Thursday, April 9, 2020

Interview with Open Fire author Amber Lough

It's always exciting when one of our members has a book published. When I found out that Amber Lough's third YA novel was being released, I was so happy for her.
Here is the blurb for Open Fire:
It’s 1917 in Russia and years of war with Germany have turned seventeen-year-old Katya’s life upside-down. Soldiers like Katya’s brother are deserting in droves, while food shortages on the home front push people to the brink of revolution. Working at a munitions factory seems like the most Katya can do to serve her country—until the government begins recruiting young women for an all-female army battalion. Hoping to help defeat the Germans, Katya enlists. Training with other brave women in her unit, she finds camaraderie and a deep sense of purpose. But when the women’s battalion heads to the front, Katya confronts the atrocities of war and must decide what she truly stands for.

Doesn't that sound like a dramatic page-turner? And look at this awesome cover!

Of course, I had to congratulate Amber and find out more. Here are my questions and Amber's responses. 

Where did you get the idea for this book? 

I was working on a World War 1/Russian Revolution novel that was floundering, and then I heard about the Women’s Battalion of Death from a friend in Russia and was shocked to the core. I’d taken Russian history courses in college and had never heard of these women! I knew immediately it was the story I needed to write. 

I'd never heard of the Women's Battalion of Death either. What great inspiration for a historical fiction novel. Sometimes one little "seed" (or fact) can "grow" into a book. But that is a process that takes time. How long did this book take from conception to publication? 

About 3 years. I don’t even know how many drafts, to be honest. 

The School Library Journal gave Open Fire a good review ending with “Verdict: A lesser-explore time period is given a compelling and interesting narrative through well-developed characters. Give to readers who enjoy historical fiction and strong female characters.”  If you could describe your main character, Katja, with three or four adjectives, what would they be? 

Katya is driven, intuitive, thoughtful, and loyal. 

I noticed some similarities between you and Katja. You grew up the daughter of a Naval Officer, and Katja is also the daughter of an officer. You joined the U.S. Air Force, becoming a Lieutenant, continued on to Intelligence training, and wound up an active participant in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Katja enlists in the military and becomes a member of the all-female army battalion. How did your experiences help you develop Katja into a realistic character? 

There are several moments in the book that mirror my own experiences. Some of her military training is what I went through, although altered for the era and location. One of my readers recently commented that he was getting flashbacks to his own military training when he read the book, which I took as a compliment. ;-) But most of all, I tried to show the sense of helplessness, of being adrift in a storm, that one feels when at war as well as the disillusion I felt both during and after my deployment. 

Well, that makes sense that your own experience would help you portray military training in a genuine way. But your last sentence regarding feelings, I think, is key. You not only want the reader to understand all these situations Katja faces but also how they affect her. By conveying those feelings, the reader can connect and have an emotional response. And who hasn't at one time felt helpless or torn in some way?

Let’s focus a bit on the planning stages and craft of writing.

I read an interview on the publisher’s website and learned that you actually visited Russia to do research for this book. Did the trip go as planned? Was it easy or challenging to find the information you needed? Tell us a bit about it. 

It went MOSTLY as planned. The snow storm wasn’t anticipated, but it made everything more beautiful. We were able to visit all of the museums I’d planned to see, and it truly did help me when I went back to revise the novel. I took hundreds of photos of objects in glass cases that I wasn’t able to find online. For example, the St. George’s Cross, given for valor on the battle field, was always photographed in black and white. When I saw some in the case, I was surprised to find it was orange and black. Nowhere had the colors been described. It made everything more real for me, which I hope makes the story more realistic to readers. 

Orange and black? How about that! It appears that visiting Russia gave you more details and inspiration.  (there you go writers...another good reason to travel the world.) 

And speaking of the world...

One of your reviews on Goodreads says “I didn’t want to leave the world she created.” Let’s talk about world-building. How did you go about this for a historical fiction novel? How did that process differ from world-building for your previous books The Fire Wish and The BlindWish which are fantasy? Was there any difference? 

World building doesn’t change fundamentally from fantasy novels to historical fiction. The foundation is the same because, in both cases, the writer is trying to immerse the reader in a world they’ve never experienced before. The magic is in the descriptive details, but the writer needs to make sure everything is viewed through the lens of the character. It’s a tricky thing, describing something that is normal to the character without taking a step away from the story. For example, I wouldn’t take specific note of a horse-drawn taxi when describing it in the story. My character would take about as much notice of it as we would a yellow cab. But the description still needs to be there for the reader, so it has to be threaded it through prose or dialogue that would naturally occur. It’s the same for fantasy. I must say, though, that world building is my favorite part of writing. 

