Friday, November 11, 2011

Interview Friday: Natasha Yim & Gretchen Maurer

Natasha Yim is a children's book author and freelance writer. Her first book, Otto's Rainy Day was published by Charlesbridge Publishing in 2000. It was selected as a Kids' Pick of the Lists. She has written for Highlights for Children, Appleseeds and Faces magazines, and her new picture book biography, Cixi, The Dragon Empress was released by Goosebottom Books in October 2011.

Gretchen Maurer's writing has been published in Frances Mayes' The Discovery of Poetry, and in Adventure Cyclist and Highlights for Children magazines. She also co-wrote a short film, Alma, that has won multiple awards. Mary Tudor, "Bloody Mary" is her first picture book. She lives in Northern California with her family.

Natasha Yim’s current book, Cixi, The Dragon Empress and Gretchen Maurer’s current book, Mary Tudor, “Bloody Mary” are two of the six books (all written by different authors) in Goosebottom Books’ series, The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Dastardly Dames. The series profiles six women in history who have earned dastardly reputations.


VS: I want to thank you both for being my guests here on The Writing Mama today. Can you both share what you do to help balance your writing life with your family life?

Natasha: I try to get a work out at Curves after I drop the kids off at school, or fit in a Zumba class. I volunteer a lot at my kids’ school in the classroom and on field trips, so I can stay in touch with what’s happening at school. I have set writing times in the day when I try not to get distracted by the dirty dishes or laundry, but after the kids get home from school, it’s purely Mom mode (except when I’m on deadline), running them to music lessons, soccer games, helping them with homework, but we also read books and play card and board games. It’s been a little harder lately because I’ve been doing so many out of town events for Cixi, The Dragon Empress.

Gretchen: I’m not sure I ever achieve much of a balance. I have more time to write now than I used to, and I’m so thankful for that, yet still, things can easily get out of whack. (If someone has the balance thing all figured out, please let me know!) But I try. I think my kids and husband know it, and I know it. My messy house? It scoffs at me and spits out messes no matter how hard I try.

VS: How long have you both been writing?

Natasha: Since I was about 11 or 12. When I was a teen, I wrote a lot of poetry and short stories.

Gretchen: When I was in elementary school, I wrote long detailed letters to 4 pen-pals from around the world. I’d tell them all about my life, my travels with my family, little stories or things I observed …

VS: What inspired you both to write?

Natasha: It was in Mr. Harry’s 7th grade English class. We were given an assignment to create an island and name our own lakes, mountains, towns, then write a story about it. It was so much fun, and I loved creating this imaginary world. I’ve been writing stories ever since.

Gretchen: I loved magazine writing class I took in college. The teacher asked us to analyze The New Yorker for sentence structure and punctuation, and he showed us drafts of pieces he was working on … his enthusiasm for writing was infectious. After that, I started to take my writing seriously and worked hard at improving it.

VS: My days are really crazy between my kids and writing. What is a typical writing day like for the both of you?

Natasha: I write mainly between 5 and 7 am. before the kids get up for school, and for a few hours in the morning until I pick up my son from kindergarten at 1pm. Even if I can’t be at my computer when the kids are out of school, I’ll utilize times like waiting at doctor’s offices, sidelines of soccer games, grocery shopping etc. to think of plot, dialogue, work through problems in my writing projects.

Gretchen: During the week, I usually write for several hours each morning, before turning to everything else I need to do. In the afternoon, I shuttle my kids around and help them with their homework and music; sometimes I sneak in some writing time when waiting for them at sports practice or music lessons. If I’m       really on a roll with a project, I’ll write late into the night after everyone’s in bed and the dishes are done, or I’ll get up around 5:00 a.m. to work.

VS: Are your families supportive of your writing?

Natasha: Yes, very. My husband is not a good first reader, so I don’t really share my writing with him until it’s published, and he’s not much of a support in that way, but he is very supportive of my attending writing conferences and retreats so I can work on the craft of writing and get some uninterrupted writing time. This year, he’s had to juggle Opening day of soccer season with three picture times and three games on three different fields AND the last games of soccer with two games and two soccer parties in different locations as I was out of town for book events. My 11 year old is at an age when she actually helps me brainstorm ideas or plot challenges. And she and my 9 year old both love to write and create stories themselves, so they both understand the creative process.

