Last week on our blog we featured part 1 of our interview with Clara Martin. Clara wears many hats: she’s a bookseller and book buyer for Lemuria Books in Jackson, MS; a book reviewer at TwentybyJenny.com; and an author, illustrator, and recent MFA graducate from Vermont College of Fine Arts.
In part 2 of the interview, Clara discusses her own writing, her work as a children's literature reviewer, and how all the facets of her creative and professional life fit together.
PCB: I understand that you are a YA author, too! How has working in a bookstore influenced your own writing?
CM: Well, I write everything from picture books (along with illustrating them) to middle grade and YA…and working at a bookstore, I’ve seen why certain books sell and why others do not. During author events, I notice which books grab a child’s attention—and I make sure to ask them why. Kids love funny books, they love adventure, they love fantasy, they love contemporary fiction. So, with such a varied market, what wins out every time? The power of a well-told story with compelling characters.
PCB: What books have been most influential to you as a writer?
CM: Always a hard question. I knew that I wanted to be a writer after I read Charlotte’s Web. And having grown up in the South, Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor’s writing influenced me. A small book called The Light Princess by George MacDonald and illustrated by Maurice Sendak is a strange, 19th century fairy-tale that has always fascinated me, as it is about a princess who literally is so light she floats to the ceiling. I love books that play with words. And I particularly love Sendak’s illustrations—they are exquisite.
I am also so influenced by every single one of the authors that I meet who pass through Lemuria!
PCB: Congrats on recently earning your MFA. What factors led you to choose a low residency MFA program? Would you recommending that aspiring writers should pursue an MFA? Why or why not?
CM: As most people who finish their MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts say: “just go.” Getting my MFA was the best thing I could have done for my writing. I think that if someone is on the fence about it, they should be selective about what program best fits them, but I think it is an opportunity to create work among like-minded people, with faculty who give insightful feedback and help you grow as a writer. The community at VCFA is unparalleled.
I chose to go the low-residency route because I wanted to continue working at Lemuria. There was so much cross-over between writing children’s books and selling them every day. It was a good way to figure out what being a working writer really means!
PCB: You are also a book reviewer! Tell us a bit about Twenty by Jenny and how you came to be involved. What kinds of books are you looking to review?
CM: Yes! I began writing reviews of children’s books in The Clarion Ledger (a newspaper in Mississippi). Shortly thereafter, I met the lovely Jenny Brown. At the time, she was the children’s book review editor at Shelf Awareness. When she moved on to be the VP Publisher at Knopf Books for Young Readers, she asked if I would manage her book review website, Twenty by Jenny. I said yes, and here we are, two years later!
At Twenty by Jenny, I review books for children ages 0-3, 4-7, 8-12, and for Teens (the YA market), and it is sent out by email to people who want to read those reviews. You can subscribe to the weekly email and choose which age-group review you’d like to receive here.
PCB: How has the experience of reviewing books impacted you as a bookseller and as an author?
CM: A good review is short, sweet. and to the point. It may offer insights into why the reviewer enjoyed the book so that the reader may also feel that connection into why they may read the book. Likewise, when writing for children, you must “get to the point” of the story very quickly. And a good review is the same as a good hand-sell—you have thirty seconds to recommend a book—what do you say? That’s how I like to think when I’m writing a review.
PCB: Any high level thoughts or observations on the book industry that only you, as an author who also sells and reviews books, can offer?
CM: I’m lucky to be doing what I’m doing. I read books, I talk about books, and I write books.
Lemuria is a wonderful and inspiring place to work and has afforded me many opportunities. Independent bookstores are carefully curated places that strive to make human connections between readers and their books. Support them whenever you can.
For a book to make it into the world and be successful is not a one-man operation. It takes many people behind the scenes to make it work!
At the very heart of the entire publishing business is what drives people to pick up a book and read? What story is going to grab them? When there is cross-communication and collaboration between authors/publishers/booksellers/readers, a book can really be a success. Publishers and booksellers who share information on what’s working/what’s not working will know how to better market and sell their book, booksellers will have more books to sell, and authors will have more time to write.
PCB: Thank you, Clara, for your time and insight!