Sunday, November 6, 2011

Interview: Natasha Yim and Gretchen Maurer

Natasha Yim is a children's book author and freelance writer. Her first book, Otto's Rainy Day was published by Charlesbridge Publishing in 2000. It was selected as a Kids' Pick of the Lists. She has written for Highlights for Children, Appleseeds and Faces magazines, and her new picture book biography, Cixi, The Dragon Empress was released by Goosebottom Books in October 2011.

Gretchen Maurer's writing has been published in Frances Mayes' The Discovery of Poetry, and in Adventure Cyclist and Highlights for Children magazines. She also co-wrote a short film, Alma, that has won multiple awards. Mary Tudor, "Bloody Mary" is her first picture book. She lives in Northern California with her family.

Natasha Yim’s current book, Cixi, The Dragon Empress and Gretchen Maurer’s current book, Mary Tudor, “Bloody Mary” are two of the six books (all written by different authors) in Goosebottom Books’ series, The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Dastardly Dames. The series profiles six women in history who have earned dastardly reputations.

Tell us a little bit about your background and how you became an author.

Natasha: I’m a children’s book author, freelance writer, and playwright. My first picture book, Otto’s Rainy Day, was published in 2000 by Charlesbridge Publishing. It was a Kids’ Pick of the Lists for that year. Cixi, The Dragon Empress, a picture book biography, was just released in October 2011 by Goosebottom Books. I have also written articles for adult magazines such as “Vibrant Life”, “AsiaPacific”, and “Mendocino Arts” as well as the children’s magazines, “Highlights for Children”, “Appleseeds”, and “Faces”. My ten-minute plays have been performed in venues around Northern California; Los Angeles; Sydney, Australia; with an upcoming play to be performed in Singapore this December.

Gretchen: I live in Northern California with my husband and three kids. I have a BA in English and an MA in Education, and I’ve taught high school and college English. I took a magazine writing class in college that I absolutely loved. The teacher asked us to analyze The New Yorker for sentence structure and punctuation, and he showed us drafts of pieces he was working on … his enthusiasm for writing was infectious. After that, I worked hard to improve my writing. My writing has been published in The Discovery of Poetry, and in A Cup of Comfort for Mothers to Be. I co-wrote the screenplay, Alma, a short film that has screened in film festivals throughout the country, and I’ve written for several magazines, including Adventure Cyclist and Highlights for Children. Mary Tudor "Bloody Mary," is my fist picture book. It’s a biography for 9 to 13-year-olds, published by Goosebottom Books.

Tell us about your current book. Give a short summary, tell us about your publisher, and also how you got the idea for this book.

Natasha: Cixi, The Dragon Empress is one of six books (all written by different authors) in Goosebottom Books’ series, The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Dastardly Dames, for ages 9 – 13. The series profiles six women in history who have earned dastardly reputations. Cixi was the last empress of China who rose from the ranks of a lowly concubine to become ruler of a nation. As with all the dastardly dames, she was a woman who wielded great power at a time when women had very little say at all. She was vilified for many things from stealing funds from the imperial navy to support her extravagant tastes to poisoning rivals. But was she truly evil or merely misunderstood? Would she still have attained this reputation if she had been a man? In addition to telling her fascinating story, the book (as are all the books in the series) is filled with cultural and historical details of the time in which Cixi lived. And it poses the question: did she deserve her dastardly nickname? And begs kids to consider the long-lasting effects and consequences of name-calling.

Goosebottom Books’ first series was The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses, also for ages 9 – 13. The publisher, Shirin Yim Bridges, who is also the author of Agrippina one of the “dames” in the Dastardly Dames series, was looking for history books for this age group about princesses who were the antitheses of the Disney princesses who sit around looking pretty and waiting for their prince to rescue them, but couldn’t find any, so she decided to write that series herself. It was very well received by parents, librarians, and teachers, and she wanted to put out a different kind of series about real women, but this time those who have gained more wicked reputations, but were also women who wielded great power at a time when women had very little say at all. The writers chosen for the project (through a national call for submissions) were asked to give their first and second choice of dames. I picked Cixi because in the last few years, I have been more interested in getting in touch with my cultural roots and heritage and I wanted to know more about Chinese history.

