"Keep working on a plan. Make no little plans. Make the biggest you can think of, and spend the rest of your life carrying it out." Harry S. Truman

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Interview : Susan Collins Thoms, author of "Cesar Takes A Break"

Sue and I have been in the same online critique group for a number of years. I remember when I read her email announcing that Cesar had been picked up for publication, I was in New York City, expecting my second daughter, due any day. I was so happy that I cried - of course, my hormones were a bit crazy at the time, but I was also totally thrilled in an I-always-knew-it kind of way. Sue is a very talented writer: not only is her prose beautiful and poetic - I always call her "the poet", but she's also a wonderful, kind, generous person. I'm very proud that she accepted to answer my questions for this blog.

First of all, tell us about Cesar. Who is he, what does he do, who’s the publisher and when is the book coming out?

Cesar is an iguana that lives in a second-grade classroom at Pinebrook Elementary School. When the kids leave for spring break, he is miffed at being left alone. He decides to take his own vacation. He sets out to explore the school, meets the other class pets and has a great time.

The book came out this month (March, 2008) and is published by Sterling Publishing.

How did Cesar’s story come to you?

Cesar Takes a Break is based on a true story. The iguana in my son’s fourth-grade class – also named Cesar -- escaped during spring break. He was when the kids returned to school. Everyone was so worried about him. Five days after Cesar disappeared, my son spotted him peeking out from a vent in the wall. After Cesar was back safe and sound, I thought the whole thing was pretty funny. It looked to me as if Cesar decided to take a spring break just as the kids did. I decided to write Cesar’s story.

Tell us something about Sue the writer? How do you carve time to write, in your busy working mother’s schedule?

I wish I could say I had a good, fixed schedule for writing. Instead, I just look for opportunities – and hour here or there. When the kids are off hanging out with their friends and the computer is free, I sit down and write. When I first started writing, I would go out to a café or restaurant to write to help me focus. Sometimes, I go away for a writer’s weekend with my sister. We spend our days writing or doing our own thing, then get together for a hike in the afternoon. In the evening, we make dinner and talk for hours.

What about Sue in her everyday life: what do you do when you’re not writing?

I am a newspaper copy editor, and my husband I have three kids. When we’re not working, it seems we’re always busy with kids and kids’ activities and just keeping the home ship afloat.

Why writing? And why for children?

I have always loved books, loved reading, and always wanted to write my own stories. I never really thought about doing anything else when I was younger. By the time I decided to get serious about writing fiction, I was a mother and had developed a love of children’s books. I really wanted to write for children.

Also, back when I was in college, I was lucky to take a great course in children’s literature. We studied picture books, and I was fascinated by the way pictures and text came together to create a story. I didn’t think about writing for kids then, but I think that class planted a seed.

What is your first memory related to reading, writing, to books?

Great question! I can remember a time when I couldn’t read and really wanted to. My oldest sister, Cathy, tried to teach me showing the comics. I remember she showed me a letter A and circled it. Then she asked me to try to find another A in the comics. I couldn’t. Then, she pointed to one word and asked me to find an A. I still couldn’t. It all looked like a bunch of squiggly lines. I really wanted those lines to come together and make sense, but they didn’t

I don’t remember when it all came together. All I know is that in first grade, I was reading all the time and loving it.

What books had a strong impact on you as a child? Any favorite? Book or author?

I loved “The Cat in the Hat” when I was a little kid. When I got older, I read tons of Nancy Drew Mysteries. And I loved “Harriet the Spy.” It inspired me to keep a journal for the first time.

This is your first publication. Tell us how things happened for you? How was Cesar picked up?

I met my editor, Meredith Mundy Wasinger, at a Michigan SCBWI conference. I submitted Cesar Takes a Break for a critique. She was very enthusiastic about the story but had lots of questions. She wanted me to provide more sensory detail and to tighten the structure of the story. But she also said she would be happy to take a look at it again if I revised. That made my day, my week, my year! I revised it for her twice before the story finally was accepted.

I find that there are many articles about how to get published, but all in all, very little information about the process, once a story has been accepted for publication. Of course, it has to do with the fact that editors all have their ways of doing things. Still, some things are pretty much the same everywhere. What would like to say about the publishing process? How did it happen? What were the highlights for you?

It was very exciting to watch the story take shape on the page – to see the sketches, then the final art, then the proofs with the text and art together. I love Rogé’s art. He really captured Cesar’s personality and humor.

I was surprised by the attention to detail – in my text and in the illustrations – as the book came together.

How was it with Meredith Mundy Wasinger? Everyone hears the most wonderful things about her.

She is terrific. She is an extremely thorough editor and has a great sense of humor. At times, I felt like I had a collaborator on the story. If you like the image of Cesar sunning himself under the French fry heat lamps, thank Meredith!
Would you tell us how it worked? Were you consulted at all? How often?

I didn’t expect to be consulted at all on the art, so I was pleasantly surprised when I was. I was asked what kind of illustrations I imagined for the story and asked to comment on sketches. I happily volunteered my opinion, but I knew the final decision was up the editor and art director.

What projects are you working on, now? More PBs? Novels?

I am working on a Michigan Christmas picture book for Sterling. I also have a novel under way.

What advice would you give to a new aspiring writer?

Write the story you want to tell – the one no one else can tell for you. Work at your craft. And find kindred spirits who can help you improve your writing and offer support when you get discouraged.

Can I add one thing? Thank you so much for inviting me to talk about my book! You are one of those kindred spirits I was talking about. You have been such a help to me – with my writing and with life in general. I am grateful for your wisdom and your friendship! I know your first book will be out soon, and I can’t wait to see it.

Thank you, Sue. And the best of luck to Cesar.


Danie said...

I love the cover illustration!

Katia said...

Danie, it's a terrific story. Real fun. Check it out !

Anonymous said...

Katia, I just saw your book, Amadi's Snowman, on BarnesandNoble.com. It is so exciting to see it there -- can't wait until it's on store shelves!