A lover of lasagna, cheese, and tacos, Tara Lazar always had a lifelong interest in storytelling. After leaving the world of marketing, Lazar found the time to pursue her passion and became a writer. Since then, she has found success writing popular children’s stories such as The Monstore, I Thought This Was A Bear Book, Little Red Gliding Hood, and Normal Norman. Wanting to learn more about her career and approach to storytelling, Lazar allowed me to interview her for Scifipulse.
Nicholas Yanes: As a kid, what were your favorite children’s books? As an adult, do you ever find yourself revisiting those tales?
Tara Lazar: I devour anything by Roald Dahl. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was my childhood favorite and now Dahl’s short stories for adults fill my bookshelves. I read and reread Dahl because he’s gifted at transforming children’s daydreams and desires into fantastical tales. Plus he creates the creepiest adult villains. BWAAA HA HA HA HA!
Yanes: You had a career in marketing. When did you decide you wanted to leave the traditional business world to become a writer? Was there an incident that you think motivated you the most to pursue writing?
Lazar: Ha, marketing got in the way of my writing career, but it paid the bills.
I always intended to be a writer. After college, I interviewed in publishing, but instead of landing the job I wanted in children’s books, the computer reference division offered me a position. I took it and my career meandered farther away from my initial goal—learning the inner workings of children’s publishing. At least as a marketing professional, I got to exercise my writing chops on sales copy and press releases. When I got laid off in 2002, after the tech bubble burst, I started my family. Being at home to care for my children afforded me the opportunity to pursue my kidlit writing goals.
Yanes: How do you think your marketing background has helped your career as a writer?
Lazar: I began marketing on the internet before people knew what the internet was. So when social media came on the scene, it was a natural fit. I enjoy blogging, Tweeting, Facebooking and whatever other noun you want to make a verb. Bottom line, I thrive on forging connections with other people. That’s useful in any career.
Yanes: I am deeply jealous of the fact that you are represented by the fantastic Erin Murphy Literary Agency. Could you share how you got them to represent you? On this note, do you have any advice you could offer other new writers?
Lazar: I bribed them with lasagna.
Kidding. Remember “forging connections”? I have writing friends who knew Ammi-Joan Paquette and they gave me a referral. She loved my stories and offered representation.
My advice to new writers, especially picture book writers, is to keep writing. Many times new writers obsess over their first story then submit to agents. Agents do not take you based on one picture book—it isn’t economically feasible. Picture books take as much time to sell as novels, yet they earn far less. To be attractive to an agent, you should have at least three to five picture books ready to go.
Also, your first story is not your best story. There are more stories inside you, better tales. You improve your craft with each one you write. So keep writing, keep polishing. Don’t worry about landing representation until you have been writing seriously for at least two to three years.
The Yankees don’t draft you based on one home run. You must consistently dig deep, swing for the scoreboard, dive for fly balls, and steal bases, too—then maybe you earn a try-out. It’s the same with publishing. You get called up to The Big Leagues once you’ve invested your time as MVP on the farm team.
Yanes: Your stories always have an element of the fantastical to them. Why is this important to telling the types of tales you want to share?
Lazar: Hey, Dahl’s influence shines through! Way to make me feel warm and fuzzy! (Oh, maybe that’s just the fireplace…)
I want to believe that anything is possible. I recall the things I loved as a child: secret places, crazy creatures and magical objects adults had no clue existed.
Rules by adults—parents, teachers, authority figures—bombard children every minute from every angle. I want a book to provide an escape from rules and regulations, a freedom from limitations. If children soar in their imaginations, they will gain confidence to do so in real life.
Yanes: When developing a story, how do you work with illustrators to make sure they visually communicate what you envisioned?
Lazar: I don’t.
I’m known as a jokester, but I’m serious here.
Publishers keep authors and illustrators separate. Everything that must be communicated visually should be interpreted by the story text alone. On rare occasions, I write art notes when the text and image oppose for effect. For instance, the text may say “she was happy” but the face should frown. I wrote an entire book like that—where the visual conflicts with the text for humor, and in that case, there are many art notes. But I do not dictate the overall look and feel of the book. I never said Mookie in The Monstore should have bat wings, that Norman in Normal Norman should be a purple orangutan, or that the enchanted forest in Little Red Gliding Hood should be a pastel wonderland.
So when I’m writing, I keep the visual part of my brain blank. I don’t try to envision what the characters and scene should look like. There is an artist for that job—and they will do a far better job than my imagination can muster. I concentrate on the words.
Yanes: Since you’ve started writing children’s stories, how do you think you’ve evolved as a writer?
Lazar: I write tighter. When I first began writing picture books, my first drafts would top a thousand words. That doesn’t cut it. Modern picture books are about half that. Now I write a first draft in four hundred words. (And I can name that song in three notes.)
I have become more adept at developing the play between words and image—and I better understand how the two combine to tell the full story.
Yanes: One of your upcoming books, 7 Ate 9: The Untold Story, is being published by Disney. How does it feel to be working with one of the greatest entertainment companies in the world? Additionally, how is producing a book with Disney different from previous projects?
Lazar: When I saw the title page with my name directly above Walt’s iconic “Disney” signature, everything else in the room dissolved to black while the page pulsed and glowed. Just writing this gives me heart palpitations.
Disney-Hyperion’s process was no different from my other publishers. I did three rounds of text edits, then offered feedback on illustration passes. But I had a hand in creating the theme for the endpapers; that was a fun first.
Just yesterday my editor said the printed books arrived and they look AWESOME. I’m writing this on the front porch, waiting for the UPS package (even though it’s not coming for another two days).
Yanes: When people finish reading your books, what feeling do you hope they leave with?
Lazar: I hope they close the book with a smile—and then race off to do something amazing. I want my readers to believe anything is possible.
Yanes: Finally, what are some projects you are working on that people can look forward to?
Lazar: Ahhhhh, I’m so excited about The Whiz-Bang Wordbook, an illustrated dictionary and word game book that features crazy and deliciously tongue-twisting words like bamboozled, mishmash and snollygoster.
Then there’s that art-note comedy I mentioned earlier, although I can’t say more about it until an illustrator is on board.
Plus I have multiple manuscripts under submission—about dodo birds and breakfast foods, flying saucers and puggles, and deep-sea creatures in janitor pails. It’s all a lot of madcap fun.
The best part of all? I get to do all this in my jammies. What better job could you ever want?