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For the Love of Story:
A Conversation with Jacqueline Ogburn
By Anna Olswanger
Jacqueline Ogburn graduated from the University of North Carolina with a major in English and philosophy. "Totally unemployable" (her own words), she attended the Denver Publishing Institute in the summer of 1981 and afterwards moved to New York. She got a job in the sales and subsidiary rights department at William Morrow and Company, followed by jobs at Lothrop, Lee and Shepard Books as Managing Editor, Blue Cliff Editions, Aladdin Books, and Dial Books for Young Readers as Managing Editor and Associate Editor. She returned to Lothrop Lee and Shepard and worked as "just plain Editor with no adjectives" until she moved back to North Carolina. She now lives in Durham and is president of the board of Carolina Wren Press.
Jacqueline's first picture book, The Masked Maverick (Lothrop), reached bookstore shelves in the spring of 1994. Scarlet Angelina Wolverton Manning (Dial), The Noise Lullaby (Lothrop), and The Reptile Ball (Dial) followed. Just out is The Jukebox Man (Dial), illustrated by James Ransome. She is also the author of Rites of Submission: Cover Letters and Queries.
Anna Olswanger interviewed Jacqueline Ogburn in her home in Durham.
ANNA OLSWANGER: When did you decide that you wanted to be a children's book editor?
JACQUELINE OGBURN: It was while I was at Blue Cliff Editions, a packager. In adult books you're trying to go for the most commercial thing possible. There's pressure to turn things out quickly and you buy books because you think they'll fit a particular niche. It's not important if they're good or not, at least that was my take on it. It's not to say that people who edit adult books are looking for shlocky things, but I decided I didn't want to work hard on books I didn't think were good.
Since the advances and the costs are lower in children's books, you're allowed to work in a different time frame. You can be more careful about choosing what you're doing. You can edit out of love. You're not swept away with whatever is the hot topic of the season because you're publishing for a group--children--who are dealing with large issues of growing up. Those issues can cover a lot of ground. They're not necessarily tied to trends.
I also think that in terms of the physical objects, the quality in trade children's' books is high. People work hard to make beautiful objects. And I think children's books have higher redeeming social values. But it just came down to I liked them better.
OLSWANGER: Did you want to be a writer before you wanted to be an editor?
OGBURN: When I was in high school and college it was something that I thought about, but I got burned out in college by courses where I had to do too much writing. In editorial, particularly in the beginning ranks, you find lots of would-be writers. I used to make a joke that I was there because I didn't want to write.
I started writing children's books because of a mistake. I saw a contract coming through that I thought said The Noise Lullaby. It turned out it was The Norse Lullaby and I was disappointed because I thought, "Oh, The Noise Lullaby. I wonder what that is." So, when I found out it was something else, I decided I would write one and came up with all these noises that a child hears at night going to sleep.
OLSWANGER: That was your first children's book?
OGBURN: It was the first one I wrote. It wasn't the first one I sold. I sent that around to several places and got rejected, sometimes over lunch to my face! So I put it away for a while and had some other things that I was noodling around with. A couple of those got rejected.
The first thing that I sold was Scarlet Angelina Wolverton Manning, which Dial published. Then I sold The Noise Lullaby to Lothrop before I went back there, and while I was at Lothrop, I wrote The Masked Maverick.
OLSWANGER: Where did you get the idea for The Masked Maverick?
OGBURN: Susan Pearson, who was the Editor-in-Chief at Lothrop, had what was called summer hours where you worked longer on Monday through Thursday, and got off early on Friday. She had taught "Writing Children's Books" for a number of years and she offered to give a class on Friday afternoons to people who were interested. We had a couple of sessions. We were supposed to think up a plot and I decided to do something about a wrestler. I had liked wrestlers when I was a kid and I thought it might be fun to illustrate, so even though the class fizzled out before we got around to writing our first draft, I wrote it anyway. When I was happy with it, I gave it to Susan and she bought it.
OLSWANGER: Were you afraid readers would object to the wrestling aspect?
OGBURN: I had hopes that the book would overcome the resistance. I think a lot of people see wrestling as a kind of fake, blue collar, almost embarrassing pursuit, but it's something that I loved as a child. I loved it not so much because of the fighting, but for the theater of it. Professional wrestling was about good guys and bad guys. They were little stories.
OLSWANGER: Is editing a good job for a children's book writer?
OGBURN: I think it is. Your learning curve is shorter. You start to think about what a good children's book is, and you hone your tastes more. You've been immersed in it so you're more familiar with what styles and what topics work. It doesn't mean that you don't write bad things initially, but I think you spend less time writing bad things.
OLSWANGER: Such as?
OGBURN: Writing the wrong lengths, writing morals instead of stories, writing things that are too derivative--that you've heard over and over. If you've been editing children's books for a while, you avoid a couple of the common plot lines that you see all the time, like the one of a character that's different and everybody hates her for it, and then she does something wonderful because of her difference, and everybody loves her. This is a valid plot line but you see it so often that it's boring. I wrote a story that was definitely more of a moral than a story but I only wrote one! After I had looked at it for a while, I recognized what I had done and was able to move on to other stories that were more interesting.
