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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Pat Zietlow Miller

Pat Zietlow Miller took time from her busy spring - two book launches (one this month, one in March) to spend a little time visiting with me. Did you know that Pat "started out as a newspaper reporter and wrote about everything from dartball and deer-hunting to diets and decoupage"?

Now, Pat successfully writes "insurance information by day" and amazing "children’s books by night."

Boy aren't we glad she does! I have to admit she is one of my favorite picture book authors. And guess what? Her most recent picture book, Remarkably You, releases tomorrow!

Welcome Pat!

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

PAT: I feel like I’ve always written. As a kid, I was on my school newspaper and wrote English class essays and then was a journalist and then a magazine editor and then a corporate writer. But I started really working to be a picture book writer 11 years ago. It took me four years to sell my first book, and since then, I’ve sold 17 books.

I have a full-time day job in corporate communications, so I write evenings and weekends – usually at my messy kitchen table, often with The Food Network playing in the background and unfolded laundry stacked nearby. I have dreams of someday being a writer who works every day at a hip coffee shop where all the baristas know me, but that is NOT my reality.

[Pat's currently published books. *Note with the 2 books releasing this spring, there are 7 more books "in the works" to look forward to! YEAH!]

You are amazing! What is something no one (or few) knows about you?

I have a marvelous twin sister. She has her Ph.D. in math, and I’m a word geek, so we joke that we got opposite halves of the same brain.

That is so funny! How did your experience as a reporter and writer for an insurance company influence your picture book writing?

I think my previous writing experience has helped me tremendously. Both as a reporter and as a corporate writer, I’ve had to write copy quickly and respond graciously to edits from others – even if I didn’t always agree with them. Both skills are really helpful as a picture book writer – especially getting feedback and incorporating it into my work without freaking out.

And speaking of feedback, your website says you received 126 rejections before your first book Sophie’s Squash was published. Were these rejections from agents and/or editors? What kept (keeps) you going?

The rejections were from editors. I had rejections from agents, too, but I wasn’t tracking those. I never thought I had any chance of getting an agent, so while I sent out a query here and there, I wasn’t trying too hard on that front. Three things kept me going during the 126 rejections:

1. Several small encouraging responses. Like a handwritten note on a form rejection saying, “Cute, but not right for us.” Or, “I’d be interested in seeing other things you write.” They gave me hope.

2. Passion. I really, really wanted to write picture books. More than anything. That drive kept me going through the down moments. It also kept me working nonstop to get better.

3. Blind faith. For some reason, I believed if I kept working and learning and submitting, I would eventually sell a book. I just figured it would happen. Maybe it was confidence or maybe it was stupidity. Whatever it was, that faith helped me not take each individual rejection too personally and just keep going.

I still get rejections. It’s part of the game. The same three things get me through today.

Pat, thank you for sharing this with us. It's a tough "game" we've all jumped into. Here's to keeping the passion and the faith. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?

My favorite books were The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin and Bridge To Terabithia by Katherine Patterson. Both were gifts from my librarian aunt. But I read everything I could get my hands on. Everything!

Books are the best gift ever! Would you say there is a common thread in your 10 published picture books? Maybe between your three most recent ones - Remarkably You, Be Kind, and your forthcoming When You Are Brave (releasing March 5th)?

My three most recent books all focus on social and emotional learning. How can you be kind? Confident? Courageous? Caring? What if you don’t find those things easy to do? I didn’t consciously set out to focus on those topics, but it must have been where my head was at the past few years. And I do think they are very timely topics for kids and adults today. We all need a little help being our best selves.

I wholeheartedly agree with you and these are timeless books. I fell in love with the cover when I first saw your announcement. What was the inspiration for Remarkably You?

I wanted kids and adults to realize they are remarkable. Because everyone is in some way. Certain people tend to get the spotlight, awards, and attention because the things they do well are the things our society values. And that’s cool. But people who aren’t regularly in the spotlight have positive traits and skills too. I wanted this book to help people discover who they are and celebrate it so they can then go be that person all the time.

And that’s something you can do at any age or stage of your life. An adult co-worker of mine at my day job read part of Remarkably You and said, “I think I need this.” There was something he’d been wanting to work toward doing, and he needed a nudge.

Great picture books have that ability to reach across many ages/stages of our lives. So, did your experience writing, and/or publishing Remarkably You differ from your other books? What was the toughest aspect of writing this book?

