In anticipation of our Wisconsin's SCBWI Fall Conference Experiment & Play, we've put together an interview series as a way to meet the people behind this year's presentations and breakout sessions. Today, I'm spotlighting author Pat Zietlow Miller.
Pat Zietlow Miller is a picture book author best known for her award winning children's book Sophie's Squash. Her most recent publications include The Quickest Kid in Clarksville, Sophie's Squash Go to School, and Sharing the Bread: An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving Story.
Pat, we are thrilled that you will be presenting at our fall conference. Thanks for answering a few questions for us!
Who has been the most influential inspiration for your career?
"There were three very different writers whose work I read when I was in middle school. They each made me want to write like them so badly, I couldn’t stand it. I would read work by them and then go off and try to replicate it in a spiral notebook.
Sometimes, I’d have to set their books down and walk away because I was so impressed by how they had used words and language that I needed time to process it. Looking back, this was probably not normal middle school behavior, but it seemed normal to me.
The three writers were:
Erma Bombeck. I read a paperback copy of If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits? and was hooked. I promptly read everything else by her I could find. Again, probably not normal reading for a middle schooler, but so what? She was hilariously funny, her essays were beautifully structured and she had the ability to laugh at herself.
Frank Deford. My dad subscribed to Sports Illustrated, and I’d look for Frank’s byline because I knew his features would be in-depth and well-written and creative. I liked his work so much I asked for his book, The World's Tallest Midget, as a gift so I could pore over his best work. At the time, I thought I was going to be a sportswriter for the Chicago Tribune when I grew up, so I wanted to be ready.
Judith Viorst. Oh, my goodness, I loved her picture books. There was, of course, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, but there also was The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, If I Were in Charge of the World and Other Worries and I’ll Fix Anthony. Excuse me while I go put all of these on hold again at my local library.
I’m very grateful for having the chance to read these writers. I learned so much from each of them. "
What was the biggest eye-opener when you published your first book?
"Honestly? How well it did. I had focused so much attention on getting over the hurdle of being published, that it hadn’t occurred to me that Sophie's Squash might do so well with starred reviews and buzz and sales."
If you could tell your naive unpublished past self anything, what would it be?
"In relation to my answer to the last questions, I’d say that each book is a totally different thing. My books after Sophie's Squash have found different kinds of success, but they have not gotten four starred reviews and the out-of-the-gate love that Sophie did.
You can’t assume anything in publishing –whether you’ll sell a book or how it will be received if you do.
So much – good and bad – is out of your control."
Can you tell us about your writing environment?
"I write at my kitchen table, which looks over into the living room. I’m usually surrounded by debris, but because we’re trying to sell our house now, it’s currently fairly clean. I have a desk upstairs, but I don’t use it much because I like to be in the thick of things – and have easy access to food.
On days I’m not working at my day job, I sometimes write at the Fitchburg Public Library, which I love. It’s peaceful and there’s something about being surrounded by books that I enjoy."
What has been the most useful career tip you have received so far?
"The importance of revising. Early on, as I worked on writing picture books, I went to a retreat led by authors Jill Esbaum and Linda Skeers. I brought a very early draft of Sophie's Squash, which had gotten brief, positive handwritten notes from editors on form rejections.
Jill and Linda read my draft and said, 'This is picture book GOLD.' Then, they basically said, but you have to redo the entire plot. And they brainstormed with me until I had a much better idea of what the story could be.
I went home and rewrote and revised and revamped (and many other 're' words). Now, when I’m tempted to think I’m done with something, I remember all the versions of Sophie before I finally got it right. And I keep working."
What is your favorite part of the fall conference each year?
"I remember being at my very first SCBWI fall conference and feeling terrified. I was sure someone was going to tap me on the shoulder and tell me that I didn’t belong. I was so freaked out, I don’t think I talked to much of anyone. I just lurked in the back and hid in corners. If you’re new this year, don’t do that. Talk to people. Say 'hi.' Everyone’s nice.
I also remember at one of my first conferences hearing Dori Chaconas say she’d sold her 22nd book. I said to the person next to me: 'I just want to be Dori Chaconas.' They replied: 'Everybody wants to be Dori Chaconas.'
Dori’s still selling awesome books, but I’ve learned that you can only be you, and you can only write the stuff you can write, and that’s good enough. I still read Dori’s books for inspiration, though, and so should you."
You can learn more about Pat Zietlow Miller and her books on her website. She will present at the Wisconsin SCBWI Fall Conference, which runs from September 15 – 17, 2017. If you haven't registered for the fall conference yet, there's still time. Register HERE before we sell out!