Welcome back to Inside The Authors Studio. Today I’m talking to another writer and sharing our conversation with you! To find out who I’ve interviewed so far and what this series is all about, check out the original post by clicking here.
To kick off this new series of featured writers here on my blog, I’d like to introduce you to my very first guest, Judith Natelli McLaughlin.
Judith attended Villanova University for her undergraduate studies. While she was there, she managed to balance her interest in academics with her passion for creative writing. After graduation, she made her career in writing and today she happily lives a busy, full life alongside her family in Millburn, New Jersey. Recently, she has been involved with promoting the release of her new book, Dear Diary, E.P. Thompson Here, which hits stores this month.
With a writing background in poetry and prose, Judith has dabbled in different realms of the literary world, picking up audiences in a variety of age groups along the way. Certainly her passion for connecting with her readers is undeniable. In 2013 she visited a New Jersey elementary school to both share her work and listen to poems written by Pleasantdale School students in celebration of National Poem In Your Pocket Day. Prior to that, in March of 2011, she visited Todd Elementary School to help students celebrate National Nutrition Month. Following both of these events, Judith posted the students’ original poems to her very own blog.
In my talk with Judith, we discuss the motivation behind each of her books and her relationship with her uniquely diverse audience that ranges in ages from tots to twentysomethings. We take a look at where she has stumbled, what makes her proud, and what fuels her passion for sharing these stories with the world. I can’t wait for you to meet Judith and I hope our conversation helps you get to know her a little bit better. Enjoy-
Jamie: Hi Judith! Welcome to the blog. I’m so excited to have you here today. Let’s kick things off with an introduction. Tell us a little bit about yourself. How would you describe yourself to people who don’t know you?
Judith: Thanks for the warm welcome! Me? I am a creative soul, a writer who draws from distinct memories of my own childhood and life, the millions of stories my dad shared with me about his, and the new tales I acquired raising three daughters. I am in love with my family and the greatest day for me is any day I am spending with my big, funny, extended clan.
Right now you’re gearing up for your latest project, Dear Diary, E.P. Thompson Here, to hit the shelves. But take us back a ways. In 2008 you published your first book, Poems on Fruits & Odes to Veggies. How did you come up with the idea to write your own collection of produce-themed poetry? What appealed to you about the idea?
Poems and Odes began when a friend of mine was editing a vegan website. Knowing I love to write poetry, she asked me to write a kid friendly poem about a fruit or veg. And so, the poem Zucchini was born. It was such a hit on the site, she asked for another one so I wrote, Banana. I had such a good time with these poems that I kept going, just for fun. Once I had a collection of 30 or so poems, I had an idea. This could be a book! I had a vision of how this book should be illustrated—not with cartoon carrots or talking zucchini. I wanted brilliant, beautiful art that appeared real, popped of the page, and made kids want to try the foods. Soooo…I took a watercolor class to see if I could make my vision become a reality. Three semesters later, I was on the way to painting my way through the book. Needless to say, this was a long project, but for me, well worth the wait!
From a book of playful poetry to a novel aimed at a slightly older audience, you switched things up for sure with your next work, a novel called This Moment, which you released in 2012. Talk me through the shift. Why did you choose to write a novel? What about this story spoke to you? Why did you want to reach out to an older group of readers?
It’s funny because despite being published in that order, I was kind of working on these projects simultaneously. The thing about me is I am always reading something and writing something; jokes, poetry, novels, short stories, and on and on. Here’s the interesting thing; This Moment began as a short story. I titled it Enjoy the Ride. It was about a dad and his sons buying a Christmas tree for the first time without their mother. When I completed Enjoy the Ride, the characters continued to speak to me. A lot! They (I) wanted to know how they arrived at that point in their lives. And so, This Moment was born. Not an easy book to write, but sometimes I step back and marvel at its beauty.
When you sat down to write This Moment, did you have everything figured out and outlined, or were you more spontaneous with your craft? What type of writer are you when it comes to generating a story? How do you develop an idea into a completed work?
Ha! I kind of answered this one already. This Moment began as a short story. I had to write the novel because the characters from Enjoy the Ride demanded to know more about their past. I have almost nothing figured out when I start writing. I let the characters I create get themselves into and out of situations. I am really a character driven writer, studying what I like to call the human condition.
This past September you published your first chapter book, again sliding back into a genre predominantly filled with younger readers. I like a diverse author, but talk to me about your critics. Did anyone ever pressure you to stay in one niche with your writing? How does your continual parley with different audiences inhibit or fuel your creativity?
What a fun question. I can only dream about being so commercially successful that critics are following my work so closely and hollering at me, “STOP SWITCHING GENRES!” I wouldn’t stop anyway because I have too many stories to tell. Writing for different audiences most definitely fuels my creativity, allowing me to draw on the entire package of life.
As a blogger, I’m always interested in how other people set up their sites. I noticed on your middle grade novels page you have two other works listed beneath your latest. They sound intriguing! Are these up for grabs in the publishing world or do you have plans for them? Why did you decide to post blurbs about these books on your website? What do these stories mean to you?
Thanks! When I was creating my website I was trying to figure out the best way to showcase all my work. I sat down and made a list of all the things I wrote and the genres I covered. I decided to include the unpublished works because yes, they are available for publishing. And you never know who is stopping by your website! My middle grade books mean the world to me because I wrote three; one for each of my daughters, given to them as a gift when they entered (or exited) the fifth grade.
Were you able to study creative writing at all in school or is your craft entirely self-taught? How did your academic course load in high school and at Villanova influence your ability to write creatively?
