Pat Zietlow Miller knew she wanted to write books for children since she was 19, but didn’t actively pursue her goal until she was 39. Her debut picture book, SOPHIE’S SQUASH, won the Golden Kite Award and was chosen as an Ezra Jack Keats New Writer honor book and a Charlotte Zolotow honor book. Pat has seven other pictures books under contract.
For what age audience do you write?
I write picture books for children ages 3 to 7. (Although I think picture books are perfect for all ages!)
Henry: Agreed. Good picture books, like a good dessert, work both for kids and adults.
Tell us about your latest book.
WHEREVER YOU GO came out April 21 from Little, Brown. It’s my second book, and it’s a lyrical poem.
Henry: Good for you. I often tell folks that writing good rhyme is hard!
What do you hope readers will get from reading that book?
On the surface, it’s a book about traveling and the joy of the open road. But … I wrote the book with my oldest daughter’s upcoming high school graduation in the back of my mind. Underneath the basic story, is all the love and advice I hope she’ll carry with her to the next stage of her life. In a nutshell, the message is: “Life is not a straight path to the destination you hope to reach. There are hills and valleys. Twists and turns. Unexpected detours. But there are always options if you don’t like where you are. And the journey – the journey – is wonderful.
Henry: And thus, the path to publishing a book is also a metaphor for life.
What aspect of writing do you find most challenging?
Finding the time to do it. I have a full-time job and two busy kids, so I’m usually writing late at night or in odd bursts of time. There are never enough hours. Lately, I’ve been writing on a laptop with a very dim screen because I just haven’t had the time to take it in to be fixed. I’ll have to at some point, but for now I’m muddling through.
Henry: But the fame and fortune of being a picture book writer make it all worthwhile. Right? *crickets*
What is a powerful lesson you’ve learned from being a writer?
You are rarely done when you think you are. Your story can almost always be made significantly better if you’re willing to work on it. Having this kind of tenacity can pay off in other areas of your life.
Henry: SO true! I think my books are done half a dozen times before they are. Tenacity and PATIENCE to revisit one’s manuscripts are important disciplines.
What has been a memorable experience that you never would have had if you had not been a writer?
Having a little boy at a school visit run up, throw his arms around me, hug me and then run off screaming, “I hugged a famous person! I hugged a famous person!”
And, occasionally being recognized. I am a fairly average middle-aged woman. I don’t stand out I crowds. So I’ve been surprised that people in certain very small circles know who I am and seem happy to meet me. A librarian once told me, “This is like meeting Gwyneth Paltrow!” I wanted to say, “Um … no … it’s really not.”
Henry: Interesting, because once Gwyneth Paltrow ran up, threw her arms around me, hugged me, and then ran off screaming. Only the screaming part is believable.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
You writing is likely not as good as you think it is. It sounds harsh, but every published writer I know – including me — made great strides from his or her initial submissions to what eventually got them published. And we all know there are even more strides to be made after that.
To close the gap between where you are and where you want to be, you need to immerse yourself in good writing. I read hundreds and hundreds of picture books. All those great words and phrases and styles and voices will stay in your head and come out as you write new and better material.
Henry: Right on. Just as a lion is the product of all the zebras it’s eaten, a writer is the product of all the books he or she has read. Writers must strike a delicate balance between being a harsh self-critic and having the self-confidence to persevere.
Do you have any favorite quotes?
Lots. I adore quotes. Two of my favorites are:
“Long is the way, and hard, that out of hell leads up to light.” from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” It’s great for writers because it says very eloquently what I stumbled about trying to say in the last answer. To be as good as you want to be takes a lot of sometimes painful work.
“Let us, then, be up and doing, with a heart for any fate. Still achieving, still pursuing, learn to labor and to wait.” From Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life.” I’ve always thought it was a great example of the qualities you need to be a published author. You do the work and write your story and then you wait. And wait. And wait. I sometimes quote this to my kids before we head out to run errands on a Saturday. And they groan.
Henry: Nice. I also like Thoreau’s “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
I would like to be able to teleport or apparate to wherever I wanted to be. I have a lousy sense of direction, and I don’t like to drive. So often there are places I’d love to be or events I’d love to attend, but getting there is a supreme hassle. Maybe I just need a chauffeur.
Henry: Teleporting is the greenest form of transportation. However, I thought given you have a full-time job and two kids, and still write books, your answer would surely have been “the ability to slow time.”
If you could have three authors over for dinner, who would it be?
I’d have to choose picture book authors, are there are a ton I’d like to meet, but I’m going to choose Judith Viorst, Mem Fox and Sophie Blackall. My apologies to all the other wonderful children’s literature folks I did not name.
Henry: I see you favor Aussies. For the benefit of our readers, Judith Viorst wrote ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY. Mem Fox wrote POSSUM MAGIC and GUESS WHAT?. Sophie Blackall illustrated WOMBAT WALKABOUT and wrote/illustrated THE BABY TREE.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Read (I always have books on hold at the library and a reading stack I’m working through.)
Bake (If the recipe calls for chocolate, all the better.)
Post on social media. (I love Facebook and Twitter, sometimes to my detriment.)
Henry: Hey, don’t knock social media. It’s how we got connected. Plus, cat photos.
Where can readers find your work?
My website – www.patzietlowmiller.com – has information about all my current and upcoming books. And, I’m part of a blog called Picture Book Builders where several authors and/or illustrators talk about the craft of picture book creation using books we love as mentor texts.
This interview is also posted on the San Diego Children’s Books Examiner.