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Author Michaela Muntean
Michaela Muntean is the author of many well beloved children's stories, both through Golden books and her own creations, such as Do Not Open This Book and her latest project, Stay: The True Story of Ten Dogs.
I was recently given the opportunity to interview Ms. Muntean for Teen Ink.
Rachel- Who came up with the idea of Do Not Open This Book?
Michaela Muntean- The idea for Do Not Open this Book! belongs to the illustrator, Pascal Lemaitre. I’d known Pascal for several years and we’d worked together on two other books. I was not, however, the author of those books; I was the editor.
Our working relationship grew into a friendship and Pascal would often send me random doodles and magnificently ridiculous sketches. One day he sent me a drawing of an exasperated dog dressed in overalls, furiously at work binding together the pages of an over-sized book.
“What’s the book about?” I asked.
Pascal said he didn’t know. “The dog doesn’t know either,” he added. “He’s getting the pages ready so he can start writing.”
“Oh,” I answered (which seemed the only sensible answer).
I jotted “an unwritten book” below the sketch and tacked it on the wall of my office. That drawing stayed there for months and every time I glanced at it, it made me smile.
Another sketch arrived from Pascal. It was the same dog. This time he was sitting at a desk, frustrated and angry. A caption over the dog’s head read: Leave me alone!
“Are you trying to tell me something?” I asked Pascal.
“No,” he said. “The dog just wants to be left alone to work on his book.”
“Who’s bothering him?” I asked.
“I think it’s the reader,” Pascal said.
And with that, Do Not Open This Book! was born.
So, I cannot take credit for the basic idea of that book; it sprang from Pascal’s sketches.
RH- Tell us about the writing process.
MM- As I worked on the manuscript, there were elements not only of the writing process, but also the editing process I wanted to explore. The idea of building a book—Pascal’s original sketch had a dog (which later morphed into a pig) in overalls. I thought, too, about that phrase I’d initially jotted – “an unwritten book” and what that meant—blank pages and piles of words. I wanted to say something about the care with which a writer uses words, and do it all with humor.
Most picture-story books begin with the author’s manuscript. When a publishing house acquires that manuscript, the art department selects the artist they think would best illustrate the text. The author, in most cases, does not have any input in that decision. But there are exceptions to everything. An author may be partnered with an illustrator and sell the book as a team (as Pascal and I did), or the author may have a specific illustrator in mind and he or she will suggest that person to the publisher, or the publisher may have an artist they want to use—or even an idea for a story—and they will hire an author to write it.
Or, none of the above.
RH- Where do you find inspiration for your stories?
MM- Of course there are innumerable answers to that question, and they are just as varied—and often just as strange or straightforward—as the work itself. An idea can come from anywhere—it’s where you let it take you that can make it interesting.
RH- When did you know you wanted to make writing your career?
MM- I majored in Comparative Literature and secondary education at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, taught Russian literature to high school seniors for a year, decided to go to graduate school and then … decided not to. I longed to do something outside of a classroom for a year, maybe two, tops.
So I answered an ad for an editor’s position at Western Publishing Company/Golden Books in Racine, Wisconsin. I hadn’t realized, though, that the job was in the children’s book department. “I know nothing about children’s literature,” I said at the interview. “I don’t even have an elementary education degree.”
To this day, I’m not sure why they hired me but I’m grateful they did. Perhaps they sensed something I hadn’t yet realized—that I’d been training for that job most of my life. I’d grown up the eldest of seven children and in order to entertain my sisters and brothers, I wrote dozens of stories and plays. My specialty was extravagant holiday productions. I made costumes, and then I made my siblings learn their lines. (Being the eldest had its advantages, although my brothers and sisters might simply say I was bossy.)
I suppose you could say writing was a career that found me. I did, however, love editing and would return to it again and again, usually as a consultant, sometimes helping establish programs at various publishers. Writing is a rather lonely job (you can’t invite people over to watch you write!) and I would miss the process of putting a book together. I loved working with artists, designers and production people. Deciding on the trim size of a book, the typeface, the page count – all the stages, from manuscript to bound book, I found exciting.
RH- Tell us about your job at Golden Books.
MM- When I began working at Western, it was the height of “Sesame Street’s” popularity and Golden Books was their primary publisher. Manuscripts arrived. Most of them would have been great as television skits, but not as books. “I can fix these,” I said, and for the next two years, I wrote Sesame Street books on staff while learning the art of being an editor.
Through a serendipitous meeting, I was offered a job at Parents’ Magazine in New York as the editor of Humpty Dumpty’s Magazine. So instead of ever going to graduate school, I went to New York City. (You might say that was a form of graduate school.)
My relationship with “Sesame Street,” however, would continue and through the years, I wrote over 40 books for Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, and the Muppet Organization. I also maintained my connection to Western and wrote over 25 Little Golden Books. After three years editing Humpty Dumpty Magazine, I left to become a freelance writer. I did, however, continue to work with Parents’ Magazine Press and wrote a number of books for their children’s book club. (I seemed to never quite leave any job I ever had.)
RH- Where did the idea for your latest book come from?
MM- The idea for my latest book came about because one day I ran into a friend while walking on the beach. I hadn’t seen him in some time and asked what he’d been doing. He told me he was working at a circus. Lucky you, I said. You get to hang out with acrobats and clowns all day. Then I asked him what was his favorite act, and he told me about a man who rescues dogs from animal shelters and trains them to be circus performers. Right away, I knew I had to talk to this man. So I called him and the next week went to meet him—and his dogs.
His name was Luciano Anastasini and his story was fascinating. He’d grown up in the circus, an eighth-generation performer. By the time he was 12, he was an accomplished juggler and acrobat. When he was 38, he had a terrible accident; he fell 50 feet from a high wire. After four surgeries and two years of rehab, he had healed, but his days of doing fancy stunts were over. What was he going to do? The only life he’d ever known was the circus. Slowly, an idea for a new act came to him. He would need partners—furry, four-legged partners. If his idea worked, he’d be getting a second chance. Maybe he could give some dogs a second chance, too. So he went looking for ones no one else wanted.
For three months, I hung out with Luciano. Every morning, I’d meet him at the circus. I’d sit in the empty Big Top, early light filtering through the tent, fresh sawdust in the ring, and watch a man and his dogs practice their act. Then he and I would walk the dogs and we’d talk. And talk. And talk. From those conversations came a book that will be published in April 2012. The title is Stay: The True Story of Ten Dogs. The illustrations are photographs of Luciano and his dogs.
RH- What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
MM- My advice to aspiring writers would be, above all, pay attention. There are ideas all around you. Say yes to opportunities, to things you seemingly know nothing about; take paths you never thought you’d travel. See where they lead you.