A former high school English teacher, Marilyn Singer published her first book, The Dog Who Insisted He Wasn’t, way back in 1976. Since then, she has published over ninety books in many genres—including the Tallulah picture books and Mirror Mirror (Dutton), for which she created the “reverso,” has garnered eighteen state, city, and international award nominations and won a Cybil Award for best poetry book of 2010. This year, Marilyn has six books coming out: A Stick is an Excellent Thing (Clarion), illustrated by LeUyen Pham; Every Day’s a Dog’s Day (Dial), illustrated by Miki Sakamoto; Tallulah’s Solo (Clarion), illustrated by Alexandra Boiger; The Boy Who Cried Alien (Hyperion), illustrated by Brian Biggs; The Superheroes Employment Agency (Clarion), illustrated by Noah Z. Jones; and A Strange Place to Call Home (Chronicle), illustrated by Ed Young. 2013 will see another Tallulah book and a new collection of reversos, Follow Follow.To learn more, visit her website.
Let the conversation begin!
Describe your writing journey, from aspiring writer to published author.
When I was a kid, I used to go into my parents’ bathroom and make up stories. I’d shine a flashlight on the ceiling and create this character, Lightey the Lightning Bug. My parents thought I had an imaginary friend, but I knew it was a flashlight and my own imagination. Flash forward nearly twenty years. I’d just quit teaching high school and was writing teachers’ guides about films and also filmstrips (remember those?). One day, I was sitting in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and I recalled those Lightey stories. I wrote them down. And that inspired me to write other stories as well. I showed them to a friend who was a published writer, and I also joined the Bank Street Writers Lab. Both the friend and fellow Lab participants encouraged me to submit the stories to publishers, so I did. Among that batch was one called THE DOG WHO INSISTED HE WASN’T. I sold it to Dutton, and it was my first published book. I was very, very lucky in that it took only about six months from the time I wrote it to getting it accepted. But things were different in the 70s—it was considerably easier to sell something over the transom. As for the Lightey stories, I eventually fashioned those into a novel, which was published, but which, I’m sad to say, bombed.
I’ve now been a writer for nearly forty years, and it’s still something of a roller coaster ride. Sometimes I sell manuscripts, but just as often I get rejected. Sometimes my published books sell really well; other times, they don’t. Writing is not a career for the thin-skinned or easily defeated, but I really wouldn’t choose another one. I can’t—I don’t have a lot of other skills!
Ever written a book that never got published? Ever think you’ll give it a second chance?
As I said above, you betcha! I’ve written plenty of unpublished manuscripts. But writers learn never to throw away ANYTHING. There are manuscripts that I hadn’t sold, but then I’ve reworked them, and eureka! There’s a YA novel I hope to revisit someday and see if I can revise it into something salable. And even if I don’t sell it, I had a good time writing it and could have an equally good one rewriting it.
What story does your family always tell about you?
When my mom was alive, she always told anyone who would listen that I was something of a precocious child (from her, that was a compliment!). Apparently, when I was really little, I went up to some guy and said, “I’d like to introduce you to my parents.” His response was “How old is that kid?” I rather like that story because it shows how much I loved words even then.
Another story my mom always told was about something that happened when we stayed at a hotel in the Catskills. We went there in the summer to escape NYC heat. There was an auditorium with a stage, and during the day, when no one except the staff were there, I’d go up and sing into a dead mike. I was maybe 3 or 4 at the time, and I really loved to sing. My big numbers were “Gimme a Little Kiss” and “Baby Face.” One night when all the guests were in the auditorium for “cartoon night” or whatever it was, the MC, aided and abetted by my parents, said, “And now we’re going to have a special treat. We’re going to have a song from Miss Marilyn Singer.” The trouble was nobody told me. And although I loved singing, I didn’t want to do it in public—at least not then. I burst into tears and ran out of the room.
