Episode 51! Conversation with Pat Zietlow Miller
Welcome to episode 51 of our kidlitwomen* podcast! Usually, this podcast features an essay about an issue in the children's literature community (Monday) and a discussion about the essay (Wednesday).
In this episode, author Pat Zietlow Miller and Grace Lin discuss Pat’s essay, “I’m So Sorry for Being Sorry. Why Are We Always Apologizing?,” which can be heard in episode 50.
On today's podcast you will hear:
Pat Zietlow Miller is not the least bit sorry to say that she has sold 17 picture books – eight of which are available now. BE KIND (illustrated by Jen Hill) was on the New York Times bestseller list for nine weeks, and SOPHIE’S SQUASH (illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf) won a Charlotte Zolotow Honor, an Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Honor and a Golden Kite Award. Pat has also won three Crystal Kite Awards. Pat has two books coming out in 2019 – REMARKABLY YOU (illustrated by Patrice Barton) on Feb. 5 and WHEN YOU ARE BRAVE (illustrated by Eliza Wheeler) on March 5. You can find her at www.patzietlowmiller.com or on Twitter at @PatZMiller.
Grace Lin, a NY Times bestselling author/ illustrator, won the Newbery Honor for Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and the Theodor Geisel Honor for Ling and Ting: Not Exactly the Same. Her most recent novel When the Sea Turned to Silver was a National Book Award Finalist. Grace is an occasional commentator for New England Public Radio and video essayist for PBS NewsHour (here & here), as well as the speaker of the popular TEDx talk, The Windows and Mirrors of Your Child’s Bookshelf. Grace's new picture book, A Big Mooncake for Little Star is now available.
grace: All right. Hi Pat. Thanks for coming on to the podcast.
pat: Thank you so much for having me.
grace: Your essay really struck a chord for me as I'm sure it did with many people. The first line was especially poignant. It says "I'm so sorry for being sorry. Why are we always apologizing?" So why are we always apologizing?
pat: Well, I think it really comes down to, like I say in the essay, it's a fear of not belonging. Or a fear that other people will think you don't belong and if you apologize first and kind of get that out of the way you've sort of maybe acknowledged that you don't belong and people might be more accepting of you. At least that's what I think it is. And I'm not saying that's the right way to think, but I think that's how we as human beings sometimes think.
grace: Do you think this fear of not belonging is more prevalent in the children's book community?
pat: I think it is a universal human emotion but I think it's easier for it to pop up in the children's book community because so much of what we do, we do by ourselves. You're at your computer by yourself. You're typing. You're working on something that means a lot to you but you don't know will it sell, if it does sell will people like it? You don't often have people right nearby that you can bounce things off of and compare notes with so it's easy to feel really alone. And then I think the next logical step from that is to start questioning yourself. Like "Oh, maybe I'm not that great after all", or "Maybe I'm in the wrong career path." So I think it's easy just to question whether you really fit when you're spending so much time inside your own head.
grace: That's true. Being an author and an illustrator, I feel, lends a lot to insecurity. But I was thinking that maybe it's more prevalent in our community because the children's literature community is mostly women. And I was wondering if there was a gender divide in it. What do you think?
pat: I think there might be. When I wrote the essay, I wrote it after I had just finished seeing a lot of different people speak. And the people that did the apologizing were all women. Now I'm sure some men do apologize because I did share the essay at my day job, which is a Fortune 500 insurance company, and I had several men contact me and say that they related to it. So I'm sure it is somewhat true for men, but when I see people doing it publicly it's always been women. And I don't know if it's because as women we maybe feel a little more socialized to take up less space or maybe we feel a little more insecure that we don't truly belong. But I do see more women doing it.
grace: I do too. I think that is interesting. In your essay you talk about when a friend of yours mentioned that you had a picture book on the New York Times best seller list and you kind of shirked away from that accomplishment and you were saying "Oh, it's not as cool as most people think." That really struck a chord with me too. I really related to that. So let's talk about that for a moment. Why do you think you reacted the way that you did?
pat: The second I said that I was so disappointed in myself. But I said it. And then afterward I started thinking why did I say that? And I came up with two reasons and neither one maybe probably paints me in the best light. But the first reason is I really didn't want this person I had never met before to think that I was boasting or being arrogant, even though it was my friend that brought it up, not me. I wasn't walking around saying "Hey, I would on the New York Times best seller list." But somehow I thought that by agreeing with it it might make me look boastful.
