Friday, October 10, 2008

Interview with Elvira Woodruff on Community Fridays

Welcome to Community Fridays!

During Community Fridays, I interview authors, editors, publishers, and pretty much anyone else who I can get my hands on from the writing and publishing communities. Hope you enjoy, and feel free to suggest new participants. Check out current and past interviews here. Only have a minute? Click here for interviews at a glance.

I'm interviewing Elvira Woodruff today. She's the author of such books as The Ravenmaster's Secret and George Washington's Socks.

At the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers' Group annual conference this year, you spoke about the great lengths you go to in order to get accurate information for your books. For example, you traveled to England to interview the Ravenmaster for your book The Ravenmaster's Secret. Could you tell us a little more about your techniques? Any interesting research or travel stories?

I do try to travel to the places I am writing about, but when I first started out I was so broke I could only afford to go to my library for research. I couldn't even afford to buy my research books. I'll never forget when my editor called after my first historical fiction, George Washington's Socks, was handed in and she asked if I could put together a bibliography for the book. "Look around your study for the books you used and I'll call you back in ten minutes for a list," she said. I told her she'd have to give me longer than that because I had returned all of my research books to my library. It actually made for a good opening to a speech I gave to the Pa. Librarians Assoc. after they chose my Ravenmaster's Secret as a winner a few years back. But it was a true story and I think it just goes to show how indebted we writers are to libraries and all of those good people who care about books. I still use my library every week.

As much as I love and use books for researching historical projects, there's nothing like visiting the site of your story. And what I value most is the unexpected discoveries you can make there. For instance when I visited the Tower of London for my Raven book I saw a rat trap built in the 1700's. People were lining up to see the royal jewels in the Tower, but to me, that rat trap was far more interesting. It made me curious about the problem of rats at the Tower and I went on to learn that there was an official rat catcher to the King. This led me to create a character called Rat in my story, who worked for the Tower's rat catcher.

Another time I was visiting the Ellis Island Museum, researching my Orphan of Ellis Island, when I spotted a display of immigrant graffiti. My attention was drawn to what looked like a little goat with wings. That image stayed with me and not only gave me the character of Violetta, the goat in my story, but also brought the story full circle as my character scratches that image on a pillar at Ellis Island as he's waiting in line at the end of the story....I also found a great photograph of an Italian boy and his family in the museum's gift shop. I brought it home and hung it in my study. That picture became my touchstone. Just looking at it gave me hope that I could finish the story. It became so important to the writing that I insisted my editor put it on the back cover of the book. A few years later when the book came out a teacher called from Brooklyn. She had read the story with her fifth graders and told them to go home and research their own family histories. One girl went to her great grandmother's house and was shown a scrapbook. In it was a yellowed newspaper clipping of an Italian boy and his family at Ellis Island. It was the same picture on the back of my book, a picture of her great, great grandfather. What a thrill for all of us! And I would have missed it if I hadn't gone to the museum to research in the first place.

You are a well-known speaker in addition to being a published author. What was your first speaking engagement like?

My first big speaking engagement was terrifying, bordering on surreal. I had always been a shy person and the idea of speaking in public was something I didn't want to have to do. But one of my early books had won a state award down in Florida and somehow my editor convinced me to fly down to Miami, where I was to speak for an hour to 150,000 librarians! Now mind you, I had only gone to college for a year and a half - after which I had a slew of jobs - everything from driving an ice-cream truck to working as a janitor (none of them requiring public speaking skills). My great fear was that here were all of these librarians expecting to hear something deep and meaningful and of course I had nothing like that to say!

My tofu eating, mellow-fellow of a boyfriend at the time, assured me that 'The universe will give you what you need'........ He said don't force the speech. It will come to you........ So I didn't force it........ didn't worry about it....... didn't write it....... And that's how I ended up two months later, on a plane to Miami, with a suitcase full of clothes and no speech! I actually imagined that I'd get inspired with my back to the wall and write it on the plane! But a ridiculously good looking guy was sitting next to me and the tofu eater's face and bad advice was fading in my mind......... Instead of thinking of him or the speech, I was thinking, "Do I have enough lipstick on?".......... Before I knew it the plane's wheels were coming down and we were landing! I thought to myself, Don't panic.

