An Interview with Connie King Leonard

Connie King Leonard is the author of Sleeping in My Jeans, a YA novel about a teen girl who has to live out of her car with her mother and young sister. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Connie to discuss what inspired her to write a book about being homeless, what message she hopes it will send, and the unique protagonist at the center of it all—Mattie Rollins.
How did you find Ooligan Press?
I saw an announcement in a Willamette Writers newsletter from Ooligan Press and went to the website. Ooligan was looking for work set in the Northwest dealing with a marginalized population, and I felt Sleeping in My Jeans fit that criteria. I checked with writer friends and found Ooligan had a good reputation as a reputable publishing press.
Your novel is fiction, but it rings true. Do you think it represents real stories of women and girls on the streets?
I do. Women and children are sometimes victims of domestic violence, which puts them in a vulnerable position—particularly if they don’t have the resources to afford to live on their own.
But abuse isn’t the only reason women end up in the street. The loss of a job, a major medical expense, and countless other catastrophes can destroy their ability to meet basic housing expenses. Even families with two adults working full time find themselves with financial problems.
What inspired you to write Sleeping in My Jeans?
I set the story in Eugene because I could visualize Rita parking Ruby in different areas of town, and I thought the best place she could leave Mattie and Meg after school was the city library.
The story was inspired by a sixth grade student I had in science class. Teaching kids to come prepared for class was one of our school goals. That meant bringing your binder, book, and pencil. I checked every day to make sure my students had what they needed.
One boy, I’ll call him Johnny, was a good kid and worked hard in my class, but mid-year he quit bringing his science book. I’d remind him and he would nod that he understood. One day, I said, “Johnny, I want you to go home tonight and look through your room for that science book.”
Johnny whipped his head around and said, “There are five of us living in a camper on the back of a pick-up. My science book is not there.”
Students in middle and high school do not always share the hardships and problems in their lives like elementary students. Even when teachers ask kids if they are okay or need help, older kids don’t open up like little ones. Johnny’s outburst was a shock. I was sick, disgusted with myself for not being in tune with my students.
I got Johnny another science book, but I have never forgotten him, because he taught me a huge lesson. The farm where I grew up in North Dakota was small and poor, but I always had a roof over my head and food on the table. I was privileged.
Why did you choose to write Mattie as biracial?
I am glad to see more wonderful stories being published about kids of color, which is great, but I still don’t see many about biracial kids. From my first idea for this novel, I pictured Mattie as strong, brave, and biracial and couldn’t think of her any other way.
What do you hope your book will achieve?
I want kids to know they are not alone in their struggles, whatever those hardships may be. In Mattie’s case, she has a small and beautiful family, but she lives in extreme hardship. Other kids problems are different, yet sometimes they feel like they are the only kid in school that doesn’t have a perfect life. Mattie is strong and resilient, and I hope kids learn from her determination to strive for a better life.
I also want people to be aware of the lack of affordable housing and know that not everyone goes home to a warm house or even a small apartment. Some of the students in their school may be living in a car, camped in a tent, couchsurfing between family and friends, or living in a shelter.
I hope my readers will enjoy Sleeping in My Jeans and will care about Mattie and her family as much as I do.
Do you have any suggestions for how to get involved with aiding homeless and domestic abuse survivors?
My biggest suggestion is to be aware that the person sleeping in a doorway is a human being. He/she may have serious issues that you and I can not help with, but that person deserves our compassion.
Many people now use the term “houseless” instead of “homeless”, because the new term recognizes that the tent on the side of the freeway or the beat-up minivan parked on a back street is someone’s home. I am training myself to switch terminology.
Lastly and maybe most importantly, we need to fund affordable housing as well as shelters for victims of domestic violence, teen runaways, families in need, veterans, and people with addictions and mental illness. It is a huge task, but one that is being tackled by some great organizations. St. Vincent de Paul in Eugene is doing an amazing job of providing housing options for people in all sorts of circumstances. Food for Lane County and the Oregon Food Bank are two other organizations that provide immense help to so many people in our state.
A portion of the sales of Sleeping in My Jeans will be donated to St. Vincent de Paul for the building of a youth house for houseless teens.

