Friday, April 17, 2009

Susan Van Metre • Interview Adventures • 4

Susan Van Metre was sitting in the stacks of the Mount Holyoke College library one evening, struggling to finish a paper for her “Women and the American West” class (which wasn’t as much fun as it sounds), when she noticed a book called The Railway Children by E. Nesbit on a nearby shelf. E. Nesbit is mentioned in one of Susan’s favorite books of all time, Half Magic by Edward Eager, but it had somehow never occurred to her before that E. Nesbit was a real person. Of course, she spent the rest of the night devouring the works of Ms. Nesbit to the neglect of her paper. This was just one sign of the children’s book addiction that led her to the Radcliffe Publishing Course and then to a decade at Dutton Children’s Books. She came to Abrams in 2002 to help start Amulet Books, a middle grade and young adult imprint now in its fourth year. She is the editorial director of Amulet.
Susan has had the pleasure and honor of working with such talented writers as Lauren Myracle (whom she pulled out of slush), William Sleator, Eva Ibbotson, Aidan Chambers, Janet S. Anderson, Arthur Dorros, and many others. Lately, Susan is focused on acquiring novels for Amulet, though she likes to work on the occasional picture book for the Abrams Books for Young Readers imprint. Her tastes are broad. She loves contemporary, historical fiction, mystery, fantasy, sci fi, romance, and more. She has a special weakness for family and ensemble stories (see E. Nesbit and Edward Eager), and thinks Jaclyn Moriarty and Polly Horvath don’t write quickly enough.

CW: What did you study in college? What school did you attend?

SVM: I planned to study psychology as that was the subject taught by my favorite high school teacher, Ms. Hannah, but then I just couldn’t stop taking English literature classes. I was an addict! By the time I was a senior at Mount Holyoke (after a stint at Oxford), I had so many lit. credits they MADE me take other courses so I’d graduate a well-rounded liberal arts student.

CW: What are some of your all-time favorite books?

SVM: My most beloved books are The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. I read them on a family trip to England and checked the wardrobes in every B&B from London to York for a passage to Narnia. Even my deep admiration for the books of Philip Pullman, an avowed detester of Lewis, cannot shake my devotion. Lewis is a great appreciator, particularly of food. As I am always hungry, I feel we’re kindred spirits. I realize I publish many books based on their great descriptions of food. Perhaps I should have been a cookbook editor.

CW: What is editing? Can you talk me through the editing of books and what your role is from beginning to completion?

SVM: Editing is a compulsion! I think of editing as project management. Though shaping a text is my favorite part of the job, there is so much, much more to being an editor. You are there at every stage, a cheerleader, a financier, a negotiator, a shrink, a hand-holder, a midwife, a bedeviler, a rallier, a general! It all begins with falling in love with a manuscript, seeing the potential in it, and then engaging in the process of convincing others to love it, too. First in-house as you work with the author to get it into its best possible shape, and then in the wider world when you launch it as the book it was meant to be.

CW: When did you realize you wanted to work in publishing?

SVM: The day it occurred to me that someone made the books I loved so much. This seems obvious, of course, but for most of my young reading life I didn’t think far beyond the author’s role. I had a prized copy of Jane Eyre, illustrated by Fritz Eichenberg. (See the cover below.) It was an ostentatious bit of book-making, which I loved at the age (about twelve, I think), because it made me feel I owned something as commercially valuable to the world as it was spiritually and intellectually valuable to me. The edition, published by Random House, probably isn’t worth much, but I was convinced then that it was, or would be if I held onto it long enough! Anyway, I think it was the “high class” look of that edition that gave me my first inkling that someone aside from the author was involved in giving a book its physical form. And, I thought, I could help with that!

CW: How did you break into the industry?

SVM: The Radcliffe Publishing Course, now at Columbia. I met three very talented children’s publishing people there: Karen Lotz, Christopher Franceschelli, and Stephen Roxburgh. They seemed genuinely enthusiastic about their jobs, unlike the jaded folks from the adult book world who also taught the course. From what I gleaned from these three, there was still room in children’s books to do something you really cared about, to publish books just because they were good. That appealed to me. And it helped that Christopher and Karen offered me a job! As editorial assistant at Dutton.

