Monday, September 1, 2014

Children's Author H. Joseph Hopkins of Portland

About three years ago, I pitched a book at a practice session of the Willamette Writers' annual conference in Portland. I stood in a roomful of other aspiring authors and gave my three-minute elevator speech for a panel of four agents. I succeeded because I finished without fainting, and one of the agents thought the idea sounded sexy. Unfortunately (or fortunately?), no agents at the conference took me as a client.

During that same session, I heard another fellow give a pitch, and later we ran into each other on the way out of the hotel lobby. He was H. Joseph Hopkins, and he already had a publisher for a children's picture book. I forget what he had been pitching; he didn't leave the conference with an agent either. But Joe and I hit it off from there, though we didn't run into each other again until several months later (maybe a year). We related and had good conversations.

One reason we get along is because Joe is excellent at telling stories. He has a deep curiosity about people and historical events of the off-beat kind. That's how his picture book got published. It took him 10 years! One trail after another delayed the release. But a year ago this month, Simon and Schuster published his book, The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever. It chronicles the notable life of Kate Sessions, who was chiefly responsible for making San Diego green.

JEN: How did Kate Sessions do so much?

JOE: Kate Sessions is one of the “visionary captains” of early San Diego, one of a small circle of people—mostly businessmen—who set the cultural and economic directions that San Diego has followed. You might wonder what made Kate Sessions a visionary captain. She had longevity, for one. She worked at planting in San Diego for 55-plus years. Very few people get to plant a tree and watch it grow for 50 years. She also had the stamina to work outdoors in the Southern California sun and heat seven days a week, year after year. She attributed her good health to working outdoors in fresh air, wearing loose-fitting clothing, comfortable shoes, and always a hat. She also never married, so her time was not divided between family, home, children, and work.

JEN: What kind of person was Kate Sessions?

JOE: She was extroverted, gregarious, high energy, impulsive, made decisions on the spur of the moment, always on the go, and most of the time late. There was only one-way to do things: Kate’s way. She often grabbed the shovel or pick from a workman and demonstrated the proper way to use the tool: her way. She was not money-oriented: she gave away flowers to children, donated nursery plants to civic projects, and provided more plants than the customer ordered. Thought frugal, she was always short of money. Neither was she domestic. Kate did not spend time cooking, cleaning, or keeping house. She hired a housekeeper. She wrote that women would be healthier if they worked outdoors. She once told a judge that women could not expect justice in a court of law.

JEN: Why did her story fascinate you so?

JOE: Thinking back, one thing that attracted me to Kate Sessions was my positive bias toward green plant color. I was familiar with a lush, green landscape after having grown up in Missouri’s Ozark Mountains and then in Washington State’s Puget Sound. When I saw the green lawns, palms, and trees of Balboa Park, on one side of the road, and the earth tones of the Southern California desert on the other side of the highway, I think something automatic in me took over: I was drawn to the greenery in the park. When I first heard of Kate Sessions, I was spending my working days helping middle school students remember what teachers talked about. Most of these students had experienced years of defeat in school, and they were discouraged. I thought Kate might serve as a hero, a person who had persevered and overcome, a person to emulate. I began telling stories about Kate as a means of practicing listening and remembering.

JEN: You always have such great ideas for books and papers when we speak. What do you want to work on next?

JOE: Do you recall the name "Althea Gibson?" Gibson was the first black woman tennis champion during the middle 1950s. I'm working on a picture book about Gibson and an English player, Angela Buxton. Among elite tennis players Gibson (a black) and Buxton (a Jew) were outsiders. The elite ladies tennis stars were like a Protestant upper class sorority that moved from town to town living off the wealthy who supported amateur tennis. Gibson and Buxton, united in their status as outsiders, formed a lasting friendship that carried on for decades after tennis. Gibson was one who overwhelmed opponents with her intimidating physical skills; Buxton had the verbal and schmoozing skills of a skilled problem solver. Gibson was ahead of her time, playing like Billie Jean King and those who would come later when ladies tennis became a major money maker. She played a masculine game during an overly feminine era. Buxton played with a similar determination to win. So I'm taking vignettes from their tennis careers to point out how they played the roles of a friend.
Signing books at Powell's City of Books, Portland, Ore.

Thanks, Joe. Always great to hear from you. Find a link to his book and learn more about Joe on

Monday, August 25, 2014

Don't Judge a Draft

The time spent writing a draft of a new project is not the time to edit. Or judge. Or critique. Or in any way disturb the creative flow. Got it?

Yeah, right.

Maybe because I've started writing again after a too-long-to-mention dry spell, I'm telling myself, willing myself, begging myself, screaming back at my inner editor to shut the shit up.

Ollie, whose attitude I like.
So far, it's working. I want to write two hours a day for 50 consecutive days. I haven't quite lived up to my goal (I've written every day but not for two hours each time). I'm not letting the downers creep in. The single thing propelling me is my determination not to self-edit as I go. I'm just laying down the tracks. Playing around. Slapping down some ideas and not looking too critically at what's come before or what might come after.

