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Writing as an Act of Discovery:
A Conversation with Juanita Havill

By Anna Olswanger

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Juanita Havill is the author of fifteen children's books, including Jamaica's Find, a Reading Rainbow Review Book, IRA-CBC Children's Choice, and Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award Winner; Jamaica Tag-Along, an American Bookseller "Pick of the Lists"; and Sato and the Elephants, an ALA Notable in the Field of Social Studies, which has been translated into five South African languages. She is also the editor of Booklove: Creating Good Books for Children in an Age that Values Neither.

Havill grew up in Mount Carmel, Illinois, and after stints in France, Illinois, and Minnesota, now lives in Arizona with her husband and children. She spoke with Anna Olswanger at a Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Conference in Los Angeles.

ANNA OLSWANGER: When was your first book published?

JUANITA HAVILL: I did a work-for-hire book in 1984. I did that with Parker Brothers. It wasn't really my book, in the sense that they give you character descriptions, plot outlines . . . and two weeks! So you write it up, send it in. They're very quick. I think it was published in four or five months. It didn't go very far. Later that year I placed my first manuscript that I had created myself with Houghton Mifflin. Jamaica's Find came out in 1986.

OLSWANGER: When did you begin writing?

HAVILL: I used to make up poems when I was about four or five and couldn't print anything legible. I would tell my poems to my mother who very patiently wrote them down. But my mother insisted that poets didn't eat well and thought that maybe I ought to be a teacher, so I studied English at the University of Illinois. I discovered that I didn't want to get a doctorate in English. It was too destructive--taking everything apart--and I wanted to put things together, so I kept writing and worked as a translator in France for a while. I was never far from the written word. It wasn't until my son was born, while we were back in the States and living in Minnesota, that I seriously started to market what I had written.

OLSWANGER: Do you stick to a writing schedule?

HAVILL: I wish I could say I stick to one. I have to admit that since the move to Arizona, I haven't gotten into a schedule. One reason is the surroundings. It's a climate thing. Moving from Minnesota to Arizona and finding the summers extremely hot, I have to write early, stop when it's so hot I can't think anymore, and then by the evening I'm not good at writing. I have a family, I'm a mom, and I'm imminently interruptible, so I take a large break in the summer. I do have an office at home and my dream is to be able to spend six uninterrupted hours in my office.

OLSWANGER: Do you work closely with your editors during the revision process?

HAVILL: Yes. I think my manuscripts are finished when I send them in, and I discover that they're not. And that's what the editor does--helps me find the story that I am trying to tell. Some have been completely rewritten, especially novels, but the Jamaica stories have been fairly complete. Just a word here or there has been changed.

OLSWANGER: Is it a surprise to you that the Jamaica stories are so popular in England?

HAVILL: I get royalty statements so I realize that they are selling a lot of copies in the U.K., and I don't know why. It could be the name recognition, that "Jamaica" is familiar to them, but I'd like to think the story is universal and that they connect with it.

OLSWANGER: What were the changes in the English edition?

HAVILL: They had to edit certain words. In England, Jamaica's brother Ossie gets the basketball from the "cupboard" rather than the closet, and they play at a sand "pit" and not a sand pile.

OLSWANGER: Do you have an agent?

HAVILL: For a long time, I didn't. I liked working with editors directly, and I didn't mind negotiating contracts. I liked having that control in marketing, knowing where everything was, and knowing it was up to me to follow it around. But it was time-consuming, and because of the changes in children's publishing, I got to the point where I said, "I just want to write. I don't want to have to think about the business side of it!"

OLSWANGER: What are the changes you've seen in children's publishing?

HAVILL: In some ways it has gotten easier to be published because there are more avenues: magazines, on-line sites, CD-ROMs, self-publishing, writing curricula, passages for tests. But if you have in mind publishing a hardcover book with a large East or West coast publisher, I think it is more difficult now than fourteen years ago when I started out. Children's books are not immune to returns as they once were, and publishers have trimmed their list size and become cautious. They're searching for books with healthy sales.

OLSWANGER: What's your advice to new writers?

