Un“leash”ing Creativity by Erin Soderberg Downing & Anica Mrose Rissi
Erin Soderberg Downing and Anica Mrose Rissi first met fifteen years ago at Scholastic, Inc. in New York City, where they both got their start in publishing as editors. Years later, after Erin switched from editing to writing, they collaborated as author/editor on two of Erin’s YA novels for Simon Pulse (Drive Me Crazy and Kiss It). Now, after many twists and turns in both of their publishing lives, both Erin and Anica are writing chapter-book series starring dogs, and they’ve teamed up once again to talk about how their pasts in publishing—and their adorable pups—have shaped who they are as writers.
Erin: After working with you for so many years as the (very talented) editor of my edgy teen novels, I have to admit…I was a little surprised when you told me you were writing a chapter-book series. Why chapter books? Why such a dramatic shift from the novels you had been working on as editor?
Anica: To be honest, it surprised me, too! As a YA editor, I specialized in boundary-pushing books for older readers, filled with edgy storylines and raw truths. As a chapter-book writer, I’ve stepped far away from that edge, but I’m still interested in telling stories with emotional intensity and honesty.
The ANNA, BANANA series is an exploration of what it means to be a good friend, especially in moments of conflict. It taps deep into the reserves of my own elementary-school experiences with friendship triangles and tensions, jealousies and fights. Best friendships are intense, and when things go wrong, it’s confusing and painful, especially when you’re younger and those emotions are newer.
But this is a chapter-book series, and chapter books are fun, so even when Anna is working through very real conflicts with her friends, I try to tell her story with humor and hope, and give readers a chance to laugh. Anna’s wiener dog, Banana, provides a lot of opportunities for lighter moments in the series, as well as giving Anna a soft, furry shoulder to lean on. She was most definitely inspired by my own dog, Arugula, who never fails to make me smile. (Rooga is also a fantastic writing partner and invaluable to my drafting process. Like all dogs, she loves routine, so she encourages me to write every day. She provides companionship and moral support, and supplies ideas and inspiration for the doggiest scenes in my books. Plus, she reminds me to take regular walks and snack breaks. My best advice to any writer is: Get a dog!)
What inspired you to write stories for this age group and what’s been the best part of making the move from books for older readers to chapter books? When I read PUPPY PIRATES, I can tell you’re having so much fun with it.
Erin: Thank you! I do have fun writing these stories. I’ve really enjoyed coming up with a ton of terrible dog puns and developing a huge crew of silly characters (most of the pups on board the Salty Bone are inspired by dogs I’ve known and loved!).
I first started writing younger middle-grade novels and chapter books when my oldest daughter was in Kindergarten. She became a strong reader at a very young age, and we struggled to find enough books—specifically series—for her that were fun to read, but weren’t too challenging (or scary) thematically. I wrote THE QUIRKS series for her. When my twins were in Kindergarten, my son Henry—also a strong reader—begged me to write an adventure story. Around the same time, we got a goldendoodle puppy named Wally and dressed him as a pirate for Halloween…the rest is history.
There are a couple things I especially enjoy about writing books for younger readers. One big highlight is that I get to work with my kids to develop the stories. At eight, eight, and ten, they’re so great at helping me come up with funny little details and scenes. I also steal a lot of material from our dog Wally to add realistic puppy details. The other wonderful thing I’ve discovered while writing chapter books and younger middle grade stories is a very supportive community of teachers and kids (like the Nerdy Book Club!). The YA author community is very strong, of course, but I really feel like I found my people when I started writing middle grade. Middle grade novels shaped me as a person, and as a reader and writer. Now, I love that I get to regularly connect with educators who care so deeply about nurturing the love and habit of reading in their students. My goal with the PUPPY PIRATES series is to take kids on a fun adventure in each book, and make them want to come back for more.
What’s your favorite part about writing ANNA, BANANA (I’ve told you my daughter Ruby is a big fan of the series, right?)? And I have to know…do you like writing more than editing (I do!)?
Anica: Ha! I’m not sure I could say which job I like better. I loved being an editor, and I feel so lucky to be writing, but my relationship with my own manuscripts-in-progress is much more…complicated than the love I felt for the projects I got to shape and champion. As an editor, a key part of my job was to have confidence in and vision for every project I took on. Being a writer involves a lot more vulnerability and uncertainty. It is a lesson in letting go of control. I’m finding that to be both beautiful and terrifying.
My favorite parts of the writing process are the beginning and the end: the initial flurry of new ideas, and the final rounds of revision. All that work in between—of cranking out a first draft so I’ll have something to revise, and shaping it into something resembling the book I want it to be—is for me the hardest part. That’s the stage where the biggest flood of insecurities rushes in, and it’s tempting to give up and let the book drown in my self-doubt. But here’s my writerly life vest: I know, deep down, thanks to all those years of working with other writers, that it can be done, that there are many different ways to turn an idea into book, that it’s okay if it’s very, very messy along the way, and that I’ll get there too if I just keep going. I’m grateful for all the authors (including you!) who let me in on the ups and downs of their writing processes and allowed me to witness their challenges and triumphs along the way.
