Archive for November, 2013

New Picture Book Coming!

November 20, 2013

IMG_20131118_0001_NEWHey! Look what just got announced in Publisher’s Marketplace!

Ruth Horowitz’s BEES IN THE TREES, about an apple grower and a beekeeper, and a misunderstanding that escalates into a feud, to Tracy Mack at Scholastic, by Linda Epstein at the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency (World).

I am thrilled that my story has found a home at Scholastic, grateful as all get-out for my wonderful agent and friend Linda Epstein for making it happen, and eager to start working with my editor Tracy Mack, as we polish my words to fit with the pictures. But first Tracy and her team have to find the perfect artist to create those pictures.

Making a picture book takes time. How much time?

I wrote the first version of BEES in 1991. We were living in Vermont. My kids were little, and we’d gone apple picking. I noticed that the orchard also sold honey, and started thinking about how bees need apple trees and apple trees need bees. It seemed like the perfect set-up for a picture book. So I began playing around with the idea, and pretty soon it was about more than just bees and trees. It was also about friendship and fences, fuzzy slippers and funny insults. When it felt just right, I started sending the book out in search of a publisher.

Back then, submitting a picture book manuscript meant mailing a physical object. Even if you had no intention of illustrating the book, yourself, you created a dummy to show how the book might look. That meant literally cutting (with scissors) and pasting (with rubber cement), and going to Kinko’s (because in those days, who had a copier at home?). (The pictures on this post are from that dummy — I got a little carried away.)

My buddy Robert Resnik walked over to Kinko’s with me. On the way, I recited my story to him.

“What will you do if it doesn’t sell?” he asked.

“Oh, it’ll sell.” I said. How could it not? It was so good! And I wasn’t just anyone. I had already published two picture books, Bat Time and Mommy’s Lap.

The next morning I sent BEES out to the first editor. In those days, most children’s book editors would still consider unsolicited manuscripts from writers who didn’t have literary agents. And even if they returned your manuscript, they sometimes included a personal letter telling you why. Over the next 10 years, I sent the story out to and got it back from 26 editors, and accumulated a fat stack of encouraging no-thank-you letters in the process.

At that point, I set the project aside. By now, Crab Moon and Breakout at the Bug Lab had come out, and Big Surprise in the Bug Tank was in the works. But I was starting to get interested in other kinds of writing, for readers who weren’t children. My own kids were nearly grown. I was working for Seven Days newspaper, and had just started on a big, ambitious novel for adults.

Fast-forward another decade, to the summer of 2012. My kids have graduated from college, and my husband David and I have moved from Vermont to Rhode Island.  I have finished my big, ambitious novel and signed with an agent, who is shopping it around. I’m a full-time writer now — no day job — but I’m feeling stuck, creatively. I have all the time and energy I could possibly want to devote to my writing, but I can’t seem to settle into my next project.

Linda and I are chatting one day when she asks, “Why aren’t you writing children’s books anymore?”

“I have filing cabinets full of children’s book manuscripts,” I tell her. (That’s a slight exaggeration – it’s more like folders full. But there are a lot of folders.)

She’s like, “So why don’t you pick out the best ones and show them to me?”IMG_20131118_0002_NEW

And I’m like, “Because they’re picture books, and you don’t represent picture books?”

And she’s all like, “I represent you.”

Thank you, Linda. I go home and start combing through my children’s book manuscripts. I have paper folders full of stories printed out on paper from the days before computers, and digital stories in electronic folders from the days since computers. Some of them are garbage, and some of them are promising, and a few of them are pretty damned good — like the one about bees and trees and friendship and fences and fuzzy slippers and funny insults.

That one is really good. But looking at it now, after leaving it alone for those years and honing my writing skills with all those other projects, I can see how it could be better. By a lot.

So I fuss with it and fix it, and when it feels just right, I send it to Linda – no scissors-and- cement dummy, just my text in a Word document attached to an email. And she does the rest.

If my bee story has a moral, it might be, “It’s dumb to pick fights with your friends.” But if the story of my bee story has a moral, it might be, “Never say never.” Or, “Patience makes perfect.” Or — in the case of me and the world of children’s books — “There’s no place like home.”

