Sunday, January 23, 2011

An Interview with Author Ann Ingalls

Ann Ingalls and Maryann Macdonald’s newest book is THE LITTLE PIANO GIRL: THE STORY OF MARY LOU WILLIAMS, JAZZ LEGEND (Houghton Mifflin 2010). This picture book biography leads the reader back to the 1920s when blacks sat in the colored train cars, and jazz spread north from its New Orlean's roots. Young Mary Lou moved north too, from Atlanta to Pittsburgh, and used music to overcome the bullying. “Tapping on the tabletop, she beat back the bad sounds.” But it was the piano that set her free. Mary Lou played her first professional performance at the age of 6 and as a teen began to compose, arrange and play with Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

Mary Lou’s story is inspiring to read, but it is the authors’ choice of words and attention to rhythm that also make it enjoyable to listen to. We feel the rumble of the night train as it rolls along the tracks and we hear Mary Lou play piano: "When she pounded the keys, she made thunder. When she tapped them, it rained. Sounds rose up from her playing, soft like the sun beaming, sharp like frogs calling, lonely like trains whistling in the night…all from a place safe and secret inside her.”

The music is made visual by wonderful illustrations by Giselle Potter who captured the time period and the freedom of jazz.

Read how THE LITTLE PIANO GIRL was created:

PT: What sparked your interest in Mary Lou Williams? And what about her story prompted you to write a picture book?

AI: I am a former teacher. A friend, a music teacher, asked me to substitute for her as her mother was ill. My friend had been teaching a unit on jazz, something about which I have lots of interest. Though I can't play an instrument well, sing or dance, I can read a book with the best of them. I trundled off to the library to see what I could find and couldn't really find much. This was about eight years ago. So I decided I could write one of my own. Actually, I wrote two but am still seeking a publisher for the first.

In the process of doing the research for the first book, I came across loads of information about the first lady of jazz and learned that she was the most prolific composer/arranger of all time! That seemed to warrant a book.

PT: THE LITTLE PIANO GIRL was a collaboration. How did this collaboration come about?

AI: I was so enthusiastic about this project and told Maryann, my sister, about what I had learned about Mary Lou Williams, a really remarkable human being. I wrote the first draft and sent it to her. She wanted in on this. We have written a number of other things together and sold about half of them. After that, we sent it back and forth via email and discussed it on the phone. We each handled different parts of the research, interviews, writing, seeking an agent and promoting. It's been a very successful collaboration because we really understand each other and have the same sensibilities about what a manuscript should look like and sound like.

PT:  What was your process? How did you work together?

AI: We have always been very close. We're from a large family and shared a bedroom when we were growing up. We sing together, off key. We just click. We make very sure we understand what the other is saying and we defer if one person feels strongly about a word or phrase. It seems to work.

PT: Where did you find most of your sources? Were there difficulties in locating materials? What was your greatest coup?

AI: We both read everything we could get our hands on beginning with Linda Dahl's and Tammy Kernoodle's books. We interviewed Peter O'Brien, Mary Lou's agent. We read liner notes, old Melody Maker and Down Beat magazines, really anything we could find. Living in Kansas City where she lived and played for about a dozen years, I have been lucky to meet several musicians with whom she played. I got some interesting bits of information that we've been able to use in school, library and museum presentations. For instance, her pet name was "Pussycat" and her favorite food was sweet potatoes with toasted marshmallows. Fun things.

I suppose our greatest coup was to be invited to the Kennedy Center to sign books. When there, a toast was offered in our honor and we met two of Mary Lou's sisters and her niece. They were so touched by our work that they had tears in their eyes. Quite a memory.

PT: Did your research lead you to other ideas you might consider writing about in the future?

AI: I prefer to write nonfiction while Maryann prefers fiction. We both love the research that goes into our work. Maryann is beginning a new novel that will take place in NYC where she lives and I'm working on a book about Will Rogers. I write and sell lots of poetry and am always (!) on the prowl for new ideas for that.

PT: From idea to publication, what was the timeline for this book? Any challenges along the way?

We started LITTLE PIANO GIRL in early 2002. It took about 2 years to do the research, another year to write it and find an agent. Houghton Mifflin picked it up in the fall of 2006. Our editor, Erica Zappy, was determined to find just the right illustrator, and we think she did. That took an additional year. It finally all came together in January of 2010. People I meet who comment on the book almost always say how beautiful it is, that it's light, bright and that the children look just as they imagined. Giselle Potter gets lots and lots of credit for that.

PT: I’m always curious about how other writers stay organized. Are you Neat-n-Tidy or a File-by-the Pile person? What works for you?

AI: I suppose Maryann is a neater, tidier writer than I am. I'm more random and move from project to project. She tends to stay focused on one or two projects at a time. We both rely heavily on computer files, hanging files, loads of Post It notes, critique groups to keep us on track, and each other.

