Paper People: Liz Wong

Believe it or not, this month I had the chance to interview another talented author/illustrator!  Quackers by Liz Wong is a charming story about a cat named Quackers and how he finds his place in the world.  There are so many good things happening for both Liz and this precious book right now that I’m just going to dive right in! 

Thanks so much for being here, Liz!  I have to tell you that my kids and I enjoyed Quackers immensely! I’ll start with an icebreaker in honor of my southern roots… “Can I get you something to drink?” I’m from the Seattle area, so I’ll go with coffee. I drink A LOT of coffee.

I’ll never turn down a cup of coffee! Make it two, please. Would you mind telling us a little about yourself, and how you started writing for children?  I started out as an artist, and went to college intending to be a ceramic artist. I ended up making other crafts instead (bags and greeting cards) and eventually, other crafters started asking me to make illustrations for them. I had never given much thought to illustration but, hey, people wanted to give me money to draw things! Cool! At that point, I stumbled upon a program for children’s illustration and realized that was the perfect fit for me.

Many years later, I began to realize that if I wanted to get published, I was much more likely to get published if I wrote and illustrated my own story, instead of hoping that an art director would see my work at the right time and match it up with a story. It took about a year of my book being out before I would identify myself as a writer.

You just answered my next question! Is there one hat that’s easier to wear, Author or Illustrator? So, for you it’s illustrator.  What is your biggest struggle as a writer? Writing does not come easily for me. Although I am a person who loves words, stringing them into a coherent and meaningful story is a serious struggle. There is some advantage to being an author and an illustrator, however, since there are many parts of the story that can be told through the images. I tend to go back and forth between manuscript and images as I am working on the story, and having that control over the story and flexibility to switch back and forth makes forming the story easier for me.

In an earlier interview of yours, from Kidlit 411, you included a glance into your illustration process.  I saw a few pages of a dummy there.  How crucial is the making of a dummy to your process? I absolutely have to make a dummy. I am very visual and tactile and need to be able to flip the pages in order to see if it works as a story and the pacing feels right. Since the illustration part of the process is the easier part for me, once I start sketching, I can more quickly identify what I need to fix. I’ll stare at a manuscript forever and think, “Is this bad? Is this good? I can’t tell!” Once I start on thumbnail sketches and once it makes it into dummy form I can see its potential as a book.

Was Quackers your first picture book manuscript?  How long was it a ‘work in progress’?  Quackers was a few manuscripts in – I had probably written four or five before I got to Quackers, though to be honest, I’m not sure how many terrible stories I have hidden in various drawers around the house.

I had the idea for Quackers about nine years ago! I put it away for years because I also had a baby about nine years ago, and I was also in the midst of changing my illustration style. I had gone through a couple of truly awful drafts before it was put away. When I was finally ready to work on it, I was a much better writer and illustrator, so it came together relatively quickly. It just took about six years for it to simmer before I was ready for it.

So, your formula for Quackers was: allow inspiration to come to a rolling boil, produce a few drafts, reduce heat, simmer for 6 years, and BAM, a book is born. Which reminds me, your release date was March 22, 2016… I’m late! Happy Book-iversary!  Did you celebrate the first anniversary of your book’s debut? You know, I don’t think I did anything special, but I had a few pieces of good news that had come in around that time so I had plenty to celebrate, such as being a finalist for the Irma Black Award and being selected as the 2017 Jumpstart Read for the Record book. I was also furiously finishing up illustrations for Seattle Children’s Theater so I didn’t really have time to plan anything

There’s more info about Read for the Record below! But first… I read a review on Kirkus which compared Quackers to Ferdinand. What a high compliment! Your book teaches such a beautiful lesson in such a delightfully adorable way!  Is that what you set out to do?  The message came along by accident. I started writing the story because I thought it would be funny to have a picture of a cat and have the text state it was a duck. That was really all I had. As I was fleshing out the story I was trying to come up with an ending – would Quackers end up living with the cats and visiting the ducks occasionally? That didn’t seem satisfying. I started to think about my own background (I’m half Asian, half white) and my own experience of feeling out of place and struggling with my identity, and eventually realized that Quackers didn’t have to choose. He could be a cat and a duck, just as I can be Japanese and Chinese and Finnish. It’s just who he is, it’s just who I am, and we don’t have to be the same as everyone around us.

Do you remember the first time you saw Quackers on a bookstore shelf?  Yes! It was a University Bookstore in Seattle and they had put it on display at the register in the children’s section. It was mind-blowing to see it as a real book, in a real bookstore, and to know that people who didn’t know me would pick it up and read it.

