In Grammy Lamby and the Secret Handshake, a little lamb named Larry has a dark secret: he thinks his exuberant grandmother is, well, obnoxious. Larry’s creators, however, exemplify a far sunnier side to familial relations: they’re sisters Kate and M. Sarah Klise, who have collaborated on 18 books – starting with Regarding the Fountain in 1998 – and are clearly each other’s biggest fans. Here, in an interview via an e-mail round-robin, they talk about their most recent picture book and why their sister act is still going strong.
Did you make books together growing up? Are you latter-day Bronte sisters (minus the brutal isolation of the moors and the deleterious plumbing, that is)?
KK: Ha. I love the Bronte sisters, but I feel a closer kinship to the Ephron sisters, Nora and Delia, if only because their work makes me laugh more than the Brontes. I also love the Mitford sisters with their secret language and their endless letters back and forth.
MSK: Kate and I have written a lot of letters to each other over the years, but our publishing career probably goes back to the books we made together as kids. We come from a big family of do-it-yourselfers. My mom’s rule was that we had to make the presents we gave at Christmastime and for birthdays. So that’s how Kate and I started making books.
On your Web site, you talk about a first book that taught you a lot about process. Can you give us a little background about its genesis? And what finally prompted you two to say, “Hey, I think we can do this?”
KK: I hesitate to tell this story because another Klise sister, Molly, thinks it reflects poorly on her. But it doesn’t – really. Here are the facts: Sarah and I made our first book when I was ten and Sarah was eleven. The book was about a mouse who goes around the country stealing Cheetos. That was the entire plot. I wrote the words. Sarah drew the pictures. We thought it was brilliant – pure genius. In fact, I remember falling off my bed laughing. That’s how funny I thought this mouse book was. We gave it to our sister Molly, who was fourteen, on Christmas morning, thinking she’d be knocked out by our masterpiece. And the next morning I found the book in the trash.
MSK: You have to ask yourself why Kate was snooping through the trash. But the bigger question is: Why would someone throw our book away? Answer: Because it was terrible.
KK: I didn’t know how to tell a story, so that first rejection was really valuable. It taught us a lot. First, you have to tell your reader an interesting story. Second, you might want to consider writing more than one draft. Everything you write is not brilliant. Third – and this was the light bulb for me – even if someone rejects your book, it’s still fun. Making something out of nothing that makes you laugh so hard you fall off your bed? There’s nothing more fun than that. I knew I felt that way when I read a Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle book, but I didn’t realize you could feel that way bymaking up your own story. Thatfeeling later sustained us for many years (ten, to be exact) after college when we were submitting manuscripts to New York and getting rejected.
MSK: We didn’t even get the nice rejection letters. We got the mean ones where they basically said, “This is all wrong. You don’t know what you’re doing.” But I always knew we could do it.
KK: I wasn’t sure I could do it, but I knew Sarah could. I thought maybe I could ride on her coattails.
How do you divide the labor? Is there any overlap between the writing (Kate) and illustrating (Sarah)?
KK: We’re pretty old school in the division of labor. I’m in charge of words and story; Sarah’s in charge of pictures and design.
MSK: Neither of us has a problem making deadline. In fact, an editor once told us how grateful she was that we never turned in work late. We were like, “We didn’t know that was an option.”
Can you describe each other’s artistic style?
KK: I’m Sarah’s biggest fan. I just looked around and counted the number of original Sarah Klise paintings I have framed and hanging in my house. Twelve. That’s probably twelve more than Sarah has in her house. But I just love her style. I love the rich, evocative colors in the picture books. I love the interiors. I even love the light fixtures and rugs in Larry’s house in Grammy Lamby. Sarah has this ability to build a world in colors and textures that’s just so inviting and appealing. In our middle-grade books, I love the humor in Sarah’s art. I crack up every time I see her sketches for a new book. The illustrations take the story to a different level.
MSK: Well, if I could frame Kate’s manuscripts, I would. What I have learned from working with her is the importance of honesty. We have to be brutally honest with each other and the work itself, which means doing messy and painful stuff like cutting and reworking and sometimes trashing your own work. Gads! This can be painful. And it can make you (most often me) cranky, but Kate is a pro at it, and does it best with her own words. She is meticulous in the best possible way. I adore her stories, and find her work to be a combination of funny and smart. She is a dream to collaborate with.
Kate lives in the (Missouri) Ozarks and Sarah lives in the Bay Area. Do you find there’s a point in the collaboration when being face to face is essential?
MSK: We use mostly email and the good old-fashioned U.S. Postal Service. But yes, it is helpful to get together face to face, especially to talk about new projects.
