You went from writing crime fiction novels to picture book Liza Jane & the Dragon. How did this project come to be?
My mom was a children’s librarian in the Baltimore City school system. I love children’s literature—I was raised on the best books. And I have a daughter now, so I’m reading kids’ books again. I always thought it was something I would do if I had the right idea. In January 2017, we had had a wearying night at the house, and we were sitting at dinner at a neighborhood restaurant, feeling very beaten down, and she just suddenly said, “Why is Donald Trump president?” This was a week after the inauguration. And I felt that she deserved the most nuanced and empathetic answer that I could give, which is that there are a lot of people in our country—I don’t necessarily agree with them—who are very angry and very frustrated, and they think that no one ever listens to them. My daughter said, “That sounds exactly like me.” [Laughs.]
So I started telling her this story about a little girl who was tired of her parents bossing her around, so she fired them and hired the first person who came to the door: a dragon. At first it was fun, but pretty soon, every time there was a problem, the dragon’s only response was to belch fire. And when the girl said things like, “That’s not very helpful,” the dragon would always say what do you expect? I’m a dragon!” My daughter thought the story was hilarious and kept asking me to expand on it. I’m not sure if the parents ever came home in the original version. I told some friends about it and they said it sounded like a book.
Well, you’ve certainly answered my question of whether this could be read as a political allegory.
Yes, this is a book that grew out of my daughter’s question about Trump, and my politics are pretty clearly lefty. That said, the book is more about this rather simplistic idea that anyone can do any job, which is an idea that seems to find its fullest expression in politics in general. It’s one thing that politicians and writers have in common: We have this job that most people think, given the opportunity, they could do it pretty well, and they think it would make them rich. Both of these things are untrue.
The things that people think are important about politics and writing are the ideas, but you have to know about the process and . . . the actual execution. So it’s true the dragon has that little orangey mane on his head, and clearly I’m having some fun with current events, but to me it’s more about professionalism and who’s the right person for a job.
The first time I read it, I just enjoyed the story and didn't read it as an allegory.
I’m kind of glad! My biggest fear is that people will think this is some kind of anti-Trump screed, and it’s really not. I mean, I will never disavow my own politics, but the message is broader. Like when people talk about The Rock running for office, I’m like, there is such a big gap between being a delightful performer and doing this job. I’m afraid that we’ve taken up the idea of “any child can be president” and we have taken it to its most awful conclusion, which is that really anybody can be president!
I just find that astonishing, especially coming after one of the most accomplished intellects of the modern age holding office. People can feel however they want to feel about Obama’s policies, but as a politician and an intellect, he was first rate. And to see that sort of rejection by a good 40 percent of the country is disturbing. But I like the idea that it's a fun story because, again, it’s for kids. Kids sitting around at school are not gonna say, “Hey, got any good allegories about Trump?”
It makes me wonder what books I read as a child that had a broader significance that totally went over my head at the time.
I think there have been a lot of works in children’s literature where a lot of work has been projected onto them. I think that’s certainly true of [Maurice] Sendak.
What was it like to switch gears to write for a younger audience? I feel like your sense of humor still came through.
I think I had assimilated a lot about writing for children because I’d been reading books to my daughter since she was born. She was 6 at the time of writing this. Lots of people think it’s super easy to write a children’s book. They think it’s 1,000 words or less, and it’s very small words, very short sentences.
But I came out of writing for newspapers, and that has a style to it. I wrote for different newspapers that had different voices—writing for The Baltimore Sun was very different than writing for The San Antonio Light, where I’d worked before, and my own father had a column at The Sun for years, before he retired in 1995 that was only 600 words—which is really hard to do. I was really aware of all those challenges. But it’s completely different; it’s a world unto itself. I’d like to do it again. I’d like to write about Liza Jane again. She makes me laugh. She reminds me very much of another girl I know.
Why did you end up publishing with Akashic Books, and what was the process of working with the illustrator?
I wrote it up fast—relative to what it takes to write a novel—and the children’s editor at Harper Collins, where I’m under contract for my novels, said, “Oh, we think a dragon’s too scary—does it have to be a dragon?” And I’m like, “Yeah, it has to be a dragon. I don’t understand how the story works if the surrogate parent isn’t someone scary and ragey.” I just wanted it to exist, out in the world. It meant a lot to me that my daughter had inspired it. So we went to Johnny Temple at Akashic. They had published a book called Go the F— To Sleep, which was not technically a children’s book. When Akashic bought it [Liza Jane & the Dragon], they found a wonderful illustrator, Kate, who worked on it for over a year (I always felt kind of guilty about that).
The illustrations were more beautiful than I’d imagined. I thought it would be a very simply, starkly illustrated book, almost cartoonist. Better yet, she had lived in New Orleans for a time, a city very dear to my heart, and I was really pleased that some of those street scenes in the book are actually inspired by blocks in New Orleans. She also knew things about children’s books that I didn’t know. Like Liza Jane wears the same dress throughout the book because it subliminally tells children that this is happening in the blink of an eye. It’s like a dream. Stuff like that I never would’ve known.