Author Interview: Annette Bay Pimentel, Mountain Chef

There have been amazing people throughout history with their stories just waiting to be told. That's what inspires author Annette Bay Pimentel to write. Read more about how she came to write Mountain Chef, the true story of a Chinese American mountain man who fed thirty people for ten days in the wilderness--and helped inspire the creation of the National Park Service.

1. List the titles of your published books (include publisher and year published) and your author website/Facebook page links.

Mountain Chef: How One Man Lost His Groceries, Changed His Plans, and Helped Cook up the National Park Service (Charlesbridge: 2016)

Girl Running (Nancy Paulsen Books: 2018)

I’ve also done 8 books on assignment for Amicus Publishing, but they generated the ideas and hold the copyright. They were fun to write, but I was just a pen-for-hire!

2. When did you start writing your first book? Where did the idea come from?

I saw an old photo, of a man in an apron under giant sequoias, that intrigued me. I did a little research and ended up finding Tie Sing, a Chinese American trail cook who helped lobby for the National Park Service on a 1915 camping trip where he cooked for 30 people for 10 days in the wilderness. Along the way, he encountered disaster after disaster, but his creative spirit and quick mind that saved the day. The amazing story of his resilience and genius became my book, Mountain Chef.

3. What was the hardest part about writing your first book? What hurdles did you have to overcome?

I write about people who were mostly ignored at the time they lived. So I struggle to find good historical documentation. With Mountain Chef, my breakthrough was finding archival records about this camping trip. The many photographs in the archive helped me recreate his experience. With Girl Running, I relied on Bobbi Gibb’s autobiography for vivid details.

Always I struggle to find the right voice for the story. With Mountain Chef the problem was compounded because I was also learning how to write a nonfiction picture book! My critique group read version after version after version—at least 12 times. Many of those manuscripts were very dry. But my writing friends were brave enough to tell me when my writing bored them. Which made the version where I finally found the right voice all the sweeter!

4. Once your manuscript was finished, what did you do?

The first thing I did was to start a new project! Publishing is slow. I try to always have several picture books, at various stages of composition, in the works.

I had pitched Mountain Chef to Alyssa Mito Pusey, an editor at Charlesbridge Publishing, at a conference. She told me she wanted to see it when it was done. But after I sent it, I heard nothing for eight months. I figured that was a no. But then I received a thrilling email telling me that she had tried to sell the manuscript to her editorial board, but that she hadn’t been able to convince them to buy it. She told me that if I revised, she’d be willing to champion it again.

After I revised according to Alyssa’s suggestions, the editorial board agreed to buy it.

5. What did you expect from the editing process? How was the experience?

I had no idea what to expect! Alyssa and I did several rounds of revision after she bought the book. It was a pleasure to work with such an able editor. Her guidance and keen eye made the book much better. For example, she pushed me to include Eugene, one of the minor characters in the historical record.

Once we had the text fairly stable, I did two rounds of revision with the artist. In nonfiction picture books, the illustrations need to be accurate, just as the text does, and it was my job to look carefully at the illustrations to make sure we kept out historical anomalies.

6. Describe what re-writing involves and how it makes you feel. How is it different than the initial writing?

I dislike the prospect of rewriting, but once I am immersed in revision, I love it. The first challenge in revision is to identify problems in the text—critique partners and editors are very helpful for that! Once I know what the problems are, it’s satisfying to generate a range of options to address the problem. The challenging thing is to figure out which of the options I’ve generated works best. But that’s the whole point of revision!

I love working with editors. Nancy Paulsen, my editor for Girl Running, had an eagle eye for spots in the text where I had over-written and an unerring instinct for places we could condense and rely on illustrations to convey information. When I read Girl Running aloud to kids, I always marvel at how right she was about the edits she suggested! It’s great to work with someone who spends her entire career polishing texts to a high sheen. With each editor I’ve worked with, I learn things about shaping text that carry over into my next books.

7. Did you have non-editors read your book for feedback (Alpha Readers)? What did you get out of that?

My critique groups are central to my writing process. I’m currently in three different groups. My local, in-person group is usually where I go, once I have a solid draft, for first reactions. It’s helpful to get a range of responses to my writing, especially when several people point out the same problems.

