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Our culture is made up of more than readers and writers <gasp> and we think librarians, book sellers, and animal lovers deserve a spot on our website.

Mia's Gift

Victoria & Craig Weeden Interview by Maggie Bishop

 

1) Tell us about your latest published book and current writing project.

 

V & C: Mia’s Gift: A Muzzles the Manatee Story was published in April. It’s about an eight-year-old Hispanic girl whose ability to communicate with a manatee gets her into and out of predicaments in both the real and fantasy worlds. Although Mia’s Gift is technically categorized as a middle-grade novel, our goal was to write it in a way that would appeal to all ages. If pushed, I (Craig) would say it’s for the pre-Harry Potter crowd. However, we’ve had a lot of grandparents say they really enjoyed it. I think there’s a lot going on in the book on many levels, which enables it to entertain a wide audience. So far Mia’s Gift has won an Honorable Mention at the 2009 New York Book Festival, and it’s received some great reviews.

 

We’ve written synopses for a 13 book series. Next up is The Boat Parade, in which Clark (Mia’s best friend) moves to the forefront. In Sarasota, Florida, just before Christmas, a lot of folks decorate their boats and have a parade that follows the coastline, then ends up in a boat basin downtown. The larger boats have carolers. All the colored lights on the water at night make for a spectacular event. In The Boat Parade, Mia and Clark spend tons of time making decorations for his boat, only to find them missing on the night of the parade. Totally dispirited, they decide to participate anyway. Heading for the starting point, they come upon a disabled speedboat, filled with some of the rich kids from school. And the speedboat is decked out with the stolen decorations. You’ll have to read the book to find out how this dilemma is resolved.

 

2) Why manatees?

 

V & C: Remarkably, manatees and children have many similar characteristics: they’re friendly, gentle and innately trusting. Manatees are beautiful aquatic mammals whose nearest relative is the elephant. Their flippers even have elephant-like toenails. Manatees have bright blue, intelligent eyes and a naturally sociable disposition. Since most children go through a phase where they’re infatuated by dinosaurs, it seems reasonable they’d like a gregarious manatee as well.

 

3) Why are manatees endangered?

 

V & C: Speedboats and pollution are the main culprits. Manatees prefer warm, shallow water, and they typically rise to the surface every three or four minutes to breathe. Speeding boats often hit the unseen manatees. As noted in Mia’s Gift, scientists actually name manatees based on the shape of the scars left by propellers. No wake zones have been created to force boats to slow down, but many boaters ignore them.

 

Pollution is another problem. One form is when rain washes fertilizer from lawns into the waterways. From there it floats out into the Gulf of Mexico, where it fertilizes massive red algae growths called “red tide.”  These red tides create toxins that that are most lethal right above the surface, where manatees breathe. These toxins can paralyze the respiratory system, causing the manatees to drown.

 

4) What was your first encounter with a manatee?

 

V: The Parker Manatee Aquarium in Bradenton, FL, houses a manatee that was rescued as a baby in the Miami area. I was captivated by “Snooty” on my very first visit. He put his flippers on the edge of the tank, pulled himself out of the water, and looked me right in the eyes. He’s very gregarious and fun to watch. I was charmed by his personality and I feel children would feel the same way. Snooty will be 61 in July.

 

C: Also, the first condo we owned on Siesta Key had a boat basin out back. A mother manatee had a calf there, protected from the boat traffic on the Intracoastal Waterway.

 

5) Why did you write a novel for middle grades and not someone younger?

 

V: As we created Mia’s Gift, we found we had many stories to tell, along with a whole universe of characters. A series seemed to fit with a slightly older group of readers. We’ve written coloring and picture book manuscripts and a TV show for younger audiences. There are samples on our website: www.muzzlesthemanatee.com.

 

C: I personally like the challenge of taking some rather sophisticated elements and writing them clearly enough so that middle graders can totally understand what’s going on. And if their parents and grandparents find the material interesting, all the better.

 

6) What are the related projects you’re working on?

