Monday, July 29, 2013

Interview with Author Nancy Hahn

Today I am interviewing Nancy Hahn, the author of over twenty five children’s books.  Nancy began her career as an elementary school teacher.  She danced from an early age, and then taught dance to children throughout the Pittsburgh area.  She created the program “Dance N’ Fun” for the City Parks and Recreation program.  She taught for the Pittsburgh public schools and a magnet school in Pittsburgh.  She created the accredited dance program at Allegheny Community College.  She spent almost thirty years in television programming, by building her own television station and focusing on international and children’s programming and independent movies.  She felt those were voids in the market at the time, and she wanted to fill those voids.  When Nancy’s daughter began touring with Christina Aguilera, Nancy started doing professional song writing as well.  Her efforts resulted in many pop songs that charted and were featured on Radio Disney.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to say I met Nancy because my son is part of her newest venture.  He recorded a song called “Rock Dog” that will be used as she begins turning her books into interactive audio entertainment, cartoons, and Broadway productions.

Nancy, the first question I have to ask you is about your dance background.  You taught Lynn Swann and Franco Harris ballet, which was hugely reported on in the Pittsburgh area.  What was that like?

The dance room at the community college was right beside the weight room.  Lynn and Franco used to go into the weight room religiously, and they always had their faces pressed against the window of the dance room to see what we were up to as they went past.  Finally, one day I went to them with my stern teacher’s face (I was twenty two years old at the time, so it wasn’t all that stern), and asked them what they were doing.  My students were aghast.  They all knew Lynn and Franco were star players on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ football team, and they couldn’t believe I confronted them.  They were such nice guys, though.  They looked at me, kind of shy, and said the dance class looked interesting, so I invited them in.  It was funny.  Just imagine Lynn doing a tour jete, and Franco doing one right after him in a fierce competition to do it better than Lynn.  They were hysterical, and they kept coming to my class.  Ballet gave them better agility and helped Lynn to jump higher when he caught passes. 

And your daughter began as a dancer as well, and then become a very successful singer.  What was it like touring with your daughter?
Rich Engler, a huge music promoter in Pittsburgh, was looking for a “Pittsburgh Pop Girl” to open for Eiffel 65.  One of my friends told me to reach out to him and make him aware of my daughter, Hilary.  He was kind of hard to get a hold of, so I decided we would just try our luck.  We drove down to his office, Hilary, my husband and I, and I had a little video cassette recording with me in the car.  I went to the office and spoke to a friend of a friend who worked there.  He asked to see the video, so I played it for him.  Right away he said, “Hold on a second.”  Five minutes later, he came in with Rich Engler, who watched the video and asked if Hilary wanted to open for Eiffel 65.  I was so shocked.  He asked if we were busy on Monday, and I said “No.”  He said “Come to the office, I want to put her on the Christina Tour, too.”  I only went in to ask about one little thing, but it snowballed.  Touring with my daughter was a very rare experience, and it brought us closer together.  We were together in some of them most unconventional living arrangements, in tiny hotel rooms, together twenty four hours a day, and we had lots of obligations.  We had to do everything ourselves, from sound checks to choreography to vocal arrangements.  We ended up doing two simultaneous tours, the “Levi Make Them Your Own” tour, and all the SFX Venues, which were outdoor venues.  It was crazy, but it was wonderful, too.

When did you start writing children’s books?
I started writing children’s books in 2011.

How did you become interested in helping the “Lost Boys” of the Sudan?  Did you travel to Africa?
I heard them speak and got to know them and know their story, especially one boy named Bol.  Bol told me about his life, and it was such an incredible story I felt I had to share it.  We had a sort of unspoken bond; his story was the message and I was the messenger.  Another Lost Boy had a sister who was almost a child bride before he rescued her.  I felt I had to share her story, too.  That is the story of Natepi.  I donate the profits from these books directly to the Lost Boys, no filtering. And the proceeds from Nateti’s book goes directly to her college fund.

Tell me about your new book, “Merry Jane and the Holidays”.
Because of the dancing and the music in my life, all of my books are musical.  The Lost Boy book has musical elements.  “Nene the Hawaiian Goose” has musical elements.  When I created the characters, “Merry Jane and the Holidays,” it was about an animated girls’ band. I decided they would only play on the holidays, and their songs are about the holidays.  They have a phenomenal manger, Rock Dog, and unbeknownst to them he wants to have a singing career, too. 

Explain how you are adding the music element to your books.
I created something called MyBooktoons (“Books come to LIFE!”), which is a way to make books with musical and animation elements.  The Kindle format will soon be able to have these features. 