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Fun Home the musical

November 7, 2013

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David and I took a quick trip to New York last weekend to see Fun Home, the incredible musical based on our friend Alison Bechdel’s incredible 2006 graphic memoir about her closeted gay father’s suicide not long after she came out as a lesbian.

Alison was writing Fun Home at the same time that I began to write my novel. We swapped drafts. She commiserated with me when I faltered (I’m still fussing with my book), and our whole family celebrated with her as she finished her project—to much acclaim.

The “best of” lists, the interviews, the awards – all that success made sense to me. But when Alison told me someone had optioned the rights to turn Fun Home into a musical, I wasn’t convinced. That is, I thought it was the most ridiculous idea I’d ever heard. The book is so intricately crafted, and makes such rich use of the graphic novel format, the rhymes and ironies and reiterations between words and pictures so perfectly expressing the narrative’s conflicted point of view – how could that possibly translate to the stage?

I was skeptical. But also intrigued. So naturally, when I had a chance to attend an early “lab” performance of the play in progress, I bought tickets, and David and I Mega-bussed it down to New York to see the show.

That was a strange experience. But not for the reasons I had anticipated. The set featured a meticulous replica of Alison’s studio, a room I had been in lots of times, but not since David and I moved out of state, a few years earlier. I couldn’t stop staring at it. Actor Beth Malone’s portrayal of the adult Alison was so spot-on, with so many gestures and postures and inflections that were just right, I couldn’t stop noticing the few she got wrong. And I was so curious about which parts of the book the play would leave in, I couldn’t stop thinking of the parts it left out.

Even with all those personal distractions, lots of parts of the play blew me away – the performances, the songs, some achingly poignant scenes. But as a whole, it felt disjointed, uneven, off-balance.

Fun Home is a coming-out story, a coming-of-age story, a family story, a story about growing up in a funeral home, and a story about coming to terms with the past. It’s also a story about the necessary and dangerous business of turning our lives into stories—necessary because storytelling helps us makes sense of events; dangerous because how can we know if the stories we tell ourselves accurately convey the facts, or are just the version we want to be true?

In Fun Home the book, Alison the grown-up lesbian cartoonist comes back to the same memories again and again, searching for clues and trying out different interpretations. The approach lets the reader peer deep inside the narrator’s mind, but keeps people and events at a distance. The story is moving and absorbing. But it never lets you forget that you’re reading.

Fun Home the musical is also narrated by grown-up Alison, and also proceeds non-chronologically, circling back over the same events to pick out new details and dig deeper under the surface. The three actors who play Alison at different ages – child, college student and adult – often appear on the stage together. A problem with that early version was that Alison the adult wasn’t nearly as compelling as her former selves.

Which would you rather watch, a little girl going gaga over her first butch dyke, a college student bringing her first girlfriend home to meet her parents, or a cartoonist trying to figure out which caption to write? The introspection and self-correction that makes the book so thought-provoking and multilayered just got in way of the play.

When I heard the play was opening for real, of course I bought tickets, and David and I headed back to New York. But I was nervous. Turns out, I didn’t need to be.

Fun Home the musical never stops moving. Events don’t proceed chronologically. Time keeps circling back – literally, on a turntable stage that lets us see two associated events simultaneously. Songs circle back, too, the same lyrics taking on new meanings between the first chorus and the last. Set pieces also rhyme. The same door is in one scene Alison’s father’s closet, and in another the entrance to the Gay Union at Alison’s college.

Alison the tortured cartoonist still narrates. But for most of the play she’s a quiet witness, letting her memories speak for themselves. They do that eloquently. And because she has held back so much over the course of the play, when adult Alison finally does fully express herself at the show’s climax, the impact is all the more powerful.

As for those personal associations I found so distracting the first time, seeing the play again, I wasn’t bothered at all. In part, that was because I’d already seen it once. But it was also because the play didn’t put as much emphasis on mirroring reality. Alison’s replica studio was reduced to a single desk. The actor playing adult Alison was more natural and less of a mimic. The script strayed further from the book. And that’s the real point, I think.

If the genius of Fun Home the book is in how perfectly it deploys the tools of the graphic novel, the genius of Fun Home the musical is in how well it uses the medium of the stage. Composer Jeanine Tesori and playwright Lisa Kron haven’t just created a stage version of Alison’s book. They have cut through the book’s baroque layers and brought out its essence. And they’ve done that by making the story their own.