"Being told over and over again that your writing is wonderful is not at all helpful, especially if you’re having trouble finding publishers. You need realistic criticism..."
" I think we should talk about “integrating our lives into our work” instead of “writing what we know.” It doesn’t sound anywhere near as catchy, but I think it does a much better job of describing what we’re doing. "
"It’s hard to create a sharp, realistic picture of something that only exists in your head. Painters often have something in front of them when they paint, right? It’s the same for writing."
"I have a book of essays and reviews by Margaret Atwood called Writing with Intent waiting for me that I’m hoping I’ll enjoy. But you never know. Reading is definitely a gamble. "
Interview: Gail Gauthier
Children’s Book Author Gail Gauthier is full of surprises.
On the one hand, she’s a successful writer with five books to her credit. Her sixth book, Happy Kid!, is due out in May from Penguin. On the other, she’s a blogger with the acerbic wit of Social Commentator Sarah Vowell, a scrappy book industry analyst, a full-time mom, and a serious martial arts student.
Gauthier grew up in rural Vermont. That’s rural with a capital ‘R’—her schools didn’t have indoor plumbing until she hit eighth grade. She wrote her first short story in grade five, edited her high school paper, and majored in English and History at the University of Vermont.
Her early attempts to be a “serious writer” met, she recounts in an online essay, with little success, but when she gave free reign to her less serious side the tide started to turn. Her first published story was "The Mystery Of The Ring-Tailed Cat,” which appeared in Cricket Magazine. Her copies of the issue arrived the day she brought her first son home from the hospital.
As her family grew, so did the quirky nature of her story ideas.
“One day I read my boys a book about a man who is terrified because aliens are landing in his yard. I realized that if aliens landed in my yard, I’d hardly notice. I was too busy,” she writes. Cricket picked up the resulting story, “How Mom Saved The Planet,” and Gail’s first book, My Life Among The Aliens, followed.
VerbSap: You recently participated in a panel critiquing first pages of unpublished manuscripts. In advance of the event you said it sounded like “American Idol” and wrote in your blog, Original Content, “If so, I absolutely do not want to be Paula. Randy maybe. But you all know me. I hate everything. I will have to be Simon.” Did you end up playing Simon Cowell? Do you think writers in general benefit more from facing the sting of a realist like Simon or the encouragement of a “Paula?”
Gauthier: I didn’t end up playing Simon Cowell on the panel. I get anxious at my blog about disliking a lot of books I read, which is how the Simon Cowell reference came about.
Gauthier: When I read about all these graduate writing programs, I worry that there must be a lot about writing I don’t know. Therefore, I’m not even sure I know what writers should be studying. The kind of graduate program I’d be interested in, however, would include classes on all the things I have trouble with or worry about in my writing. So a class on point of view would be a must. I’ve had trouble with that in the past, and I’m very self-conscious about it, so I pay attention to it when I’m reading. I’d also like to study theme. I’ve read books that seemed very garbled in terms of structure and even seemed to be dealing with two different book ideas. Would a better grasp of theme have helped that situation? Perhaps helped the author to stay on task with her original storyline?
I recently read an article by Tanya Lee Stone regarding sex in young adult novels. She said, “Some books focus squarely on sex as a theme.” I tend to think of theme in terms of what we learned back in high school English—people in conflict with other people, with themselves, with society, with nature, etc. So Stone’s statement seemed odd to me. I’m not saying she’s wrong, because I really don’t know. But I keep wondering, what would a book with sex as a theme be like? I mean, other than the obvious.
VerbSap: In teaching writing, you tell children that the edict “write what you know” means they should “use their life experience…as a sort of jumping off point for their writing.” How can adult authors apply that? How do you continue to produce new ideas that stimulate you as a writer?
Gauthier: I think we should talk about “integrating our lives into our work” instead of “writing what we know.” It doesn’t sound anywhere near as catchy, but I think it does a much better job of describing what we’re doing. At least, it describes what I’m doing when I write. My life is tightly integrated into all my work.
Several years ago I ran a series of writing classes at the local elementary school. I had these two girls in class who were close friends. They were both overly mature and immature at the same time. You could not help but notice them. I had them in mind when creating some secondary characters for Happy Kid!. Those characters have taken off on lives of their own now, but those girls from the elementary school were the jumping-off point.
I needed a physical description for one of the major characters in that same book. I used a girl I see at my martial arts school occasionally. I don’t actually know the girl, but I like the way she looks, and I used her appearance to complete a character who I suspect is nothing like her.
VerbSap: You took up martial arts as an adult and are now a black belt. Do you find any similarities between writing and honing your taekwondo skills? How has practicing the martial arts influenced your work?
Gauthier: Oh, there are many similarities between writing and studying taekwondo. They both require a lot of attention to detail. They both require perseverance. You need to work regularly on both taekwondo and writing, if you hope to progress. You have to be able to accept and use criticism from instructors and editors. You have to be willing to accept that you’re in these activities for the long haul. Nothing comes quickly. Traditional rewards may be few and far between so you have to enjoy what you do. You train because you want to train. You write because you want to write.
VerbSap: You once called yourself “a publicity whore” and said you were sick of having to do the marketing necessary to promote books. Is marketing simply a necessary evil that authors have to face?
Gauthier: I really don’t know how much marketing an author truly needs to do. My publisher has never, ever pushed me to market my books. I became interested in marketing as a result of contacts with other authors who take it very seriously. I’m making a big push for Happy Kid! because the storyline involves the main character studying taekwondo and I study taekwondo. I thought that might be a hook the mainstream press would be interested in. I’ve spent a lot of time these past few months preparing for conference and retreat presentations, and I’m going to have to brush up my act for a couple of school presentations coming up this spring. I sent out a wave of [advance readers' copies] and press releases before Christmas to regional publications. It’s nearly time to start another wave of mailings to newspapers. I’ll be doing the school presentations in a couple of different states, and I’ll try to coordinate those with bookstore appearances and I’ll try to get press coverage in both places.
VerbSap: What advice would you give to parents who try to carve out writing careers while raising a family?
Gauthier: I’ve found it very difficult to write while raising a family, though I suspect it’s no worse than doing any other kind of work while raising a family. I didn’t start publishing regularly until my children were in grade school, and I just never got the working mother thing down very well. My kids are in college and graduate school, and I’ll still blow off an hour of prime working time talking with them on Instant Messenger. My work schedule goes to pieces if they’re home. But, then, I don’t have good organizational skills, and I’m not great about staying on-task. I really think writers should work on those kinds of things. That doesn’t sound very arty, but it could be the key to managing work and family. I’m always searching for ways to make myself more organized and productive.
Gauthier: I’ve been offered a contract for two books for younger readers, younger than I’ve written for in the past. The first draft of the first one is done, and I’m waiting for the editor’s comments. I’ve actually started the second book. The first draft of that one is due this fall. These are essentially books of short stories, so I’m hoping I can continue working on the taekwondo essays I began last November.
Gail Gauthier's essay A Night At The Dojang is available at VerbSap.