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Interview – Beth Arnstein

I met Beth Arnstein through a student of mine and I’m so glad I made the introduction!  Beth is the rare bird that is as pretty on the inside as she is on the outside and has loads of drive and talent.  I was invited to her critique group and she was generous and kind with her feedback but also honest and helpful.  She didn’t just say, “Oh, I liked it.”  She didn’t just give some word-word answer.  She expllaaiinneeddd.

And her explanations were pretty great. 🙂

I hope you enjoy this interview of an up and coming Pittsburgh author.  She’s definitely one to watch – and read.  Especially to your children. 🙂

 

First, let me say how thrilled I am to be a guest here! I’m a big fan of you,Bethany, and what I know of your work. I’m honored that you think I have something worth sharing!

Aw, you’re too kind, Beth.  Too kind. But thanks!!!  Now, down to business!  Your website is so nice! It’s bright and fun and full of great content. It’s interactive and user-friendly And, best of all, it is very reflective of the type of books you write. It represents you well. Did you do the website yourself? How did you decide on the final look?

Thanks, Bethany! I’m not too far removed from the process, since I just got the site up a few months ago, so I hope I’ll be able to give a helpful answer. First I brainstormed my ideas with notes pretty much the same way I start a writing project. I wrote down what I wanted for the theme, what features I wanted for my visitors, and even drafted the text on each page. When I figured out the bulk of the website, I looked for the best way to make that happen. After a lot of research (including thread on the LinkedIn SCBWI group with some very helpful comments) I decided to try designing the website myself. Because code really is a foreign language to me, I looked for a site with customizable templates. I chose wix.com and probably put it together over about two weeks. It works for what I need it for now, and if I ever decide to have a completely custom site in the future, that window is still open.

Don’t you just love SCBWI?  Networks like that – real, legitimate networks – are wonderful.  You’re a picture book and middle grade writer. Is that because you have an adorable little son in your house, or have you always gravitated toward these genres?

I think there’s a part of me that still approaches things with a childlike wonder and that is why I have always been drawn to these genres. I started writing in college, well before my son, Mister as I call him in the online world (and sometimes in person), was even a thought. Some of my education courses sparked my interest in children’s books and I completed an independent study my senior year on the topic. After college, I became a teacher and I probably enjoyed the books in the classroom as much as the kids did. By the time Mister came along, I was about two years deep into being really serious about writing and well into the second book of my middle grade series. Having Mister for inspiration is a HUGE perk, especially for writing picture books. And reading to him is like doing my homework too.

Great answer!  Now you’ve kind of answered this, but elaborate for me.  Who influences your writing most?

This question usually makes me tear up. Not to put unnecessary pressure on the little guy, but it is definitely Mister. But probably not the way you’d think. Sure, he does give me some great ideas (like the idea for my latest picture book manuscript about different kinds of hugs), but more importantly, he makes me want to see those ideas through to something bigger. To prove to him that I can do it so he won’t be afraid to follow his dreams.

…and I didn’t make it without tears…

Tears of joy are always okay.  I cried like a lost child during the opening number of Broadway’s Lion King Show.  You were born in Pittsburgh, moved, then came back again, where you’re happily ensconced with the aforementioned son and, as you say, a SUPER HUSBAND! 🙂 So let’s talk about Pittsburgh first. Have you pulled much inspiration from the city and living here? Does it inspire your work?

The diversity and arts are what I missed the most, other than my family, when I moved away. I’m so glad to be home. DespitePittsburgh’s steel mill past, the city is really embracing the arts. I think some ofPittsburgh’s blue-collar values, like pride in one’s work and always giving the best effort, are what make the arts so successful here. People appreciate others doing their best work, no matter what that work is.  That is a value that I hold, soPittsburghis really always at the heart of my writing.

The city also does inspire content. A little-known secret is that I even tried to write a series of what I called Yinzer Tales, with titles like Little Red Babushka and The Princess and the Pierogi that put a Pittsburghese spin on well-known fairy tales.

Wow, that sounds really fun.  The Princess and the Pierogi?  Where can I download that????  But okay, let’s talk more about that Super Husband. As many readers of my site know, I teach writing workshops and classes around the city and I can’t tell you how many times a writer says that his or her spouse doesn’t like the fact that he or she writes! That my students feel like they almost have to keep it a secret! It seems we’re lucky, Beth, in that the people who love most support us most. What do you want to say to others though who may not be so lucky?

You’re right about my “Super Husband” being supportive. And I know you have the support of your family too. We are lucky, but I think that people who don’t have the support of a spouse are lucky in a way too. I’m learning that the writing journey is filled with lumps and bumps that require tough skin to get over. A spouse’s disapproval may be giving that writer the armor he or she needs to see the writing through.

That’s not to say that writers don’t need support. I think we all do. And the writers who don’t get it at home will have to find it somewhere else. I found some great support at a CCAC writing class that turned into a critique group.

And don’t give up on that spouse. Once he or she sees how serious the writer is about writing, in most cases I think the support will come. Most loved-ones just want what is best for us, and sometimes they think they know what that is better than we do.

Great great answer.  J  Let’s switch topics: Can you describe an average writing day?

Sure. I love these peeking into other writer’s work habits questions. When Mister is sleeping, which can be morning if I get up early, naptime, or night if I stay up late, and I don’t have anything I need to take care of at home first (like dinner or laundry or prying the hungry cat off my calf muscle), I usually spend a few minutes reading (I have a great book called Walking on Alligators that has daily reflections for writers) or catching up on social networking. I make sure to only keep this to a few minutes so the rest of the time is free for writing, but doing this first kind of flips a switch in my brain to let it know it is time to actively write.

Then I work on whatever project is speaking to me at the moment. I know it sounds a little strange, but even when I’m not writing, my brain seems to be working on something. And whatever “something” is most ready to come out will present itself first. Sometimes I work on just one thing for the whole time. Sometimes another project seems urgent and I jump to that instead. Since Mister was born, I’ve learned to be a little more flexible about how I work.

I write until I hear Mister stir then push it for a few minutes more. Some days this is as little as twenty minutes, but it is still making writing a priority and it is something.

Let’s talk about your blog. You aren’t afraid to really be open and honest. Anything you won’t write about, or anything you have a hard time writing about, but you force yourself to anyway?

I don’t like bowling because I’m terrible at it. I don’t bake because of a home-economics disaster. I tend to just avoid things that I see as flaws, so it isn’t easy for me to admit them. Like when my writing isn’t working or I’ve done something that I feel makes me a “bad mother.” But I know that admitting my flaws is part of my own growth, and hopefully the growth of my blog readers. If I think a topic might make one person laugh a little, even at my mistakes, or feel like they aren’t alone, then it is a topic suitable for my blog. And knowing that helps me push through the struggle.

Okay, another topic jump: you have several books available through your website, Blowing Kisses and I’m Not Afraid of Anything. What made you decide to distribute those as ebooks?

Both books have slightly different stories. Blowing Kisses started as a story my mother and I wrote together when I was very young. It was read as a family story for years. Then, when my sister Katie Koenig took a class on illustrating children’s books as part of her education, she used the story for a class project. The project included writing, illustrating, and printing a children’s book. She printed the book using Lulu.com and it is now available print-on-demand. I mostly use it as gifts and give-aways, though I do think about submitting it to a publisher. Under my mother’s name, though.

I’m Not Afraid of Anything started as a picture book written during my second Picture Book Marathon (26 books in 28 days). I worked the draft a few different ways and finally settled with the story as it is now. I stashed it in the back of a drawer knowing that it probably wouldn’t be suitable for my debut work, but thought it might make it after I made a name for myself. When I found out about the digital publisher MeeGenius’ Author Challenge, I dug out I’m Not Afraid of Anything and submitted it, figuring I didn’t have anything to lose. To my surprise, it was chosen as a staff-favorite and finalist out of more than 400 entries. Though it didn’t win publication through a popular vote using facebook, the MeeGenius staff chose to publish it in March. It has been on the app’s bestseller list since!

Congrats on that contest win!  So what advice do you have for someone who wants to do the same?

Try to keep up, as much as you can without taking your writing time, with what is going on in the often-Oz-like “industry.” There are so many opportunities now for writers to get published: traditional brick-and-mortar publishing, ebooks, self-publishing, and publication through contests. Be honest with yourself and what you want for each project. You have to do what is right for you and your work.

Finally Beth, what’s next for you? You’re a bright, sweet girl. What’s cookin’ up there in your noodle?

Noodle is a good word for it, since sometimes my thoughts feel about as tangled as spaghetti, but I do have some new things cooking. I’m in the notes and plotting stage for my very first attempt at YA (hoping to learn from you in this areaJ ). It potentially goes a little deeper into the emotional side of things, when my other writing is usually on the humor side, so I’m waiting for a dose of courage before I really jump in. I’m also having a lot of fun drafting an adult humor piece about the joys and struggles of a stay at home mom.

Ha, love that answer.  Your thoughts are tangled as spaghetti.  Oh you really are a children’s book writer. J  Thank you Beth!

Bethany, thanks so much for letting me share a little about myself with your loyal followers!

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