pat: But the second part, which is probably the bigger reason, is I think people that aren't in the author, literature writing community have sort of a mental picture of what they think a New York Times best selling author looks like. Like they live on a yacht and they have paid staff and they don't need a day job. Which really in most cases isn't true. Certainly isn't true for me. And I was really worried that this person was going to look at me and go "You're a New York Times best selling author? You?" I just didn't think I fit the mental image of what one was. Which doesn't say much for my self confidence I guess but I was trying to head that off at the pass. Because I'm just a pretty average middle-aged woman from Wisconsin that if you lined 100 people up and said "Pick out the New York Times best selling author", I don't think most people would pick me.
grace: That makes me feel sad.
pat: It makes me feel sad too. I need to be better you know.
grace: I've thought about this a great deal and I think that being a book creator kind of gives you a scarcity mindset. The truth is I feel like there are many more people who want to be published than will be. So that means there's really a limited amount of opportunities in our field and I think it plays into the apologetic attitude. Would you agree with that or not?
pat: I think to some point it does. I think I as a writer always feel very fortunate that I have had things published, that some of my books have done quite well. And I think I'm aware that that could change as tastes change or as new people come on the scene. So I always feel like it's not a steady footing as some other jobs might be. You're always writing on spec hoping someone is going to like it and buy it. So I'm sure that does play into it a little bit, but yet there's the other half of my brain that always thinks there's always room for a really good story and if I can just focus on my craft and focus on doing the best that I can, hopefully it'll all work out.
pat: And I think if you can't hang on to that second viewpoint at least a little bit, you're never going to make it in this business. You have to sort of have the faith and not think about the percentages too much.
grace: I feel like keeping that faith is really important as well, but I think it's because this business is so kind of insecure. I feel like we're always kind of apologizing for the accomplishments that we do have. Does that make sense?
pat: Yeah, I think it does. I mean I think it's just part of trying to make it in the business and keep going. But I would really like to see us all move beyond that and say "Hey, I did something awesome, and you did something awesome, and let's celebrate all that awesomeness together."
grace: I know. I guess I was thinking that the scarcity mindset, it plays into what you were saying, your idea of not belonging. We want to belong so we play down our accomplishments to fit in the group. To not stand out and basically, really not to make other people feel bad. We're recording this during time when all the best of the year lists are coming out and I remember the years when my books were never on those lists and how I would actually have to mute my friends because it would hurt me so much to see them celebrating. And I remember that so vividly that this year by the luck of the gods my book happens to be on some of those lists, but I actually hesitate to share the news. And I wonder if there's a way that we should balance the celebration of our successes. What do you think about that?
pat: Well first of all I think your book is awesome. It's a beautiful book. A Big Mooncake for Little Star. I'll do the plug for you. You really should get it and buy it and read it. It's absolutely gorgeous. I've kind of been in the same boat. I've had years that I've had books on end of the year lists and then years that I haven't. And I've always wondered on the years that I have, am I overdoing it? Are people going to my Twitter feed or my Facebook feed and saying oh, it's her again? You know, there she is again. So I really try to do a balance of ... Because I do want to share my good news and I'm not going to stop sharing it. But I also really try to promote other people's books too because the reason I think that all of us get into children's literature is because we have this deep love for it. I mean I passionately love kid lit. Especially picture books.
pat: And even if I never publish another one, I would keep reading it and enjoying it. So I'm perfectly capable ... I mean I find books that other people write and I'm like that is really good. And I want to tell people about it. So I try to do the balance between holding up books that I love and think are wonderful and then sharing news of my own.
grace: Well, on the flip side, how do you suggest we find ways to celebrate other people's success?
pat: I do a lot on social media. So if I read a book, I'll tweet about it, I'll Facebook about it. I have a blog, Picture Book Builders, where that's the whole concept of the blog is it's six children's book writers talking about other people's books that they like and why they think they worked and what those people did. So I think that's a great way. And then just casually when you talk to people. I go to work where nobody is as into kid lit as I am and I'll be like "Hey, you've got kids. There's this book you should look at." I'm sort of known for that at my job. I think there's lots of ways you can just work it into your life. And then that makes me feel good about just sharing something I love and maybe less guilty about sharing my own book successes.
