Renée Watson – author of the new Bloomsbury young adult novel What Momma Left Me and the Random House children’s book A Place Where Hurricanes Happen answers five questions from her former New School professor Susan Shapiro, author of 8 books including the recent comic novels “Overexposed” and “Speed Shrinking” - about how doing the right thing led to doing the write thing.
1. Is it true that charity work led to your books? I also published a book called “Food for the Soul” based on my volunteer work. Do you think it has to do with the publishing gods rewarding good karma?
After hurricane Katrina, I went to New Orleans to volunteer and teach poetry and theatre workshops with children and their stories stayed with me long after I returned to New York. I wrote the picture book “A Place Where Hurricanes Happen” to honor and share their experiences.
I’m not sure about good karma since I know aspiring authors who have done good and have not been able to get their works published yet. But I do believe in charity and giving back. And I know that perseverance and discipline are also keys to success. I started by writing and performing one woman shows in my hometown, Portland, Oregon. I was performing and teaching in public schools that didn’t have creative arts programs. I was lucky that doing what I love –writing and teaching – led to the books. It’s really true that you should follow your heart.
2. You took New School classes in journalism and in children's book writing as an undergraduate. Is that what helped you as a writer? Would you recommend these kind of classes to aspiring authors?
The courses I took at The New School definitely added skill to my raw talent and taught me not only writing techniques, but the ins and outs of the publishing industry. They helped me make good connections to agents and top editors.
Aspiring authors should definitely take classes specific to their genre and join a writing group so that they can get to know like-minded individuals, receive criticism, have deadlines and stay on a writing schedule. You should also read and study the kind of books you admire and want to write. Figure out what the author is doing that makes it work.
3. Do you think kid's and young adult are still hot genres for a novice to break in?
Absolutely. As a writer-in residence-in public schools, I pay attention to what teachers assign. Bookshelves in schools have a combination of new and classic literature. There is plenty of room for fresh voices.
4. How many people are in your writing workshop? Is that just for children's books? How many rewrites would you say you did before publications?
My writing group meets twice a month. There are six of us. We all write for young readers, ranging from picture books to young adult novels. We meet at the home of our facilitator, my former New School professor, Catherine Stine.
I did two major rewrites of A Place Where Hurricanes Happen and after that I did more small line edits. For What Momma Left Me, I revised as I wrote it. I’d turn in a chapter to my writing group and based on their feedback, I’d revise it before I moved on to the next chapter. By the time my editor at Bloomsbury received it, it was a very solid manuscript. With her editorial comments, it went through another big revision and then we spent time line editing and proof reading. It’s a long process.
5. How did you meet your agent and top editors at Random House and Bloomsbury? What's next?
I met my agent through a former professor at The New School. She encouraged me to send my picture book manuscript to him. Once he accepted me as a client, he shopped the manuscripts around until it found an editor at Random House and the novel found its home at Bloomsbury. I’m continuing my relationship with both Random House and Bloomsbury. Right now I am working on my final edits for my next picture book coming out in 2012. I feel very blessed.