 

C: The Muzzles-the Manatee-universe, with its website-based educational component, is our main focus. It’s multi-tiered, targeting preschoolers through the middle grades. Our coloring and picture book manuscripts, along with our hour kids TV show, Nuzzle Up! (for which we’ve written two episodes), are for this younger audience. Mia’s Gift, which we feel could easily be adapted into an animated film or TV show, targets middle graders. We’ve actually written a bible, 13 episode synopses and concepts for about another 40 shows for the Mia’s Gift TV show.

 

The rules for the contests on our website, which is a work in progress, will teach such things as story structure. For example, the rules for a 10-page story might call for a 1 page setup of the characters’ “regular lives,” before the “inciting incident” occurs and throws them out of their regular lives.

 

Our Muzzles Puzzles are for preschoolers, and when put together reveal facts about manatees.

 

We’ve already had some success licensing Muzzles’ likeness for beachwear, resort wear, mouse pads, umbrellas, etc. Vicky spent six weeks working with one of Hasbro’s top plush designers to create a 28” stuffed manatee prototype. It’s far better than anything I’ve seen on store shelves.

 

The bottom line here is that we’re trying to build the foundation of our universe in such a way that we can “subcontract” certain portions of it, while retaining enough control to maintain our vision throughout.

 

7) How were you inspired to think in terms of family-oriented entertainment?

 

V: We feel there’s too much “entertainment” that glorifies cynical, mean-spirited behavior and disrespectful attitudes. We want to create content that can be shared between generations, and provide nourishment and positive spirit for our younger readers.

 

8) How is the work divided on your wife-husband team?

 

V: I’m a designer and character creator, and I “see” what the characters look like. I hear them speak and think in terms of their personal traits and attitude. I edit and look for smooth, natural development and continuity. I worked with our illustrator (Del Hopewell) to translate ideas into images. Del is a dream to work with.

 

C: Vicky and I discuss what we’d like to accomplish and possible ways to make it happen, then I write it up. Writing being a process of discovery, things often happen in the story which we didn’t expect. When I’m done, we pass the manuscript back and forth, looking for ways to make it better.

 

9) What is the most difficult aspect of working with your spouse?

 

V: It’s easy to work with Craig. We each respect and value other’s strengths. We know that together we have a richer product, and high quality pleases us both. The only difficulty is lack of time—not my partner!

 

C: If she weren’t so attractive, it’d be easier to focus on our work.

 

10) Tell us something about where you’ve lived.

 

V: It’s been my privilege to live in all regions of the US. Each region has its own beauty; each is distinct, and each contributes to the whole.

 

C: We’ve lived on Cape Cod, Siesta Key, and now up here in the mountains. Each place teaches different lessons.

 

11) Chat about your pets.

 

V: After having an array of cats over the years, we got a standard poodle four years ago. I indulged my love of exhaustive research and came up with a winner…for our family, anyway!

 

12) What are your favorite vacation spots and why?

 

V & C: Key West. It’s on the water, has a vibrant creative culture, and its architecture is very New England.

 

Marbella, Spain. Again on the water, it has old world charm, narrow cobblestone streets, great small shops, and dinner at 10pm!

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Valerie Jones, bookseller, by Maggie Bishop

 

1. Tell us about your bookstore, Fireside Books and Gifts in Forest City, NC.

Fireside Books and Gifts is a locally owned, independent bookstore, located in Forest City, NC. The bookstore has been in operation for almost 20 years and has a strong commitment to community and promoting literacy through education. We offer readers a wide variety of genres as well as educational toys and gifts for children. Within the past year we've greatly increased our side lines, so we now offer gift items for every occasion. We host many author signings and events through the year, as well as children's summer programs, always at no cost to the public. Fireside routinely partners with schools and organizations and participates in off-site events and fundraising for our local Community Pet Center and N.C. Safe Kids.

2. What is the most difficult part of hosting an author event?

The most difficult part of hosting an author event recently has been trying to work with today's hectic lifestyles and down economy... knowing the best day and time to schedule it so that it's convenient for customers to take the time to attend. We plan, prepare, advertise, promote, offer contests and giveaways - do all the things we possibly can to encourage customers attend. Nothing is worse than a people-less author event.

