We are in extraordinary times. There is no way to mistake that. For some, your day-to-day is so different, such a marked change, that the world feels upside down. For others, the differences are small, but profound. For me, the most remarkable difference is that I want to spend less time on my devices, so there's not much activity here on the site. But there is still work to be done in celebrating new books, especially debuts!
Before all of the upheaval, I started a conversation with author Lisa Gerlits. Gerlits is an artist - a visual artist and art teacher as well as a creative writer. Her debut middle-grades novel, A Many Feathered Thing, marries these passions in the most beautiful way. I remain convinced it is a work worthy of considerable attention, and I dearly hope it will continue to find its way in this mixed-up world we live in. Here, then, is the result of our exchange from before and after with the truth and beauty of this book standing as a lovely reminder of how much has not changed in the meantime.
LG: Before we start I’d like to acknowledge that the world has changed since you first sent me these interview questions, Sara Beth. We now practice social distancing and sheltering in place. This “new normal” for families and communities around the world is at the forefront of my thoughts in everything I do.
SBW: It’s astonishing how quickly our entire lives have shifted and equally astonishing how much of the good stuff stays relevant regardless of our circumstances. Thanks for taking time to share some thoughts with your readers in this disrupted season. Let's get started!
SBW: Like many readers and writers, I casually identify as a “word nerd.” How do you feel about this designation? Do you claim it for yourself? Or does “nerd” bring to mind images that you would prefer not to associate with?
LG: I was a pretty studious kid. I liked learning. I liked getting answers right. I liked pleasing teachers and finishing first. So yeah, I was a nerd. But I don’t have bad associations with the designation. I guess I wasn’t teased enough for that. I’ve always found the nerds to be the most interesting people. And I love the way that word has changed since I was one as a kid. I love the way people now embrace their nerdiness. The only reason I hesitate to take up the mantle of “word nerd” is because I’m not nearly so knowledgeable as some of my hard core word nerd friends. Plus, I spread myself around. I could nerd out about so many things--impressionist art, weaving patterns, tea, deriving the pythagorean theorem.
SBW: Some years ago, I realized that the overlap between “word nerds” and “bird nerds” is almost entire. That Venn Diagram is just one huge circle. Your book initially drew me in because of its beautiful cover and, of course, the title with its dual references to birds and to Emily Dickinson. So, I have to ask: how would you describe your feelings about birds?
LG: Ever evolving. For most of my life I honestly haven’t thought much about birds. In writing the book, they were a nice
metaphor. It wasn’t until last summer and a brief period of caring for a fledgling scrub jay that my interest in birds really took off. I’m a long way from being a true “bird nerd,” but I’m trying my best. With coronavirus-enforced isolation, I have the opportunity to sit on my porch each morning with a cup of tea and watch and listen to the birds wake up. I’m trying to sketch them too.
(**thank you to Lisa for sharing one of her sketches. It is so lovely!**)
SBW: Which came first, the title or the story?
LG: The story. Definitely, the story. This book has actually been through a number of titles, the original being: Clarity Kartoffel and the Birdman of Rock Street. But then the book turned out to be more sophisticated than that title suggests. Then there was The Thing with Feathers. But during the revision process, another book came out with that title, so back to the drawing board. A Many Feathered Thing was the product of weeks of brainstorming--scribbles on napkins, conference calls, word association sessions. Now I can’t imagine a more fitting title.
SBW: As a debut author, you must be experiencing some pretty intense excitement. Would you be willing to describe your path to publication as well as your feelings about your book now being out in the world?
LG: This book has taken me on the full roller coaster ride of emotions, and I’m happy to be at the thrilling and gratifying part where people get to read it! This book took a long time to come to the world. The first draft and revisions to get it submission-ready took nearly two years. (I had a baby, a toddler, and a preschooler, so that’s actually pretty impressive.) It took another year, and 41 rejections, to find my agent, the wonderful Shannon Hassan at Marsal Lyon. I was ecstatic. Finally, finally, the hard part was done. Or so I thought. Then the book took a long time to sell. So long, in fact, that I had time to write another book in between and start two others which are now sitting in the “maybe later” folder. I’m not going to lie. Waiting is hard. My best trick is to completely forget (as best I can) about the book on submission and focus on the one in front of me.
