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Monday, May 18, 2009

MG Interview: Laurel Snyder

Laurel Snyder is the author of two novels for children, “Any Which Wall” and “Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains" and two picture books, “Inside the Slidy Diner” and “Baxter the Kosher Pig.” A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a former Michener-Engle Fellow, Laurel has published work in the Utne Reader, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Revealer, Salon, The Iowa Review, American Letters and Commentary, and elsewhere. She is an occasional commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered, but most of all, she is a mom.

Tell us about your most recent novel, Any Which Wall.

Well, I’ve always been a massive fan of Edward Eager and Edith Nesbit’s books. I’m drawn to the way the ordinariness (is that a word?) of the kids makes the magic somehow more real... Any Which Wall is really my attempt to honor Eager the way that Eager honored Nesbit. It’s about 4 regular kids today, who find a magical wall, and then have to learn to tame the magic, and explore the world. They go to Camelot, and to the Wild West, and so on... and it has AMAZING art by LeUyen Pham.

What are the highlights of your journey to publication? (How long did you write before getting a contract, how did you hear, what went through your head, etc.)

Oh, wow. I got very very very lucky, but it took a long time. I spent about 10 years in writing workshops, mostly poetry classes, from high school through grad school. So I was already beginning to publish poetry and essays (for grownups) when I started writing for kids. But even so, it took me about five years to sell my first novel and my first picture book. I just queried and sent, queried and sent, without an agent. I racked up about 50 rejections, but I was lucky enough to get pulled from slush twice. And when the novel (Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains) was in committee at Random House, I found a wonderful agent to help me! Funny, how that gets easier when you’re in committee at Random House. Heh!

Why do you write for young people?

They’re more interested in the world, and more open-minded, than most adults. Plus, I love to READ books for kids. I always have. I think poetry and children’s books have a lot in common. Both genres depend on imagination, language, and tweaked (sometimes new) logic.

What prepared you to write for children?

Reading and reading and reading. Rereading. I don’t think I knew, all the years I was hiding out in the kids’ section of the library, that I was doing research. But I totally was. In addition... my mom would say that I’m still a kid. I get dirty, sit on floors, interrupt and talk to loud. I sing in public. I believe in magic. No, really. Kinda.

What fiction most influenced your childhood, and what effect did those stories have on your writing?

Eager and Nesbit, as I’ve said. Also Betty McDonald and Roald Dahl, and James Thurber’s masterpiece, The 13 Clocks. Joan Aiken and John Bellairs and Noel Streatfield and so many others. So many others. I think I’d say that all the writers I love rely on a lot of language-play, whether through the invention of new words or the inclusion of songs and rhymes and meter or through really highly voiced characters. Also, all of them include humor, but rarely haha humor.

In your own words, Any Which Wall is an Edward Eager tribute/rip off. I protest that it's “following in the footsteps of the master.” How did you balance inspiration and originality?

It was HARD. I’m still very scared about this. I mean, how can I live up to a comparison to Eager? But one big choice I made was to put the kids in the present. That felt important to me. Eager didn’t stick his kids in Nesbit’s turn of the century England, but planted them in mid-century America. So as much as I wanted to write about his mid-century kids, I placed mine in America today, with email and cell phones and all. I think that helped me remember to avoid strict imitation. But really, I’m still nervous.

What are a few of your all-time favorite books?

For children’s books, The 13 Clocks, which I’ve mentioned, and Half Magic, and Five Children and It, and James and the Giant Peach. But also, I love love love adult books. Stegner’s novels, and Chabon’s, and Irving’s. Poetry of John Berryman and Tomaz Salamun and a slew of new young poets.

What’s the best advice you’ve heard on writing for children?

Write the books you WANT to write. Truly. Writing with the market in mind can be soul-slaughtering. Thinking about promotion and marketing can be useful and even energizing later on. But first you have to write a book that you feel good about. A book you’d want to read. When I hear people talking about what they should write... that makes me sad. Like, “Oh, I love vampires, but vampires are over already.” Screw that! Vampires never die.

What aspect of writing is the most difficult for you to conquer? How do you overcome it?

Just the discipline, I guess. I have very young kids, so I write in stolen moments. It can be hard for me to shut the world out and put my head down. But I do, and it gets easier. Also, self-doubt is hard. When the reviews come in and you realize you could have made the book better. But when I’m in a good head, I can find a way to put those lessons into the next project.

What is your favorite and least favorite part of being a writer?

Favorite: writing itself, on a good day. When I feel like I’m actually kind of smart.

Least favorite: writing itself, on a bad day. When I feel like a big dumb dumbo.

Can you give us a view into a typical day of your writing life?

Ha! No such thing. I have 8 hours a week of childcare, and then I write when the boys are napping. So every day is an adventure. Sometimes in my bed, with the door closed. Sometimes in a Mexican restaurant called Holy Taco, with the trance music blaring. Sometimes I don’t write a word.

If you could choose to have one strength of another writer, what would it be and from whom?

I wish I could write suspense. Narrative itself is the hardest thing for me, and mystery just seems impossible. If I could write a book like The Westing Game, a real page turner, I’d feel like I’d climbed a huge mountain.

When do you know you’ve got the finished product and it’s your best effort?

When my editor says so. I could revise forever and ever. Sometimes, I wish I’d held out a little longer, but I’m learning to push back.

Your current work in progress is …

Well, I just turned in a novel called “Penny Dreadful”, about a little girl named Penny, who doesn’t know how to make friends when she moves from The City to a tiny town called Thrush Junction. And I have a picture book I just sold, called “Baxter the Kosher Pig.”

Do you have a dream, something you’d love to achieve with your writing?

With my writing? When I’m feeling really bold, I want to write something timeless. Something still in libraries when my grandkids are in school. A “classic.” But I wouldn’t say no to a big paycheck either. I dream of a house at the beach.

Parting words?

Just write. I had 30 books in a drawer when I sold my first. With each you learn something...


  1. Thanks so much, Laurel. Any Which Wall is one of three of my favorite books of 2009, and I've read plenty so far!

    Anyone care to learn more from my review:

  2. Sounds a really fun book. Thanks.

  3. Thanks so much, Noel! It was great good fun!

  4. Great interview, Laurel, and I am LOVING Any Which Wall! I think it works well as a tribute while standing on its own feet.

  5. Thirty? Did I read that right? THIRTY books in the drawer when you sold your first?

    PTL you are an example of perseverance.

    Hey, thanks for the post. Have a great day.

  6. What an inspiring interview, thank you both! It helps to hear about the 50 rejections. :)


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