3. What do you wish authors would do better at these events?

I really appreciate authors who bring "extra" props, or authors who send promotional materials and/or bookmarks weeks prior to an event. I also really appreciate authors who are willing to walk about in the store and interact with the customers ... simply introducing themselves, as in "Hi, I'm - ------ and I'm here with my new book, -----. It's about -------..." In other words, authors who are eager to handsell their own book. It makes the customer feel so important! There's no better way for the author to get exposure and sell books! I also appreciate authors who communicate to people when and where they're going to be, inviting people to attend, either via the internet, through newsletters or simply by word of mouth!

4. How did you end up in Forest City, NC, and at Fireside books and Gifts?

I moved to the area about 6 years ago and took a job as a personal assistant for a local author. When Fireside was listed for sale, my boss and her sister decided to purchase it. They then offered me the opportunity to manage it.

5. What are the biggest changes from a book seller's point of view in the past two years?

I think the biggest changes have been primarily in the two obvious areas: internet access and the economy in general. With the easy availability of the internet for most people, reading a book is not always a priority. Information is now readily accessible, and technology has changed the way people perceive books, to a degree. While I don't think that an e-book will ever replace the experience of physically holding a book and reading, I do think that they will become more prevalent in the future. Thus, we have to adapt and look ahead to how we can make those advances work for us and for our customers. We've certainly noted a change of direction in the bigger publishing houses, with the reduction of new titles being published and the cutbacks necessitated by the changing economy. My concern is that it may become even more difficult for new, deserving authors to be published and for the existing authors to continue to make a living writing books. In that regard, the economy is the primary motivating factor. People who love reading and who buy books are going to continue to do so, but perhaps not as frequently - at least not in the immediate future. It is critical that we have our communities understand that buying from a big chain store may be cheaper, but it can actually hurt the community they are part of through the loss of revenue and tax dollars. There is a very real, very direct relationship between buying local and how the community benefits. Ultimately, it is up to retailers to educate the public on the benefits of buying locally. We have to enrich the whole experience of coming to a bookstore, making it worth that extra dollar they may spend.

6. What is the most exciting part of your job?

There are two that vie for the most exciting -finding the "right" book for a customer and having them later tell me how much they enjoyed/loved the book; and receiving ARC's from authors, publishers and especially through the IndieBound program. When that box comes in each month, the entire staff is literally lined up, waiting to see what's in it - and we all go home with a stack of books to read!

7. What suggestions do you have for an author to reach readers?

I would suggest utilizing the Internet to its' fullest potential - a web site (kept updated), a blog, MySpace, FaceBook, Twitter, etc. Create an email mailing list by having people sign up online - or while at store events - to receive news alerts about upcoming books and book tours. Some authors have entered the arena of book videos (or trailers), which are great to post on websites and YouTube. It's also a good idea to network with other authors in the same genre and to offer store signings, both in the beginning of their career and also after they have solidly established their name in the business.

8. How do you decide which books to carry in your store?

We use a variety of information to determine what books we carry, from Bestseller lists to publisher/rep. recommendations to what books are being featured on television. We also are very aware of our clientle and what authors/series/genres they request. Just because a book is on the Times list doesn't mean it will find a home in our store. Finally, we read a lot. (ARC's, publishing magazines, book reviews, blogs, author recommendations, and recommendations of our customers).We look at each selection with both specific customers and new readers in mind.

9. What do you like to read?

I have very eclectic taste - I read everything from paranormal romance/fantasy to science fiction to mystery to general fiction/non-fiction. I'm just as apt to read a Laurell K. Hamilton book as I am to read a book on Borderline Personality Disorder to reading F. Scott Fitzgerald.

10. Tell us something about your part of the country - we love travel.

I live in the Foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where we have typical Southern weather - hot in the summer and not too cold in the winter. Forest City is a mid-sized town, with all the charm of the old South and the convenience of modern day. We have the typical stores like Walmart, restaurants such as Chili's, etc. along our interstate, but we also have Downtown Main Street. There you'll find an old fashioned drug store that has the same soda fountain it's had for decades and the pharmacist who knows you by name. There are lots of neat, independent shops as well as barbers and antique stores. We also have a Coastal League Baseball team that has games all summer long, and an Arts venue at our community college which hosts many concert and theater events throughout the year. We have a great interactive, children oriented museum that always has something going on, and lots of local talent that play at the various establishments. Most importantly, the people here are genuine, kind hearted and nice.

