Interview: Audrey Vernick on writing picture books, editing process and BOGART AND VINNIE (Bloomsbury/Walker)
Audrey Vernick writes picture books and middle-grade novels. Her nonfiction book Brothers at Bat: The True Story of an Amazing All-Brother Baseball Team, illustrated by Steven Salerno, was a New York Times Notable Book of 2012 and BCCB Blue Ribbon Winner 2013. A two-time recipient of the New Jersey Arts Council’s fiction fellowship, Audrey lives with her husband, son, daughter and two dogs near the ocean.
Audrey was kind enough to answer a few questions about her newest book: BOGART AND VINNIE: A Completely Made-Up Story Of True Friendship, written by Audrey and illustrated by Henry Cole (Walker/Bloomsbury), a Junior Library Guild selection.
When Vinnie, a crazy-happy dog, gets lost at a nature preserve, he finds comfort in the company of Bogart, a big, lazy rhinoceros. Everyone at Wildlands Preserve believes that Bogart and Vinnie are the best of friends. In reality, the games they play—hide and seek, follow the leader—have more to do with Bogart trying to rid himself of an unwelcome, albeit very enthusiastic, visitor. Can Bogart and Vinnie survive their misunderstood relationship and brief brush with fame?
Q. What was your writing process for BOGART AND VINNIE?
I’m not sure I have a process, but if I do, this book did not fall within its usual parameters. Bogart and Vinnie’s story is a weird one.
I became tickled with the idea of trying to satirize the nonfiction inter-species friendship picture-book genre. It seemed like the strangest phenomenon—so many of these books were published by different houses but their cover design is nearly identical, as though they’re different books in the same series. That was how I envisioned the cover of Bogart and Vinnie, initially, but this project kept growing in different directions.
Vinnie, the crazy-happy dog, was patiently waiting around for a new project after the one he appeared in, A Puppy’s Guide To Training, failed to sell. Vinnie’s unshakable enthusiasm was something I really enjoyed working with. (And please let it be noted for the record that he was written before the movie Up came out. Similarities have been pointed out. ) Bogart, for years, was a pot-bellied pig. And though the story now takes place at a nature preserve, its original setting was a shelter.
Most of the changes came about because of an editor’s interest. She loved the idea at first but wanted to really push the satire, to include elements from some of the famous inter-species friendship books—Owen & Mzee, Tarra & Bella, Suryia and Roscoe—and elements of Christian the Lion too.
Once I completed that revision, her coworkers thought no, there should probably be less reliance on pre-existing knowledge of those other books. And by the way, was Audrey married to the idea of Bogart as a pot-bellied pig?
That was a hard one. Bogart had been a pig for a long time on paper and in my head. They wanted an animal whose contrast with a dog was more extreme, for greater comic effect. And so Bogart morphed into a rhinoceros. I guess Bogart and Vinnie is the best example among my books of accepting editorial guidance.
From the beginning of my writing life, I was always impressed when writers, faced with a requested revision that resulted in a near miss (something I have experienced on many occasions), politely said they were grateful for the experience and knew they had a stronger book as a result.
I am almost always willing to give an editor’s suggestions a try. (The only exception that comes to mind is the editor who suggested I fictionalize Brothers at Bat to give it more drama.) But I rarely share that “this is surely better than it was” sentiment. Not that I think it’s worse. It’s just different. I gave something a try and now I have a different story. I did a lot of experimenting with this book.
I really loved the idea of a book whose story and illustration played against its narration. There are still elements of that in the book—readers will get that Bogart cannot stand Vinnie. That has more to do with the genius of illustrator Henry Cole than with my writing. Once Henry came on board, I knew the book would be fine. So much that is funny about this book comes from what Henry brought to it.
Q. What advice do you have for aspiring picture book writers?
I wish I could go back in time and give myself some advice, but the sad truth is I didn’t want to hear it then. A lot of what I know now had to be learned by doing and living through.
Still, I think I would grab back-then-me by the shoulders and scream right into my face, “Don’t get too hung up on what you think is your first truly viable/sell-able manuscript.”
Even though my first picture book, co-written with my sister Ellen Gidaro, DID finally find a home, it took years. Many years. And I had a crazed myopic focus that could have benefited from some mellowing. I could have written so much more during that time.
Hand-in-hand with that advice is this: Do NOT become fixated on exceptions to the rule.
I really, really felt like if Kevin Henkes got to write long texts, there was no reason I shouldn’t be allowed to, too. Sure, no-name Audrey Vernick. You keep submitting your 1400-word manuscripts and see how that works out for you.
The intensity of desire for that first sale is something I will never forget. It is all-consuming, or at least, it was for me.
And though I don’t hear a lot of people saying this, I think a major factor that comes into first sales (and subsequent sales) is luck—hitting the right editor’s desk on the right day with the right manuscript.
In the case of one of my early sales, the acquisitions meeting was postponed a ridiculous number of times. The last postponement nearly killed me. But ultimately, the reason the book was acquired had everything to do with the weekend get-away a key player at the meeting had taken that very week, which had made her curious about the life of the subject of my book. Had the meeting taken place the previous week, it would not have sold.
Q. What are you working on now? Any current news or upcoming releases you'd like to mention?
I just finished revision on my second novel, Screaming at the Ump, which comes out April 1. I’m halfway through a first draft of another, presently titled Army Of One. There’s a picture book I adore that needs more revising—and my editor at Clarion gave me great notes for it. I’m also in the early stages of co-writing a chapter book with my friend, the excellent writer Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich.
But I spend most of my time gushing over Priscilla Burris’ art for our spring 2014 release, Edgar’s Second Word. I am not sure there has ever been anything cuter in existence. Ever.
I have a couple of New Jersey appearances for Bogart and Vinnie this month, and then I think the summer’s mostly quiet until the (always awesome) Princeton Children’s Book Fair in September. One of the things I’ll be working on this summer is the picture book revision workshop I’m teaching at an SCBWI conference in Michigan in October. I’m really looking forward to that!
Writers: Don't get hung up on your 1st mss. Know when to move on. @AudreyVernick (BOGART AND VINNIE) http://bit.ly/vernick01(Tweet this)
For more interviews, see my Inkygirl Interview Archive.