Author Spotlight: Heather Preusser
Mar. 3, 2017
Today we feature author Heather Preusser, whose debut picture book, A SYMPHONY OF COWBELLS, illustrated by Eileen Ryan Ewen (Sleeping Bear Press), comes out on March 15.
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Tell us about your background and how you came to write for children.
I was always writing stories as a kid. In elementary school, I wrote and illustrated books, using wallpaper samples to decorate the front and back covers. In fifth grade, I started a class newspaper, The Traveling Gazette, that I photocopied and assembled in my dad’s office. (I’m pretty sure I misspelled “Gazette” in every issue.) And in middle school, instead of paying attention during class, I entertained myself by writing my own creative pieces.
Then I entered high school, and it was no longer cool to write and produce your own plays during recess. It wasn’t until I started teaching middle and high school English that I put pen to paper again, mostly because I needed models for my students. In the summer of 2006, I earned a National Writing Project fellowship. I entered a “state of constant composition,” and I haven’t stopped looking at the world through a writer’s lens since.
Congratulations on your debut book, A SYMPHONY OF COWBELLS. What inspired this story?
I was inspired to write A SYMPHONY OF COWBELLS when my sister-in-law told me a story about an ornery, old cow she encountered while working on a Swiss dairy farm. Every spring these cows are paraded to the high meadows where their milk is turned into scrumptious cheese. Worried this old cow wouldn’t make the trek with such a heavy bell, the farmer traded her big booming bell for a tiny tinkling one. The cow refused to move.
Ultimately, the farmer realized the error of his ways, reunited bell and bovine, and all was well.
Thanks to my PiBoIdMo training, I knew this could make a good picture book manuscript, but I needed to increase the tension and create a satisfying ending. Twenty drafts later, and after recruiting two large Alpine crows, I felt ready to submit the manuscript.
Was your road to publication long and winding, short and fortuitous, or something in between?
Something in between. After making the classic newbie mistake of submitting manuscripts to agents and editors too soon, I focused on improving my craft. I enrolled in a local class that covered picture book writing basics, went to school to earn my MFA in creative writing, and joined SCBWI.
At the Rocky Mountain SCBWI fall conference in 2014, I had a one-on-one critique with Sarah (Miller) Rocket from Sleeping Bear Press. She made suggestions for revisions, invited me to submit the manuscript to her, and acquired it the following fall. I signed the contract, and a year later I was marveling at the final art Eileen Ryan Ewen had created and, inspired by Petra’s fashion sense, ordering my own pair of yellow rain boots.
What projects are you working on now?
I tend to go through revising and drafting phases. I recently finished a round of revisions on a number of picture book manuscripts, and my agent just sent five of them out on submission. With some inspiration from 12x12, now I’m brainstorming and drafting a number of new picture book manuscripts that have been vying for my attention. I’m also finishing a draft of a middle grade novel I began this summer.
What is the hardest part about writing picture books?
Plotting. (I know, that’s a big one.) Character, voice, setting, theme – almost everything – comes easier to me than plot. I often suffer from Murky Middle Syndrome, questioning how I get from the beginning to the end of a story without losing sight of the main character’s goal, motivations, and obstacles, or wondering how I can build the tension organically, raising the stakes without becoming repetitive and formulaic.
Quite often, in my early drafts, I forget to invite the reader on the emotional journey with the main character, which means the pay-off isn’t enough at the end. Once I became aware of this weakness, I studied mentor texts and will be presenting my findings at a workshop during the NJ-SCBWI conference this coming June: “Picture Book Beat Sheet: How Strategies from Save the Cat Can Strengthen Your Manuscript.”
What is the easiest?
After attending Jane Yolen’s Picture Book Boot Camp and reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s BIG MAGIC, I realize the most important thing for me to remember is to write for myself, to write for my own purposes and pleasure. When I set out to write a story because I find it enjoyable and entertaining, that joy is much more likely to reach readers.
As Gilbert says, “Do whatever brings you to life, then. Follow your own fascinations, obsessions, and compulsions. Trust them. Create whatever causes a revolution in your heart. The rest will take care of itself.” When I forget writing picture books should be fun for me, overcoming that becomes the hardest part.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
In addition to writing for myself, I also think it’s important to write for that one perfect reader. In THIS IS THE STORY OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE, Ann Patchett talks about the winter she spent at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. During those seven months she not only learned how to write a novel she also found her perfect reader: Elizabeth McCracken. Elizabeth was “a true reader, someone who didn’t automatically love everything [Ann] did, someone whose criticism and praise were always thoughtful and consistent. She knew when to be tough and when to be encouraging.”
For me, my perfect readers are my critique partners and former co-workers, Megan and Kristie. They get my nerdy English-teacher humor, they get my writing, and they help me make it better. So find your perfect reader, and always write with them in mind. Chances are if that perfect reader enjoys your story, others will too.
What is one thing most people don't know about you?
When I was in elementary school, I caught a piglet in a pig scramble (turns out capturing a piglet isn’t difficult, but coercing him into a burlap bag is). We took him home, and my older sister named him Hamlet. (I think she also suggested the name Rob Lowe, but Hamlet won.) Hamlet loved peanut butter sandwiches and to have me scratch his back with a rake. To this day I still don’t eat pig products.
Where can people find you online?
I have an author website, I’m part of Picture the Books, a group of writers and illustrators with picture books debuting in 2017, and I’m on Twitter as well.
Heather Preusser graduated from Williams College and earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program. In her debut picture book, A SYMPHONY OF COWBELLS (Sleeping Bear Press, March 2017), a Swiss dairy cow loses her bell and disrupts the harmony of the herd. When not writing, Heather teaches high school English, bikes the European countryside, and attempts to learn ridiculously long German words. She and her husband reside in Colorado.