Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Inside the Writer's Studio with Liz Garton Scanlon

Today for Inside the Writer’s Studio we get to have a conversation with one of the warmest writers—on the page—and in life. Liz Garton Scanlon is the author of such picture books as A Sock is a Pocket For Your Toes, the Caldecott honor book All the World illustrated by Marla Frazee, and now Noodle and Lou. Living in NYC, I was a fan of Liz’s work and when I moved to Austin one of the first events I attended was a “writer salon” held at Liz’s home. There were an array of coffee mugs, different colors, some chipped, some not—her girls and husband were nowhere to be found but there were drawings and books and signs of their life everywhere and there by Liz’a side was her steadfast dog. (The two cats—like the girls may have been hiding.) Liz contains inside her a bundle of energy and a sense of serene calm. She is like a rough draft and a finished polished draft melded into one unique woman. She is both a woman and a writer I admire.  Let us welcome, Liz. 

Here are some  glowing reviews for Noodle & Lou.

"Odds are good that even the littlest listeners can recognize how much having a good buddy can improve a bad mood, but it seems likely that adults will pick this up for the message while kids will prefer to pore over the pictures. Chirpy, instructive and fun."--Kirkus Reviews

"The healing properties of friendship are on child-friendly display here...Every kid should have a friend like Lou, and Noodle and Lou’s story shows just how it can be done."--Booklist

How do you stay inspired to face the dreaded blank page? Is it something you dread? Look forward to? Share a bit about your writing process.
A student asked me recently if I’d lose my job if I didn’t come up with any more good ideas. I laughed at the time, but really, that’s the secret fear in all of our hearts, isn’t it?
I really do dread the blank page. I’m a writer who works, initially, more by muse than by method. So, if ideas aren’t waking me up in the middle of night or striking me like lightning, I flounder. When that happens, I work on revisions. Or sometimes I use a writing prompt to try to jump-start my process. Or sometimes I just forgive myself and my muse and go for a walk.

How important is community in keeping you inspired? What authors are a part of your virtual and/or hometown community? How do they keep you inspired? How do you inspire them?
All the World's Marla and Liz
Community is central to my work and my wellness. Since the task at hand is truly solitary and often scary, I find that I need (I think we all need!) human touchstones to provide reassurance and encouragement; insight and criticism; perspective and humor; collaboration; wisdom, and advice.
I’ve been crazy-lucky in the lottery for creative communities. I am surrounded by the deep pool of authorial awesomeness that is Austin, Texas (including you, Bethany!); I have both in-person and online critique groups; I write and explore poetry with a group of blogger buddies (the self-proclaimed Poetry Princesses); and there is a brilliant listserv for the folks my agent represents. Also, I have a long-standing women’s group – made up of artist-mother types – that serves as a solid platform under everything I do. 

What I get from any one of these groups is so much more than I give, it’s kind of overwhelming sometimes.

Name a writer whose work and/or career you admire. And why do you admire them?
Too many to list, of course, but I look often at the picture books of Cynthia Rylant and Mem Fox because of how well they both combine craft with heart.

Theme can be seen as a dirty word but as writers I believe we all have something to say, something we want to share with the world. What is that something for you? 

If you’d asked me a few years back, I’d have said, “Ha! I don’t write to a theme. I’m all over the map!” But now that I’ve been doing this for a good long while, I realize I do have a “something” – maybe even a few somethings – that I revolve around again and again.
I love connections – surprising metaphoric connections (A Sock is a Pocket for Your Toes), and the connections between words and images and objects (All the World), and the connections between friends (Noodle & Lou). And I really, really like connections over meals. I have many a manuscript that features food, friends, and a dinner table. Actually, many a manuscript, and many a real day, too.

What were some of the challenges you encountered when working on this novel/picture book? How did you overcome those challenges?
I first sent Noodle & Lou to Allyn Johnston, my editor at Beach Lane Books, in October 2008. But, it was March 2009 before she offered to buy it because I could not figure out the ending. So she didn’t say yes, but she didn’t say no, either, and I’m a little relentless if I think there’s a chance.
I came up with countless options – most of them really lousy – before finally settling into this idea that it’s another person’s perspective – a good buddy’s perspective – that can help us to recognize our best selves.  

What do you feel is your strength as a craftsperson? How do you turn your weaknesses into strengths?
My weakness is plotting. I don’t understand why something always has to happen! (Call off the hounds. Of course I really do understand but dang, putting it into words stumps me.) And as for my strengths? Hard to say, but I do know what I love. A good rhyme, a surprising image, the turn of a phrase, a moment. I’m learning, little by little, to string those things together into a plot.

Quickly name 5 favorite stories—could be books or movies even. Do these stories have anything in common with one another? Do they have anything in common with your own work? What comparisons can you make in terms of what matters to you in your own work and what you like to read/experience?

So, I’ve sort of free-associated a random collection of books here:
The Old Woman Who Named Things by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Kathryn Brown (Sandpiper, 2000).
Seven Silly Eaters by Mary Ann Hoberman, illustrated by Marla Frazee (Sandpiper, 2000).
Owen by Kevin Henkes (Greenwillow, 1993).
The Underneath by Kathi Appelt, illustrated by David Small (Atheneum, 2008).
The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall (Knopf, 2005).

All of these stories speak to me because they’re filled with real, complicated, messy human beings (or, ok, mice, if you’re going to be picky) and the authors revealed their foibles, their shadow sides, even, with tenderness. I mean, even Gar Face (from The Underneath) – the closest I ever want to get to cruel and evil – has a history, an ache. And there’s so much humor in so many of these – that’s one thing I would like to learn to do – strike that impeccable balance between laughter and tears.

In ode to Maebelle, the main character in my new book Truth with a Capital T, who keeps a book of little known facts about just about everything, please share a wacky piece of trivia that has stuck with you or please share a little known fact about YOU.

The little piece of trivia that amazes and perplexes me? That our forearms are about the length of our feet. I just don’t understand how that can always be true, even for the less mathematically-inclined like me…
And a wacky fact about me? I once got a perm. I mean, I know it was the 70s. Everybody got perms. But honestly. Have you seen my hair?

Thank you, Bethany, for hosting me here today!
I’m honored…

See? Liz is kind and gracious and I am grateful for her work and her friendship. Thanks, Liz for dropping by. Come back anytime, ya hear? For more on Liz and Noodle & Lou hop on over to where she is a featured author this month. Also, look for Liz to write the In Response feature for Hunger Mountain, in response to The Passion for the Picture Book Piece.

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful interview! Thanks for this peek into Liz's writing process, Bethany!