Gretchen: Yes. My husband seems to have endless faith in me, and I’m so thankful for that. I don’t often show him drafts of projects, but we talk a lot about what I’m working on, and he has good insights and ideas. He’s fascinated by the creative process, like I am. My kids, siblings, and parents root me on, too.

VS: What was the first thing you ever had published, Natasha?

Natasha: I can’t quite remember. In College, I worked for a little while as a book reviewer for Asia Week magazine. That might have been the first. I also had some (not very good) poetry published in a couple of anthologies, but quickly realized that they want authors to buy the books, so it’s more of a vanity press. Besides, poetry, I decided, was not where my talents lay.

VS: Can you share with us a little about your current books?

Natasha: Cixi, The Dragon Empress is a picture book biography that is one of six books in Goosebottom Books’ series, The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Dastardly Dames. The series profiles women in history who have earned dastardly reputations, but pose the question: did these women really deserve their dastardly nicknames? Or were they simply misunderstood? Cixi was the last empress of China who rose from the ranks of a lowly concubine to be the ruler of a nation. And she ruled for 50 years at a time when women didn’t have much say at all. In fact, as a woman, Cixi couldn’t be seen as governing, so she had to give orders from behind the emperor’s throne shielded by a yellow, silk screen. The book tells the story of this fascinating and complex woman, but also include a lot of historical and cultural details that educate kids on the country and time period in which Cixi lived.

Gretchen: Mary Tudor “Bloody Mary” is one of six books in the Goosebottom Books series, The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Dastardly Dames. The series profiles women in history who have earned dastardly reputations, but pose the       question: did these women really deserve their dastardly nicknames? Or were they simply misunderstood? The first first reigning queen of England, Mary Tudor, a devout Catholic, is best known for burning several hundred Protestants at the stake. She ruled from 1553-1558, during a brutal time in history when all European rulers had blood on their hands. Mary Tudor “Bloody Mary” tells about how Mary Tudor came to power (her childhood was not short on jaw-dropping drama), how she used her power, and why. It’d definitely a book that makes you think. I believe it’s important for girls to read books about powerful women in history, books that really flesh out their lives and explore the social/political times  in which they lived. A lot of children’s books have been published about influential men in history have been published, but not as many about women.

VS: What do you both enjoy most about writing?

Natasha: For fiction, I enjoy the process of creating characters and the world they people. I enjoy finding out about what makes these characters tick and I really like finding out what happens in the story because I often don’t know when I start out. For nonfiction, I’ve discovered I enjoy the research more than I thought I would. Instead of being dry and limiting, it has opened up a whole new world of learning, and really getting to know my subjects. Benjamin Disraeli has a great quote: “The best way to become acquainted with a subject, is to write a book about it.”

Gretchen: Writing suits me because I like thinking things through carefully and at my own pace. I’m not as good at arguing a point or telling a story in person. I love how time falls away when I’m writing. It’s meditative, in a way, like how I imagine fly fishing might be for some people. And I like how writing allows me to think about and tell the truth, as I see it, and to have fun with language. I enjoy writing non-fiction, because I learn so much while researching the topic. I also like puzzling through how to best organize the information and deciding which information to highlight, which to leave out, and so on. I enjoy writing fiction, because it’s fun molding pieces of my life or things I think about or observe into new shapes and forms.

VS: What is the most difficult part of writing for either of you?

Natasha: Trying not to get discouraged by negative feedback. Also, in longer works, I frequently struggle with Voice and plotting, so I try to read a lot about how to handle those.

Gretchen: The times when I feel like I’m spinning around and around on a section I’m working on, making it worse rather than better. But it helps to remind myself that somehow I always manage to get out of that mode, and that, as trite as it may sound, tomorrow’s another day.

VS: What is the best writing advice both of you have ever received?

Natasha: I’ve received many great advice from editors and other writing professionals I’ve met at conferences, but what sticks with me are a few quotes by some famous authors. Two of my favorites are: “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” (Richard Bach) And “Writing is like driving a car in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” (E.L. Doctorow).

