I first met Julia Moberg when I was an undergrad dramatic writing student at NYU. We both were in the Tisch School of the Arts in the Dramatic Writing Department. Since we’ve graduated, Julia has gone on to become a successful young adult author and editor. Her book SKIES OVER SWEETWATER was published in March 2008, nominated for the Amelia Bloomer reading list, and she has gotten high praise from Gary Jansen, Executive Editor of the Quality Paperback Book Club who said, “This is an exciting novel and Moberg’s writing is reminiscent of Harper Lee’s tender, yet powerful, narration in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ This is an auspicious debut from a writer with a very bright future.”
I had the opportunity to interview Julia about her journey into the young adult novel writing world. Many thanks to Julia for her time and thoughtful answers.
(Note from Julia Moberg: The term WASP stands for “Women Airforce Service Pilots” and is considered plural. Many people make the mistake of referring to them as WASPS.)
Q. How did you get started in YA writing?
A. Children’s books have always had a special place in my heart. I was a very avid reader growing up. I think I spent more time at the library than anywhere else. Children’s books ultimately inspired me to pursue writing in the first place. After college, I started working in the publishing world and fell in love with young adult books all over again. It was more than just an interest. YA books became my biggest passion, and still are. It’s hard to answer this question because I think I always had an interest to write YA. When I decided to write a book about the WASP, a coming-of-age YA story was the most natural fit.
Q. What inspired you to write SKIES OVER SWEETWATER?
A. The WASP themselves by far were the biggest inspiration in writing SKIES OVER SWEETWATER. Not many people know that women flew during WWII. We see pictures of women on the homefront working in factories, as nurses, and taking over the jobs while the men were overseas. Very little has been written about these pioneers in aviation. They’re not mentioned in official history books in schools, yet they were so vital in paving the way for women in aviation. They not only inspired me to tell their story, they became my role models. I hope that others who read my book also adopt them as role models.
Q. We were both writers in the dramatic writing department at NYU. How do you think your dramatic writing skills are helping your YA writing?
A. First off, great question! I studied screenwriting at NYU, and although it is quite different than writing a novel, one of the most important things I learned was how to write visually. I was taught how to see the story and characters in my mind as I write, and to think about how the reader will react to them. There’s more freedom in fiction writing, I find, which can make it harder at times. You’re not bound to as many restrictions or rules like you are in screenwriting. But I think many of the disciplines that I learned in the dramatic writing program helped me. The strict emphasis on story, tone, characterization, and dialogue were important skills that I learned. Not to mention how important and influential the teachers were. One of my professors at NYU initially told me about the WASP. I was working on another project and she casually mentioned that I should make one of my characters a WASP. Of course, I thought she meant White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. When she explained who the WASP were I was shocked that I had never heard about them before. After my book came out one of the greatest moments was sending her a copy with a note of gratitude.
Q. What YA books did you read growing up and what are you reading now?
A. Growing up I loved books that took me places I had never been before, through imagination and adventure. Some of my favorites were From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg, Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren, The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit, Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell, and anything by Madeline L’Engle. I also loved books about friendship. I must have read the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace dozens of times.
These days I read everything I can. Picture books, middle-grade, and YA. I think the books that publishers are putting out are breaking new grounds, and crossing over into the adult market like never before. It’s exciting! I will read anything by Laurie Halse Anderson, Jerry Spinelli, Sarah Dessen, John Green, and Carolyn Mackler. My new favorite author is Jenny Han. She’s published two books so far, Shug and The Summer I Turned Pretty and has a third one coming out later this year. I think she is an incredibly talented writer.
Q. Tell us about the process of finishing the book, working with an editor, getting it published, and then publicizing the book.
A. When I was ready to start submitting my book, I definitely utilized my contacts from working in the publishing world. I was involved in an organization called Women In Publishing and I sent all the agents who were members a query letter. About six of them expressed interest in reading my manuscript. Months and months went by and then Elizabeth Fisher from the Levine Greenberg Agency wrote me expressing interest but wanted me to re-work some things first. I did a re-write for her and soon after she made me an offer to represent my book. We did about 3 more re-writes together, polishing it up to submit to publishers. When it was ready, she sent it out to about 15 publishers, all of whom rejected it. Their main criticism was that historical fiction wasn’t selling. This was several years ago, and editors were mostly looking for science fiction, mystery, and contemporary YA romance. So we decided to send it out to smaller companies including some of the independents. Diane Tinney at Keene Books expressed some interest in it and made an offer. We did another re-write and soon the book went to press. I really enjoyed working with a small independent publisher. I had more control and input in how the book would turn out. For instance, I had a say in what the cover would look like, something that the bigger companies rarely give authors. Publicizing the book was a lot of fun! I had several signings at local bookstores, and they even sent me to the Texas Library Association conference, and to a WASP reunion in Sweetwater, where several of the WASP were in attendance. I did a lot of publicity on my own, especially online. I think you have to these days in order to stand out from the crowd.
Q. How research-intensive was the process of writing SKIES OVER SWEETWATER since it is based in history?
A. It was very research-intensive. I contacted several WASP who are still alive, went to the Air & Space museum and the Women’s Military Museum in DC, read countless books and self-published memoirs, and read history books about WWII and the 1940′s. The hardest thing to research was the flying. I’ve never flown an airplane, and not only did I have to capture the essence of being a pilot, the lingo, the terminology, I also had to write about airplanes that were 60 years old. It was tough! I have two friends who are pilots and turned to them to learn about flight theory, and also researched all the different aircraft that the WASP flew.
Q. What’s your next project?
A. I have a contemporary teen novel in the works as well as a middle-grade adventure. I’d like to write another historical YA as well someday, and have a few ideas for picture books.
Q. YA writing has become a huge industry for book publishers and writers. What are your tips for authors, like myself, who are just starting out?
A. First, learn everything you can about the industry. Read the books that are on the New York Times list, keep up-to-date on publishing trends, and most importantly know your audience. Attend author events in your town or online, and writing conferences. The Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators is a good group to start with. Their website is great. They also have the tools to help you know who and where to submit your book.
When submitting to agents and publishers send a marketing & publicity plan along with your manuscript. Publishers need authors to be just as active in promoting their books these days, and sometimes that will determine if a book gets published or not. And never give up! Don’t take rejection too seriously. Push forward!
Julia Moberg prefers life on the ground and resides in Queens, New York. By day she works as the Editor of the Children’s Book-of-the-Month Club.