Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Interview with author BARRY WITTENSTEIN

First books are so exciting! Usually it is artists who come to class at The School of Visual Arts but Barry Wittenstein came as a writer. He wanted to learn more about books from the illustrator's point of view. He had the right idea that he might improve his writing if he understood more about how illustrators work on books. And now, let's celebrate his first book, WAITING FOR PUMPSIE, illustrated by London Ladd. 

In 1959 the Boston Red Sox was the last baseball team in the Major Leagues to integrate. But when they call Elijah “Pumpsie” Green up from the minors, Bernard, the child narrator, is overjoyed to see a black player on his beloved home team... It has received great reviews and is a selection for the Junior Library Guild. Congratulations!

It is exciting to hear about a debut author's journey to publication – can you tell us about yours?
My journey certainly has been a long and winding road. I’m happy where I’ve ended up, but it took me a long time to get here.  I guess that was my journey.

I have always been a creative person. I’ve tried everything from photography to songwriting, poetry, sports articles and reviewing. Both in college and after, I have taken classes in memoir, creative nonfiction, screenwriting, picture books, even greeting cards!  But there was never a thought of giving up, even when nothing seemed to be clicking. Which was most of the time.  I knew “my voice” had to be heard. I promised myself that if it was the last thing I’d do, I had to receive some acknowledgment for my creativity. Just a sip from the cup of success!   Finally! It's happened.

How did PUMPSIE get started?
I am and always was a huge baseball fan. And as every fan of the game knows, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with Brooklyn in 1947. But I think that it especially resonated a bit more if you grew up around, or close to, New York City like I did.

My favorite team growing up was the New York Mets. When I was 9 years old, in 1963, the Mets traded for a player. His name was Pumpsie Green from the Boston Red Sox. He didn’t last long, and soon retired. But how can you not remember a name like that?

As l got older and learned more about the history of baseball, I learned that the Boston Red Sox were the last team to integrate. The first African-American player to suit up for Boston in 1959 was Pumpsie Green. Pumpsie’s story and the story of Boston Red Sox racism have been written about extensively for adult readers. But I began to realize that few kids knew Pumpsie’s name or his struggles. Most people (except for die-hard fans of the game) considered what transpired in with Major League Baseball integration beyond Jackie Robinson.

When I began to work as a NYC substitute teacher in elementary schools, this was reinforced.  It got me thinking about what stories are handed down from one generation to another. And the process by which they are handed down. Pumpsie’s story provided the bookend to Jackie Robinson crossing the color line twelve years earlier. Pumpsie added a bit of context to that era, and major league baseball’s efforts.

Can you describe some of your steps of working on PUMPSIE?
First of all, it’s the light bulb over the head moment. Like, yeah! That’s a great subject! Then I research whether or not the story has been done as a picture book. If it has, then I drill down deeper and research whether my specific angle has been done. Since I’m only writing picture books for the 5-8 age group, it’s okay if it’s been written about in MG or YA. “Pumpsie” had not appeared in kid’s lit, so this was an easy one.  

When I was ready, I pitched the story around. At that time I was calling it “Pumpsie, the Red Sox, and Me.” All rejected it. I sent it up to Charlesbridge, a smaller, independent company based in Boston. I had pitched a few things to them previously, all without success. I thought “Pumpsie” had a chance. But, again, no luck.  I was disappointed because I thought it would be a perfect fit, especially since the story took place in Boston.

I wrote Charlesbridge a note saying that they really should take another look at Pumpsie. I rarely, if ever, do that. A rejection is a rejection. It’s usually a waste of time and a bit amateurish to get involved in a conversation. It’s better just to thank the editor and continue on. To my surprise, Karen Boss, a different Charlesbridge editor than the one I had sent the story to, got back to me and wanted to sign it.

What was your favorite part of working on this book?  And the most difficult part?  

Favorite part was finding the voice of the main character, eight-year-old Bernard. Of course, it’s somewhat autobiographical. How could it not be, right? Bernard is na├»ve, but catches on quickly, is honest, has a sense of humor, and loves his hometown team. It’s been half a century since I was eight, so I had to put myself back into that mindset. Would Bernard say this or that? And what would a kid like Bernard say in 1959? For some reason, it wasn’t that hard to do.

The hardest part was not PUMPSIE specific. It was learning how a picture book is put together. Page turns, using back matter to fill in details. The basics! There’s nothing that substitutes working with a professional editor like Karen, and having her guide me…and the process. 

Did you have illustration ideas for the book, 
or were you involved in that part of the book at any stage?
No - I was happy just to focus on the words, and not get caught up in the visuals. I also trusted Karen to guide the process. Which she did brilliantly.
They were nice enough to ask me if I had any illustrator suggestions. I did find some work of illustrators and ran those ideas past Charlesbridge. Looking back, they were terrible suggestions. Great illustrators, but wrong for PUMPSIE. Karen suggested London Ladd, who I never heard of at this point. Thing is, I never heard of anybody!  But I looked him up, saw that he had done picture books about Oprah Winfrey, Martin Luther King, Jr., Frederick Douglass and others, and knew he was the perfect choice.

Once the sketches were submitted, Karen did let me review them, and I noticed a few minor details that London was good enough to tweak.