Gretchen: I was fortunate to be selected by the publisher of Goosebottom Books to write one of the biographies in the series, The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Dastardly Dames. Out of the 6 dames to be featured in the series, Mary Tudor, the first reigning queen of England, was my first choice. I thought she had the most brutal-sounding nickname, and I wanted to learn more about why and how she earned it and whether or not she deserved it. I wanted to find out if she did anything good, too, and to learn more about her childhood and who she was as a person. I dug into my research and wrote a boiled down version of all the fascinating stuff I learned, which, once edited and put into book form, became Mary Tudor “Bloody Mary”. It’s definitely a book that makes you think. I believe it’s important for girls to read books about powerful women in history, books that really flesh out their lives and explore the social/political times in which they lived. A lot of children’s books have been published about influential men in history, but not as many about women.

What is a typical writing day like for you?

Natasha: I write mainly between 5 and 7 am. before the kids get up for school, and for a few hours in the morning until I pick up my son from kindergarten at 1pm. Even if I can’t be at my computer when the kids are out of school, I’ll utilize times like waiting at doctor’s offices, sidelines of soccer games, grocery shopping etc. to think of plot, dialogue, work through problems in my writing projects.

Gretchen: During the week, I usually write for several hours each morning before turning to everything else I need to do. In the afternoon, I shuttle my kids around and help them with their homework and music; sometimes I sneak in some writing time when waiting for them at sports practice or music lessons. If I’m really on a roll with a project, I’ll write late into the night after everyone’s in bed and the dishes are done, or I’ll get up around 5:00 a.m. to work.

What do you enjoy most about writing?

Natasha: I love the creative process—creating worlds, characters, dialogue, seeing my story vision come to life on the page. I enjoy finding out about what makes these characters tick and I really like finding out what happens in the story because I often don’t know when I start out. For nonfiction, I’ve discovered I enjoy the research more than I thought I would. Instead of being dry and limiting, it has opened up a whole new world of learning, and really getting to know my subjects. Benjamin Disraeli has a great quote: “The best way to become acquainted with a subject, is to write a book about it.” I also love the vast yet supportive and close-knit world of writers. Only writers truly understand the angst of rejection and constant self-doubt of the writing life, and when I attend conferences and retreats, an amazing thing happens—I find immediate kinship and literary soul mates in the writing community around me.

Gretchen: Writing suits me because I like thinking things through carefully and at my own pace. I’m not as good at arguing a point or telling a story in person. I love how time falls away when I’m writing. It’s meditative, in a way, like how I imagine fly fishing might be for some people. And I like how writing allows me to think about and tell the truth, as I see it, and to have fun with language. I enjoy writing non-fiction because I learn so much while researching the topic. I also like puzzling through how to best organize the information and deciding which information to highlight, which to leave out, and so on. I enjoy writing fiction because it’s fun molding pieces of my life or things I think about or observe into new shapes and forms.

What is the most difficult part of writing?

Natasha: Trying not to get discouraged by negative feedback. Also, the excruciatingly long waiting periods in publishing—waiting for an editor to respond, waiting to get feedback back on a project, waiting for your contract to show up in the mail, for an illustrator to sign on to your project, waiting for your book to finally hit the bookstores. The waiting is endless, and can be demoralizing because then all your writer’s angst sets in—maybe they didn’t like my manuscript, maybe they didn’t like my edits, maybe I’m just a terrible writer after all and I’ll never get another book published…

Gretchen: The times when I feel like I’m spinning around and around on a section I’m working on, making it worse rather than better. But it helps to remind myself that somehow I always manage to get out of that mode, and that, as trite as it may sound, tomorrow’s another day.

Do you make school visits or do speaking/book signing engagements? If so, please describe a typical presentation.

Natasha: Yes, I do. Because of the length of the book, it’s not easy to do a straight reading of Cixi, The Dragon Empress. So, I’ll usually talk about who Cixi was and tell the students a little about her life and how she came to earn her dastardly reputation as the Dragon Empress. I’ll read excerpts from the book. I’ll mention fun facts in the book, such as in the “What She Wore” and “What She Ate” sections and discuss what life was like in the time in which Cixi lived. I might also mention fun facts that I found through researching the book, but that did not get into the printed version of the book. For older kids, I’ll talk a little about the research and writing process, and about the question of whether Cixi and the other Dastardly Dames really deserved their dastardly reputation. We might play “telephone” and discuss the long-term consequences of telling and starting rumors. For younger kids, I have a “secret” box (Ching Dynasty emperors did not automatically pass the throne down from father to son. The ruling emperor had to write the name of his successor on a piece of paper, and put it in a secret box. Upon his death, the box was opened, and the new emperor announced). I’ll ask the kids to put their names in, then open it at the end of the event, and draw a name out of the box. That child will get to be the emperor or empress, get a Chinese crown to wear and a little gift box. I also do Skype school visits. You can find me on:

Gretchen: I do. Since I’ve taught high school and college English, directed an afterschool elementary program, and worked in my kids’ classrooms, I’m comfortable with and enjoy talking to kids about my book or my writing process. I especially like to show them drafts of my book or articles, so they can see for themselves the importance of revision. The type of presentation I do depends on the age of the kids and what the teacher wants me to focus on: I talk to the teacher and go from there. I’m also happy to talk about my book at bookstores or festivals. Feel free to contact me directly at

Is there any book that, when you read it, you thought, "I wish I had written that!"?