CW: What appeals to you about working in this field?

SVM: I like reading for a living! I like working on something different every day. I like working with so many smart, creative, engaged people. Just go to the DMV; you’ll find yourself scurrying back to the cocoon of literacy that is publishing.

CW: Amulet is celebrating its 5th Anniversary, how did Amulet Books come to be and where do you see the imprint on its 10th Anniversary?

Howard Reeves, the Abrams BYR publisher, phoned me saying he had an editorial position open. I’d been at Dutton for twelve years and though I loved the list and the people, I was ready for something different. But I knew Abrams as an art book publisher. And I knew they didn’t publish novels, which are my favorite things to edit. But Howard told me Abrams was looking to grow and that fiction was a possible area to expand into. I came on board, got the green light to sign up some novels, and Amulet was born!

CW: What makes an Amulet Book an Amulet Book?

SVM: Pretty early on we knew we wanted a literary list, but also one with strong appeal for kids. And we knew that to stand out, we had to take risks, both in format and content. I hope we’ll continue to do that in our second five years.

CW: When working on a book--either a picture book or novel--what is the process of selecting an illustrator?

SVM: Oh, I am always full of ideas, which you bat down. Kidding! I often have a very clear picture of the tone and style that will suit the text, but I rely on the expertise of the art department in helping me identify just the right illustrator.

Describe a healthy editor and art director relationship?

SVM: One in which argument is welcome. I think some of the strongest books come out of lengthy, lengthy discussion.

CW: The phrase "original voice" is thrown around a lot when people talk about looking for manucripts or even illustrators. What does this phrase mean to you?

SVM: So much is written in a bland, colorless tone. A really confident writer gives personality to the narrative voice. Think of the chutzpah required to interrupt the narrative as Daniel Handler does in the Lemony Snicket books. Or to alternate between folksy storytelling and introspective preteen angst as Louis Sachar does in Holes.

CW: Can you identify some current trends in children's publishing? Are these trends good for books?

SVM: I think there have been some brave and interesting attempts to extend the experience of the physical book to the internet with games and contests and videos. We all know that kids are online, in ever greater numbers, and we want to figure out how to stake a claim to some of that surfing time. But I’m not sure anyone has hit on the perfect combination of book and web experience. This trend doesn’t seem to be hurting the book, or helping it that much either, beyond an obvious exception or two.

CW: You have had a lot of successful series come out of a relatively young imprint: The Internet Girls by Lauren Myracle, The Sisters Grimm by Michael Buckley, Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney, and The Chronicles of Faerie by OR Melling. What is your secret to success?

SVM: Thanks! Honestly, good timing and a lot of luck. I publish books I like. That’s what any editor or publisher would do.

CW:What is the hardest and most rewarding part of being an Associate Publisher?

The hardest part is all the meetings! The most rewarding part is shaping the future of a list I helped start.

CW: Do you have any books coming up that you are excited about?

SVM: I am excited about all of them! We have an amazing Fall ‘09 list. Truly stellar. And there are two quirky novels on the Spring ‘10 list that I am curious about. I wonder how they will be received, they are so unusual. One is The Strange Case of the Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger. It’s a mystery about an awkward kid who won’t speak to his classmates directly, only through a finger puppet of Yoda. And the thing is, this kid can’t do anything right but his Yoda puppet gives great advice to the other kids in the class. They can’t figure out; some of them think the puppet might be “real.” The mystery is their investigation of the puppet’s “powers.” The other quirky title is Attack of the Fluffy Bunnies by Andrea Beaty. It’s sort of like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but with giant alien rabbits.

CW: I need a funny question to go out on. Any ideas?

SVM: Well, I can’t think of any better words to end with than “giant alien rabbits.”


Ronald L. Smith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ronald L. Smith said...

Really nice interview. Very informative. Quite a nice blog you have here.

Anonymous said...

I went to RPC with Susan, and also went into Children's Publishing, and am pleased to see she's still there and loving it! Good for her.