Thursday, September 19, 2013

An Interview with Jill Davis, Executive Editor, Katherine Tegen Books/Harper Collins and Susan

Today readers, we’ve got an interview with Jill Davis, an Executive Editor at Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins.  I met Jill years ago when she was an editor at Viking Children’s Books and I sat a few doors down in the marketing department.  If I remember correctly, she and I bonded early on over our mutual love of the tuna melt.  (Don’t tell me that you don’t love a good tuna melt. Do not).  But more importantly: Jill didn’t acquire a book that I didn’t fall head over heels for.  And, in that way, she made my job easy – because it’s a pleasure to create marketing plans for a book you love.  Read on for more about what she looks for in a book, what makes a great editor, and her thoughts on quirkiness and why it’s important in kids’ books:

This question is a three-part-er on your book history: Was there one book that started it all for you -- inspired a love of reading in you?  Is there a book that changed your life?  Is there a book that you turn to again and again?
For me it’s The Pushcart War by Jean Merrill.  It was read to me by my 4th grade teacher, Ms Coughlin, at Cottage Street School in Sharon, Massachusetts in 1977.  I re-read it to this day and it still speaks to my love for the quirky character, original takes on (fake) history, and New York City.  I think from the first sentence (which I later used in my critical thesis for my MFA on “quirk”) I fell in love with the world of The Pushcart War: from the names of the characters (Morris the Florist, Frank the Flower, you get the picture) to the great items all the pushcart vendors sold. Not to mention peashooters!

We hear about quirky books a lot, and many editors are looking for them.  What’s the trick to making quirkiness work?
I think quirky characters often need to be presented in contrast to characters who see the world in a more straight-forward way.  Quirky characters see the world “slant” and in order for that to be appreciated or acknowledged, they have to be around people who react to them, or to whom they react.  If everyone’s quirky then something gets lost.  The definition of quirky relates to handwriting; John Hancock’s signature is a great example. It has those lines that go off in a weird direction, and that’s what a quirk is – something that goes off in an unexpected direction. What it creates in children’s books are reactions.  And it’s the opposite of predictability.  At a certain age we want to read for surprise, not predictability.  Especially kids who are about 7 to 10 years old, who are starting to really look around and understand more about relationships.  That’s the time in their lives they’re going to friend’s house, sleeping over, seeing different kinds of families and comparing themselves.  Books with quirky characters work with that.  Hilary McKay, Polly Horvath, Jean Merrill all speak to this.  For kids who don’t have the opportunity to meet other people who do things in that slanty way, meeting quirky kids and adults in novels is another way to experience the world.

In writing, we have round characters and flat characters.  You need both – the round who are open to changing through experience.  But you also need your flat characters who are predictable and who can be counted on.  With the latter type—whether the stubborn friend or the crotchety neighbor—you do have some predictability.

Did you always know that you wanted to be a children’s book editor?  Can you tell us how it evolved? 
No way, no how.  I was a French major in college with no desire to teach French.  I came to NYC as a nanny for a fabulous literary agent and I noticed how she sat around reading her manuscripts, and going to book parties, and thought: that’s what I want to do.  My first job in publishing was at Family Circle Magazine.  After a few years there, a boyfriend who worked as a designer noticed that I was busy writing parody songs of the articles they did (for instance, there’s a SCUD Missile in My Heart: Girl, I was in love with you till you dropped that big B52 / I’ve got a SCUD missile in my heart) and suggested that I might want to try children’s books – he had a friend at Random House and there was an opening.  I interviewed with Simon Boughton, who was the Editor-in-Chief at Crown, and I started as the Assistant Editor there in 1992.

What are the parts of your job that you least expected? 
One skill you need that’s very different from working one-on-one with authors, is speaking convincingly in front of big groups of important folks with titles such as Vice President of this and President of that! You have to able to think on your feet, often about non-editorial concerns, like marketing, sales track of an author, commercial viability, and the realities of the marketplace. This ability only comes with experience.

What do you like best/least about being a children's book editor?  
What I like best is the excitement I feel when I work with authors.  What I like least is when a wonderful book doesn’t find its audience, but you know it’s a great book!

In your opinion, what makes a good editor?
Flexibility, openness, a great sense of story, creativity, imagination, ability to work with others, a good thesaurus! And not being afraid to be honest.  A trust fund doesn’t hurt.

