The Book Doctors  first met Cathy Camper at a Pitchapalooza (think American Idol for Books) at one of our favorite book stores, Powell’s in Portland, Oregon. As soon as she pitched us her graphic novel, Low Riders in Outer Space”, we knew this was a great book waiting to happen. And now it has. So we thought we’d pick her brain on what it was like to go from talented amateur to professionally published author.

Lowriders in Space_FC_HiRes Raul the Third (credit Elaine Bay) Cathy Camper_headshot_photo (c) Jayson Colomby_sm

The Book Doctors: Did being a librarian influence your writing & your approach to publication?

Cathy Camper: In 2006, I moved to Portland, OR and was working as a youth services outreach librarian. I’d bring books to schools and I got really angry. I was seeing diverse groups of kids, but all the books were about white suburban children. As an Arab-American, I know what it’s like not to see yourself in books. Plus, so many books that feature kids of color are old, or not written for the world kids live in today, but for the past, their parents’ world. The 2050 census says one third of the U.S. will be English-Spanish speaking households – that’s our audience! I also wanted a book for boys, since boys literacy rate is dropping. And I love science, and there’s a big push to get more science in school curriculums. I aimed my book and my pitch at these big audiences, and told publishers why it they were important.

TBD: Tell us about your long & winding road to publication.

CC: First I wrote the book, from 2006 to 2009. Then I emailed Raul Gonzalez, the artist, who was working as a fine artist, and asked if he’d ever considered doing a kids’ book? He said, yes, and so I sent him the script. He wrote back, “This is the book I wanted to read as a kid, “ and within days, he was sending me sketches of the characters. It was just plain luck that we were so well matched; we have a similar sense of humor, similar sensibilities and the same work ethic. We put together a pitch. I found lists of agents who repped graphic novels online, and sent it out as cold calls. It was right as the recession was hitting, and no one wanted it. On the plus side, people loved the art and writing, so I knew that wasn’t the issue…but I’d hear things like “too marginal an audience,” or “not quite right (white enough?) for our audience.” Also I got lots of warnings that bringing in my own artist would be a problem; though it’s common in the world of comics, it’s not done in the children’s book world.

I reached the end of the list of agents, and was lying awake nights wondering what to do. Then I heard about the Book Doctors Pitchapalooza. It’s funny, but I never realized there was a prize, or maybe I thought you just won a free copy of a book or something. I entered thinking, wow, I can test how good my pitch really is, because I didn’t know the judges, the audience, no one. Ironically, the day I did my pitch, I’d just done book talks as a librarian for six classes. So I thought, why not do it for my own book? It wasn’t until the judges were actually conferring that it occurred to me I might actually win.

The Book Doctors were the ones who connected the book to Chronicle Books and to our agent Jennifer Laughran. They made it happen. I think all publishing is like this – part talent, part hard work, and part luck. All creators can control is honing the talent and doing the work. But it’s important to do, because when luck comes your way, you want to be ready.

TBD: Why did u decide to do a graphic novel?

CC: Actually the book could have been a picture book, or a floppy comic, but graphic novels felt like the best fit, so I tried that first. I love comics- how both text and pictures tell the story. Plus graphic novels are hot! When graphic novels first came out, libraries and books stores didn’t know what to do with them. But now there are so many good graphic novels for kids, and they’ve become so popular, I think they’re figuring it out. Both Raul and I love comics and the flexibility they allow – it’s like making a movie where anything can happen – on a budget of Bic pens!

TBD: What were some of the joys and challenges of blending your words with an artist’s images?

CC: When I start writing the script, I have to be very descriptive in the sense that the script is all there is for the artist, editors and art director to work with. So I work very hard to build a world, characters and pictures in their minds. When Raul draws the thumbnails, a lot of the words I’ve written (not just dialog, but description, innuendo, expressions etc.) are now part of the illustrations, and there’s no need to have them in the text. So lots of text gets cut because it’s redundant when the art is there. Raul and I were lucky that we had great freedom to riff off of each other’s ideas, like jazz musicians, and to take as many pages as we needed to make it work. On the downside, we sometimes struggled with not being able to work together in the same place, at the same time…email and different time zones create extra hurdles when you have unwieldy edits to do.

TBD: From the first we heard your title Low Rides in Outer Space we loved it. How’d you come up with it?

CC: I don’t remember the exact moment it hit me, but it was very early on. I think it was a natural extension of the concept, which was that these characters would have a lowrider that got detailed by outer space. It’s only recently that a friend pointed out the cool little twist inherent in the title, the idea of a car designed to go low – that blasts into the highest place there is – space!!

TBD: How did you come up with the idea for the book?

CC: Daydreams. I’m a prolific daydreamer, and all my books start with stories I tell myself. That’s how the story came about. I also noted as a librarian that books on lowriders were super popular, but we only had three or four of them for kids, all nonfiction. I tried to find a book like mine, but when I saw it didn’t exist I thought, well, I’ll have to try to write it myself.

