Arbor Day for Earth Day

Warm and elegant picture books are the specialty of today’s guest. Perhaps best known for the much-beloved classic, Laura Charlotte, Kathryn Galbraith is a master of this genre. I have been blessed to have spent a goodly number of years in a critique group with her and am always in awe of her ability to hone in on what’s wonky about the shape of my work.

I’m delighted to present this interview today, on the release date of her brand-new picture book,

Pour yourself a venti Americano and get to know Kathryn Galbraith.

Were you a flashlight-under-the covers or a run-and-play-and-collect-bugs kind of kid?

I was definitely a book worm. I was really lucky because my mother loved to read too. She understood how delicious it was to sit under our red bud tree and spend an entire afternoon deep inside a story.

What was the nudge/spark that set you in front of that blank paper to write for children?

I remember writing terrible poems in the second and third grade and reading them to my patient mother, but the real spark occurred when I discovered my mother’s old copy of Little Women. Jo March became the first writer I ever knew – the first person to make the act of writing real to me. Later when I was a children’s librarian, I reread many of my childhood favorites and, of course, tried to read everything new that came across my desk. I fell back in love with children’s literature then, and that love continues to this day.

Who are the writers you read to be inspired?

I find I get inspired by reading writers in the genre/time period that match what I’m writing at the time. Right now I’m reading lots of historical fiction set during the American Civil War – novels both for children and adults. I also love to read writers’ memoirs – a favorite is Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary. It is always comforting to know that the “greats” go through dry periods and times of doubt. The creative process in fascinating in any discipline – Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit: Learn it and use it for life is a great example of that. But I get the most inspired by listening to the works in progress in my writing groups – I’m doubly lucky – I have two. Here, indeed, I can see the creative process working itself out among these amazing talented writers. All works of art are hand made and here I see the hands – the false starts, the sprints, the revisions – all of it inspires me in my own work to keep going, keep writing and keep exploring new ideas.

I love the title concept explored by Carolyn See in her Making a Literary Life: What do you do that helps you sustain and nourish your literary life?

Here is another hymn to my writing groups. First, they are all such generous and knowledgeable readers that knowing a meeting is coming up pushes me to finish a draft or a revision. I try never to go to the group empty handed. Second, there are the discussions of the manuscripts themselves. Whether it is mine or someone else’s, there is always something new to learn. One writing friend writes primarily non-fiction picture books and hearing her work inspired me to expand my own reach. Traveling Babies and the forthcoming Planting the Wild Garden are the results. Lastly, after the manuscripts are read and critiqued, we delve into the juicy stuff – agents, editors, the market and our dogs. To my mind, finding a supportive and dedicated writing group is one of the pillars to success.

What was the scariest thing you’ve done as a writer?

While I was living In New York City, I signed up for my first writing workshop ever at the New School. That alone was scary as I’d never shared my work before with a group. As it turned out, it was very large class – huge to my eyes – and the format was that the instructor read our works aloud anonymously, and then people would give their comments. The first time Margaret Gabel read one of my picture books, I was so nervous, my desk actually vibrated. The good news is that I survived and published my first two books there. That was such a powerful lesson for me – to push beyond my comfort zone and keep pushing.

What, if anything, in the writer’s life has caught you by surprise?

I guess it would be the pattern, not of writing, but of my publishing career. My first picture book manuscript was published by the first editor who read it. Clearly I was on my way. Only I wasn’t. That first book, Spots are Special, was on its way, but my next book to the very same editor was declined. (I prefer that word to “rejected,” but rejected is how I felt.) Another time I sold one, two, three short chapter books and was clearly on my way. Only I wasn’t. The fourth book was deee-clined. This spring my 14th book came out. Am I finally on my way? Now I can say yes, but not for the reason you might be thinking. I can say yes because I discovered over the years how stubborn I am (a kinder word might be persistent) and how hard I’m willing to work and that whether the current manuscript is accepted or not, I love the process, love the act of creating new worlds, and, unless or until, that ever changes, I’m on my way.

A series of questions about work habits:

Computer or long-hand? I take notes usually in long-hand but after that I use a computer.

Coffee or tea? Coffee is my favorite, but I do own more boxes of teas than one person can drink in a lifetime.

Quiet office or music going? Words other than the ones in my head while I’m writing are distracting and when I listen to classical music, I find myself humming along. So quiet works best.

