Interview with Big Rig's Jamie Swenson

At what point did you realize that writing was a viable career option?
This is a really hard question to answer - because - a viable career means something different to each person. For me, with two published and one soon-to-be-released picture books, I have yet to realize the monetary level that my 'other career' provides. I know very few writers who are independently wealthy or earn enough simply by writing to support themselves. Most have part-time/full-time jobs, or have a partner who earns the majority of the income. The writers who are supporting themselves are doing a lot of traveling either to conferences or school visits, which is of course a wonderful thing - but also exhausting! For me, writing is my passion -- but I support that passion by working as an early literacy storyteller/children's associate at my local public library. In my mind, this is the best of both worlds - to be surrounded by children's books at 'work' and to 'work' as a writer. I feel blessed in this regard! I also have a very supportive husband who helps makes my writing time possible. Without these two outside sources of income, I'm not sure being a picture book writer would be a viable career for me.

What does a typical writing day look like for you?
My typical writing day starts as soon as I wake up. Getting into the frame of mind is really important, so I do the 'office work' first for about an hour. This includes catching up on any important emails, updating social media as needed, or reviewing notes from my editor/agent about the current project. Once I have put out any fires, I feel free to write for a few hours. On a good day, I'll write for about three hours before taking a break. My best break is walking my dogs. During my walk, I am revising the morning's work in my head (sometimes by talking aloud - which I think worries those who pass me!). I also use my walk to brainstorm new story ideas. It's amazing how much I get done AWAY from my computer! After my walk - I once again check email/social media etc... and then if I'm actively working on a project, I try to write for another hour. If not, I might spend the afternoon critiquing work for other writers. I am normally done for the day by 3:30 p.m. when my kids get home from school. If I'm very inspired about the current project -- I may work on and off in the late afternoon/evening -- but that's rare. My typical week consists of two full writing days, and three days spent working as an early literacy storyteller at my local library. Many of my ideas hit my while I'm at work - either observing storytime, or interacting with the kids at the library. I'm not sure writers ever really get to leave the writing work behind! I have no idea how to 'turn it off' when I'm not actively at my desk.

How did you celebrate when your first book was accepted by a publisher?
I guess the funniest part of that first contract came when I announced it to my family. I sold my first book in December 2010; the book was originally due to come out in Dec. 2012. When I announced the date, my then middle school aged daughter got a pained look on her face and said, "Oh great. That's when the world is supposed to end!" Mayan predictions aside, I don't think I'll ever forget that! I had waited a long time to get 'the call' - and so it made perfect sense that when it finally came it was the end of life as we knew it! All joking aside, I used a bit of the advance to take my family on vacation -- the rest went toward bills. It was an incredible moment in my writing life -- a validation of sorts for all the work, rejection, patience, and time spent at my computer.

What were your 1-2 biggest learning experience(s) or surprise(s) throughout the publishing process?
I think the pace of the industry still surprises me, despite the knowledge that I had coming into the mix. I'd heard stories from published friends about the long wait for the finished product. I knew about waiting. My first manuscript sold after about seven years of near misses. That alone would have probably killed most folks, or sent them running off to self-publish. But I could never walk away. I felt like I was so close for so many years. Years. Thinking back, I have no idea why I kept trying. I just did. And then, one day, *HOORAY!* I sold a book! And it would be out in TWO YEARS! Everyone outside the industry was shocked that my picture book would take TWO YEARS, but I was well-aware of how long it took for a picture book to come out ... what I wasn't expecting was to have an illustrator like Chris Raschka take on the manuscript. When my editor told me he loved it and wanted to work on it - but couldn't start until 2012, I was in shock. Amazingly GOOD shock. My editor actually asked if I would be okay with this ... um... YES! But, when I told my friends and family that the book wouldn't be out until 2014 (at the earliest) they were in disbelief. How on God's Green Earth could a picture book take so many years? I really don't know. They just do. And believe me, when I saw the art for the book and held the advance copy in my hand - all the years (previous to selling the book and the waiting for the book once I signed off on the text) disappeared. So, I guess I'm surprised to tell you, "Yes. The slow pace of the industry is fine with me." If you're out there writing a picture book, know that once you sell it, you might have a bit of a wait before you get to share the finished product with your mom. (Novels don't take such a long time ... and not EVERY publisher takes two years or more for a book ... but, know that it's a possibility).

