine (and would LOVE to write something that Marla Frazee would illustrate) but my true heart connection is for Stuart's Cape. Honest and true and yet off-the-wall surreal.
Also, I really loved Cindy Lord's RULES. It is a masterwork, I think. Upon a third or fourth read, you can pull back enough to watch how carefully crafted it is -- nothing extraneous, every scene resonating and reflecting the others, but reads one and two are pure story and emotion and the author and her work are hidden. I think it is easier to write a book with lots of writerly flash than one that lets the reader feel like the story exists on its own. It takes a real writer to let the story take center stage and Cindy did that brilliantly.
And non-children's writers:
Richard Russo -- want to write funny? Read Straight Man. That's your text book. Also, Russo can have you knowing a character in a paragraph.
Wendell Berry -- His characters take longer to know -- but that's part of the charm of them. The people in his Port William books have long interconnected lives, big flaws, big hearts, and idiosyncrasies too honest to be called quirky.
Poetry: I wish I knew children's poetry better. Actually, I don't know much poetry at all -- but I do so love Billy Collins and Ron Koertge. Those men tell whole stories in three stanzas.
Oh and Picture Books -- that is an art form I'm only at the rim of understanding.
I mentioned Marla Frazee above. She is genius, and under-recognized. I know this is not the place to launch a rant about how female artists are routinely overlooked by the Caldecott committee, so I'll leave it at this: they are and that's wrong. Anyway, I love Marla's work and am especially fond of her author/illustrator books like Walk On and Roller Coaster, though Mrs. Biddlebox (by Linda Smith) and Seven Silly Eaters (by MaryAnn Hoberman) are also amazing.
Kevin Henkes gets me, too. All those mouse books are so just right for their readers.
For some reason, though, I really want to be talking about picture books instead of their writers and/or illustrators. So here is a small list that I love and that I find inspiring:
The Tub People
The Old Woman Who Named Things
The Carrot Seed
How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World
Andrew Henry's Meadow
There are lots of other picture books that I admire and adore, but these are the ones that make me want to write.
Are you a part of a critique group? What are some of the strengths and weaknesses of relying on critiques from fellow writers?
I am in a writers group that includes Susan Sandmore, Myra Wolfe, Kelly Fineman, and Tracy Holzer. We do critique for each other, but mostly we are cheerleaders and friends.
I am also in another crit group but we're not very active. Everyone in it has another, primary crit group and we serve as back-up, mostly. Still, I'm glad to have those writers in my corner when I need them.
What really helped me more than anything for Crooked was to have a writing partner. Myra Wolfe and I challenged each other to write just 500 words a week and we exchanged them every Friday. We didn't crit, we just encouraged
-- sometimes asking a question or two that might keep the imagination working.
I found that having somebody waiting for the story kept me going. Myra expected words. She expected them to make some kind of sense. I couldn't let her down, because I wanted to read what she was writing, too, and if I quit, then she might and I would never get to know what happened to her characters. So I wrote.
Later I shared the story with Kelly and Susan, who I also knew from Verla's.
Their comments were so insightful and interesting and I knew these were women I wanted in my writing life. So we formed New Best Friends, along with Tracy Holzer. The rest is email history.
I don't see a downside to having a good set of critique pals. I think that bad critiquers, though, could be fatal.
What do you enjoy besides writing?
I read. I knit. I bake bread and eat it. I dream about planting blueberry bushes and a small apple orchard and keeping three sheep named Adrienne, Blanche and Celia -- but not until the kids are older.
A List of your Favorites:
Food: Apple Pie
Film: Too hard to choose just one. Among the favorites: The Hallmark Hall of Fame production of Sarah, Plain and Tall; It's a Wonderful Life; and anything with Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, or Katherine Hepburn -- especially Philadelphia Story which includes all three.
Place: Right here.
Holiday/Event: Also hard to choose, but I am very partial to the Rupert, VT Old Home Days which usually includes a parade of fire trucks and a lot of fried dough.
Sport: For watching: Football. For playing: does Scrabble count?