When will your books be made into cartoons?
They are being made into cartoons right now.  The book for “Merry Jane and the Holidays,” was put out first, and the cartoon will come soon after.  There are many things in the works right now beyond the books and the cartoons, including shows and other venues.  David Granati is the musical wizard who brings all the magic to my songs.  He records them at Dave World Productions.  We are always on the same page and have so much fun working together and creating quality material.

When is the release date for “Merry Jane and the Holidays?”  Where can it be purchased?
“Merry Jane and the Holidays” was released today.  It is being published by Rainforest Books, which is part of the Rowman Littlefield family, and is being distributed by Ingram and Baker Taylor.  I will soon have my own imprint called TreeHouse, and we are launching a book of recipes called “Backstage Baker” which has recipes from an actual Broadway backstage baker.  “Merry Jane and the Holidays” can be purchased on Kindle, Barnes and Noble, Kobo (which is the former Borders), Amazon, Apple Books, Google Books, and literally hundreds of other places.  Soon the books will be in public libraries, too.  The e-book universe is expanding by leaps and bounds.

Thank you so much for your time, Nancy.  You are a fascinating and inspirational person, and, on a personal note, you have become a wonderful teacher and mentor for my son.





Sunday, July 28, 2013

Motherhood and Writing - Meeting the Challenge

It begins with a sound in one of the rooms above me; a loud thud followed by slow, heavy footsteps.   Then the cadence of what seems like a bowling ball being thrown down the stairs.

“Oh, no,” I whisper as I frantically try to type out a few more words on my computer.  “They are coming.”
I had gotten up early, eager to write, but had been pulled into the world of Facebook and Twitter for far too many precious minutes.  I had wasted time, and now, just when I was beginning to make progress on my manuscript, they were here.

“Mom, what’s for breakfast?”
 My youngest is always the first one up.  As he rubs his sleepy twelve year old eyes under his glasses, I hold up a finger to stop him.

“Just a minute, honey.  I’m almost done.” 
My fingers move faster and faster, trying to get to the end of the scene before my inspiration fails me and I forget the perfectly planned moment I wanted to write.

My youngest child mutters something that sounds like, “Oh, man,” and trudges to the kitchen.
I have been granted a reprieve.  It lasts exactly two minutes.

“We don’t have anything to eat,” he calls from the pantry.  “Mom.  Mom? Mom??!!”
I sigh.  I have one last chance.  “Do you remember ‘The Hunger Games’?  Foraging is an important survival skill.  How long would Katniss have survived if she couldn’t have hunted for squirrels and rodents?”

My unimpressed son stomps back to my desk, his cheeks still pink from sleep and a definite scowl on his face.  “I’m not eating squirrels and rodents.”
I give him my best and most encouraging smile.  “But I bet you can make toast.”

He walks away saying something under his breath that sounds a lot like, “This sucks,” but I choose to ignore it.  I’ve bought a few more minutes.
“Mom, where is the toaster?”

I want to slam my face into my keyboard, but I resist the urge.  This is what summer vacation looks like at my house.
Motherhood is a balancing act, a carefully orchestrated dance that involves juggling your own needs with the needs of your children.  We all need some time for ourselves (Calgon, take me away!), but when you are a both writer and a mother, the need a few quiet moments each day isn’t an occasional selfish luxury; it is critically important.

I’ve learned a few things along the way.  I have three very busy boys, aged nineteen, fourteen and twelve.  They are always hungry.  They create excessive amounts of dirty, smelly clothing.  They leave a trail of debris wherever they go, but this is a fairly easy and pleasant time in my mothering journey.  Things weren’t always this easy.  I was nursing or pregnant or caring for a sleepless infant for years and years.  I once had toddlers pulling on my legs and spilling apple juice on desk.  I have done a lot of writing with “Blues Clues” or “Barney” blaring in the background.   It is so much simpler now, but some careful planning is still very important to keep everyone happy, healthy, fed, and productive.

1.        Find your time to write.

I am very lucky.  I am a stay at home mom.  Once the children go to school in the morning, I have a solid block of beautiful, glorious, uninterrupted writing time.  But during summer vacation and winter break, it isn’t that easy.  I find that if I wake up early, and write a few hours before anyone else wakes up, everyone in the family is much happier (and able to eat breakfast).  Some people are morning larks like me, others are night owls.  Find the writing time that is best for you, and make it work.

