Interview by Annie Cronin Romano
Welcome Lori, and congratulations on your latest picture book, AWAY WITH WORDS: THE DARING STORY OF ISABELLA BIRD, which hits shelves March 1st!
Thanks, Annie. Writing about Isabella Bird was its own adventure and I’m delighted to have the chance to tell you more about it.
How did you come to be a children’s book author?
Although I was always an avid reader, writing didn’t occur to me until I was a stay-at-home mother of three. When I was re-introduced to children’s literature, I wondered what I could write. I’ve been writing ever since.
Can you share the inspiration for AWAY WITH WORDS? What drew you to share Isabella Bird’s story?
Since Isabella Bird lived during the Victorian Age, like many people, I hadn’t heard about her. However, when I began searching online for women’s firsts, such as first woman doctor, first woman astronaut, etc. I discovered Isabella Bird was the first woman inducted to the Royal Geographical Society. Once I delved into some research, I knew I wanted to tell her unique and exciting story.
AWAY WITH WORDS is a nonfiction picture book biography. What are some of the ways your process with this manuscript was different from that of your fiction work?
Writing fiction and nonfiction has more similarities than one might imagine. In both cases, the author needs to bring the character to life and create an underlying theme that will be meaningful for young readers.
For nonfiction, it requires a lot of research before I discover how I want to tell their story. Since picture books can’t and shouldn’t include everything about someone’s life, picture books have to be very focused and cut to the chase. I love picture biographies because they are so focused, illuminating the most fascinating aspects of someone’s life and his/her accomplishments.
When I write fiction, however, it’s all up to me to come up with an appealing character and storyline. This involves a lot of introspection and exploration to discover the story I want to tell.
Tell us about your road to publication for AWAY WITH WORDS. Was it bumpy? Smooth sailing?
Just like Isabella Bird, this picture book manuscript had its own journey with a lot of twists and turns. I began writing the manuscript 10 years ago and it went through many revisions. However, none of them seemed quite right in spite of an agent’s interest and input. In time, the agent and I parted ways, and I put the manuscript away. However, a few months later, I decided to take another look since I still believed in Isabella’s story. When I revised this time, a metaphor sprang to mind that became the heart of the story.
“Isabella was like a wild vine
stuck in a too small pot.
She needed more room.
She had to get out.
She had to explore.”
This comparison created a unique theme that brought Isabella’s story to life in a way that other versions hadn’t. Along the way to publication, there was a new agent, new editors, and a search for the perfect illustrator. After more than 100 years, I’m delighted that Isabella is off on a new journey as young readers discover her exciting story.
In terms of your writing process, do you plot before you write or are you more of a pantser?
Oh, wouldn’t it be nice if I knew where I was going when I begin to write? Sometimes I do, but most of the time I am a pantser---writing by the seat of my pants until I figure out where I’m going. My manuscripts usually start with the crumb of an idea—a title, a character, an illustration—then I go this way and that until I find my way.
What is your editing process like? Do you belong to a critique group?
I spend a lot of time writing and revising. It takes time to develop a character, storyline, and theme, as well as a lively, read-aloud text. With each revision, the manuscript gets better. New ideas come to mind, I understand the character better, and language begins to flow. Once I’ve completed a manuscript to the best of my ability, I share it with my critique groups—one that meets in person, and another online. Over the years, I’ve found that trusted critique groups are invaluable. They not only celebrate the things that work, they point out areas that don’t make sense and offer suggestions. After I get feedback, I revise again until I’m happy with the result. We don’t always agree, but that’s okay. Writing is a subjective endeavor and, in the end, an author must follow their heart.
What do you love most about being an author?
When I look back on the books I’ve published, I’m so delighted to be part of the picture book community. For me, there is something magical about shaping words into stories, seeing them come to life through the eyes of extraordinary illustrators, then sitting down, book in hand, and reading those stories to young readers.
What is the most challenging part of being an author?
Coming up with stories on a regular basis and all the rejection that’s part of every author’s life.
On your website, you mention some of your favorite books as a child, including Where the Wild Things Are and A Wrinkle in Time. What are some of your favorite books now?
These days, I have so many favorites, it’s impossible to name them all. However, some of my favorite picture book authors include Oliver Jeffers, Julie Fogliano, Liz Garton Scanlon, Don Brown, and Alex Latimer.
You have published over 100 books. Are there any that are particular favorites of yours or hold a special place in your heart?
As you can imagine, they’re all meaningful to me because I spend so much time on each manuscript. However, one reader favorite is Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg published by Clarion. It’s a wild, rambunctious read aloud, illustrated by wonderful Michael Allen Austin, that became one of Amazon’s Best Picture Books in 2013.
We’d love to know what you’re working on now. Any projects coming up?
I have some wonderful projects coming up. In 2020, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will release another picture book biography that will be illustrated by the talented Chloe Bristol. Because its publication date is still a year out, mums the word about the subject for now. But I’m especially looking forward to sharing this individual’s unique and curious story. I’m also excited about the recent sale of a new fiction picture book. I’ll be able to share more details in the coming months once the illustrator has been selected.
What advice would you give to writers out there in the query/submission trenches?
Read the genre of stories you want to write. Study story structure, beginnings, middles, and endings. Study character and voice. Then, keep trying. Be persistent. Persistence is key. As you keep writing, your manuscripts will get better. Don’t be in a rush to submit. Rather, focus on making each manuscript the best that it can be. When it’s irresistible, success is only a submission away.
Thanks so much for sharing your experiences with 24 Carrot Writing, Lori!
Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s book author of more than 100 books and over 500 stories and articles. Her upcoming picture book biography, Away with Words, the Daring Story of Isabella Bird (Peachtree), is about a Victorian traveler who defied society’s boundaries for women and became the first woman inducted into the Royal Geographical Society. Recent picture book releases include If Wendell Had a Walrus (Henry Holt), Chicken Lily (Henry Holt), Mousequerade Ball (Bloomsbury) illustrated by New York Times bestselling illustrator Betsy Lewin, and Cowpoke Clyde Rides the Range (Clarion, 2016) a sequel to Cowpoke Clyde & Dirty Dawg, one of Amazon’s best picture books of 2013. When she’s not letting her cat in, or out, or in, she’s tapping away at her computer, conjuring, coaxing, and prodding her latest stories to life. For more information about her books, events, critique service, and upcoming releases, visit her website at www.lorimortensen.com.
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