Jill Santopolo is an executive editor at Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group. She is also the author of the Alec Flint Mysteries The Nina, The Pinta and The Vanishing Treasure and The Ransom Note Blues, both published by Scholastic. She holds a BA in English Literature from Columbia University and an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Sometimes–but not all the time–she teaches a class in YA novel writing for Mediabistro, which she enjoys a lot. She prefers mittens to gloves and earmuffs to hats, but understands that both gloves and hats are sometimes necessary. Especially in Vermont.
What made you decide to be an editor?
A big part of my decision to become an editor was the role that books played in my childhood. I loved learning about new people and new worlds, solving mysteries, and experiencing things I’d never be able to do in my own life. Since reading was so important to me as a kid, I wanted to choose a profession that would help bring the joy of reading to other children.
What’s hot in the writing world right now?
If you mean what topics are hot, I’d say romance is big in the teen market right now, both paranormal and otherwise. Also books about girls who have died or are about to die–I guess I’d call them books that deal with the hereafter.
We always hear, “Don’t write for the market” and still we see a steady stream of novels of a particular kind coming out. Do you think people should write for the market?
I agree with everyone who says not to write for the market. I think that when people do that their books often lose the heart that makes them shine. There are a lot of people who are passionate about vampires, for example, and they should by all means write what they’re passionate about. But if writers are passionate about something else, that something else is the story they should tell. I think the most important thing is to write about something you love or a story you feel compelled to share. That’s when an author’s writing is the strongest, when the story means something to him or her.
What are the three favorite novels you’re working on right now?
I’m going to cheat on this question because I’m in the process of editing exactly four novels right at this very moment, and there’s no way I could leave one of them out! So, in no particular order, these are the four novels I’m working on right now, and I love every single one of them:
1) NIGHTSHADE by Andrea Cremer. This book is about, Calla, the alpha female in a shape shifting wolf pack who is destined to mate with the pack’s sexy alpha male. But when Calla saves a human boy hiking in the woods and falls for him hard, her whole world starts to change. What I love most about this book is the passion with which Andrea writes and the power and strength of her female characters. This one’s coming out in Fall 2010.
2) WE ARE NOT EATEN BY YAKS* *HOPEFULLY by C. Alexander London. This book is the first in a middle grade series called The Calamitous Adventures Club and is absolutely hilarious. It’s about twins, Oliver and Celia Navel, who love television more than anything, but who are (un)fortunate enough to live on the 4-1/2th floor of the Explorers Club. Much to their dismay, they have to help their father rescue their mother from the Tsangpo Gorge in Tibet, and end up falling out of an airplane, fighting an abominable snowman, and possibly getting eaten by Yaks. Of course, they’d rather be sitting at home watching their favorite TV shows. I love the humor in this book, and the adventure too–and the relationship between the siblings. This one’s coming out in Spring 2011.
3) FREEDOM STONE by Jeffrey Kluger. This is a magical realism book about a girl named Lillie who is a slave on a plantation in South Carolina during the Civil War. When things look bleakest for her family, Lillie learns how to use a Freedom Stone that originally came from Africa to work a little magic of her own and set things right. This book is written with so much heart that I tear up whenever I read through the manuscript. It’s coming out in Spring 2011, too.
4) MAPLE T. RITTLE AND THE QUEST FOR A MIRACLE by Erin Moulton. I like to think of this book as The Penderwicks meets My Side of the Mountain. It’s about two sisters who set off into the wilderness to find a miracle to save their brand new baby sister. I love the voice in this one, and the sisters, and the fabulous details the author weaves into the story. This one’s coming out in Summer 2011 (Erin handed it in early, which is why I’m working on it already).
What’s the best advice you can give a beginning writer?
I’m going to give the same advice that my first writing professor in college gave me: Read! If you want to be a poet, read the poets who have come before you. If you want to be a mystery writer or a romance novelist or a picture book author, read in those fields. Once you understand the genre you want to write in, you’ll be able to build on the literary tradition that already exists.
Is it necessary to have an agent?
I don’t know if it’s 100% necessary to have an agent to get published, but I definitely think it’s a good idea to have one if you’re planning to have a career as a writer. To begin with, most editors pay more attention to submissions that come to them through agents. Plus, once an editor is interested in your work an agent will be able to take care of the business end of things so that your relationship with your editor is all about the creative process. An agent also knows what to ask for in contract negotiations and who to call when there’s something bothering you. Having agents involved makes the whole process easier, I think–both for the author and for the editor.
I hear you’re a writer, too. Tell me a little about your novels.
The two novels I have out, The Nina, The Pinta and The Vanishing Treasure and The Ransom Note Blues are both mysteries starring a fourth grade super-sleuth-in-training named Alec Flint. He and his best friend Gina use their brains, their powers of observation, and the information they learn in school to solve cases that even Alec’s dad, whose a police officer, can’t figure out. I had a ton of fun writing these stories and have been getting adorable notes from kids written in Gina and Alec’s secret code.
What’s the funnest part of being an editor?
Hmm, I think the most fun part is getting to call up authors to tell them that I love their books and want to publish them. And also looking at how far a manuscript has come from the first draft to the final draft–being able to help writers tell their stories in the best way that they can is a lot of fun.
What’s the funnest thing about being an author?
I think the most fun part of being an author is being able to create something that has a positive impact on someone else. I’ve gotten a bunch of emails from parents of reluctant readers who write to tell me that their son (it’s usually a son) didn’t like to read until he got a copy of my book (usually at a book fair) and now he can’t wait to read the next one. That sort of letter makes me really happy.
What do you look for when your reading through submissions?
I look for manuscripts with good, clear writing, a powerful voice, unique characters, and an exciting plot. I also like editing books that are empowering, so I look for characters who are active and strong and go after what they want. But mostly I look for stories that are infused with the writer’s passion and heart. To me, that’s the most important.
PS My mom LOVES Jill and is really glad that they were in the same class at Vermont College. Mom says that Jill is an all around amazing person.