If you’re hiking the rocky road to publishing, you need two things.
1. A sturdy, water-resistant pair of hiking boots.
2. A friend like Anne Marie Pace.
We first met (virtually, anyway) in September of 2004 when I wrote a story forLadybug Magazine. AM wrote me a note, saying she’d liked it. I’d spent the past few years living in a vacuum, not publishing much, sending out the occasional query and getting back the occasional “no.” That e-mail from Anne Marie was like a lifeline, and I held on. When I moved to Northern Virginia a year later, I wanted to get involved in the writing community right away, so I went to the editor of the regional SCBWI newsletter and offered to help out. My first assignment, from the dynamic Moira Rose Donohue, was to do a profile on … Anne Marie. Kismet! Today I can trace about half of the people I know in kidlit straight back to her. She knows everyone. She supports everyone. Karma? The woman has it coming to her in spades. As she gets ready to launch her new book, I’m betting there are enough AM fans to do the wave from here to Belo Horizonte.
AM has slept on my real couch (a proper sign will be erected later) but today she’s sitting on my virtual one to talk about Vampirina Ballerina, which was officially released yesterday by Hyperion.
Me: Tell us a little about when you first got the idea for Vampirina. Which came first? Chicken, egg, plot or title?
AM: Unusually for me, the concept came first. I was playing with contrasts and came up with the idea of a vampire ballerina. I was intrigued, so I brainstormed a list of vampire characteristics (for example, that vampires can’t see themselves in mirrors) and thought about how they would make ballet class difficult; and it developed from there.
Me: The character has deepened so much since your first draft of the story, and I know, when I hear you talk about her, that you know just what Vampirina would do in pretty much any situation. Tell me a little about the first time you saw what illustrator LeUyen Pham had done with her. I know you’d had good experiences with your Scholastic books. Still: it’s scary stuff!
AM: One of the most exciting things in the world for me as a picture book writer is to see how the illustrator brings the characters to life. My first glimpses of Vampirina and her family and friends were simple black and white sketches, but I could already see the energy and humor LeUyen was going to contribute. Our editor, Kevin Lewis, orchestrated a wonderful collaboration among the three of us.
Me: You took ballet when you were a kid, right?
AM: Actually, I may have made it through six lessons before my mother withdrew me from the class. However, in upper elementary and junior high, I took Irish dancing, long before Riverdance made Irish dancing cool. I wasn’t a great dancer, but I fell in love with Irish music and have fabulous memories of 11-year-old me performing in pubs in downtown Washington D.C. on St. Patrick’s Day.
Me: What about your girls?
AM: My daughters lasted longer at ballet than I did. I think each of them had two or three years of dance before moving on to other interests. But we have wonderful memories (and videos) of buns and tutus and recitals.
Me: What was your toughest position or step?
AM: I think the hardest thing for me was just paying attention. I was really more of a dreamy sort, a reader and writer. Anything that involved movement was less interesting to me. As an adult, I realize that’s not healthy, but as a kid, I was much happier curled up in a chair with a book than playing outside.
Me: Vampirina’s problem isn’t necessarily fifth position – it’s fitting in. And believing in herself, of course. Has this been a problem for you? (Note: I feel like it’s STILL a problem for me…)
AM: I often felt like an outsider in elementary school—I felt bullied and left out—but in watching my children negotiate that upper-elementary/middle-school stage of life, and talking to other parents, it seems like that many, if not most of us, had similar feelings. Some of the most awesomely grounded adults I know have that shared experience of being an outsider as a child, so I know it’s possible to move through that stage with grace and come out strong in the end. But it’s a mistake to ignore the pain and sadness a kid feels in that situation. Growing up is hard work.
Me: I know that while you don’t dance any more, you do sing. Do you ever have stage fright? Do you remember having it as a kid? Is that how you were able to describe it so well?
AM: Oh, I think stage fright is normal when we care about what we’re doing and want to put our best selves forward. The worst part of my stage fright is that I can’t predict when it will appear. Whether I’m singing or speaking to an audience, one time will be a breeze and the next, my knees will knock so loudly you’d think I was channeling Keith Moon.
Me: Do you feel like there’s any stage fright involved with having a book published? Does it feel the same?
AM: Again, it’s about wanting to put your best self forward, and there’s a risk involved with that. But creating a picture book like VAMPIRINA BALLERINA is very much a team effort. It’s not just my work and LeUyen’s work—it’s the contribution of our editor, the art director, the Disney-Hyperion team. That support and collegiality make the risk easier to bear.
Me: How long have you wanted to write?
AM: I have numerous folders of writing that I did in sixth and seventh grade, so I can say for sure I was spending a lot of free time writing by then.
Me: Exactly how long have you wanted to be a Countess, and what does that entail, exactly?
AM: You’d need to talk to LeUyen about that. She’s the one who dubbed me.
Me: Since we’re talking about vampires: are you a morning person or a night owl? (Or bat?)
AM: I go to bed around 11 and get up around 7—I don’t think either group would claim me.
Me: Most frustrating moment on the publishing path? Most triumphant?
AM: I honestly don’t think I could pick one at either end of the spectrum. A funny frustrating one occurred a number of years ago when I received a rejection. This was before I was working with my agent, Linda Pratt, so the rejection letter came directly to me. This particular rejection hit hard, and my kids saw me crying. One of my daughters wrote the editor a scathing reply, complete with proper business-letter format. Luckily, I intercepted it before it was mailed.
Me: Favorite type of dance?
AM: The dancing that I do in the kitchen that embarrasses my teenagers.
Me: Because you are one of the few people I know who is lucky enough to use a treadmill desk, talk about that for a minute… How much writing do you do there?
AM: I’ve gone through periods where I can do about two hours of writing on the treadmill desk, but right now I’m in a place where I’d rather write in my red armchair, so I make use of the treadmill desk for other tasks—bill-paying, Daily Show-watching, emailing.
Me: I’m convinced most good ideas come in the shower. True for you or is there somewhere else you find inspiration?
AM: The best ideas come whenever I don’t have a pen and paper to write them down.
Me: Tell us a little about your writing group.
AM: I have two: one online and one in real-life. The face-to-face group came about through local members of the SCBWI (the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). When we started, we had only one published author—now all of us are published. It’s been a great journey together. The online group came together when a writer friend advertised on Verla Kay’s Blueboards that she was looking to form a critique group. We live all over the Western hemisphere, Brazil to Canada, Virginia to California.
Me: What are you working on next?
AM: Oh, I’ve always got something in the works. I’ve got a middle-grade novel, a chapter book, and five or six picture books in various stages of revision. And Vampirina might have more dancing to do . . . we’ll see.
Me: What’s your secret talent?
And Me again: Shockingly, AM wasn’t sure she had an answer for this, so I’ll put one here, even though it’s probably not such a secret: Anne Marie is incredible at creating community anywhere she goes — online or off.
HUGE congratulations to Anne Marie on the publication of Vampirina! To see her in person in Northern Virginia, visit Hooray for Books on Aug. 25th at 2 p.m. To find out about other events, visit Vampirina’s Facebook Page.