PT: What can fans look forward to next?

AI: Maryann just sold a middle grade novel to Bloomsbury. It is the story of the daughter of a resistance fighter who lived in Paris during WWII. Not sure when that will be released. I've completed a manuscript on Thomas Garrett, the stationmaster of the eastern branch of the Underground Railroad. Calkins Creek is holding that at this time. I have my fingers crossed. In the meantime, three pieces of mine are slated to be published by Highlights and Highlights High Five in May and June.

Learn more about Ann and her writing at:

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Perfect Office

I am writing this from my new office. Have you ever dreamed of that perfect space? The one that would allow you to write that best-selling novel, that would keep you on task and inspired? What would it look like? Would it have an antique roll top desk and floral wallpaper, a bay window overlooking a lake, or a stocked mini fridge within easy reach? I have dreamed of my perfect office for a long time, ever since I figured out that having my desk 11 steps from the refrigerator was not a healthy work environment.

This past weekend, my husband and I started the ball rolling on creating that perfect office -- or at least as close as I can get for the price of a gallon of paint and a sore back from moving a lot of furniture.

Although I am excited, I am a little uneasy. You see, my new office will be in my daughter’s old bedroom. Is there a statute of limitations on a kid’s claim to her room? She has been in her own apartment for a year and a half. But I know so many parents who have had kids bungee back into their lives when they lost a job. The minute that I repaint the bedroom and haul the mattress out, will my daughter come back like a Karmic boomerang? (Not that I would mind, really honey. This will always be your home.) And when she visits, will she feel awful having to stay in the guest room?

As I painted over the daisy yellow that Katie once picked out, I worried that I was obliterating her childhood memories. Would she understand that the room needed to be painted anyway because of the water damage from the last ice storm? Would she forgive me? My husband wiped a tear away as the last ray of sunshine vanished behind Mistletoe Green.

My giant steel 1950s office desk from downstairs can’t fit upstairs so I have to be satisfied with something smaller. My ideal desk is one the size of a dining room table, (which is another place I like to work) preferably one that wraps around me so I have a place for all of my research to be out and visible all at once. However, my smaller desk is not small enough. It measures 30 inches and my door is 29 and a quarter! Okay, so what else can I use? Fortunately for me, I have a habit of buying old tables, and one that converts into a bench is already upstairs being used as a bench. Put the top back on and voila, my new desk with space underneath for the cats to sleep.

As we shifted furniture around like a kid with one of those birthday party-favor puzzles we realized that an office with only one electrical outlet is not efficient. Thank goodness for power strips and extension cords. Now I can work in the evening and type and print at the same time.

My perfect office would of course be lined with floor to ceiling bookshelves. My new office isn’t. But I’ll live with the moveable kid-height shelves until I know exactly where I want to build bigger ones.

Now there is no turning back. Moving files and finding the right place for pens envelopes, I worry if this was the right thing to do. Will I like working upstairs? Will every little noise downstairs have me imagining knife-wielding intruders? Will the cats adjust easily to my new routine? Without that clich├ęd excuse, will I write that best selling novel? And will I still feel that urge to wander into the kitchen for a snack?

Well if I do, at least I’ll have to walk a flight of stairs first.

Monday, January 10, 2011

An Interview With Author Mary Morton Cowan

Explorers Robert Peary and Richard Byrd may be more famous, but the adventures of Donald MacMillan far surpassed both in longevity and passion. For 50 years MacMillan explored and researched the land and peoples of the eastern Arctic and Subarctic, and author Mary Morton Cowan details the most exciting bits in her newest book from Calkins Creek. Captain Mac: The Life of Donald Baxter MacMillan, Arctic Explorer reads like a novel finely woven with action and historical detail. The many archival photos and maps allows the reader to walk in Mac’s footsteps.

Captain Mac has been selected by the National Science Teachers’ Association as a recommended title and earned the 2010 National Outdoor Book Award as well as a 2010 Honor Book Award from the Society of School Librarians International.

Mary is the author of two previous books, Timberrr…A History of Logging in New England and Ice Country: One Boy's Adventure in the Arctic with Commander Donald MacMillan. I asked her recently what it was about Captain Mac that captured her attention so fully that she has written about him twice.

MMC: I have known about Donald MacMillan since I was a child. My family’s factory made sledges for him in 1913, and he and my grandfather were friends. My parents took me to one of MacMillan’s travelogues when I was seven or eight years old. I couldn’t forget his spectacular movies, which showed a fascinating world to the north. As soon as I started writing for children, I wanted to tell his story.

PT: What was it like going from a fictional story to a nonfiction biography on the same subject?

