Wintry treats today everyone! I’m very pleased to present an interview with debut picture book author Amy Lundebrek. Amy is beginning a blog tour to promote her book, Under the Night Sky, and I’m her first stop! In fact, the theme of our interview is “firsts.” Welcome Amy!
Just to get everyone in the right mood, take a look at two of the many beautiful illustrations in Amy’s book, by illustrator Anna Rich:
Stunning, yes? Let’s get started with the interview.
Describe when you first realized that you wanted to be a writer.
In seventh grade, my English teacher made a big assignment of writing a short story. I think it may have been a weeklong event, the class reading model short stories, talking about characters, plot, and setting, and then each of us being assigned to write our own. I loved school and was eager to please my teachers at the time, so I jumped right into it. I had never before understood what it truly meant that someone had gone through a process of writing all those books we were reading. It was a frustrating assignment for me because I desperately wanted my story to be good…well, to be the best. I think I worked on it in all of my spare time that week.
I was very unhappy with what I turned in (I still have it, and it has to be the worst short story I’ve ever seen in my life), but I fell in love with the process of writing it. That first experience with writing fiction unlocked something inside me and after that, I was always working on some little writing project of my own. It was as if the teacher had given me permission to do this activity that I could do all on my own using only my mind, a pen and some paper. To a child growing up without much money, discovering writing was a liberating experience.
What’s the first thing you do when you sit down to write?
This is a tough question because I’m still in a haphazard writing stage. I work full time at a job that takes a lot of my mental and physical energy. So, at this present minute, I don’t “sit down to write” unless I have a scene burning my skull out and I have to write (kind of like sitting down to eat when you’re hungry). So, when I sit down, I just write. Usually the first time I put a scene down, I sit curled up on my couch and write longhand into a notebook with a blue gel pen. When I’m on the couch, I’m allowed to write whatever I want, no matter how silly or how long or how many adverbs I have to use or how unrelated it is to the scene I’m actually working on. Then usually the same day, I take what I’ve written and sit at my desk and type it into a computer document. That’s when the biggest edit seems to happen for me… from the notebook to the computer because I’m in sort of a different mindset.
I need to get back into at least a couple set times where I purposefully sit down to write. What has worked for me in the past was to dedicate Saturday mornings until noon and then one evening after work to writing. A person can get an amazing amount of work done that way.
Tell us a bit about what first gave you the idea for “Under the Night Sky.” Did you imagine the characters before anything else, or did a particular scene come to your mind initially?
Several experiences that came together for me to create Under the Night Sky. The primary one was coming home to my apartment after a second shift in the winter (just like the mom in the story except I was working in a call center), so it was about 10:30 at night and I looked up, and the northern lights were out. They were taking up the whole sky, in the city! I’d never seen that before. (You never get a good idea about the size of a space, i.e. the sky, until there is some object in the space like the northern lights). So, being a sort of “stop and smell the roses” kind of person, I got out of my car and got up on the hood with my back against the windshield and watched them for a long time. (Maybe an hour, which in a Minnesota winter, is a very long time). Several other people came home from work while I was out there, and seeing me looking up, they looked up too. We never spoke, but I did share a smile with several people I’d never met. I knew there could have been more of a connection if it weren’t for people’s fears (my own included), so I put that into my story as sort of “this is the way it could be.” Another thought I had while I was out there was “if I had a child, I would go get him or her right now so they could see this.” My thought immediately after that was since I don’t have a child (yet), maybe I could preserve the experience as a picture book and read it to my child later. I had no idea this would actually work out.
Another experience that I drew into the story, is when I was a child, my mom was a second shift nurse. So she came home after 11:00pm each night. I was a little older than the child in the story, and I took care of my two younger brothers while she was at work. We were supposed to be in bed sleeping before she got home, but I remember that I could never fall asleep until I heard her keys in the door. I knew the exact sound of her keys, vs anybody else’s keys, and I knew the sound of her sigh and her boots. In sort of a role reversal, I needed to know she was home safe before I could fall asleep each night.
What was your first reaction when you learned you would be published?
I was stunned. I sent this story out with the idea that I needed to start getting used to rejection before I send some of my longer works out. It’s sad, but the idea in my head, was I’m sending this out to learn the process of submission and rejection.
Now, it’s not that I didn’t have faith in the writing. I think the story is a beautiful work of art, and I knew it was worthy of publishing, but there’s always the part where you have to find an editor who shares your vision and has the budget to acquire it.
The manuscript had been at Tilbury for several months and I had begun to assume it was buried underneath some sort of pile, so I politely emailed a status inquiry (which I had heard you were not supposed to do but if I was going to be rejected, I wanted to get on with it). I received an email back saying they were considering it for their 2008 list (I think it was Feb 2007 when this happened) and could they have a couple more weeks. So I sat on pins and needles for a couple of weeks. I tried not to tell anybody, but ended up telling the whole world about it.
