Saturday, October 31, 2009

Interview With Elizabeth Stow Ellison Author of FLIGHT

Eighth grade teacher, Elizabeth Stow Ellison, describes the publication of her first novel, Flight, as, “my dream come true.”

Elizabeth, I think many aspiring writers can relate to your dream. How did you make it a reality?

My first step toward making my dream a reality was to take writing classes. I think writers need to take advantage of every opportunity to learn about writing. I had the wonderful fortune of being able to focus on fiction writing when I was working on my MA in English at Cal State Fullerton and when I completed the program, I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. (SCBWI) At this point I had completed my first manuscript and I wanted to try to get it published. SCBWI is an excellent resource! I heard Steven Chudney, a literary agent (The Chudney Agency) speak at a one-day conference in Diamond Bar, CA, and wrote him a query letter. He asked to see my work and took me on as a client. Steven is a wonderful agent, and I really believe that in addition to years of hard work, I was at the right place at the right time to make the connections I needed to make in order to achieve my dream.

Please tell us about your novel.

I’m terrible at writing about my book! But here goes.
Flight explores what it’s like to be illiterate in a literate world. It tells the story of a family unable to face this challenge head on for a variety of reasons. Evan can’t read. It’s a secret he’s managed to keep – sort of – thanks to the power of denial. His teachers have expressed their concerns every step of the way, but fearful that recognizing Evan’s learning disabilities would be a negative reflection on them, his parents refuse to allow him to be tested. They maintain that if he had a better attitude and tried harder, he could be successful like his older brother Andy. When the novel opens, Evan is a freshman in high school. The strain of coping is intensifying and his increasingly rebellious antics are getting him in more and more trouble. Evan’s twelve-year-old sister Samantha tells the story. She adores her older brother and knows that he needs help. Evan’s one strength is his artistic ability. With the help of a confidant named Mrs. Brewster, Samantha encourages Evan to enter an art contest. He enters a drawing of three owls he sees fly overhead at night in the woods behind their house. He names the drawing Flight and this becomes the message in the book. In order to truly overcome his challenges, Evan must take flight in his life. He needs to be an advocate for himself and seek the solutions that will help him succeed.

Your book movingly portrays a family struggling with illiteracy. What inspired you to tell this story?

There are many things that inspired me to write this story. First of all, I struggled a lot as I learned to read. While my difficulties never led to being diagnosed with a learning disability, I do remember having to really work hard to make my way through long pages of text. In fourth grade, our teacher used the program called SRA. This is a comprehension and vocabulary development program. As students complete activities, they progress through a series of levels indicated by color. Of course the beginning level was indicated by brown and the highest level was indicated by gold. To track our progress, our teacher created an outer space themed bulletin board (It was 1980, so we were all excited about the Space Shuttle.). We each had rockets that sat at the bottom of the board on the brown ground. As we progressed through the levels our rockets moved up into outer space. Needless to say, my rocket stayed on the ground all year! I felt dumb each time my classmates got to run over and move their rockets higher on the board. It’s a horrible feeling. As a teacher I try to be very sensitive to my students’ feelings. I have seen a number of students who have learning disabilities. They desperately want to be successful. It’s hard to meet with parents and have to explain to them that their child has a learning disability. It isn’t anyone’s fault, but people must realize that we have to work together for the best of the student.

I love the imagery of flight, and your message that people can take flight from whatever is holding them back in their lives. How have those themes touched your readers?

That’s a great question. I was pleased with my development of that idea. I’ve had a number of students tell me that they have been inspired to enter art contests and such. One student, who struggles with a learning disability, wrote me a very touching letter about how he appreciated being able to relate to a character like Evan. He felt empowered to face his challenges.

There’s a very cool picture of Stonehenge on your website. How has travel enriched you as a writer?

I think that traveling gives me a chance to observe people in a variety of settings. I like to watch how people interact with each other. I think it’s valuable to move out of one’s comfort zone and experience life in all kinds of places.

Describe the part SCBWI has played in your success.

SCBWI has played a major role in my success. Thanks to the conferences they provide, I have been able to learn so much and grow as a writer. I was able to connect with my agent, Steven Chudney.

Holiday House published your novel. What knowledge can you share with us about this publisher?

When Flight was accepted at Holiday House, they sent me the book, Holiday House The First Sixty-Five Years written by Russell Freedman and Barbara Elleman. It’s a lovely book that outlines the history of Holiday House. I learned that Holiday House was founded in 1935 at a time when people said it would be impossible to start a publishing house due to the Great Depression. It was the first American publisher dedicated to producing only children’s books. I actually had the chance to visit Holiday House, and I was struck by how much everyone loves their work. Their offices felt like a cozy, inviting children’s library where each book is cherished.

How are you promoting your book?

That has been quite a learning experience. My first step was to have a website designed. I have worked with Linda Kaufman on that. She is an excellent web designer. I have done a few book signings at which I hand out bookmarks and little jawbreakers. (If you’ve read Flight you’ll appreciate that.) I have worked very hard to do as many school visits as possible. Initially I sent out a mailer announcing the publication of Flight. I flew up to Orinda, where the novel is set and worked hard to promote it there, with a book signing and a school visit. Basically, I have spent more than my advance on publication.

What has been your most memorable experience as a first-time author?

I would have to say that my most memorable experiences have been times when I’ve walked into a bookstore or library and found Flight sitting on the shelf. Yes, I do take pictures with my cell phone.

What are you working on now?

I am currently working on a novel called Rabbit Moon. I have written it a number of times and I am currently working on another revision. I am grateful that Steven Chudney is so patient and supportive. I have also had the pleasure of doing some online critique work with Cindy Willis. Her feedback has been very helpful. I know that one day I’ll get Rabbit Moon out there.
Eighth grade teacher, Elizabeth Stow Ellison, describes the publication of her first novel, Flight, as, “my dream come true.”

And finally, I just gotta ask, how did you start collecting antique toasters?

Oh yay! Finally someone is asking about my toaster collection. I bought my first toaster about twelve years ago. I think I’m up to eleven. I have a knack for hunting them down in antique stores, which is part of the fun. When I saw my first one, I was struck by the design. They can be quite fancy with elaborate designs, and I like how they operate. To toast bread, you open the sides and set the bread inside. I suppose you would have to watch carefully and turn the bread over to toast the other side. Then there is a little shelf on top where you can stack toasted pieces to keep warm. Each one is unique in its own way.

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