MMC: Both books are adventure stories. Writing ICE COUNTRY required a lot of research, to be sure. I had to be true to the times and the climate and setting, but my teen-age protagonist could act how I wanted him to. So could the other expedition members, for they were fictional too—except for Mac and his wife. When writing the biography, I had to double-check all my sources, making sure that I could document everything I wrote. In the biography, Captain Mac had to do exactly what MacMillan actually did. I couldn’t veer from the truth. And, in the biography, I couldn’t make up dialogue as I could in the fictional story. Luckily, Mac wrote a lot of letters, books, and diaries, from which I could quote.

PT: What was the research process like and how long did it take? What was your biggest challenge, and what was your biggest coup?

MMC: It’s a good thing I like research—researching MacMillan spanned several years. It’s hard to actually count, because I wrote a lot of other material in between ICE COUNTRY and CAPTAIN MAC. The biggest challenge was the sheer amount of material. Mac lived a long life, wrote thousands of pages in diaries and journals and ship’s logs. And he wrote several books and scores of letters. I did a lot of reading and note-taking! The first day I gazed upon his diaries, I felt a thrill and a chill at the same time. This was HIS writing. Could I tell his story?

One unexpected challenge came when I resumed research for the biography after a number of years. The special collections library had computerized its filing system, and I couldn’t find some of the documents I had perused when researching ICE COUNTRY. Eventually, the librarians told me I uncovered all their computer entry errors! The biggest conflict involved the number of Captain Mac’s expeditions. In New England, and perhaps beyond, a myth pervades that he led 26 trips to the Arctic in his own schooner. It simply is not true. I checked and rechecked the dates of each expedition, and it didn’t add up. I even wrote a letter to the editor of my local newspaper when that myth was repeated again, and they wouldn’t publish my letter; they claimed it would be too hard to dispel the myth. In CAPTAIN MAC, I included a list of expeditions, so young readers can see for themselves.

PT: During your research did you discover any exceptional resources that you’d like to share with other nonfiction writers?

MMC: I always find interviews fascinating. MacMillan lived until 1970, and several people who sailed with him are still living. All were excited to talk with me about him. First I read all I could, then asked lots of questions, and found friends and family had wonderful anecdotes and insights into Mac’s personality.

Among MacMillan’s letters, I discovered a remarkable friendship Mac had with Matthew Henson, the African-American explorer who accompanied Robert Peary to the North Pole in 1909. MacMillan stood against public opinion and advocated for Henson on many occasions, not caring whether he was ridiculed for it or not. Letters between the two men show Henson’s appreciation and MacMillan’s sense of loyalty, his commitment to fairness, and his moral values.

PT: What was the timeline from spark to publication? Any challenges along the way?

MMC: I wrote an assignment about Mac when I was taking my first writing course nearly 30 years ago. Then, in 1993, after several years of research and writing, ICE COUNTRY was published. All the material went into the file drawer until six or seven years ago, when I decided to write the biography. Rewriting and revising took a great deal of time and was sometimes frustrating and challenging, but rewarding.

PT: I am always curious how other people stay organized. Are you a file by the pile person or neat & tidy?

MMC: I’d like to be neat and tidy, but my desk doesn’t seem to unclutter itself. Fortunately, I’m quite organized with my computer. I store everything on it, and arrange files so I can find them easily. When I can’t, the “search and find” feature works wonders.

PT: What can your fans look forward to next?

MMC: That’s hard to say. I’m working on several books: another historical novel, and a few humorous picture books. 

Visit Mary's Website --

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Get Back to Work!

Happy New Year!
It is January and many people are starting over by making bold resolutions and grand promises. Optimism is in the air. But starting over can also be a little scary. It's daunting to stare at a blank slate when you don't have a piece of chalk. Rather than starting from scratch, I prefer to move forward into the New Year with a little momentum.  That is why I like to look back at what I did last year.

For me, that includes finishing a mid-grade manuscript, publishing two articles on writing, and beginning my search for an agent. It's not a big list. I’m not that prolific. But it feels good knowing that I did achieve something last year even if my rejections outnumbered acceptances, and now I have something to build on. I don’t have to stare at a blank screen wondering, “What do I do now?” I already know.

Topping my to-do list is writing a dynamite query for the mid-grade novel, continuing my search for an agent, and restructuring the two articles so that I can sell to another market. I feel as if I have a jump start on the New Year.

So, take a moment and make a list of the projects you worked on last year. Now note what you need to do to move each of those projects forward. Do you need to do more research to round out that nonfiction piece, or is it time to write that one-sentence pitch for a story that is ready to submit? Perhaps you need to make the biggest leap of all and send in that first submission. Well, now is the time to get to it.

The holidays are over and it is time to get back to work. It might be a New Year, but you don’t have to start anew. Build on what you have already accomplished to make 2011 a big success.