2.       Use your writing time for writing.

Social media is a necessary tool for writers.  My super, awesome, and completely wonderful agent (Marlene Stringer of the Stringer Literary Agency), created a private Facebook page for her writers.  Every day she shares her knowledge and experience with us by posting very useful information about writing and the publishing industry.  This is important stuff.  Looking at photos of my friends’ children and pets is not quite as important.  Be careful not to get sucked into the black hole of Facebook and Twitter-land.  During the precious hours (or minutes) you have set aside for writing, focus on writing.  That sounds easy, but it isn’t.  The laundry is overflowing.  Dishes need to be washed, and you can’t quite remember the last time you dusted.  But those things can all be done when your children wake up – often, the writing cannot.  Make it a sacred time, a time just for writing and nothing else.

3.        Plan ahead.

My children come home every day at 3pm from school.  I always tell my husband that I work the 3-11 shift.  From the moment they get home, my official Mommy gig starts and it doesn’t end until I fall exhausted into bed.  Life is easier for everyone if I just line up my ducks ahead of time.  Every day I start dinner (or at least planning dinner) at 2pm.  This sounds ridiculously early, but at this stage in our lives it is a necessity.  Each evening involves such a barrage of activities, from soccer to tennis to rock band, that eating as soon as the children get home from school has become our only option.  Because my husband travels for work, I am a solo parent most days, and often have to be two places at once.  Planning food and rides and snacks ahead of time (and hopefully not leaving any children behind when I carpool), is vital.  I also plan out errands and grocery shopping days so that I have more solid blocks of writing time.  A little organization goes a long way.
4.        Bring your work with you.

Parents spend a lot of time waiting.  I wait for soccer practice to be over.  I wait for meetings to end after school.  I wait in various places for my children to be done with whatever it is they are doing.  I spend a great deal of time sitting in my car and staring at my watch.  I’ve learned to bring my laptop, or at least a notebook, with me everywhere.  You just never know when you’ll have a few uninterrupted minutes (piano lessons last thirty minutes – yippee!).  Take advantage of them, even if you are just staring into space and dreaming up a new story.

5.        Stop feeling guilty.

I am of Italian and Catholic descent.  I am very good at guilt.  I dream of creating gourmet meals for my family every day and living in a perfectly clean house.  I also dream of writing really good books that will touch, inspire, and (possibly) make people laugh.  My children and my family always come first, but my dreams are important, too.  I’ve heard my friends say they are a better mother when they are working, and I am definitely a better mother when I am writing.  And I’ve realized the old saying, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy,” is true (although the grammar makes me cringe).  It’s better for everyone in your family if you are doing what makes you happy.

6.        Let them be a part of it.

My children are a valuable resource for me.  They are my most honest critics.  I can tell as soon as I read something to them whether they love it or hate it.  They might try to be polite, but I can see it in their eyes, and they are always right.  When it doesn’t work for them, I know it won’t work for others, but when my story captures their attention and sparks their imagination, I know I’m onto something good.  Once, I was stuck on a plot line.  My youngest (the forager) asked if he could help.  I had my doubts, but I explained my dilemma.  He thought about it for a few minutes, and then came up with the perfect solution.  I think he was around nine years old at the time.  Sometimes a fresh set of eyes is all you need, and if your children can feel like they are part of the process, it is a wonderful thing for everyone.

7.        Don’t let others take your writing time away.

As I said, I am lucky enough to be a stay at home mom.  This means I often get pushed into volunteering for every committee known to man.  Choose your activities wisely.  Don’t become so busy that you stop making time for your writing.  Learn to say, “No,” and practice doing it often.  Every once in a while, in a caffeine induced surge of optimism, I think I can chair several committees, manage a soccer team, and host a sleepover for twenty neighborhood children.  I always regret those decisions.  If you pull yourself too thin, you are going to snap – just like an old rubber band - and it hurts when that happens.  Know your limits (both emotional and physical), and don’t forget limitations on your time, either.  It is a finite and precious resource.

I love being a mother, and I think I’m pretty good at it.  I’m not perfect, but I’m trying.  I love being a writer, too, and thankfully I have a wonderful husband who supports my dreams and believes in me.  Sometimes things go well, and sometimes they do not, but as your children get older, they really do get easier.  I am in awe of the women who have full time jobs, itty bitty babies, and still manage to churn out great books.  I imagine they must have a much higher level of energy or organization or drive than I do, but it is important not to compare yourself to other mothers or other writers.  We are all just doing the best we can.   

Now to help my twelve year old find the toaster, and teach him how to use it….

Monday, July 15, 2013

Ten Lessons I Learned Teaching Writing to Children

Every summer I teach a writing class through the Young Writers’ Institute to children who will be entering third and fourth grade in the fall.  Here are some important lessons I have learned from them over the years.