Tell us a little about your family. Is collaboration a Klise family value?
MSK: Our dad, the late Thomas Klise, was a writer. His book, The Last Western (1974), had a certain cult following on some college campuses in the ’70s. Our oldest sister, Elizabeth Klise von Zerneck, is a published poet. The second sister, Molly, owns a company (Thomas Klise/Crimson Multimedia) that sells educational and entertainment materials to schools and libraries. Our younger sister, Julia, is a talented writer, but she’s busy at the moment raising two boys in Paris. And our brother (the youngest of the six Klises), James Klise, is a YA author (Love Drugged) with another project in the works.
KK: Our mother, Marjorie Klise, a former elementary school teacher, took over our dad’s educational film business after his death in 1978. She now writes very provocative letters to the editor. So you can probably see the common thread running through all this.
MSK: I give our mother most of the credit for never getting us what we thought we wanted (a Barbie Townhouse!), but always keeping the pantry stocked with paper, markers, glue, doilies, stickers, paint. We had everything we needed to make Valentines, paper dolls, Halloween costumes, dioramas, and books.
A lot of people love their siblings, but can’t imagine working with them on an intense project like a book. What’s your secret?
KK: I don’t have any secrets, but here are a few things I can suggest:
• Share a bedroom for 18 years.
• Be lucky enough to have loving parents who don’t give you the games you want. This forces you to play with the nearest sibling and make up your own games.
• Have a mother who reads to you every night so you grow up on the same literary diet and develop similar tastes and sensibilities.
• Spend many hours at the local ice skating rink. Sarah and I spent much of our childhood figure skating. I was a jumper and Sarah was the spinner. (I wanted to be the spunky Dorothy Hamill while Sarah wanted to be the elegant Peggy Fleming.) Looking back, I think all those hours spent skating helped us learn to love discipline, practice, and making up new routines for the annual ice show. It also helped us learn how fun it is to do something together but in different ways.
• Spend your after-college years at least a thousand miles apart from each other back in the pre-Internet days when long-distance phone calls were expensive. This forces you (or maybe I should say allows you) to write long, heartfelt letters to each other where you could dream on paper about what you want to do with your life, what you hope to do, and know the sister on the receiving end of the letter won’t laugh or think you’re an idiot.
• Most important: Get fired from your job as a newspaper columnist. Have an editor tell you in a three-page letter why your writing is not up to par. Mail a copy of that tear-stained letter to your sister in California. Have her respond: “This is great news! Now you can spend more time working on books. Isn’t that you wanted to do, anyway?” Yes, she was right. Sisters have a way of talking you off the ledge.
Any “Mom liked you best!” moments? How do you resolve differences?
MSK: Keep in mind we’re the middle sisters (two sisters older and a brother and sister younger), so we’re used to being ignored. We’re used to being allies and not being the favorite. I think that’s a good mentality to have in this business. As for resolving differences, we just try to be honest with each other. If we have an issue or we’re feeling stressed out about something, we usually put it in an email. It’s funny because in the latest 43 Old Cemetery Road book (The Phantom of the Post Office), the characters have a rule that all business discussions must be in writing. I guess we have the same rule for ourselves. It works for us.
KK: Years ago when we got our first book contract (Regarding the Fountain, 1998), an attorney friend offered to draw up partnership papers for Sarah and me so that if we ever came to blows, we could divide up any literary assets. I said, “Please, if I ever come to blows with my sister, any literary assets will be the least of my worries.” (Maybe I should’ve said: “Literary assets? Please.”)
Little Rabbit, the hero of Why Do You Cry? Not a Sob Story and other books, seems a kindred spirit of Grammy Lamby’s Larry. Could you talk a little about the qualities you like to see in a hero?
KK: I like a hero – rabbit, lamb, child, adult – who’s just coming to the realization that life is hard, and the only way to get through it is with love and laughter.
We have an illustration of you both holding photos of your grandmothers. Could you talk a little about them?
