Back in the dark ages, I went to a writing workshop led by Jane Yolen. EVERYONE there knew more than me. EVERYONE had been published. EVERYONE was confident and cool.
Or so I thought until I bumped into Mary Nethery, leaving the dining room after yet another horrible kids’ camp meal. I don’t know what got us talking but once we started, we never stopped. We’ve been each other’s best cheerleaders and best critics ever since and, a few years ago, we became collaborators, writing two nonfiction picture books (we’re in the process of looking for our third joint project).
I am so pleased to be able to present this interview with Mary, in celebration of her brand-new picture book, The Famous Nini: A Mostly True Story of How a Plain White Cat Became a Star. If you love things feline, Italian and/or miraculous, you will adore this book, charmingly illustrated by John Manders.
Pour yourself an Americano, dump in about 5 packets of sugar and spend a few minutes getting to know Mary better.
Mary Nethery, in her office
Were you a flashlight-under-the covers or a run-and-play-and-collect-bugs kind of kid?
Actually, I was both! I ran wild with a big gang of boys in the neighborhood. We’d find the steepest roads to ride our bikes down without putting on the brakes. I have to fess up— my sister Anita, who’s now an attorney, read way more books than I did, but I was a fussy reader. I only liked to read about animals or series with spunky heroines. I love series. I wanted to throttle Margaret Mitchell when I discovered there was no sequel to Gone With the Wind.
What was the nudge/spark that set you in front of that blank paper to write for children?
My first grade teacher, Sister Mildred, would give each of us a blank piece of paper with a picture stapled to the top and we could write any story we wanted. That was my happiest school activity—that and sniffing a brand new box of crayons. When I was in second grade I started an illustrated “novel”. So, I’ve always loved to write and draw. When I began to read stories to my son, H.A., I realized I was drawn to the power of children’s books like a moth to light.
Who are the writers you read to be inspired?
I have the utmost admiration for writers like Susan Meddaugh, Mark Teague, Maira Kalman, Philip Pullman, M.T. Anderson, Meg Rosoff, Frank Cottrell Boyce. For me, these writers have very unique, sometimes eccentric, and daring voices. I’m inspired by that. I adore originality and vision and the compulsion to follow your passions no matter what the current trend.
Do you have any special writing talismans/tokens in your writing space? If so, what are they?
I’ve got something much superior to a token! I’ve got a Baby Muse!
Dashiell A. Nethery was born in Atlanta, Georgia a year and a half ago and raised in a foster care home. He prefers to call it an orphanage—much more dramatic. We found Dash on PetFinders and, with the help of an animal psychic, were able to snatch him away from a previous admirer. We then purchased an airline ticket for him, and my husband drove a 10 hour roundtrip to pick him up in Sacramento, CA since Delta will not fly animals into our airport. When I write he makes himself comfortable in a basket on a shelf above my computer,
Dash contemplating the next novel
sending me ideas and creative vibes and also great vocabulary words. As you can tell from the photos, it is exhausting, arduous, depleting and a complete drain being a writer’s muse!
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?
Uh, I’m really rotten at nourishing my literary life. You’ve hit my Achilles heel. Ouch! My dream is to be more like you. I’ve put you on a pedestal. You know how to do it. I find, though, when I’m involved in a project I’m completely obsessed with I feel nourished, excited, rejuvenated. I’m seriously going to work on this, I promise.
What’s the worst writing advice you ever received?
Probably the worst advice I’ve gotten is to worry about word-count, which can lead you to obsess over the wrong things and hence end up no
t fully engaging your reader in the dramatic landscape of the story. But the very best advice I’ve ever gotten came via a panel of three authors I heard at an SCBWI national conference. The question was posed, “Do you write for yourself or for your reader?” The line was drawn between the two authors who adamantly proclaimed that one has to write to please oneself, while the lone opponent stuck to his guns and his belief that you write for the reader. It can take an immense amount of skill, at times, to know how to emotionally impact your reader. If you’re the only one laughing or crying at your own lines, you haven’t done your job.
What was the scariest thing you’ve done as a writer?
Probably the next thing I do will be the scariest thing I’ve done as a writer.
What are you proudest of in your work?
I’m proudest of the work you and I have done together. It comes from pure intention—to tell the heroic stories of those without a voice and to be absolutely true to their lives. I’m humbled by the response from children and adults to Two Bobbies and Nubs. I’ve been brought to tears countless times after reading a letter or email telling us what our books have meant to people. I feel privileged to write with you, and to be entrusted with these remarkable stories that have the potential to change the world for the better.