The plan was that I was to be taken out to lunch and then on to the ballroom to give my speech. I'll say I'm not feeling well (not an exaggeration, as my head was killing me with the stress of it all) and I would prefer if they just left me for the hour in the airport so I could rest.....(and write my speech). But there at the gate to meet me was not only a group of librarians but kids in their Sunday best with a sign, Welcome our Favorite Author, Elvira Woodruff! It seems they had won a contest and the prize was they got to have lunch with the author!!!!!!!!!! So of course, I couldn't say anything but, "Oh, how great to meet you all. Where are we going for lunch?" That's when the surreal part really kicked in. All through lunch I kept smiling and thinking, "My God, I'm going to a get up on a stage in a little while, in front of these kids and hundreds of other people, and I have nothing to say!!!!!!!!!!!! They drove me to the hotel and guided me in to this gigantic ball room. It was just as I imagined - a sea of heads, a raised stage, a lone microphone.....I felt like I was on the way to the guillotine. But beside the terror, there was another part of my mind that was looking at the whole thing and wondering, How is this going to end? And then it hit me. Avi had also won for one of his books and was to speak before me. I will just listen very carefully to what Avi says and try to riff off of that..... My breathing, had finally slowed enough for me to get some air. I had a solution! I could do this after all. The seat beside me was empty. I looked around and wondered where Avi was. A few moments later one of the librarians came up to me and said, "We just got word that Avi is sick and won't be speaking after all. Do you think you could make your speech a little longer?"

Now have you ever had one of those dreams where you are at your first day of high school or college and you discover that you are wearing no clothes? It was that kind of moment. And honestly, by this point, I was so stunned I stopped being nervous. It was just too ridiculous. As I heard my name called and walked up to the microphone, I kept thinking. Wow, I wonder what will happen next. I have nothing to say. Not one word! So what I did was I went all the way back to the beginning and told them the story right from the start - including the tofu-eating, bad advice giving boyfriend....... and the funny thing was they laughed and seemed to enjoy it. It was a great lesson. I went home, threw out all of my tofu, along with the boyfriend, and never showed up for an event ill-prepared again. And whenever I did write a speech after that I made sure to mention the failures, the flops, and near misses that we all have to work through when we're in the business of creating art. Because in the end, people are more curious about our failures than our successes. They want to hear the how you navigate those rough patches. Oh, and more thing. Librarians don't always look for the deep and the meaningful. They like to laugh, too.

What was the most major roadblock you encountered along the way to getting published, and how did you overcome it?

My major roadblock in my publishing career was my lack of business sense. I didn't read contracts for years. I also stayed with a small house for too long. They were great to begin with, but they didn't market the books and they had such small distribution, the sales never amounted to much. I also didn't want an agent, but years later I did get one and it didn't turn out to be a great thing. He made my editor cry! And with the competition there is today, you want to keep on good terms with your editor at all costs. My mistake was being impulsive and hiring an agent without checking him out enough. If I had it to do over, I would talk to people who worked with him first. I did fire him, but he still collects a percentage for the life of the book.

Any advice for emerging authors like me just getting started on the path to publication?

My advice to new writers getting into the business is to try for a big house like Scholastic, Inc. or Random House, but if you can't get in, try a smaller publisher, like Holiday House or Boyds Mills. You can also get noticed with magazine writing, which doesn't pay much, but it does get your stories in print, always a good thing to show an editor. I'd also look at getting a good agent. I'd join SCBWI and go to as many of their events as I could. The One On One conference in New Brunswick, NJ is a great place for new writers to hook up with editors and agents.

Do you have any interesting projects or events coming up in the near future?

I'm working on a sequel to my very first historical fiction - George Washington's Socks. The working title is Ben Franklin's Boots. I have a thing for the American Revolution (and footwear).

Lastly, because this feature is about establishing bonds within the writing and publishing industries, can you name one author, editor or publisher who's doing great things right now, and why?

A house I think would be great for a new writer to hook up with is Sleeping Bear out of Michigan. I love the books they are putting out. I know several writers who've worked with them and they rave about their experiences. They are a small house, but have lots of energy and are very creative about marketing.... just a great house all around.

About the Author

Visit Elvira's website here.



© Emma Larkins and Elvira Woodruff
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