1.       Writing is fun.

On the first rainy day of YWI, I ditch whatever else I have planned and surprise the children with a dark room full of (flameless!) candles, blankets, and soft pillows tossed on the floor.  I don’t have to give them any direction.  They curl up on pillows, or make tents out of blankets, and just start writing.  It is joyful.  Sometimes it is easy to forget that when things aren’t going well, and we are struggling with a writing project we are working on, but it is true.  If it feels like a chore, find a way to make it fun again.  Light a candle.  Write outside under a shady tree.  Work on something that inspires you to think or to laugh or to connect with others.  Rediscover your joy.

2.       Writing is hard work.

Writing is a skill, and my Young Writers are just starting to master the basics.  One thing I have observed is that there is often a big difference between boys and girls at this age.  Boys are still working on the mechanics of writing, on forming letters and holding a pencil.  They have wonderful ideas for stories, but can’t always get them onto the page.  This happens to writers of all ages, and the key is to keep working and find a way.  Writing stories in comic book form with illustrations is especially helpful for my younger boys, but when they come back a year later, I realize a miracle has occurred.  They have conquered the fine motor skill monster and can now write longer and more complicated stories.  Writing is a craft that we never can truly master, and progress is more apparent in a beginner than in an adult, but the only way to grow and improve as a writer is to keep writing. 

3.       Writers spend a lot of time staring blankly into space.

 Daydreams are where all great stories begin.  We need to take time to daydream, especially when we are children.  One of the best things about teaching a summer writing class is that we don’t have a strict schedule to follow.  When the children beg me for extra time to write, or think, or dip their toes into a creek while we take a walk outside together, I can allow them that luxury.  For writers, that time isn’t really a luxury, it is a necessity.  Writers need time inside of their own heads.  Most of my books are already written before I put a single word on the page. 

4.       Write what you are passionate about.

 Every year I have a child who adores haiku.  I usually have another child who wants to write nothing but limericks.  And I always have some adorable little blonde girl who writes dark stories about death.  I don’t know why, but it is always the littlest, blondest ones who love horror.  It never fails.  But these children understand a very basic rule – find what you love and write about what makes you happy. 

5.       Writers are born, not made.

 There is a reason my Young Writers must be nominated to join this program.  All children can learn to write, but not all children are writers.  Some children would consider writing camp to be the cruelest form of punishment.  My students beg for a longer session and cry when it is over.   That is something that cannot be taught, and the same holds true for writers of all ages.  Writers write because they have to, because there is something burning inside of them that must get out, and writing is the medium they use.  Painters paint.  Singers sing.  Writers write.  They are born that way. 

6.       It is important to write freely. 

The first thing I do is teach my students to free write.  I tell them not to worry about punctuation and grammar and all those scary things that are holding them back, and just write whatever thoughts are going around in their heads.  Every year, there is at least one student who lets out a huge sigh of relief when I say that and starts scribbling away.  The pressure is off.  Punctuation and grammar are important, but perfection is not.  We all need to write freely, and to write boldly, and to move forward.  Mistakes can be corrected later, but there will be nothing to fix if you never get anything onto the page.  

7.       No one else could write your story. 

I love using writing prompts in my class.  I begin with something like “The lights went out…” and then I watch the miracle of writing occur.  Each story the children come up with is completely unique and amazing, and no one else could have possibly written it the same way.  We need to remember this when we lose faith in our own writing.  There might be better writers or better books or better stories, but only you can write your story. 

8.       Writing is sharing part of your heart with others. 

Sharing what you write can be the hardest thing to do.  Others may hate it.  They may judge it.  I remind my children to listen when others share, and to respond with gentle words.  It doesn’t take many reminders.  They understand how vulnerable it makes a writer feel, how exposed and insecure.  But they also understand the wonder of it when others like what you have written and respond to it.  It is worth all the pain and suffering. 

9.       Inspiration is everywhere. 

A stick floating in a creek.  An old velvet hat.  The cool joy of ice cream on a summer day.  It doesn’t take much to inspire an eight year old.  We need to look at the world through their eyes once in a while.  A hole in a hillside could be a major landscaping issue, or it could be a secret passage to unknown worlds.  We can’t choose what we are looking at, but we can choose how we see it.  

10.   Kindred spirits come in small packages. 

I teach small children, but they are old souls.  We understand each other.  We share common interests, and we are passionate about books and writing and words in general.  I attended my first writing conference this year (Pennwriters 2013), and I had the same feeling.  It was a gathering of kindred spirits.  It is important to find people like that to connect with because writing can be a lonely and solitary profession.  Find others who share your passion, whether at a writers’ conference, in a writing class, or even with a writers’ group, and meet with them.  You’ll walk away a happier person, and a better writer.