Formerly editorial director of a small press, creative director of a book packager and a school librarian, and currently a bookseller, children’s author and blogger (PW’s ShelfTalker blog), Elizabeth Bluemle knows publishing from the inside out.
Bookshelf managed to catch her at a rare quiet moment, to ask her about juggling her various book-related pursuits and about her third picture book, How Do You Wokka-Wokka? (Candlewick). This call-and-response tale is illustrated by Randy Cecil.
The Flying Pig Bookstore, which you opened in 1996 with co-owner Josie Leavitt, came before your books, so let’s start there. Why did you take the plunge into bookselling?
Well, when we moved to Vermont from New York, our little town of Charlotte had nothing but municipal buildings in its downtown, plus one little market. And there was an old post office building that I immediately connected to. Then one day I saw a "For Lease" sign on it and I said, "I want that building." Josie and I decided we really wanted the building to become a community gathering spot and not an office building, and we asked ourselves what we could do with the space.
And a bookstore sprang to mind?
Yes. We wondered about what we, as English majors, former teachers and writers, could pull off, and the idea of getting into the bookselling business came quite easily out of that, given our interests and expertise with kids. Bookselling seemed to be a natural entrepreneurial adventure for us both.
So you made the decision pretty quickly?
We made the decision and did every thing else quickly. It was exactly 10 weeks from idea to opening day. I drew the logo for the store the night before we went to NEBA so that we’d have business cards at the show. We talked to vendors there and, since I’d been a school librarian, I had a good idea about what I wanted to order. Of course we had to pay out of pocket to stock the store. Josie handled the renovating of the space and I did the buying. It was pretty crazy! We moved the bookstore to a bigger space, in Shelburne, in 2006.
How did you come up with the name, The Flying Pig?
I loved Pennywhistle Toys in New York City when we were living there. It was a great store with a great name, and we wanted something that had similar child appeal. I don’t know why The Flying Pig popped into my head but it did, and I liked it. It had resonance and also fit in with the idea that we had this impossible dream. At the time, the chains were taking over the bookselling business, and though Amazon.com was not yet a blip on the map, it was a very challenging time for independent booksellers. We thought, “If a pig flies, our dream is still alive.” And I knew kids would like the name and remember it.
What led you to add book author to your curriculum vitae?
I had always written, but I wrote for myself and never gave it the time and priority that I gave to my pay-the-rent job. A friend and I started a community theater here in Vermont and I loved that creative process. When our first show ended, I had a huge creative letdown—kind of a postpartum depression. I had a friend who was getting a master’s in writing for children and young adults at Vermont College and that sounded amazing to me. So I decided to enroll in the same program and began thinking more and more about writing professionally. Having deadlines in school was huge for me in terms of taking my writing seriously and making time for it in my life.
How then did your first picture book, My Father the Dog, come to be?
While still in school, I was working on a novel. And then I had a little idea for a picture book, based on my own dad. I happened to be watching my beloved dog one day and I recognized similarities between my dog and my dad. The book poured out and it was so much fun to write. Pretty quickly I was able to get it to a place where I knew I could show it to a publisher.
And how did you come to show it to Candlewick?
As a bookseller, I love Candlewick. And I like the fact that they involve their picture book authors in the illustration process more than a lot of publishers do. Josie and I were at BEA in 2002 and we stopped by the Candlewick booth to say hello, and Josie blurted out that I had written a picture book and Elise Supovitz responded that Candlewick is always willing to take a look at their booksellers’ manuscripts and she took mine to the editorial committee. So that’s how that happened.
Candlewick subsequently published your Dogs on the Bed, and now is releasing How Do You Wokka-Wokka? What was the genesis of this most recent—non dog-related—book?
That’s true—this book was inspired by a human being rather than a dog. When my nephew, Will, who is now 10, was about two, he went through a phase when he’d look at me with a mischievous glint in his eye and say, “Auntie Boo, how do you wokka-wokka?” I remember saying, “What? You mean how do you walk?” And he’d say, “No, wokka-wokka.” Finally I answered him by showing him dance moves and saying, “This is how I wokka-wokka!” I was so taken by the mystery of what he meant and by the fact that my answer—my movements—satisfied him, that I always wanted to do something with that anecdote.
And you eventually found a way to do that.
Yes, but it took me a while to figure out how this could become a story. What I love about this book—about a boy asking different people how they wokka-wokka—is that it is a celebration of individuality, but it’s also about bringing people together for a big inter-generational block party. And I loved what Randy did with the art. I’m crazy about his paintings!
Speaking of parties, is it true that there’s an event planned at The Flying Pig to launch your book?
Yes! We’re going to close off our parking lot and have a block party with a steel drum band and a barbecue. It’s going to be modeled after the block parties we used to go to in New York. And of course everyone will be wokka-wokka-ing and dogs will be invited. It will be festive and fun.
And you’ll be there as bookseller and author. Given those dual roles, would you say that your bookselling experience affects or informs your writing?
I’d say that my writing comes from a whole different place. I have written some manuscripts that I think would be hard to market, but I love them anyway. My bookseller self may know that they wouldn’t be marketable, but that doesn’t stop me from writing them. When I’m revising, I may start thinking about where the book might fit into the world of bookselling. That helps me to think about how a publisher might market or target the book. But luckily I work with experts at Candlewick who know better than I how to do that.
Has your bookselling experience helped you gain a more realistic perspective as you promote your own books?
Well, my editor would probably say I have unrealistic expectations in some ways, but that’s part of being a neurotic author! As a bookseller I obviously know how author events can go in a store. And being an author helps me better appreciate what authors appearing at our store go through.
And how does your other current occupation—as a PW ShelfTalker blogger—fit into the equation?
I worried at first that it would take too much time away from my personal writing, but actually the opposite is true. ShelfTalker deadlines are very good for me, because they make me sit down and write and get in the habit of not always putting my writing aside for my bookselling. The blog makes me write more regularly and also helps me discover what I think, and it makes me reflect on bookselling and on how publishers and booksellers can work together.
Speaking of your own writing, what are you currently working on?
You are definitely going to laugh. I’m working on a middle-grade realistic novel and a middle-grade fantasy. And I have quite a few picture book manuscripts in various stages of revision. Those are the main things, though I also have an early reader I’m working on. I love all the genres. Oh, and I’ve written 80 pages of a YA novel, but I’m not actively working on that right now.
You are clearly a versatile writer!
Versatility or ADD? You be the judge! I often work on more than one project at a time. I know that that frustrates some writers, but it works well for me.
Your online bio mentions that you love to laugh and that you love words. That seems like a combination well suited to your various professions.
I agree. Kids make me laugh. I really get a kick out of kids of all ages. They have such amazing, amusing qualities. I’m extremely lucky to get to do what I love—writing and bookselling. It is incredible to be surrounded by kids and books all day. There’s nothing better.