01 October 2012

Author/Librarian Natalie Dias Lorenzi takes the teaching-traveling-total-rewrite path to publication

Is this cover gorgeous, or what? 
Kudos to illustrator Kelly Murphy.
Today's interview features Natalie Diaz Lorenzi, author of FLYING THE DRAGON (Charlesbridge Publishing, July 2012), a middle-grade novel (ages 8-12) about family, kite-fighting, and finding your place in the world. If you'd like to learn more about Natalie and her work, visit her website here. You can also find her blogging along with other debut authors at EMU's Debuts.

Q: Natalie, your bio reads like an adventure novel-- teacher, world traveler, freelance writer, reviewer and librarian! When did you decide to add children's author to that list, and what inspired you to write FLYING THE DRAGON?

A: I was a voracious reader as a kid, and I loved writing stories when I was in elementary school. After that, however, the only writing I did was for school assignments in middle school, high school, and on into college. Once I became a teacher, reading and writing were my favorite things to teach, and that's when I started to wonder if I could write a book for kids. I attended a workshop on teaching writing to kids, and the instructor had us take apart text in picture books and really examine how authors use word choice to create theme, emotion and atmosphere. The one title I remember from that workshop was OWL MOON, by Jane Yolen. I'd read that book countless times, but I felt like I was really seeing it for the first time. I saw the purpose in every word choice and the cadence that Yolen had created to achieve rhythm and emotion and awe, and I was hooked. I decided then that I wanted to give writing a try--not just in my classroom, but for me. 

Natalie Dias Lorenzi
I jotted down some story ideas over the next two years, but it wasn't until we moved to Italy and was I able to stay home with my own kids that I really had time to explore writing more seriously. I joined SCBWI and the Blueboard forums at Verla Kay's website, and enrolled in an online class in writing for children. The kernel for FLYING THE DRAGON really started then. I'd lived in Japan for two years and was fascinated by the culture, and I'd taught ESL students who had come to the US knowing no English. I wanted to combine those two elements and explore the immigrant experience from a child's point of view. One of the assignments for the online class was to write a scene showing dialogue between the protagonist and antagonist in my story, and that was when I wrote the scene where Hiroshi, one of my main characters, meets a Japanese-American boy in class on his first day of school. In later drafts, the boy eventually became a classmate named Susan, who eventually became Hiroshi's cousin, Skye. I learned that writing isn't necessarily linear; there are a lot of stops and starts along the way!

Q: I'm curious about the behind-the-scenes of book publishing. Could you take us on a brief step-by-step of the process with FLYING THE DRAGON, from "I have this idea..." to "Oh, look! There's my book on the shelf!" 

A: Before I'd finished the first draft, I'd already started researching publishers and agents who might be interested in a multicultural story like FLYING THE DRAGON. I joined a critique group, finished the manuscript, and thought I was ready to go. I queried agents, but didn't get many requests for the partial or full manuscript. That's when I realized how important the query letter really was, so I pulled back and spent many hours revising and rewriting the query.

Soon after that, I saw that SCBWI was having an online chat with agent Erin Murphy, someone I'd heard wonderful things about. She wasn't open to outside queries, but those who participated in the chat with her would get the chance to send in a query to her. Since I was in Italy and she was in Arizona, it meant staying up from 1:00 to 2:00 in the morning my time, but it was worth it, because I signed with her a few weeks later and have been her client for almost six years. 

I revised a bit with Erin before it went out to editors, but the responses we were getting all said the same thing: "Lovely writing, but too quiet for the market." After about a year of this, we pulled back and started talking revisions. I'd told Erin that if this manuscript ever sold, I'd like to write a companion book from Susan's point of view. That's when Erin said that maybe it was time to add Susan's story into this one, so that's what I did, and FLYING THE DRAGON went from one to two main character viewpoints. That revision was more like a total rewrite, and took over a year as we were moving back to the US from Italy. Once it was done, though, we had interest from Charlesbridge within a few months.

The official offer took another few months to finalize, which felt like ages! But once that contract was signed, things moved fairly quickly. My editor's first revision letter came about 6 weeks later, and both rounds of revisions were finished within a few months. Then came copyedits, page proofs, the lovely cover by the talented Kelly Murphy, and then it was a real book! It was such a thrill to hold those first ARCs, and later the hardback copies. It still feels surreal when I see it on the shelf in a bookstore or library.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your work as a school librarian? How does it inform your work as an author?

A: I'm a part-time ESL teacher and part-time librarian at an elementary school near Washington, DC. For the past few years, I've been taking courses towards a school librarian endorsement on my teaching license, and my last course will be in the spring--hooray! Next year I'll finally be able to apply for a full-time librarian job.

This year and last year, though, I've felt very lucky to be in the library at least half-time and learn the ropes with another full-time librarian alongside me. As an author, it's been fascinating to watch kids' reactions from everything to plot, to characters, book covers to illustrations. At the elementary level, kids are creatures of habit when it comes to genre. I have Kindergarten students who ask me for princess books every. Single. Week. And upper grade kids who want another adventure book or fantasy book or funny book time after time. 

One conclusion I've come to is that the books kids reach for aren't always the ones that we adults deem as "good" literature. And that's okay. As a librarian, I've seen kids cheer when the book they want is on the shelves--they grin and pump their fists and shout, "YYYes!" Whether that book's cover sports a cartoon captain in underpants or a Newbery medal doesn't really matter. Kids want characters they can connect with, and, just like kids, those characters come in a variety of forms.

Q: What are some ways you would suggest that authors can work with librarians to engage readers?

A: We have a librarian list-serve in my school system, and librarians definitely talk about authors who do school visits. I would recommend that authors really take some time to plan an engaging program for students of various ages, and to offer more than one type of program (one that's more of a writing workshop, another that's focused on how books go from idea to bookstore, that kind of thing). When an author visit is well-done, word gets around fairly quickly. 

Also, with so many schools dealing with budget cuts, it's also helpful to offer Skype visits. Some authors do free 20-minute Skype visits for small groups, like book clubs or single classrooms, and that can be a great way to make that initial connection. 

Q: What's next for you? Are you working on another novel? 

A: I'm currently working on another middle grade novel. I'll let you know if I have any good news to share!

Thank you, Natalie, for all your great ideas and insights! 

More questions, anyone? (Post in the comments and Natalie will check in to provide answers.)

UPDATED: Read a follow-up to this interview with questions from other YA authors, here.


  1. This was a wonderful interview! Natalie, thanks again (grazie mille) for all your help for my YA ms many years ago through the BBs. Best wishes for FLYING THE DRAGON!

  2. Di niente, Margo--it was my pleasure! :-)