I am so excited to share this interview with picture book author, Tara Lazar. Tara is the author of Monstore, the soon to be released, I Thought This Was a Bear Book, and she has four more books coming out over the next two years. Tara has inspired my 3rd grade students year after year to write create their own helpful monsters when she has come to my class via Skype. You can see some of their monsters on her website, TaraLazar.com. Not only does Tara write picture books, she also founded PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month), and she’s a member of the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and her two daughters. Today she is going to tell us about her journey.
When did you decide to become an author?
When I was 8 years old and my elementary school librarian, Mrs. Seamus, told me a 12-year-old girl wrote “She Was Nice to Mice.” I thought if she can do it, I can do it, too! It only took me about 30 more years!
Tell us about your journey. How did you get your first book published?
I just kept doing what I loved. I kept writing new stories.
When I first starting sending manuscripts around, I got nothing but rejections. Something didn't feel quite right. I knew I had the desire and drive, but I hadn't hit upon a winning concept. So I wrote and I wrote. When I finished THE MONSTORE, my critique partner, Corey Rosen Schwartz (THE THREE NINJA PIGS, NINJA RED RIDING HOOD) said, "This is it! This will get published!"
But I had become so shy about my work. I hadn't sent anything out in a year because I felt what I was producing just wasn't ready. It wasn't good enough. It took another positive reaction from author Jean Reidy (ALL THROUGH MY TOWN, LIGHT UP THE NIGHT) and a referral to Ammi-Joan Paquette (from BOTH of them) to finally seek out an agent. And Joan loved everything I sent her. We clicked immediately.
But it took me two weeks to tell Joan, “yes!” I just couldn't make a decision to go forward with this whole "author" thing. Although I had been waiting for this opportunity for a long time, I wasn't in the best state of mind.
I had recently been diagnosed with MS and I was in a terrible depression. I had been bedridden for weeks. So a month later, when Joan sold the manuscript, I don't recall feeling happy. I was too worried about my health and my future.
Was there ever a point when you felt like giving up?
Yes, at that point, I almost felt like it didn't matter any more. Being an author wasn't as important as being able to walk. Thankfully, with the support of my family, I made it through that dark time. It took about a year to get over my funk and realize that my life was not over. It was just a new chapter. I had to modify the way I did things--and I still do, every day. But I'm happier than I've ever been.
Is there anything about being a published author that has surprised you?
Yes! How tough it continues to be.
I think before you're published, you imagine the first contract is like receiving a golden ticket that will grant you admission from here on in. But no, that's not the way it goes. Selling each subsequent manuscript is like starting all over again. The slate is wiped clean. You're being judged on the manuscript that sits in front of the editor, and that's it. You don't get a free pass if they think your story's “meh.” You get a rejection.
I continue to get rejections every week. It's part of the job. (The crappy part, but you get used to it. Rejections slide off my back now and I move on. Sometimes I act upon the criticism and sometimes I don't. But I always move onward.)
Any advice you would give to a writer just starting out?
Read, write, attend!
Read many new books in your desired genre. It helps you to understand structure and story. It seeps into your noggin. I read hundreds of picture books before I ever sat down to write one.
Write as many stories as you can. You will gain skill with each new one.
Attend as many craft workshops and conferences as you can. Network with other writers. You will learn a lot from friends.
The children's book community is the friendliest, most welcoming group of professionals. They want you to succeed. Success for you is success for all of us--it means more books in the hands of children. More imaginations inspired. Higher literacy rates. Every book makes a difference.
My students are always surprised to hear that authors don’t always get to approve their illustrator and some don't even see the pictures until the book releases. What was that process like for you? Did anything surprise you when you saw the illustrations?
It is a popular misconception that authors choose their illustrator. That's always one of the first questions I'm asked, “How did you find your illustrator?”
But think of it this way--an editor falls in love with your manuscripts and buys it because they have a vision. That vision includes a particular style of illustration, and it's their business to know who draws what. Who is quirky? Who is traditional? Who works in watercolor? Who works digitally? Can this illustrator draw humans as well as animals?
With Alyson, my editor for both MONSTORE and BEAR, she came to me and said, "We really like this person. What do you think of their portfolio?" And each time I've been BLOWN AWAY. YES, HIRE JAMES, GET BENJI, YES, YES, YES! (Think the deli scene in "When Harry Met Sally".)
I've also been shown early sketches of the characters for each book and asked for my input. Again, MIND BLOWN. I had no idea how anyone would look, and it's so surprising and fun to see the illustrators' interpretations. It's nothing you can ever imagine, and it's always exciting to see your characters come to life. It's the most fun part of the whole job!
Any big plans for the release of I Thought This Was a Bear Book, coming on August 4th?
Oh, it's so hard with a book coming out in the heat of summer! I'm getting out to a few bookstores to teach kids how to write their own fractured fairytales. One appearance will be while on vacation! Other than that, I will probably have a nice dinner on the 4th.
You have five books coming out between now and 2017. Is it hard to wait? What do you do to pass the time?
Write new stuff! It wouldn't be any fun if there weren't a current submission causing me stress and agita! LOL!
But there's a lot of other things that come with the “author” title. I'm also the marketing and PR director, book reviewer, blogger, teacher, literacy advocate, and speaker. That's probably not everything. I'm getting tired....LOL....
Is there anything else you would like my readers to know about you and your books?
F-U-N. I write to bring happiness to people. I love to make people laugh. If you and your children enjoy my book together, then I'm thrilled. There's nothing better. My goal with picture books is to instill a life-long love of reading. And that means making my books FUN and FUNNY so you'll want to read them again and again. (And again? PUHLEEZE?)