Monday, May 12, 2014

Inkpot Interview: Lisa Jahn-Clough

Faculty emerita Lisa Jahn-Clough  now teaches full time at Rowan University in New Jersey. Her newest books, Petal and Poppy and Petal and Poppy and the Penguin were released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in April; the third in the series, Petal and Poppy and the Spooky Halloween, will be released this fall. Lisa and illustrator Ed Briant have just been given a green light for the fourth book, to be published in 2015.

Please describe the book(s).

(From the publisher) Petal and Poppy follows the adventures of two mismatched friends—Petal, an apprehensive elephant and Poppy, a boisterous rhinoceros. These Level 2 Green Light Reader series are told in comic-book, graphic format with dialogue, word repetition and ample picture clues intended to inspire and instruct emerging young readers.

In Petal and Poppy, Petal gets very nervous when Poppy decides to go scuba diving. What if she's eaten by a sea monster? Poppy thinks Petal is just being a worrywart. Perhaps. But maybe that's a good thing. Because when Poppy does find herself in a little trouble, who comes to her rescue? Petal!

In Petal and Poppy and the Penguin, Petal and Poppy discover an uninvited visitor in their garden—a penguin. At first, Petal's too afraid to let him in. But eventually not even Petal can resist this cute, friendly, and very talented little guy!

Have you written a series before? How does that experience differ from previous writing projects? You worked with an in-house collaborator on the series, your husband, artist Ed Briant. Did the proximity affect the collaboration?
I did three picture books about the same characters (Simon and Molly) in the early 2000’s. They were never intended as a series—I just liked the characters and decided to use them in different stories three years in a row, and now I think of them as my “trilogy.” And I have three books about a character named Alicia, but two are out of print—although the first one, Alicia Has a Bad Day was my very first publication in 1994, and is still one of my bestsellers.

I originally wrote and illustrated Petal and Poppy as a companion to one of my previous picture books (they had different names and were both bunnies), but no one wanted to publish it. One day my husband, Ed Briant, “borrowed” my dummy and played around by illustrating it as a comic book. It was brilliant! So I showed it to my editor and she suggested doing them as the Green Light Early Reader series. We started with two, and then came the third contract, and now the fourth.
Working with Ed is great—we can talk about the stories and the characters while walking the dogs, then go into our separate rooms and work on our “part,” then meet up again to see how they look. After the first one, which evolved more organically, the pattern now is that I plot out a draft of the script first, making sure I have the dialogue and actions to carry the story. I map out every panel, then l paste the script into a dummy (yes, by hand—I am old-school) and give it to Ed. He disappears into his work room and eventually sends me a pdf of the art in various stages. He may make changes to the number of panels, and add in details that I hadn’t thought of. We print it out and go over it separately, and then together. I usually have to make changes to the dialogue to fit better. And, of course, the editor and art director have input as well.

So far all three books have come together naturally. Our work and our work process is very different, but we have a lot of mutual respect, so that helps make it flow—and, I think, helps to make the books work as well as they do.

Alicia Has a Bad Day, your first book, was published in 1994. What have you learned about the business of writing since then? 
I’ve learned (or am trying to learn) patience—things are much slower now. For the first twelve years my editor could take me to a two-hour, martini lunch and say, “Sure, I’ll give you a contract for that,” and two weeks later I’d have a contract. Then the work began and 8-10 months later (under a year!) the book was out. Eventually my editor retired. Now, I have a new editor at the same house, and the manuscript has to be pretty tight before submission. There’s a whole line-up of people I’ll never meet that have to give approval before a contract offer can be made, and that offer is primarily based on sales of the previous book. The field is far more popular and therefore more competitive than it used to be, you didn’t really need an agent when I started.

Also, one has to invest in extra marketing of the book—hire an outside publicist, do niche targeting, make your own postcards, apply to book festivals, etc…., as well as have some sort of social media platform. But I recommend that one does what feels comfortable and not force themselves into publicizing in a way that is false. It can be over-whelming and there is no direct proof that any of this actually impacting sales, but it is an important part of the writing business these days.
Email, MS Word, Photoshop, the internet, etc… have obviously affected the way we write, read, submit, publish, purchase and market books. Still, the heart of the work remains the same. My editor used to tell me: “A book must say something—what are you trying to say?” I repeat this constantly as I write, and one thing that remains the same is that I still do not know the answer, so I keep writing. The sales or success of a book is impossible to predict—I can only write the way I write, and sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t.

If very good friends are visiting for one evening, do you cook or go to a restaurant? If the former, what would you cook? If the latter, what restaurant?
What a tough question. During the summer when we are in Maine we’d probably go out—maybe to the Lobster Shack and sit on the picnic tables outside overlooking the ocean, or walk to our favorite pub in town. If it was during the winter, we’d eat at home and I’d make a big pot of lentil soup served with French bread.


1 comment:

  1. Lisa, so glad that you and Ed get to continue with this terrific series. How fun for you both and lucky for all of us readers. Miss you.