Laura Atkins is visiting the LaunchPad today to talk about her new picture book SLED DOG DACHSHUND! VCFA is full of dachshund fans and this picture book is right up their alley-- or snowy path, as the case may be! Laura is "a proud member of the Inkredibles, January 2016 graduate." She's also a long-time children’s book editor (Children’s Book Press, Orchard Books, Lee & Low and freelance) and a newbie author, with a particular focus on diversity and equity in children’s books. Welcome, Laura... and doggies!
When Jasper the dachshund hears about the world’s biggest dog sled race in Alaska, he just knows he can win. And when his family goes to watch the race, he decides to enter. Jasper tries every position, but he’s too little and doesn’t fit into the sled’s harness. That doesn’t stop him. Jasper sneaks aboard a team sled and finds a way to become a part of the team. His yappy enthusiasm keeps them moving, and Jasper learns how much energy it takes to pull the sled. In the final stretch of the race, his team is neck-and-neck with another sled. Can Jasper help lead his team to victory? Will they win by a (long, pointy) nose?
Hi, Laura. What was the spark that ignited this book?
This book came to me, so to speak, in that the publisher asked me to write a story based on a concept they already had. It started as a sort of cartoon idea of a dachshund trying to run in the Iditarod. Imagine a nose and tail sticking out of the snow, or a little dog suspended above the ground in a harness. I was asked to turn this concept into a story, which meant creating an internal story arc for Jasper. I wanted to find a connection that would resonate for me, but also keep the light touch and comedy of the original concept. For me, that meant having Jasper learn about being part of a team. He’s an indomitable little guy - that’s his character. But it’s new for him to work with others, and to find out how satisfying that can be. And that also warms my community-oriented activist heart.
What was the most difficult element to cut/change during the revision process and why?
A challenge with this process was that one editor had given advice on the initial story idea, but she wasn’t available to keep working on the book, so then a new editor came on board. She had a different vision. So originally I had written the book with Jasper having human “owners” or a family. The new editor felt like the book would work better if it took place in an all-dog world. Originally, this felt like saying - just change the story so it’s set in space! It took a while for me to wrap my head around this new context, as I had built Jasper’s original arc around his place in his human family. I did come around to understanding how this change simplified the book, but it was a major shift.
The process was interesting for me as an experienced editor, too. I was used to being the one giving the feedback and suggestions. It’s given me far more empathy for how challenging the writing side can be! And so, I think, helped me as an editor as well.
Tell us about your writing community. Are you in a critique group? Does a family member read your early drafts? Is Twitter your bastion of support?
I’m so lucky to be based in the Bay Area, where we have a great crew of VCFA graduates. I’ve been meeting up one-on-one with various alum, and we also have a small support group that shares work and gives feedback. Additionally, I do have supportive family, and a group of writing friends from my days as an editor. I’m still shy about sharing my work, so I keep that to a small and select number of people. But I love being part of a larger community of writing folks.
Who were your advisors at VCFA?
Betsy Partridge, Louise Hawes, Mary Quattlebaum and Jane Kurtz
How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?
VCFA had a radical impact on my writing life. Before I came I had been working as an editor for almost twenty years. I’d done some writing, but not with a regular writing practice. I had seen myself as a helper to other creative people - not the creative person myself.
VCFA got me to center my own creativity - to give it time and space, and deadlines! Which were key. I produced so much material in a wide range of genres, in part as a response to my advisor’s areas of interest. I figured I should take advantage. So with Betsy I got into non-fiction, which led to an obsession with an historical woman botanist, Alice Eastwood. With Betsy I wrote a picture book which zoomed in on a moment in Alice Eastwood’s life. But with Louise, I ended up writing a novelization based on Eastwood’s life story. Then with Mary I worked on all of that, plus poetry and my CT. And with Jane I looked at everything, and finally shifting into working on a middle grade chapter book I’d started with Betsy - but also on a middle grade biography that’s now being published in January. Thank goodness for my time at VCFA, because I’m really struggling now to keep that writing practice when I don’t have a deadline.
What is your favorite VCFA memory?
I have a lot. Amazing residencies, so much intellectual stimulation but also fun. Building connections to amazing faculty and colleagues. Walking in the snow behind the library, and discovering the quarry, which is amazing! I miss all of that now that I’m done. But I think my favorite memory was giving myself permission to go to the beach on an almost weekly basis. I decided that nature was going to be my muse, and we are lucky to have amazing natural beauty in western Marin. So I still try to treat myself to that when I can - an artist’s date to feed my soul. Which is hopefully also a way to keep the VCFA creative spirit burning bright inside of me.
Laura's book SLED DOG DACHSHUND, published by Minted Prose, is available in bookstores everywhere. You can find more about Laura here