Thursday, April 19, 2012
Interview with Artie Bennett
How did you get started as a children's author?
My day job is executive copy editor for Random House Children’s Books. I’ve worked there now for just shy of 25 years. I love what I do and where I do it. I go to work each morning with a song in my heart.
My motto is “Thank God it’s Monday”.
It was sheer serendipity that brought me there. I was working for an engineering publisher and grappling with ennui when I happened to notice an ad for a children’s book copy editor. I thought, “Hmm. This could be interesting.” Boy, has it ever been. I was hired and haven’t looked back since.
I labor over a panoply of projects, doing my best to improve them and make them free from errors of every stripe. After years spent tinkering with the work of others, I indulged the conceit that I, too, could be a writer. So, one day, I decided to step out from behind the curtain and try my hand at some serious versifying. The result was The Butt Book, my first picture book, which was published by Bloomsbury in January 2010.
Did you always love to read?
I was an eager reader as a boy. I recall being asked to read before my sister’s class to demonstrate my precocious charms when I was in first grade. She was two years my senior. I stood before her class, introducing myself as “Sydna Bennett’s sister,” and was met with howls of laughter. I’m sure I must have checked my fly at that point, for I momentarily wasn’t sure what brought about the merriment. After all, I hadn’t even begun reading yet. Then I realized, and recovered in order to wow them with my prowess. Though I may have been several grades ahead in my reading, I, apparently, was still a mite hazy on familial relationships.
I loved words from my earliest beginnings and have kept lists of the more intriguing, colorful, and rococo ones that I encounter. I was in the habit of making a pencil dot in the margin of a book alongside a line that contained an unfamiliar word. Upon finishing a book, I knew that I wasn’t yet done. It was still necessary to go through the book and look up all the words that I had flagged. Only then would I be finished.
In my youth, I began to dabble in crossword puzzles—that is, make them! I was the youngest (at age thirteen) person to originate and sell a crossword puzzle to the New York Times. I went on to sell several dailies and two large Sunday puzzles to the Times before I began college. It’s been downhill ever since.
My path was a circuitous and uncertain one. I wrote my first picture book, The Butt Book, with the hope that it would be a worthy and welcome addition to Dr. Seuss’s anatomical series—you know, The Nose Book, The Eye Book, The Tooth Book, The Eyetooth Book, etc. A butt book would nicely round out this series, or so I thought. But his publisher passed, so I began to shop it around a bit.
I believed in it and thought it would make a fun book. After several more rejections, I sent it to Bloomsbury. To my surprise and dizzying excitement, they were interested!
When my editor there was about to begin her work on it, she was laid off. Oh no! I feared that The Butt Book would fall through the cracks, as often happens when these things occur. Fortunately, there was a reservoir of enthusiasm for my book and it was assigned to another editor.
Months passed, and my editor went out on maternity leave. I was assigned to still another editor. No work had yet been done and already I had three different editors. I began to despair of ever seeing my book in print, but everything soon began to come together.
Their choice of illustrator proved inspired. And when the book was finally published, I couldn’t have been happier.
I remember well the day my author copies of The Butt Book arrived. I couldn’t contain my excitement as I eagerly tore open the package while bounding up the steps to my apartment, imbibing the scent of newly published books—my newly published books!
What is your biggest obstacle when it comes to pitching yourself as an author and what steps have you taken to overcome that obstacle?
I think my greatest obstacle is my native-born reticence. It doesn’t at all come easy for me to promote myself, let alone talk about myself. And I’m not alone.
Many authors I’ve spoken to share this trait. Often a writer’s very nature—contemplative, reflective, introverted—indisposes him or her to self-promotion. And that’s why writers have publicists, who are, in effect, hired extroverts. They complement each other nicely. It’s a yin-yang relationship.
In my case. I learned how to set up my own appearances when it dawned on me that no one else was. And just as important, I learned how to publicize those appearances. I learned how to secure reviews as well. It took a while for me to realize how incumbent it is upon the author to do these things. Publishers seem to husband their scarce resources, expending them only upon big-fish authors. The small fry are left to sink or swim.
To overcome my natural reserve, I joined Toastmasters, a group that fosters public speaking. It’s been a boon for me, and I’ve delivered several speeches on such disparate topics as Bigfoot, soup, and W. C. Fields. I also tend to be a somewhat private person, but I’ve had to adjust that now that I’m in the public eye. Can you imagine J. D. Salinger tweeting? And I recently joined the KidLit Authors Club, a collection of talented children’s book writers who have banded together to promote their books through joint appearances.
How do you balance your life as an author with your duties as a business person, employee, parent and/or spouse?
It’s a tough balancing act and I’m not always successful. My day job can be demanding, often leaving me with scant time to discharge my writing and promoting duties. Yet I somehow had 39 author appearances last year. It was a busy, perhaps too-busy, year.
One thing I’ve sought to do is arrange a book appearance when we find ourselves on the road. I had fun, fruitful visits to bookstores in South Florida and Illinois last year. But my wife and I hope to take a leisurely vacation sometime this summer, and I think I’ll also make a point of not promoting my books then, for one needs to take a vacation from this as well.
What is your best advice for getting past writer's block?
Exercise. I’m a great exponent of regular exercise. I believe it’s the one true panacea. Exercise can unblock your blocks and spur creativity. I write in verse and I come up with some of my choicest verses while I’m swimming. I swim every weekday, faithfully, before work, though it entails getting up before the chickens. But it’s worth it.
