Winter is coming early with How to Build a Snow Bear, a picture book by Eric Pinder.
Thomas wants to build the biggest and best snowman ever. Since he can’t do it alone, he’ll need a helping paw. But bears love to hibernate. How do you wake up a snoozing bear? By tickling him? Singing to him? Maybe making his favorite snack? How to Build a Snow Bear is a story about two siblings sharing a wondrous wintry day.
Tell us about how you sold this book. What was it like when you found out? Were there a lot of revisions along the way?
Writing this book was a new experience, because it was part of a two-book deal, along with the already written How to Share with a Bear. Finding out was an exciting surprise (“Woohoo, two books at once!”) but also a little scary, because I had no idea what the second book would be about, except that it needed to have a winter setting and, of course, a bear. For the first time, I had a contract, an advance, and (gulp) a deadline before I’d written a single word. I didn’t even have a clue what the title would be yet. In the contract it was simply called “Untitled Bear Book,” and it stayed that way for the longest time. That added to the pressure. What if I couldn’t think of a good sequel?
Revisions for the first book kept me busy and distracted for a while, though possibilities for a follow-up story started to percolate in the back of my mind. I jotted down a few notes, but the deadline seemed safely in the far-off future, the way a December packet deadline does in August—until suddenly it was almost due, and I still had a mostly blank page.
The working title of my first presentable draft was How to Share with a Polar Bear. I sent it off to my editor, exhaled a “whew, done!” and anxiously, eagerly awaited her reaction. Again, it felt a lot like sending off a packet. A few days later she replied. The good news was that she only wanted me to fix three things. The bad news was, those three things were the plot, the title character, and the inciting incident.
(Book Fort: If there’s no snow, you can always build a book fort instead.)
Panic, woe, despair! Visions of tossing my computer in the dumpster and fleeing in shame from the literary community to go become llama shepherd or a rutabaga farmer. That’s what I felt, for the first hour. Or maybe the first day. Then I got back to work. I scrapped the polar bear storyline and started from scratch. Soon enough I had a new brainstorm, and a new, much better draft. This one clicked, and eventually it became How to Build a Snow Bear.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever Googled for your writing?
The other day I had a legitimate business reason to Google “vampire onomatopoeia.” I’m sure there have been weirder things. I wonder how often FBI agents get all excited at seemingly nefarious Googling, only to look closer and go, “Aw, crap. It’s just another one of those darn writers.
Tell us about your writing community
I teach creative writing at the New Hampshire Institute of Art (even though, deep down, I still really want to be an astronaut). It’s definitely inspiring to be part of a community where everyone loves books. Every day, you can walk into a room and immediately get drawn into a conversation about slam poets and stage fright, a debate about the “whiteness of the whale” chapter in Moby Dick, or a constructive critique of someone’s newest creative work. We all learn a lot from each other, just by talking about our passions and interests.
Teaching is exhausting but rewarding. I love it when students turn in stories or poems that make me go, “Wow! I wish I’d written that,” and it’s a thrill to see them get their first publications in literary journals. A couple of former students have gone on to pursue their MFAs at VCFA, and I can’t wait to see what they produce in the years ahead. I’ve saved a shelf for students’ future books.
What was the spark that ignited this book?
Driving to school in the winter, I see fantastic snow sculptures in people’s yards. Snow is like sand at the beach, or Play-Doh, just colder. You can build almost anything with a little snow and a lot of imagination.
Who were your advisors at VCFA?
Uma Krishnaswami, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Ellen Howard, and Tim Wynne-Jones, all of whom have influenced every children’s story I’ve since published. I started with the picture book semester, which was eye-opening. I like picture books because of how much they’re like poetry: each word, each syllable, each nuance has a purpose. The sound and shape of words matters. There’s a lot going on in every line. In fact, I learned so much on the very first day of my first residency at VCFA that I immediately wanted to rewrite parts of what was about to become my first picture book, Cat in the Clouds. The only problem was that the final galleys were already at the printer. I sent a panicked message to my editor, who let me rewrite a couple lines at the eleventh hour, right before the printing presses rolled. That was day one. Four equally inspiring semesters followed.
What advice would you give to a prospective VCFA student?
The same advice I’d give to undergraduates: You have to know about the world to write about it. Always keep learning new things, whether it’s in Noble Hall during a graduate lecture (which often are just as mind-expanding as the faculty lectures; don’t skip them, even on the ninth day of a busy residency when you really want a nap!) or by literary eavesdropping or reading or exploring a new town, or even by helping your local rutabaga farmer. Everything a writer does counts as “research,” as long as we’re paying close attention.
Eric is the author of eight books.