Kate Banks started her life in books when she spent three years working for Knopf as an assistant editor to Frances Foster, and had three books published by them. She then worked for National Geographic for a year in Washington, and continued writing, then got married and moved to Europe. When Foster moved to Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Kate went with her and from then on all of her US books have been published by FSG. In France Kate’s publisher is Gallimard, who do a lot of her books in French (her picture books). Her first book with Gallimard was with Georg Hallenslaben – Baboon. They do most of their books with both publishers, but the French ones come out faster.
Kate writes for older children and teens, too, but feels she relates more to little kids around three to four years old – she loves the visuals of a picture book and it’s more fun to produce them and be part of the process. The challenge is to write spare text – the poetry in the text is important – she pays a lot of attention to choice of words, even in novels. She loves to read picture books aloud to kids, and always reads her own stories out loud to hear how they sound.
For children, their grasp of language comes as much from listening as from seeing words on the page – sound is important for communication. She believes that reading aloud in school is really important, and that it is not being done so much now is a big reason why kids are less literate.
When writing a story – she gets ideas as they occur – “fall from the sky” – she always stays aware of ideas, wherever they come up. Sometimes an idea might be kicked off by an event, or it could be a phrase or something a child does or says – she writes down the idea and then lets it gel for a while (she takes a notebook everywhere so she doesn’t lose those ideas). She always works on several things at once, then there is no fear that the one thing won’t work. She gives herself lots of room to think about the idea, then knows when it is ready to be written. She might do several drafts or more, but usually the first draft is to get the structure and form working, or to see if something is not working in the structure. Then she fills out the story and adds more to it. The first draft is getting it down.
Her novels take at least 4 drafts – again, she writes the bones in the first draft, then subsequent drafts are about filling it out and developing. The last draft is always copyediting and looking at every word and phrase to see if it can be made better.
For The Cat Who Walked Across France: initially she did hear of a story about a cat – not the specific story that she wrote – and since the book has been published she has heard other stories of cats who have walked a long way to get back to their original homes. The illustrator, Georg Hallensleben, was an artist she discovered in Rome. He is German and she asked him if he was interested in doing picture books. When she lived in Rome he would ride his bicycle across the city to her house to work every day, then he bought a van and outfitted it as a studio, so then he would drive to her house and set up downstairs in her garage. As he worked on illustrations, he’d bring them upstairs and they’d talk about them and then he’d go back down and revise or do more. This was how If The Moon Could Talk was created.
For the Cat book, he drove his van across France, following the path the cat takes in the story so that he could paint what the cat saw, in reality.
Kate collaborates a lot with her illustrators. Because she has worked in the industry, her editor trusts her to know the artist’s work and how to collaborate and get the best book. This also sometimes leads to her writing a story specifically for a particular illustrator.
Her themes are about connection – how people stay connected in life and death. She’s interested in writing about the human experience of the soul and the physical body, how to communicate that connection and understand humanity through stories with resolutions. Children today experience the media all the time where disaster and tragedy have no resolution; it’s just presented to them. She is opposed to irresponsible media that projects sensationalism – children don’t have the tools to deal with the constant bombardment. She feels her contribution is to write about these themes. Death is a part of life but in our society we don’t want to see this. She writes about death a lot but thinks this is because she lost both her parents as a child.
Kate speaks three languages – English, French, Italian – and says her spelling has got worse! She does think her vocabulary has changed since she has been living overseas, and she has more ease in working with words – she plays a lot more with words, but is able to do this because she has had a strong foundation in grammar and punctuation. You can’t use poetic licence unless you have that strong foundation.
With marketing, she has never done much but can see now that things have changed a lot and that publishers cannot do much for you. Being in Europe, she can’t do book tours or school visits in the US. She doesn’t like to think of books as products – her books are more literary, not mass market paperbacks, and picture books are expensive to buy. She has an agent now because contracts are getting more difficult – new clauses and things to negotiate.
My thanks to Kate for being so generous with her time, and her answers!