How do you know when you have a story just right?
Actually, I almost never know. Of course I only send a manuscript to my agent when I feel it’s just right. But we all know how subjective “just right” is. It’s akin to the research that’s been done about communication—if you share an idea with a roomful of people, you have as many different interpretations of what you just said as you have people in the room. And I know at some point, very predictably, I will not be able see the forest for the trees.
How long was it between “I’ve got an idea” to “We’d like to publish your book”? And what happened in between those moments?
Probably about five years. What happened in between those moments? Quiet desperation. And a lot of studying and writing.
What, if anything, in the writer’s life has caught you by surprise?
I think what has surprised me the most is the heartfelt response of readers to my work and to our work together, and the realization that something I came into the world with—a passion for animals—could make such a difference to people I’ve never met.
A series of questions about work habits:
- Computer or long-hand? Both—I capture ideas on any scrap of paper that’s handy—napkins, old lists, receipts, pieces of envelopes, you name it. But the computer is my instrument of choice to actually write.
- Coffee or tea? Definitely French roast, from my JuraCapresso.
- Quiet office or music going? Quiet—I love to hear my own voice!
- Desk: messy or tidy? Completely messy (unlike the rest of my home)— I organize by the pile method. But then again I do use folders . . .
- Essential writing snack food: I like toasted sunflower seeds, with coffee. Apparently sunflower seeds increase seratonin levels. I can use all the help I can get!
I first came upon Nini’s story while watching a documentary on cats, specifically a segment titled, Aristocats. The idea that a plain white cat could somehow command world attention intrigued me. I wanted to find out why and what really happened. Working with the New York Public Library, I located the original voice who brought this story to public attention—Jan Morris, noted author and travel writer. All information cited in subsequent books by other authors comes from information provided by Ms. Morris. I contacted her, asking for her sources. She apologized for no longer remembering, as she’d gathered it in the 1950’s. I’d exhausted my sources for further information but I remained captivated. What could a cat in Venice in the 1890’s possibly have done to capture the attention of Verdi and so many luminaries on the world stage? The inability to solve this mystery inspired me to write the book. I posed the question: What does a cat have to offer that no other creature possesses. I found the answer in a simple truth—a purr, one of the most primal and soothing sounds in the universe, a gift only a cat can give.
I was transported to Italy from the very first page. What were some of the techniques you used to firmly plant us in both another country and another time? Did you travel there to conduct research?
Don’t I wish! I’m Italian, so maybe that helped. I based Nona Framboni on my own nonna. Using particular details, such as Nona for grandma; having Nona move from calling Nini, “Nini, my stray” to “Nini, my almond” and “Nini, my fig” or “my cannoli”; sprinkling the text with an easy bit of Italian phrases, as well as having Nona cross herself when she’s overcome with amazement, can add texture and authenticity. And certainly John Manders’ gorgeous illustrations transport the reader to another place in time and space. He did so much research prior to beginning the art for Nini, including studying the stylings of a Venetian artist of the time.
The theme – that being fully ourselves is the best gift we can give others–has such a powerful contemporary application. It seems we are so caught up needing “stuff” in order to be enough. Can you talk about that a bit?
The theme of giving the gift of oneself to others is a recurring theme in my work, and it’s probably just another way of talking about love. I’m fascinated by the wondering about the most basic particle of meaning in life. Torri McClure, author of A Pearl in the Storm, says “Love is what makes our humanity bearable.” What I learned from the Bobbies is that we may be here for many reasons, but one of the most profound is simply to support and love those around us—all you real
ly have to give is yourself. So fashion yourself into a totally great gift.
Disclaimer: I read this story in manuscript form and I was surprised that your editor selected the more comic style of John Manders. Talk about the illustrations and how you see them extending the story.
The way John conceptualized Nini makes me love him (Nini, not John, well John too!). He’s made Nini a character you empathize with and root for and cheer on. John’s style and way with opaque watercolors make the illustrations seem to be back-lit, almost on-stage. He creates a dynamic energy to the page, bringing the characters to life. I can’t imagine Nini illustrated in any other fashion.
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 know how to milk a cow! It’s a bit tricksy to do, trust me. Of course, who cares about the finer points of milking a cow, not a really useful talent that your readers could benefit from like knowing how to set a dessert on fire!
Thank you, Mary, for spending this time with us. I wish you — and Nini! — the best of luck.