everything grows with love

Stories about My Experiences with Writers & Illustrators Who Bring Light into the World…by Bonnie Ingber Verburg

Archive for June, 2013

A Pen, a Princess, and a Lot of Rock Music: Snapshot of Robin McKinley

I met Robin McKinley a million years ago when we both had long hair and wore snakeskin cowboy boots. She was into “goth” and I was into “new music,” and she was writing The Outlaws of Sherwood, although I don’t know what the manuscript was called at that time. She simply referred to it as “Robin Hood.”

She came out to Santa Monica from Maine and stayed with my rock-musician husband and me for a while. In those days, we spent a lot of time hanging out at Skyline Recording Studio way up on Old Topanga Canyon Road, and I don’t recall what records Ira was working on back then, but there were parties with Bob Dylan and sessions with Joe Cocker and concerts where Ira played with all kinds of great rock musicians. We went to clubs and showcases and wore our outlandish clothes and crazy jewelry. She was the princess of goth. And of course Ira was writing and recording his own tunes, some with Britt Bacon and Carl Sealove and a lot of other talented people. Ira had a recording studio in our small home, so he was making music all the time, and Robin and I had a great time with all of it. Everything in my closet was either black or white, and I never combined the colors. One day I bought an unconventional sweater from a catalog–completely not my style. We were walking along Main Street after breakfast one morning, and she gave me a puzzled look. “You’re OK with that?” she asked. She pointed at my sweater. “Wearing pink?”

I fell head-over-heels in love with Robin’s books when I read The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown. Unlike most people back then, I read Beauty afterward.  She wrote books I could not put down, and sometimes I didn’t get my night’s work finished because I was reading something new by Robin. And in those days it was rare for me to work fewer than 80 hours a week.

Every morning Robin would go into my home office and work on the book. It was a tiny room someone had attached onto our tiny home–very dark and crowded. She explained her writing ability by telling me that she had a crack in her skull, and the words and stories came in through that crack. Since then, I have heard other people explain their brilliant writing in a similar way, but that is how she described her writing process, which was very mysterious to me. It was a mystery to me that anyone could write that well.

I don’t know how old we were, except that I am in my 50s now, so we had to have been close to thirty, but not much older than that. She had achieved highly unusual success for someone her age, and it was troubling her. She told me she felt tremendous pressure, and I don’t know what that was like for her. She had written Beauty, and it had been a wildly successful novel that knocked the socks off fantasy readers. Her second book was a Newbery Honor, and her third book won the gold. I’m sure it must have been enormously exciting to have that level of affirmation, but on the other hand, that is pretty heady for a younger person.

And how do you follow that?

Everyone (and I include myself ) was on pins and needles, waiting for Robin’s next miraculous novel to sweep us off our feet. Robin’s editor at the time was the legendary Susan Hirschman at Greenwillow, who had also been Virginia Hamilton’s editor (along with Janet Schulman and Ann Beneduce) most of Virginia’s career.

I met Robin because a new illustrator friend, Katie Thamer Treherne, had surprised me by bringing me all the finished picture-book illustrations for The Light Princess by George MacDonald, which he had published in 1864. They were intricate, gorgeous, and highly detailed, but in order to publish Katie’s art as a picture book, the original manuscript by MacDonald had to be cut. I decided to ask a “master” fantasy writer to tackle the job of cutting/editing it–not revise it or re-tell it, but edit it for length.

My first choice was Robin, and she agreed to do it. Of course she respected the writer and did a beautiful job.  I didn’t think her involvement with the project stepped on anyone’s toes, but it allowed an engaging, delightful picture book to come into existence (Harcourt) and bring that forgotten, light-hearted story back to contemporary bookshelves.

Along the way, I got to know Robin. And I state for the record that I did not understand Robin, and I never have, and I never will.  I’m not sure it matters, except I do not want to present a misconception that we were best friends. Everyone is different, every writer is different, every relationship with a writer is different, and this is no exception. Still, she is a genius, and this is a small collection of essays about my experiences with brilliant writers…and that includes the mysterious, complicated, wildly talented and unpredictable Robin. There you go.