TBD: There’s been a lot of talk about diversity in publishing. What’s your take on that?

CC: We need more diverse kids books, and I’m so glad there’s pressure to change things. At Multnomah County Library where I work, we recently made a booklist of good picture books for African American kids. There wasn’t one set on the West Coast – from these books you’d think African Americans only live in brownstones in Brooklyn! Way too many were dire historical stories about slavery or hard times – where are the books about kids of color building forts, playing make believe, just doing things that kids do?

We need this book primarily so kids of color see themselves in books, but also so white culture isn’t always primary. If a book is about a generic kid, why is that kid always white? It’s important that white readers see kids of color too. I sometimes joke – when a book like Diary of a Wimpy Kid is about a girl wearing hijab – you’ll know things are changing!

TBD: How did you learn to be a writer?

CC: On my Arab side, my dad and uncle were writers, and so I grew up with the idea that writing was cool, something I’d want to do. So I’ve been writing since I was a kid. I carried a notebook around, took classes, went to conferences, was involved in writing groups and recently participated in VONA/VOICES writing workshops for people of color. But it was always self-driven, I never got an MFA, in part because I think it changes a writers voice, and also because, as Junot Diaz recently pointed out, MFA programs aren’t that supportive of writers of color.

TBD: What’s your advice for writers, both as a writer & a librarian?

CC: One crucial tip I’ll pass on is that so much of the quirky DIY stuff I did for many years for free ended up being what led to this book. For example, for decades I’ve written reviews of books for School Library Journal, Kirkus and Lambda Literary. I’ve also written and published zines and supported them as a zine librarian. I didn’t see it until now, but those things not only honed my writing skills, they created two huge support networks of people who knew my work. The adventures I’ve had and the people I’ve met via DIY vs. mainstream connections are equal. Don’t underestimate the value of what you do just because it’s not mainstream.

Also, as a librarian, I’d tell writers, don’t write in a bubble. Be aware of the market your book will fall into, its audience, and the reason why people will read it. If you’re going to spend time writing a book, do research, talk to librarians and bookstore folk about what people are reading, read other books in your category so you’ll know who your competition is. Think about what would make a publisher sink time and money to back your work. Your book may fall in a large category everyone already reads or it might be the first to fulfill a long-felt need, but that should to be part of your pitch, and an intrinsic part of the book you write.

TBD: Has Robert Rodriguez called yet?

CC: Wouldn’t that be great? I hear he loves lowriders, and Raul and I are huge fans of his movies, and how he funded them in early days, from the ground up. We love that he made Spy Kids, and that he knows how important it is for kids of color to have and be in good films too. I hope he reads our comic, it’s seems like it’d be something he’d like

Cathy Camper is the creator of Bugs Before Time: Prehistoric Insects and Their Relatives. Her work has also been featured in Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People, by Amy Sedaris, as well as in Wired, Cricket, Cicada, Primavera, Women’s Review of Books, Utne Reader, and Giant Robot. She is a graduate of VONA/Voices writing workshops for people of color in Berkeley, California. She reviews graphic novels online for Lambda Literary and is a librarian for Multnomah County Library in Portland, Oregon, where she does outreach to schools and kids in grades K-12. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

Raúl the Third’s work is drawing much acclaim and was featured in four recent exhibits: The Community Arts Initiative at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Carroll and Sons Art Gallery; the Fitchburg Art Museum; and his first solo museum exhibition at the Museum of Art, University of New Hampshire. He teaches classes on drawing and comics for kids at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Maud Morgan Arts community arts center in Cambridge; and Young Audiences of Massachusetts. Influenced by his youth in the border town of El Paso-Juarez, Raúl’s artwork recalls the old Mercado Cuauhtemoc and its many booths filled with old curiosities, etchings by José Guadalupe Posada, and the ballpoint pen–detailed fan art found in issues of Lowrider magazine. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are also co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2010).

 

 

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The Book Doctors met Lee Wilson at a Pitchapalooza (think American Idol for books) at a fantastic bookstore called pages: a book store, in Manhattan Beach, California. She was so warm, funny, passionate and professional. And she had excellent posture! Turns out that was no accident. She had been a professional dancer at the highest level. She blew us away with her pitch. We helped her with her proposal, and with the help of the amazing Toni Bentley, we hooked her up with a fantastic publisher, University Press of Florida, who does the exact kind of book she was proposing. And now, the book, Rebel on Pointe: A Memoir of Ballet & Broadway is coming out. So we thought we’d pick her brain about books, publishing, writing, and dancing.

Wilson, Lee - credit, Lesley Bohm Rebel_on_Pointe_RGB
The Book Doctors: Is it harder to be a professional dancer or writer?