When it finally sold to Capstone, I learned it would be over two years until publication. With that long wait came another huge revision. Originally, the book was set in the 80’s and the Challenger exploded at the climax of the book, but we updated it to a modern setting. I’ll tell you, I love revising. I can always find ways to make a story better. And I am not afraid to roll up my sleeves and make big changes, throw out whole chapters, write new endings or new characters. But I’ll be honest, by the time this book was out of my hands, I was sick of it. Even a month before publication, when everyone was asking me how excited I was, I didn’t know what I would feel when I held the actual book in my hands.
But I can tell you now, it was all worth it. You asked about my feelings now that the book is out in the world. This unboxing video pretty much sums it up.
SBW: Besides your writing, you’re an artist and an art teacher. What, in your mind, are the differences and similarities between creating visual art (especially a mural) and creating a novel (or a haiku!)?
LG: Oooh! I love this question. How much time have we got? I find there are more similarities than differences. When I make my way through any creative process, I go through the same steps whether it’s a mural, a novel, or something else. It starts with the idea or concept. That’s the easy part. Ideas drop from trees. Every incident or feeling is a story. Every color or shape is a painting. Next comes the development of that idea. Lots of freewriting. Lots of sketching. Lots of practice and following ideas to see where they go. Research may be necessary anywhere along the way. This may include looking at what others have done--other writers, other artists--or it may be more factual. Research is all about getting the details right. Then I’m ready to put it all together and keep working it until I have something I’m happy with.
I would say the differences in creation are project-based rather than medium-based. Each project, whether mural or novel or haiku, requires its own process, and that process differs more from project to project than from writing to art.
It’s all about the decisions we’re making along the way--what to keep and what to cut, what colors and lines to use to bring out the mood, how to steer the reader/viewer where you want them to go, and when to let them draw their own conclusions.
The one big difference for me is the quality of my creative tools. Sure, you can make art with sidewalk chalk or junk found along the railroad tracks, but at some point an artist wants nice brushes, quality paints, thick toothy paper. The right tools are essential for bringing your artistic vision to life. Not so for writing. I have never needed a fancy pen to write a poem
SBW: I’ve already mentioned the cover, but the book’s gorgeous design continues throughout. From the font for chapter heads to each little illustration, I was so enamored - AND I was reading a B/W digital review copy! How much collaboration did you have with the illustrator and designer?
LG: None. But when I learned which illustrator they had chosen, I dropped everything, googled her, and spent the next half hour falling in love with her work. Do yourself a favor and look up Rosanna Tasker. I love her color choices and am thrilled to have her artwork on my book!
SBW: Perhaps it just comes with the territory, but hope plays a significant role in my work and in my conversations with authors. In the case of A Many Feathered Thing, there’s no denying the presence of hope, but it isn’t a purely hopeful or rosy-eyed book. What is your perspective on hope, especially in the face of pain or loss or difficult times?
LG: Boy, we’re in the trenches with this one right now aren’t we? We need hope now more than ever. I’m not talking about wishes and dreams. I’m not talking about things a person wants. I’m talking about hope as something wild and pure and sustaining. It is what keeps us in the world. It keeps us turning toward each other instead of away. (And of course I mean that figuratively--social distancing, people!) Sometimes it’s hard to find even the smallest thread of hope. We all have dark times. I’m the kind of person that really dives wholeheartedly into whatever I’m feeling. If I’m happy and hopeful, I can’t even remember what it’s like to despair. When I’m in the depths of despair (a la Anne Shirley), I can barely imagine a way out. I think I’ve always felt this way. And I always will. Thank goodness for my kids, my family, friends, and kind strangers to remind me that there’s hope even if I can’t see it. Thank goodness for birdsong and buds, spiderwebs and shafts of light. Sometimes it only takes the smallest thing.
What I find most remarkable about hope is that it keeps on trucking even in the darkest times. It finds light, even when there isn’t any. People cling to hope irrationally, and that’s part of its power.
