This year, I’ve had the good fortune of being able to interview two extremely talented and beloved children’s poets, Douglas Florian and Charles Ghigna. Today, on the last day of National Poetry Month, I’m pleased to present this interview with one of our country’s newest writers, Vikram Madan, whose first book, “The Bubble Collector,” has just been published. Madan wrote, illustrated, and self-published the book, so it’s been a major project for him; I thought it might be interesting to get some perspective on how this project came to be, and the path he has taken to publication…
Vikram Madan was born and raised in India, where he developed an early love for poetry and cartooning. Arriving in the U.S. for graduate studies, Vikram found himself drawing editorial cartoons for a Seattle newspaper, The Daily, garnering multiple awards in the process from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Washington Press Association, and others. Vikram subsequently worked in the Seattle hi-tech industry for many years while continuing to cartoon and write poetry on the side. The Bubble Collector, a collection of original, self-illustrated humorous poetry is his first book. (view the trailer for the book HERE.) Vikram currently studies traditional art technique at the Gage Academy of Art in Seattle.
Vikram, you have said that growing up in India, you had “fairly limited access” to books…so tell us, how did you come to not only appreciate reading, but writing, particularly for children?
My mother was an elementary school teacher and instilled an early love for reading in my family. At the time I was growing up, books were a rarity in that few people I knew could afford to buy them. I was a voracious reader as a kid, but most of the time I was usually reading the same book over and over again! It was hard to come by books that you actually wanted to read, particularly poetry. I still remember that the first time I read Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’, was inside – of all places- a dog-eared copy of MAD Magazine!
I am an engineer by training and learned to write by doing it, primarily through trial and error. It was after my children were born that I discovered the delightful world of kid’s books and it felt like a natural evolution to write for younger audiences, particularly since I never really grew up myself after all.
How did children’s poets like Jack Prelutsky and Shel Silverstein influence your writing or artistic style?
When I first started reading aloud to my kids, Dr. Seuss was an early favorite. I hadn’t really thought about writing/illustrating kid’s poetry till the day I accidentally wandered into a travelling exhibit of Dr. Seuss manuscripts at a local mall and was amazed to see the struggle and rework that had gone into each of his books.
It was an epiphany to look behind the curtain and realize that genius is indeed 99% perspiration! For the first time I felt that if I ‘worked hard enough at it’, perhaps I too might be able to create some decent illustrated poetry for kids.
Jack Prelutsky’s work propelled me from thinking about ‘poetry’ to thinking about ‘humorous poetry’. Mr. Prelutsky’s work also set forth a whole new high bar (for me) for where I needed to take my rhythm, meter, and use of language.
Shel Silverstein’s work was (pardon the mixed metaphor) the final missing smack to my head. Here was humor sculpted out of the mischievous interplay of funny poems and cartoon-like drawings! I finally saw a way to pull my three interests – humor, poetry, cartooning – together.
I’m sure the connection of you and Silverstein both being cartoonists is not lost on you! How does it feel when people make that comparison, and how do you make your own work unique?
Somewhat ironically, one of the most common bits of advice out there for fledgling poets is “Don’t say your work is ‘Just like Shel Silverstein’ unless you’re actually Shel Silverstein.” Shel was a master of the medium (and much, much more fabulous at everything he did). I don’t think I’ve earned the right to even occupy the same paragraph as himJ. His voice remains unique – I can’t replicate it even if I try (so I don’t have to worry about differentiating myself).
While most poetry collections these days focus on one subject, The Bubble Collector covers a variety of different topics. Many are silly rhyming poems like “Ballrus” and “I Poked a Cyclops in the Eye,” but then you throw in more contemplative pieces like “Shark,” that elicit more thoughtfulness than humour. How did you determine which poems to include?
My understanding is publishers prefer thematically-linked collections because this makes for an easier sales pitch to buyers – and buyers in turn know exactly what they’re getting (“Cat Poems”, “Poems about Robots”, etc.).
When I started working on ‘The Bubble Collector’, I found it hard to restrict myself to one particular topic or theme because the vision I had in my head was closer to Jack Prelutsky’s and Shel Silverstein’s collections (“Pizza the Size of the Sun”, “Everything on It”, etc), in which the endless variation is what, IMHO, makes them such fun to read.
Poetry is always open to interpretation and poems are what you personally make them out to be. What’s contemplative for one person may well be humorous for another. (For example, the title poem in my collection is a light-hearted, silly poem on the surface, but reads very differently if you treat the ‘bubbles’ as an allegory for ‘happiness’ or ‘dreams’). I tried including poems that span a wide range of styles, language-levels, and ‘angles’. It’s been particularly gratifying for me that every single reader of the book seems to have a different favorite poem, so there truly is something for everyone in there.
Vikram, you and I have both been part of the Kidlitosphere phenomenon that is Poetry Friday, where poets and bloggers share their material, interviews, and thoughts with the world. How has Poetry Friday helped you, and what have you learned from the relationships you’ve developed?
I was excited to discover the Poetry Friday (PF) community last year and amazed at how quickly they welcomed me into their fold. Prior to this, I had a hard time calling myself a ‘poet’ (because I didn’t know who all these people were who called themselves ‘poet’ were). Now I proudly call myself one (Thanks, PF!) The ongoing feedback from the PF community really helped me keep my momentum going, especially when it came to the slog it takes to finish the book. I’m looking forward to getting to know more and more of the PF folks better.