What do you want readers to take away from Open Fire? 

I want readers to know that it’s ok, when in the midst of a crisis, not to know all the answers. It’s ok to be unsure of which side you should take—just listen to yourself, take it step by step. And when something terrifying happens, you are surely strong enough to face it. 

That is a great message for all. 
Is there anything else you'd like to say about the book, writing it, or about yourself? 

I write because I want to find a connection with others, to show what I observe. But I also write because it’s what centers me—even when the writing is hard and I know what I’ve written will need to be revised a dozen times more. This book, Open Fire, was a huge challenge for me to write. I had to face some personal demons I’d been carrying around with me since my time in the military. I also had to find the balance between story and historical fact. Thankfully, I was obsessively driven to write this story. I hope it inspires people to learn more about this period of time and of women’s military history. 

I hope so, too, Amber. Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions.

You can connect with Amber at the following sites:                                                  

Twitter: @amberlough

Insta: amberlough

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Interview with Crystal Kite Winner Sanne Dufft

Our annual SCBWI Germany & Austria picnic was held at Catherine's house this year. Thank you for hosting, Catherine. The attending members (with family) had a great time. And this year, in addition to good food, friendly chat, and the book exchange, we had something very special, and I got to be a part of it. I had the honor of presenting Sanne with her Crystal Kite Award. 

picture by Linda Hofke © 2019

It was so exciting!!! I am so glad I could share in her special moment. We are all so happy for her.

YAY, SANNE!!! Congratulations!

Of course, I couldn't miss the opportunity to ask Sanne for an interview. She kindly agreed.

Could you tell us a little about yourself and how you got started in publishing?

Hi Linda, thanks so much for doing this! In many ways, my career has been a typical woman's career: I married a man who turned out to be very focused on his professional career - and we wanted children. So I decided to make family life the centre of my existence for a while. I had a degree in Art Therapy and a training in Special Needs Education, so it felt right at the time to stay at home with my own children instead of working with other children and looking for child care for my own.

When I was forty, Finola, my third child, was ready for kindergarten, and I was more than ready to start working. I wasn't sure anymore if I wanted to work as an art therapist though. In a way, the therapist (the carer, the nurturer -  whatever you want to call it) in me had been  - and still was - fulfilled and, at times, challenged in family life. It was the artist in me who claimed her right. Illustrating children's books had been my childhood dream, and I had always drawn for my children, so I decided to find out how to make it a profession.
Picture © Sanne Dufft, 2019

Tell us a bit about your winning book
and how you got the idea to write it.

It began with an image I had been working on for my portfolio: A little boy asleep, snugged up with a life size lion. (Now don't ask how I got the idea for the image. I don't know. It was just there.)

Soon, a sentence joined the image: 'Manchmal braucht man einen Löwen. Besonders, wenn es dunkel ist.' ('Sometimes, you just need a lion. Especially when it's dark.') In hindsight, it is easy to say: At that point, the whole book was there already. A lion, a brave little boy who is afraid of the dark, and a granny (or, as in the North American edition of the book, a Nana) who knows what the little boy needs...

Nevertheless, it took me three years to finish it, and a lot of help and encouragement from a lot of wonderful people around me. There was a trove of online resources, first and foremost Mira Reisberg's Children's Book Academy. There was the SCBWI Tomie DePaola award in which I was one of the runners up in 2015, which is why I have a handwritten note by Tomie up on my studio wall. There were the SCBWI Europolitan conference 2015, from which I came home - proud and dazzled - as the winner of the portfolio award. There was the Europolitan Conference 2017 which provided me with enough skill, curiosity, inspiration, and, again, encouragement to go on with what I was pursuing. There was the little group of SCBWI illustrators with whom I met every month at my studio to hone our craft. There were you lovely SCBWI folk who were always there to give me feedback.

That's what critique partners are for, right? We all enjoyed seeing it develop from draft to draft and develop into the wonderful story that it is. It is such a beautiful book. Would you be willing to share a few photos from the book?


© Sanne Dufft, 2019 
© Sanne Dufft, 2019 

© Sanne Dufft, 2019
© Sanne Dufft, 2019 

From first draft to final book, how many revisions did you have to go through until you had the lovely book we can now find in book stores? Did you get the idea and how long did it take from idea to published book?

