Interview with Children's Book Author Verla Kay

Verla Kay is the author of numerous picture books, including GOLD FEVER (Putnam, 1999), IRON HORSES (Putnam, 1999), COVERED WAGONS/BUMPY TRAILS (Putnam, 1999), and TATTERED SAILS (Putnam, 2001). The next of her six additional contracted books to be published will be BROKEN FEATHER (Putnam, 2002) and HOMESPUN SARAH (Putnam, 2003). She also runs an excellent website for writers at www.verlakay.com. This interview was conducted via email in 2002.

What books did you particuarly love as a child?

My very favorites were the Oz books and the Nancy Drew books.

Did you begin writing early or were you a late bloomer? What inspired you to write for children and young adults?

I was a very late bloomer! Didn't start writing until I was in my 40's. It was when I had a licensed daycare in my home and was reading (and reading and reading!) to the toddlers and babies every day that I began thinking, "I'd like to write stories for children."

How would you describe your path to publication?

Rocky. Bumpy. Slow. (grin) I wrote and submitted and gathered so many rejections I actually started planning to wallpaper my office walls with them. And my office is not a little cubby-hole — it's very spacious. I had gotten to the point of believing that publication was a solid brick wall that I would never get through shortly before my first picture book manuscript was pulled from the slushpile at G.P. Putnam Sons.

What advice do you have for writers just entering the professional children's market?

Verla KayDo your homework! This is not an easy business to break into. If you decided to become a doctor or a lawyer, you wouldn't think of just walking up and telling someone you were ready to work without first learning your profession.

Writing is a profession that takes just as much "learning" and "training" as any other. You learn by reading good (and bad) books and analyzing them to see what works and what doesn't in them. You learn by writing over and over again. You learn by reading good "how to" books. You learn by attending conferences and workshops. And you learn by talking to and sharing manuscripts with other writers.

Make sure you have learned your profession...not only how to write but also how to market what you have written before you start submitting.

Do you think that any particular themes run through your work?

All of the books that I've sold have an American history theme in them. I have written others, but so far, they're still being rejected.

For you, what is the hardest part of being an author?

Waiting! Waiting for a reply on a manuscript. Waiting for a book to come out. Waiting for reviews. Waiting to see if a book will sell enough copies to stay in print. It seems like you wait for everything in this business. I also hate having to say, "No," when people ask me for critiques on their stories. Being "open" on the internet seems to bring a lot of those requests to me.

What do you love about it?

My favorite part is seeing a new book in bookstores... and knowing that people are actually buying it and enjoying it. And of course, there's almost no thrill like the one of finishing a book and feeling like it's "good," that it's really the very best you can possibly make it.

Where do you work now? How is the room conducive to productivity?

Most of the time I work in my office at home. It's a mess and I hate the mess... but I ignore it and just continue writing. I love writing! I write on my deck upstairs when I'm swinging, in bed, when we travel and my husband is driving... everywhere!

What are the challenges of writing historical picture books?

The research and trying to get everything historically accurate. Sometimes, that's a lot harder than it seems because a lot of what I "know" about history is from movies and novels and television and much of it isn't historically accurate.

I can't "assume" anything, unless it's from my own personal experience. My grandmother lived in a house that had only wood for her cookstove, heat, hot water, etc. She had a "real" (without chemicals) outhouse in the back yard, as well as a flush toilet in the house. I "know" what pie tastes like that's been cooked on a wood stove, I know what a "real" outhouse smells like. So those details I don't have to research. Most everything else has to be checked for accuracy in my stories.

What about that venue appeals to you?

I love sharing history with children in a way that they will (hopefully) find fun. As a child, I hated history - I thought it was boring. It wasn't until I was an adult that I discovered there were stories under all the history facts, stories that were fascinating and interesting. My goal is to bring history alive to children so they will be interested in learning all those facts.

Could you give readers a bit of background on your famous "cryptic rhyme?"

My rhyme was created as the result of reading a wonderful picture by Dayle Ann Dodds called On Our Way to Market. In that book, she had one page that read, "Bad luck. Stuck duck. How will we get to market?" I fell in love with that page and it just kept singing to me. I started thinking, "What if you wrote a whole story in a cryptic style like that?" And my idea for cryptic rhyme was born. Since I've never taken a poetry class or read any "how to" books on poetry, I didn't know there was a name for my style of writing, so I was free to name it what I pleased. (Sometimes, it pays to be ignorant. Heh, heh, heh.)

Could you please give us an overview of your wonderful Web site?

My website has lots of information on it for writers of children's literature -- everything from a Getting Started page for new writers, to a Published Writers page to help people who have just sold a book and want to know "what's next?" Workshops are held in the live chat room on a monthly basis, transcripts of past workshops can be accessed via the Transcripts page. The Links page will take you to other places on the web where you can find helpful information.

There's "interactive" areas on my website, too, like a chat board where people can go and post messages any time, and a good news board where they can share their good news. There's a live chat room where children's writers (and even an agent or editor sometimes) can gather nightly. We share manuscript problems, good news, commiserate over rejections, "talk shop", and share personal problems and information sometimes, too. It's a great community of writers, some published, some still struggling to get published. Just recently, one of the regular "chatters" sold her first book -- to an editor who sometimes drops in to chat with us. It was an exciting moment for all of us!

What inspired you to create such a significant resource on the Internet?

If I ever get to the top of the ladder of success, I don't want to be there alone. I want all my friends right up there with me. Also, there was nothing like my website to assist me when I was starting out, and I felt so alone and so helpless and so ignorant. A few very wonderful authors helped me along my rocky path, and I wanted to return the favor and help other struggling writers in return.

The question I often get: how do you balance Web site management with your writing?

The website takes a lot of time! But I feel it's time well-spent, as it opens many doors to me. Some nights I stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning working on my website. I'm just now trying to learn a new website creator program that has strong website management capabilities built into it. If I can get the website changed over, it won't be nearly as hard to keep it updated.

What advice do you have for aspiring young authors (children and teens)?

Learn all you can about writing, read lots of books, and start now! It's never to early to begin.

Are you interested in speaking to teacher/librarian groups or in school visits? If so, how can interested parties contact you?

Yes, I love to do speaking engagements. Anyone interested in having me come and talk to their group or school can get my basic information off the website on Author Talks (or Author Presentations) page. I can be reached at verlakay@AOL.com or they can write to me at:

Verla Kay
P.O. Box 988
Tekoa, WA 99033