Friday, December 18, 2009
Interview with author Julie S. Dobbins
Today, my guest is Julie S. Dobbins, author and narrator of Melissa and the Green Blanket.
Julie please tell us about yourself by answering the following questions.
1. How long have you been writing?
Since about 1978. It could have been a little earlier, but that’s when I focused more on writing instead of drawing. That was also about the time that I discovered The Hobbit and fell in love with what a really good story can do; where it can take you. I had always enjoyed reading, but The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings touched me in a special way. Maybe it was because it was fantasy and it took me away from all of my 15 year-old girlish angst.
2. What made you decide to become a writer?
It started to come easier than drawing. I have some old drawings that I did in Jr. High school that are actually pretty good, but I wasn’t consistent. One drawing would be good and the next one would be a disappointment.
With writing, I could be more consistent. If I felt inspired, I could get it down on paper. With art, what I drew didn’t always match my feeling of inspiration, so I took the more satisfying road.
I didn’t write much after high school. I dabbled with it a little every now and then, but nothing serious. It wasn’t until my son was about six years old that I started to get serious with it again. He loved to be read to, and I needed something new to read to him one night. I pulled out my old copy of The Hobbit, thinking it would be too mature for him but I would give it a shot. He loved it! So we went through the whole series. From there we went to The Chronicles of Narnia. I guess rereading those great stories awakened the creativity that was sleeping deep inside.
3. What influences your writing?
Books, of course, but also old movies, cartoons, life. My son is a major influence and so is my husband.
I love Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. I am also influenced by Peter S. Beagle. I love the way he makes the unbelievable, believable.
4. What is your writing process?
Hmm. I’m sure I have one, but I have no idea what it is. I try to keep pen and paper handy so that I can jot something down when I think of it. Sometimes ideas just come to me fully developed, sometimes I start with one thing and it ends up completely different. With fiction, I work on it until it becomes stale and then leave it alone for a few days or weeks. When I go back to it, the story seems fresh and I have new ideas for it.
With nonfiction, I work on it pretty steadily. I’ll take a break from the writing part to do research, but I don’t let it rest until I’ve finished it. After it’s completed, I set it aside for a few days and then go over it again to tweak it.
5. How did you come up with the idea of a multi-media package?
Two things in particular influenced how we did Melissa and the Green Blanket. First, Harold and the Purple Crayon is my all-time favorite children’s book. That directly influenced the artwork - simple line drawings with just the crayon (or blanket, as in my case) being in color.
Secondly, Amy Grant and Chet Atkins released a CD and VHS package of The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat back in the 1980’s. That influenced the narration with the accompanying music. I knew I wanted the book to be small, so the booklet size not only worked well but completed the package. My husband is a professional musician, so adding the PDF files of the transcribed music was just a natural thing to do. Combining all of it into a multi-media package was a logical result.
I went to bookstores wherever we went to see if there was a multi-media package like ours, and there wasn’t. Some were close, but not with all that we offered. Now there are more on the market like ours, but we were one of the first.
6. What came first, your story or Craig's music?
The story came first, actually. Our son was visiting his grandparents one afternoon and Craig and I were talking about some of the funny things Bennett would do. That led to talking about other children and their antics, which included Melissa. During the reminiscing, I said, “Melissa and her green blanket....” As soon as I said it we both said, “That’s a children’s book title!” I grabbed a pen and notebook and pretty much wrote the story right then.
As a musician, Craig is always working on a new tune so it wasn’t long before he was creating a piece of music that we realized was “Melissa.”
7. In the book you state Melissa is the daughter of your illustrator, David Moon. Why did you choose Melissa as your role model?
I used to babysit Melissa years ago. She’s in her early 20’s now and doesn’t seem to need a babysitter anymore, for some reason. The story was a natural because she used to do the things in the book. She didn’t want her mother to wash her blanket because she had it with her all of the time. Pretty much, the story is just telling what I used to watch her do.
Do you always base your characters on children you know?