At any rate, if you have read a few of the essays in Everything Grows with Love, you have seen that in my life, the process of publishing books is very personal. I have very personal passions for people and their individual visions, and it is usually a familial kind of thing for whatever reasons. Most of the time that works out well–meaning better books–and sometimes it backfires or goes south or drifts away into distance as is true with close relationships in the lives of most people. As well, I’m not saying this is the way editors and publishers should approach bookmaking. They should approach it however it works for them. This is what works for me. It has been at least two decades since I gave a rat’s ass how anyone else makes a book. This is how make books, and I don’t care what anybody thinks about it.

Meanwhile, back at the Robin McKinley snapshot (smile–I think Robin would like that little outburst, being the rugged individual and the maverick she undoubtedly still is)….  Robin taught me one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned about writing and publishing, and it has been invaluable these twenty-five years since. Some days she would go into my little study and come out feeling she’d written good fiction. Other days she would come out feeling she’d written terrible fiction. But what she said about it was this: At the end of the book, I can’t tell which parts were good writing days and which were bad writing days.

I always urge writers (and myself) to keep everything, no matter how bad it may seem. Because how you feel about your writing on Monday may be extremely negative, but in fact it may be the best writing you’ve ever done. I guess that’s true about a lot of things in life, right? You wake up after an argument with your sister, and the work you try to do that day feels wrong and inefficient and lousy. In fact, it may be the best work you’ve ever done. Why should it be any different with writing?

Robin kept the good and the bad and kept on writing The Outlaws of Sherwood every morning. She said it was taking her a lot longer to write this book because she felt the public’s expectations were deafening–my words, not hers.

People have told me that it is easier, emotionally, to win a Caldecott or a Newbery Medal after publishing a lot of books so you are better prepared for the celebrity and sudden fame and high expectations. I have known a zillion winners of those awards, and like their work, they are each individuals and very different.  But in Robin’s case, I think those medals were wonderful, and she so deserved them, but it may have made the rest of her career more difficult and challenging. I don’t know.

Katie Thamer Treherne, who created the paintings that led me to Robin, married a man she’d met on a pilgrimage, and they moved back to his ancient family home in Sussex, England, where she is probably now the mother of several grown children who have children of their own. Robin married the celebrated writer Peter Dickinson and moved to England with him. The last time I saw her was at a New York party given for them by her agent at the time. Robin and I stayed in touch for a little while, and the last photograph she sent me from England was a picture of herself with a tractor, in a beautiful British rose garden. She told me she was happy and very proud of the flowers in the photo. And I had to smile to see that like her own Beauty, she had become a lover of roses, and I hoped she was cherished by a prince of her own.

I think of Robin tonight and the people we were back then, and how we had no idea of what was before us. It was a unique time, kicking around those recording studios and being in publishing yet rejecting the stuffy rules of the business. We took great pleasure in drop kicking as many rules as we could out of the park.

Snap your fingers, and flash, more than twenty-five years have passed. What was once an irresponsible night on the town is rapidly becoming a ghost of a memory, and you want to catch it on your laptop before it vanishes. You gave up your cowboy boots long ago and have become a woman with a grown child, a publisher overflowing with stories, and a gardener with roses of your own.

Ah, the rose…that ancient storytelling symbol. Its entrance and its exit–and the people who cross over during that magical, transformational moment–can alter your life forever….

Debra Frasier: On the Day You Were Born

I have two sisters, and one of them is JoAnn Verburg. If you know photography, you may have seen one of her shows. My son and I were over the moon when she had a one-woman show at the Museum of Modern Art, but even more exciting is the work itself which speaks directly to my heart. I joke that of course I love her photographs because we have the same DNA, but to me they are very beautiful and capture the essence of the people and places she photographs.

I am telling you about JoAnn because she is married to poet Jim Moore (another Guggenheim winner), and they live part of the time in their home in Italy and part of the time in Minneapolis. This story takes place about 25 years ago. In fact, it must have been in the very late 1980s because during the project in question, my father had just died, and my mother was about to be diagnosed with lightning-fast, terminal brain cancer. That’s one of the ways I locate places in time. Anyway, scroll back, and I am Editor-in-Chief at Harcourt, and of course my sisters know this, and I am sitting on the floor at home in Santa Monica one day, talking on the phone to my sister, and she casually mentions her friend Debra Frasier, who is married to JoAnn’s closer friend the photographer Jim Henkel. Surely I remember Debra from JoAnn and Jim’s wedding in Minnesota because Debra made the gorgeous, Matisse-like banners hung in the church for the ceremony.