Editors have the great skill to read something that they can see needs work, while seeing what the manuscript can become. How do you do this -- how do you intuit the story lying inside what’s on the page?
Well, I don’t know if I can intuit the story as much as I can evaluate the structure.  Often I can feel the pulse of the story, but it feels like it’s drowning in narrative or disorganization, or in bad pacing.  I try to pull out what’s working; often it helps to skip forward to the next moment that works, which just means the next time I’m interested in what’s on the page, and see what can be done with the extra,
not-as-interesting parts in-between. I ask the author: Can it be used somewhere else or can we toss it?  Authors always leave clues for themselves, and the trick in revision is to follow those clues and develop little glimmers of ideas into scenes that grow and work for your story.

We hear a lot about “voice.”  How can writers create a unique voice?
The most important part of having an original voice is to be super specific and have an opinion.  Knowing your character, from their favorite song, to why their mother always yells at them, to what they like to do more than anything, is the key to being able to write an engaging character.  Sometimes the voice doesn’t come out the first time – sometimes you have to try different approaches for the same character – try writing your story in third person limited, Does that feel close enough? If not, try first person, and maybe a different voice will emerge for your character.  Lexicon is a word that isn’t used enough in writing, but take the time to know the words your character would use by collecting them, doing research and always always use your thesaurus.  Reading a lot helps too.

What’s the best advice you have for novelists who are just starting out? 
Don’t be afraid to revise.  Which can often means starting from scratch.  Often, a first draft is simply you getting to know your characters.  By the second draft, you’ll know so much more about your characters and your world.  And also, by way of Stephen Roxburgh, avoid what I suffer from in my writing: the pathological need to complicate.  For example, you may know exactly where you’re going with your plot, but you’ll find yourself adding every possible action you can before that important event--just to avoid getting to that moment. That’s complicating things!  For me, it’s my fear of not including everything – when you write a novel you have this idea, it’s going to be everything to everyone!  Instead, just try to tell one story. Narrow it down. Pick an emotion for each chapter, and try and stick with it.

Would you tell us about some of your favorite upcoming titles? 
Mister Puffball, Stunt Cat to the Stars by Constance Lombardo is a graphic chapter book series for the 7 to 10 age range.  It follows the adventures of a cat whose dream is to go to Hollywood!  I signed up three so far.  I fell so madly in love with the writing and the art, which is so in tune with my sensibility (front page of the sample shows a cat with a speech bubble, next to author’s name; the cat is saying, “Never heard of her!”) Originally, this project looked more like a comic strip, and given the success Harper has had with projects like Big Nate, we asked the author her to take the text out of the strips and to write longer form.  She did such a smashing job with it. She’s that funny! It’s coming in 2015.

I’m also working on a YA contemporary with an incredible twist written by a writer from Memphis named Moriah McStay.  It’s a what-if book: what if the main character hadn’t been burned and disfigured as a child?  The story follows both possibilities, and alternates between the two versions of the same person, a scarred self and an unscarred self. What I love about it, besides the original take, is that it’s somewhat epic – it starts in 11th grade and ends in freshman year of college, but moves quickly.  The author has a way of making time move forward at a clip, and it’s so much fun to see what happens next in both girls’ lives—even though they’re the same person. But they’re not.  When you work on a novel you have to love it because you’re going to read it over and over again.  A novel that has two separate voices, keeps things very fresh – and you’re happily surprised when you move back to other worlds.  This one is also coming out 2015.

What occupies you when you’re not editing? 
My family and friends, my teaching, my own writing, and trying to learn guitar!


  1. Fabulous interview. Thank you, Jill and Susan! Coincidentally, I just met Moriah through the 2015 kidlit debut group we're organizing, so it was fun to hear a little more about her book!

  2. Fantastic interview! Jill shares brilliant and important thoughts on so many varied aspects of the craft and business of writing -- this should be mandatory reading for all authors (and editors, too!) (And I'm not just saying that because I'm Jill's friend and an editor and because I totally agree with everything she's saying...but I am and I do!)

  3. I love this. As a writer for adults, I've never given much thought to the unique requirements of children's-book writing, but Ms. Davis speaks so knowingly and enthusiastically about it that it almost makes me want to chuck my memoirs about silly adult problems and focus on crafting stories for my ten-year-old. Ten-year-olds definitely are one of the most discerning audiences around, and I admire the writers whose books provoke the eternal request for, "One more time? Please?" Thanks, Susan and Jill!

  4. I love this. As a writer for adults, I've never given much thought to the unique requirements of children's-book writing, but Ms. Davis speaks so knowingly and enthusiastically about it that it almost makes me want to chuck my memoirs about silly adult problems and focus on crafting stories for my ten-year-old. Ten-year-olds definitely are one of the most discerning audiences around, and I admire the writers whose books provoke the eternal request for, "One more time? Please?" Thanks, Susan and Jill!

  5. Great interview. Thank you for the advice on story and voice!

  6. I love the idea of picking an emotion for each chapter.