Fearless Bookman

I had the privilege of sitting down with John Henley, a well-known appraiser of rare books in the Pacific Northwest. He has also been an adjunct of the PSU Book Publishing Program since its inception, teaching the survey course titled The Popular Book in the United States. We talked about his job as appraiser, his Oolie aspirations, and how his love of books—inspired early on by his mother—led him to a career of buying and selling them for Powell’s and The Great Northwest Bookstore.

Q: Let’s start in the beginning; did you read a lot when you were a kid?

My father was a banker, and my mother was a well-known poet, Elizabeth Henley. I grew up with a sense of books and money, so it’s no surprise that I got into bookselling. You monetize things you love. We always had classics around, and my mother read to me and my older brothers all the time. Every night after dinner we’d get maybe one or two hours of TV, and then we’d sit around and my mother would read to us for about two hours. Sometimes it would be a New Yorker article. Sometimes my mother would say, ‘Why don’t we read a story by Tolstoy tonight?’ We spent many a night telling stories.

Q: And that led to bookselling?

I got into bookselling as a teenager. When I was fifteen, I got a job at this place called Wong’s Restaurant, which was located on the Interstate across from the Royal Palms Motel. I would go in every Saturday morning and clean the place, and I got fifteen bucks and a Chinese meal out of the deal every week. Then a friend of mine said there was this thing called an underground newspaper, the Willamette Bridge, the precursor to Willamette Week. I would buy a big stack of those with ten of my fifteen dollars and sell them at Portland State, turning my fifteen dollars into thirty dollars. I knew PSU very well because my mother had taught there, so it was always like a home to me. It’s always been a part of my life.

I went downtown one Saturday afternoon to get my papers, and the Willamette Bridge had been closed up. It was just gone. I wandered into this antique store on 5th and Everett called Finnegan’s, and there was this twelve-volume set of Captain Cook’s Voyages from the late eighteenth century, first edition. I asked the guy how much something like that cost, and he said, ‘What do you got kid?’ I said, ‘Well, I got fifteen dollars’ and he said, ‘I’ll take it, just get it out of here.’ I took it home, and my dad said he thought I bought a really great treasure. So the next week after my shift at Wong’s, I went into Cal’s Books and Wares. This guy was selling Cal a book, and he handed this guy ten dollars for it. Ten dollars was big money in the 60s and early 70s. A college course cost ten dollars. So I thought, ‘I don’t want these Captain Cook’s Voyages, I’m gonna take them to Cal, and if he’ll give me ten dollars each I’ll make a killing.’ I got the books down there, and he asked me where I got them, and I told him the story. Then he said, ‘Every Saturday after you’re done at Wong’s, come here, and I’ll give you money and send you out to buy and sell books for me. If you make money I’ll give you a reward, and if you don’t I’ll pay you some wages.’ So I became a book scout. He gave me a check for six hundred dollars for Captain Cook’s Voyages

Q: Book scouting led to working at Powell’s Books?

Book scouting is how I met Walter Powell. He priced books really low, so I did more scouting there than I did selling. One day he asked, ‘Do you read all these?’ and I said, no, I was there buying. He asked what I do with them and I said, ‘I sell them to other booksellers.’ He said, ‘Will you price books for me?’ and we became fast friends within a week. I became his assistant manager and ran the Rare Book Room. He was a mentor and a dear friend, and though he wasn’t well-read and he didn’t know the value of books particularly, he was a good businessman.

Q: How did you go from Powell’s to appraising?