pat: I really work hard at trying to be not jealous and trying not to be competitive with other writers because, like I said before, I think there is always room for a great story. The times that I do find myself feeling competitive or jealous, it's usually when I see a book that I personally think is just okay, not great, just okay, and it's getting this big publicity and promotional push that seems to me to outweigh the merits of the book. And in those cases, when they do happen, it's almost always a book written by a man who's perceived as being charming. So sometimes I feel the perceived charm of the author is carrying a book that maybe, in my opinion, wouldn't stand on it's own. So those are the times I feel my competitive juices get a little flowing.
pat: Because I don't normally see it the other way around. I can't think of a time where I've seen a book that I thought was just okay getting a big huge push, and the author was a woman.
grace: Well, honestly I actually don't feel like that's competitive or even ... Well, I guess it is kind of jealousy but to me that's more about the anger of the injustice of it all.
pat: And it's entirely possible that someone could read that book and think it is awesome and not just okay. Because you know, literature is subjective. So I could be wrong in my assessment of it. But occasionally that happens.
grace: Since we're talking about professional jealousy, I actually sometimes find myself apologizing for my success in an attempt to actually ward off passive aggressive remarks. Have you ever found yourself in that situation?
pat: Yeah, I usually am wondering what people are thinking. I've never fortunately had people say anything passive aggressive to me. But I'm often wondering what they're thinking and my remarks are designed to head that off. Like when I said being on the New York Times best seller list wasn't as cool as most people think. I was definitely trying to ward off that the person might be thinking I didn't belong there.
grace: I guess I ask this because obviously I come from the intersectionality of being minority as well as female. And I've found that there's this there can only be one mindset as a creator of color. And in the past we've been so preoccupied trying to be like the chosen one at a publishing house that creators of color, we didn't support each other. Do you think maybe that's the same mindset for women? Or completely different?
pat: Okay. My thought on that is I don't know the exact percentage but a high percent of children's books are written by women. So I don't look at it that way in terms of just getting published because most, more than half I'm sure, of children's books are written by women. But I think when you go beyond that there is that there's only one kind of mentality. Like when you're looking for who's asked to be the keynote? Who gets the spot on the panel? Who gets the book tour? Who gets the marketing budget and support from the publisher? Those do seem to go to a certain type of male author. So I have found myself feeling like okay, I have to try to be the woman that can kind of sneak in there. So I see it in that sense. When you look at things beyond the initial act of getting published.
grace: But do you think that women ... I guess it's kind of like the survivor thing. Do you feel like you have to fight against each other to be noticed because there's so many women maybe?
pat: Maybe a little. I don't tend to find myself being competitive with other women. When I get a little competitive/annoyed it's usually with a guy author. I don't like many guy authors so I'm not trying to throw anybody under the bus. But not so much with other women. I'm probably not saying this well. I just feel like if there's six slots on a panel and you're trying to get one of them, there's probably going to be only one author that meets my demographic criteria there and there will probably be a lot of competition for that spot.
grace: Let's go back to the apologizing. I want to go back to how you said when you kind of shirked away from being a New York Times best seller because you kind of had this idea of what a New York Times best selling author should be. Because there's kind of like this image that you think an author should be, or a New York Times best selling author should be. And maybe that's what plays into our apologizing so much.
pat: Oh, I think definitely. I think definitely. I think people feel like there's this ideal. This mystical, magical author who's successful. And if you don't meet those criteria you're just not fitting in. And I'm really personally working to ignore that and try to beat that down in myself.
grace: Because it all feeds into this like you're never enough and so that's what the apologizing is all about.
pat: And you are. And I logically know that. So it's just trying to get my emotional subconscious onboard.
grace: I guess it's also the idea of saying that you are what a New York Times best selling author is. Look at you. You are the real thing. Instead of what the illusion is that you and all of us have put in our minds I guess.
pat: Yeah. If you look down the list, it changes every week. It's not like there's just 10 people. It's a wide, wide variety of people. And that's good, and that's great, and we need to celebrate that.
