Sunday, November 16, 2008


When Katia Novet Saint-Lot told me the name of her new picture book was Amadi's Snowman, I was excited. I love snowmen and I thought it might make a great interview during the holidays.

"It's not really a holiday book," she told me.

A book about a snowman that wasn't a holiday story? But when I read the book, I understood. This is a book about discovering the joy of reading. And so our interview begins:

Your love of travel seems to spring from your childhood. Please tell us a little bit about the places where you grew up.

I was born and raised in Paris, France, but my mother is Spanish, and we spent practically all our summers at my aunt's tiny apartment in Malaga, in the south of Spain. Apart from that, we didn't travel much at all. But for some reason traveling held a kind a magic for me. When I was ten years old, I said I wanted to be an ambassador, so I could travel and live in different countries. Of course I didn't understand what being an ambassador means, and anyone who knows me and my very poor diplomatic skills would laugh at the notion that I ever contemplated such a career. But I managed to fulfill my dream of traveling and living in different countries and I'm very grateful for that.

What were you like as a child?

A dreamer, very shy. And from the moment I could read, I always had my head in a book. Can't say I've changed that much.

Where is home for you today?

This is an impossible question for me to answer. I actually wrote a post on my blog about that, recently, after a crazy summer spent visiting a lot of places I've called home. It's hard, when you grow attached to a place and then leave it(whether because you want to or because you have to) to not fall into the nostalgia syndrome.

For instance, New York and Park Slope, in Brooklyn, where I spent six years, definitely feel like home when I go there. But then I also love going back to France and to Spain. So I came up with this concept of the moving bubble. That bubble contains my children, my husband, and my laptop with a WiFi connection(can't forget that) and wherever we land according to our life's circumstances at any given time, that is home. Piper Reed would totally understand this concept, don't you think?

Yes, I believe you're right. When did you start writing?

I have always written. And I always wanted to be a writer. Of course, I started writing in French. I have old files somewhere at my parents' house with plot diagrams and ideas for novels, first chapters, and pages, etc, etc. I worked as a journalist for two years, also, before I moved to England to learn English. I translate novels for a living. I write endless letters and nowadays, emails. As a teenager, my best friend and I exchanged 18-pages letters, on top of the time we spent on the phone. And I kept journals for the longest time. Now, I also blog. But I became serious about trying to become a published writer of fiction when we lived in Nigeria. I took the Children's Institute of Literature course. Now, I can't imagine not writing for children.

Amadi's Snowman is a lovely story about the power of reading. Amadi isn't interested in reading until he discovers a friend reading a book about a snowman. Snow is something completely unknown to Amadi who lives in Nigeria. What inspired this story?

My husband works for UNICEF, and he once told me about the problems they had trying to keep boys in school, as a lot of them dropped out in order to earn quick money doing street business.

How different is the first draft from the bound book?

Very different. The first draft had a fantasy element. First of all, Amadi's name was Ifeanyi. When Ifeanyi noticed this book under the stall, at the market, the boy on the cover talked to him, and they had a conversation. An editor liked it, but her house doesn't publish fantasy, so she asked me to ground the story in reality. That's how Chima, Amadi's friend, came to be.

Dimitrea Tokunbo's illustrations are bright and cheerful. Did anything about the illustrations surprise you? If so, please explain.

Dimitrea's illustrations are exactly what I imagined in terms of colors, except that I had to see them to be able to say, "Wow, yes, that's exactly it!" I adore the way she painted all the backgrounds, and the reddish, warm atmosphere of her paintings. I find her style incredibly vivid and powerful. And the snowman as a cloud is such a fabulous idea! I must say that I saw the boys hiding under the stall at the market, but Dimitrea chose to have Amadi standing behind Chima and pointing something out in the book. It puts more emphasis on Amadi's curiosity, and allows us to see how Chima is really bothered by the intruder. I also find the way she uses frames, and has characters coming out of those frames, very interesting.

When you write a picture book, what is your process?

I feel I'm still so new at this, but characters seem to drive my process. I see a character in a situation, or I feel a character's feelings, and that's where it all begins. It's like an urge to explore and express these feelings. Settings also play an important part. Sometimes the story writes itself in one go. It was like that with Amadi's Snowman. Then comes the very loooong revision process, submitting to my critique group, etc. I'm very lucky that I love revising.

What do you wish you knew about writing when you first started out?

Mm, interesting question. Maybe knowing how to enjoy the process, as opposed to thinking too much about being published? I don't want to sound philosophical, because frankly, it's like my diplomatic skills. I'm far too stubborn to be philosophical. But writing is something I want to do so bad, and the joy I feel when it works is so incredible, I try more and more to just go along. There are ups and downs, of course, good days when the writing flows, and bad days when nothing comes out, or nothing good anyway. But the more I work at the craft, the more I learn, and the more I try to enjoy the process first and foremost.

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