Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Sharing an Office Interview

I was graciously interviewed at my state office today for an internal state agency profile.  In case you don't work within sight of my exciting tax cubicle, here's what Craig Spivey prepared this afternoon.  Special thanks to Craig and the rest of the gang in Communications!  (I've made some adjustments to formating for the blog.)

Employment Department Tax Auditor, Karl Erickson, would seem to be on a hot streak.  In 2010 we wrote about the success of his first book, Tristan's Travels, as it was published in hard back. Now Karl readies for the release of his second childrens book, Toupee Mice.

Writing childrens books seems to be such a separate world than that of a Tax Auditor, I thought it would be fun to have a question and answer session with Karl.

EDweb: Why do you write?

Karl: I've enjoyed writing for years.  There's a satisfaction that comes from crafting a quality tale, and there's even more satisfaction in seeing children laugh and giggle at the stories.  There's so much negativity and darkness around us, I like to focus on the lighthearted dimension in my children's books.  Finding and exploring the good (and silly)  is something to which children need greater exposure.  Writing is also a powerful creative outlet.  The author is able to create and populate his own world.  That beats football in my book!

EDweb: Where do your story ideas come from?

Karl: The origin of story ideas varies greatly from book to book.  When it comes to my books for children, the ideas were often sparked by stories I would spontaneously create and read aloud for our own kids.  I'd pay close attention to what they liked the most, and then adapt and polish the tale into a book form.  Other times, scene images or character sketches have led to the larger stories.  In one short story, for instance, the image began with just a young university student running furiously through a dark and rainy Seattle campus.

Sometimes it's also "all of the above" when it comes to ideas sparking a story.   That's kind of the way it was with my current mystery novel, The Blood Cries Out (not a children's book).  It's almost finished, but it's been in development for years.  It began first with the protagonist's character sketch and a glimmer of an idea for a particular scene in the San Juan Islands.  It grew from there, and it's been an exciting journey.  (I even received a tour of the Seattle Police Department's Homicide Unit by Seattle Police Commander and popular mystery author, Neil Low.)

The freedom of writing for older audiences is probably where I'll be focusing for a while, but I may return to children's books someday.

EDweb:  Tell us about the collaboration with you and your wife.  How do you mix your writing with her art?  How does she get the feel for your stories to be able to translate them into illustration?

Karl: As we've been married for over 20 years, it's challenging to put the process in words; we both know the stories and the characters inside and out.  One part of the creative process, though, is something similar to storyboarding.  You've probably seen this demonstrated in behind the scene features on movie productions, but what we do is similar.  We'll brainstorm on important scenes that could be illustrated first, then Kimberly will do quick sketches of each scene.  Some scenes are great in the book, but not necessarily perfect for visual depiction.  Kimberly looks at layout, feel, and other elements to decide which scenes she will ultimately paint.

Another challenge that comes up at times concerns the illustration models.  Kimberly prefers to paint from my animal model photographs.  (I know this brings to mind someone saying "Flaunt it, baby!" to a rabbit...but bear with me here.)  Surprisingly, though, sometimes it's hard to photograph a seagull reading a newspaper.  This is where things get particularly creative--but I can't divulge all of the artist's secrets!

EDweb:  People don't necessarily equate Tax Auditors with creative artists.  How do you combine those two worlds?

Karl: I think the creative process actually serves as a good outlet for my kind of accounting work--not that I want to do this forever.  In fact, I think learning to look at things with a humorous or creative perspective actually is helpful when it comes to problem-solving and thinking outside of the box--or outside of the outer box, as I like to say.  Humor is a powerful thing, and I think we need more of it around our offices, too.

In fact, I'd suggest that there are even appropriate and effective methods of employing carefully tailored humor within a business setting as a technique for de-escalating conflicts.  ...Not that I wear my arrow through the head hat during audits, mind you, but a sense of humor puts people at ease, and it conveys a sense of shared humanity.

EDweb: Writing a book is a long process. . .what is your process from taking an idea, turning it into a story, developing characters with personality, and then finally coming out with a finished product?  What does that look like?


Karl: I consider my writing as a second job.  Not only is it a very long process, but it doesn't always go in chronological order.  I actually wrote Toupee Mice before Tristan's Travels, but they are being published in reverse order.  The success of Tristan's Travels helped to bring the older tale of tails to print--after we revised it.  I like to say that each book I undertake is like an exercise in extraordinarily complex project management.  There are so many different elements that have to come together that it's really more like designing a building than simply a piece of writing.

The foundation of the story is the plot and its central characters.  On top of this, you create memorable scenes, inject humor and surprise, and build tension--all built within the setting of the story.  It's the setting that perhaps most strongly conveys the sense of place found in a book, and this is always something I spend a lot of time on.  For example, I frequently do research trips relating to my stories.  For Tristan's Travels, this meant taking a lot of photographs around Astoria--as well as getting in touch with a fellow named Sean Astin.  For Toupee Mice, it required us to shoot hundreds of animal photos around the valley.  The Blood Cries Out has taken me to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, downtown Seattle (including the police department and city offices), and even Joseph, Oregon in the shadow of the Wallowa Mountains in majestic northeast Oregon.

Skipping ahead (past outlining, character sketches and profiles, simmering character conflicts and critical backstories, etc), one comes to the marketing and promotion side of the business.  For those like me who avoid the self-publishing route, some would say this is where the heavy lifting really begins for the author.  Everyone and their neighbor has a word processor, after all, and many people try their hand at writing.  It's a very competitive field.  One needs to be patient and have a positive attitude.  If you find a traditional publisher to accept your work, you're indeed one of the fortunate few--at least until the next rejection letter arrives in the mailbox.

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