Vermont – and a picture of beauty (or maybe not)

July 17, 2008

I’ve a riddle for you. Where in the world have I just been? Clues: My feet blew up with scabrous mosquito bites. My hair turned into steel wool, fuzzed into an unappealing mass by alternating drizzle and humidity. And I saw more important people wearing nothing but towels than is in any way recommended.

Can you guess where I’ve been? YES – I was at the alumni conference of Vermont College’s MFA in children’s writing. And despite an increasingly terrifying view of myself in my dorm room’s mirror (small children look away now), and all the furtive lurking to achieve privacy in the shared bathrooms, I had a great time. Who would not, in the company of many and diverse children’s authors, a goodly number of whom have already been plucked from the fertile flowerbeds of Vermont and hauled off to the likes of HarperCollins, Roaring Brook, Front Street, Candlewick, and many more. Here are flocks of authors who look quite normal but talk about unreliable narrators, authorial perspective, Aristotelian plot structure (yes, really), in the same way that we normal mortals discuss popping down to Giant for our groceries. Whoa, this is some course, people!

But that wasn’t the most exciting thing. The most exciting thing was . . . roll on the drums . . . I got to hang out in the vicinity of M.T. Anderson (FEED, OCTAVIAN NOTHING) and Tim Wynne Jones (BOY IN THE BURNING HOUSE, THIEF IN THE HOUSE OF MEMORY), who are both involved in the program. Now, it isn’t easy appearing completely calm in this situation, but I felt I did quite creditably and avoided looking like the groupie I secretly am. They were also the funniest, most charming double act you can imagine, wearing their considerable intellects as lightly on their shoulders as butterflies.

So what, I hear you ask, was Sarah doing in this elevated company? Well, I was asked by the alumni to take part in a couple of panels – and had also offered to co-sponsor the first-ever Vermont cocktail party (which, as can imagine, went down rather well as a little alcohol usually does). The first panel was on Intellectual Property and Rights, along with Michael Stearns of Firebrand (my old mate from publishing days – we used to do a lot of business together, shared a lot of books, across the Pond). Fortunately, the discussion moved away from ghastly things like trademark law and on to more interesting topics like the international scene and the importance of various contractual clauses (believe it or not, I get quite excited by the minutiae of contracts, which is just as well since an agent spends half their life pouring over these pedantic documents). Panel 2 was with another old friend, Deborah Brodie, who after a long career in publishing is now a freelance editor, teacher and book doctor (www.deborahbrodie.com). If you just can’t sort your novel out and are about to jump over a cliff, Deborah is the lady to turn to. She’s a genius editor and quite incredibly kind, so I was being all sassy commercial agent and Deborah was the calming, soothing, mellifluous one. Kind of like good cop, bad cop (in reverse, of course). We basically talked about writing, how to be commercial, tricks of the trade, submitting, and much more. All very enjoyable, and I hope we were able to add something helpful to the considerable knowledge and experience of our audience.

There were many other highspots in this Vermont sojourn. Driving through the forests and seeing the beautiful scenery for the first time (so big, so big, compared with Britain!). Exploring the town (kind of alpine, kind of Celtic, kind of neither). Chilling with a coffee at Capitol Grounds – and chatting with a swarm of Vermonters who pitched up also in search of a break from campus. Chatting with esteemed editor/publisher Melanie Kroupa of Farrar Straus and Giroux under a tree. Eating breakfast in the cafeteria with young students who have made real sacrifices, both financial and in career terms, to study for their MFA. The dedication, the eagerness to learn, the talent in that place were remarkable. I can’t think of anything quite like it in the UK, other than the children’s writing course at Bath Spa University in the west of England (which produced the wonderful Ally Kennen of BEAST fame and others).

So I pitched up home again Monday afternoon – pretty tired, to be honest, but feeling it had all been very worthwhile. Even if it meant I’d be working for 12 straight days on the trot. It’s very hard to stop. Ever. In the time I’d been away, submissions had poured in – some sent special delivery, all with hopes attached like flags. And then, of course, there’s the authors I’m already representing, whose business is my top concern and priority. It’s fantastic, it’s fun, but just occasionally it would be nice to sit on a sun lounger and snooze.

Know what I mean, jelly bean?

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