Allison's Book Bag

Interview with Audrey Vernick

Posted on: July 22, 2014

AudreyVernickBefore Water Balloon was published, all of Audrey Vernick’s children’s books had been picture books. When she received emails about them, they were from parents, librarians, teachers. Water Balloon’s readers were the first to contact her directly and they all related to problems with friends and parents. They all related to Marley, the main character in Water Balloon. In the below interview, I talk with Vernick about her life and her debut middle school novel. Tomorrow I’ll be back to review Water Balloon. Save the date: July 23!

ALLISON: As a child, you discovered Harriet the Spy and love it to this day. What is the appeal? Are there other books which captured a similar spot in your heart?

AUDREY: Harriet was the first main character I encountered who was far from perfect. She was someone I related to, a character I believed in, but she made bad choices and had to live through the serious consequences. She was also wildly independent in a way I couldn’t even imagine.

Harriet the Spy was a book I reread often as a child. At different ages I also loved and reread The Boyhood of Grace Jones by Jane Langton; The Secret Language by Urusula Norstrom; Irving and Me by Syd Hoff; Freaky Friday by Mary Rodgers; and The Cat Ate My Gymsuit by Paula Danziger.

ALLISON: If you were to pick one moment from adolescence to inspire a story, what would it be?

AUDREY: I was disappointed in most, though not all, of the female friendships I had in adolescence. There were friends I thought I should be able to count on who repeatedly let me down. I suspect that I was looking for the kinds of friendships I read about in books but fictional characters were far more true blue than the actual people I met. I think a lot of readers share that experience, and it’s something I explored in Water Balloon, but think I could use it as more of a central focus in another book.

ALLISON: You came to writing through a class. What prompted you to take a children’s writing class? What other memorable career choices have you made?

AUDREY: I think I had already taken the comedy writing class as many times as I was allowed to take it in college, so I enrolled in writing for children. I had very fond memories of the books I loved as a child, so it was appealing. My mother was just starting to write for children at that time, and the work she shared with me was great and intriguing and made me wonder if I might be able to write for that audience too.

Memorable career choices: in high school, I wore a red and black polyester dress while selling popcorn at a local four-screen movie theater. I did promotions for a music magazine housed in a funky house on the water in Gloucester, Massachusetts. The rest of my jobs had to do with handling public relations for a college, school districts and public libraries.

ALLISON: You grew up with a dog and still are a dog-owner. What do you love about dogs? If you were to pick one another pet to have, what would it be?

AUDREY: We had to BEG for that dog, and he was barely a dog–a small, stupid, sweet Maltese–and we only got him because my sister Beth got mono. Somehow, at the time, that explanation made sense. Dogs are really good friends. I love taking long walks with my dogs. I love the way, when I take them to the beach, they look at me as though to ask, “How did you make this wonderful place?” And there’s nothing like returning home to a dog who could not be more thrilled to see you again. Our dogs have cheered us up at very dark and blue times. We feel grateful for that.

If I were to pick another pet: baby goat.

ALLISON: In one interview, you talk about how when you first started looking for an agent, the general thinking was that it was easier to find representation with a novel than picture books. Now you have both to your credit. How did you come to write your first picture book? Do you prefer one format over the other?

AUDREY: The first picture book I wrote, Bark and Tim: A True Story of Friendship, was written with my sister Ellen. We came across intriguing artwork that Ellen thought belonged in a children’s book. We figured it out by doing it, basically: interviews, writing, revising. In terms of the overall processes, I definitely prefer picture books, but there is a certain kind of pride one takes in one’s novels that, for this writer, anyway, trumps picture book pride. Sort of. It’s a hard question to answer adequately. They’re so different.

ALLISON: How does the process differ in writing picture books and novels? How do you adapt your voice for different audiences?

AUDREY: I can hold an entire picture book in my head–its structure, where in the narrative arc things happen, where the laughs might be, the tender moments, etc. Novels are too big for me to hold in my head. I usually write first picture book drafts quickly. It takes me forever to get down a whole first draft of a novel and so far, for the two I’ve published and the one I’m writing, that includes at least one year of sitting in a drawer.

I’m lucky in that my voice adapts itself. There’s nothing I think about or do. When I sit down to write, the voice shows up.

ALLISON: You state in one interview that your sister is one of your most trusted readers? Yet I’ve the advice that one doesn’t turn to family. How do you and your sister keep that balance, of being sisters but also of her being a critic?

AUDREY:The advice about not turning to family is largely based on the belief that one’s family will be inclined to praise, not criticize. My sister is an honest reader, telling me what needs work. Sometimes she’s reluctant to do that, not for fear of hurting my feelings, but because on occasion, in frustration, I may have been known to insist that she fix the problem she discovered. Which I know isn’t fair.

Also, she’s not my only reader. I have a handful of very, very wise readers. I think that’s the best thing a writer can do for herself–find great readers. In my case, it sometimes feels like outright cheating, because some of my readers can take a muddled inside-out paragraph I can’t fix and snap their fingers and make it all better. How do they DO that?

ALLISON: It took a long time to find a home for Water Balloon, but it finally did thanks to an agent who suggested one additional revision. What did you add?

AUDREY: The pre-revision version was titled Dandelion Summer. None of the parts that include water balloons (most notably, to me anyway, one very painful scene of social suicide) were in that version. So nothing really bad happened to my main character, other than growing apart from her friends (which, in many ways, feels bad enough to me). I have a bad habit of protecting my beloved characters. There was also a small scene added that takes place in a library that was painful to write but added to Marley’s complete alienation that hard summer….That one, come to think of it, was suggested by my editor after the book had been acquired.

ALLISON: What is the worst experience you’ve faced as part of being a children’s book author? And the best?

AUDREY: Most would probably say the hardest is all the rejection (which surely isn’t fun), but for me, it’s the waiting. I have the hardest time. I’m fine if it’s a reasonable wait but little in the world of publishing is reasonable.

AUDREY: The best–I’m notoriously terrible at picking a favorite anything, and asking what the best is feels akin to that. But I will say there was something uniquely rewarding about being able to share the story of the Acerra brothers in my book Brothers at Bat: The True Story of an Amazing All-Brother Baseball team, while three of the brothers were still alive to enjoy the attention it received.

ALLISON: What’s next?

AUDREY: First Grade Dropout, illustrated by Matthew Cordell is coming out next year from Clarion. Unlike Other Monsters, illustrated by Colin Jack, will be out next year or possibly the one after that, my first book with Disney. The next year will see my first book with Knopf, I Won A What? which does not yet have an illustrator attached. And maybe that same year, a book I co-wrote with my dear friend and brilliant writer Liz Garton Scanlon, Bob, Not Bob, also illustrated by Matthew Cordell, will be published by Disney. I’m working on fiction and nonfiction picture books and another middle-grade novel, as well.

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