Some days I consider a success if I woke up before ten a.m. and wore matching socks. I can't even imagine what it would be like to spend a day as my editor, Jill Santopolo. In addition to her duties at HarperCollins' Balzer and Bray imprint, she's a published author (Alec Flint, Super Sleuth: The Nina, the Pinta and the Vanishing Treasure, Scholastic 2008), a graduate of Vermont College's MFA program, and a writing teacher. How does she do it? I have no idea. And I bet she always wakes up before ten a.m. and wears matching socks, too.
Because she completely puts me to shame, I asked Jill a few questions about writing, editing, and finding balance.
When I found out my editor also wrote books, I was thrilled. Do you think being a writer gives you any extra insight when editing someone else's work? How does being a professional editor help your own writing process?
My editor at Scholastic writes books, and it made me happy when I found out too.
I’d like to think that being a writer gives me some added insight, since I’m often immersed in the creating of worlds and people and plots myself…I do know for certain that it gives me some extra understanding because I’ve experienced both sides of the process. I have an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College and teach classes in novel writing as well, and I think both of those things inform my writing and my editing. I love being able to pick apart books and figure out why certain craft elements work and why others don’t. For example, my MFA critical thesis was about the connection between scenes involving food and the way they subtly reflect the stability of a family. That sort of thing fascinates me.
I think being an editor helps my own writing tremendously, because, as I write and revise, I look for the same things in my manuscripts that I look for in the manuscripts I edit. Sometimes I’ll make comments on one of my author’s manuscripts and realize I’m doing the same thing in the piece I’m writing at home—or vice versa, I’ll change something in a manuscript I’m writing at home and realize that it’s a problem in the manuscript I’m currently editing as well. Of course, it’s hard to be as objective with my own writing, but I do try.
How do you fit everything into the day--writing, editing, promoting your book, reading submissions? Do you ever have free time?
I like making schedules and I’m also pretty efficient, so those both help in juggling all of the things I do. I’ve been trying really hard do all of my editing and submission reading in the office, even if it means I work later than I’d like, and then when I go home, I use that as my writing time. Creating a clear division between editing time and writing time helps me change gears, and knowing there’s a cap on the time I can spend doing each of those things makes me really focus and get things done.
Your first book, ALEC FLINT, SUPER SLEUTH: The Nina, the Pinta, and the Vanishing Treasure, features a fourth grader investigating a missing Christopher Columbus exhibit. What mystery will Alec tackle next?
Alec’s next mystery is called The Ransom Note Blues, and is coming out June 1 of this year. In it, something mysterious has gone missing from the town of Laurel Hollows, and Alec and his sidekick Gina have to figure out what it is. Without giving too much away, this is an art-themed mystery featuring my favorite abstract expressionist (who Alec and Gina learn about in the book).
What attracted you to children's literature? Do you see yourself writing for adults, or editing adult fiction, in the future?
I’ve always felt that reading was the sort of thing that a kid could fall in love with, and then would love for the rest of his or her life. That’s what attracted me to children’s literature—the idea that I could help a child fall in love with reading and help him or her to become a book love forever. As far as the adult world goes, there’s always a possibility I’d write for adults, I guess, if I think of a story I want to tell that’s more suited toward the adult audience, but it’s not something I’m planning to do right now.
What sort of books are you interested in acquiring? Are you seeking any particular themes or subjects at the moment, or does your taste remain fairly consistent?
High quality writing is the most important thing to me. I love working on well-written, well-crafted books. And then the second most important thing is a cool concept—something different and fresh and unique. I always like books that project a feeling of empowerment. Like your book, THE SNOWBALL EFFECT, for example. Even though Lainey’s circumstances are pretty terrible, she realizes that she’s not powerless and that she has the ability to change her life and fix her world. That’s a message I like a lot.
Most children's/YA writers are not actually children or young adults. Do you have any tips/tricks for staying in touch with what's cool or relevant to kids, or do you think it's enough to remember what it was like to be 8, 12 or 16?
I think the emotions and experiences of being 8 or 12 or 16 are ingrained in all of us. Ursula Nordstrom, a great children’s editor, once said (and I’m paraphrasing and probably getting this slightly wrong) that she can edit for children because she was a child herself once and hasn’t forgotten a thing. And I think that’s really true on an emotional level. As far as making books feel contemporary, I keep an eye on the kids in my neighborhood, peek into toy stores, watch TV shows aimed at kids…and I do school visits a lot, and always talk to the kids about their lives and their favorite things. I think (at least I hope!) that doing those things keeps my writing feel real on a number of levels.
Thanks so much for the interview, Jill!
You can find out more about Jill and her books at her website.