grace: I remember when I actually worked at a children's bookstore earlier in my career. And I had my first book out. And I remember that a customer came in looking for my book. It probably was a friend of a friend. And they said "Oh, look at this book. My friend knows the author." And I was in the back and I heard this and I realized they were talking about my book and I started to hide because I didn't want her to see me. Because I was afraid it would ruin the mystique, the mystery of what the author was. Like if she saw me working at the bookstore and she saw who I was then the wondrous author idea was gone.
pat: Oh exactly. They're going to realize you're just an average person like everybody else.
grace: And does it ruin things?
grace: So why do you think this constant apologizing is so harmful though?
pat: Well I think if you walk around through your life apologizing for yourself, I think it encourages other people to see you as less than. If you're saying "Oh gosh, I probably shouldn't be here. There's this other person after me who's so much better known. And I'm not even that good of a public speaker." It's just encouraging people to look at you as being less. And I think that can be a problem when you're trying to do the various aspects of your job as an author. When you're trying to book a school visit, when you're trying to speak on a panel. If you've spent all this time apologizing, why should the person organizing the even think of you and value you and pay you what you're worth based on your talent?
pat: I don't do that many school visits because I also have a full-time day job so I have to take vacation days if I want to go and do a school visit. But I have several female author friends who've been booking visits and working with people and the people planning the event or the visit have said "Oh, we really want you to come but we just don't have any money. Could you adjust your fee? Could you come for less? Could you pay for your own travel?" And my friends have worked with them to do those things and then they get there and they realize they've also brought in a male author and paid him his full rate. In fact one of my friends, the person planning the even said "We can't pay what you're asking because we need the extra money for a male author." And they named the male author. And my friend was like "Why are you not asking him to reduce his rate?"
pat: So I think you need to present yourself as I'm worthy of this. And I'm not saying all planners do that because they certainly don't. But I've heard specific examples from people I know.
grace: Oh yeah. I agree. I have a visits coordinator and I actually have given her instructions that if an organization asks for me to adjust my rate for them that she is to ask that what they're offering has to match what they offered their most recent male author. Or at least inquire what they paid their most recent male author. If only because these things need to be transparent.
pat: Well I had a fee that I had been charging and it was going fairly well and then I was talking to a male author who's a friend of mine and he told me his fee and it was substantially higher than mine, and we're at very similar places in our careers. And I even checked with my agent. I said "Would you say that you think I'm on the same level as this person?" And she's like "Yes." And I raised my fee. And some people have booked me at that fee and other people have not. And for me personally, since I do have a day job I'm not depending on this income to support myself. My day job supports me. So if they can't, I just I'm sorry it didn't work out. But I think even having the confidence to say this is my fee and this is what I'm worth did a lot for me personally.
grace: I think that's what it comes down to, this apologizing. When you constantly apologize we're actually putting ourselves down over and over again, and it's kind of harmful to our own self confidence by this constant apologizing. And I think it's interesting because we have this push pull of valuing ourselves and trying to be grateful for what we're given. And it's trying to balance those two things and apologies seem to be a way of us trying to balance that. What do you think of that?
pat: Yeah, I was just talking to one of my editors about this last week when I actually saw her in person. The balance of on one hand just being so grateful to be in the field and to have books in a bookstore and on the other hand feeling like I am a good writer and I do deserve certain things. And keeping that gratefulness and confidence in an appropriate level of balance. No, I think that's totally a thing.
grace: Do you have any tips on how someone could do that?
pat: Well, for me, I've started asking myself like pick your favorite author. Who do you really admire? Who do you think is just awesome? And say what would that person do? Like your idealized, perfect version of them. Because maybe in real life they're as insecure as you. I don't know. But what would your idealized, perfect version of this author do? I think that's one thing. And the other thing is is there's a Nelson Mandela quote. And it's really long but part of it says "Your playing small does not serve the world." And that's what I try to remember, is nobody benefits if I'm walking around saying "Oh, I'm really not all that good. I just got lucky. That's why I published this book." I mean, that doesn't help anybody. That doesn't help people that want to come after me and be writers. It doesn't help me be a better writer. So I try to remember that quote.
grace: That's true. I like your idea of thinking of an ideal writer. I actually do that. But what I do is I actually think of my guy friends who are authors and quite successful. I'll be like well, what would he do? Like okay, just pretend you're him.