HAVILL: Research the publishers you are interested in. Check Books in Print, Publishers Weekly, and bookstores to see what is being published. Sign up for a course in writing for children in your area--if you can find a competent instructor. Read some of the writing books available, like Marion Dane Bauer's What's Your Story? A Young Person's Guide to Fiction, Barbara Seuling's How to Write a Children's Book and Get it Published, and Connie Epstein's The Art of Writing for Children: Skills and Techniques of the Craft. Subscribe to a newsletter. Information is abundant, and I caution that you can find yourself not only overwhelmed, but spending valuable writing time getting informed. Try to maintain a balance. Think about signing on with an agent. You might test the waters by sending your work to some agents--please research this more thoroughly than a visit to the yellow pages--and see if a compatible one is interested in your work. If you're a midlist writer of contemporary novels and haven't placed a book in four years, change your name and write science fiction! Really, the most important thing you can do is good work, your best work. Spend the time you need to get it right. It may not be published, but it will be noticed and you can keep receptive editors in mind for future work.

OLSWANGER: Do you advise attending conferences?

HAVILL: Conferences are exhausting, but full of socializing and information. ALA gives me a chance to be surrounded by 30,000 or so people for whom books are vital. That in itself is a heady experience for a writer who spends a lot of time alone in self-doubt, fighting off the conventional wisdom that books are dying out. At ALA I can meet authors, though not necessarily have long conversations with them because they are busy signing books. I can meet editors. I can see what books are being published and which authors are being presented to the public. At the national SCBWI conference I can listen to authors, agents, editors, and meet and talk with other writers. At various sessions I can learn how other writers work, what their philosophy is, what techniques they use successfully. Choose conferences carefully because travel and tuition can be expensive. I think it is possible to overdo the socializing, but I think most writers know their limits, and I believe the value of friendships formed with other writers cannot be measured.

OLSWANGER: Do you do any formal teaching?

HAVILL: I teach writing at Phoenix College and literature at Ottawa University, both in Phoenix.

OLSWANGER: Does teaching help you as a writer?

HAVILL: Teaching both helps and hinders--hinders because it robs me of time, and seems to draw from the same source of energy that feeds my writing. I'm not happy with having to make a choice, but as a wife and mother, I'm familiar with making choices. Teaching also hinders because it concentrates on literary analysis. The teacher as literary critic--and I think this is an important role played by teachers of children's literature--is concerned with the story as it is written, while the writer is concerned with the story as it is being written. But teaching helps because it hones my critical skills and compels me to keep current on publishing as well as continue to explore children's literature of the past. Teaching writing, rather than literature, brings me closer to writing as process and forces me to examine my own methods. I once assigned a plot outline for a novel, and a student asked me, "Do you ever do this?" I had to answer, "No, but I plan to." I did, and it helped.

OLSWANGER: What other writing techniques do you recommend?

HAVILL: To be a writer, you must write. No matter how many courses you take, how many conferences you attend, how many rejections you garner, if you want to be a writer, you have to write. And when you write, try to cultivate awareness of what you are saying and how you are saying it. Try to listen to the sounds your words make and pay attention to the images and sensations your words create. You can increase your awareness by reading. Look for recommended books for young readers: old books, new books, award-winning books, children's choice books. Read first as a reader. Which books move you and why? Then read as a writer. How does the author reach you, with what techniques, language, plot, theme, and character?

OLSWANGER: Do you have a particular goal as a writer?

HAVILL: You know, when I go for an interview--and I periodically go for interviews because I couldn't afford to write if I didn't have another job now and again--that question is the one that always sets me back. "What are your goals in five years if you work for our company?" I think this is why I seldom get jobs! I live for the moment, I'm curious, and I probably have a short attention span so I find myself interested in a lot of things that I want to write about.

OLSWANGER: Have you developed your own definition of writing?

HAVILL: Writing is an act of discovery, discovering what haunts you, what you need to return to in your life, what you want to say. And writing for publication is the act of refining, revising what you have discovered, and preparing it to offer to the reader.

Copyright 1998 by Anna Olswanger. All rights reserved. Copyright policy

Other interviews by Anna Olswanger are available at Anna Olswanger Books.

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