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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Sonja Anderson

This week, I am interviewing an author who, jointly with her husband, wrote a wonderful book on the history of Mount Rainier's Inns and Lodges. It releases tomorrow, just in time for Father's Day. This creation was more than merely an endeavor started from a curiosity about images around the lodge. It was a labor of love for a family who has enjoyed Mount Rainier for generations. Sonja also has a great Middle Grade novel series - Sophie, and many picture book projects.

ME: Welcome Sonja, I am so glad you are here,

Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing?)

SONJA: I kept diaries as a kid, and even entered a writing contest in elementary school! My essay on Christmas was selected, and I got to read it in front of the entire school at the Christmas concert.

Now, I write whenever and wherever possible (especially picture book manuscripts, which I work on in spare minutes here and there), but most of my new writing takes place in the summer. Since I work in a school library, I get my summers off and I use that time to work on longer projects.

As a child, who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book?

I devoured Nancy Drew books, but my all-time favorite as a child was Heidi, by Johanna Spyri. It is the first story I remember reading that made me want to become a more compassionate, loving person, just like the main character.

ME: Heidi is an all time favorite of mine as well. I always wanted to be able to roam the mounntains in the summer.

You now have three books published – Two middle grade novels Sophie’s Quest and Sophie Topfeather Superstar, and this week Mount Rainier's Historic Inns and Lodges (a part of Arcadia’s Images of America series) releases. Let’s start with your most recent book. What inspired you and your husband to write about Mt. Rainier?

Mount Rainier’s Historic Inns and Lodges came about by accident! During the summer of 2015, we took our college-aged daughters to Paradise for a few days in order to spend some time with them. We really enjoyed looking at the historical images of Paradise Inn that lined the hallway, and my husband went into the gift shop to buy one of those brown books by Arcadia that would have some of those images inside. He was told that it didn’t exist. When he asked, a park ranger said, “Why don’t you write it!” When Jeff found out that the images were available to the public through the archives in Ashford, we wrote to Arcadia, they loved the idea, and we got started!

ME: This is such an great book, especially for anyone interested in history in general and Mount Rainier history in particular. Besides the amazing pictures, which provide a glimpse into life in the early 20th century, Sonja and Jeff trace the convoluted path that the various Lodges/Inns took to where they exist now.

What was the hardest part about writing or researching this book? The most fun part?

We gathered all the books we could find that pertained to the history of the area, and learned that they conflicted in some of the details. Sorting through the discrepancies was a challenge, but we really wanted to get things right!

The most fun part was when Jeff and I went to the archives in Ashford, Washington. We went a number of times and had a lot of fun looking through the well-organized boxes of old photographs. Brooke Childrey, the archivist, and several volunteers and interns all helped us find what we needed—even an archaeologist or two! We had a great time, especially when our daughter, Amanda, came with us during Christmas vacation.

How did writing the Mount Rainier book differ from writing your two middles grade novels? Do you have a favorite type of book to write?

Writing Mount Rainier’s Historic Inns and Lodges was VERY different from writing the novels! The Mount Rainier book was written to a formula given to us by Arcadia (it is mainly a series of captions under the pictures which tell the story. Word count is very tight, and all the chapters had to start on the right-hand side—things like that). It was also written under contract, which made it a completely different experience than the novels. Those I worked on for years, never knowing if they would ever be published or not!

So, are you an outliner or a panster?

When I began writing Sophie’s Quest, I had no idea what I was doing, so by default, I was a pantser. It seems like I give each successive book a better outline process before I begin it!

Who or what was the inspiration for your Sophie books? How long did it take to write Sophie’s Quest? Was the sequel easier to write?

The Sophie books were inspired by a combination of experiences I had. My owl character popped into my head about twenty-five years ago when I taught a multi-faith class in Tokyo at an international school for boys; the idea of a wise owl who could help me answer some of their great questions was very appealing to me!

My daughter, however, was the one who prompted me to start writing after she had a discussion about God on her elementary school playground. I felt like kids could relate to an owl on a quest to understand more about one another’s faith backgrounds.

I needed to learn a LOT in order to write a Holy Land quest, so Sophie’s Quest took about six years to research and write. I revised it several more times as the years went on, too, based on feedback from editors. It was fourteen years from idea to publication! The sequel was DEFINITELY easier to write! By then, I loved and knew my main characters so well that it was a joy to write.

Is there anything special you want your readers to know about any of your books?

Mainly, I want readers to know that it’s okay to be curious about each other’s faith backgrounds and to learn about people who are different than you. I hope that people will feel more compassionate and understanding toward others as a result of reading Sophie’s Quest, and that they will feel like they’ve had a chance to be heard.

What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

I shared this at a recent event, but few know that my twin sister and I wrote a play together for the bicentennial celebrations way back in 1976. My great-uncle, a US Congressman, was an honored guest for our production! We felt very proud. My twin sister also continues to write and we’ve decided having a twin for a critique partner is our secret weapon. No one else can tell you the unvarnished truth about a manuscript in quite the same way!

ME: Wow, that does sound like an amazing gift.

What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (either as a child, now as a writer, or both.)

As a child and now as an adult and a writer, the Bible has always been my greatest source of inspiration. There is no better collection of stories, and the truths held within the pages motivate all of my writing in one way or another, and my life choices.

You’ve worked with two different publishing companies, how different has your experience been? Any unique challenges or joys in working with a smaller press?

The experiences couldn’t have been more different. It has been great to work on a project knowing it would be published at the end of it (barring some kind of catastrophe), and it’s fun to work with a company that has a marketing team to provide us with materials like posters, fliers, and business cards, and a sales team that works to set up book-signing events at places like Barnes and Noble. [Arcadia Press]

The smaller press has been fun, too, especially because it is headquartered in England, the land of most of my favorite books! Jeff and I got to meet the publisher [SunberryBooks] and several of the other authors last spring at the London Book Fair. We loved them and felt proud to be part of this little publishing “family,” where each person feels like an important part of the company.

The challenge is that they don’t have the resources to get out arcs to review journals and some of the other things that children’s books need to gain the widest possible audience. It’s an uphill battle to get the word out about the novels, despite it being a traditional publisher that produces really lovely books.

ME: These books are available fom the Burien Indie bookstore - Page2 Books HERE or other book sellers .

Any new projects you are working on that you can share a tidbit with us?

Well, I’m always working on a few picture book manuscripts, and this summer I’m hoping to complete a good draft of the third Sophie book. Also, if I’m brave enough, I’ll decide that twenty years of research is enough and I’ll plunge into a historical novel about 17th century Japan that has been on my mind for decades!

ME: Good luck with all of those endeavors. I wish you a very productive summer!

Is there anything about writing, illustrating, or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started?

I really, really wish someone had told me about terrible rough drafts when I first started to write. I spent a whole year trying to make a first chapter perfect that never made it into the final draft!

ME: YES! The advice to just get it down, to write the crummy first draft, is very valuable in terms of effort, but also in terms of emotional well being as a writer. It is rarely perfect in first draft, that's what the revision process and critique partners are for. But you can't revise or fix what you haven't written.

What is your favorite animal? Why?

I guess I’d have to say that my favorite animal is an owl! When I was little, my mom told me that my name, Sonja, came from the Greek word for wisdom. Owls are supposed to be wise, and attempting to become wise (or at least, wanting to avoid looking foolish!) has been something of a life goal!

Thank you so much Sonja for sharing your journey and wonderrful books with us. I wish you the best of luck in finishing your Middle Grade novel trilogy and all your other endeavors.

To find out more about Sonja Anderson, or get in touch with her:

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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