Lee Wilson: I made my professional debut as a classical ballet dancer when I was sixteen. At that time, and for the next ten or fifteen years, it would have been harder to be a writer. I didn’t have the life experience, the perspective, the knowledge, or the patience I have today. At sixteen, I wanted to be financially independent. I wanted to tour the world with a ballet company and work with great dancers, like Nureyev, Bruhn, and Hightower. And I did. I danced for royalty in Monte Carlo, gun-toting revolutionaries in Algeria, American aristocrats at the Metropolitan Opera, and a galaxy of stars on Broadway, and I loved every minute of it. But the highpoints of my dance career are past, so today I would find it difficult to be a professional dancer. On the other hand, as a writer, I’m just getting started. I’ve written for TV, but Rebel on Pointe is my first book. Everything about publishing is new and exciting. Every day brings a new challenge — every day a new thrill. So today, I’d rather be a writer.

TBD: What made you decide to write a memoir?
LW: People have been telling me ever since I was twenty-one that I should write my life story, but I didn’t think about it seriously until 2008 when I was finishing my degree in Performing Arts through St. Mary’s College of California. I was writing about the subculture of dance and the great dancers and choreographers of the late 20th century, and I saw how my personal story intersected with the story of women’s rights and the transformation of American dance during the 1950s and 60s, and I thought that was a very interesting story.

TBD: What were some of the difficulties and pleasures of writing about your life?

LW: The biggest difficulty was getting a balance among the stories — personal, political and dance — because they’re all intertwined: I decided to become a dancer not only because I loved to dance, but also because I wanted to live in a community where men and women were equally respected and equally paid, and in the 1950s, that rare community was dance. While I was writing the book, I wanted to make sure that even young readers would understand the culture of the 1950s when the majority of American women were housewives, and it was legal and common to deny women jobs simply because they were women. Getting the right balance of information was tricky.

The greatest pleasure of writing about my life was reliving and reassessing the highlights of my dance career and recognizing how very fortunate I was to be a professional dancer and to live in the multicultural community of dance.

TBD: How did you go about finding a publisher?

LW: The publisher found me — thanks to you! I went to Pitchapalooza at {pages} bookstore in Manhattan Beach because I knew that when you heard my quick pitch for my memoir, you could make it better. You not only improved the pitch, but after we refined my book proposal, you sent the proposal to Toni Bentley, who sent it to the University Press of Florida. Bingo! I had a publisher.

TBD: What was it like working with your editor and publisher? How did it compare to working with a director in your dance career?

LW: I loved working with both of my editors. My acquiring editor, Meredith Morris-Babb, is the Director of the University Press of Florida. She worked with me on the big picture–content and tone. She also sent the manuscript to dance historians and gave me the benefit of their comments. After that, my project editor, Nevil Parker, worked with me on the details.

The writer/editor and the dancer/director relationships are both collaborations, but the dynamics are different. As the writer of a memoir, I was telling my own story, and the editors advised me on how to tell it. As a dancer, I was working with directors to help them tell their stories or someone else’s story.

TBD: What life lessons did you learn from being a dancer?

LW: 1) Hard work is essential for success. If you don’t work hard, you can’t compete.
2) Auditions are never a waste of time. The job you don’t get today might lead to a job tomorrow.
3) Find your passion. Passion will give your life meaning and direction and will lead you to a community where the passion of others will reinforce your own.

TBD: What life lessons did you learn from being a writer?

LW: 1) Writing about a subject–no matter how well you know it–gives you greater insight.
2) Make sure the big decisions are right because if they aren’t, the little ones don’t matter.
3) When you start down a road where you’ve never been, find people who know the road and let them guide you.

TBD: What advice do you have for dancers?

LW: Dance will enrich your life whether or not you have a career as a professional dancer. I’ve never met anyone who said, “I wish I’d spent less time dancing,” but I know many who say, “Dance is the joy of my life.”

TBD: What advice do you have for writers?

LW:In his iconic book Screenplay, Syd Field wrote, “The ending is the first thing you must know before you begin writing.” For me, this has been excellent advice. I know that some writers like to throw their characters into the ocean and see what happens. I don’t. When my characters hit the water, they’re swimming toward a specific point in the distance. They may take interesting detours; they may flash forward and flashback, but the end is a defined place, and my characters are moving toward that place from the moment I write “Chapter One” or “Fade In.”

Lee Wilson made her debut as a classical ballet dancer in a command performance for Prince Rainier and Princess Grace in Monte Carlo. She toured Europe with the Hommage au Marquis de Cuevas, was première danseuse of the Bordeaux Opera Ballet, and danced with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. Her Broadway shows include Hello, Dolly!, How Now Dow Jones, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and Meet Me in St. Louis. Lee wrote and produced the award-winning TV movie, The Miracle of the Cards. Her website is leewilsonpro.com

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are also co-authors The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 2010).

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