Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Junior Editor Spotlight - the debut: Molly O'Neill

So I know you all have been waiting for this, and I've been procrastinating on posting this because of the formatting, but I figured if I didn't do this soon, Molly was going to kick my butt. So at long last I debut my new feature, the Junior Editor Spotlight, where I interview kidlit folks from Associate level all the way down to Editorial Assistant. Since this will be long, I'll jump right in and let the spotlight shine where it's meant to.

Name & Title: Molly O'Neill, Assistant Editor, Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins
Publishing House: HarperCollins Children's Books

What inspired you to go into children’s books, and what were you doing before this?

I graduated from Marquette University with a double major in Elementary Education and Writing-Intensive English (my university's name for the creative writing version of an English major; those of us who majored in it mostly liked that the English Department's abbrevation for us was WINE majors...). I was fortunate to have an amazing mentor who introduced me to the world of children's publishing which then led to a great internship with another great mentor. At the end of the internship, that editor said to me, "I don't think you want to be a teacher; I think you want to work in children's books!" She was totally right.

After I graduated, I spent two years doing full-time, post-graduate volunteer work as a youth minister, with the great bonus of getting to travel all across the US and Canada. Youth ministry and editorial work don't necessarily appear to have much in common, I know, but underneath the surface, they actually do--both are all about forming and building relationships, about seeing the deeper meaning in things, and about inspiring and being inspired.

I moved to NYC after those two years were up, ready to work in children's books, just as my former boss/mentor had predicted I would. I spent about four and a half years on the Marketing side of children's books, first at Clarion Books and then at HarperCollins, and finally achieved my ultimate goal when I moved over to the editorial side of the industry about two years ago.

As junior editors, our primary jobs often involve assisting a more senior editor, but this also gives us the opportunity to work on some great books alongside them. Who do you or have you worked with and what are some notable books you've worked on with them?

When I was at Clarion, I asked for and was granted the privilege of working on a few projects editorially, in addition to my marketing work. The pinnacle for me there (and it may well be a pinnacle of my entire career!) was getting to work alongside the esteemed, wise, and wonderful editor Virginia Buckley on the early drafts of Gary Schmidt's THE WEDNESDAY WARS.

I've worked alongside three editors thus far at HarperCollins. Brenda Bowen gave me my first real chance to prove myself as an editor when she hired me to assist her at the now-defunct Bowen Press. I suspect I'll spend the rest of my career hoping hard that the books I edit will be evidence that she made a good decision in opening up the editorial doors to me. In addition to working with Brenda on the books of publishing royalty (among them, Virginia Euwer Wolff), I learned much from simply watching the person behind the editor that Brenda is--about how vision and insight and creativity come, in large part, from being someone who is passionately engaged with the world--and the many fascinating people in it--in every possible way.

Working alongside Anne Hoppe, I've gotten to see the sheer genius and the invisible-but-brilliant creative force that helps guide and shape the books of Terry Pratchett, Melissa Marr, A.M. Jenkins, and many other books that avid readers count among their favorites. Publishing is an apprenticeship kind of business, in the way that I think few industries in our modern world still are, and I'm lucky to be apprenticed to a true Master Editor. Working with Anne is the equivalent of having that English teacher or professor who grades your papers HARD, because she knows you're eternally capable of MORE. She demands that I become a better, smarter, sharper, wiser, and more sensitive editor with every passing day, and I'm certainly trying to live up to the expectations.

I’ve just recently started working with Katherine Tegen on a new novel by Patricia MacLachlan, which is one of those experiences that makes me pinch myself to be sure that I'm not dreaming. Katherine is wonderfully supportive and encouraging of me as an editor. I know that same support and encouragement is part of what her authors and illustrators love about her, too, and part of what makes them want to continually out-do themselves in creating new masterpieces for her to publish.I look forward to continuing to grow as a part of her imprint.

Talk yourself up. Tell us what you’ve acquired and what you are looking to acquire?

I'm proud to be the editor of Kathryn Fitzmaurice, author of THE YEAR THE SWALLOWS CAME EARLY. We're working now on a companion to her first novel, and it's a book that I already can't wait for all of you to read. Right now I'm also working on a Christmas picture book by Laura Godwin that I think is perfectly wonderful, and I have high hopes that it will be a Christmas favorite, year after year.

I acquire everything from picture books through YA, but right now, most of all, I'm looking for middle grade--a vivid voice and inventive storytelling are the thing I'm hoping for every time I open up a manuscript. In YA, I'm a sucker for a good romance, and for stories about connectivity and the choices that we make and the way they trickle down to affect others--and the person we ultimately become, too. Other sweet spots: ballet/theatre/other artsy, backstage stories; a strong setting and a sense of place that shapes a story; and my inner 10 year old reader wants me to tell you, "Orphans! Anything with orphans!"

I know this is an evil question to ask a book person, but I’m going to do it anyway. What is your favorite classic children's book? What is your favorite contemporary children's book?

