Grab your coffee or tea and settle in, folks. We’ve got such a treat today! Debut children’s book author, Zoë B. Alley, is in the alphabet soup kitchen!
I first heard about There’s a Wolf at the Door (Roaring Brook Press, 2008), last year, when I interviewed Zoë’s very talented husband, Paddington illustrator, R.W. Alley, for Robert’s Snow: Blogging for a Cure. He was excited about the book, and shared a sketch and finished cover art. I asked how he liked working with his wife, and he said everything went very smoothly. She wrote the text, then simply handed it over, giving him free rein.
Together, the Alleys have created “a graphic folklore wonder” for picture book fans, though, as I mentioned in my review last week, the humor and sheer exuberance of the stories will appeal to all ages. Judging from the many accolades the book has already received, it’s more than safe to say that this husband and wife team have struck gold.
Zoë is visiting today from her home in Barrington, Rhode Island, where she and Bob live with their two children, Cassie (18) and Max (15).
Welcome to alphabet soup, Zoë, and congratulations on the publication of your first book! What’s the best part about being a published author?
Thanks, Jama! I am really excited to be a “published author.” I think the best part is actually being able to say that I am! My ego is very gratified! (Sorry — daughter of a child psychologist.) It’s also great to have a “career” without wardrobe restrictions!
How did this project come about, and did you start out wanting to retell all five of these wolf stories and tie them together?
Originally, this project came about through the desire of my editor/publisher (Neal Porter/Roaring Brook Press), to fill a market niche (i.e., the graphic novel/comic book/panel format for the picture book market). Traditionally, this genre had been done for the young adult (and older) demographic (don’t you hate words like that?!), but not for this younger one.
My terrific husband and illustrator, Bob, thought this might best be presented with a more recognized storyline — as a longtime fan of being read to, I selected the 5 tales I thought the most “fun” thematically. Actually, the tying of the stories together was an idea I came up with at the conclusion of writing the first story of “The Three Little Pigs.” It just seemed to make sense and to be a lot of fun to watch this poor wolf miss out every time!
Have you always had an interest in traditional tales? What’s the best part about retelling them?
Hmmmm . . . I guess I’ve always had an interest in a story with a moral. I enjoy seeing a character learn something from his/her experience. As a mother, I always enjoyed reading books to them that were somehow twisted versions (in a good sense) of recognizable storylines. In retelling these stories, I really enjoyed giving my voice and new characteristics to these very well known characters. I had great fun giving them all names!
Did you have to do any research before you began writing? What was the greatest challenge in completing this book?
My research before writing consisted mainly of reading and rereading other versions of these stories, and getting a sense of the pacing I wished to use. I am especially fond of James Marshall’s retellings of well-known tales, as well as his “George and Martha” books. I love his use of words and phrasings that don’t necessarily talk down to children.
My greatest challenge in this, and in all things in my life, has been being patient! I was basically absent the day they handed out this gene in my childhood! The publication process, from start to finish, moves at a pace much slower than my internal workings!
Do you have a particular favorite of the five tales, and if so, explain why.
I really don’t have a favorite. What I do have are favorite pieces of the characters that are based on people in my life (nope — there’s no such thing as “fiction”!). I must admit that I smile (okay, sometimes laugh!) when rereading the book, as those references make me happy!
In his 2007 Robert’s Snow interview, Bob said that you presented him with the text, and then let him have at it. Had you also written all the speech balloons beforehand as well, or did the two of you go back and forth on these once he started the illustrations?
Yes, I wrote the speech balloons myself as part of the original manuscript, before handing it off to Bob for his amazing illustrations!
I love how you gave distinct personalities to these well-known characters. How did you come up with the names for the Three Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood, and the Boy Who Cried Wolf?
Well, as I mentioned a minute ago, creating these characters was truly one of my favorite things about writing this book. The names themselves? I’m not really sure, other than trying to select the antithesis (ooh, another fancy word!), of what I thought a particular character’s name should be! Does that make sense? I mean, whoever heard of pigs named Alan, Gordon and Blake? They’re usually named things like Porky or Chubby! I felt that they, and my other characters, deserved more!
It must have been very interesting and exciting to work together. Did you gain a new appreciation for and understanding of Bob’s work because of this book? What are some of the things he brought to the table that you didn’t expect, or that impressed you? What’s the hardest part of collaboration? The best part?
People are always saying to me how hard or difficult it must be to work together with my husband (I mean, not Bob in particular, but the generic “husband”!). That couldn’t be farther from the truth for me. We’ve been married for 27 years (don’t do the math!), and for 25 of those years, he’s worked from home. I’ve been home, as well, for the past 18 years, as a stay-at-home mom, and we’ve gotten very good at what we do!
We’ve really gained great respect for what the other does, and learned to adapt to each other’s schedules and needs. I don’t think either of us could be as happy without the other around. (Awww . . .!) So, in writing this book, I really wrote it knowing Bob’s illustration talents as I do. It really was not hard to collaborate. The “best part” is that he loves what I write and I love what he draws!
What I love most about this book is the unexpected, razor sharp, snarky humor. Are you a naturally funny person? And since Bob’s pictures certainly extend the hilarity, I think it’s fair to ask who is funnier in everyday life. Who plays the straight man?
Ok, now I feel great pressure to give a funny answer! There was a priest, a rabbi . . . no, forget that! Maybe this answers your question: no, I am not naturally funny! I think it’s fair to say that each of us thinks that we are each the funnier! Isn’t that sad?! I bet my kids would say, however, that Bob is funnier than me. I think that’s the mother’s lot in life!