After I dry off, I expeditiously jot down any verses I may have just conjured before they slip from memory. And if I’m stuck on a particular verse and not content with its rhyme or rhythm, I often find solutions while I’m swimming. Now, not everyone is a swimmer, so I’d recommend you unblock your block via your preferred sport or activity. If I were a bowler, I’m sure I would be reflexively scribbling fragments of verses all over the scorecard when not recording my strikes, spares, and, mostly, gutter balls.
What was the best writing-related advice you ever received?
I think the best advice I’ve ever received is that you can’t force inspiration. It’s an elusive thing, a will-o’-the-wisp. It comes and goes and can’t be bidden. If you try to lasso it, it will slip through your grasp. There will be times when you just need to put the writing aside, to come back to when inspiration returns.
With me, when I’m inspired, verses pour from me like lava from Vesuvius. During those phases, when I’m on a creative roll, I‘m loath to stop, lest inspiration evaporate once more.
Another sage tidbit of advice I’ve received is “Less is more”. I’ve learned that it’s okay to have only one verse on a page—or one verse on a spread. It’s important not to overwhelm the young reader with a cascade of verses. I’ve been told I need to “let my verses breathe” and I see the wisdom in this.
Can you tell us a little bit about your latest book?
Yes, it’s Poopendous!, though I’ve frequently heard it mistakenly called Poopelicious! Yuck! It relates, in rib-tickling rhyme, the many, often remarkable uses of poop throughout the world while paying homage to its prolific producers, from cats to bats to wombats! The eye-popping illustrations are by the virtuoso artist Mike Moran, who gives us a Noah’s Ark of animals doing their less-than-solemn doody. I even pay homage to the classic children’s book Everyone Poops with this verse:
“Everyone poops—yes, it’s true—from aardvarks to the humped zebu.”
How did you come up with the idea for your book?
Now that The Butt Book was out and selling like hotcakes, I cast about for the perfect follow-up and I thought that, perhaps, a children’s book in verse about poop would be the ticket. After all, what more fertile topic could there be for one’s “number two” picture book. And when the word “poopendous” came to me out of the blue, I knew I had both the title and the final spread for my next book. Curiously, just like with The Butt Book, I now sat down to write a memorable, rousing ending first before working my way back through the manuscript.
What was the most difficult aspect of writing this book?
Because I write in verse, I labor not only over every word but over every syllable. It’s important that my rhymes are strong and true. But perhaps even more important is that the cadence of the verses is fluid and easy.
If the stress happens to fall on the wrong syllable, for example, the verse will jar and jangle. And since I’m going to be reading it aloud, I can’t have clunky verses.
I’m a perfectionist and I agonize over every syllable. And I constantly revise until I get it right. It’s rare when a verse emerges that is fully satisfying. More typically, it will be the product of many revisions, after many near misses. The reader doesn’t see the discards..
One amusing sidebar is that I’ve posted on my website a few outtakes from each of my books. I like to share these with my audience and ask the youngsters why they think a particular verse never made it.
In The Butt Book, I had a verse:
“Butts are found on cigarettes, the Yankees and the New York Mets.”
When I asked my audience why they thought this verse was deep-sixed, a rambunctious boy yelled out, “Because the Mets stink!” Well, that wasn’t actually the answer.
Did you have to do any special research for your book?
I carry a fairly large fund of natural history lore in my head. Years of bird-watching, botanizing, and butterflying have borne fruit. And I’ve shelves groaning with field guides that I regularly turn to for help identifying an elusive beetle or mushroom. I even have a guide to animal scat. But I still needed to do reams of research for Poopendous!
Most of my research was conducted over the Internet. Thankfully, I didn’t have to follow animals around, waiting for them to do their business. The wealth of information on the Web is simply staggering. Before computers (BC), I would spend whole days at our public library whenever research was required. But now the world is, literally, at our fingertips.
This is interesting. There’s an informative verse in Poopendous! that serves as a chant:
”Rabbit pellets, raccoon tubes, owl whitewash, and wombat cubes!”
I have to say that I didn’t know offhand that wombats had cube-shaped poop. I had three-quarters of a really good verse and set about looking, hoping, for a critter out there, improbable as it sounds, that had cubic poop. And then I stumbled upon the wombat, whose poop has been described as being akin to very pungent dice. I could now complete my verse!
If you could choose just one thing for your book to accomplish, what would it be?
A Pulitzer Prize! The alliteration alone would be delicious: Poopendous! picks up a Pulitzer Prize! Or any of the many accolades that are bestowed on picture books. All authors dream of glory, and being recognized by one’s peers would, of course, be immensely gratifying. Or seeing the word “poopendous” enter the lexicon. That would be a hoot.
But realistically speaking, just to know that Poopendous! is charming youngsters, and parents alike, would be a proud accomplishment. My first book, The Butt Book, was described as a “gateway book,” one that introduced children to the transportive joy of a good book. To know that your book may have spurred a lifelong passion for books is a satisfaction beyond words.
What’s ahead for your writing?
My publisher, Blue Apple Books, has signed me up for another picture book, coming in fall 2013, so I’ll have a third act. I’m not at liberty yet to discuss the subject, but I can say that it will be something of a departure from posteriors and poop.
At a recent reading, I asked the children to suggest possible topics for a new book. One adorable little girl called out “Diarrhea.” Well, I can safely say that this won’t be the theme, though I do like the title The Diarrhea Diary. My editor is presently working on her edits, and I’m thrilled to continue doing what I take such delight in—and what I hope and pray delights others.
To learn more about Artie Bennett, visit ArtieBennett.com.
Order Poopendous! on Amazon.com, today
This post was sponsored by The Dabbling Mum.
For more articles like this, check out The Dabbling Mum eMagazine.
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