Natasha: I wish I had written the Harry Potter series and the Percy Jackson series. What brilliant concepts! And I just bought a really adorable picture book for my son called, Who Said Coo? that I wished I had written. Also Alice Schertle’s rhyming picture book, Little Blue Truck. Very cute book.

Gretchen: When I was a girl, I remember being completely enchanted by The Secret Garden and The Little Princess (written by the same author, Frances Hodgson Burnett). I wanted either be one of the characters in the novels or to be Burnett, because dreaming up either novel would be almost as good as existing within it. I remember feeling the same way about Harriet the Spy and The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, too.

Do you have a website? If so, please give the URL. If not, where can readers go online to learn more about your book(s) and to order?

Natasha: My website is:, and my blog is: You can also find me on Facebook,, and on the Cixi, The Dragon Empress Facebook page:

You can follow me on LinkedIn:

And Twitter:!/natashayim

Gretchen: You can reach me by email at, and I have a Facebook book page for my Mary Tudor book: You can click here to order Mary Tudor “Bloody Mary” from the publisher’s website:, or the distributor’s website:

What are you working on right now?

Natasha: I have just completed the biography of Sacajawea for Goosebottom Books that will be added to their first series, The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses. It will be released in fall, 2012. Charlesbridge Publishing (publisher of my first book, Otto’s Rainy Day) has just acquired my picture book manuscript, Goldy Luck and the Three Chans. I also have another picture book and a middle-grade project I’m working on. But I’m going to take a short break from books, and work on some play projects through the rest of fall and winter. I’m currently writing a children’s play based on the Dastardly Dames for a local children’s performance art center.

Gretchen: I’m finishing up a novel I’m co-writing with a friend, targeted at the women’s fiction market. We’ve been at it for a while, so I cannot wait to complete it and send it off.

What is your best tip for aspiring authors?

Natasha: Follow the three P’s: Persistence, Perseverance and Patience. Don’t give up. If you keep working on your manuscript and submitting it to editors who like similar work to your project, you will find a home somewhere for your story. Writing and publication can both be an extremely long process. You have to have the stamina to stick with it if you want to get published.

Gretchen: This quote by Ira Glass inspires me, because it normalizes how challenging it can be to write something other people find interesting: “It's hard to make something that's interesting. It's really, really hard. It's like a law of nature, a law of aerodynamics, that anything that's written or anything that's created wants to be mediocre. The natural state of all writing is mediocrity... So what it takes to make anything more than mediocre is such an act of will...”

What advice would you give children and teens as they prepare for life?

Natasha: That most things in life are choices we make, and it’s important to learn how to make the right choices because the wrong ones can affect you for a long time to come.

Gretchen: I’ll go with my mom’s mantra: Be Yourself. It took a while to know who that was, but I always knew it was something to shoot for. I’ve realized that it’s essential to Be Yourself as a writer, too. See the world as only you see it, and share that viewpoint—your perspective; your take on a person, character, or event—the way only you can.

Is there anything else you would like to share with our readership?

Natasha: On Nov. 2 & 3, tune in to The Authors Show,, to listen to my interview with host, Don MacAuley.

You can find out more about Natasha Yim and Gretchen Maurer’s World of Ink Author/Book Tour schedule at There will be giveaways, reviews, interviews, guest posts and more. Make sure to stop by and interact with Yim and Maurer, along with the hosts at the different stops by leaving comments and/or questions.

In addition, come listen to Blog Talk Radio’s World of Ink Network show: Stories for Children at The hosts VS Grenier, Kris Quinn Chirstopherson and Irene Roth will be chatting with Natasha Yim and Gretchen Maurer about their books, writing, the publishing industry and experiences with virtual tours. Yim and Maurer will also be sharing writing tips and trials, and tribulations of the writer’s life. The show will be live November 14, 2011 at 2pm EST.

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