Coop Publishing: An Interview with Mary Atkinson
When I posted my review audit a couple of weeks ago, fellow VCFA grad Mary Atkinson contacted me about her 2017 novel Tillie Heart and Soul, published by the small coop press Maine Authors Publishing. I’d already heard about Tillie Heart and Soul landing the purple unicorn of a starred Kirkus Indie review, inclusion in Kirkus’s Best Children’s Books of 2017 list, and a glowing review from Publishers Weekly’s highly selective indie review page Book Life. With these two amazing reviews, every school and public library should buy a copy of this book that combines an honest portrayal of the ups and downs of girls’ friendships and an inspiring story of a 10-year-old girl’s resilience in the face of deep disappointments. You may read my full review of Atkinson’s novel for The Pirate Tree here. But be sure to click back for my interview with the author!
LML: What inspired the idea of Tillie Heart and Soul and its unusual setting in the artists’ warehouse?
MA: Decades ago an artist friend, Harvey Low Simons, lived and worked in an old piano factory in Boston that had been converted into artists’ studios. Like Uncle Fred, Tillie’s guardian in the novel, Harvey was a single parent of a young daughter whose name was Kerry. Kerry’s “room” was a loft Harvey had built for her. For years the image of Kerry reading and playing in her loft like a regular little kid and running around the piano factory while her dad created wild and amazing art stuck with me. Gradually, my imagination took over and their situation morphed into a picture book. After many tries, it never worked so I put the manuscript away. Years later, when I was a student at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I took another look and tried again. Tillie and her story grew and grew. It could not be contained in a picture book!
Friend stealing is an unfortunate reality of children’s experience in the older elementary years. Is this something you experienced growing up? Why did Shanelle want to befriend Glory in a way that excluded Tillie?
Such a great question! I’m thrilled with what the Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote about Tillie Heart and Soul: “Atkinson excels at exploring the girls’ shifting friendship dynamics and the difficulty of managing expectations when it comes to an unreliable loved one.”
I think “friend stealing” is common among most girls’ friendships. I believe it’s our way of exploring and learning how to navigate the world of complex female relationships (which continue into adulthood but not in such a raw and honest way!). How many times did I say or was it said to me as a child, “I’m not speaking to you any more!” The pain of two friends walking away and leaving me behind is deeply ingrained in my psyche. And so is the joy of working it out and “making up” again.
I experienced girl friend dynamics myself as a child and later observed them as a parent and teacher. And now I get to witness it all over again as a grandmother—so painful to watch, yet such an important part of growing up.
As for the fictional Shanelle, her own insecurities make her want to impress new-girl Glory who she sees as more grown up and way cooler than she and Tillie are. Suddenly, Shanelle’s embarrassed to have Tillie as her best friend because Tillie’s “so immature.” Excluding Tillie meant she could have Glory all to herself and thus raise her social status. Or so she thought…
How do class and social issues play into the dynamics among the three girls (and their parents)?
Hmmm…. While I had clear images of the girls and their families, I wasn’t thinking about class issues when I wrote the book. It’s not part of my creative process. Tillie, Shanelle, and Glory all come from different kinds of families. Each family has its own family culture that in turn influences each girl and how they relate to one another. Tillie lives alone with the loving and protective Uncle Fred while her mom is in rehab. He and the other artists in the piano factory make up her family. Shanelle is under a lot of pressure to achieve, which makes her insecure. Glory, new in town, has the “perfect” (at least in Tillie’s eyes) two-parent family and a nice house but has a troubled older brother who stays in his room. All children bring the histories of their families to their relationships.
Tell us about your publishing journey and how you came to Maine Authors Publishing. How does this authors’ collective work? Does one have to live in Maine or write about Maine to be a part of it?
I had an agent who tried to sell my work without success. Countless times my manuscripts were inches away from acquisition only to be turned down at the last moment. I grew frustrated and discouraged. I gave up and stopped writing, but my creative impulses gnawed at me. I reflected deeply about my long-time dreams to be a “real” author. I wrote and sketched about it in my journal. What I came up with was that I wanted to physically hold my books in my hands, see them on a shelf, and use them in school and library visits. I wanted to communicate with children.
I had recently moved from Massachusetts to Maine. I attended a presentation by Maine Authors Publishing (MAP), an independent press that helps authors get their books published and in the hands of their readers. I liked what I heard and decided to go for it! I started with Owl Girl and had a wonderful experience with the folks at MAP. They were local, friendly, smart, and professional to work with and created a great product.
It was such a thrill to finally have a book to share with kids that I decided to publish Tillie Heart and Soul with them too.
You don’t have to be from Maine to work with MAP but keep in mind that, as of now, their distribution is only through Maine indie book stores, MAP’s website, and Amazon.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of authors’ collectives/coop publishing in comparison to traditional publishing and go-it-alone self-publishing? Who would you recommend as a good candidate for coop publishing?
The advantages are that you’re really involved in the production of your book from beginning to end. For example, I chose the amazing local illustrator Jamie Hogan to do the cover art on both books. With guidance from MAP, I got to choose the font and book design. Another advantage is being a member of an incredibly enthusiastic and helpful community who work together to promote our books.
I also published Mario’s Notebook through CreateSpace which is now called Kindle Direct. I was curious to see if working with Amazon would bring greater readership to my work. It hasn’t. Even with great reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, I’m disappointed that readers aren’t finding Mario’s Notebook an important story for our times, but that’s the topic for another post!
Disadvantages: marketing, marketing, marketing. The author has to invest time, energy, and money to get the book noticed. It’s a labor of love and requires a skill set foreign to me and most writers I know. As artists, we should be writing, creating. Also, you don’t have traditional publishing’s team of agents, editors, publicists, etc. to help you on your journey.
As for whom I would recommend as a good candidate for any kind of non-traditional publishing, I always tell people to dig deep to define their personal goals. Everyone’s different. If you want your book out in the world and are prepared to do the work to get it noticed, go for it! If you study authors who publish independently, there’s a wide range of products—everything from a chapbook of poetry to share with friends and family to building a list of best selling detective novels.
What are you working on now? How have your publishing goals changed since Tillie Heart and Soul?
I’m shopping around another middle grade novel called JUMP AT THE NARROWS to agents. I don’t want to publish this one on my own. While my experiences in self-publishing three books have been super rewarding, they’re not getting the distribution and attention that I believe a traditionally published book does. I’m also working on another middle grade called THE DRAGON’S TAIL.
Mary Atkinson is the author of Owl Girl, Tillie Heart and Soul, and Mario’s Notebook. Her award-winning poetry has appeared in magazines and anthologies. She has written fiction and non-fiction for educational markets. She loves owls and old buildings and playing the piano. She does not know how to roller skate. www.maryatkinson.net