Kara LaReau is a full-time writer who previously worked as an editor at Candlewick and Scholastic, and founded her own creative consulting company, Bluebird Works. Welcome to the blog, Kara!
What was the hardest part about leaving traditional publishing to start Bluebird Works, and what sort of projects did you take on?
Well, I’d already had the decision to leave traditional publishing made for me when I lost my job in the fall of 2008; I was part of that wave of layoffs when the recession first hit the industry. And there were no available jobs at the time for someone with my level of experience who wasn’t able (or willing) to pick up and move to New York. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I just wasn’t interested in going back to traditional publishing, even if I had the opportunity; I wanted more control and balance in my life. That’s when I started thinking about going out on my own, and taking that leap.
How did what you did at Bluebird differ from your previous role as an editor at a house?
I actually got to edit! (Ha. Kidding. Sort of.) When I started thinking about having my own business, I wrote down all the things I liked to do: editing, talking about writing, nurturing new talent, offering creative support, a few other things….and of course, doing it all from my home in Providence, and giving myself enough time to pursue my own writing career. (You’ll notice I didn’t include “going to acquisition meetings,” “filling out P&Ls,” or “contract negotiations” on that list. Ahem.) I looked at what I’d written down, and thought, “Why can’t I make a job out of this?”
What lead to your decision to shut down Bluebird Works? Do you still consult on the side, or are you 100% writer?
Two years ago, I was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, and ended up having to take a “sabbatical” from Bluebird Works while I had surgery and underwent radiation and chemo. (I’m in remission now, FYI.) While those treatments were a struggle, they did leave me with a few days here and there where I felt fine. I used those days to write, and I really think I saved myself (and my sanity) by tapping into that creative energy. I ended up writing a picture book (which is under contract with Disney now, due to pub in spring 2013) and a novel (which is just about ready to go out on submission). As soon as I was healed physically, I went back to editing for a while, but it just didn’t feel the same. My focus had shifted, and I knew it was time for me to take another leap. I am writing full-time now, with no regrets about leaving editing behind. It just isn’t who I am anymore.
When did you start writing children’s books of your own?
I started playing around on my lunch hour when I worked at Candlewick Press, more than a decade ago. That’s when I wrote my first picture book, Snowbaby Could Not Sleep, as well as Ugly Fish. Prior to that, I’d taken a break from writing to get my editing career on-track, but it didn’t take long for me to feel inspired by all the creative energy around me at Candlewick.
Rabbit & Squirrel: A Tale of War and Peas – does the squirrel win? (If Squirrel is anything like a NYC squirrel, I’d put my money on him.)
Neither Rabbit nor Squirrel is a winner in my book — but the ending is hopeful for both of them. A bit too hopeful for my taste, though; earlier drafts of that story were much more open-ended, and everyone who read it kept telling me how bleak it was, so I added a little light at the end of the tunnel. But I will never, never write a story where a squirrel gets an outright happy ending. My husband and I had a lot of trouble with squirrels when we first moved into our house here in Providence; they’d gotten in through our eaves and were scuttling around in our walls. I even came face to face with one in one of our upstairs rooms (as I was watching Grey Gardens, coincidentally). We’ve since rid our house of all vermin, but squirrels are forever my sworn enemies.
Who is your favorite character from your own books? Which character do you think you are the most like in real life?
So hard to pick a favorite! I do love Ugly Fish, as he’s such a great villain, and I love reading the book aloud and doing his voice. But I think the character I’m most like is Miss Pointypants from my newest book, Mr. Prickles — she’s thoughtful and determined, and she has a little bit of an attitude.
You have an MFA in Writing, Literature and Publishing from Emerson College. How did the MFA program change your writing, and would you recommend an MFA for those that are seeking publication?
My experience at Emerson was a formative one; I went into the program with a concentration in poetry, but ended up trying (and loving) all different kinds of writing. More than anything, I really enjoyed the workshops; they taught me how to talk about stories, and how to articulate constructive criticism and brainstorm solutions. I ended up with a good foundation for both of my careers, in editing and writing. Of course, an MFA is a pricey endeavor, and there are many other ways to gain good experience — writing groups, retreats, working with an editorial consultant, going to SCBWI conferences, etc etc — but for me, it was worth it.
On a different note – let’s talk crocheting. Why do all of my crocheted squares turn out like hourglasses? (Seriously, how do you get a solid square?)
I love crocheting because it’s creative and productive, yet it’s soothingly repetitive, and it seems to use a different part of my brain than when I’m doing my writing work. It relaxes me and gets me to stop focusing on my personal or creative problems — and more often than not, it’s when I come up with the best solutions. (You can hear more about my love of crocheting here on my website, where I also talk about writerly stuff, childhood crushes, and my cats, among many other things.)
As for your “hourglasses,” you may be decreasing your number of stitches per row without knowing it. I learned how to crochet from my grandmother, who is a crochet, knitting, and tatting whiz (seriously, she’s won blue ribbons for her work), but she sometimes can’t articulate how to make a stitch or a pattern work, as it’s so innate for her. Instead, she just shows me, but her fingers usually move too fast for me to get it. I do a lot of practicing (and ripping out a LOT of stitches) at home, and there are some incredible tutorials on YouTube now, where you can keep rewinding until you get the hang of it.
What is your favorite thing you’ve ever made (pictures, please!) and what inspired you to make it?
I’ve made a LOT of stuff over the past few months (I saw my grandmother over the holidays, and she helped me brush up on a few things). But so far, I’m really digging this scarf.
The pattern seemed inscrutable at first, like a code I was determined to crack; once I figured it out, I stayed up until 3am making the whole thing. Crocheting and writing pose similar challenges of structure and consistency (and finding and addressing mistakes), which is probably why I’m “hooked” on both.
You are volunteered to be a contestant on Survivor and can either have 15 books, or 15 skeins of yarn. Which do you choose, and why?
Though I’d hate to do it, I’d leave both at home and stock up on something else (like sunscreen, or toilet paper). I’m pretty sure I’d find a way to spin my own yarns.
Thanks so much for stopping by Kara! Don’t be surprised if I send you photos of my crochet hourglasses for critique!