I’m sure it was surreal!  This brings me to my next question; how did you get it on those shelves? What worked well for you, from a marketing perspective, when Quackers was released? Honestly, I can’t really say that I had a strategy, or really, much of a clue of what I was doing! I had a launch party at one of our local indie bookstores and posted about the book on social media. I emailed some of my local bookstores shortly before the book came out to see if they wanted me to come sign books – and they were all very receptive and some of them invited me to come for a story time or other events. I was fortunate enough to be invited to do a few events by a couple of my already-published friends, and to come for story time at Seattle Public Library. The most effective thing I did was getting in contact with my local bookstores. I was terrified to contact them at first, but I’ve found that local bookstores are staffed by book-loving people who are excited to have a connection with local authors and illustrators. My local indies have been so instrumental in connecting readers with the book. It’s really worth it to foster those relationships with your local booksellers.

 Another unique chapter in your story is the SCBWI Mentorship you won at the 2016 Summer Conference. Can you talk a little about your experience?  It was my first time entering the portfolio show and also my first time attending the Summer SCBWI conference. I was so honored to receive one of the mentorship awards! Each year they choose 6 mentees. We each got to sit down with each of the mentors for a 15 minute portfolio critique. Later in the day, all the mentees and mentors met for lunch to go over our feedback and ask questions. It was a truly valuable experience to have that amount of focused attention from the mentors and the advice they gave helped me clarify my direction. It was an incredible opportunity!

Since conference attendance played a big part in your journey to becoming published, what would you tell an aspiring author about the benefit of conferences? I don’t think it’s crucial to attend conferences, and not everyone ends up making a connection that leads to their big break, but I love the SCBWI conferences for a few reasons.

  1. You get to hang out with a bunch of other authors and illustrators! How cool is that? I’ve made so many friends at conferences. I also met some of critique group members at a conference, and our crit group has been going strong for 5 years now!
  2. They help you to push your craft farther. I’ve always come away from conferences with something valuable.
  3. Sometimes you make a connection that leads to something. I met an art director at one of our local SCBWI conferences who introduced me to my agent. Those relationships don’t always pay off immediately, and not everyone you meet at a conference is going to lead to the next step in your career, but every once in a while, they do. I have several friends who met their agents or editors at conferences.
  4. The other benefit of attending conferences? All those faculty members who are normally closed to submissions? They’ll accept submissions from conference attendees after the conference!

And now you get to attend with a book under your belt.  What’s been the most surprising thing about making it to the published side of the industry? I was surprised by how many things started to happen nearly a year after the book was published. There was this big flurry of activity right when the book released. Nothing much happened for several months in the middle, and then it started to gain momentum again as the award nominations from the previous year start to come out. I’m very fortunate that Quackers happens to be up for two different awards for my state (the Washington State Book Awards and the Washington State Children’s Choice Picture Book Award,) which I’m hoping with earn me some serious local librarian and bookseller cred. (Sidebar- the awards are TOMORROW! Best of luck, Liz and Quackers!)

But the number one most surprising thing that happened is that actor Josh Duhamel had to hide in a giant present with my book and pop out and terrify a bunch of school children with it. To clarify, it’s for the Jumpstart Read for the Record announcement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xNc1g5XTaTs

If you click away from the interview to watch the clip I promise, I’ll wait for you.  IIt’sadorable and what an honor for Quackers to be chosen!  Here’s the link for Read for the Record which will be Thursday, Oct 19.  Are you registered? My kids and I are! So, to wrap up… Is there anything you’ve learned in the past year that you wished you had known in advance?

  1. Always have your signing pens at the ready and practice signing in your F&G (I do this already, on random scraps of paper. Is that weird? I tell myself its good karma)
  2. Order more bookmarks than you think you need. I’ve gone through thousands at this point. It’s nice to have something you can give to kids at school visits, so that the kids who didn’t order a book can still have something to take home, and they’ll ask for your autograph, too, so bookmarks are a handy thing to sign for them.
  3. Don’t get so caught up in the promotion that you don’t work on your second book.
  4. Don’t be afraid of school visits. Kids are earnest, eager to participate, and think you are a rock star. (I have to imagine that’s the best energy in the world!

Do you have anything in the queue right now, awaiting publication?  Where can we find and follow you on social media? Yes, I’m working on my second book, titled The Goose Egg, which is another unlikely animal adoption story involving waterfowl, and which I’ve also been describing as “how parenting ruins your life then ultimately enriches it.” It will theoretically be out in Spring of 2019, provided that I get the final art done on schedule!

I’m on social media in the following places:

https://twitter.com/lizwongart

https://www.instagram.com/lizwongart/

http://lizwongart.tumblr.com/

You have so many exciting things happening, I appreciate you taking the time to visit with us.  Best of luck with the awards, and I hope Read for the Record is a truly special day for you. 

Thank you for having me! It’s been a pleasure. Keep on quackin’!

Liz Wong Headshot

Well, these past two weeks have held some really fantastic interviews. The best part? There are more great ones coming! Next month, join me as I visit with Sue Gallion about Pug meets Pig and all things SCBWI.  After that? Jodi McKay and I will talk about Where Are the Words?  Not to mention a few extra scattered in, just for fun. Are you as excited as I am?!?

 

Thanks for reading, comeback anytime!

-JP

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