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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Interview with Laurel Snyder, author of Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova

Today I am so excited to be interviewing Laurel Snyder, the author of Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova. Here's Swan's Amazon blurb: One night, young Anna's mother takes her to the ballet, and everything is changed. So begins the journey of a girl who will one day grow up to be the most famous prima ballerina of all time, inspiring legions of dancers after her: the brave, the generous, the transcendently gifted Anna Pavlova. Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova is a heartbreakingly beautiful picture book biography perfect for aspiring ballerinas of all ages.

Congratulations on writing such a beautiful book. What inspired you to tell the story of Anna Pavlova?

Thank you!  It's a funny story, actually.

I was in LOVE with Anna as a kid. I was a dancer myself. But then at some point I bought an old used book, that had photos of her in it, as well as a section of her diaries, about her childhood. I'd sit and re-read that section, and stare at the photos. And sometimes I wrote things in the margins.

Years went by and  I forgot all about that book. Until recently, when I found it in my mom's basement. When I saw my own kid-handwriting, I had this rush of memory. My old obsession woke back up!  So in a way, it feels like I write this book with my childhood self as co-writer.

I loved how you started with Anna’s experience at the ballet. Most biographical picture books I’ve read start with birth. Why did you decide to start with this moment in her life?
Well, the details of her life are fuzzy. I've read a lot of biographies on her at this point, and her parentage and early life aren't well documented. So honestly, I just never thought about it. The story begins for me when she goes to the ballet for the first time.

You have so many interesting details about Anna Pavlova. How did you learn about her?
I did a lot of research, to be sure I wasn't making any mistakes, but the truth is that the book is deeply rooted in those initial diaries I read. They capture her spirit and voice so well. The later details of her life (and death) aren't in them, and for those I had to turn to secondary sources.  But I tried hard to carry the tone of that personal narrative into the later half of Swan.

Did anything about the illustration of the book surprise you?
Bizarrely, no! This was an unusual book in that way. Almost always, the illustrator sees my thoughts differently. But this was a rare case. I got the sketches and burst into tears, because Julie really did peer into my brain and pull out the pictures I'd imagined.

How long did it take you to write this book?
The first draft for this one came very easily, but the editorial process took a while. I think we revised and tweaked for about a year. But it was a very careful sort of revision. The book is so spare that any little changes felt massive. We were working with tweezers, my editor and I.

Tell us a little about your own journey. When did you decide to become a writer?
I was eight. For the record, I also wanted to be a dancer, and I failed at that (which is one of the reasons that Swan is so satisfying.)  But yeah, I started writing little books (and self-publishing them with a stapler) when I was eight.  My best friend and I wrote together some, and I wrote a lot of poems. And then in high school I started working on the literary magazine staff. From that point on, there was never any question, really. Just lots and lots of rejection and revision.

Is there anything about your journey that you were able to connect to when writing about Anna Pavlova’s life?
That's an interesting question. I don't think I really thought about it like that. I find Pavlova inspiring and passionate.  I wanted to be like her as a kid, with that kind of singleminded purpose, absolute conviction. But I don't think I'm very much like her. I'm amazingly distractible.  

Did you have a favorite book about dancing when you were little?Oh, good question! YES!  I was in love with Ballet Shoes, by Noel Streatfield. I still have huge sections of it memorized. It's a great book, but I don't think it's very widely read anymore.

Everyone should go read it now, right this minute!!

I agree. It was one of my favorite books too. Thank you so much for talking to us about Swan. To learn more about Laurel and her books you can visit her website at http://laurelsnyder.com. And make sure to check out Swan online or at your local bookstore!

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