I do remember the banners (and it was also at JoAnn’s wedding in 1984 that I met Stephen Gammell, who would become a friend). Jo mentions that Debra has made a children’s book, and a sales rep at Crown Publishers has seen it and sent the dummy into the home office, and they are very interested, and now it looks as if Debra is going to publish her book at Crown. Isn’t that great?

“Why didn’t you tell me about it?” I ask.

“You? Would you want to see something like that?”

“Yes.”

“OK, I’ll give her a call.”

A few days pass, and Debra graciously sends me a copy of the dummy, although she is pretty much committed to Crown at this point. She hasn’t signed a contract yet, but she’s planning to sign one. The book is called On the Day You Were Born, and she is pregnant, which is what spurred her on to create the book. She says it has happened very organically with the pregnancy–and I find all of this very exciting.

I look at the dummy, and it is one of those projects that has my name all over it. Which is not to say it doesn’t have another editor’s name all over it, but come on–she made the banners for my sister’s wedding, her husband is one of my sister’s best friends, the art and the story are precisely my cup of tea, and I’m sorry that JoAnn, for whatever reasons, didn’t think I’d want to see it. It’s nothing personal; she probably assumed I was too busy to look at anything new.

The problem with the book, and I tell Debra this, is that there is too much science on the spreads. I want to keep the text to a minimum–keep it poetic–and move the science off the spreads and into the back of the book. I have had an idea for a long time about reproducing all the spreads in a book like this and putting them at the very end in a visual glossary so children can go right to the spread with the picture they recognize and get the science and the picture without having to flip back and forth through the book, which for a child can be so burdensome it doesn’t ever happen. (Later I will do this visual glossary again in Leo & Diane Dillon’s To Every Thing There Is a Season at Blue Sky.)

Debra and I talk about the book, and this science issue, for hours. I like her very much, but I will not budge on my opinion that most of the science needs to go in the back. Her writing voice is very beautiful and poetic, and I am feeling that this lovely poetry is getting bogged down by the science. It is getting lost.

Even now, more than twenty-five years later, I get goosebumps thinking about the text for that book. Now that is saying a lot about its power. And that power is what I want on the spreads, not the distractions of the explanation of the science of migration, for example.

She tells me that Crown has agreed to publish the book the way it is. So why wouldn’t she be better off going with Crown, where she can do the book exactly the way she intended it to be.

And this is the out-of-body editor part of the story. For the life of me, I do not know where this certainty comes from, and sometimes I watch the words float out of my mouth, and I am shocked by my own absolutely unwavering opinions. Again, I am always willing to listen, and I am willing to be wrong. But I always voice my honest opinion despite the problems that may result. This I do. In very strong language. In fact, I tell her this: You may very well decide to publish the book at Crown and put all the science on the pages, but I will promise you that the reviewers are going to comment on it, and they are going to say that you should have taken the science and put it in the back of the book. And on the day the reviews come out and say this, I am going to call you up, and I am going to tell you that “I told you so.”

In this way my sister JoAnn and I are very similar. We are Dutch, and we are extremely stubborn. Where others see ocean, our people see farmland. Then we create dijks and pumps and suck the ocean away and plant crops. When I visited our small town in Zeeland the first time, I was told that the people from this particular area in Holland are reputed to be the most stubborn people in the world. But at least I will know that Debra has seen this streak in my sister, and I come by it honestly.

She decides to think about it, and I am happy to say she agrees to sign the book up with me, and we take the science out and put it in a visual glossary at the end of the book. And it will be a book I adore. After the interior was edited and the design completed, my mother was diagnosed suddenly with terminal brain cancer, and I left for home on a leave of absence to move in with my mother and take care of her until she died three months later. Meanwhile, I turn the book over to my assistant, Allyn Johnston, who also loves it, and she does a great job while I am away.