What role did you play in the illustration process of Big Rig? How has your experience with your previous and upcoming books compared?
My editor for BIG RIG kept me involved with the illustration process of the book, sharing Ned Young's early sketches and asking for my thoughts/opinions. Many of my suggestions were incorporated into the art -- but there were still plenty of fun surprises for me when I saw the final art (for instance - I had NO IDEA there would be dinosaurs in this book - cars/trucks AND dinosaurs? I was thrilled). The process for my Macmillan books was slightly different - I never saw rough sketches and had only minimal input on end pages and cover. So, those books were a complete surprise for me -- which was really fun too!

What made you interested in writing about trucks? Have you done any book events where Big Rigs were involved?
As a children's librarian/storyteller -- I am always using great transportation books, from the classic Crews books to new releases. I love how the kids respond to anything with wheels - boys and girls. One day, while observing a storytime, I heard a little boy yell out, "I am a big rig!" It made me laugh, but the sentence stuck with me. All weekend that voice popped around in my head, but started to change into a very BIG voice with an even bigger attitude. "Howdy, name's Stella. Proud to meet you, I'm a big rig." What? The voice stopped me. I started playing with it and started researching all things truck related. I was so taken with the voice and with all the fantastic truck-related words I discovered that I had no choice but to write the book. If you had asked me the day before I'd heard that little boy yell out if I had any intention of writing about semi trucks - I would have said no. I've learned to be open to any topic and to come at it in a way that makes me smile. BIG RIG, and the truck who is now named Frankie, makes me smile.

I have always found it very difficult to write picture books because I can’t write anything that short. What is the hardest thing for you when you work on picture books?
Writing 'short' is a challenge - and it's one I adore. My first draft of a book might be 700 words. My next challenge is to cut the ms. down to the bare essentials - to recognize where I've stomped on the illustrators toes by providing too much stage direction/detail -- and where I've fallen in love with my own sentences and given too much narrative ... and looking at the white space - is it balanced? So much of what I write is hidden in the white space -- you have to use your imagination when you look at my manuscript. My books are intended to be illustrated, and I respect the ability of the illustrator to take the words and ideas I've created and flesh out our story and add to it. I really do think of writing picture books as a puzzle ... how can I give the reader a full, rich experience in as few words as humanly possible? Do not waste even one word. Do not be frivolous. Make it count. If you're only using 430 words - each word MUST have a reason and must pull the story along. It's become such a part of me that I'm not certain I could write LONG! grin.

Can you share a little bit about your newest project with us?
My next book, IF YOU WERE A DOG, will come out in Sept. 2014. It's actually the first book that I sold to Macmillan back in 2010. I am in love with how the book turned out. It was illustrated by Caldecott Medalist, Chris Raschka, and was well-worth the four year wait, at least in my opinion. Chris' watercolors seem to match the joy I was feeling when I wrote that text, which is playful and rhythmic and full of what is now my 'trademark' onomatopoeia (I love using sound words in my books, so much fun to read aloud with kids). My current W-I-Ps are a bit zanier than my other books. I'm playing with voice and perspective and language. I'm having fun and I'm playing, which is what I do best.

When you were eight-years-old, what did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
When I was eight, I was thinking about being a famous actor/singer/television news reporter. While I didn't actually become a famous actor/singer, I do still use those skills almost daily - whether I'm sharing books, songs, and action rhymes in storytime, or writing my next book. Picture books are like mini dramas - they're intended to be read aloud with feeling. When you read them, you use some acting skills -- and when you write them -- you imagine and use a ton of acting skills (at least I do) . I find myself reading aloud, imagining the reaction each word might get from the kids -- and freaking out my dogs in the process.

How can readers discover more about you and your work?
Or Tweet me @JamieASwenson