Sunday, March 8, 2009

From Poetry to Prose: An Interview with Author Irene Latham

Irene Latham comes to YA writing from the world of poetry, where she has already published a full-length collection of poems. The book, What Came Before, won an IPPY (Independent Press) Award and was named Alabama State Poetry Society's Book of the Year. I think it’s safe to say Irene is no slouch when it comes to using language! I can’t wait to see how she applies her poetic voice to young adult fiction.

Irene will be one of the first Tenners to be published; her book, Leaving Gee’s Bend, will be released by G.P. Putnam's Sons in January of 2010. Here’s the beautiful cover and a short synopsis:

A ten year old girl in Depression-era Gee’s Bend, Alabama, sets out to save her sick mother and records her adventures in quilt pieces.

Now on to the questions!

Can you tell us how did you meet your agent?
I met Rosemary Stimola at an SCBWI Southern-Breeze (AL-GA-MS) conference in October 2006. Or rather, I sat in the back row and listened to her speak. I was too shy to introduce myself. But I really liked her straightforward approach and thought if I ever decided to pursue an agent, she was who I was going to go for. My dream at the time was to be one of those slush-pile miracles, so I had only been subbing to editors--I really hadn’t considered getting an agent until I met Rosemary.

Can you tell us how your book deal happened?
I sent a Gee’s Bend story I’d written in verse (poetry: my comfort zone!) to Rosemary just after the conference. She promptly declined -- said she had a novel-in-verse sitting on her desk that she couldn’t sell. So instead of feeling sorry for myself (well, AFTER feeling sorry for myself), I decided I would rewrite the story in prose. So I worked on that for several months and re-subbed to Rosemary as if we had never had the previous contact. And this time, she said YES and sent it to the editor she had in mind. That editor was Stacey Barney at Putnam, and she really liked the voice of the story but didn’t feel like it was quite fleshed-out enough. (again, I write lots of poetry, which is of course very spare: manuscript was only 17,000 words!) She requested a revision, so I got busy adding meat to those bones. Stacey liked what I did with the story, and at that point Putnam offered a contract.

You’ve had a book of poetry published, was that harder or easier to sell than fiction?
Poetry is a much more elusive animal than fiction. It is extremely difficult to sell because there is virtually no market for poetry. My experience has been with small independent presses where there are no advances and a book is considered a success if it breaks even financially. It’s definitely one of those things you do because you love it. And I do.

What was the inspiration for Leaving Gee’s Bend and how long did it take you to write?
On a trip to New York City in the fall of 2003, my husband and I visited the Quilts of Gee’s Bend exhibit at the Whitney Museum. I was completely enamored of the quilts and the voices of the women from this teeny tiny isolated community that is geographically only 120 miles from my home in Birmingham, Alabama. Couple this fascination with the fact that I am the daughter of an amazing seamstress who very early on put a needle and thread in my hands, and it’s no mystery where this story comes from. The story that sold was the fourth one I had written set in Gee’s Bend. So from the point of seeing the quilt exhibit to the point of sale, it was right at four years. It took me that long to find the story I was meant to tell all along - Ludelphia’s story.

What are you working on now?
I’ve just completed the third draft of another midgrade historical fiction: ESCAPE FROM FIRE MOUNTAIN. It’s set in 1902 Martinique and chronicles the adventures of two girls (one native, one American) during the eruption of Mt. Pelee (an eruption that claimed 30,000 lives). So I’ve zipped that one off to my agent and now I’m working on a contemporary midgrade DON’T FEED THE ANIMALS. It’s set in an Alabama zoo and is about the son of a zoo director mom and elephant keeper dad whose terrible misfortune is that he was born human (with no particular interest in exotic animals).

Did your childhood dreams include being a writer?
According to my Dr. Seuss’ My book About Me, six year old me wanted to be a writer, a mother, a veterinarian…. and a horse trainer for the horse that my sister would ride to victory in the Kentucky Derby. So far that hasn’t happened, but I do write books, live with three sons and over the years have had all manner of pets, including horses, rabbits, goats, chickens, hamsters, parakeets, fish, ferrets, snakes, frogs, turtles, cats, dogs, ants and butterflies.

Do you have any words of wisdom for writers trying to get published?
Be the Little Engine that Could. And instead of getting frantic about a manuscript that is not selling, transfer all that energy into writing the next thing. Every word you write makes you a better writer.

Thanks for the interview, Irene! For more information about Irene Latham, check out her website or blog, or become friend on Facebook. To read her award-winning book, get a copy here.


Suzanne Young said...

Love Irene's author advice. Great interview (as always!)

And gorgeous cover, Irene!!!!!

jennie said...

Irene the Poet: brimming with integrity and depth.

Can't wait to open LEAVING. Bet it's fluid and lyrical. Mmmmm...

AC said...

Gee's Bend is an Alabama state treasure, no doubt. I can't wait to read this book!

Hardygirl said...

rene is so talented. This is going to be such an amazing book--and how fun to be the first tenner!

Great advice about working on the NEXT project. That is exactly where I am right now.


Anonymous said...

Ditto on writing the next book - I think I can, I think I can . . .

Irene Latham said...

Some days are definitely better than others with the whole Little Engine thing. :) Christy, thanks so much for having me. And these comments are a real shot in the arm. xxoo

Christy Raedeke said...

It is my pleasure, Irene! It's fun to be able to show a cover with an interview.

Anonymous said...

This blog is becoming my Amazon shopping list for 2010! I do hope you will let us know when each of these is available for preorder.

Irene, I salute you for writing about Gee's Bend. I also saw that exhibit in New York and was blown away. Looking forward to reading your book.


Casey said...

What a fabulous interview! And what a gorgeous cover - love it!!

Improvedliving said...

Irene the Poet: brimming with integrity and depth.

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