The group that worked on Mountain Chef with me used to be my local group, but I have moved since then, so it’s now an online group. That group and a critique group made up of writers who share an agent with me, are the people I rely on for final reads before I submit a manuscript. Both groups are full of actively publishing writers, so they know what a finished piece feels like (and they also have industry knowledge, like how particular editors might respond to a piece).

I also seek feedback from individuals who have particular expertise related to my projects. That’s especially important since I write nonfiction. For example, a National Park ranger who specializes in Chinese American history gave me great feedback on Mountain Chef (and became my friend!), and my daughter, who has a degree in special education, has given me important feedback on a project I’m working on now about disability rights.

8. Who designed your cover? How much input did you have? How important is the cover design?

The design departments of my publishing houses made all the decisions about art and design.

9. How did you go forward with publishing? Why? How was that experience?

I’m very happy to be traditionally published. I can’t imagine gathering the resources to successfully create, market, and distribute a nonfiction picture book.

10. How have you marketed your first book?

Every year Yosemite has a Sing Peak Pilgrimage and associated conference (free and open to the public—you should go!). I have spoken at the conference twice and joined the backpacking trip to climb Sing Peak once. I met many wonderful people there who are just as passionate as I am about sharing Tie Sing’s story. I’ve also done many school visits and presentations at libraries and museums. My publisher nominated my book for the Carter G. Woodson Award, given by the National Council for Social Studies for the best book about an ethnic or racial minority’s lived experience in the US. To my delight, Mountain Chef won! That has helped marketing as well.

11. How was the initial feedback from readers?

I love sharing this book with schoolchildren. I’m glad that they are so horrified at how Chinese Americans were treated in the United States one-hundred years ago.

12. How have sales been on your first book? Did they go as expected? What helps you the most to sell books?

I didn’t know what to expect! The book has done very well with the school and library market, which was my hope. Professional reviews and comments on librarian blogs have, I think, been the most helpful in selling books.

13. Talk about print vs ebook. Do you get more sales with one than the other?

My books are available both in print and ebook form. But picture books are, by their nature, probably better suited to print. The sales numbers reflect that.

14. Did you set the prices of your print and ebooks? How do you decide how to price them?

Nope. The publisher does that.

15. What made you decide to write more books? How were those experiences (writing/editing) compared with your first book? Did you do anything differently?

I think the world needs more true stories about ordinary people nudging the world in new directions. So I write them!

My second book, Girl Running, is the story of the first woman who ran the Boston Marathon. It took less time and fewer drafts (25 instead of 50) to write—I learned something from writing Mountain Chef!

I have contracts for two more books, but they haven’t been announced yet.

16. Anything different in the publishing process for your other books?

I signed with an agent after I sold Mountain Chef. Having a knowledgeable partner as I sell books and negotiate contracts has made a world of difference. My agent also talks through my ideas with me as I’m choosing projects. She spends her days talking to editors and can tell quickly which of my story ideas she’ll be able to sell. That makes my writing life much more efficient and satisfying!

17. When did you consider yourself a "writer"?

I’ve considered myself a writer as long as I can remember. But I felt uncomfortable saying it out loud until I sold a story to a magazine a couple of years before Mountain Chef came out.

18. When do you write? What motivates you to write?

I write while my children are at school—which makes summers tricky! Writing is my job, so I devote time to my writing life every weekday, but it took me some time to realize that the writing life has many components. Sometimes I read or research. Sometimes I think. Sometimes I spend my time gathering information about editors and publishing houses. Sometimes I do critiques for friends. Sometimes I talk on the phone or go out for lunch with other writers or potential sources. And sometimes I’m actually writing stories. But it all counts.

19. What do aspiring authors ask you?

They ask me if they need an agent. If they write fiction picture books, the answer is, yes. If they write nonfiction picture books, the answer is, maybe.

20. What advice can you offer for aspiring authors about writing, editing, publishing, and marketing?

Read many, many recently-published books in the genre you want to write. In fact, aspire to read all the newly-published books in that genre every year! Your reading will teach you more about writing those books than anyone could explain to you!

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