KK: Sarah and I were lucky to grow up with two terrific – and terrifically different – grandmothers. Our paternal grandmother, Mary Shaw Klise (we called her called Mimi), wore fur stoles and pink rouge and bought us hot fudge sundaes when we visited her. Our maternal grandmother, Margaret Costello (or Gummy to us), wore jeans and jewelry she bought at estate sales. Gummy spent countless hours in her backyard, right down the street from ours, refinishing old furniture. Much of the furniture in my house and Sarah’s, too, came from Gummy, who also gave us hard-boiled eggs sprinkled with salt wrapped in wax paper to take with us on the long drive back to college. Gummy was the saltier of the two grandmothers.(She even put salt in her homemade cocoa.) I remember asking Gummy one year what she wanted for Christmas. Her answer? “Sand paper. Lots of sand paper.” Mimi was softer, at least on the surface. Mimi’s the one who taught us the secret handshake. (Three hand squeezes means “I. Love. You.”) As kids, Sarah and I found the secret handshake embarrassing – almost as embarrassing as when Gummy sang loud and off-key at church. But now that I’m older and both Mimi and Gummy are gone, I couldn’t be prouder to be their granddaughter. I marvel at the wisdom they shared with us—not in their words, but in the way they lived. From Gummy, I think we learned to make things; to not be afraid to get our hands dirty because there’s nothing more satisfying than working hard and creating something with your own hands. Mimi taught us that even the corniest gesture – even a silly handshake – can mean a lot if it’s given with love.
Not all ostensibly embarrassing older relatives get an opportunity to reveal another side of themselves, as Grammy Lamby does. What advice would you give to kids who just dread being in the presence of certain older relatives?
MSK: Pretend you’re Maurice Sendak. Draw the scary people in your life.
KK: It’s all material, kids.
On your Web site, you write: “We love letters, don't you? That's probably why a lot of our books are written in letters, diary entries, newspapers, and our all-time favorite form of communication: the secret note that no one is supposed to see.” But in the age of Facebook, texting and e-mail forwarding, it seems like there are no secret notes. Has that changed the way you approach your stories?
MSK: It’s funny because in our early books (the Regarding series), we have characters sending faxes. Kids see that now and say, “Facsimile? What’s a facsimile?” I like sticking to letters because they’re prettier to the eye and there’s a certain thrill in reading other people’s mail – even if it’s fictional.
KK: But we like to play with the idea of technology. So in Phantom of the Post Office, for example, we have vext-mail, which is a video-enhanced e-mail (with cappuccino maker and hair straightener) that requires you to wear a huge, clunky veil over your head while using it. It’s so ridiculous it’ll probably be available in six months.
How do you decide when to work together and when to go solo?
KK: I’ve written a handful of straight-up, non-illustrated chapter books, mainly because I love working with Liz Szabla, editor-in-chief at Feiwel and Friends. Liz lets me tackle grittier subjects like hoarding, which plays a big part in Homesick, a middle-grade novel that will be out in September. I like working on stories where I can explore the darker corners of childhood without illustrations but with humor. I met a sixth-grader in Richmond, Va., last year who had just read Grounded, another solo project I did for Feiwel and Friends. The boy said, “That book you wrote was about death, but it was really funny, too.” I was like, “Yep. That’s the weird thing about life. It’s about death, but it’s funny, too.”
I wrote In the Bag (Morrow), my first grown-up book (and another solo project) which is also out this year, just because I wanted to write a romantic comedy on the order of The Holiday, the movie I like to watch when I’m sick and feel like I’m dying and need a laugh.
MSK: Much of my solo work is teaching kids to draw and paint. I give an assignment, like an editor would, and I walk them through how to tackle it. It’s so darn rewarding.
I have been contacted by art directors about illustration jobs but so far, I have said no. We have plenty of worked lined up – but I do have my eye on doing a wordless book at some point.
You’ve collaborated on both picture books and novels – and had great success with both. How do you decide to do which type of book to do when?
KK: We don’t really have a business plan. Maybe we need one. There’s probably a more strategic way to do what we’re doing, but just the words “business plan” make my eyes glaze over.
MSK: As for our collaborative process, with our first book, Regarding the Fountain (1998), Kate wrote it one week when she was snowed in and couldn’t get out of her little valley in the woods. She faxed the entire manuscript to me in the middle of the night.
KK: It sounds like something Laura Ingalls Wilder would do – faxing a manuscript in the middle of a blizzard. But I didn’t want to wait for the snow to melt so I could get to the post office. I’d written something I really liked (after many years of writing stuff I didn’t like and couldn’t sell) and I wanted to hear what Sarah thought. Just yesterday I called Sarah to sing her a song I want to include in a new book we’re working on. So yes, the technology has changed. My old fax machine is in the closet. Long-distance calls are now free—or at least very cheap. But the feeling is still the same. I’m still driven by the feeling I had when I wrote my first book or read a Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle adventure. I hope that’s the feeling our books give young readers today. I want to give kids that fall-off-the-bed-laughing feeling. Either that, or the sixth-grade feeling that life is hard – sometimes unbearably hard – and it is ultimately about death. But in the meantime, life can be really funny, too.
Grammy Lamby and the Secret Handshake by Kate Klise, illus. by M. Sarah Klise. Holt, $16.99 July ISBN 978-0-8050-9313-1