Please tell us a little about your path to authorship. Was writing a children’s book always on your agenda, or were you naturally drawn to it as a result of being married to an illustrator?
Well, I must say with all candor, that these past 6 years or so have become named (affectionately?) my “rejection years”! This has been the most active period spent towards “authorship” — and, you’ll remember that patience is not my default setting! I think that being with Bob has definitely sparked my creative tendencies, although I have always “written” either professionally or personally.
What kind of child were you? What books or authors made a lasting impression on you?
Not sure how deeply to get into this here! Maybe discretion should be the better part of this format, as well! Well, I was definitely happy and outgoing. Always nurturing and somewhat cautious (still am!). I’m big on “doing the right thing” — much as I was then. I love a good family gathering — food and words — I think that’s genetic in my family!
One of my early favorite books was called “My Hopping Bunny,” by Robert Bright (I believe). My family and I still quote from it occasionally, and I remember my mom’s voice inflection warmly, as she read it to my sister and me. I also loved the hundreds of Little Golden Books we owned — I loved their small size. (Ironic, isn’t it, that the Wolf book is so large ?!)
Who are some of your favorite children’s authors and illustrators working today?
Well, I adore the Frances books by Lillian and Russell Hoban, and I’ve already mentioned James Marshall. I think he was funny, brilliant, and poignant. Of those working today, I can think of Tim Egan, Raymond Briggs, Rosemary Wells, and (although not new), Sendak’s Nutshell Library collection. I guess those all stand out for me.
Describe your typical day.
A typical working day? (As opposed to those other “regular” days filled with the stuff life is made up of, things like going to the post office, or being surprised that the “kids” would like dinner tonight as well, when they had a perfectly good dinner last night?!)
Well, given those parameters, my day would consist of working out at the local Y in the morning (stupid exercise!), coming home and going to my “office” — aka, the living room couch! (I write everything longhand with my favorite pen. Just can’t sit at the blank computer screen with that damned cursor blinking at me! Makes me feel inferior!) Usually, I work for a few hours and break for lunch with Bob. Afternoons are not my most productive time, so I try to stick to an a.m. schedule. Before you know it, dinner is surprising me once again! (I wonder what we’re having tonight?!)
What are you working on now?
You mean, besides answering these questions? (Which are hard, by the way!) Well, the “sequel” to the Wolf book is done and will be out next year (tentatively titled, There’s a Princess in the Palace. Same type of format and size, but with well-known tales of princesses). After that, I have a few ideas ruminating, and have to get down to seeing what the living room couch produces.
The five tales in There’s a Wolf at the Door are strung together by the wolf’s quest for dinner. He hungers for everything from pork chops to roast lamb to shepherd’s pie to goose dumplings. What’s your favorite childhood food-related memory?
I have some great ones, actually. My parents’ fondue dinner parties in the 60s, some really spectacular tuna sandwiches made in our car’s trunk (!) while overlooking Peggy’s Cove in Nova Scotia, this weird sandwich loaf thing my mom used to make for our birthdays, and my elementary school teachers coming for lunch once each year (wow, that’d never happen today, would it?!) I love food, I guess!
If you could invite anyone, dead or alive, to dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve? What would you ask him or her?
I think I would have to assemble a large group of my Eastern European relatives from the early part of the 1900s — people I obviously never got to meet, but who could provide me with a lot of really amazing information about my family’s culture, from which I feel so distant.
I guess I’d have to serve them something, wouldn’t I? We’d probably order out! Dinner would come as a complete surprise to me once again!
Bob mentioned your supremely wonderful culinary skills in his interview. Could you please share a favorite recipe with us (I don’t suppose you have a good recipe for pork chops)?
No pork chops — although I did make a really great barbecued spareribs last night (apologies to Alan, Gordon and Blake!). Actually, I’ve included a family favorite cake recipe, passed down from someone connected to our family, named Willa Mae! It’s fabulous, and I make it every year for my children’s birthdays.
Food that inspires your best work.
Chocolate — dark only!
Describe yourself in 5 words.
Grammatical, political, musical, comical, and family-ical!
Describe Bob in 5 words.
Funny (really funny!), goofy (is that the same thing?), talented, protective, and loving.
Three fondest wishes.
1. At the risk of too much self revelation, that the right person wins on November 4th!
2. That my children grow into the fabulous adults that currently live inside them.
3. So as not to get overly deep here, that the world learns the right and wrong ways to use apostrophes!
Passions besides reading and writing.
My family, theatre, singing, and car vacations.
Any other questions you wish I had asked?
Jama, my dear, any more and I’d need therapy!
WILLA MAE CHOCOLATE CAKE AND FROSTING
(makes a 2-layer cake)
1 cup hot water
4-5 squares bittersweet chocolate
1/2 lb butter
2 cups sugar
2 cups flour
1 cup sour cream
2 eggs, beaten
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp salt
1-1/2 tsp baking soda
2 oz. bittersweet chocolate
3 T butter
1/4 cup cream (or coffee)
1/8 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups confectioner’s sugar (approx., to texture)
Melt chocolate in double boiler. Pour hot water over melting chocolate. Add butter. Then add to sugar, flour, salt, sour cream, and baking soda mixture. Add eggs and vanilla. Beat. Bake for 30-35 minutes in 2 round cake pans that have been buttered and floured, in 350 degree oven. Cool and remove from pans.
To make frosting: melt chocolate with butter in double boiler. Add cream and salt. Remove from heat and add vanilla. Gradually add confectioner’s sugar to desired consistency. Frost.
*All interior spreads posted by permission, copyright © 2008 R.W. Alley, published by Roaring Brook Press. All rights reserved.