Lately, I enjoy performing (at least when it comes to reading my poetry out loud) more, but I still can get conflicted—the push/pull between wanting that applause and wanting to hide! And I always get nervous beforehand. My husband says that that story from my childhood is also about how I like things well-planned in advance, that I don’t like surprises sprung on me. It is true that I’m not keen on surprise parties, but I do like surprise gifts, such as necklaces. And brooches. And flowers. And…well, surprise me!
What age did you become an adult?
What’s an adult?
What mischief did you get into growing up?
I had a good friend who lived a few houses away. We were completely nuts about The Beatles. I used to sneak out and visit her in the middle of the night so we could spin yarns about what would happen if we ever met John, Paul, George and Ringo. We actually created pretty complicated and romantic adventures. Because she lived so near, I’d dash over in my nightgown. One evening, a policeman apparently spotted me and he told my parents, who promptly asked me what on earth I’d been doing. I had to tell the truth (or part of the truth—I don’t think I bothered to mention that I’d been sneaking out for months!). I didn’t get into a lot of trouble (just a little), and I don’t think I stopped sneaking out either!
What piece of advice would you give the younger you?
Here are some of the things I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older: Be as straightforward with people as you possibly can. Work hard on not envying others. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Finish what you’ve started. Own your triumphs and your failures. And, as a wise person once said to me, “Laugh and enjoy your food.”
If you could throw any kind of party, what would it be like?
I’ve already thrown my perfect party. It was for my sixtieth birthday a few years ago. It was in a Ukrainian restaurant in NYC which has a party room. My husband and I, who love to dance, hired an amazing band, as well as our dance teacher to give brief lessons in swing and cha cha. The restaurant did the catering—blintzes, potato pancakes, and other delicious comfort food. There were seventy-five guests and we ate and danced up a storm. I hope to do this again for another big birthday. It was divine!
What’s the worst gift you’ve ever received?
There have been some humdingers, but the one my husband and I always talk about was the wedding gift we received which was a red plastic tray that spelled the word “DIP.” We returned it to the store, but it will always remain in our memory.
If you could meet anyone, living or dead, who would it be?
Shakespeare, please! Some great lyricists such as Dorothy Fields and Johnny Mercer. And maybe Jon Stewart.
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Don’t try to impress everybody. Keep it simple—even when it isn’t. And know that in all likelihood, you’re going to have to revise!
What songs are included on the soundtrack to your life?
Hoo, boy. You struck a chord with this one. I’m a huge fan of the Great American Songbook, so here are the standards I’d include:
“You’re Not Sick, You’re Just in Love” (Irving Berlin); “I Get a Kick Out of You” (Cole Porter); “From This Moment On” (Cole Porter); “On the Sunny Side of the Street” (Jimmy McHugh/Dorothy Fields); “Come Fly with Me” (Jimmy Van Heusen/Sammy Cahn); “This Could Be the Start of Something Big” (Steve Allen); “Ac-Cen-Tchu-Ate the Positive” (Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer); “The Glory of Love” (Billy Hill); “As Time Goes By” (Herman Hupfeld); “Beyond the Blue Horizon” (Harlan Howard/Hank Cochran); “How High the Moon” (Morgan Lewis/Nancy Hamilton); “The Lady Is a Tramp” (Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart); “Shall We Dance?” (Richard Rodgers/Oscar Hammerstein); “Ain’t Misbehavin’” (Fats Waller and Harry Brooks/Andy Razaf); “It’s Only a Paper Moon” (Harold Arlen/Yip Harburg and Billy Rose); “Comedy Tonight” (Stephen Sondheim); “I Got Rhythm” (George Gershwin/Ira Gershwin); “You Make Me Feel So Young” (Josef Myrow/Mack Gordon); “I’m Glad There Is You” (Jimmy Dorsey/Paul Madeira); “Baubles, Bangles, and Beads” (Robert Wright/George Forrest); “I Can Cook, Too” (Leonard Bernstein/Betty Comden and Adolf Green); “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” (Burton Lane/Alan Jay Lerner); “When You Wish Upon a Star” (Leigh Harline/Ned Washington); “I’m Still Here” (Stephen Sondheim).