Kinda the way I blog.

The time to judge is every second AFTER the draft is finished. How many of us start a project and never finish it? I see you nodding back at me. We become wrapped up in the outcome or overwhelmed by the enormity of the project or think the idea isn't worth finishing.

There's plenty of time for doubt later. Push it aside. When the draft is done, then I'll have plenty of readers, reviewers, crabby old <insert relative's name>, and hopefully, sales, to judge whether what I've done was worth doing.

It's Day Six. Time to get railroading.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Hachette Vs. Amazon Vs. Who?

This street fight facinates me, and not just because I'm a writer. Because I'm also a reader and person with an interest in art and culture and the evolution of the two. If you haven't been following the arm wrestling between Hachette, a traditional New York publishing house, and Amazon, the world's largest online retailer, here are the crib notes:

The two are in a contract dispute about how much Amazon will pay Hachette in book royalties (you guessed it; the big A wants to pay less, which other big publishers have agreed to). Because they aren't seeing eye-to-eye, Amazon has interfered with Hachette's book sales on the website. With me so far?

Here's where the gumball gets hairy. Every author and aspiring writer on the planet is weighing in on the fight. Many, many readers and consumers of books are, too. So, here I go. My weights, please.

I'm conflicted. There are so many tentacles to this gangly beast, it defies definition as the Kraken. Both Amazon and Hachette are successful, cash-rich companies going fist-to-cuffs over more profits. That's the way of capitalism, eh? To compete, get richer, make stockholders happy, the system is set up to fight dirty. Because I have a book for sale and an author's account, Amazon dropped me an email last night (Amazon posted it online here) that points out Hachette has been slapped for price fixing. Are anyone's hands clean in this fight? Far from it.

Groups of writers on both sides of the argument are circulating letters why they are opposed to the actions of one or the other company. A new generation of indie writers, some of whom make money self-publishing, are obviously on the side of Amazon. Right now, Amazon doesn't charge anyone to upload a book and sell it electronically or in print. More traditional authors, in lesser numbers, are rallying, arguing that Amazon is unfairly squeezing their product out. In both cases, money is an important crux. (A Horcrux, perhaps?)

Which gets me to my point. Book publishing, for all its cache, mystique, glamour (ha), is a business. For most, not for all. These companies are arguing over money; writers are arguing over money and access. The art of the matter -- the quality of our literature and entertainment and knowledge -- is given second-hand attention. Does the quality of our literature and knowledge base deteriorate when price is the bottom line? I can't answer that confidently. I think it does, but I also believe that readers have the right to buy affordable books. I want affordable books. I also want bookstores (the places we browse in person) to thrive. At the same time, I want convenience and a wide selection.

But better books just don't write and edit themselves. They take time; they take money, or in my case and the case of many other writers, personal investment. The investment a writer makes in a book is incalculable, IF the writer truly cares. I've written about this before (here and here and here). I continue to delude myself that my words are enough. That my passion for my subject matter or project is enough for it to succeed. If my work doesn't sell (and the jury is still out on that one), if it doesn't pass the reader sniff-test, guess what? My prospects for keeping my traditional publisher and a wider audience diminish. With Amazon (and a whole slew of other self-publishing outfits), I still have access to an easy way to publish.

I've enjoyed working with a traditional publisher for my debut novel. What an experience! But, don't kid yourself that this means I'm set for life. My book must appeal to readers and sell sell sell if I'm to continue a business relationship with my publisher. Did I say business relationship? Shit, yes. It's not an artist's cocktail party. Is it an ideal situation? No. We both want to make a few coins; me, a little less so than the publisher. I just want my book to find wonderful readers who identify with it. Then, we share a secret. (PS-If you want to chat endlessly after you've read my book about plot points, Musketeer trivia, etc., feel free to email me directly.)

I don't mind that many, many writers use Amazon to self-publish. I'm actually happy that this avenue exists. I personally know writers who self-publish, and they are GOOD writers. Not for lack of trying, they haven't found agents or publishing houses to champion their words. I want their work to be available to someone other than their aunts. Curious readers will find them. Maybe a good agent or small publisher will, too, because those folks are spending more time these days cruising the best indie sellers on Amazon to find clients (not many admit it). A good-selling indie book is now better than an excellent query letter.

As for readers, who doesn't love a good book? I read all over the map. I buy books at full price; I pick them out of free boxes. I buy my friends' self-published work; I loan out anything from my library. I don't expect books to be returned. My favorite authors are both well-known and obscure. I've had coffee with writers who have pushed me to the next level. I'm lucky. I have options. I want options to continue; I want writers to have options to publish and to make money. I want readers to have options. I dislike that Amazon has chosen to smite Hachette by limiting access to its authors. Poor, poor form. But Amazon isn't the only place where we can buy books. If you feel strongly about how they've behaved, don't patronize them.

Except for my book. You might want to buy my book first. Or not. Your choice.

Maybe the answer is: Facebook should publish books.