I don't remember how many revisions it went through. Certainly a lot! It was a thouroughly chaotic process, which involved heaps of sketches and notes written into my notebook, which I try to always carry with me, or on scraps of paper when I couldn't find my notebook, and a couple of files on my computer... I'd say it took about two years from first draft to the final version of the text and a PB dummy. Once that was done and the publisher was happy with it, things beame a bit more focussed and structured. I had a deadline then, which helped to get things done.

© Sanne Dufft, 2019

Tell us a bit about the illustrations. (the style & technique and why you decided on those)

I always work in watercolour, as this is the only technique I begin to feel comfortable with. I love trying out other techniques, but with none of them I'm anywhere near feeling confident enough to using them in the illustrations for a book.

I try to be a bit innovative in each book though, experiencing with some less conventional techniques, whenever the story asks for it. My first picture book, The 'Sand Elephant' (written by Rinna Hermann), is set in a sand pit and in a huge (imaginary) sand castle. Here, I worked with a toothbrush, splashing the paint on the paper to create a grainy, sandy surface.

In 'Paula knows What to Do', my latest picture book, I combined the watercolour images with elements of gouache painting. In it Paula, the protagonist, paints her own (gouache) paintings, which become part of the waterolour scenery of the images in the book.

For 'The Night Lion', I used watercolours in a more traditional way. Here, the story dictated the colour range of the images: There was the indigo of the night sky and the raw sienna of the lion, which set the sene for the whole book. And, of course, the crimson red feather on Magnus' (in the NA version: Morgan's) hat, for contrast.
© Sanne Dufft, 2019 
© Sanne Dufft, 2019 

When we met, you were unpublished and just starting your journey in the world of publishing. You've come so far. Can you tell us about your journey and how many books you now have published?

I think we first met in 2014, didn't we? In 2015, 'Der Sandelefant', my first PB, was published. As of today, I have illustrated (I just had to count) nine. Six PBs, one nonfiction PB, and two chapter books. Two of the picture books I've also written. Then there are four book covers. If you count all books on the market which have my name on them, including translations, there are 23.

I've already talked about all the support and encouragement I've received on the way. What I haven't mentioned is that since 2016, I have been agented by the wonderful Maria Bogade, who has not only found publishers for my work again and again, but has also always been there for me with advice, and, once again, encouragement.

Wow. That is so exciting. I have enjoyed watching your career blossom. Now that you have much experience, is there any advice you can offer to others?

Now, this question made me smile a bit... Experienced? Me? In many ways, I still feel like a beginner... Whenever I want to start bringing an idea to the paper, I wonder: How on earth can I do this? Sometimes I think - I hope - this is an asset: As an artist, this mode of feeling clueless can be helpful for finding a fresh, unconventional view of things. At the same time, I would love to have a wider range of styles and techniques I can draw from. I'm working on this.

Looking back, I must admit my 2015 self was naive in many ways: I had no idea how difficult, exhausting, and demanding this process was going to be. But I didn't expect to find so much love, support, and recognition on this path either.

What has definitely been harder than I thought is the economic side of it. I am lucky my family doesn't depend on my income, otherwise life would have been a lot harder in the past few years. So, my advice is one beginners hear a lot: Don't quit your day job (too soon). And: keep going. It is an exciting path we're on.

What are you currently working on?

'Tinkas Tomaten' ('Tinka's Tomatos'), a picture book I've written myself about a little girl who grows tomatoes on her balcony. In the beginning, they're just little green leaves, but with a bit of care and perseverance and some support, Tinka can observe how they grow, until she can harvest bright red tomatoes - some of which she can give back to her helpers.

That’s a great storyline. I can’t wait to see how it progresses. And I can’t wait to see what else the future has in store for you. I think more good things are coming your way, Sanne.


Sanne Dufft was born in Darmstadt, Germany, in 1974. She spent her school career decorating the margins of her exercise books and drawing portraits of her fellow pupils (who liked it) and her teachers (who didn’t always…). She studied Art Therapy in Nürtingen, Germany, and worked with children with a variety of special needs (and special gifts) in Northern Ireland. She has illustrated her first picture book, Der Sandelefant (The Sand Elephant), published by Urachhaus, Germany, in Spring 2015, and has since illustrated several children's books for a number of publishing houses in Europe and North America. She is also the author of Magnus und der Nachtlöwe (The Night Lion), Urachhaus, Germany, Paula Knows What to Do, Pajama Press, Canada 2019, and Tinkas Tomaten (Tinka's Tomatos), Urachhaus, Germany 2020. Sanne lives with her husband and three children in beautiful Tübingen, in the South of Germany.