Being published is not everything the unpublished writer thinks it will be, but there was one definitive change for me. After the contract was signed, my internal reaction was one of mild vindication. Ever since writing that first short story in seventh grade, I had been writing, but it was sort of like a secret drug addiction. Yes, I occasionally allowed someone close to me to read a chapter here and there, but mostly, I didn’t talk about it because if you are an unpublished writer, people don’t take you seriously. Even as a young teenager, I picked up on sort of a “why are you wasting your time with that” vibe from most people. Now that my book is out and people have been reassured it was not self-published, I can speak freely about my writing. In fact, now people want to talk about it all the time. This is the one really nice change from being unpublished to being published I have experienced.
What was it like holding your book in your hands for the first time?
It was a spiritual experience for me.
I was holding this object that was once only a thought in my mind. I said to my husband while holding the book early on, “I called this object out of the aether. It’s like I did magic, isn’t it?” I had witnessed the whole process from that first glint of creative expression I had while driving in my car thinking about the northern lights I’d seen the night before to a physical object in my hands. Amazingly, people had been drawn to my thought, first Audrey and Jennifer, people I didn’t even know, and then it was a shared thought. Then the work began to make the thought a physical thing and Anna was drawn in, and the shared thought sparked more visually creative thought in her and the illustrations were born as sketches. I guess I don’t need to keep going, but you get the idea. The process is still going on now with Sarah and the many wonderful booksellers and bloggers that I have met as we bring the book to people’s attention.
It’s empowering to see what can be done with only a thought.
What’s your first piece of advice for aspiring writers?
Here’s the deal: Never allow yourself to think your idea is “stupid.”
My third thought, that night while I was watching the northern lights, after I thought about writing a book, was “The northern lights are too easy. They’ve probably been done a million times. What makes you think you can add anything special to the idea of the northern lights?” But I refused to listen to that critical voice, I wrote the story anyway, and I feel that I did add something unique to the northern lights experience. Now here’s the School Library Journal saying there aren’t any picture books about the northern lights and mine fills the gap nicely! I took that lesson to heart. I’ve begun to treat every new idea with reverence, even if I think it’s mundane or stupid at first. See you’ll never get that elusive “perfect idea” so don’t wait to start writing until you think you have a great idea. All those books that seem to be built on great ideas, started with the same sort of ideas that pop into your head all the time.
Tell us about the first book you remember reading as a child.
The first book I remember was very early, maybe before I was even two, I remember staring at a picture of a kid on a gondola in Venice for long periods of time just imagining a world where the streets were made of water. I was totally fascinated.
The first book I remember actually reading was Richard Scarry’s Busy, Busy World. I enjoyed the “busyness” of the illustrations and how the words were integrated with the pictures. I could discover something new on each page every time I looked at it. Plus, Scarry’s books (I had others too) were great for learning new words and learning about how the world works.
Describe your first experience with the Northern Lights.
Yes, I’ve seen them many times. I don’t know if I remember the very first time I saw them, but most of the time they are only white lights, so I remember seeing them out of the car windows a lot while I was growing up. The first time I remember seeing them in color was when I worked third shift at a factory in Stillwater, Minnesota. I lived in rural Wisconsin at the time, so I had to drive about an hour to work and be there at 11pm. So one time, I was driving through the country to work and I saw red in the sky. At first I thought it was the end of sunset, but then I realized it was way to late for that. I pulled over my car and parked beside the road. It was the northern lights in red. Sitting there out on a country road looking up at the lights and the stars beyond was very powerful for me. I was on a time schedule because at a factory if you’re one minute late you might as well have called in sick (as far as consequences go), but for a few moments, I was able to enter a sort of timeless zone and enjoy the beauty in the sky.
When readers close your book after reading, what do you hope will be some of their first impressions?
I hope both parents and children will recall special times of connection with each other while experiencing nature. I’ve had many, many parents tell me “we did exactly that [go out to look at the northern lights] when my kids were little.” So I know many parents in the Twin Cities are connecting with the story. I hope also that the story will plant that seed in people’s hearts that when a nature experience presents itself, to go ahead and experience it and allow nature to draw them closer to their loved ones and their communities. We, as humans, like to think we are separate from this world, but we are not. We are all connected, and the more nature people allow themselves to experience, the less isolated I believe they will feel.
Enough firsts! What comes next for you?
I’m not sure what comes next. I try to participate in each day as it comes and follow opportunities as I find them. I have some seeds out in the world (read stories submitted to editors) that I hope will grow into something, but the next thing could always come from somewhere I do not expect. I am considering applying to an MFA program in the near future, and as I shared in our last interview, I have several writing projects simmering. Right now, it’s a world of possibility for me, so I am just trying to enjoy that and remain open to the opportunities as I find them.