Interview by Cathy Stefanec Ogren
I had the privilege of interviewing author extraordinaire, Vivian Kirkfield. Her newest book, Making Their Voices Heard: The Inspiring Friendship of Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe, launched in January. I highly recommend it!
Cathy Ogren: Welcome, Vivian.
Vivian Kirkfield: Thank you so much, Cathy!
CO: I’m so pleased to interview you for this blog. In your newest nonfiction biography, Making Their Voices Heard, why did you decide to focus on the friendship Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe had for each other rather than their enormous talents?
VK: I knew I wanted to write a story for children… a story that children could relate to. Even young kids know about playdates and going to a classmate’s birthday party and how it feels when your friend is mad at you. How to be a good friend is an important lesson for kids. And although it’s true that each of these icons had enormous talent, each was being limited because of discrimination of one kind or another…and it was their friendship which helped break those barriers.
CO: When you begin to do research for a nonfiction work, do you have a specific plan you follow?
I begin my research on the internet… scrolling through whatever sites I can find. Then I turn to the local library and if necessary, reach out to the reference librarian to ask if she can connect with the larger libraries. I’ve also contacted the libraries and historical museums and historical societies in the cities where my subjects were born or worked. These often contain archives that are specific to the person I’m researching. In addition, if there are any living relatives whose names pop up during my research, I do try to connect with them.
CO: How do you organize your research to make it easy for you to refer to it? Handwritten notes? Binder?
VK: As I read, I take notes in a dollar store composition notebook…usually (and unfortunately) handwritten (unfortunate because I often can’t read my own handwriting). But I also print out pages from online sources [because] sometimes an online source can disappear between the time you read it and the time the manuscript is bought – at least you will have a hard copy of your information if/when the editor/fact-checkers ask about something. Then I use a manila folder for all the printed sheets and the notebook. I wish I were more organized… but so far, this system has worked pretty well. The most difficult time was when I was writing the nine nonfiction [picture book biographies] for From Here to There: Inventions That Changed the Way the World Moves (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 21, 2021). In only nine months, I had to go from idea to seven polished submission-ready manuscripts… (I had already written two of them when we signed the contract). If it weren’t for my fabulous critique partners, I never would have been able to accomplish such a feat in such a short period of time.
CO: What are some of the places you go to find information? (Primary sources? Newspaper clips? Documentaries? Videos?)
VK: As I mentioned previously, online sources are my first line of inquiry. Then the library… with books/journals/newspapers. I also LOVE YouTube… there are amazing documentaries AND interviews… if your subject is fairly modern (within the last 100 years) there may be a wealth of information, some of the primary sources (an interview, for instance) available at your fingertips.
Another great source of information is the library… but not just the bookshelves. Many libraries have subscriptions to various databases – old newspapers, ancestry sites – and if you have a library card, you may be able to access a lot of it from the comfort of your own home and computer.
CO: When do you know it’s time to stop researching and start writing?
VK: I know it is time to stop researching when I start reading the same information. Also, I try to write my pitch (what-you’d-say-to-an-editor-if-you-only-had-30-seconds-to-talk) and my one-sentence (kind of a synopsis of the story) before I start writing. If I feel I have enough information to create a strong narrative that answers the promise of my opening lines (yes, I write my opening lines early on), I stop researching and start writing. But, I’m always willing to go back and dig deeper if there are questions that remain unanswered.
CO: What is your secret for making your manuscripts shine?
VK: I don’t know that it is a secret. 😊 It’s certainly something I share with all of my critique buddies, all of my critique service clients, and at any conference or webinar where I am presenting.
- I write about people/topics I am passionate about
- I dig deep with my research
- I search for a golden nugget that will strike a chord with my child reader
- I craft strong opening lines that hook the reader
- I utilize various techniques from the picture book writing toolbox (including assonance, alliteration, the element of three, refrains) that help keep the reader engaged and move the story forward
- I formulate a satisfying ending that often echoes the opening lines
- I read mentor texts in the genre I am writing (this happens before, during, and after I write the manuscript)
- I record myself reading the story aloud…and then listen back to catch the places where I trip up or where the reader will lose interest
- I share the manuscript with critique buddies and revise with their feedback in mind
- Then I record myself again…revise/polish…send out the manuscript to a couple of other critique partners…and revise/polish again.
- I know I am done when I listen back and am engaged from the first word to the last…and can utter an AHA, HAHAHA, or AWWW when the last word is uttered.
CO: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
VK: No manuscript will ever be perfect. Please don’t try to make it so. Pour your heart into the writing and be willing to revise if several critique buddies point out similar problems. Polish until you feel the story sings. But at some point, we need to go from writing and revising mode to submitting mode because the song of your story won’t be heard if it’s sitting in your drawer/computer/notebook. And even after an editor acquires your manuscript because she loves it, there will probably be additional revisions required…or at the very least, requested. Be open to the perspective of the editor and illustrator…but advocate for this story because you are responsible for putting an accurate, authentic, and consistent book into the hands of children. Never forget that this is YOUR story. Your words. Your heart on the page.
Thank you so very much, Cathy, for the opportunity to share my thoughts and spread the word about my newest picture book: MAKING THEIR VOICES HEARD: The Inspiring Friendship of Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe (Little Bee Books, illustrated by Alleanna Harris).
CO: Vivian, it is my pleasure to have you as my friend and as a guest on this blog!
This interview originally appeared in January, 2020 on Cathy Stefanec Ogren’s blog, Humor Me.
The fabulous Vivian Kirkfield: Writer for children—reader forever… that’s Vivian Kirkfield in five words. Her bucket list contains many more than five words – but she’s already checked off skydiving, parasailing, banana-boat riding, and visiting critique buddies all around the world. When she isn’t looking for ways to fall from the sky or sink under the water, she can be found writing picture books in the quaint village of Amherst, NH where the old stone library is her favorite hangout and her young grandson is her favorite board game partner. A retired kindergarten teacher with a Masters in Early Childhood Education, Vivian inspires budding writers during classroom visits and shares insights with aspiring authors at conferences and on her blog, Picture Books Help Kids Soar where she hosts the #50PreciousWords International Writing Contest and the #50PreciousWordsforKids Challenge. She is the author of numerous picture books. Connect with Vivian on her website, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Linkedin, or just about any place people with picture books are found.
Cathy Stefanec Ogren, a children’s author, former teacher and part-time librarian, has been part of the Writers’ Rumpus critique group for 4 years. She thrives on family, friends, and children’s books, all mixed with a good dose of hearty laughter. She is represented by Victoria Selvaggio of Storm Literary Agency. Connect with Cathy on her website, her blog Humor Me, Twitter, and Facebook.