pat: And one of my editors did tell me that in general male authors tend to be much more upfront about what they expect and what they want when it comes to compensation, when it comes to reimbursement for going places and doing things, and she said that because they're more upfront about it they tend to be more likely to get it. She said women authors tend to be more quiet and oh, whatever, just let me know. It's that whole kind of the squeaky wheel gets the grease. And I've decided that I just need to squeak a little louder sometimes.
grace: Yeah. And it's kind of like setting your boundaries. It's like what you were saying with your school visits. It's like this is how much I would like to get paid. So I think there is a good lesson in that. I think that there is a good lesson to kind of try to, I guess, act like a man. At least for those kind of things.
grace: So was there anything you were worried that people might misunderstand about your essay?
pat: Well, there are obviously times when you should apologize. When it's absolutely the right thing to do. If you've hurt someone or offended something, or if you've made a mistake then you should apologize early and often and sincerely. So I didn't want people to think that I'm just anti-apology overall. It's just I don't think you should apologize when it's not needed or just to make yourself feel better or to smooth things over. Only when it's really warranted.
grace: Yeah. The smoothing things over, I think, is the important part. I think we do tend to use it for smoothing things over. So what do you hope people will take away the most from your essay?
pat: I hope that it will help people realize that they deserve to take up space in the world and that the mere act of taking up space and owning yourself and your art is not a bad thing. That as a person who creates, it's a good thing and you should be proud of it and you should share it and you should step up and say "Yes, I did that. I created that. Here's how it works." And then some people will like what you do and some people don't and that's okay.
grace: What I like about your essay is that you ask readers to challenge their apology habit. To take credit for their accomplishments. So I've been trying to take on your challenge but I have to admit it's been hard. Recently somebody complimented me on my book and I remember I was just like okay, just say thank you, just say thank you. How have you found your own challenge?
pat: Well, I was so mortified after I kind of dismissed being on the New York Times list. I was just like I can't believe I said that. That that was like the key turning point for me that now I really watch myself. And as far as I know I haven't done anything as egregious since that. That was like the thing that made me go you have got to do better. So I think so far, so good.
grace: Do you have any tips of others trying to take your challenge on?
pat: I guess think before you speak. It's very easy to be reflexive. Like when someone compliments you to say "Oh, well it was nothing." Just pause for a moment. Silence is not a bad thing. And say what you really mean instead of what is tempted to just come out of your mouth.
grace: I'm hoping to air this episode right around New Year's so I hope all the listeners take you up on your no apologies pact as part of their New Year's resolutions. If they do I hope they let you know.
grace: So we're on to our final questions of the episode. The two questions that I ask everyone. And the first one is what are you working on? Or what kind of project would you like to tell our listeners?
pat: Well I've got two books coming out in 2019. One in February and one in March. The February book is called Remarkably You. It's a picture book with Patrice Barton and it's a rhyming text about all the different things that make you remarkable and why you should celebrate them. And I'm really excited about that book. And then in March I have When You Are Brave, illustrated by Eliza Wheeler. And that is a book for the scared kid I used to be about how to find your inner strength and step up and kind of step into who you are. And I'm really excited about that book too. That's probably the book that I needed the most when I was a kid.
grace: Those sound great. All right. The last question of the podcast is what is your biggest publishing dream? Now remember this question is asked specifically so that we do not have to be ashamed of our ambitions and like you said nobody benefits when you dream small, so dream big. What is your biggest publishing dream?
pat: Well it's funny because when I was thinking about this I was tempted to apologize for it because it just seems so big. But I would love to win an ALA award. The ones they announce every year and I get up early and I tune in and I watch the podcast on my computer. I write picture books and the Caldecott's for illustration so that one's off the table. The Newbery occasionally goes to a picture book, but not very often. And then there's the Geisel Award that generally goes more toward an early reader. So it's going to be a hard goal but I would really love to win or be an honor book for an ALA award.
grace: Well I hope you do too. And you never know right? You never know. I think that the Newberys and Caldecotts, they've been picking outliers more and more and more so I think there might be more and more picture books for Newberys than you think coming up.
pat: I've just got to go write something awesome.
grace: Yeah, and I'll cross my fingers for you.
pat: Thank you.
grace: So thanks so much Pat.