Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Interview with Janet Schulman

I have an irrational curiosity about people I work with, made worse by the fact that 99% of the time I don't meet the people I work with. I wonder all kinds of things about them. Not only about their work, but what they have for dinner, what kind of music they listen to, whether or not they like cats. This summer I'm illustrating a children's book by Janet Schulman, and it's only natural that she should be my interview victim today.

Are you reading a book now? What is it?

Last night I finished reading Nobody's Fool by Richard Russo which is a kind of warm-up for his Pulitzer Prize novel, Empire Falls. Am about to start I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe. Both of these are books my husband and I pick up for next to nothing at sidewalk vendors of used books on Broadway or as re-cycled freebies in our apartment building lobby. We re-cycle most of our books in the lobby. That's where I discovered Dona Leon about six or seven years ago. Now I'm so turned on to her that I actually rush out to buy her latest novel in hardcover the moment it is released.

You told me that you go into the office on Tuesdays and Thursdays. What do you do on the days when you don't go into the office?

There is almost always some Random House/Knopf work that I have to do at home. But I start each non-office day by reading the entire New York Times, then working out at my nearby health club. In good weather I walk and read in Riverside Park. Often I go to a museum, occasionally an afternoon movie or theater. I do a lot of reading. I like re-reading classics that I read years ago and also reading classics that I should have read years ago. Even though I'm still involved in children's and YA publishing, I seldom read those books. I no longer feel that it is my duty to keep up with what is being publishing in that genre.

You wrote about your role in fighting for women's rights in the "The 1974 Macmillan Massacre" last year in Publishers Weekly:

"I had always suspected (correctly) that I was being paid far less than male vice-presidents or male marketing managers. The final straw was my discovery, after I had a baby, that maternity medical benefits that were denied me were given to the wives of male Macmillan employees. I joined the Macmillan women’s group and was subsequently elected co-chairperson."

In the piece you say at four o’clock one afternoon, after 13 years of service, that you were given one hour to get out along with your staff of five. Were you frightened when this happened, or were you too angry to be frightened?

I wasn't frightened. I half expected it. But I was angry that my staff became scapegoats because of me.

You fought a hard and ultimately successful battle. What was the best thing that came out of having to go through this ordeal (aside from the obvious benefit for women, for which we thank you)? What was the worst?

When I was fired I began freelancing as a marketing consultant which then led to some editorial assignments. I also had the time and the wherewithal to write a number of children's books, most in the learning-to-read genre, that were published by Greenwillow and Dutton. I think I owe my 31 year career as an editor and writer at Random House to having been fired and forced to do something different, something that I had always wanted to do. That was the best thing that came out of it. The worst? Well, we were just about to buy a co-op apartment for $55,000 and had to give that up. (The same apartment--it's across the street from where we live-- went for $2.4 million last year.)

I admire people who are good parents as much as I admire people who fight for causes like the one above. Are you a good parent as well as a valiant fighter?

What a question! I guess I was a good enough parent, even though I went back to work when our daughter was eight weeks old, something that was not usually done in 1968. She turned out quite well and we continue to have a loving relationship. She dedicated her doctoral dissertation to me and my husband for allowing her to be herself.

How many children do you have? What are they like?

I have just the one, Nicole. I'd say she is the most intelligent, caring, and moral person I know, and I know a hell of a lot of intelligent people, not so many who are also caring and moral. I am very proud of her. She gave up a tenure track job as a professor of medieval history at Ohio Wesleyan University because she couldn't stand living in Ohio or in America during the Bush years. She immigrated to Toronto and is now married to a Canadian, has a little boy, and holds dual American/Canadian citizenship.

In illustrating the big purple apartment building for your story, I wonder what kind of house you live in. What is your favorite room and why?

My husband and I have lived in the same apartment for 43 years. It is a 15 story Riverside Drive yellow brick building with early Art Deco architectural trim and our apartment would be described as a "classic six with 2 1/2 baths and fab views of the Hudson River." As for favorite rooms, like a cat, my feelings for the rooms change as the sunlight moves from east to west.

Do you have any pets?

Yes, an extremely neurotic but lovable tabby cat who was named Sunni at the adoption agency but we mostly call her Kitty. We've always had cats--a pair of Siamese for 19 years, Lady Brett Ashley and Natasha, named for characters in The Sun Also Rises and War and Peace; then for 14 years a Siamese we found on the street named Mystery because we didn't know where she came from; then a Russian Blue that was given to us for a few years named Tamara who died of leukemia; then a beautiful little rescue cat that looked just like a miniature tiger, all orange and black stripes, but was so gentle who died of a heart attack at about age 12.

Do you collect anything?

I used to collect antique tools that I would pick up at flea markets in upstate New York and Connecticut and in London and the south of France. But I put a moratorium on this hobby a year or so ago until I can figure out where to display this stuff. I'm now looking for the perfect display cabinet which I fear does not exist.

Do you have a computer at home? Do you have any feelings for your computer?

Yes, I am typing on it--or is the current nomenclature "keyboarding"? My only feeling for this computer--also the one in my office, even more so because it has a million Random House programs on it--is one of fear and loathing. I rage at it at least once a week when it does something--or, more usually asks me something--that I don't understand. However, I do recognize and value the computer. I don't think I could write a literate sentence without the computer, though I used to (I think). It is so easy now to correct one's mistakes/typos or totally re-write something. You would not know how difficult it used to be to correct typewritten mistakes. Going back even further in time, it baffles me how authors such as Charles Dickens--and all of the 19th century writers for that matter--could hand script a novel without nary a change.

I know one thing you love about your computer: following the Urban Hawks blog. You wrote a children's book called Pale Male: Citizen Hawk of New York City about the adventures of a red-tail hawk who lives on a Fifth Avenue apartment building. Do you ever catch a glimpse of Pale Male, other than on the blog? Were you a hawk enthusiast even before Pale Male landed in New York City? How exciting about the three red-tail hawk chicks that hatched in Riverside Park a few weeks ago!

I didn't know anything about red-tail hawks until I went on an Audubon Bird Walk through Central Park in 1995. It was the first year that Pale Male had built his nest on the posh apartment building on Fifth Avenue and the Audubon people pointed it out to me, commenting on it being the first time one of these very shy wild birds settled in a busy, noisy city. I began following Pale Male year by year after that. I see him in the vicinity of his nest, via binoculars, each spring, but ever since his nest was destroyed in December 2004 and then re-built over a steel platform (presumably to catch the hawks' garbage of rat, squirrel, and pigeon carcasses and bones) he and his mate, Lola, have not produced any chicks. We think the steel platform allows too much cold air under the nest so the eggs don't incubate even though Pale Male and Lola are wonderful parents and sit on the eggs endlessly. He and his mates (he's had four but he never finds a new mate unless the old one dies or is "damaged", i.e. one of his mates got into a fight with an owl and lost one of her eyes, thus making her not very good at hunting) have had 23 chicks that have fledged. There are now quite a few red-tail hawks living in Manhattan and Brooklyn. It is not for certain, but it is believed that most of them are progeny of Pale Male and his mates. The web site is strictly about the Riverside Park hawks. There is a web site that has fabulous photos of Pale Male.

Do you have a fireplace in your home? What is on the mantle?

No, alas, there is no fireplace in our spacious apartment. Our first apartment which was George Gershwin's studio in his house on 103rd St. (two blocks uptown from where we live now) had a decorative fireplace, but I have always wanted a wood burning fireplace or, as they print in classified ads, a wbf.

What is your favorite piece of jewelry?

Not worth answering. Do you really ask this question to others for your blog???

What did you have for dinner last night?

Another pretty weird question, but since I do eat dinner every night as opposed to not wearing jewelry to the degree your previous question implies I'll tell you that we had a very good dinner last night of stuffed cabbage, green salad, fresh cherries, and a bottle of Cote de Rhone wine. I might add that we eat at home almost every night. My husband does most of the cooking. Last night the stuffed cabbage was bought at Zabars and heated up chez Schulman. We always have a bottle of French wine with our dinner.

Do you listen to music? What is the last piece you listened to?

I don't listen to much music now days, but the last I heard, just a few hours ago, was at my friend Eden Ross Lipson's memorial service. It was "12 Gates to the City" by the Weavers, a group of folk singers from the 1950s and 1960s, Pete Seeger was one of them. I came of age on this type of political folk music and I still listen to it occasionally.

What are you most excited about now?

Well, if you are really interested in what I am most excited about right now, I'd say it is visiting my three-year-old grandson in Toronto. As for my life in children's books, I'm publishing this month a picture book The Sleepy Little Alphabet by Judy Sierra with illustrations by Melissa Sweet that I'm excited about. Happily, so are a lot of reviewers. . . imagine getting a starred review from Horn Book Magazine for this book! And an Oppenheimer Toy Award.

You were Ted Geisel's editor. (Dr. Seuss, that is.) You said that often you had no idea what he was working on until he would fly to New York to present you with a polished manuscript and finished art. Did you ever take him to lunch? If so, where did you go and what did he like to eat?

He didn't like going to fancy restaurants, but his wife did. At lunch he usually ordered scrambled eggs--not green and no ham--regardless of what class restaurant we went to.