Welcome to my book blog. For this Q & A, please welcome my friend and talented author PJ McIlvaine. Her new book LITTLE LENA AND THE BIG TABLE just came out. I was grateful she took the time out of her busy schedule to answer some of my questions.
And by the way, PJ has generously offered a query and first five pages critique as a giveaway. Click HERE to enter the contest.
Can you describe the journey to publication for this book?
I wrote LITTLE LENA AND THE BIG TABLE when I was in a big writing tear. I’d signed with a new agent, and I wanted to show her how prolific I was and committed. That partnership didn’t pan out, but I kept working on Lena. Months passed. I heard about a small publishing company that was open to submissions. I sent it off to Maria Ashworth, the publisher and editor, expecting not to hear anything for months, but she wrote me back right away. She’d fallen in love with Lena immediately, or at least fallen in love with the promise and premise of Lena. She made suggestions, some of which were the kind that made me slap myself upside the head and go uhh, why didn’t I think of that! In this instance, another pair of eyes was most welcome. We traded hot drafts back and forth for a couple of days but she had made it clear right off the bat that she was going to offer me a contract once we had Lena exactly where we wanted it to be. And she did and soon we were off to the races. In record time Maria found a wonderful illustrator, Leila Nabih, who has done an amazing job bringing Lena and her zany family to life. And all this in a little over a year! We all know that the publishing journey can be long and painful, but Lena was surprisingly fast.
Where did you draw the book’s inspiration?
My brother Mikey and I sat at the little kid’s table in our house for holiday meals or when there were too many people at the “big table”. Sometimes our cousins joined us at the table, and when they were around, Mikey reigned in his, uh, more wilder impulses. But when it was just us two, and not just at the little kid’s table, he tormented me. Eating with his mouth open, burping and farting at will, making rude comments, throwing food around, grabbing food off of my plate, you name it, he did it. Years later, I see the humour in it, but back then, I was mortified. Tragically, Mikey passed away several years ago, and I miss him dearly. What I wouldn’t give to have him at our dinner table now, burps, farts, and all.
Please share some of your writing process.
Mentally, I’m always writing even when I’m not physically writing. I try to maintain a schedule of writing every day, even if it’s only a sentence or a paragraph. If life gets in the way and I don’t write for a day or two, I get anxious and antsy. Writing is like every other discipline: the more you do it, the better you get at it. At the same time, I look for ideas and inspiration in every corner, and I jot those nuggets down for future reference. Writing is like panning for gold, sometimes you hit the jackpot, and other days it’s a true grind. But I keep at it through the highs and lows, and when I’m in the zone, it’s like I’m writing on autopilot. I revise as I go along and I always have. I see everything in my head, like a movie, and the characters talk to me. Sometimes I even talk back!
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I’d say very early on. There would be flirtations with other careers: nurse, doctor, lawyer, the usual things kids say. My brother and I did a little neighborhood newspaper, he’d draw the pictures and I’d write the text. Then when I was in the sixth grade, I wrote a Gothic horror story that garnered attention in our school district, and that story ended up being put in the time capsule of our school dedication. I think that was the first time I realized I loved to write and could be good at it. On summer vacation, I read books non-stop, and I wanted to write books like the ones I read. I honestly believe that writers are born; yes, technically, you can learn the skill set, but without that creativity, that spark, passion, whatever you want to call it, that voice that sets you apart, that story only you can tell in your own unique way—you can be good, but not great. It’s not easy. But then again, it’s not supposed to be.
Where do you see your career headed? Do you have other WIPs or projects in the pipeline you would like to mention?
I just want to write my passion, characters that take me over and lead me to unexpected places. Of course I’d like to be published, all writers do, but the only thing I can control is the writing. I have a ton of projects in the picture book, middle-grade, and young adult worlds in various stages. Currently, my main focus is revising my Victorian England middle-grade mystery adventure for an agent who loves this character and story as much as I do. So far the revise is going remarkably well, maybe too well! At the same time, I have a contemporary MG fantasy/coming of age swimming in the back of my head.
Please share your favourite kidlit books that have inspired you and served as mentor texts. Pick one classic and one contemporary book. What is it about them that moved you?
Just two? No fair. Well, under threat of torture and gratuitous pain, as a child and later as a tween, I was enormously influenced by book series like Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, and The Bobbsey Twins. But later on, the science fiction classic Stranger In a Strange Land made a huge impression on me as a teenager, probably because of my brother because he read it first and then told me he wonderful it was. I was flattered, because we were at the age where he really didn’t want to have anything to do with me, but we still shared a love of books. In the picture book world, there are too many to mention.
What is the best (one) piece of advice you would give to other writers?
Writing is a life-long marathon, not a one-minute sprint.
And a bonus Q- If you could be any flavour of ice cream, which one would you be and why?
PJ McIlvaine is a prolific kid lit writer/author/screenwriter/writer/journalist. In other words, she was born with a pen in her hand. Her debut picture book LITTLE LENA AND THE BIG TABLE (Big Belly Book Co.), with illustrations by Leila Nabih, is about a determined little girl who learns the hard way that being at the big table isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. PJ also has DRAGON ROAR, a picture book about a lonely, sick dragon, publication to be determined, to MacLaren-Cochrane. PJ is also a co-host of #PBPitch, the premiere Twitter pitch party for picture book creators. She’s been published in numerous outlets and is a regular contributor to the Children’s Book Insider newsletter, writing about the path to publication and featuring interviews with established and debut kid lit authors. And her Showtime original family film MY HORRIBLE YEAR was nominated for a Daytime Emmy.
My personal author website: https://pjmacwriter.com
Big Belly Book Co. site (to purchase Little Lena) http://www.bigbellybookco.com/activities.html
The book is currently available for pre-order.
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