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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Marsha Wilson Chall and Jill Davis

I recent­ly had the hon­or of inter­view­ing Mar­sha Wil­son Chall, the author of the new pic­ture book, The Secret Life of Fig­gy Mus­tar­do, and her edi­tor, Jill Davis.

Marsha Wilson ChallMar­sha Wil­son Chall grew up an only child in Min­neso­ta, where her father told her the best sto­ries. The author of many pic­ture books, includ­ing Up North at the Cab­in, One Pup’s Up, and Pick a Pup, Mar­sha teach­es writ­ing at Ham­line University’s MFAC pro­gram in St. Paul, Min­neso­ta. She lives on a small farm west of Min­neapo­lis with her hus­band, dog, barn cats, and books.

Jill DavisJill Davis has been an exec­u­tive edi­tor in children’s books at Harper­Collins since 2013. A vet­er­an of children’s books, she began her career at Ran­dom House in 1992, and worked there at Crown and Knopf Books For Young Read­ers until 1996, after which she worked at Viking until 2005. After that, she held posi­tions at both Blooms­bury and Far­rar, Straus & Giroux. She is the author of three pic­ture books, edi­tor of one col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, and has an MFA in Writ­ing for Chil­dren and Young Adults from Ham­line Uni­ver­si­ty

Secret Life of Fiiggy MustardoMark: The Secret Life of Fig­gy Mus­tar­do came about in a dif­fer­ent way than most pic­ture books. You were asked to write a sto­ry based on illus­tra­tions of a char­ac­ter. Could you tell us about this process and a lit­tle about the sto­ry?

Mar­sha: You’re right that this sto­ry evolved dif­fer­ent­ly than my oth­ers. My amaz­ing edi­tor, Jill Davis, sent me Ali­son Friend’s thumb­nails of an adorable canine char­ac­ter she had named Fig­gy Mus­tar­do in a vari­ety of human-like pos­es and cos­tumes. For me, it was love at first sight! So I set about the process of cre­at­ing Figgy’s sto­ry based on my impres­sions of him through Alison’s art and then, via Jill, Alison’s writ­ten notions of his char­ac­ter­i­za­tion and sto­ry ideas.

Alison FriendAn imag­i­na­tive, spir­it­ed fel­low, Ali­son visu­al­ized Fig­gy zip­ping through many adven­tures on his scoot­er. In the book, I took the lib­er­ty of chang­ing the scoot­er to a race car and also cast Fig­gy as a rock star and a piz­za chef who orga­nizes and stars in a neigh­bor­hood rock con­cert, pizze­ria, and stock car race with his ani­mal friends. Lots of Fig­gy fun, but this did not a sto­ry make. I need­ed to know why these activ­i­ties mat­tered to Fig­gy and how he grew as a char­ac­ter.

Secret Life of Figgy MustardoI also had to think about the nuts and bolts of how Fig­gy might trans­form from dog to dilet­tante. I was fair­ly cer­tain of my own dog’s bore­dom and lone­li­ness while our fam­i­ly is away, so I start­ed my sto­ry explo­ration there. We all know that dogs, as social crea­tures, dis­like being left alone and are often fraught with anx­i­ety lead­ing to cer­tain not-so-flat­ter­ing behav­iors and/or the escape of sleep. A sto­ry with a sleep­ing dog would not be too inter­est­ing, so I chose the much more excit­ing, destruc­tive route. What if Fig­gy ate things–any things–in his frus­tra­tion, fell asleep, and dreamed about him­self as a man­i­fes­ta­tion of what he ate? We all know “you are what you eat,” so in Figgy’s case, for exam­ple, he eats Mrs. Mustardo’s Bone Appetit mag­a­zine, falls asleep, and dreams of being Ital­ian Piz­za Chef Mus­tar­do serv­ing Muttsarel­lo and Figaro piz­zas to ador­ing gour­mands. When he wakes, he knows his dream is a sign, so he makes a real one of his own, “Free Piz­za,” and serves his entire ani­mal neigh­bor­hood at Figgy’s Pizze­ria.

Most impor­tant­ly, I need­ed to devel­op a moti­va­tion for Figgy’s adven­tures; how were these events con­nect­ed to him? What did they mean? How would they affect Figgy’s world out­side and inside? The answer arrived in the form of loss; every ani­mal neigh­bor came to Figgy’s con­cert and pizze­ria and car race except Figgy’s fam­i­ly, the Mus­tar­dos, espe­cial­ly George (his boy). In des­per­a­tion, Fig­gy cre­ates the sign “Free Dog” to find a fam­i­ly who will talk and walk and play with him like all the oth­er fam­i­lies he sees through his win­dow. Where are the Mus­tar­dos? The fam­i­ly Mus­tar­do arrives in time to show Fig­gy how much they care with a promise to take him wher­ev­er they can and to pro­vide him com­pan­ion­ship when they can’t in the form of new pup named Dot. Fig­gy and Dot go on to enliv­en the neigh­bor­hood with Free Shows night­ly.

