Thursday, April 12, 2012

Candace Fleming: Highlights Foundation Success Story

I met Candy Fleming while attending the Highlights Week at Chautauqua in 2007 and my life has never been the same. When I say that, I don't mean it as a cliche; it's fact. We rode the same bus into Chautauqua from the Buffalo airport, we stayed at the same hotel, and we kept bumping into each other. I think it was my second day at the conference when Candy accidentally read a piece of my work (long story!), we started talking, and ever since then have become great friends.

I have devoured her work, and loved every piece of it from Muncha, Muncha, Muncha, to Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary School, to Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart (which just won the SCBWI Golden Kite Award for Best Non-Fiction) to name a few. She is just one of The Highlights Foundation's success stories.  

J.E.: Chautauqua. I remember hearing the name the first time and thought it was some secret society that could only be mentioned in whispers. I didn't realize it was as everyone says, "A magical place". What about Chautauqua was spellbinding to you?

C.F.: Have you ever seen that old musical, Brigadoon, in which a magical Scottish village appears every hundred years through the Highland mist? In many ways, Chautauqua reminds me of that Scottish village. Every couple of years it rises up on my life's horizon -- shimmering, seductive, beckoning me to come and write.  And I always answer its call, because magic and muse seem to seep from every porch and rosebush.  For me, it was a life-changing place.

J.E.: The word "break" insinuates that it's not hard work, overlooks the countless hours perfecting the correct words to show, not tell, and minimizes dedication to craft, but I can't think of an easier way to ask the question, so, when and how did your first "break," come?

C.F.: Way back in 1993, I attended the Highlights' Writers Conference at Chautauqua. I came with a so-so picture book manuscript in hand and left a week later with a much improved story -- thanks to my mentor Jerry Spinelli (OMG, Jerry Spinelli!!!).  A few months passed, and I decided to attend my first SCBWI conference. I went because the scheduled speaker was Anne Schwartz, an editor from Knopf whose list I adored. 

Feeling both scared and hopeful, I decided to take along a picture book manuscript, the same one I'd worked on at Chautauqua. I didn't think she'd get a chance to actually read it, but.... By pure luck, on the first day of the  conference, my story was chosen to be read during an open mic session. Even luckier? Anne Schwartz was in the audience. Not only did she like the story, but she invited me to send it to her. I did, and the rest is history (my history, anyway). We've been together ever since -- for almost nineteen years and something like twenty books. She's an extraordinary editor, as well as a dear friend.

J.E.: After spending time myself at the Barn in Boyds Mills, I feel like the magic has definitely followed Highlights from Chautauqua to PA. As a faculty member, what advantages do you see  to having the Barn assume the Chautauquan role?

C.F.: The biggest advantage is the intimacy and intensity of the workshops. While the week-long conference at Chautauqua covered a multitude of topics related to making children's books, they didn't especially lend themselves to an in-depth exploration. At Boyds Mills, we can do that. We can roll up our sleeves and get to work on individual projects that are important to attendees. We can make a real difference in the work.

J.E.: You are running an upcoming Founders Workshop at the Barn. Tell us what you hope the writer/attendee learns?

C.F.: I want participants to leave my workshops with a clearer understanding of their writing process. I want them to understand how to improve their particular project, and set them on the path towards creating a publishable work.

J. E.: As a successful author, is there any appeal to just kicking back and resting on your accolades?

C.F.: Sure, there's lots of appeal. After all, I'm basically lazy. But as much as I'd like to rest on my laurels, I can't. Ideas nudge me. Stories prick at me. I have to write. It's what I do.

J.E.: Typically how many projects are you working on at one given time?

C.F.: I typically work on three projects at a time -- one picture book manuscript, one novel, and one non-fiction project. They sort of circulate around my desk until I'm forced, either because of an impending deadline or my own compulsions, to settle in and focus until completion.

J.E.: All of us struggling writers that are aiming to write for publication are on the lookout for any gem, insight, or magic trick that will move the process forward for us, so……. what is it?

C.F.: My advice?  Go to work every day. Write the stories you want to write. Listen to your heart, and your voice, and create the stories that only you can create. And stop obsessing about stuff like word count, and publishing trends, and blogging. Put that energy into your craft.

J.E.: When you write non-fiction, your research has to be impeccable as well as exhausting. Since you write fiction, non-fiction, picture book, and space station operating manuals, which genre is easiest for you, or are they all equally demanding?

C.F.: I think all three genres are challenging... and exhilarating.

J.E.: Writers often talk about becoming the character they're writing about so that they can fully get to know them. Other than doing the completely sane thing like baking a birthday cake for Ben Franklin, have you done anything kinda weird to get into character?  

J.E.: I'm always doing stuff that some people might consider weird as a means of finding my way into a character. For example, when I learned that Eleanor Roosevelt wore Channel #5, I bought a little bottle for myself (which pretty much ate up most of my royalty check). I dabbed it on my wrist every day that I was writing and sniffed it. It brought me closer to her -- or at least I thought so.

J.E.: E-reader or Book?

C.F.:   Book

J.E.: Favorite Food?

C.F.: Chardonnay.... oh, wait, that's not a food. Um.... a still-hot-from-the-oven baguette with Irish butter.  Add some brie, a couple apple slices, and a glass of Chardonnay, and it's the perfect meal.

J.E.: Favorite Movie?

C.F.: Gone With The Wind -- the story's kind of schmaltzy, but Clark Gable is to die for!

J.E.: Favorite Place?

C.F.: The shores of southern Lake Michigan.  It's one of the few places where I feel completely happy and entirely at peace.

J.E.: Driveway full of snow… Shovel or hire the neighborhood kid?

C.F.: I like to shovel my own driveway. It's good exercise. Besides, I actually like snow.

J.E.: Dinner…. Get out the apron or get out the car keys?

C.F.: Dinner?  I get out the apron...  and tie it around Eric's waist!
Candace Fleming and significant other, fellow author Eric Rohmann
J.E.: Writing…longhand or computer?

C.F.: I write all my drafts -- everything from picture books to biographies -- in longhand. I use only wide-lined, loose-leaf notepaper and blue Bic pens. I like the smell of the ink (seriously). It puts me in the writing mood.

J.E.: If we could come into your writing space/office and take anything we wanted, except one thing, what would it be? Why?

C.F.: That's an easy one. You can take anything but my current manuscript. Because the first draft is written in longhand, I don't have a copy.

Jon Egan


  1. What a fun interview! I loved the minutiae about the perfume Eleanor Roosevelt wore. Bought that book for my daughter, who was named after that Eleanor and E. of Aquitane.

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  3. Well done, Jon!

  4. Great interview, Jon! I loved meeting Candy at Chautauqua, & AMELIA LOST is that rare book that makes non-fiction read like a novel.

  5. Thanks for the awesome interview, Jon! I will agree with Candy on the shores of Michigan. It's a great place to be :)