Powell’s changed, and I was used to the old Powell’s. It became a tourist destination, and that’s okay, but it wasn’t the same. Portland was changing. Powell’s had been a funky, interesting place, and now it’s very clean and straight and there’s not as many used books. The people that worked there had truly been a collection of dysfunctional geniuses. Poets, painters, artists, and writers ran Powell’s, and old Mr. Powell said, ‘I’ll fund it!’ He said, ‘This is like the Ed Sullivan Show, I’m calling it Powell’s after myself, but really people are coming here to see what you are all doing.’ It became a different thing, so I went off and got involved with a used and rare bookstore called Great Northwest.

Q: What are some of your favorite collections that you’ve appraised?

One was the Ray Bradbury estate, because I loved his writings as a boy, and to go through his house and through his things was an eye-opener. Doing Dr. Maya Angelou’s books and papers was likewise very meaningful to me, to hold in my hands books inscribed to her by Malcolm X and Dr. King. In some cases, I’ve appraised manuscripts from the Middle Ages that belonged to English royalty at a time when English royalty was killing itself. For a noble woman, the only private thing she got to own was a prayer book. You hold this and learn about her life. She was the grandmother of Henry VIII, her cousin was Richard II. She was right in the middle of what would later be Shakespeare’s material. It was the time of the bubonic plague. She was right there, and your mind boggles. What a period she was in! Appraising takes you to a time and place.

Q: Do you have any advice for students interested in appraising?

You have to understand markets. There’s an aspect to publishing that is appraising, and that’s profit and loss statements. When a manuscript comes across your desk, the first thing you have to think about is, what is the monetary value of this? It’s a gas to publish great literature, but great literature doesn’t necessarily sell. If you publish Your Day in Astrology or The Krispy Kreme Donut Diet, something that can appeal to people en masse, you understand what you have to do to stay in business. You also want to pick up a backlist and have books that are going to be used in colleges. The rat with the biggest tail is the book you want to get. Take some of our books, like Ricochet River. It’s not selling like it did when it first came out, or when new printings are published, but the tail is long. Ricochet River is a major piece and it works. Everyone loves teaching it. It’s multicultural, it’s interesting material, and it’s a coming-of-age and Americans love coming-of-age stories.

Q: Would you have gone to the Publishing program?

I would’ve loved Ooligan Press and to have been an Oolie. I’ve even fantasized about applying for an old man grant. I’m an alumni and an old man, give me a scholarship. The only problem is that then I’d be a student and I’d have to take my own course and teach myself. I would like to take a lot of the courses, though. All of you [in the program] are getting such an exciting opportunity to learn so much. You’ve got great teachers all across the board. Per [Henningsgaard] and all the gang, they’re fantastic. Dennis Stovall is an amazing person, and he and his wife, Liddy, built the program out of nothing. I’m very proud to be a part of this. The height of my year is to teach. For me, it’s a privilege.

Interview with DongWon Song, Literary Agent and New Adjunct Instructor

Literary agent DongWon Song moved to Portland from New York City almost two years ago. He works remotely as part of the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency, where he’s on the lookout for “science fiction and fantasy—especially epic fantasy or high fantasy—for both adults and teens . . . [plus] nonfiction, especially food writing, science, and pop culture.” Before becoming an agent, Song was an early hire at digital publishing startup Zola Books and an editor at Orbit Books US; for the latter, he launched bestselling series like The Expanse, beginning with Leviathan Wakes, now a Syfy television show. As of winter 2016, Song will be an adjunct instructor of book editing for Portland State’s graduate book publishing program. If you’re looking for an agent, he’ll be taking pitches and giving a pitch workshop at the 2016 Write to Publish conference on January 30, 2016, and he is currently open to submissions.

I met with Song in November 2015 to discuss his impressive editorial experience, his experiences of fandom as a publishing professional, and how he plans to approach teaching book editing.

Why did you move to Portland?

Mostly [for] a change of pace/scenery. . . . I was still working for Zola at the time.

How did you decide on a career in publishing? Was it a long-held goal, or did you come to the industry another way?

