Tami Lewis Brown writes both picture book biographies and MG fiction She lives in Washington DC.
Tami Lewis Brown is the author of the MG novel, THE MAP OF ME (FSG), as well as several picture books. Her debut PB was SOAR, ELINOR! which was excellently reviewed. She has a picture book about the New York artist Keith Haring publishing in 2020, and another, co-authored with Debbie Loren Dunn, about the women mathematicians who worked on the ENIAC computer, coming in the same year. PERKIN’S PURPLE – about the character and science behind the discovery of the color purple -will follow in 2021. She grew up on a Kentucky horse farm, was a trial lawyer before turning to writing, and she has an MFA from Vermont College of the Fine Arts in writing for young readers. She lives with her family in one of the oldest houses in Washington DC.
When and how did you start writing?
Unlike many writers, I didn’t grow up with any ambition to write a book. I’d never met an author and I figured books were only written by dead people. I can’t really explain it, but I was a successful trial lawyer and woke up one morning realizing I wanted to write children’s books. Within a year I’d quit my job at the law firm and enrolled in Vermont College’s MFA in Writing for Children.
Can you remember the first book that made an impact on you? Who were your childhood storytelling heroes?
GO DOG. GO! by P. D. Eastman was the first book I read completely by myself. Suddenly, I held the power of story and imagination right in my own hands. Giving that power to children - who generally have very little control over anything in their lives - is one of the big reasons I love writing for a young audience.
My absolute favorite all-time author is Roald Dahl, but not for his ability to create wacky characters or fantastic worlds. Dahl knew how to drill deep into a story’s emotional core and uncover human truth with a sense of humor. When my second-grade teacher read about Charlie Bucket’s four grandparents sleeping together in one bed and eating nothing but weak cabbage soup, I was undone.
Can you talk us through the writing of your first book? What were the key moments?
I began working on THE MAP OF ME while I was a student at Vermont College. After graduation, I entered the first twenty pages for an SCBWI Work In Progress grant and was shocked when the judges, including Linda Sue Park, selected it as the winner. I’d been working with Farrar Straus & Giroux on my picture book, SOAR, ELINOR! so I was thrilled when they agreed to publish THE MAP OF ME, too.
Was it hard to get an agent ? Can you talk us through the process?
My process of getting an agent was fairly unorthodox. Through Vermont College and SCBWI, I’d had the opportunity to meet quite a few agents, and although I liked many of them, I didn’t feel my writing or my career were ready for that step. At about the time I completed THE MAP OF ME I met Sarah Davies and we hit it off. I knew she’d be a fabulous agent for me, and (luckily) she liked my writing too. So Sarah is the only agent I’ve ever approached about representation. I suppose that makes it sound easy, but a lot of thought, background work, and great good luck, obviously, went into it.
Describe your writing day. Where do you write? How do you organize your time? Where do you look for inspiration?
In the past, I’ve fit writing around my studies and working as a writer in residence/librarian at an elementary school, but now I write full time. My routine varies according to my writing goals, and the stage of my work in progress, but I generally ‘arrive’ at work, in a small office at the top of my house, every morning as soon as my son is off to school. I usually finish my day by reading something I find inspiring - maybe a novel by Katherine Paterson, or a story by Eudora Welty, or even something written by one of the other Greenhouse authors - and taking notes about writing elements I like, just before I go to sleep.
Are there any tips you could give aspiring writers who are looking to get published?
Don’t jump the gun trying to be published too soon. Learn your craft first by reading lots of current books, studying writing technique, and practicing by writing thousands and thousands of pages.
When you are ready as a writer, publishing opportunities will present themselves.
Can you describe three aspects of writing craft that have been most important as you’ve developed as an author?
I blog about writing craft at Through The Tollbooth with eight other accomplished children’s writers, and we’ve talked about every craft topic under the sun, but for me it comes down to Voice, Voice, and Voice. It’s that allusive element that sets a wonderful manuscript apart from an ordinary one.
As I’ve matured as a writer I’ve developed my own authorial voice, which extends across everything I write, as well as the specific voice of a particular novel or story. My voice is that combination of the way I look at the world, the way I express myself on the page, and whatever else it is that makes me – me.
Which favorite authors would you invite to a dinner party? What fictional character do you wish you’d invented?
Planning my guest list I’d start out with M. T. Anderson, Kathi Appelt, Deborah Wiles, and Katherine Paterson. They’re friends of mine, I love their books, and we’d have a great time talking about their latest projects, or maybe just gossiping. But if it’s a dream dinner party, let’s add F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eudora Welty and Roald Dahl. And Faulkner. I’d love to meet Anne Frank, too, although obviously that would be bittersweet.
I wish I’d invented Harriet Welsch, the heroine of HARRIET, THE SPY. Harriet is seriously wacky, a bit mean, but lovable all the same. Her story (and her character) were utterly groundbreaking when the book was published in 1964, and she’s still just as fresh and sassy today.