Why did you decide to self-publish? Had you tried submitting to agents or publishing houses, or was that never a consideration?
Based on my past experiences (i.e. several years spent contributing to slush piles everywhere), I knew that pitching ‘The Bubble Collector’ – a non-thematic, self-illustrated, eclectic and large poetry collection targeting a wide range of ages from a previously unpublished author/illustrator – was going to be a tough sell to any editor or agent. I made a few agent queries early in the life of the project and wasn’t surprised by the response.
I had also been tracking the growth of the self-publishing industry over the last few years, and had been intrigued with the possibility that it would allow me to get the book out not only sooner, but also in the way I envisioned it. At some point I just decided I would give self-publishing a shot for this particular book. If nothing else, it would be an educational journey that would inform my future choices.
I chose the print-on-demand (POD) model, where the books themselves aren’t actually printed till someone places an order. This saves authors from having to make large upfront investments.
I went with CreateSpace.com as they offered: good templates; a free ISBN; automatic listing on Amazon sites; predictable author royalties; ‘expanded book distribution’ (so books can be ordered through any bookseller anywhere); and a thriving user community forum (essential for getting help).
At no point in the process was I irreversibly bound to utilizing their services, which gave me the option of changing my mind if I needed to.
I decided on black & white illustrations for the book to keep the overall print costs low. CreateSpace requires books be submitted as print-ready PDFs. I used Microsoft Word for laying out my book and created all the images digitally. After ~8 months of writing, drawing, editing, adjusting, tweaking and reaching my goal of 100 acceptable poems. I submitted my files and was excited to shortly thereafter hold a physical copy of the book in my hands. Up until then the entire effort had been a leap of faith but I’m happy to say I was very satisfied with the end result.
After another 2 months of correcting proofs I finally went ‘live’ earlier this year. Since then I’ve been spending a lot of time on publicity and marketing. They say the real work starts after the book is written – it’s certainly beginning to feel that way.
What surprised you most, along the way?
One surprise was how few obstacles I actually ran into in the process of putting the book together – the tools, technologies, and processes are maturing quite well. The other (bigger) surprise was how much I had underestimated the challenge of marketing and publicizing the book. I should have given the post-book phase more thought much earlier in the project.
It’ll probably be a while – another book like this will take a minimum of a year from when I start, which won’t be till I’m done promoting this book, which will be a while.
Any plans to write in any other genres?
I have a few ideas for kid-friendly graphic novels that I hope to get to someday.
What advice would you offer other writers and poets who are trying to get published, either traditionally or via self-publishing?
This self-publishing experience has filled me with a lot of respect for the traditional publishing process. When you’re self-publishing, you’re wearing all the hats yourself, and have to ramp up on a lot of areas in order to make informed decisions – it is very much like doing a one-person startup! Traditional publishing automatically brings the expertise of dozens of specialists to the table, freeing the creator to focus on the creation itself.
What I would tell aspiring writers is that, if a project falls into an established category, and you have the patience to wait for decisions, there are definite rewards to submitting your work to the big publishers (e.g. credibility, quality, time to focus on future works). If, on the other hand, you believe strongly in your work and/or your work doesn’t fit in a defined category, you aren’t intimidated by technology and tools, and are willing to do – and learn – whatever it takes to get your work out there, then by all means look into self-publishing.
Just be aware that self-publishing today is a bit of a ‘gold rush’ – there’s only a handful of success stories – but because of the low barriers to entry, just about everybody is doing it. As a result one has to work hard to rise above the ‘noise’. In a recent interview on this blog Charles Ghigna (Father Goose) talked about the need for having a ‘platform’. I have to agree – building up an audience before you publish will make you more likely to succeed with self-publishing.
In the end, whichever path you choose, you have to hold a high bar for yourself and … just keep on writing!
Well, all the best to you, Vikram…and thanks for stopping by to chat!
Can you believe today is the last day for Irene Latham’s 2013 Progressive Poem?!? This poem started with one blogger April 1 and has beentravelling from blog to blog all month long, with a different blogger adding a new line to the poem every day. Finally, today, we have a completed poem, thanks to April Halprin Wayland!
Here’s the list of all the participating bloggers:
April 1 Amy Ludwig VanDerwater 2 Joy Acey 3 Matt Forrest Esenwine 4 Jone MacCulloch 5 Doraine Bennett 6 Gayle Krause 7 Janet Fagal 8 Julie Larios 9 Carrie Finison 10 Linda Baie 11 Margaret Simon 12 Linda Kulp 13 Catherine Johnson 14 Heidi Mordhorst 15 Mary Lee Hahn 16 Liz Steinglass 17 Renee LaTulippe 18 Penny Klostermann 19 Irene Latham 20 Buffy Silverman 21 Tabatha Yeatts 22 Laura Shovan 23 Joanna Marple 24 Katya Czaja 25 Diane Mayr 26 Robyn Hood Black 27 Ruth Hersey 28 Laura Purdie Salas 29 Denise Mortensen 30 April Halprin Wayland