I like to read a lot. . . . Honestly, that’s why you get into publishing: you like books, you want to do more of it. It’s sort of misguided in some ways, because once you actually get in the business, you no longer have time to read for pleasure, and you’re just reading for work. But you get to work with writers, and it is amazing and rewarding and super fun.

Was a publishing career always your original goal, or did you start somewhere else?

To say that it was would imply that I had more direction as a teenager and in college than I actually did, but I always knew I wanted to move to New York. My first job out of school, I actually was working in TV news; I was a research PA for PBS. Working there, I realized I wanted to stay in media, but books made a lot more sense. And I was an English major in college—it was either go into publishing or go into academia, and I chose publishing.

How has working in the science fiction and fantasy genres within the publishing industry affected your experience of fandom?

I had no relationship to fandom before becoming a professional in the field. I was a huge fan, but I wasn’t engaged with other fans in a substantive way. And the experience of being in it, over time . . . I’ve got more and more into fandom as a result. Sort of a process of letting go of some previous ideas I might have had earlier in my life, and now just being an enthusiastic participant in the genre. Having a lot of friends who go to [events] helps a lot; I just get to hang out with them most of the day.

Leaping off from that, how has working professionally in genre changed your experience of reading and selecting books?

I’m definitely more aware of context sometimes. There are certain authors I might not have found otherwise. . . . Nnedi Okorafor, for example, is not someone I’m sure I would have been aware of as just a regular reader. As someone who’s a participant in the genre community, I see how she’s hugely important and exciting, and I’m really into it. And I think it’s a shame that she doesn’t have a bigger profile as a result. At the same time, what she’s doing is very literary, so I understand the reasons why. So I think fandom can make me really aware of things I wouldn’t have been otherwise—and it other times makes me aware of things I wish I wasn’t aware of: the whole Sad Puppies controversy and things like that. There is definitely a downside to being stuck in it as well, because you get caught up in the politics of it . . . but you see something like that happening, and you don’t let that slide.

How do you plan to approach the teaching of developmental editing and other aspects of editing in your book editing class?

My plan is to come at it, really, to talk more about the role of an editor overall. Developmental editing is a component of it, and for teaching the developmental side, it’s less about, “Here’s the structure of this and things you need to do,” and more about, “Here’s how you talk to writers; here’s how you approach thinking about these things.” And what I’d like to communicate is having a holistic way of approaching a manuscript that’s not just about the text itself but about the publishing program. How to edit to a joined-up strategy around cover design, marketing, publicity, and all of those components. How are you going to make sure that this has the best chance once it’s out in the marketplace? I think getting people to think about it from that perspective, rather than as something that’s kind of precious—it’s an artistic endeavour, you’re working with writers, but you’re explicitly on the business side; you’re explicitly someone who is trying to sell books to make a profit.

What are some of your favorite aspects of agenting?

Finding people. I love finding manuscripts. When you run across a thing that’s great, and you’re up all night reading it, that’s a magical moment. And every time it happens, you [think], “Oh, right—this is why I do this.”

What advice would you like to pass on to neophyte publishing professionals?

Meet as many people as you can; just talk to everybody. It doesn’t matter what role they have—if they have anything to do with the industry, just find out what their deal is, how they do what they do, what their job is. . . . Go into bookstores and talk to booksellers. They know more about this business than almost anybody. Talk to writers. Talk to agents, editors. . . . We all get into [this] business because we like to sit in dark rooms and read, because we’re all introverts, so the hardest thing is to go out into the world and say, “I would like to sit down and talk to you or meet you because of X, Y, or Z.” And it shouldn’t be hard, but it is, it’s hard for anybody. . . . It’s not being afraid to go out and ask for an interview or a conversation. . . . I think everyone talks it up [as] schmoozing or networking, and I think that’s true to some extent, but really what you’re doing is learning. At some point, someone’s going to remember you, and they’re going to call you up and say, “We need X, Y, or Z.”