SBW: Everyone knows the old Picasso quote about every child being an artist… I wonder if the same applies to beauty. Do children automatically appreciate beauty, or is that a skill that needs to be cultivated over time? Is beauty a human necessity?
LG: Hmm. This is an interesting question. I think what Picasso and other artists of his time were trying to get at is that unfiltered energy of childhood, before the critical eye takes charge. Of course, in order to develop your skill, you have to apply a critical eye, and that is almost always informed by your culture and the norms of your society, both for art and beauty.
Is beauty a necessity? I think it is a thing we urge ourselves toward. We will find beauty in the bleakest of places. And children are often more adept at finding it, at stopping to notice it, than we busy adults.
SBW: Friendship is critical, especially for the typical middle grade reader. Orion is such a good friend, such a lovely model of honesty and grace. I have to admit my first thought was along the lines of wondering if my son had such good friends. But then, I realized I should have been wondering if my son IS that good friend. Where did your inspiration for Orion come from, and why is he such an important part of this story?
LG: Yes, Orion is quite the ideal friend, isn’t he? Orion grew as the story grew. Honestly, he grew out of what Clara needed from him. After a while I had to make sure he wasn’t too much of a doormat. She really treats him rather poorly at times.
Also, I have a daughter who is kind and wise and emotionally tuned in. As Orion came to life, I often looked to my daughter for how he should behave. And I drew from my own childhood experiences. I remember being struck more than once by a friend who seemed to know things about me that I hadn’t yet understood about myself. I am always grateful for those people who take the time to see and understand, then react from a place of honesty and kindness.
Orion is important to the story in so many ways, especially as a marker of Clara’s growth. Sure, she grows as an artist, but Orion makes sure she grows as a person.
SBW: I’ve been reading a lot of Lynda Barry lately, and each time Mr. Vogelman would urge Clara to look and look and look again, I’d wonder if Barry is an influence of yours?
LG: Oh, that’s funny. I had to look her up. Not an influence, but maybe now she will be. Thanks for the new reading tip.
SBW: I loved, loved, loved the character of Frouke. May I please have a Frouke in my life? And before we finish here, will you tell us a joke?
LG: And I loved writing Frouke. Okay, here’s another of Frouke’s Dutch jokes:
Q: What’s green and comes down the mountain really fast?
A: A skiwi!
And now the requisite SBW Top Ten:
Who are your heroes?
Every day, but especially right now: first responders and healthcare workers.
Do you consider yourself a reader or a writer first?
Both. They go hand in hand.
Who/what are you reading these days?
Lalani of the Distant Sea by Erin Entrada Kelly
Wilding by Isabella Tree
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery (aloud to my daughters. Oh, I just love doing the voices!)
What’s a book that stood out to you in the last year or so?
The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani. I loved this book so much! I read it and then immediately turned around and read it aloud to my daughters. I love books that take me to a time and/or place that I don’t know much about.
What else is included in your media diet (tv, movies, podcasts, albums…)?
Here’s where I mark myself as terribly old fashioned. I’m talking horse and buggy old fashioned. I don’t really like TV, although I can get behind a good period show--The Crown, Downton Abbey. For movies, it’s mostly what I watch with my kids--Pixar films, anything from Studio Ghibli. And our family favorite is The Great British Baking Show. (**this is an SBW family favorite as well**)
What is one important lesson you got from your parents (or upbringing, more generally)?
This isn’t exactly a lesson, but looking back I really appreciate that they let me make my own decisions without judgment, even when the decisions were bad ones.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
An author-illustrator. Or a paleontologist. And for a little while, a maid. Don’t ask me what that was about.
What constitutes a really good day for you?
A day when I have time to enjoy the little things, when I don’t feel I have to get on to the next thing I need to accomplish.
What is one thing you are afraid of?
What is one thing you hope for?
I hope that we come out of this world crisis with the strength and creativity to make changes to all the systems we see failing now. I hope we don’t go back to business as usual.
Thank you, Lisa, for your time and your creative gifts to the world.
Order your copy of A Many Feathered Thing from bookshop.org now. Besides the fact that you will love it, you can know you are supporting independent booksellers across the country as well as a fantastic debut author!