Well, if you're going to be that evil, I'm going to cheat and split this into categories. Classic picture book would be BLUEBERRIES FOR SAL. Kerplink, Kerplank, Kerplunk. Classic novel would be A LITTLE PRINCESS. As a child, my mother took away my copy of it, because I read it over and over and insisted on acting like, I, too, was a put-upon princess-in-disguise. ;)

Contemporary (as in, recently-published, not setting) picture book would be a knock-down, drag-out fight between THAT RABBIT BELONGS TO EMILY BROWN (Cressida Cowell & Neal Layton) and DIARY OF A WOMBAT (Jackie French & Bruce Whatley). Contemporary novel would be a three-way battle between LIZZIE BRIGHT AND THE BUCKMINSTER BOY (Gary Schmidt), A NORTHERN LIGHT (Jennifer Donnelly), and a quiet little novella called I HAD SEEN CASTLES (Cynthia Rylant). I re-read all three about once a year to remind myself what good writing looks like and how it makes me feel.

Loving a book cover is very important to me as a reader. If I don’t love a cover, I find it hard to pick up the book and get into it. What are some of your favorite book covers?

Oooh, this is a good question. I was totally suckered in by how haunting the cover of THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH is. In fact, I think that's a good way to describe the YA covers that really resonate with me--there's something haunting to them, a clear story deep beneath the cover image, waiting to be discovered: like the covers of A NORTHERN LIGHT and WHAT I SAW AND HOW I LIED and 13 REASONS WHY.

For middle grade, I love a cover that shouts that there's a story unfolding inside: like the original hardcover jacket for A PRINCESS ACADEMY or THE MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY or the forthcoming DANI NOIR.

In picture book covers, I like bold, spare, graphic, and utterly lovable. Like DIARY OF A WOMBAT, or I'D REALLY LIKE TO EAT A CHILD, or SPLAT THE CAT, or A GOOD DAY.

Assuming you have a life outside of children’s books (a bold assumption, I know) what are some of your other, non-book-related interests? Be as specific as possible so that we can all stalk you on the weekends. Just kidding (or am I?).

I knit. I drink far more coffee than can possibly be good for me. I spend way too much money shopping on Etsy.com. I wander through Prospect Park. I see plays and go to the ballet and opera as often as possible. I frequent the Greenmarket and love cooking. I people-watch. I avoid cleaning my apartment in every way imaginable. I occasionally manage to read a book that's--gasp!--not for work. I ponder ways to take over the universe that involve making more money than publishing, but I always come back to the fact that I passionately love kids' books and the publishing world, and that it's pretty hard for even a single day to go by without that love weaving into whatever else I do.

What is your favorite movie/song/non-children’s book?

Again, you have asked an impossible question, leaving me no option but to cheat further (or should we call it editing your questions?) You say favorite, and I choose to believe you meant that as the plural variant of the word, rather than the singular. ;) Ergo:

Movies: Ocean's 11. Once. Anne of Green Gables. My Fair Lady. Love, Actually. Newsies. Pan's Labyrinth. Playing By Heart.

Song: Whatever it is at the current moment, it's probably been on repeat for at least a month—when I fall in love with a song, I wear it out! Right now, I'm crushing pretty hard on a band called Fictionist (especially their song “Set Me on Fire,”) which I was introduced to by author Sara Zarr; on an indie artist from Texas named Lee Alexander, whose song “Union Street” gives me chills; and on the song “Blindsided” by Bon Iver, (from the album For Emma, Forever Ago), who I found via my colleague Jordan—it’s the perfect rainy day music.

Non-children's book: I sob openly over THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE, and I love a poetic literary novel called IF NOBODY SPEAKS OF REMARKABLE THINGS, by Jon McGregor, about the ways that the events of a single day connect the residents of a street in England. I also love the deeply ponderous Crosswick Journals of Madeleine L'Engle. And I wouldn't say "favorite," but a non-kids' book that I'm currently reading and fascinated by is called THE WORLD IN SIX SONGS: HOW THE MUSICAL BRAIN CREATED HUMAN NATURE by Daniel Levitin.

What is your favorite part of the job? What is your least favorite? Answer carefully…your boss may read this blog. :-)

Least favorite: Filing! Also, production requests (and other tedious paperwork); reviewing royalty statements and other math-related activities; staring at the pile of manuscripts to-be-read and feeling guilt; saying "no."

Favorites: the split second between opening a manuscript and starting to read, where the possibility that you could be reading something great is 100% alive. Sending the very first copy of a book to an author and imagining their face when they open it up; the moments when you know you have the vision to help guide a book into the direction it needs to go; writing killer flap copy or a kickass [Molly censored herself but I uncensored her --T.S.] acquisitions memo that makes you feel like you've really done justice to an author or artist's work; working with and being inspired on a regular basis by insanely talented, creative people.