I took some creative writing classes throughout high school and college. I even challenged myself with a food critic writing class. It was fun! I also took postgraduate writing classes and New York University. I was an English major at Villanova, allowing me to read incessantly; a perfect course of study for someone like me.
What about writing keeps you interested in the process? Where does your passion for storytelling come from?
I like telling stories and always have. Maybe I get that gene from my dad. Born in 1928, he was a fabulous storyteller, regaling us with tales of growing up in Jersey City, NJ. He was fond of saying he got the story telling gene from his mom, who told him her own stories, speaking only Italian.
Lets talk about books. What was your relationship with reading like in the past? Were you a bookworm in school? Are you one today? How do books and reading influence your craft as a writer?
I am an avid reader and probably always was. I have a distinct memory of my mother telling me, “You are never alone if you have a book.” I also remember the first time I read Dr. Seuss’ Hop on Pop all by myself. The realization I was an independent reader (of course I didn’t know that’s what it was called) was pure joy.
I read the way I write, anything and everything, crossing genres with a never-ending passion. Perhaps that is one of my influences as a writer.
You’ve described yourself as having three unique daughters, a husband, and a West Highland White Terrier. How has having a family changed your creative process?
I have always been a morning person. Once my kids were born I really took advantage of my morning energy by waking up roughly two hours ahead of them, using that quiet time for my writing.
What has been your biggest obstacle as a writer?
I guess I would have to say getting published.
How have you tried to work through it?
I broke the concept of publishing down. Instead trying to publish an entire book, I set my sites at getting just one of my poems published in an anthology. It took a long time (years) but I finally cracked the code and had a poem accepted for inclusion in a Bruce Lansky children’s poetry book, Rolling in the Aisles, alongside the greats like Shel Silverstein and Judith Viorst. I never gave up. I listened to all the constructive criticism. And I worked hard to achieve my goal. Two more anthologies followed and those publishing experiences gave me the courage to self-publish Poems and Odes.
What would you say to other writers facing the same problem?
Honestly, believe in yourself and never give up.
As an aspiring author myself, I’m incredibly interested to hear about your journey. What was it like trying to get that first book published? How did you navigate the query process? Did success come quickly for you, or did you face initial rejection? How has that experience shaped you as a person and as a writer?
Success did NOT come quickly. I like to joke I have enough rejection letters to wallpaper a bathroom. And my skin is not that thick. I know I’m not supposed to, but I do take it all personally. What I have learned is to take a breath, and try to glean some bit of knowledge from each rejection. And if you are to the point in your career where you are getting personal notes on your rejections, remember that is success!
What about your writing are you most proud of today?
This answer comes pretty easily—its indelible mark on the world. Here’s what I mean. Just recently I received a letter from teacher from Maryland, asking for copyright permission for one of my poems to be used for elementary classroom instruction! My words are being read and used to educate children! Now that’s cool.
Where do you hope to see yourself as a writer ten years from now? Do you have any big goals you want to accomplish? What do you think will be different about your career then? What do you think will have stayed the same?
I will never stop writing and if the readers want it, publishing too. I guess my loftiest goal would be to become an author who makes a sustainable living with her writing, allowing me to write and edit all day, every day. Not just in the wee hours of the morning before going off to the real paying job.
What would you like to say to set up the sample you are sharing with us today? Is there any context you’d like to give before we dive in?
How about just…ENJOY!
Here is an excerpt from Judith’s work:
E. P. Thompson here.
Worst. Year. Ever. First semester in sixth grade, and my best friend Debbie has dropped me because my boobs aren’t big enough. Well, she didn’t say that exactly, but I just know that’s the reason. Then I got paired with Adam Berry, the biggest pencil-protecting geek of the decade, for the never-ending, semester-long math project. And as if that’s not bad enough, Thomas Maxwell, the cutest boy in my grade, only pays attention to me when I’m making a total fool of myself. Ugh.
Weirdest thing of all: it seems Lucas C. Tanner Middle School has a full-on, bona fide thief! Now all the teachers are going crazy and all the students are too, because Mrs. Peule has promised to make this year a living nightmare until the culprit is caught. We have to find out who is ruining sixth grade. Like, now!
Well, at least the criminal activity has taken the focus off my lack of bra ownership. Sigh.
I have to go. I’ll write again soon. Promise.
What inspired you to write Dear Diary, E.P. Thompson Here? How did the project change as you worked on it? What does the story mean to you?
My daughter Katie inspired me to write this book. As the story goes, Katie was in the fifth grade, and she was not an avid reader. She found long chapters intimidating, preferring, instead, short and concise entries. She was having trouble finding what she liked to read and so it began. I decided to write a book for my daughter, one that she would enjoy reading. I would tell a story using short and humorous diary entries. When I finished the book, Katie loved it. What a thrill.
You ask how it changed? Well, when I began the book, it was written from the mom’s point of view. We found this mom reading her own diary, one she uncovered from the attic. As time went on, it morphed into Emily’s point of view and we are all better for it.
This book is especially important because it started a McLaughlin tradition. As I mentioned previously, I wrote a novel for each of my daughters when they entered the fifth grade. While the books are not about my girls, they are written to suit their particular tastes and dedicated to them. A gift they will have forever.
Finally, what would you like to say to my readers and to any aspiring writers out there?
To your readers…I hope you love Dear Diary, E.P. Thomson Here. And if you do, go ahead and take a chance on my other works too! To your aspiring writers…just keep writing! Everything you write makes you a better, stronger, more meaningful author. And remember you do it because you love it.
I’d like to thank Judith for answering some questions and sharing a piece of her latest work with us here today. If you liked this post and would like to learn more about Judith or check out some of her writing, make sure you take a look at her links and information below. Have a wonderful day everyone!
Where you can find Judith: