It’s time for another Picture the Books Two Debut Interview!
Today, Julie Segal Walters interviews Heather Preusser about her debut picture book, A SYMPHONY OF COWBELLS.
In this book, Petra and her family lead their prize dairy cows into the pastures to graze, and each cow wears her own jingling, jangling, clanging bell. What a symphony! But when Petra’s favorite cow, Elfi, loses her bell the whole herd is out of harmony and refuses to move. Will Petra be able to find Elfi’s bell before it’s too late? With charming illustrations by Eileen Ryan Ewen, this whimsical story is sure to delight children and adults alike.
JSW: Welcome, Heather! Let’s start our interview with some warm-up questions. First, if you could live in the world of any picture book, which world would it be and why?
HP: I would love to live in A CHILD OF BOOKS by Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston. I’ve always been a Jeffers fan and I have a soft spot for postmodern meta-fiction (like your upcoming book!), but, as both an English teacher and a writer, this book melted my heart. Here’s the summary from the dust jacket: “A little girl, a child of books, sails her raft across a sea of words and arrives at the house of a young boy. She invites him to go away with her on an adventure into the world of stories…where, with only a little imagination, anything at all can happen.” Winston shapes his topographical landscapes using the text from forty children’s classics, which are listed in the end papers. As I child, I too got lost in “forests of fairy tales.” Because of my mother’s mental illness, I escaped into books, seeking solace and solutions within the prose. The younger version of me would have loved to “travel over mountains of make-believe.” The older version of me is still traveling.
JSW: The poetry of your language of seeking solace and solutions speaks so beautifully to the power of books to transport readers, which is why so many of us write for children. Is there a published picture book that you wish you could have written?
HP: I love everything by Julie Fogliano, but I especially love IF YOU WANT TO SEE A WHALE (illustrated by Erin E. Stead). Fogliano’s stories are poems; they’re spectacularly spare, and every image, every phrase, every word is perfect: “if you want to see a whale / be careful not to notice / something inching, small and green / across the leaf, just nibble scoot / because things that are smaller than most small things / can’t be as giant as a whale.” “Nibble scoot”? Holy, I-just-saw-a-whale! How picture-perfect is that? As a former Maine-iac, I fell in love with this story even more when I read that Fogliano wrote it while vacationing in Maine one summer. After rereading it for this blog post, it was also a timely reminder that, as a writer, I need to be persistent but patient, very patient (and I should ignore pelicans).
JSW: “Persistent but patient” may be my new favorite line that summarizes children’s publishing. Speaking of favorite lines, what’s your favorite first line of a book?
HP: I’m going to have to go with HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE by J.K. Rowling on this one (and that’s not because I’m a Potterhead who’s been sorted into Hufflepuff and has an eagle for a patronus, I promise). The first line introduces us to Harry’s extremely unmagical aunt and uncle as well as the setting, incorporates clever word play that Rowling weaves throughout the series, piques our interest, and establishes narrative voice – that’s a tall order for one line: “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” I also adore this series because it made reading cool again. When the last book in the series was released in 2007, I was attending a creative writing program at the Scottish Universities’ International Summer School in Edinburgh, Scotland. Everywhere I went, on every plane, train, and bus, people – both kids and adults – had their head buried in the book, yet paradoxically no one was allowed to talk about it for fear of ruining the ending.
JSW: Speaking of books, let’s talk about yours! What inspired you to write A SYMPHONY OF COWBELLS?
HP: I was inspired when my sister-in-law told me a story about an ornery, old cow she encountered while working on a Swiss dairy farm. Every spring these cows are paraded to the high meadows where their milk is turned into scrumptious cheese. Worried this old cow wouldn’t make the trek with such a heavy bell, the farmer traded her big booming bell for a tiny tinkling one. The cow refused to move. Ultimately, the farmer realized the error of his ways, reunited bell and bovine, and all was well. Thanks to my PiBoIdMo training, I knew this could make a good picture book manuscript, but I needed to increase the tension and create a satisfying ending. Twenty drafts later, and after recruiting two large Alpine crows, I felt ready to submit the manuscript.
JSW: Did it require much research? I bet you spent some time listening to the sounds of bells to get your onomatopoeia just right!
HP: My husband and I have done a lot of hiking in the Swiss Alps; however, most of that hiking and cheese tasting happened before I even had the story idea (does that count as “research”?). I did watch a lot of Rick Steves’ travel videos and have posted two short clips, one about Gimmelwald and one about the cheese making process, on my website. As you mentioned, getting the bell sounds just right was also tricky. In earlier drafts, one of my insightful critique partners (shout out to Carmela LaVigna Coyle) pointed out that a few bells sounded more like drums.
JSW: Will you also talk about your characters’ names. They’re so unique! Is there a story behind them?
HP: My husband is German, so I asked him for suggestions regarding Swiss-sounding cow names. At first we came up with Elfriede but predicted pronunciation would be problematic. It also sounded old-lady-ish, so he nicknamed her Elfi. Petra is named after one of my former roommates, who is not only one of the most determined and compassionate woman I know, but was also instrumental in setting me up with my husband. The real-life Petra now lives in Switzerland with her husband, so I made sure to send her a copy of the book.
JSW: How sweet! Okay, last question. What’s next for you and your writing?
HP: I have a handful of picture books on submission right now. This summer I’m also hoping to pin down a few new picture book ideas that have been bouncing around my head as well as finish the draft of a middle grade novel I began last summer. As a full-time high school English teacher, I find it hard to take advantage of the “crevices of life” that Amy Krouse Rosenthal talks about in one of her Ted talks; I’ll definitely be capitalizing on my summer break and my (almost) two months of uninterrupted writing time!
Thanks so much, Heather, and congratulations on your lovely debut picture book!
Heather Preusser graduated from Williams College and earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program. In her debut picture book, A Symphony of Cowbells (Sleeping Bear Press, March 2017), a Swiss dairy cow loses her bell and disrupts the harmony of the herd. When not writing, Heather teaches high school English, bikes the European countryside, and attempts to learn ridiculously long German words. She and her husband reside in Colorado. She can also be found online at www.heatherpreusser.com and on Twitter @HeatherPreusser.
You can buy Heather’s book here!
Julie Segal-Walters is a children’s book author who lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband, son, and pesky cat. Before writing for children, Julie was a lawyer and advocate for civil rights and civil liberties, and an international democracy and civil society development specialist. In those days, she was a frequent writer, public speaker, and commentator on NPR, Court TV, and C-Span on civic engagement and religious liberty. These days, Julie can be found advocating for her many favorite children’s books to anyone who will listen. Julie is fluent in Spanish, and loves to cook, but not bake. She thinks baking has too many rules. This Is Not A Normal Animal Book is her first picture book (illustrated by Brian Biggs) (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, Fall 2017). Visit Julie online at www.juliesegalwalters.com or on Facebook, Twitter @j_s_dub, or Instagram @juliesegalwalters.
You can buy Julie’s book here!
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