11. Chat about your pets - we love those, too.

I have three pets: Tsunami, Salem, and Maxie. Tsunami is our Siberian Husky/Wolf rescue that we adopted about 8 years ago. She's slowed down a little in the last couple of years and spends most of her time sleeping in the sun. Salem is our big, fat black cat, another rescue/adoption, that we got about 4 years ago. We got Salem when he was 8 weeks old and he completely imprinted on my youngest son, Jordan. Salem thinks he is a person - not a cat. His biggest weakness is beef jerky - if it's in the house, he'll find it. Maxie is our gray, furry cat, who was actually Salem's mother. We adopted her about a year after we had Salem - one of the other cats where she was staying just couldn't seem to get along with her. Maxie is quiet and reserved (until Salem makes her mad) and typically stays close to my husband. I call her "Prissy Pot" most of the time because she's all girl when he's around.

12. Who is your favorite southern fictional character?

My favorite Southern fictional character is probably Serena, from Ron Rash's "Serena." She was so evil, she put Lady Macbeth to shame!

www.firesidebooksandgifts.com Fireside Books & Gifts, Forest City, NC 28043, (828-245-5188)

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Evelyn Johnson, Librarian, Watauga County Library, Boone, NC, interviewed by Maggie Bishop

1. What has been the biggest change in the library field in the last five years? The biggest change I have seen in the library field is patrons do not come to the library just to check out a book. Our library is constantly being used for computer use. We have 18 computers for the public to use as well as WiFi. We are always having a wide range of programs for adults and kids. We check out DVD's, Books on CD and a new invention called Playaways. Plaways is like an Ipod with a book instead of music. One sad thing that has changed is I find that we rely on computers moreso now to find reference questions instead of books.

2. How is Watauga County Library, Boone, NC, funded? We are funded by the State, County and Town of Boone and our Friends of the Library

3. How has the current economic slow-down affected the library? We are much busier so it has not slowed down with library use. We will know soon what our budget will be but I am afraid we will have to spend very wisely in the next year or so.

4. What types of books are the most popular with users? Bestsellers, mysteries, local authors and some nonfiction

5. How do you decide which books to buy for the library? I read reviews in library journals and we take patron suggestions

6. What do library volunteers do? They answer the phone, help with programs, shelve and help with different activities that are going on at the present time.

7. What is your earliest memory in a library? I have been at the library 31 years. I was hired to work for a summer and never left. Mary Sue Morgan asked the commissioners for extra funding to hire me so I owe it all to her. There were only 4 of us working at that time compared to 19 now. My earliest memories are going out on the Bookmobile with Mary Brown. We would deliver books throughout the community and had a great time doing it.

8. How did you get started in the library science field? I began taking classes part time at ASU after I began working here although I worked in the library at the high school. I loved to read. I grew up out in the community and there was not a lot to do except read. Again, Mary Sue Morgan was a big help getting me started with my classes. It was a long haul but I finally finished, getting married and two kids later.

9. What do you like to read? I am a mystery reader, yes I like the works of gory James Patterson. I do read a lot of Southern Authors.

10. Tell us about your pets. I am the grandmother of a wonderful Lab named Lucy. Lucy is my son’s dog but they both still live at my house. She is the smartest dog I have ever had and I have always had a dog. We also have a turtle named Raphael. Raphael is about 13 years old and will probably out live us all.

11. What do you like most about living in the North Carolina mountains? I grew up here so I can't compare it to anywhere else but I love the closeness of the community where everyone knows almost everybody. I love helping others and I love my family and church. I love the way we can see the seasons change and I can't think of another place I had rather be.

12. Who is your favorite southern author? Well, my favorite Southern Author is Lee Smith and my favorite book that she wrote is Saving Grace. I love the characters in the Karin Gillespie books as well.

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