After my mother dies, and I close up the house, I come back to my office in San Diego. Allyn is really crazy about the book, and she doesn’t want to give it back to me, but I insist, and she reluctantly agrees. That night after work, we are both standing at the elevators to go home, and when I look down at her book bag, On the Day You Were Born is in it. Even though she has given it back to me, I see she is still taking it home to work on it.

“You really love that book, don’t you?” I ask.

She nods, embarrassed. “I do.”

“And you want to keep it, don’t you.”

She does.

“You know I love it, too?”

“I know.”

“And I want to keep it, too?”

“I know.”

I think about it. I look at Allyn. In many ways we are very different, but in other ways we are very similar. Our publishing will be very similar, it turns out, over the decades to come.

“OK,” I say with great difficulty. “You can have it.”

__________________________

That was hard.

It was the right thing to do, but it was hard.

Anyway, Allyn and Debra do a fantastic job on the back matter, which is very complicated, and they are a great match. I leave the company not too long after, and Allyn continues to edit Debra’s books. It’s hard sometimes to leave your backlist behind when you go to a new publisher. And On the Day You Were Born becomes a classic bestseller, and it never occurs to me that anyone knows I had anything to do with the book at all…except my sister, of course, who is ultimately responsible for Debra coming with me to Harcourt, which was the right move.

It must be twenty years later, because it is some big anniversary of the book, and I am at an event, which I am thinking is the BEA Children’s Book Dinner. And the guest speaker is Debra Frasier, who is there with her beautiful daughter, Calla, to speak in honor of this anniversary of her very, very popular book.

I am quite sure that the role of the Verburg sisters will not be a part of the story, when she completely surprises the audience. She tells the story of how she was pregnant and was driven to write the story, and then make the pictures, and how she created the dummy for the book. She tells the large audience that her husband, Jim Henkel, was close friends with a photographer named JoAnn Verburg–and she has to stop because of the huge intake of breath on the part of the audience. I mean, it really is quite an interesting connection. She tells them that JoAnn Verburg’s little sister was a children’s book editor, Bonnie Verburg, and there is another one of those big sounds of a huge group of people expressing great surprise. And she finishes up the journey of the book by telling about how the book eventually ended up in the able hands of her talented editor, Allyn Johnston, who has been working with her ever since.

It’s nice because it is so unexpected, and because I can call my sister and tell her about it.

Books come together in strange ways, and if you have read a few of the entries here, you have already heard about the Book Angel. She was surely the guardian of this enterprise, and she surely wanted this book to be born, as Calla was born, and my son was born, and all the babies were born who had the gift of this splendid, loving book being read to them by their very, very loving parents.

Cover of "On the Day You Were Born"

Cover of On the Day You Were Born

Lois Ehlert: Growing Vegetable Soup

I am very new at my editorial job at Harcourt, located in San Diego, and I am in New York, making the rounds to meet people. One of the stops on my list is Kirchoff & Wohlberg, and we have a nice conversation while I look at portfolios. I am almost out the door when a young agent named Liza Pulitzer asks to show me one more thing. She comes back with a bright red dummy that has been made out of that sticky, neon-colored paper that has a really, really strong scent of adhesive.

On the center of the cover, boxed in red, is a tomato. The artist has done something with the colors–a slight contrast of the reds and greens, I’m guessing–that makes the cover seem to vibrate the way optical illusions sometimes do…the ones that make your eyes water. The book is called Growing Vegetable Soup, and the graphics are arresting. I love it.

The dummy is complete–an entire book, finished–and the writer/illustrator’s name is Lois Ehlert. I am told she lives in Milwaukee. I can see the book is going to have to be rearranged a bit, and some things will have to change, but I am enchanted. The bright colors, the bold, sunny graphics, the simple language…all of it speaks directly to my senses. A child and parent are going to plant a vegetable garden, and the artist walks us through the preparations, the care of the plants, and the harvest. Then it’s time to make vegetable soup! My entire childhood, my dad and I planted a vegetable garden every spring. Among other things, I was in charge of keeping the lines of seeds straight, but inevitably when the lettuce came up, the line zig-zagged in a crazy way, and it was a task to keep the rabbits out. I know I will have great fun with this book, and so will children and parents and teachers.

It is the second book I acquire for Harcourt, after Jump! The Adventures of Brer Rabbit, which is the first. Later I will find out that this lively little book has been rejected by something like eight different publishers, and that is a testament (like Harry Potter) to the fact that editors and publishers have wildly different taste in books. It’s legend now that a dozen or more editors rejected Harry Potter, but one, Barry Cunningham, liked it and published it. “No” is terribly discouraging, but it only takes one “yes”–and how critical it is that writers find editors and publishers who are passionately in love with that writer’s work. I am a writer, too, now, and I am currently learning this from the writer’s side of the desk…another story for another day.

I fly to Milwaukee to meet Lois Ehlert. She is warm and highly creative, and she is dressed like her book–in bright colors that are unexpected but add up to a feeling of energy and good spirit. It turns out she loves gardening, and this will lead to other books on the subject: Planting a Rainbow, which will follow Growing Vegetable Soup, and later, when my parents die, a book I will always connect to them, to the land where I grew up, and to my childhood filled with trees: Red Leaf, Yellow Leaf. That will be my last children’s book season before I leave to work at Scholastic. My friend and colleague (and former editorial assistant) Allyn Johnston will become Lois’s editor, and it is a match made in heaven for both of them.

But back to Growing Vegetable Soup. So Lois, I come to discover, goes around Milwaukee like a spy and secretly plants bulbs in the city. Then, in the spring, they pop up in their bright colors and surprise everyone. She is the Robin Hood of tulips and daffodils, as filled with promise, hope, and optimism as spring itself.

She is unusual in many ways, but it is extremely helpful that she cuts and pastes a complete dummy and sends it in that way. It’s a lot easier to work on the book having such a clear road map.  I get to see her studio, and the big sheets of blank paper where she is drawing the outlines for the finishes. She has an exhaustive collection of that sticky colored paper in every possible color, and she constantly experiments with how one color changes the dynamic of the color next to it as well as the entire page. I know it will be some trick to reproduce this complex level of collage, because the separator wraps the art around a huge metal drum to shoot it, and that creates shadows with collage. (Again, it was a long time ago, and we had many constraints–such as the size of the art itself–which do not exist in this digital age of PhotoShop and instant art reproduction. To get those neon colors that gave Lois’s books so much zing, we sometimes added fluorescent inks–which, I was told, would fade over time, although the basic color would not. I doubt if those inks are even legal now because of possible contaminated substances, a consideration that would not have even occurred to us back then.)

Throughout my career, I have had single books I call “trouble magnets” because if something can go wrong, it will go wrong with that particular book. Growing Vegetable Soup is something of a trouble magnet in-house in that weird and bizarre things happen with it. Nothing that involves Lois, but events that set my hair on end. For example. the designer pastes up type with uneven letter spacing and word spacing. We are not in the era of computer design; everything is cut and pasted on mechanicals by hand. Type is generated and purchased, and I guess that day the type machine went whango. The result is a set of mechanicals with some words jammed together and others floating along with too much space. We have decided to enter the modern era and send the book to print in South China rather than in the U.S. where we are doing all our other books, so the schedule moves up dramatically, and I am told I will have to live with this horrific type because there is not enough time to change it. I pitch an absolute fit that gets me sent down to Human Resources for a lecture on cooperation, but my fit is insistent enough that the spacing is corrected. Then, on the way from South China, a boat sinks, and an entire print run goes down with the ship. Can you believe it?

The response to Growing Vegetable Soup is immediate and very positive. Lois Ehlert’s sunny little book instantly sells out its modest first print run of ten thousand copies, and then it’s out of stock and backordered for what seems like forever.

It’s a sweet book to publish, with a very sweet author. Looking back (I haven’t worked at Harcourt for more than two decades), I’m guessing cumulative sales of that book must be in the millions. Which makes me smile. I have my own tattered first printing, and it was always one of my favorite books to give as a gift. Lois continues to write and illustrate books that delight children, and many years later, after I’ve moved to Scholastic, I still get to see her popularity in the book clubs and book fairs–which means thousands of teachers and children are celebrating Lois Ehlert every time the book box arrives in their classrooms.

Cover of "Growing Vegetable Soup (Voyager...

Cover of Growing Vegetable Soup (Voyager Books)

Growing Vegetable Soup. It makes me happy–and hungry–just thinking about it!

Sir Richard Wilbur the Kind-Hearted Poet vs. the Dizzy Blonde

It is extremely intimidating for me to edit a book by Richard Wilbur. He is Poet Laureate, he has won two Pulitzer Prizes, he has flawlessly translated Moliere from French to English (in verse, of course), and he teaches at Harvard (when he’s not teaching at Smith). Actually, editing his book is not the intimidating part. That part is easy. Truly a no-brainer. In fact, one afternoon after I get off the phone with him, having given him my small list of editorial changes and why I’d like this and that adjusted, I hang up and look out the window, puzzled. I ask myself, “What on Earth makes you think you know what changes Richard Wilbur should make in his poetry? Where do you get this certainty? You have not won a Pulitzer Prize. You are not Poet Laureate. You do not teach at Harvard. So where do you get off telling him how to fix his poems?

I do not know. It’s that editor thing.

Anyway, I am indeed editing a book by Richard Wilbur, and I know that eventually I must meet the man. You can’t edit somebody’s book without meeting him or her, at least I can’t. But I keep putting it off. And off. And off. At this point in my life, I have long blonde hair, I wear very short skirts, I’m married to a rock musician (guitar), and when I imagine what Richard WIlbur will think of me, the words that come to mind are “dumb blonde” and “airhead” and “cheerleader” and “another one of those vapid young editors who doesn’t know a thing about literature.”

I continue putting it off until we’ve spoken so many times, and I have so many letters from him on his small blue stationary (typed on an old-fashioned typewriter), that it’s starting to really bother me. Meanwhile, I’m working almost every day with Jimmy Buffett who, like Richard Wilbur, lives in Key West…. So I am in Key West a lot of the time, and there just isn’t any excuse for it. The guilt!

I’m staying at my favorite hotel down there, the Mariposa, so I finally get ready to face the music, and I iinvite him over for breakfast. Let me tell you, this is one breakfast I would love to miss. I feel stupid, stupid, stupid. And I get up and put on a dress, but I am dreading every minute.

Richard Wilbur comes by–and today he will become Dick Wilbur–wearing flip flops and baggy shorts and a faded Hawaiian shirt, and from the moment he walks up to the little table, he is the sweetest literary genius you can imagine. Absolutely lovely. And since I am stuffing this huge balloon of insecurity inside, I finally just pop. I tell him exactly how I feel–inadequate, poorly read, unintelligent…it all comes pouring out over coffee.

He smiles. “That’s the good thing about teaching at Harvard,” he tells me. “Because you teach the books, you have to read them. I’ve never read Anna Karenina.

I brighten considerably. “I have!” I pipe up with great enthusiasm. In fact, it is a novel I love, although you can imagine how pointless it would feel for me to discuss it with Dick, my new pal.

Over the next few years I will get together with him many times, both in Key West and in Western Massachusetts, his other residence. I will have drinks with him and Charlee, his wife. They will laugh and tell me how they love to jump naked in the snow and then hop into a hot jacuzzi. I am young enough that to me they seem like “old people,” so their antics are really precious, and they seem very open about their personal lives and an experience Dick had with depression–he’s talked about it in interviews, which is why I think it’s OK to mention it here–I admire that. Later in my life, when I have a bout of depression of my own, it will reassure me that even Dick Wilbur–who is very balanced and happily married for ages–has experienced depression, so I can’t be too unique about it. I even get to escort him to Writers and Poets a few times, where I watch nearly every great writer I’ve ever admired get completely drunk at the party at the 92nd Street Y, and during the part where they have to sit on the stage in bleachers, some of them keep sliding off the benches and onto the floor. (Not Dick.)

Dick and Charlee are funny and great company, humble, gracious, and  kind people who take great pains to make an insecure outsider like me feel completely at home.

So that is how I finally met Dick Wilbur–and what a chicken I was, and what a generous man he is, and how it sure helps you relax when you finally face your fears.

%d bloggers like this: