Author Spotlight: Julie Segal Walters
Jan. 19, 2018
Today we have the pleasure of featuring picture book author Julie Segal Walters and her debut picture book, THIS IS NOT A NORMAL ANIMAL BOOK, illustrated by Brian Biggs (Simon and Schuster 2017).
Tell us about yourself and how you came to write for children.
Thank you for having me on Kidlit 411! I’m a huge fan!
I live in Washington, DC with my husband, our hilarious 9 year old son, and a very pesky cat.
Before writing for children, I was the president and founder of Civic Action Strategies, a grassroots organizing and democracy development consulting firm. Before that, I had lots of amazing jobs in my career, including working for two years in Kosovo where I directed citizen engagement programs for U.S. and European organizations.
I’m also a lawyer and former Congressional lobbyist for civil rights and civil liberties. I began writing for children when my son was young and I wanted to memorialize stories for him of our time together. Children’s literature is a very different path from my previous career(s), and I’m completely in love with it!
Congratulations on THIS IS NOT A NORMAL ANIMAL BOOK. Tell us about it and what inspired you.
Thank you so much! THIS IS NOT A NORMAL ANIMAL BOOK begins as a stroll through the common, every day, normal animals – mammal, bird, amphibian, insect, reptile, and fish. The story quickly evolves, however, into a meta-fiction disagreement between the author and illustrator over how to draw the animals. The author wants simple, normal animal drawings. The illustrator, however, is confused and makes a bit of a mess. The conflict between the author and the illustrator reaches its peak when the illustrator refuses to draw the author’s choice of fish. Granted, the blobfish is an unusual choice of fish.
The inspiration for the book came in November 2013 during Tara Lazar’s Picture Book Idea Month (now StoryStorm — which I highly recommend!). One night, while reading a bedtime story to my son that included Yiddish vocabulary, I had the idea to write a story about a Yiddish proverb because I think Yiddish proverbs are the perfect combination of hilarious and profound. My father’s parents spoke Yiddish, and I have fond memories of my grandfather teaching me to swear in Yiddish while my grandmother yelled at him to stop corrupting me. When I researched Yiddish proverbs, I came across the proverb, “If the cat laid and egg, it would be a hen.” (It loosely means, you can’t wish for something to be different from what it is because wishing won’t make it so.) The proverb inspired more words about animals and ultimately a meta-fiction author-illustrator conflict story spilled out.
Speaking of the book’s meta relationship between the author and illustrator, in real life, did you have contact with, or were you able to provide input on the illustrations in the book?
One of the greatest compliments I’ve heard about the book is that it reads like Brian Biggs (the illustrator) and I collaborated on the story and wrote it together. That was the goal so I’m so happy you asked the question! The truth is that the book process was actually super traditional - I wrote the words, and Brian drew the pictures, without collaboration. I wrote both voices in the story — including the illustrator lines — and I had no input or suggestions at all on the illustrator selection or the direction of the art (except for the nonfiction photograph of the blobfish, which was an illustrator note in my manuscript.)
Brian and I did have one brief conversation together with our editor about 2 years into the process to make sure we were all on the same page for the direction of the book. That call resulted in me doing a revision to smooth the page turns between the different animals. Other than that, Brian and I did not work together on the book at all in the 3 1/2 years between when I sold it and when it hit the shelves. But I’m happy it reads like we did!
Was your road to publication long and windy, short and sweet, or something in between?
In some ways, my road to publication of THIS IS NOT A NORMAL ANIMAL BOOK was short and sweet because I wrote and sold the manuscript in 5 months. That said, once I sold the book, I waited 3 1/2 years for the book to be published! That’s a really long time!
Also, while my road to publication of my debut book was relatively easy, I’ve had to slog ever since to write and to sell more stories, so I consider my overall road to publication long and windy since there are never any shortcuts.
What are you working on now?
Right now I have 3 picture book manuscripts that are ready for submission (I think), and I’m about to start querying agents with those stories. Two are funny fiction stories, and one is a narrative nonfiction biography. I’m also writing a contemporary middle grade novel that is my heart, so that’s where I’m focusing my creative energy this winter.
What is the hardest part of writing for you? What’s the easiest?
The hardest part of writing for me is sitting at my computer and creating or revising alone. Unlike many authors, I’m an extrovert and I would prefer to verbally process my ideas rather than stare at a screen without any input or collaboration. Also, I like deadlines, so writing without an external deadline is more difficult for me.
As for the easiest part of writing? There is no easiest part. Except maybe ideas. I love coming up with ambitious ideas!
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
My advice to aspiring authors is not to be an aspiring author. Instead, be an aspiring WRITER. I think many people who love to write get bogged down in the desire to publish their writing. The result, in my experience, is that the writing gets hobbled by the business side of publishing, and the creativity and craft ultimately suffer.
I think people who want to write should take themselves seriously as writers. They should read tons of books in the genre they want to write, join critique groups, study craft, and write as much as possible. To me, taking oneself seriously as a writer does not require diverting time and energy to trying to get that writing published. In other words, when just starting out, I think people should focus only on writing and save the publication ambition for later. I wish I had taken this advice.
What is one thing most people don’t know about you?
I doubt many people know that I was on the floor of the House of Representatives during the historic vote on D.C. Statehood in November 1993. (Spoiler alert: We lost.)
Where can people find you online?
I’m all over the place online! My website is www.juliesegalwalters.com, and I’m active on Twitter at @j_s_dub, and Instagram at @juliesegalwalters. I love making Kidlit friends online so come say hi!