By Rebecca Schmitz
The best part of local author Lisa Martin’s job might surprise you. Martin, co-author of the “Anton and Cecil” series for middle grade readers, enjoys not just the process of writing, but also sharing her experience and knowledge with young readers.
“The most surprising part of this whole experience has been the school visits. I can’t believe how fantastic they are,” Martin, who lives in Ivy, said recently, after conducting a writing workshop with Brownsville Elementary’s third graders. “I think it’s something adult authors really miss out on because they have bookstore events and people come and respectfully listen, but no one’s shooting out ideas for their next book,” she said, noting that she learns just as much from the children as they learn from her. “You get all this joy from them.”
Martin’s trilogy of books: Anton and Cecil, Cats at Sea; Anton and Cecil, Cats on Track; and Anton and Cecil, Cats Aloft (to be published in the fall of 2016), take place in the late 1800s and detail the adventures of two brother cats with very different personalities—one craves excitement, while the other is more timid. Martin drew inspiration from her own sons, who were 8 and 10 when she began writing the first book with her aunt, Valerie Martin, a highly-regarded adult novelist who was awarded the prestigious Orange Prize for Fiction for her novel Property.
“Having kids that age really helped. They would fight, but then they would always come back together,” Lisa Martin said. The first book sees the brother cats separated and embarking on their own voyages, and is “essentially a story about family and loyalty and brothers, and getting back home again, and figuring out what you really love,” she said.
After working closely with the teachers to find out what the students were learning and how she could reinforce their lessons, Martin structured her visit to Brownsville’s third graders as more of a writing workshop than a Q and A session. “I tell the students, this is not a speech, this is a workshop. I’ll tell you things that might help your writing, and you tell me things that might help my writing. They look at me like ‘are you sure?’” she said with a smile.
Students are always interested in where she gets her ideas, so she showed them pictures of her cats, her sons, and the maps and research that went into creating the books. “They want to know about the process—how long did it take?” She also gives tips on how to strengthen their own writing: “I try to say, what would make your writing interesting? You have to have obstacles and someone in trouble. You have to use words that are ‘juicy and delicious.’”
Third grade teacher Darci Palmer said Martin, “…did a fabulous job. We worked with her on our curriculum and what we wanted to get across. The kids were definitely engaged and asked so many questions. They were very interested. She really helped them make connections to what we were working on.” She said Martin made writing skills such as character and plot development relatable to the children.
Martin’s own journey to becoming an author is unique. While she loved writing poems and fiction in high school, her father, an accountant, encouraged her to major in something “practical.” So she studied business in college, eventually earning a Ph.D. in accounting. She taught college level accounting for two or three years, but “I really didn’t love it. I really liked the teaching part—that was fantastic, but I didn’t enjoy the research aspect that went with it.” After her children were born, “I stayed home with them for a little while, which turned into a long while,” she said with a chuckle. Inspired by the books she read to them, she started writing children’s poetry and submitting it to magazines, eventually getting published in Ladybug magazine.
Finding it hard to break into publishing, she decided to join forces with her aunt, Valerie Martin. “She is a full-fledged adult novelist. She has always been a writer,” Martin said of her aunt, an English professor at Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts, who has written a dozen adult novels, and whose novel Mary Reilly was made into a movie starring Julia Roberts.
“My aunt said, ‘Why don’t we write something together, since I can write long things for adults and you can write short things for children.’ She said she wanted to learn how to write for children, and I wanted to learn to write longer stories.
“It took us three years to write the first book. It was a three-year master class…. There are so many subtleties that you don’t think about. It’s challenging to write humor, and to write dialogue to sound like people actually speak is very tricky. It can come out sounding leaden.” Martin said she not only learned a lot from her aunt, but had fun in the process. “We have really similar, very dry senses of humor.”
The duo decided that their main characters would be cats, since both of them had two cats. They chose to set the story at a shipyard and at sea because “My grandfather was a ship’s captain his whole life and he traveled all over the world on freighters.”
Martin said they had to write the other two books in the trilogy much more quickly, so young readers wouldn’t age out of the series. “We had one year for the second one, and six months to write the third one.” Martin explained the books are in the “middle grade” category: “People think it means middle school, but it actually means ages 7 to 12; upper elementary. I think third to fifth grade is really the ideal.” The books will stay a trilogy, with no more planned.
Martin, whose husband teaches business at U.Va. and whose sons are now 15 and 18, has two more books in the works. One takes place in Virginia and is the story of a young boy’s quest to save the last red wolf, which is in danger of extinction. The other takes place in New Orleans, where Martin grew up, focuses on Mardi Gras, and features a werewolf. Martin has no doubt that she will be spending more time with her young readers in years to come: “Going to visit a school is an incredible source of inspiration. I wish I could do it every week.”