Mark: What kind of revising/editing process did you and Jill go through?

Mar­sha: Once I knew my char­ac­ter and his prob­lem, I dashed off the sto­ry, sent it to Jill who loved it at first sight, then sat back sat­is­fied with a good day’s work.

Ha! Not the way it hap­pened, but I did write a first draft with­in a few days that Jill found promis­ing. So many drafts lat­er that I can’t even recall the orig­i­nal, Jill exer­cised plen­ty of patience wait­ing for the sto­ry she and Ali­son hoped I could write. I know she’ll protest my trib­ute, but I have nev­er worked with an edi­tor so open to my tri­al and error. Her abun­dant humor car­ried us through the process that I think would have oth­er­wise over­whelmed me.

Mark: Will there be any more books with Fig­gy and his fur­ther adven­tures?

Mar­sha: Fig­gy hopes so and so do Jill, Ali­son, and I. For now, I hope Fig­gy wags his way into the hands and hearts of many human friends where he belongs.

WOOF!

Mark: How was this project dif­fer­ent hav­ing a char­ac­ter first and then hav­ing to find a writer to tell his sto­ry?

The Secret Life of Figgy MustardoJill: It was kind of hard. The illus­tra­tor had invent­ed this lit­tle dog who she want­ed to be an adventurer—yet she wasn’t sure how to make the sto­ry hap­pen. When I saw the dog, I thought of Marsha’s One Pup’s Up—and I knew how tal­ent­ed she was. Seemed like a slam dunk! But all of us—Marsha, myself, and the illus­tra­tor, Ali­son Friend, had  to share plen­ty of feed­back, edit, and revise a bit before Mar­sha was able to tell both the sto­ry she envi­sioned as well as the sto­ry Ali­son had in mind. Mar­sha pic­tured Fig­gy at home, and real­ly loved the idea of using signs. Ali­son seemed to feel Fig­gy was some kind of James Bond. So how were those two visions going to meet? They final­ly did when Mar­sha real­ized that Fig­gy would go to sleep and dream about his excit­ing alter-ego. And we all loved the idea. The book may seem a lit­tle bit sad because Fig­gy is always being left at home, but Mar­sha told it in such a great way that Fig­gy showed his grit! If he’s hun­gry, he eats what’s there—but then the mag­ic hap­pens and he goes to sleep and dreams of some­thing relat­ed to what he ate. It’s so fun and so imag­i­na­tive. I love what Mar­sha did with Figgy’s sto­ry, and Ali­son did, too.

Mark: What was it like to work with Mar­sha in this new role as edi­tor after being her stu­dent in the MFA in Writ­ing for Chil­dren pro­gram at Ham­line Uni­ver­si­ty?

Jill: It felt very won­der­ful and nat­ur­al. Mar­sha does not use intim­i­da­tion as a tac­tic in gen­er­al. She’s the rare com­bi­na­tion of bril­liant and super sil­ly. That’s one rea­son she’s so loved at Ham­line and in the con­ti­nen­tal Unit­ed States, gen­er­al­ly speak­ing.

There were times when she should have been frus­trat­ed or want­ed to spit at me, but she was cool as a cucum­ber in the freez­er in the North Pole. So pro­fes­sion­al and what I loved also about work­ing with her is how much I learned. I learned how she makes use of rep­e­ti­tion, allit­er­a­tion, and very care­ful edit­ing. I can be slop­py, but Mar­sha walked straight out of Strunk and White. She’s exact and won­der­ful­ly detail-ori­ent­ed. She was also involved at the sketch stage. Actu­al­ly at sev­er­al sketch stages. We worked on the phone, we worked at Ham­line, and we worked until we thought it felt per­fect. And she loved it because she could use it in her teach­ing! And I just loved work­ing with Mar­sha!

Mark:  Thank you Mar­sha and Jill for tak­ing the time to tell us about your col­lab­o­ra­tion on The Secret Life of Fig­gy Mus­tar­do. The book is now avail­able at everyone’s local inde­pen­dent book store.

3 Responses to Marsha Wilson Chall and Jill Davis

  1. David LaRochelle July 28, 2016 at 12:23 pm #

    Thanks for this insight into the unique way this book evolved! I’m look­ing for­ward to read­ing it again!

    • Marsha Wilson Chall July 28, 2016 at 8:38 pm #

      Thank you, David, for read­ing FIGGY once–and maybe even twice!

  2. Melanie July 28, 2016 at 2:33 pm #

    Such a great sto­ry! Thanks for tak­ing us to the inside!

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