Saturday, December 1, 2012

Glimpse Behind the Curtain...


Kiffin Steurer
For those of us in the writing and/or illustrating world, editors can seem like that powerful wizard behind the curtain in that land called Oz. But, as in that famous story, it turns out editors are human, too.

Here’s a glimpse of Kiffin Steurer who was kind enough to pull back that curtain and share his world. He is an associate editor at Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Group.

Kiffin is not from Kansas or Oz. He was born and raised in Putnam County, West Virginia, and now resides in Brooklyn, New York. And though it wasn’t a tornado that he recently encountered, he did endure not one, but two fierce storms.

Were you impacted by Hurricane Sandy or the recent Nor’easter?

Fortunately, I wasn’t. It’s a strange feeling because I look at the people on the news who lost their homes and all their possessions and have family members and friends who died, I feel guilty. We didn’t even lose our power, but many people lost everything. But my wife and daughter, needy dog and antisocial cat are all safe, and I’m grateful for that.

Growing up, were you into books? If so, what were some of your favorites? Why?

I was definitely into books, although I would have periods where I’d read all the time, and then periods when I didn’t read at all. I loved anything Roald Dahl, Judy Blume, C.S. Lewis. By far my favorite book was James and the Giant Peach.

Then, and now, I loved books that didn’t sugarcoat the experience of being a kid. No, I didn’t have aunts like Spiker and Sponge, but being a kid is scary and dark sometimes. And I think Dahl’s books capture that. And I just absolutely love Nancy Ekholm Burkert’s illustrations. I love Quinton Blake’s illustrations in the reprints, but to me THE addition to have is the one with Burkert’s art. It’s the one I read to my daughter.

Are there parallels between James’ life and your own?

You mean aside from the giant peach growing in my backyard? I don’t think so. Although, my sister was not unlike Aunts Spiker and Sponge when she found me spying on her.

What were you like as a child? What did you like to do?

I was pretty shy and arguably overly sensitive. I liked to play with my Star Wars and various other action figures. And I loved playing baseball.

Do you have any funny memories from childhood?

Oh, man, too many to enumerate. I’ll just say that a lot of them involved being kissed by girls … before I was old enough to like it.

What was the most influential experience and/or class you’ve taken? Why?

I had an amazing college history professor, Dr. William Mahoney, at West Virginia Wesleyan College. He teaches European history, and he has the amazing ability to turn history into a story. I remember hearing him talk about the Prague Spring and the Russian invasion, and feeling like I’d just been punched in the gut. He’s amazing.

What are your hobbies? Passions?

Well, I love comic books, am passionate about music (although I don’t play an instrument), and absolutely LOVE the New York Yankees. Take away any of these things, and life wouldn’t be as wonderful.

As a child, what did you dream of becoming?

Hmmm, there are really only one or two things I remember wanting to be: a veterinarian (but I knew I couldn’t hack that, because I didn’t want to put animals to sleep) and center-fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Did your childhood prepare you for your editor position? Or did your personality choose your career?

Working in children’s books is one of those things that I didn’t know I wanted to do until I got into it. I stumbled into this job completely by chance. I’d been a freelance proofreader for a number of magazines: ELLE, ELLEgirl, Budget Travel, and, believe it or not, Maxim. But in 2005/2006, the magazine industry started seeing the effects of the Internet boom. Magazines started closing or cutting back on their freelancers. So I found myself unemployed.

I started applying to any position I thought I was remotely qualified for. Somehow, some way, our publisher, Michael Green, thought I would be a good fit for Philomel, and I’ve been here ever since.

What do you like about your job?

Seeing original art.

The rare occasion when I get to communicate with kids about the books of ours that they love. I’ve surprised some of them with galleys from upcoming books by their favorite author, and you would have thought I’d just given them a shopping spread at Toys ‘R’ Us.

Free books.

Conversely, what do you dislike about your job?

Rejecting manuscripts. I went to grad school to study creative writing, so I know what it feels like to have other people pick apart your stories, or just plain tell you they’re not good. So I could do without that.

I don’t like it that the industry has changed so much over the last few years that you can’t take chances on the “little” books, the “quiet”ones. When I first started (granted, only six years ago), you published the “big”books to take chances on the “little” ones. It doesn’t seem to happen as much as it used to.

What changes are taking place in the publishing industry now?

Obviously the emergence of digital media, whether it’s just reading an eBook or interacting digitally with it in some way. The thing that I find refreshing is that for the most part the industry is discovering that the eBook isn’t necessarily a threat to the physical book. It complements it. It’s just another way to enjoy a book and experience a story, not the new, ONLY way you can read a book.

Where do you see the publishing industry heading?

That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? I think regardless of what the future holds, we will always need good stories. And, at least in our generation, they’ll always be in book form. And though self-publishing is certainly an option, the best way of getting the most out of your book is with the help of an editor, designer, copyeditor, etc. And in the end, you can’t replace what a traditional publisher can do for you.

Are you currently accepting manuscripts/portfolios?

Yes. Right now, I’m looking for middle-grade novels for boys, in the vein of Judy Blume, funny and set in contemporary life. I also really want an American Horror Story for upper-middle-grade or YA readers. I’m not actively looking for picture books at the moment, which isn’t to say I’m not open to them.

What catches your attention? What do you look for?

You know, voice is the obvious answer, but the truth is, I don’t know. I sort of know it when I see it, although I like books that aren’t easily categorized.

I had received the most pleasant rejection letter from you. Not only was it prompt, it was personal and courteous. Was that something you were taught to do? Or is that just the natural Kiffin Steurer?

I seem to be getting a lot of that recently, today as a matter of fact. I don’t know. Part of it is that now that I’m no longer an assistant, I don’t get a lot of letters addressed specifically to me. So I don’t have a good excuse for not writing a personal letter to each one. Also, while it may sometimes be true, saying a book isn’t right for me or Philomel doesn’t help you at all. Obviously someone may have a completely different opinion of your work, but I still think it’s worth knowing what one person thinks. Others may think the same thing.

Also, if it were me, I’d want someone to write me back. And truth is, I’m really not that prompt. I still have submissions from May I haven’t gotten to. Yours was probably the rare instance.

Do you ever see yourself jumping the fence into writing and/or illustrating?

Not anymore. I came to New York to get my MFA in Creative Writing. It didn’t take me long to realize that I didn’t have the talent or dedication. Writing wasn’t something I HAD to do. I wasn’t going to stay up into the wee hours of the morning to write—I’d rather sleep. Especially now that I work in publishing, I come across so many talented writers who make me realize that compared to them, I just plain suck. Also, I find it much more rewarding to help someone else with their book. I’m better at that.

Best advice for writers/illustrators?

Do your research. Know what publishers publish. Publisher’s Marketplace is a great resource. It keeps us from getting annoyed when we get adult submissions, and it gives your story the best shot at being published by getting it into the hands of people who are looking for exactly what you’re giving.

Look around at the books being published. If you can site some comparable titles in your cover letter, that helps a lot. Don’t be afraid to compare your book to others. We do it. Agents do it. It’s OK to say, “My novel is Alex Rider meets Roald Dahl.” That being said, don’t say, “My book is like Twilight or Harry Potter or Hunger Games.” It’s too easy, and it’s probably not true.

Most importantly, when submitting to me, don’t address it to Ms Steurer. I’m a boy. If you’re not sure, “Dear Kiffin” is the best way to go. I’m not formal. Ha-ha.

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