Not always. I have written a couple based on my son, but he doesn’t want me to use his name for the character. Otherwise, I’m influenced by the children I know or observe, but I haven’t based any stories on them.
8. Tell us about your other writing. You mentioned you've written other children's books, but this is your first published work.
I have a few that are finished and several that are works in progress. The ones that are finished are all short, so I’m collecting in one book. They make good bedtime stories because they are short. Let’s see, there’s Never Invite a Scorpion to Dinner, Bennett is a Dinosaur, Corduroy Crocodile, and The Turkey-Moose. I need to look through my files to see what can be added to it.
9. Why did you and Craig decide to self-publish the CD and picture book?
We have been self publishing for years. (My husband writes instructional guitar books, some of which have been picked up by traditional publishers like Mel Bay and Warner Brothers.) So we knew what we were getting into.
We had originally pitched the idea to our editor at one of the guitar book publishers. Although our editor was excited about the project, he couldn’t get it to go through. We were encouraged that he thought it was a good idea, so we pursued it ourselves.
10.Tell us your thoughts about self-publishing vs traditional publishing.
I have experienced both and have had a good experience with each endeavor. Life was a little easier with the traditional publisher, though. They had all of the upfront expense and I did’t have to use my living room for a warehouse. They also helped with the promoting of the book and they were able to get it into bookstores that are not open to self published authors.
11.Tell us about your marketing strategy for Melissa and the Green Blanket.
When “Melissa” was first released, I arranged an interview/article in our local newspaper, a radio interview, a book signing at a store, and readings at the library and Chick-Fil-A for family night. I was working on scheduling a couple of television interviews when I had to drop everything to help with a family health crisis.
Now I am having to start promoting all over again. I am getting the CD reviewed (thanks, Penny!), I have attended a book festival and a music festival, and I have sent the CD to a homeschooling magazine for their product review column. We have also had a CD signing at a bookstore and we promote “Melissa” whenever my husband has a performance. Sometimes we give copies away to a child who seems to particularly enjoy hearing the music.
Since its release, it has been available through Craig’s website (www.craigdobbins.com), on Amazon, CD Baby, and more websites than I can remember.
12.What are your thoughts about children's writers needing an agent or not needing one.
Never having had an agent, I don’t know that I’m qualified to say much on this subject. My husband does the dishes and mails the review copies for me. Does he count as an agent?
A lot of publishing houses are still open to unagented submissions for children’s books, including some publishers that require an agent for their other genres. So, having an agent isn’t really needed for getting published.
One agent rejected Melissa and the Green Blanket because he “just wasn’t enthusiastic enough” about my project to represent it. Rejection isn’t personal, it’s really subjective. That particular rejection, by the way, ticked me off just a little bit. What if that agent isn’t “enthusiastic” about coming in to work that day? His rejection had less to do with my work or whether it fit his contact list and more to do with how he happened to feel at the moment.
On the other hand, I have watched Peter Beagle’s agent/manager, Connor Cochran, and I would love to have someone like him representing me. Connor makes things happen and he takes care of everything so that all Peter has to do is write or show up for engagements. I would love to have someone to keep up with submissions, marketing, and all of the business end of writing while I just spend my time being a writer. Of course, I’m no Peter Beagle so I don’t have a Connor Cochran.
13.Do you have any tips for new writers wanting to enter the field of children's writing?
Write. Keep writing. Observe children. Establish yourself by writing articles for magazines. Attend the Muse Online Writer’s Conference where you’ll get to meet a very supportive and encouraging group of people in addition to some great workshops. The Institute of Children’s Literature has an excellent writing program and they have helpful information on their website.
Follow the submission guidelines. Read them carefully and then do what they say. Rejection letters are just part of the process. If you follow the guidelines you can reduce the number of rejections because you won’t submit a children’s story to a romance publisher.
14.Where can people learn more about Julie S. Dobbins?
Currently the best place is at www.jacketflap.com/jsdobbins. My blog is posted there as well as links to any other websites where I can be found. I plan to launch my own website sometime during 2010.
Julie, thank you for being my guest today and sharing your writing experience with us.