Monday, May 10, 2010

Inquiry III: Cynthia Levinson

Today we welcome non-fiction writer Cynthia Levinson.

Cynthia is a seasoned traveler, a teacher with over 25 years of experience, a mother, a wife a grandma and so much more. Her books for young readers includes: WE HAVE A JOB: THE 1963 BIRMINGHAM CHILDREN’S MARCH. She has been published in countless magazines some of which include, FACES, DIG, CALLIOPE and COBBLESTONE. She is represented by the Erin Murphy literary agency and makes her home in sunny Austin, Texas.

EEM: Cynthia has a great deal of information to share :) so we will jump right in!
Did you always want to be a writer?

CL: I have a confession. I did not always want to be a writer. I call this a confession because so many other writers say that they did. They knew from the time they had imaginary friends or stuffed friends or four-footed friends, even finned friends, or, best of all, no friends whatsoever, that they wanted to write. Not me. I wanted to teach, and, in particular, I wanted to make history teaching better.

So, I became a history teacher, and I did make history teaching better, if I do say so myself, for about 200 7th- and 8th-graders, mostly by not teaching much history! I have a sieve-like memory; it would be better at draining cooked veggies than retaining facts. So I could hardly ask my students to remember the date of the sinking of the Lusitania, say, and, anyway, we hardly got to the First World War (I think it’s WW1) before the end of the school year. We fought the Civil War over Christmas vacation, which means, I’m now embarrassed to say, not at all—not even Bull Run or Antietam (I think that’s the Civil War). So, since we weren’t memorizing when things happened, we had to do other things—like learn how archeologists excavate a site and how African princes supported the slave trade.

That lasted three years. My husband and I moved. And, I started teaching nursery school. Fifteen years later, when I applied for a prestigious, high-level education job, the interviewer asked me what my favorite job was. Without even thinking about it, I said, “teaching nursery school.” Then, I said, “I didn’t know that!” I should have known then that I’d want to write for kids.

For better or worse, I got the job, which I alternately loved and loathed and which delayed my having much time for writing (that plus having two kids plus going to grad school, which I started and dropped out of twice) for the next 20 years.

With one exception. Between jobs, I decided to try free-lance writing for adults, to see if I could actually write and sell things. And I made an interesting discovery: I could write things. I could sell things. But, I was lonesome. So, I went back to work and did all my writing there and was generally recognized as the best writer at my 1000-person agency. However, I called much of my writing there “soap-bubble writing” because I spurted it out, and it had to be pretty and evanescent.

EEM: Wow, so what was the catalyst? What led you to writing for kids?

CL: Yo-Yo Ma. In 1991, I think, he left his cello in New York City taxicab. The article in The New York Times about his despair was both so anguishing and so charming (since the Mayor and the Taxicab Commissioner helped him retrieve it) that I realized this had to be a children’s story. Hence, Mr. Below Lost His Cello, which won By-Line Magazine’s National Picture Book Award and which has never been published.

I say “it.” Actually, there must be 95 gabillion versions. At an SCBWI conference critique, an editor at Farrar Strauss and Giroux said one of the versions was just about right; he didn’t have any comments to make about it. But, he also said he didn’t have the energy to spend the next year, which picture books require, working with me on it. I was so discouraged, I went back to work.

The one good thing that came from Mr. Bellow is that I once read it aloud for my daughter, her husband, and her in-laws; when I finished, my daughter said, “You’ve just read your first picture book to your soon-to-be grandchild.” We all cried but not out of anguish or despair.

EEM: What jobs have you had since becoming a writer?

CL: As you can see, I rarely wrote and worked simultaneously. But, that doesn’t mean that my jobs didn’t sustain my writing.

I’m very risk-averse. What my jobs did was allow me to send the two children to college and, then, later to retire, with that life-goal having been met, and start writing in earnest.

EEM: When you began did you experience immediate success?

CL: Are you kidding?! I’ve been selling my work for three or four years and hope to have “instant success” when my first book is published in 2012.

EEM: Out of all your jobs what were you most and least favorite? Most challenging, if different?

CL: Well, I’ve told you about teaching nursery school. (I mean, what’s more fun than playing in a trough of Ivory Snow Flakes with four-year-olds?)

My least favorite was working in the Operations Office of a bank the summer before the bank computerized. Every Monday, we were inundated with all the checks (this was also before credit cards) people wrote over the weekend. Every Friday, we had to stay until our bins were balanced. I was always the last person to leave.

Most challenging—there were a couple of those. Developing Texas’ first plan for educational technology, in 1985, was challenging, especially since desktop computing wasn’t widespread. Still, we learned enough to know we had to focus on technological equity (being sure all kids have equal access), think about ownership and copyright of digitized texts (no music or video 25 years ago!), and worry about viruses.

The other ‘most challenging’ job was overseeing the development of the Texas State Curriculum in all content areas and grade levels. That was a biggie—politically, organizationally, and substantively.

EEM: Did any of this inspire your writing?

I write nonfiction. Although I write about science as well as social issues, teaching history, archeology, and anthropology definitely influenced my writing—learning how to do research and developing a sense of what interests kids and how to convey it. Memorizing lists of causes of the War of 1812 doesn’t do it but learning about The Pig Wars could. (I keep thinking I’ll write a book about wars with strange names. The Burning of the Teaser is another.)

Teaching nursery school let me read as many picture books as I wanted and play with kids. Nothing could be better for developing a sense of what tickles kids.

And, in terms of curriculum tie-ins, there’s hardly anyone who knows state curricula better than me!

Oh, yeah, I also taught teachers-to-be at Southwest Texas State University where I also learned what teachers need, both for the education and the trade markets.

EEM: Looking back on your journey to writing, is there anything you would do differently?

CL: Yes. I’d be less risk-averse, let my children find their own college tuition, and start writing 20 years earlier.

EEM: Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Cynthia! It was delightful having your insight here!

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