Desk: messy or tidy? Messy, messy, messy. That is, until I get stuck somehow in my story. Then I spend my writing time clearing off stacks of books, papers, magazines I’ve been meaning to read, and magazines I’ve read but kept so I could cut out articles for my files, and letters I haven’t answered yet. By the time I’m finished, I’ve usually solved whatever story problem I had, and the cycle starts all over again.

Essential writing snack food: It used to be pretzels, then I “expanded” to M&Ms in both senses of the word, and now I write cold-turkey.

About your new book:

Having had the chance to read an earlier version of Arbor Day Square, I was delighted to see the lovely final product. Tell us what prompted you to write about Arbor Day.

In 1999 I saw an editorial about Arbor Day and I cut it out and dropped it into my idea folder. I would come upon it from time to time, but nothing sparked. Then in 2005, I came upon the article again and decided to do some research, thinking I might write a non-fiction picture book about the founding of Arbor Day. I did the research, but then a story began to grow in my mind of a little prairie town planting its trees year after year and how, as time passed, both the trees and the community grow. That’s when I knew I’d found the story I really wanted to tell.

Why did you choose to set it in the past?

I didn’t so much as choose to set it in the past, as the story from the very first image was in the past.

You live in the Pacific Northwest, but set the story on the prairie. Was there a specific reason for that choice? And don’t say it’s because we already have too many trees here!

There are logical reasons for setting the story on the prairies, but again it didn’t feel like a choice. The emotion of the story – the yearning for trees – the yearning to make a new place feel like home, was always there from the very beginning.

There’s such a strong father-daughter relationship; can you talk about what that adds to the overall story?

For me, it’s the heart of the story. I hope it creates for the reader a sense of safety and love, and the idea that those strong, loving bonds can continue, as they do with Katie and her Papa, throughout our lives. This is also true of Mama even through she has died before the story begins. The sense of love and family is expressed when they plant a flowering dogwood in her memory. Later when Katie has a child of her own, the dogwood becomes the “grandmother tree.”

Tell us about the illustrations. How do you see them enriching your text?

Cyd Moore’s simple, lively, warm, charming, cheerful – can you tell how much I love them! – illustrations perfectly match the tone of the story. Now I can’t think of the story now without seeing her illustrations in my mind.

This is not specific to this book, but you’ve written so many tight, evocative and kid-centered picture books in your career. Can you tell us a bit about your process?

For picture books, the process seems to begin with just one idea, one spark. Sometimes I write it down in my idea notebook and let it sit. Other times, the idea has enough energy and juice that I open a new file in the computer and free write. No, free write is too organized a description. What I do is word doodle. Sometimes that leads to a dead-end. Other times the story continues to grow (very roughly) until I can see the end. Then I begin to write it out, shaping the story as I go. I write and rewrite, over and over until I feel I really have a story. Then I make a dummy. A dummy is a crucial step. I read the dummy out loud and every time I find a place where my tongue stumbles, I make changes. If there is no reason to turn a page, I go back to the computer because my timing is off. There HAS to be a reason for the reader to want to turn the page. If there isn’t, you lose her. If the end feels long, I rewrite it. Back and forth between dummy and computer. This period can last for days or weeks or months until I’m completely satisfied. Then I share the manuscript with my groups, take in their comments and revise again. And then I create a new dummy and read & reread until the manuscript feels tight and smooth and all of a piece.

Prior interviewees have shared secret talents with us (for example, Susan Patron shared her recipe for making a flaming dessert). What secret talent do you have that we might not know about?

I’m a great sous-chef. My husband does all the cooking, but I’m the best salad-maker, veggie chopper, and dishwasher you ever met!

Thank you, Kathryn! I wish you great success with this charming new book.

No Responses to “Arbor Day for Earth Day”

  1. Grier Jewell

    Great interview and insights into the writing/publishing process. I also have Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit. I love the concept that if we make a regular practice of creating, the subconscious mind will be working on the project even when we’re doing other things–simply because it knows we’ll show up.

    But she raises something else I’m wondering about, and that’s the issue of writer’s groups. I get that they’re good, but the truth is that some are not–how many groups have you gone through, or have you always stuck with the same folks? What if it’s not working out, how do you go about “breaking up” the relationship? What about people who make joking digs? Can you talk about this on your blog some day, Kirby?