Thursday, August 16, 2012

An Interview with WORKING MUMMIES' Joan Horton.

Joan Horton is the author of MATH ATTACK!, HALLOWEEN HOOTS AND HOWLS, and other picture books featuring her trademark wordplay and smart, snappy verse. Her latest picture book, WORKING MUMMIES, illustrated by Drazen Kozjan, was chosen by the editors of Amazon as one of the best picture books of July 2012. Kirkus has called it, "sure to be a hit."

 Where did the idea for WORKING  MUMMIES come from?
A few years ago, I was struggling to write a poem about a witch whose house was for sale. I scribbled a few lines describing the house, but didn’t know where to go from there. I was about to set the poem aside when I pictured a real estate sign out front.  Who, I asked myself, put it there? The witch? An agent? If it were an agent, what did she look like? Was she a mummy – a working mummy?  What started out as a poem about a witch’s house morphed into a whole new picture book idea.

How long does it take you to get from idea to just right?
It depends. Once in a great while the stars are aligned, and I get lucky. A poem or an idea will come to me full blown. Other times, it takes me months or even years before I get things just right. And let’s not talk about the dozens of poems and stories I suspect I’ll never be able to finish. Even after a book has been published, there are times I wish I could take it back and tweak it ever so slightly.

What usually comes first for you, the story or the rhyme?
Probably the story, especially when I write a picture book with a beginning, middle, and end. For shorter poems, I might play around with words and sounds and see where they take me. I write a lot of light verse which often ends with a punch line. Sometimes, I think of the punch line first and work backwards, hoping I can come up with a second, rhyming line to complete the couplet - not a method I recommend.  

Many people find verse intimidating, but you seem fearless. Are you? 
Foolish might be a better word. When I first started out, I read a lot of books on writing for children. Almost every one of them had a paragraph or two warning the reader not to write in verse. According to the authors, editors hate it. But writing in rhyme is what I love, so I ignored the advice and forged ahead. I guess it was a case of, “Fools rush in…”

What were your favorite books growing up?
I didn’t read much as a child. I had a vision problem which wasn’t diagnosed until I started school. By that time, I had lost significant sight in one eye. Perhaps that’s why my mother encouraged me to go out and play, rather than sit in the house with my nose in a book.  

When I was very young, I loved the rhythm of nursery rhymes. Before I went to sleep, I’d beg my dad to read from one of my Mother Goose books. I don’t remember which poem was my favorite, but I do know Diddle, Diddle, Dumpling  signaled lights-out. Unfortunately, not all Mother Goose poems have perfect rhyme and meter. Kids as young as four or five know when something doesn’t sound quite right. That’s why I’m pretty meticulous about making sure my own rhyme and meter are as good as I can make them.  I owe that to my readers.  

Tell us about your journey. How did you come to be an author?
It wasn’t until I retired from my job as a medical technologist that I gave any thought to writing. By then my four kids were grown and on their own. It seemed the perfect time to try something new and different. A friend told me about a conference on writing for children that was to be held at the Hartford College for Women. I signed up, and that was one of the best things I ever did. I came away from the conference energized and excited about the prospect of writing. A few weeks later, I joined a critique group. Not only were the members encouraging and supportive, they shared practical tips on how to prepare and submit a manuscript. We’ve been together for fifteen plus years, and I feel privileged to call this remarkable group of writers friends. 

The first thing I ever wrote was an ABC book about apples. “A is for apple,/ I’m sure that you know./ B is for branches/ On which apples grow.” I thought it was pretty good. Editors didn’t share my enthusiasm, and the rejections piled up. In the meantime, I was writing and submitting a group of unrelated poems. These were also rejected, but a few editors took the time to scribble a note of encouragement. One day, I got a phone call from an editor who said she liked my writing, and suggested the poems would be more marketable if they had a theme. I always loved Halloween and set about writing twenty-one poems on the subject. When I finished, I eagerly mailed it off to that editor. To my dismay, she rejected it. She felt some of the poems weren’t strong enough. She was right. I reworked them, added new ones, and sent the manuscript off to a second editor who loved it and offered to publish it. Halloween Hoots and Howls was my first picture book.

What’s the best part of being an author?
Sharing my books with thousands of kids I’ve never even met. And then there’s the thrill of walking into a book store and seeing my book on a shelf. 

How do you work? Do you wait for inspiration to strike or are you, as Jane Yolen says, a “butt in chair” person?
I wish I were more of a “butt in chair person”.  My output might be greater. I don’t have a regular routine. Sometimes when I have an idea, I tuck it away in a corner of my mind and carry it around in my head for weeks or months. Other times, I write each day for several hours.
I always write in longhand. My words seem to flow better that way. When I’m satisfied with what I’ve done, I type it into my computer.  Some of my most productive times are just before I drift off to sleep. I keep a pad and pencil by my bed so I can jot down a rhyme or a couplet or two that had been eluding me during the day. A couple of times I woke up in the middle of the night with an idea that wouldn’t keep. I was so inspired, I hopped out of bed and went into another room where I wrote until dawn.  

What story would you love to tell in verse?
No one story in particular. But what I’d really love is to write a book in prose and have it published.

What are you working on now?
A picture book about a girl whose library books are long overdue. I’m afraid it’s somewhat autobiographical. To this day, I remember worrying about what the librarian would say when I didn’t return my books on time.

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