Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Interview: Author Sherry Garland

Years ago, when I was starting out, I met several authors who were beyond kind to me. They offered advice and support and never made me feel anything but accepted. One was Kelly Bennett, whom I featured recently, and another was today's guest, Sherry Garland.

Sherry moved to College Station, Texas, from Houston just about the time I was getting started with my writing. She was a real role model - highly successful, having written beautiful books that I continue to admire. And her career continues, through thick and thin, with gorgeous books of all stripes. I'm really pleased to welcome her to my blog. Here's Sherry:

You’ve been a successful author for many years now. Can you tell us a bit about how you began – your early sales, and the books you’ve published?

October, 2012 marks my thirtieth year of being a published author. I have thirty published books, so it averages out to one a year, but in fact there were many “dry” years with no books and some bountiful years of two or more books.

I give credit to my high school English teacher as the person who started me on the long journey to becoming an author. She encouraged me to read great works of literature and to write. She made our senior honors class enter a state-wide essay contest.  I won first place, was in the newspaper, on TV, honored at a banquet and received $100 (that was big bucks back then). She made me feel that I had a talent for writing. I also took journalism and wrote some items for the high school newspaper.

However, it was fifteen years later before I considered writing as a career and joined a writer’s group in Houston. I read tons of how-to-write books and attended conferences. At one conference I met an editor and submitted a proposal to her for a romance novel.  She bought two manuscripts from me (I used a pen name). I didn’t like writing love scenes and the editor was discouraging, so I quit writing altogether and figured my career was over. About five years later, I saw an ad in a writer’s magazine placed by an educational publisher wanting someone to write a children’s NF book about Vietnam. I had never written for children, but I knew a lot about Vietnam because of my friendships with the Vietnamese community in Houston.  That NF book launched my career in the children’s publishing industry. Because of that research, I sold seven books about Vietnam (2 YA, 4 PBs, and 1 NF) plus two magazine stories. Suddenly I was a children’s author!

Please share with us your most recent publications. Can you talk especially about your “Voices of...” collection – how that came into being and what’s planned for the future?

Even though the books are only 40 pages long, they have to be 100% historically accurate. It takes me about one year to do the research then write the book and back matter that includes a 1500 word historical note, glossary of terms and bibliography. Every time I write one, I feel like I have done the equivalent of a master’s thesis! It does make me good at playing Trivial Pursuit.

It started when my editor at Scholastic asked me to write a picture book about The Alamo. I was getting nowhere fast then one day, while sitting in the courtyard of The Alamo, I had a “Eureka” moment: I would tell the story from the perspective of sixteen first person narrative, some real historical figures, some fictitious people. The editor loved it and hired Ronald Himler to do the wonderful illustrations. That book sold very well, in fact this book is used in nearly every elementary school in Texas; it is even sold at the Alamo gift shop. When the Alamo book went out of print, Pelican Publishing, a regional publisher who specializes in southern and southwestern books, reissued it. 

One day the president of Pelican Publishing asked me if I would write a Voices of Gettysburg book using the same 40 page format. It was a topic that worked well with 16 narratives, alternating the POV between Union and Confederate soldiers and citizens. It was illustrated by Judith Hierstein and released in 2010.

Then, I saw a TV documentary about the Dust Bowl and knew it was a topic I had to write about. Being a native Texan, I have many older relatives who lived through the Dust Bowl period. Voices of the Dust Bowl, also illustrated by Judith Hierstein, was released in 2012.

Pelican also asked me to write about the attack on Pearl Harbor. I felt out of my element because I did not know much about WWII.  It was difficult to alternate the POV between Japanese and American narrators, plus get in all the historical data that needed to be presented, but I am happy with the results. The talented Houston artist, Layne Johnson, agreed to do the illustrations. Release date for Voices of Pearl Harbor is spring, 2013. 

Do you prefer to write picture books or novels?

A very tough question.  After 14 novels, I used to consider myself a novelist first and foremost.  I would happily say that it was easier for me to write an entire novel than one picture book. But after 14 picture books, I have become quite fond of the PB genre, too.  Nearly all of mine are historical in nature (except for the folk tales), so it takes a long time for the research. As I get older, I am finding it harder to sit still long enough to write an entire novel. One novel took me three years to research and write, so I want to make sure the novel is something I truly care about before I invest that much time in it.

You clearly love to do research as most of your books have some historical or cultural details. Please talk about how you choose your subjects and how you conduct your research.

Yes, I’m not a sci-fi, fantasy sort of gal.  I write realistic fiction, both historical and contemporary. Of course, all of my historical works, such as the two Dear America books, are inspired by actual historical events Even my contemporary novels have real events as their basis. For Shadow of the Dragon, I was inspired by the news about the beating death of a Vietnamese teenager by a gang of skinheads. For Letters from the Mountain, the idea came from a TV documentary about teens who “huffed” dangerous inhalants. I wrote The Silent Storm after experiencing a hurricane in Houston in 1983.

interior spread from Voices of Pearl Harbor
Because I want the novels to feel “real,” I have to research every aspect of the time period or culture – clothing, housing, language, means of transportation, lifestyles, customs, philosophies, religion – the list goes on and on.

I have two criteria when I choose a subject: 1) I have to love the topic myself and 2) it has to be something that will interest young readers and/or teachers. 

I know you’re something of a “school visit expert.” Do you have any tips or strategies that you can share with readers?

I consider doing school visits much like going into battle. Hope for the best but expect the worst. Be flexible. Don’t lose your cool when things go wrong.  Something will always go wrong – AV mechanical problems, schedule mess-ups, doors locking you out in the rain, fire-drills, kids throwing up on your shoes, and on and on. Always have a written contract that explains what materials are needed, length of presentation, size and age of audience, number of presentations, travel arrangements and fees.  Don’t trust the organizer to remember everything.  Get a schedule ahead of time. Get both school and home phone numbers of the organizer.  I have more information on my website.

What are you working on now?

Two YA novels set in the 1960s; two contemporary middle grade novels; a YA mystery; and a weird YA novella that I am afraid to send out to anyone because it is more edgy than my other works. And lots of picture books.

How can readers learn more about you and your books?

My website is:  www.sherrygarland.com
My blog is called “Into the Woods We Go”: sherrygarlandblog@wordpress.com

Thanks, Sherry! 

Here's one of Sherry's book trailers, this one for The Buffalo Soldier:

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