Twenty+ years ago, back when I was a beginning writer receiving rejection after rejection, a mentor/friend suggested I back up the truck and try writing for magazines. I know, now, that was simply his kind way of telling me I needed to better understand the framework of STORY. Anyway, I started studying stories published in magazines to get a feel for how to craft one myself. That’s when Lisa Harkrader’s name first blipped onto my radar. Seemed she had a story in every magazine I picked up. Soon, I was expecting to see her name everywhere. Sheesh, this chick has it figured out!
Imagine how starstruck I was, then, when I finally got to meet Kansan Lisa a few years later, in … 2006? when her first book and my second won awards from a Chicago literary group, Friends of American Writers. We were the only children’s book writers there, so of course we bonded. I’ve been watching her (in a non-creepy way) ever since. Like you do. I’m thrilled she agreed to chat for my OUTSIDE THE BOX series.
JE: Welcome, Lisa! Tell us how you got started writing and what your career goals were, back then.
LH: I have actually wanted to write and illustrate books (and be a spy and play second base for the Royals) since the third grade, and my dream was always to write middle grade novels, because that’s what I read and loved back then.
I lost sight of that dream after college, when I was earning a living and starting a family, but a TV show sort of slapped the dream back into me. If you remember the show “Thirtysomething,” you may also remember that the character Nancy Weston, bored as a stay-at-home mom, decides one day to write and illustrate a children’s book, and, magically, she gets it published soon after and begins her fabulous career as a writer. This really ticked me off. Here was Nancy Weston, living my dream, and she wasn’t even a real person!
But she kickstarted me into writing with purpose. I started with short stories, and I had good success early on getting them published. It gave me the courage to plunge into a novel, and my expectation was that, since I’d published short stories with relative ease, the novel experience would be similar. I was very wrong! But I’m stubborn, and I kept at it, and eventually I did begin publishing novels.
JE: Yes, “Thirtysomething” was definitely a can’t-miss, back in the day. Funny, but I don’t remember that children’s book element at all! Maybe because writing wasn’t yet on my own radar?
About that first publishing experience, Airball: My Life in Briefs (killer title!): Did anything disappoint you? Did anything exceed your expectations?
LH: I didn’t know what to expect, honestly, but the entire experience of editing and publishing the book was lovely. My editor, Deborah Brodie, was brilliant with her suggestions and encouraging all through the process. The only disappointment, initially, was the cover. The book is about boys who end up playing basketball in their underwear, but in the first draft of the cover, it looked like the character was wearing a diaper! I’d been writing long enough to know that writers have very little control over the cover, and my heart died a little (actually, a lot) when I opened my box of advance reader copies. But my publisher apparently wasn’t thrilled about the diaper aspect, either, because when the actual book was released, it showed the character in blue boxers. Crisis averted!
JE: Yikes! I can imagine that awful, heart-sinking feeling. Thank goodness the diaper got, um, changed.
LH: The thing that most surprised me was how librarians, bookstores, and literary groups locally and across my state of Kansas embraced me and my book. A lot of people are unaware how much literary activity takes place across rural states like Kansas and your state of Iowa. I was invited to participate in festivals, fairs, conferences, and school visits all across the region, and I think that was the major reason Airball was a success.
JE: Yay, Iowa! And Kansas, of course. Oh, I sure do miss those big events. Let’s hope we can get back to those in the not-too-distant future. There’s just no other way to SEE the impact your books are having on kids/teachers. Lisa, you’ve also published a few work-for-hire picture books. Does your inner 3rd grader ever sneak back and poke you to try to write and illustrate a picture book of your own?
LH: Yes! I actually found my agent by submitting a picture book manuscript. He was never able to sell it, but he’s sold every middle grade book I’ve sent to him since then, so it has worked out! I have other picture book ideas, but my natural tendency is to write long. Even when I think I’m writing a chapter book—such as when I started the first Nobbin Swill book, Crumbled!—it turns out being a middle grade novel. So before I tackle a picture book again, I want to read and study many, many picture books that, like yours, distill a big story in a few perfectly chosen words.
But to answer the other part of your question, yes, I’ve written quite a few work-for-hire picture books, and I write too long in my first drafts of those, too. Then I ruthlessly cut, cut, cut until I can’t possibly cut another word. . . then my editor helps me cut even more.
JE: Yes to writing long. I tell kids the most-used button on my keyboard is DELETE. Your latest mg series, following The Adventures of Bean Boy and its sequel Cool Beans, is The Misadventures of Nobbin Swill. First of all, you are clearly gifted at concocting snappy titles to pull in young readers! But, about, Nobbin, could you tell us how you hit upon the idea for this irresistible character?
LH: Oh, thank you! A few years ago, an editor with an organization that creates standardized tests asked if I would write a passage for one of their assessments. I started brainstorming and came up with an idea for a mashup of genres I love—mysteries, humor, and fractured fairy tales. But as soon as I landed on that idea, I started getting that tingly feeling that told me this was a story I had to keep for myself. I wrote a different story for the assessment, then plunged into writing Crumbled! for me.
The series is about Nobbin Swill, the son of a dung farmer, who is determined to live a less smelly life than his father and brothers. When he goes to the castle to return a ring he finds in the king’s dung, he accidentally becomes Prince Charming’s assistant and is sent out with Charming to solve crimes plaguing the kingdom, such as: What happened to Gretel and her little brother Hansel? Charming is everything you’d want in a prince. He’s valiant and honorable and good-hearted and ever ready to do the right thing. But he is not clever, so the very clever Nobbin, with help from their faithful guard Ulff and steadfast steed Darnell, solves the mysteries behind his back—giving Charming full credit, of course.
JE: Sounds like lotsa fun. What’s next for you, Lisa?
LH: Right now I’m in the planning/brainstorming/feeling-my-way phase of a several ideas that have been banging around in my head for a while, begging for their turn to come out. All my novels so far have starred boy main characters, but these story ideas are about girls, and I’m excited to find out what these girls are like and how they’ll navigate their adventures.
JE: Isn’t it crazy how characters so often drop into our heads fully formed? Can’t wait to see what’s up for those girls! Thanks for chatting with me, Lisa. Fun to catch up!
Readers, to learn more about Lisa Harkrader, visit her website, here.