An Exclusive Authorlink Interview with Kathy Dawson
By Lesley Williams
"My mom read to us every night. She loved the classics . . ."
AUTHORLINK: How did you first become involved in publishing?
DAWSON: I never had any question that publishing was the arena for me, having grown up loving books, writing bad poetry (my favorite was about a pizza guy), and being fascinated by the way words worked. When I began my job search, my boyfriend at the time was going to journalism school with the daughter of the publisher of Philomel Books, Patricia Lee Gauch. I passed my resume on to Patricia's daughter, who passed it to Patricia, who passed it to the managing editor of G. P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers, who called me for an interview.
AUTHORLINK: What did you do before occupying your current position?
DAWSON: I worked at G. P. Putnam's Sons for nearly seventeen years, holding various positions in the editorial and managing editorial departments; I spent three years as the managing editor. In 1994, I became an editor, and when I left in 2005 I was an executive editor.
AUTHORLINK: What job would you do if you could do any job in the world?
DAWSON: This one. Although on days when I'm overwhelmed with work, I sometimes think I'd like to operate a toll booth.
AUTHORLINK: What is your earliest memory of your love for words or books?
DAWSON: My mom used to write, illustrate, and create one-of-a-kind tactile, lift-the-flap books for my legally blind sister, and my mom also made pictures of some of the characters to hang on the walls of our rooms. Herman, the Mouse with the Too-Long Tail was one of them. She made me a plush version of Herman's sister, Marcy. These were characters I lived with and then heard about in her stories. Platt & Munk had wanted to publish some of her work (and even came to our house in NJ), but she refused to make any of the editorial changes they suggested, so it never came to pass. Hmmm … I don't suppose that has anything to do with the way I chose my profession, do you . . . ?
AUTHORLINK: Who influenced you most as a child to read?
DAWSON: My mom read to us every night. She loved the classics, E.B. White, A. A. Milne, Emily Dickinson (I'm nobody! Who are you?). All of my siblings and I were early readers, and before every vacation, my mom would take us to the book store to stock up for the long car ride. I distinctly remember Frog and Toad, Little House on the Prairie, Beezus and Ramona, A Girl Called Al, and A Wrinkle in Time, and being desperate to read them right away, but having to wait until the trip.
AUTHORLINK: What is it you like about your favorite books?
DAWSON: All of my favorite books contain a secret or surprised me in some way; were written by an author capable of writing from a true and deep place; portray characters that live beyond the page; and demonstrate a level of craft that takes my breath away.
AUTHORLINK: What categories do you acquire for?
DAWSON: Mostly middle-grade and young adult fiction, but also picture books.
AUTHORLINK: What other categories personally interest you?
DAWSON: I don't know if these could be considered categories, but here are some kinds of books that interest me: Historical, Hysterical, Mysterious, Magical, Sexy, Suspenseful, Romantic, Rude, Contemporary, Classic, Southern, Silly, Literary, Lyrical. I've recently realized that I am a sucker for apocalyptic novels. And I'd love to work on a character-driven mystery. I also tend to gravitate toward books about misfits, outcasts and the mentally ill.
AUTHORLINK: Of the projects you've edited and published, can you give us two examples of books (titles and authors) that would best represent your interests or tastes?
DAWSON: Two books wouldn't be an accurate reflection, but I'll list two books I edited that went on to receive Newbery honors: Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko, and Getting Near to Baby by Audrey Couloumbis.
"Harcourt does not accept unsolicited manuscripts at this time. Everything must come through an agent."
AUTHORLINK: What do you want to see in a query? How long?
DAWSON: A one-sentence great hook; a one or two paragraph plot summary that gives away the ending; three sample chapters; the word count or page length; the author's publishing history and any major award history.
AUTHORLINK: Do you accept email queries?
DAWSON: Usually not from agents I don't already know.
AUTHORLINK: Do you accept direct queries from authors or do you prefer to work with agents?
DAWSON: Harcourt does not accept unsolicited manuscripts at this time. Everything must come through an agent. This was a decision made in order to help us deal with the sheer volume of submissions. Most of the editors will accept one submission from attendees at any conference at which she appears as a speaker.
". . . what gets people most excited is a new, fresh, talented voice."
AUTHORLINK: What advice, if any, do you have for the new writer trying to break in?
DAWSON: Write as deep as you can. The deeper you delve into yourself when you write, the more original your voice will be. What editors really want is originality. They may say they want the next Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, but that's only because they sometimes have trouble tuning out the hype of the current bestsellers. There's a lot of noise in a publishing house about bestsellers, trends, and the bottom-line and it's easy to jump on the bandwagon and forget that all the best bestsellers weren't following a trend—they were original. Even seasoned editors get caught up in the hype, but in the end, what gets people most excited is a new, fresh, talented voice.
AUTHORLINK: What are your three biggest turn-offs when you're considering a manuscript (packaging? typefaces? no SASE? viewpoint shifts?)
DAWSON: I hate Courier type, maybe because it reminds me of old typewriter fonts. Times roman, 12 point is the standard.
". . . writing that is true lifts me up . . ."
AUTHORLINK: What was it about the last three manuscripts you've acquired that caught your eye? Made the decision for you to buy?
DAWSON: I couldn't put them down once I started reading. Rhythm, voice, craft, smart humor … basically, for me to acquire a book, it has to have a whole host of things going for it.
AUTHORLINK: Do you have a favorite quote or first line of a novel, some wisdom that has guided you?
DAWSON: Just that writing that is true lifts me up; writing that tries too hard to be true depresses me. I look for signs of exultation or desolation in myself as I read. It's a fool-proof gauge for me.
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