Sketches from London Ladd for the cover and a sample interior page.

Have you met the illustrator London Ladd?
I have not, although we have exchanged emails. I feel incredibly lucky to have London work on one of my books, no less my debut. His vision and artistry made my words come alive.  He also told me – and I think this is important to include – that my words made it easy for him to “see” the story. I’m paraphrasing, but that’s a great compliment about making his job easier.  In turn, the entire project benefits. You always want to make the illustrator’s job as easy as possible. That’s a big lesson I have learned about writing visually.

Did you have some rejections along the way? How did you find your agent, publisher and editor? 
Initially, I did not have an agent. I pitched it myself and it was signed due to my efforts. I subsequently signed with Karen Grencik to assist with contract negotiations.
But regarding rejections, if you don’t have rejections you’re not trying hard enough. Of course, PUMPSIE got rejected. What I have learned is that there are many reasons for a manuscript not to be accepted. It might not be the genre or written in the style that the editor is looking for. It might duplicate a similar story they’ve already signed. Or the writing might be weak! Sometimes the editor (or agent) will provide some info why it didn’t make the cut.  Other times, it’s a form letter.

Where is your favorite place to write?
Any place as long as it's not at home! I like to be out and about.  Coffee shops. The park.  I like white noise.  Helps me focus. Too many distractions at home. I have to clean that room. The dog needs her belly rubbed. Who’s at the door?

Do you have a writing routine?
No. Except that I try to write as much as possible. On my iPhone, iPad, on a subway, walking down the street and having to stop to notate something, in the middle of the night, whatever and wherever. I am always thinking of new stories, how to complete old stories, where to pitch, etc. I keep my eyes and ears open to things people say, situations I see. I don’t wait for the muse to visit. I demand that she does!

What were you like as a child?  Did you always write stories when you were very young? 
When I a kid was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I loved two things. Baseball and the Beatles. There were few picture books. Or, at least, they didn’t cross my path. In high school I wrote for the school newspaper. But, what really turned me on was the Beat poetry of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Especially his, Coney Island of the Mind poems. Not that I was introduced to that in school. But my older brother, who was into jazz and knew of the Beat poets, bought me the book. It blew me out of the water, the topics, the irreverence, all of it. That really was the door to my own pursuit of poetry and writing.

When/How did you decide you wanted to do children's books? 
I went back to get my Masters in Childhood Education around 2011.  This was 40 years after getting my BA in English. I had just left my job as a web editor with Major League Baseball, and I needed a source of income. So, I enrolled in Hunter College in New York and got through about half the credits I needed to become a teacher. The teacher profession does not discriminate based on age. And I was 58 at the time. So, at Hunter, I took a class onteaching of reading, writing, and children’s literature. There I got really introduced to contemporary children’s picture books. Up until this point, I was trying to write screenplays, a memoir, etc. But I guess this class really piqued my interest. So, I figured, I’d try this, too.  I was running out of genres.

Do you have more projects in the works that you can tell us about?
Besides Waiting for Pumpsie, Charlesbridge also signed a second picture book of mine about the inventor of the Band-Aid. This comes out in February 2018.  Then, in January 2019, Neal Porter signed a picture book about Martin Luther King, Jr. I met Neal at a SCBWI conference in LA last summer, sent him a few things, and he liked my second submission. So, that was quite a coup since Neal is a legend in the business (and a great guy, I might add). Then, he sent the manuscript to illustrator Jerry Pinkney who agreed to illustrate it. So, a double coup. Besides that, I am always, always pitching material. My mantra now is I need to get a picture book lined up for publication for 2020. Since it takes two years from signing to release, I have a little bit of time, but am still working hard. It is like pushing a boulder up a hill.  

Is there anything you learned back in class that has particularly stayed with you?
Starting with your class, and continuing through my projects, I have a fuller understanding of how the illustrator does her job. Meaning, as a writer, my natural tendency is to overwrite. Adjectives. Adverbs. Too much description. Then I would add a zillion illustrator notes. I’ve had to develop my visual sense, to put myself in an illustrator’s shoes and imagine how my words would appear on a page. Not that I nail it every time. I still get rejection notes from editors saying, “I couldn’t ‘see’ this story.” Or,” I found it difficult to imagine how this would look on a page.” So, I think of how movie scenes keep the storyline going. I guess my classes in screenwriting weren’t a total waste!

Do you have any special words of advice or encouragement for writers starting out now?
Like any other creative endeavor, writing children’s literature is difficult. And each genre within children’s lit has its own rules, too. There is a lot to learn, but you learn by doing. Take classes –either online or in person -- write everyday, go to conferences, join organizations like SCBWI, be polite and use a sense of humor and humility when sending out material (it’s a small business and word gets around when a writer is problematic). Get involved in Facebook groups; follow other writers, etc. etc. etc. Dive in. Be a sponge. And don’t be afraid of rejection. Woody Allen once said about success, “Showing up is 80% of life.” So, show up. And don’t give up.

Thank you, Barry, for bringing us behind-the-scenes to hear about the creation of Pumpsie! So inspiring!
Barry's website is here at www.onedogwoof.com and twitter: @onedogwoof
Illustrator London Ladd's website is here at www.londonladd.com/ 

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