Gretchen: This quote by Ira Glass inspires me, because it normalizes how challenging it can be to write something other people find interesting: “It's hard to make something that's interesting. It's really, really hard. It's like a law of nature, a law of aerodynamics, that anything that's written or anything that's created wants to be mediocre. The natural state of all writing is mediocrity... So what it takes to make anything more than mediocre is such an act of will...”

VS: Do eith of you have any other works in progress? Can you share a little about them?

Natasha: I just completed the biography of Sacajawea for Goosebottom Books which will be added to their The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses series, and released in fall 2012. Charlesbridge Publishing just acquired a picture book, Goldy Luck and the Three Chans, but publication date has yet to be determined. I’m also working on a few plays, including a children’s one about the Dastardly Dames, a picture book about a picky eater, and a middle grade historical novel about Chinese pirates, a legend, and a treasure hunt. My article about an elephant sanctuary in Thailand and its founder, Lek Chailert, will also appear in the January 2012 issue of Faces magazine.

Gretchen: I’m finishing up a novel I’m co-writing with a friend, targeted at the women’s fiction market. We’ve been at it for a while, so I cannot wait to complete it and send it off. I’ve found I definitely have the “will” Ira Glass talks about in the quote I list above.

VS: What tips can either of you give writing parents with children at home to help them see publication?

Natasha: Break things up into measurable, doable chunks. I used to get frustrated because I didn’t get to accomplish my daily writing goals because, with kids, frequent and unexpected interruptions are inevitable. I discovered that “finish Chapter 4” was a huge, and somewhat vague task to set for myself. So, now I have goals like, “write two paragraphs on Novel A”; “mail submission to publisher A, B & C”; “revise narrative arc on picture book B”. They’re more specific goals, but also focuses on one aspect of the project rather than the entire thing. And I feel really good about checking things off.

Gretchen: When my kids were really young, and I was working part-time as a teacher, I had very little free time to write, so I didn’t get a lot of writing done. Still, it all added up, even though it didn’t seem like it at the time. (It took me several years to complete one article, for example, but years later, it was published in Highlights, and having that clip helped me move forward.) When I was too jangled to write, I read about the publishing industry or the craft of writing, or I checked out other writers’ websites, or I read just for fun. I also found it helpful to connect with other parents who like to write, and to splurge every once and a while and attend a writing workshop or conference.

VS: Have either of you received any awards?

Natasha: Otto’s Rainy Day was selected as a Kids’ Pick of the Lists, and I was awarded a grant by the Northern California/East Bay SCBWI this year to attend the SCBWI L.A. conference.

Gretchen: I co-wrote a short film, Alma, which my co-writer directed. It has screened in twenty-two film festivals and has won several awards.

VS: Is there anything else either of you would like to share with us about being a “Writing Mama”?

Natasha: Tune in on Nov. 2 & 3 to listen to Natasha's interview with host Don MacAuley on The Authors Show, www.theauthorsshow.com.

Gretchen: If you love writing, if it energizes you, keep doing it!

You can reach me by email at gretmau@yahoo.com, and I have a Facebook book page for my Mary Tudor book: http://www.facebook.com/MaryTudorBloodyMary. You can click here to order Mary Tudor “Bloody Mary” from the publisher’s website: http://goosebottombooks.com/site/BookDetail_s2b3.php, or the distributor’s website: www.ipgbook.com.

Also, you can find out more about Natasha Yim and Gretchen Maurer’s World of Ink Author/Book Tour schedule at http://storiesforchildrenpublishing.com/YimandMaurer.aspx. There will be giveaways, reviews, interviews, guest posts and more. Make sure to stop by and interact with Yim and Maurer, along with the hosts at the different stops by leaving comments and/or questions.

In addition, come listen to Blog Talk Radio’s World of Ink Network show: Stories for Children at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/worldofinknetwork. The hosts VS Grenier, Kris Quinn Chirstopherson and Irene Roth will be chatting with Natasha Yim and Gretchen Maurer about their books, writing, the publishing industry and experiences with virtual tours. Yim and Maurer will also be sharing writing tips and trials, and tribulations of the writer’s life. The show will be live November 14, 2011 at 2pm EST.

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