Another thing I learned about writing from being an editor: You don’t have to go it alone. In fact, you shouldn’t! Every writer needs an editor, and finding friends, collaborators, commiserators, and community within the children’s book world has been hugely important to my productivity, perseverance, and mental health. Plus, it makes the work of writing much more fun.
Erin: I totally agree! In fact, here’s a little secret many people don’t know: I don’t just brainstorm PUPPY PIRATES ideas and scenes with my kids, I also work with a friend (my “silent partner”) to develop the outline for each book. If I had had to write this series alone, it wouldn’t be nearly as fun. It’s really exciting to bounce ideas back and forth with my writing buddy and laugh about the stories together. I also love collaborating with my illustrators (Russ Cox and Luz Tapia) to make scenes and characters really pop. That’s one of the other fun things about writing chapter books vs. YA—you get to see your stories come to life in pictures!
I hear you on the self-doubt thing. I’m so grateful I have a dog who loves me no matter what…and also that I got to spend a few years as an editor before starting to write my own books. My experience as an editor helped me realize that every writer struggles with self-doubt and sometimes-stinky first drafts. Though I’ve had a couple of low periods where I’ve struggled to keep my chin up, I really do love my job—despite the constant fears and insecurities. Knowing you’re not the only writer worrying and fretting and wondering if you’re a total fraud doesn’t necessarily make this job easier (or my first drafts any better), but it does help a bit. Still, I freak out every single time I send a draft to an editor or reader—what if it’s terrible? What if she/he hates it? What if I have to rewrite it from scratch?! (For the record: All of those things have happened a few times…) But I know that until I take that first step toward getting feedback, my story can’t improve and move on in the process. When I visit schools, I talk with kids about how important it is to share your work with others. Even though it can be hard to get critical feedback, it’s also the only way your writing can get better.
Anica: So true! It can be hard to hear critical feedback, but often the comments I most want to push back against at first are the ones that prove most useful in the end. When I get that kind of feedback on a manuscript, I try to approach it like a puzzle or game and ask myself, “Okay, if I had to incorporate this clearly terrible feedback from this person who does not recognize my genius, how would I do it?” And more often than not, I discover my editor or critique partner was the real genius all along.
I talk a lot about revisions during school visits, too. I love seeing the excitement and surprise on kids’ faces when they hear how often and extensively a manuscript gets revised, and that giving myself permission to write a truly terrible first draft is the only way I can get a draft written at all. No story comes out perfectly from the start! But messes can turn into magic, if you just keep stirring with everything you’ve got.
Erin: This—this—is why you made such a great editor, Anica! You always gave those cheerful little speeches before delivering the dreaded revision letter. It’s thanks to editors like you that I have written—and then revised and polished—way more books than I could have ever imagined possible.
Writing, revising, self-promotion, speaking at conferences, presenting to a gym filled with kids—all of those things are really hard and scary and daunting, but I’ve realized they’re all an important part of this process. If we don’t put ourselves out there and risk failure or embarrassment, we won’t ever get anywhere. As Old Salt, one of my favorite pups in PUPPY PIRATES, says: “Being brave isn’t about having no fear, it’s about being afraid of what you have to do and doing it anyway. You just have to believe you can do it, and you have to want it. Look deep in your heart, and decide what you really want.”
Thanks, friend, for sharing another adventure with me! I love working with you. Want to wrap up with one of your favorite ANNA quotes?
Anica: Oooh, I love that Old Salt quote. And, ditto: I love working with you, too…even when you put me on the spot about choosing a favorite quote, and make me feel like Sadie in this exchange:
Sadie scrunched up her nose and shook her head. Her curls bounced. “I can’t answer this one,” she said.
“We’d still love you if you smelled like school lunch,” I promised her.
“We’d just love you from a little farther away,” Isabel teased.
Erin Soderberg Downing has written more than fifty books for kids, tweens, and young adults, including THE QUIRKS series, BEST FRIENDS (UNTIL SOMEONE BETTER COMES ALONG), FOR SOCCER-CRAZY GIRLS ONLY, and the forthcoming novel MOON SHADOW. The third book in her PUPPY PIRATES chapter-book series – CATNAPPED! – sails into stores this week. Erin lives, writes, and eats out in Minneapolis with her husband, three hilarious kids, and a mischievous goldendoodle named Wally (the star of the PUPPY PIRATES series!). More information can be found at: www.erindowning.com and www.erinsoderberg.com or on Twitter @erindowning.
Anica Mrose Rissi grew up on an island off the coast of Maine, where she read a lot of books and loved a lot of pets. She now tells and collects stories, makes up songs on her violin, and eats lots of cheese with her friends in Princeton, NJ, where she lives with her husband and their dog, Arugula. Anica’s essays have been published by The Writer magazine and the New York Times. The latest book in her ANNA, BANANA chapter-book series – ANNA, BANANA, AND THE PUPPY PARADE – hit stores last week, and her first picture book, THE TEACHER’S PET, illustrated by Zachariah OHora, is coming from Disney-Hyperion in 2017. She tweets about bookish things (and Arugula, of course) at @anicarissi, and may also be found at www.anicarissi.com.