The toughest aspect of writing this book was the rhyme. Rhyme is so hard to do well. For me, writing in rhyme makes every part of the process harder – from the first draft to the revising to the final editing. It’s a whole extra layer of complication. And no one wants to write a bad rhyming book. So I worked very hard to do the best I could. And I’m very proud of the result. Now, we’ll have to see what everyone else thinks.

I think you and Patrice Barton did a pretty great job for Kirkus to compare it to Dr. Seuss' Oh, The Places You'll Go! Having worked with numerous illustrators, did the amount of contact or input differ? Did you include illustrator notes in your submitted manuscripts?

On all my books, I’ve had very little contact with the illustrator until after both our jobs are done. Like, almost none. I’ve been fortunate enough to be paired with such talented people, it’s no problem sitting back and letting them do their thing. Because I know it’s going to be awesome.

I actually screamed a bit when I found Patrice Barton was going to illustrate Remarkably You. I’ve admired her work from afar, and I love how she draws children, which is what this book is all about. Her efforts elevate what I wrote to an entirely new level.

I almost never use illustration notes. And I’ve never been let down.

How wonderful that you got paired with an illustrator you've admired. What, or who, is your greatest source of inspiration?

Every book I’ve ever loved is my inspiration. I’m always asking, “Could I do something like that?” “Or that?” When it comes to writers who inspire me, there are a lot. But the very first were: Erma Bombeck, Rick Reilly, Judith Viorst, Kevin Henkes and Sharon Creech.

Writers are sponges and, like all great artists, were also a bit of a mimic. Do you have a favorite book? (We promise NOT to tell the others) Perhaps one that was the most gratifying to write? Or one that means the most you or your family?

That’s a tough question. I'm always saying choosing a favorite book is like choosing a favorite child. It depends on which one is annoying you the least at any particular moment. I’m usually partial to my newest books, but …

Sophie's Squash is close to my heart because it was my first book and so much of it was inspired by my daughter, Sonia.

Be Kind is a contender because of the wonderful reception it received and because of its nine weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.

Remarkably You is in the mix because I’m so pleased with how the rhyme turned out.​

And, Wherever You Go is a love letter to my other daughter, Gwen, and also featured rhyme that made me pull out my hair.

And now, I feel bad about not listing all the things I love about my other books.

Sorry! We know you love them ALL! And I imagine all parents & writers (especially when considering their WIP) can identify with the "one annoying you the least." So, was it serendipity or planning for Wide-Awake Bear (January), Be Kind (February) and Loretta’s Gift (August) to release in 2018 AND for Remarkably You (February) and When You Are Brave (March) to come out back to back? Do they compete for attention?

Having three books come out in 2018 and two in 2019 was not planned. It just happened. I would never complain, because writing books is what I do, and I want to get them out into the world. But I do think having a bunch close together makes them compete with each other. And it makes me make choices about where I spend my promotional energy.

Yet it also seems each book finds its audience somehow. Last year, Be Kind did so well. My other two books didn’t match it in sales, but I’ve heard from teachers and parents who really liked those other books and told me stories about how they made a difference to them and the kids they know. So that’s a relief.

Finding out that your book touched someone or made a difference, that's what it's all about, right? What has been the most frustrating aspect or period of time as a children’s writer for you? Any advice for unpublished authors?

Even though my career has gone better than I ever expected, I had a two-year period where I didn’t sell any new books. This wasn’t obvious to anyone else, because I had books I’d sold before coming out, but it bothered me. And I wondered: “What if I never sell another book?”

But then I did, and I have, and all is well. But writing is always a bit like a roller coaster. There are ups and downs and you’re never sure exactly what’s around the next curve. You’ve just got to keep doing the work the trust that it will all work out. So I guess my advice would be: “Keep keeping on. Keep writing the words and submitting your stories. Wait out the rough patches.”

All we can do is buckle our seat belts and hang on for the ride. Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

I’m working on a follow-up to Be Kind that’s currently called Be Strong. I’m excited about working with Jen Hill and Connie Hsu and Roaring Brook Press again.

What is your favorite animal? Why?

Cats. I’m a total writer stereotype. I have two cats, and I love all cats. I love cat pictures and cat videos and bookstores with cats. Cats for the win!

Thank you, Pat, for stopping by and sharing with us. It was truly wonderful to chat with you.

Be sure to stop by on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on Remarkably You.

To find out more about Pat Zietlow Miller, or to get in touch with her:

Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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