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Peggy's Pages Blog 

Wednesday Interview with Judith L. Roth, Children's Author and Poet

Judith L. Roth is a children’s author and poet. Her poetry has appeared in more than a dozen magazines, and together with her husband, she's had over 50 children's songs published.

Her newest book, SERENDIPITY & ME, is a middle-grade novel-in-verse. School Library Journal said of this book: "This is a compassionately told tale, reminiscent in tone of Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia (HarperCollins, 1977) and Cynthia Rylant’s Missing May (Orchard, 1991)." SERENDIPITY & ME was released by Viking in February 2013.

Welcome, Judy! Thank you for joining us during poetry month! You and I have been friends and have shared many critiques in the past. You have such a beautiful way with words, and I’m so happy to be able to share you and your work here!

At what age did you begin to have an interest in writing poetry?
I started writing four-line rhyming poems when I was about 8. By the time I was in junior high, I’d moved on to free verse. In high school, I spent all of geometry class writing poetry. And yes, I almost did fail that class, but I was brought back from the brink. In a high school creative writing class, I learned how to write my favorite form of structured poetry, the Italian sonnet.

Do your poems come easy for you, or do you spend a lot of time writing a poem?
Free verse poetry is the most natural form of writing for me. I spend the most time of poem-writing on the little word tweaks. But that’s fun, too. The hardest parts for me in a novel-in-verse are plotting and putting in more detail.

SERENDIPITY & ME is your first novel-in-verse. Judy, I know that you love cats, but was there anything in particular that inspired you to write this book?
I don’t really know where this book came from. It started as a picture book of poems. The voice of Sara just came out. I think there were 17 poems, and that seemed like enough of a story to me. But an editor said she thought I had more to say about this father and daughter, and it ended up that I did (when prodded). The setting is from my college years where I hid a cat in the dorm. Since I went to college in Central California (Fresno Pacific), it seemed natural to put Sara and her father there as well.

Did you need to do any research when writing this book?
I had to learn a lot about Peter Pan (the book) and Sara Teasdale (the poet). I started off just learning about them online, but found soon enough that I needed the actual books in my hands. That fed right into my book addiction and collection. I found a great copy of “Love Songs” by Sara Teasdale online, a 1926 edition. So cool.

What can you tell us about the revision process once your book was accepted?
There was so much more to it than I expected. The first words I heard were, “since you’ve already done the heavy lifting, the revision won’t be too difficult.” Then there were four single-space pages of revision notes. After those revisions were made, I got another four single-space pages of revision notes. After those revisions were made….ad infinitum, it seemed. But there was a publishing deadline, so at some point it was deemed ready to go to copyediting. Which brought up another slew of corrections, revisions, and appraisals. I am amazed at all the work that goes into a novel after it’s been accepted. And the number of people who are involved in making sure it’s as good as it can be. It’s a little overwhelming, but very satisfying.

Most of your book is written in free verse, but the voice of Sara's mother comes through in other forms, like the sonnet on page 274. What can you tell us about this particular poem?
This poem didn’t end up in the novel until the end of the revision process. It’s the first poem of mine that was ever accepted, but it never got published because of the death of the publisher. So it is finally published, 33 years after that first acceptance. I think the editor wanted the mother’s poetry to be more grown-up, so I put in a structured poem.

Why do you write sonnets using the Italian rather than the English (Shakespearean) form?
I like the rhyme scheme better. The couplet at the end of English sonnets sounds too artificial to me. Although I feel like I’m using the Italian sonnet’s structure, I have to admit that I don’t pay much attention to the iamabic part of the iambic pentameter. So I guess I don’t follow the Italian sonnet’s rules all the way. I’m such a rebel.

For myself, and any readers who might not know, what is the difference between the English sonnet and the Italian sonnet?
The rhyme scheme of the English sonnet is ababcdcdefefgg. The rhyme scheme of the Italian sonnet is abbaabbacdecde. I believe they both usually use imabic pentameter, but I basically follow this by simply making sure there are 10 syllables (and only 10 syllables) in each of the 14 lines.

Do you work with an agent? What is that experience like?
My agent is Stephen Fraser. He was first an interested editor, then moved into the agenting business. After being in charge of my own submissions for so long, it’s a little hard to let go. But it’s great to have someone on your side, cheering you on, who can actually get heard by big publishers.

How did you come up with the title for your book?
The father in the book says of the arrival of the kitten when Sara is upset, “Serendipity, Sara. Someone’s brought you a blessing for a visit.” When I played with the word, I got Serendipkitty. But I didn’t like the sound at the end of that. Another writer said it ought to be Serendipikitty, which fixed that. Serendipikitty was the title until the very end of the time it was being edited. Then the marketing people at Viking said that title was too difficult to pronounce, so my editor suggested I change the name of the kitten from Marshmallow to Serendipity, and rename the title Serendipity & Me.

Your other books for children were picture books. What are the differences in writing a MG novel from writing a picture book? Which do you enjoy the most?
Small canvas to humongous canvas. There are different aspects of both that I enjoy. With novels, I miss having the lovely illustrations of a picture book and the relative ease in writing and revising. The simplicity of a picture book is satisfying to me. It’s hard to maintain focus on the large projects that novels are. But it’s wonderful to get so deep into a layered project—there are so many things in a novel to figure out, threads to unravel, facts to learn. I can’t say I enjoy one more than the other.

What advice can you give to aspiring children’s writers/poets?
If you’re doing it to make a living, run away as fast as you can! If you’re doing it because you can’t ‘not’ do it, you’re in the right place. Find like-minded people to share the journey with you. Celebrate the small victories. Find joy in words and stories.

What are you reading now?
I just finished reading Heft, by Liz Moore. So good. She is an amazing writer. Not only was the story wonderful, but the voice and craft were superb. Something to aspire to.

What are you working on now?
I’m writing another MG novel, but this one is not contemporary, not poetry, not first person. It’s about three young teens in the 1850’s who are each isolated for different reasons and who come together for a short time as they try to help one of the three escape. Now that I think about it, it does begin with a sonnet. The first line starts, "One night, a long time ago, three prayers went up to heaven….”

A very beautiful, poetic first line! Do you do author visits, and if so, how can you be reached about that?
Yes, I do. I can be reached at my website or my email, which is mjbcroth@frontier.com.

Thank you for giving us an inside look into your writing life, Judy!

Judy lives in Elkhart, IN with her husband and three cats. You can find out more about Judy on her website at http://judithlroth.wordpress.com/.

SERENDIPITY & ME: ISBN #978-0-670-01440-8
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