Susie taught me, mentored me, vouched for me, and became a best friend. It’s a pleasure to share her with you! Carol
1. How did a girl from New Jersey end up being the most popular writer in France of children and young adult literature, and how has that worked for you ?
By some quirky accident of fate, I, born in Newark, ended up in Nice, France, married to a Frenchman, and started writing in my limping, lumpy French which I had never studied. Over the past forty years I’ve published over one hundred including picture books, young readers, chapter books and young adult novels. As late as last night, I had to send a one page article to my daughter for corrections before allowing it out into the world. I can’t show the face of my grammaticale ineptitude. When my poor overworked daughter is simply too overloaded, I send a story to an editor and tell her « Now you know my deepest, darkest secret. »
2. Wow. Over 100 books ! Can you name any favorites ; any books that stand out for one reason or another ?
Three big bestsellers : « Sixth Grade », « A Book of Coupons » and « Secret Letters from 0 to 10 » (all translated into English by Viking). I’m grateful to « Sixth Grade » (La sixième) for being my first big success, to « Secret Letters » for winning dozens of prizes (including the Margaret Batcheldor Award in the U.S.) and to « Coupons » for existing. The things that can come out of our heads!
What is Coupons about ?
An old almost retired teacher gives each child in his class a deck of coupons : to get up late, not to come to school, not to do homework, to sing in class, to make noise … A long list which always causes jubilation in the reader. The problem is : you can only use each coupon once. I love this book, wrote it for myself when one day I really wanted to play hookey from the university.
3. What lead you to writing for children ?
I have always written, starting a diary when I was seven and kept alive to this day. Wrote poems in grammar school that earned me the nickname Susie Shakespeare. I was editor-in-chief of my high school paper. I started writing for children because I was inspired by my own two daughters and also because I was an illustrator of sorts. For my first books, I wrote the text to accompany my illustrations.
4. I know you write every day and feel deprived if you don’t do so. What stumps you ? Does the page ever just stare back at you ? How do you get going again ?
I’m a factory. If something is stuck in one book, I put it aside and work on another one. I never stare at the page. Just keep going. Nike stole my favorite motto : JUST DO IT ! The other day an editor called me and asked me to write a novel in English for a collection they are trying to start to get kids to read English directly. I had an idea while she was talking. Wrote one page and sent it to my friend Gill who wrote the second page and I continued the third and it’s so much fun.
5. What has been the most difficult obstacle to getting your work published in the United States ? Aren’t you published in any number of other countries besides France ?
I’m published in around thirty languages. These things happen or don’t. I just received one of my books in Hungarian ! The problem with the U.S. is that the editors don’t know French. So they can’t read my books or any foreign books. I was published because I hit upon an editor who knew French, Jill Davis. I wanted very much to be published in English so my mother could read my books. It’s always exciting to see your book in a language you can’t even read. But it isn’t essential to me. The important thing is to realize my ideas in one language. I once gave a talk to the Israeli writers union. It was in Jerusalem. How many people read Hebrew ? I told them they would have to invest in a translation if they wanted to be read by a foreign Publisher, but isn’t it enough just to exist in your own language ?
6. You’re 67 years old. Is a new frontier of writing ahead of you ?
Yes, every day, every minute so charged up with excitement and ideas. Right now, I’m applying to a film school in Paris for a course in screenwriting. And today, Valentines Day, I’m trying to write a love poem to my Georges.
7. What’s the most memorable thing a reader of yours ever told you ?
An astute child in a class noticed that when I answered questions about my husband (I’m a widow) I would sometimes talk in the past tense and sometimes in the present and sometimes in the imperfect tense Why? And I told him the truth — that I would burst out in tears if I had to admit that my husband was dead. And that was the first time I ever said it in public.
8. What are the differences between submitting and getting published in France vs selling the translation rights?
I have nothing to do with translation rights. The « foreign rights » people do that in Frankfurt and Bologna, even when I happen to meet an editor (like Jill Davis) and obtain a Reading of one of my books. As I said before, these translations just happen (or don’t). Today I received the cover of one of my books in German with the question from Isabele who handles foreign rights about changing the name of the heroine. The Germans didn’t like my Hedwige and asked if they could change it to Hannah. It’s fine with me. The Egyptian Publisher wanted to change the boy in a picture book to a girl so that a boy and girl wouldn’t be in the bath together (they are four-years old !). Finally they didn’t do that book.
9. Are most of your stories set in France or in the US, are where?
All but one of my novels are set in France, except the autobiographical ones like « First love, Last Love » which is in Jerusalem and « The First Time I Was 16 » which is in New Jersey. The novel « Barbamour » (Samantha Claus) is also in the U.S. about a Jewish girl who gets a job as Santa Claus in a department store. I wrote that book in English and my daughter translated it.
10. You are often approached by others to help them get their writing or illustrations published, or translated. How do you manage that?
It’s a big investment and I’m often more worried about their submissions than my own. I have to take the time to read, diplomatically word an encouragement for something hopeless or else send the manuscript to one of my editors and harass them about their answer. At the moment I am waiting for news about a beautiful manuscript of a friend about her husband’s childhood in the shoah. I want it to be published so badly that it hurts. But I don’t win all my wars !
11. Recently you and a cowriter realized the story you were writing had no plot. You said you have never in your writing career developed a plot line. What IS your writing process?
I just let the idea grow and mature and one day I start writing and let my pen lead me from beginning to end. It almost feels out of my hands. I had an idea the other day because my daughter Mayah wanted me to take my 16-year old grandson out of his environment to live with me for a year and make sure he isn’t swallowed up by a computer. Thank God my daughter Lili, the mother, said no way. But it gave me this idea about a teenager coming to live with a crazy grandmother like me and I’m almost ready to sit down and write it. But another manuscript called « Private Spy » has been agonizing in my head for around fifteen years, twenty pages written and ready to be torn to pieces. One day I’ll sit down and just do it.
12. You are a writer, you have taught writing classes, and you’re about to be a screenwriting student. What do you think is/are the benefits of writing classes?
The big benefit is making someone who isn’t as motivated and relentless as me sit down and do it. I have never really attended one myself except three hours with Grace Paley which was a great inspiration to me. Maybe if I had participated in a course I would actually be able to create a plot ! I guesss I’ll answer after I attend this screenwriting course.