I also think that as an editor you understand that revision is part of the process. You're not upset about revising. When you've been editing, you've been writing stuff that gets revised--editorial letters, things for marketing departments, flap copies, catalog copy--so that you don't have your ego as tightly bound up in a particular draft. Revision is easier because you expect it. Your attitude is that this is a job. It's just something that people do.
OLSWANGER: Are there advantages to being an editor when it comes to submitting a manuscript?
OGBURN: I think the biggest advantage is that you know people in the field. You can choose the best houses first because you're up on who's doing what. You've got an idea of who might like it. But that's the only advantage. Nobody's going to buy your book unless they think it's going to sell. Editors stand or fall on their track records so they can't buy books as favors to friends unless they genuinely feel that the book is going to go somewhere. Most editors can't buy books on their own decision. The Editor-in-Chief or maybe even the marketing department has to approve. The book has to stand up to scrutiny. But I think that the biggest advantage is that you don't spend a lot of time sending it to inappropriate places. Like I said, you have an idea of what things are out there because you already know the market.
OLSWANGER: Why did you leave New York?
OGBURN: My husband got a transfer and we had been thinking about starting a family. It was a hard decision on my part because I loved my last job and I was doing some really terrific books.
OLSWANGER: At which publishing house?
OGBURN: That was at Lothrop. I was doing a lot of acquiring and had things that I thought were promising.
OLSWANGER: Did the move from New York mean a change in your writing?
OGBURN: I don't know that it made that much difference. I think being a parent made a difference. You're much more scattered when you're a parent. You have other priorities . . . there are certain things that I am working on that would be easier for me to research if I were in New York. In Durham I'm still having to figure out how to get to some things that I think might be here. In New York I know they're there, or I know where to find them.
OLSWANGER: For example?
OGBURN: I have a story that I've been noodling around for a long time but haven't drafted yet. It's about a steel worker, an iron worker they call them, and I think that one would be easier to write if I were still in New York among skyscrapers and around people who did that kind of work. Also, I want to set it in the late 20's, early 30's. I could find that kind of historical material a lot easier in New York.
OLSWANGER: What's your writing schedule like?
OGBURN: I'm not very disciplined. I don't write every day or every week. I tend to write if I have something that has inspired me but I also tend to write in my head. I walk around and brood about it before I put anything on paper. I don't think that my productivity level has been high. I would do more if I made myself sit down more often. But I also think that I'm at a self-indulgent point in my life where I give myself permission not to do a whole range of things, except when I feel like it.
OLSWANGER: Do you have an overall goal as a writer?
OGBURN: I don't think so. When I sold Jukebox Man, which is coming out next year from Dial, I finally decided, Well, yes, I'm a children's book writer. If I can do it more than three times it's not a fluke. Right now picture books seem to be what I write most easily. I don't discount that I might write something longer, but I don't have a goal to write the great young adult novel by the end of the century.
OLSWANGER: So there's not an underlying theme or message to your work?
OGBURN: I don't seem to be a writer who is writing out of a particular issue. There are writers that do that. Gary Paulsen tells variations on the same story, a boy going into the wilderness and finding himself. I don't seem to have that right now. I'm not sure what the stories that I write have in common except that I wrote them!
OLSWANGER: How much interaction is there between you and the illustrators of your books?
OGBURN: It's all been through the editors. I got to see the sketches on The Masked Maverick, and I had notes and sent them back to the editor. I got to see the sketches on Scarlet [Angelina Wolverton Manning] and made notes and sent those back to the editor, same thing on The Noise Lullaby. I've never spoken to any of the illustrators while they were working on the projects. I think that I have a little more input on sketches than a lot of authors because I was an editor. People know that my comments will not be unreasonable. I try to make comments in terms of how well this tells the story, not, "Oh, no! I never thought he looked like that!" As an editor you have to allow illustrators their own vision. Nobody is going to portray this story the way that you imagined it. Even if you're the artist, it never comes out quite like you imagined. So part of your task as a children's book writer is to let go and give the story up to somebody else's vision.
OLSWANGER: You've taught workshops on writing children's books for Duke Continuing Education, and for the North Carolina Writers Network. What is it you enjoy about teaching?
OGBURN: I'm an obsessive reader and I've always loved stories. That's been a constant throughout my life. Editing, writing, and teaching all grow out a love of story. Editing was a way of getting paid for working with stories, writing a way of telling stories, and teaching a way of being able to talk to other people about something I love.
OLSWANGER: Is there a main point you try to get across in your workshops?
OGBURN: It's to share my love of the subject. I think children's books are wonderful and I want other people to see they're wonderful. It's also to give people a better understanding of how the publishing process works so that they can have more realistic expectations. Also, to stress that I think writing has value apart from publication, particularly from publication as books. Not everything is a book, and not everything needs to be a book. Just because a manuscript isn't published, doesn't mean it's bad. Every year thousands of perfectly fine stories get rejected. The publication process is a matter of luck. I hope people will understand that after they've talked with me.
Copyright 1998 by Anna Olswanger. All rights reserved.
Other interviews by Anna Olswanger are available at Anna Olswanger Books.
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