An Interview with Katie Speck


Kidlit Kim

Kidlit Kim

Today, I’d like to welcome Katie Speck, author of Maybelle in the Soup and Maybelle Goes to Tea. Katie, thank you so much for joining us here today. I have a lot of questions, so let’s get started.

I love the humor in the Maybelle books. Did you start out with the intention of writing a humorous book for children?

I didn’t start out to write a book at all! I was just trying to get my husband and daughter off my back–they’d been picking on me for years to write stories based on a character my grandmother invented, Maybelle the Cockroach.

What I’ve secretly wanted to write since I was a little girl was The Great American Novel. It’s a safe bet Iʼve missed that mark.

Can you tell us a little about your process for writing a book kids and parents find funny?

When we were little my brother and I loved Three Stooges reruns on T.V. For reasons that defy probability, the Stooges sometimes attended snooty white-tie cocktail parties, usually with a pigeon-breasted soprano providing the entertainment. Things always went badly. And the contrast between the pretensions of hosts and guests and the outrageous behavior of the Stooges always had us rolling on the floor. So I suppose what tickles my funny bone is a combination of irony and physical humor. The irony may go over the heads of kids, but it’s fun for grown-ups. Something for everyone.

As for my process, what a hard question! Humor is one of those elusive things that feels forced if you confront it too directly. In my experience, you have to let it sneak up on you when you seem not to be looking. So when I’m “in” a Maybelle book I spend lots of time lying in a warm tub staring at the ceiling while scenes sidle up to me (or not). If my husband taps on the door and asks what I’m laughing about, I know I’ve snared another piece of the story.

Do you have any secrets or tips on how to get the voice “just so”?

I think “voice” happens when your story is uniquely, deeply yours to tell. Not based on market research or other people’s work in the same genre, but yours. I’m not discounting research or reading, far from it. But it can get in the way, I think, especially if, like me, you have a self-confidence problem and tend to read something wonderful and throw up your hands–I could never do that! When I was writing my first Maybelle book, I made a point of avoiding childrenʼs books, and I didn’t have a clue what else was out there about cockroaches. What difference did it make? It was the story I had to tell. If there wasn’t a market for it, so be it.

The other piece of voice is a craft issue. Maybelle in the Soup took almost five years from beginning to submission. I didn’t have a critique group, so I had to train my own ear. That alone time, when you learn to hear your words, is so valuable! And one of the most amazing things about the process is that you come to appreciate the power of elegance–elegance in the sense of simplicity. The cleaner and tighter a manuscript, the more power it has. Less really is more. When we start out as writers, most of us load on the words–we’re writers, we love words. But it’s paring them away that makes the magic happen. That just blows me away!

Maybelle is adorable, but I think the Peabodys make this series. So much of the humor comes from the “pest” being the heroine and the humans being the “villains.” Were the Peabodys in early versions of the story?

Oh, yes! Maybelle and the Peabodys were meant for each other. What would order be without chaos? What I love about the Peabodys is that they cherish the illusion that they control their world. They don’t of course, no more than Maybelle controls her impulses. But after a lot of uproar everybody ends where they began, in a state of happy denial–Maybelle will never break the Rules again and the Peabodys have absolutely, positively NO BUGS. Right.

Some writers love the revision process. Others–especially some of the young writers who are also Maybelle’s primary audience–loathe revising. Tell us…how many rewrites did you do on the first book before you sent it in?

Gazillions! But the plot was in my head before I ever wrote a word, and it never changed. It just seemed inevitable. My rewrites were about my lack of craft. Despite fantasizing about being a writer all my life, I hadn’t written anything since college. I had a lot of catching up to do.

We’ve all heard about the importance of first pages. At what point in the process did the published first page become the first page?

Was it written at the beginning? The end?

The first page of the first book was always just as it’s published, part of the inevitability I just referred to. The opening sentence was meant to set up a certain silly tension–“…lovely, plump cockroach.” The second, and last, paragraph on the page starts the joke that runs through the whole book–“The Peabodys liked everything to be JUST SO. No dust, no mess, and absolutely, positively NO BUGS.”

The first page of the second book was harder to write. I had to put the readers in the story, not knowing if theyʼd met Maybelle in the first book and without boring those who had. So right to Mrs. Peabody’s NO BUGS rule, followed by Maybelle’s Cockroach Rules. Rules are made to be broken, right? Instant conflict.

As for the order of things, I seem condemned to begin at the beginning. I can’t move on until I’m happy with what I’ve already got, sort of a castle-on-sand anxiety. But that’s my problem. And it is a problem. I’m embarrassed to say how long I spent on the opening page of the novel I’m writing!

Can you tell us a little bit about your path to publication?

Halfway through the writing process for Maybelle in the Soup, I made a mistake lots of newbies make. I got impatient and sent the MS off to an editor at Henry Holt whose name I got from an acquaintance. It wasn’t ready and she rejected it (though very, very nicely). I was crushed. But after licking my wounds for a day, I set out to make it good, better, best. Take that!

Now jump ahead a couple of years from the premature submission. I’m at my very first writer’s conference, introducing myself to my very first real critic (agent Erin Murphy), who’s read my very first MS and owes me fifteen minutes of face-to-face. And I’m terrified, because I’m sure I’ve done all I can do with my little story and if she doesn’t like it, that’s it, it’s going into a drawer. And the very first words out of her mouth are “I absolutely love it! Do you think you’d like an agent?” And in my head I’m a little girl in a dark movie theater hearing Jimminy Cricket sing about wishing upon a star in falsetto. And I burst into tears! Because dreams can come true.

Will there be more Maybelle books?

I hope so! My editor at Holt (not the one who first turned me down) has expressed an interest in more. I’m working on a new adventure called Maybelle at the Fair. But it isn’t sold yet, just early “in progress,” so I’m going through all the terrors any writer goes through with the possibility of rejection looming. Tough business. But is there any better?

Katie, thank you for taking the time to be our guest at Kidlit Central News today! The rest of you—scatter like a cockroach in daylight. Race to a bookstore and get your hands on these books. You will be absolutely, positively delighted!

Sept. 17, 2008