Have you heard? The weekend of September 6-8, SCBWI-New England will host its first Squam Lake Writing Retreat at the Rockywold-Deephaven Camps in stunning Holderness, NH. My co-director for the retreat Julie Kingsley and I are excited to bring a new venue to the SCBWI small retreat scene. RDC is a lakeside campground paradise, complete with a cabin boy to light your fireplace every night and chef-prepared meals around the clock. There will be loons, my friends. Loons.
Best of all, as this is an SCBWI event, there will be professional mentors for writers and illustrators. We are thrilled to have HarperCollins Children’s Book Editor Sarah Dotts Barley as part of our line-up. Sarah, whose focus is middle grade and young adult fiction, was promoted to editor from associate last year. She’s worked with writers like Georgia Byng and Joyce Carol Oates as well as debut authors publishing this year. (Yay, debut authors!) Sarah allowed me to ask her some questions about her career, her tastes as an editor, and about why she’s excited to mentor the Squam Lake Writers Retreat.
Me: Hello, Sarah! Thanks so much for taking time to let us get to know you a little better. Can we start with what kind of a reader were you as a kid? Do you imagine your child/ya self when you are reading manuscripts?
SDB: I was a voracious reader as a kid, but especially after my mom challenged me to read a certain number of books before I could get my ears pierced. That summer, I fell in love with reading in a whole, new, insane way, and will probably forever associate pierced ears and Amelia Bedelia! I think about myself as a child and young adult reader all the time as I read manuscripts, and ask myself questions like: Would I have been compelled to keep reading when I was eight, twelve, fourteen? Would I have wanted to read this for fun or because someone told me to? How much trouble would I be willing to get into for staying up late to finish this book? (Ideally, LOTS of trouble.)
Me: Can you tell us a little about your journey to becoming an editor at HarperCollins?
SDB: I grew up working at a bookstore my parents co-owned in Huntsville, Alabama, and my mom taught English at my high school. Reading and books and talking about books were always a big part of my life! I just never knew that much about publishing, though, and that it was something I could actually do for a career. I was really lucky to get my first job in the business as a sales assistant at Random House Children’s Books right after I graduated from college in North Carolina. I had AMAZING mentors at Random House—it truly was the best first job I could’ve had in children’s book publishing. I use something I learned on that job as an editor every day. After a couple of years in sales, I moved over to become an editorial assistant at Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, and then a few years after that, I met my current boss and took a job as an associate editor here at Harper. And I’ve been here very happily ever since!
Me: What is your favorite part of the job? Any surprises?
SDB: My favorite part of the job has to be reading a manuscript and knowing that it’s something special, that it’s something that we absolutely have to publish. I also love the people I work with—not only our authors, but also so many of the people I see day in and day out every day in the office. This is sort of sappy, but I think I’d find it hard working at home too often, because I’d miss my pals! Since I edit mostly novels, the amount of reading I have on my plate is constantly surprising.
Me: Squam Lake was the location used for the 80s movie ON GOLDEN POND. In it, there is a whopper of a fish known in local lore as Walter. Everyone tries to catch him or at least see him. Do you have a Walter? Is there a dream manuscript you’d love to find on your desk tomorrow morning?
SDB: One of my favorite books of all time is BEAUTY by Robin McKinley. A book with those layers of meaning for different readers (or the same readers at different stages of their lives!), with that staying power, is something I think we all dream of editing.
Me: Tell us why you’re looking forward to mentoring the SCBWI Squam Lake Writing Retreat.
SDB: I’m really looking forward to being with the same small group of people over a few days at a retreat, rather than meeting hundreds of folks very quickly and not really getting the chance to know anyone. And, I saw pictures of where you’re holding the retreat…I cannot wait to be there! Lastly, John is awesome and highly entertaining.
Me: We feel the same way! (About smaller retreats and John Cusick, our agent mentor from Greenhouse Literary). So, lots of people will wonder what you are looking to acquire now.
SDB: My sweet spot is voice-driven middle grade and YA fiction of any genre, so I’m always looking to fall in love with something I didn’t even know I wanted because the voice is so convincing and compelling. I recently read (and adored) TIMMY FAILURE, and am currently loving every minute of a very funny and surprising YA novel, A CORNER OF WHITE by Jaclyn Moriarty. So I can definitely say that I wish I saw more humorous submissions! I also love historical fantasy.
Me: Finally, what is your advice to all the authors out there trying to get that first contract?
SBD: To write and to keep on writing for the love of it, because you have to tell this story. Also, to read as much as you possibly can.
Me: Thanks, Sarah!
Julie and I feel so lucky to bring Sarah to the first retreat at Squam Lake. Hoping you’ll be there too? Sign up! All the details and registration info can be found on our retreat website.