Everyone should know I’m a karaoke nut at this point, and it seems like it’s becoming an industry-wide phenomenon (or maybe I’m just more and more aware of it). What is your #1 karaoke song specialty?

(Karaoke? Really? This must be a Little, Brown thing.) In any case, my karaoke specialty is coming up with brilliantly embarrassing song ideas for everyone else to sing while simultaneously managing to make people forget that I haven't gone up to sing anything myself!

And finally, the most important question of all – are you Team Edward or Team Jacob?

Team Jacob!

Anything else you'd like to add?

Thanks for having me as a visitor on your blog, T.S. Getting to know my great colleagues is one of the best parts of the business, not least because they sometimes send me advanced copies of books I'm dying to read. Also, I hereby declare a Secret Bonus Round Question to this interview, where the question-ee gets to ask the question-er one question of her own! So. Ahem. When do we get to see your answers to all these same thought-provoking questions, Editor Ferguson?

Well, to answer Molly's question, I may post my own Spotlight some day (probably some day when I need something to post and I have nothing original to give). In the meantime, Molly's given me a great idea. From now on, I'll be adding one last question to the interview, but it will be the editor's chance to ask me a question of their choosing.

Stay tuned for the next Junior Editor Spotlight, which should be coming down the pipeline shortly, as well as a few actual posts directly from my brain, once I've had the chance to write, re-read, edit and rewrite them. I guess you never really stop being an editor, huh?


Molly O'Neill said...

So the way I see it, I get to ask you a question now, right? Especially since you deflected my "answer your own spotlight" suggestion? Here goes, then: Without considering profitability, but based on taste alone, what's one book published in the last 10 years that you desperately wish you'd edited?

BookChic said...

Great interview! I love these sorts of interviews that focus on the people in the publishing business. It's fun reading author interviews, but I also love reading about the people at the publisher who also spend many hours working on that same book. Can't wait to read more of these interviews!

sharonluvscats said...

Cool interview. I can't wait to read more too. Quit procrastinating on twitter! :D

T.S. said...

I really had to think about the answer to Molly's question, but if I had to pick ONE book...I'd have to go with (and I know I'm going to sound like a broken record here, but) The Lightning Thief, Book 1 of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. I'm pretty sure I loved that series equal to the Harry Potter series, which is pretty huge for me. Both series had such great, heroic characters that you were routing for the whole way, danger, action, suspense, light romance that didn't clog the pipes, betrayal, great monsters, great villains, great friends-turned-foes. And both worlds were just so well-built, unique and creative. But since HP came out more than 10 years ago, and I recently finished the last Percy book to a resounding "ZOMG!" I have to go with that one.

Lynne Kelly Hoenig said...

Great interview! Loved hearing about the books Molly has worked on and her favorites to read. Wouldn't it be fun to see Molly interview T.S. now? ;-)
Go team Jacob!

Word verification: swool. Not a word, but should be. To swoon and drool at the same time = swool.

Vicki said...

Thanks to both of you for an interesting interview with a passionate editor! My favorite quote: "I always come back to the fact that I passionately love kids' books and the publishing world, and that it's pretty hard for even a single day to go by without that love weaving into whatever else I do."

I look forward to the continuation of the series! Oh, and I am so happy to be surrounded by so many Team Jacob members!

Christina said...

Great interview! It's nice to see the people behind the scenes get some recognition for all the work that goes into publishing a book.

Daniel Levitin said...

Thanks to Molly for mentioning "The World In Six Songs." Warning: Shameless plug ahead: It will be out in paperback at the end of this month.


Daniel Levitin

stacy said...

Great interview! Thanks, T.S.--I think this will be a fun series. It's always so interesting to see how diverse the backgrounds are of all the editors I meet. It actually goes to Martha Mihalick's frustration with that New Yorker piece on "privileged white kids" being the only people in publishing. At least in children's, there are a lot of really cool people from all sorts of backgrounds.

Word verification: comicasi. Is this the honorable suicide of a comic?

Kathryn Fitzmaurice said...

I didn't know that you knit!!

Kiki Hamilton said...

Fun and interesting interview! Thanks for the insights!

Michelle Zink said...

This is awesome, T.S.!

SO nice to hear from editors for a change...

nova said...

What a wonderful, comprehensive interview of a very talented editor! (And I'm not just saying that because she likes my cover!)

Molly O'Neill said...

Thanks, all, for reading and enjoying. Wasn't this series of T.S.'s a great idea? I can't wait to see who he suckers in, err, I mean, recruits for this, next! ;)

P.S. Yes, I knit. I am particularly an expert at starting complicated lacework patterns that I have no business even pretending I'll ever finish!

Nev said...

Hi T.S.,
I thought this was a great interview back in June when you first posted it. That's not really why I'm commenting, though. The real reasons are: 1-post something new!
and 2- I only have one email address for you and you aren't there anymore! So, I'm trying to find you here. Hope you will get back to me, because I suspsect you are going to miss our date tonight and I will want to berate you appropriately in the future for standing me up.