Wed 23 Dec 2009
Hello, Steven, and Welcome to The Writer’s Journey!
Growing up in a wonderfully diverse neighborhood on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, you were inspired by the people and places around you. When you became a writer, many of your stories including your first book, Is Milton Missing?, the story of a young boy who comes home only to find Milton, his dog missing, were influenced by your early experiences. Were there other sources of inspiration? Was there any one in your family who inspired your stories?
Steven: My mother was a great storyteller. It was she who made me aware of how language and stories made a difference in the world.
Is Milton Missing?, by Steven Kroll
Jennifer: At thirteen-years-old you decided you wanted to be a writer, and after graduating Harvard, you worked for six-and-a-half years as an editor in London and New York. Why did you choose to go into publishing instead of becoming a writer?
Steven: Fear. There were a lot of talented people at Harvard. Deciding to become a writer straight out of college would have been taking a huge chance (or so I thought). I had worked at the Harvard University Press as an undergraduate. I had publishing connections. Why not go for a job in publishing, do it in London for a start (which would be exciting) and then in New York, and see if those experiences might lead me into writing.
Jennifer: During the years you spent as an editor did you continue to write? If so, what inspired your writing during this time?
Steven: I did continue to write (though often reluctantly). I wrote three unpublished adult novels during my years in publishing (one over more than a year’s worth of successive Sundays). My inspiration was my Harvard adviser, Walker Cowen, who had become a good friend and would not leave me alone. I would get letters saying “Are you keeping your journal? Are you working on that novel we talked about?” I really didn’t have much choice.
Jennifer: I know that you finally made the decision to “get out of publishing and write.” You moved to Maine, where I understand you struggled for four years writing for both adults and children. Looking back, what was the most difficult part about the transition from editor to writer?
Steven: Failure. I was a very successful editor. When I left publishing, I actually thought that because I’d found an agent, knew a lot of people in the business, and was creating what I knew was good work, all I had to do was produce the manuscripts, they would be published, and I would become rich and famous. Then the people I knew began rejecting me. It was a rude awakening.
Jennifer: After struggling for four years how did you finally get published?
Steven: Quite by accident, I met a wonderful children’s book editor (and author) named Margery Cuyler. She liked my work, and she liked me. She was just starting as editor-in-chief at Holiday House. I was the first author she acquired, and we have now been working together for 34 years. She has become the publisher of Marshall Cavendish Children’s Books, and we are doing books together there.
Jennifer: You’ve had an amazing career. With 94 books to your credit so far, do you have a favorite?
Steven: I don’t really. When I have finished work on a book, I don’t like it more or less than the others. But if I had to choose, I guess a special favorite would be Jungle Bullies (Cavendish) because the kids’ response to it is so strong and then, beyond that, my two Italian immigrant novels, Sweet America and When I Dream of Heaven (School Specialty Children’s Publishing) because they were so complex and fascinating to write.
Jennifer: I know that you love to travel and speak at schools and conferences all over the world. When you were a little boy, did you ever dream of traveling? If so, where did you dream of one day going? Why?
Steven: My father was an international diamond dealer. He traveled back and forth to Antwerp and Amsterdam, where he bought what he called the “stones.” Sometimes my mother would go with him, and my sister and I would see them both off on one of those fabulous ocean liners (it was just before the airlines took over international travel). I grew up wanting to go to Europe, wanting to see the world.
Jennifer: You have a degree in American History and Literature. Did you read a lot as a child? If so, what were your favorite books?
Steven: I was both a reader and an athlete. When I wasn’t playing soccer or tennis, I was reading. My favorites were both familiar and not. I started out loving Dr. Seuss, Babar, and Winnie the Pooh, went on to Alice in Wonderland, Walter Farley’s black stallion books, and a whole series of potboilers about collies by Albert Payson Terhune, then graduated to The Great Gatsby and Huckleberry Finn.
Jennifer: When you travel do you get a chance to write? If so, have you ever found any destination to be particularly inspiring?
Steven: I never write when I’m traveling. I’m much too absorbed in the new places I’m seeing or, if I’m giving an appearance, in what I’m going to say and do when I get to the new place. But that doesn’t mean I’m not inspired by travel. The jungle animals in Jungle Bullies are all based on animals I saw on safari in Kenya.
Jennifer: Have you written any books about your travels? If not, would you like to?
Steven: I haven’t. But that doesn’t mean I won’t. Sometimes impressions have to sit for awhile before they turn into book ideas.
Jennifer: As an author of dozens of picture books, you’ve also written historical biographies, books about historical events such as The Boston Tea Party, and for young adults, a book titled, Barbarians! Since these books are factual you must need to do a lot of research. How do you go about researching for these types of books?
Steven: The way, I suspect, most authors do. I go to the library. Nowadays, I go on the Internet. I do a lot of reading and take a lot of notes (in very tiny handwriting). Then it all comes together, and I start writing.
Jennifer: Your books are all wonderfully illustrated. Can you talk a little about how a manuscript and illustrator are matched?
Steven: My editor and I choose the illustrator together. If my editor has an idea for an artist whose work I don’t know, he or she will show me samples. Amazingly, the two of us never disagree. Many authors play no part in this process, but I always have.
Jennifer: Readers would love to know a little about your creative process. Once you have an idea for a new story what comes next?
Steven: If the idea is for a picture book, it comes fast and I write it down all at once. Then revision begins, and that can go on through many drafts. If the idea is for a novel, I will prepare an outline and then write straight through, from beginning to end, tweaking and revising each day’s work before I begin writing again the next afternoon (I do all my writing in the afternoon and early evening). When I have a finished draft, I will go back over the whole, rewriting and revising, rewriting and revising.
Jennifer: Is Milton Missing? was published in 1975. What are the most significant changes you’ve seen in the publishing industry since then? What advice would you give an aspiring author who is trying to break into this competitive market?
Steven: Many more talented people. Huge changes in technology. Much greater concern for the bottom line and what will sell. My advice would be to find a great agent, be original, and persevere.
Jennifer: If there was one person you’d like to meet, one place to see, or one goal to achieve, who or what would they be?
Steven: I’d love to meet Barack Obama. I’ve been all over the world but never, for some reason, to Moscow or St. Petersburg. I just want to go on writing more and better books, though I can’t deny I’d love to win a major award (if only more of my books were eligible).
Jennifer: You are so accomplished and have touched so many lives with your stories. I would love to know what types of projects readers can look forward to in the future.
Steven: Three new picture books are in the works, as well as a surprising work of non-fiction (that I can’t talk about yet), and Margery and I are looking at preliminary art for a picture book graphic novel called Superdragon!
Jennifer In closing, I would like to thank you for sharing your experiences with readers. Your books convey your passion for writing and life and that’s what I feel makes not only a great children’s book author, but a true artist.
Steven: Thank you, Jennifer, for your excellent – and fun to answer – questions.
~ Jennifer Troulis
Jennifer Troulis is the author of two middle grade books entitled Penelope and Priscilla and The Enchanted House of Whispers and Penelope and Priscilla and The City of the Banished. She lives in central New Jersey with her husband Jim and twins, Justin and Samantha. She is currently working on the third book in her Penelope and Priscilla series called The Curse of The Moon Shadow Rose. To learn more about Jennifer and her Magic of Writing Workshop, visit twinmonkeyspress.com.
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