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For my first PAL SPOTLIGHT interview I’m pleased to welcome non-fiction author Marta Magellan, whose book PYTHON CATCHERS: SAVING THE EVERGLADES (Pineapple Press/Rowman and Littlefield), illustrated by Mauro Magellan, releases this month!
Lynne Marie: Congratulations on this fascinating book which is so relevant to our area! Jacket copy explains this book as “A marsh rabbit and a wood stork explore the impact of invasive pythons on the Everglades habitat.” Please share how this intriguing concept came to be. Was it that from the start, or did it evolve? Did you pitch the concept to the editor or did the editor pitch the concept to you?
MM: I wanted to write something for the very young. Expository work, even for middle grade kids tends to be difficult to make entertaining, but I wanted something even the smallest children would be attentive to. I was inspired by the book worm cartoons in Melissa Stewarts’s nonfiction NO MONKEYS, NO CHOCOLATE, but instead of asides, I had two native animal characters tell the python invasion story and the difficult things that must be done to contain it. At a Highlights workshop, I pitched it to an editor, Samantha Gentry, who was at Crown at the time, and although she said it was too much of a niche story for her company, she gave me some good suggestions. I decided to send it to Pineapple Press, which publishes a lot of Florida-themed books, but discovered they had been sold to a bigger company, Rowman & Littlefield. I sent them the manuscript, and they accepted it.
MM: I’ve been a wild animal enthusiast forever–all the books I’ve managed to publish so far are about wild animals. And I love the wilderness, and the Everglades is practically in my backyard. Yes, I have changed. I no longer like wild animals as pets due to what I know about invasive species. At one time, I kept four types of pet lizards, but now I realize reptiles and birds and many other exotic species are better off in their native habitat. Bringing animals in for the pet trade has caused these invasions, and it’s devastating to the native wildlife, so no exotic pets for me. A few months ago, I was bicycling in Shark Valley and saw a Burmese python on the path.They are quite beautiful snakes, and it’s a pity that we now have to destroy them before they destroy the Everglades and beyond.
LM: Of course, behind every detail in a book, there’s a reason. How did you come to choose a Marsh Rabbit and a Wood Stork to be the narrators of the story? Was it a visually-driven choice? Plot-driven?
MM: Not visually driven, that’s for sure! Wood storks are not the most beautiful of birds. I chose to use one because it’s the only native stork in North America, and it was endangered at one point. I’ve been visiting the Everglades for years, and in the past, I only occasionally saw one. Now they’ve made a comeback, but if the pythons keep proliferating and eating their eggs (and them), they’ll be compromised again. The marsh rabbit–also not for visuals, it’s just a little brown thing. The poor marsh rabbit was chosen because it’s another native which has completely disappeared from Everglades National Park–devoured by the pythons. Actually, you don’t see any small mammals anymore in the Everglades.
LM: Can you share a little of the research process for this book? How much of it was hands-on research (actual visits and interviews)? How did you find the experts consulted? How much time would you say you spent on your extensive book research?
MM: I can share, but I don’t know if it’ll be “a little.” For such a short book, it took a lot of work. I conducted telephone interviews and engaged in email correspondence, texted back and forth with one of the python catchers, who sent me photos and videos of his escapades, and of course, I read, read, read. I called administrators from Everglades National Park and was told immediately not to call the python contractors “hunters” because there’s no hunting in national parks, hence, the title. One of those python catchers I met through word of mouth. (He has told me he will take me to watch him on a python hunt one of these days. I’m waiting). As for the scientists, that was mostly done through email. It was important for me to get the go-ahead on the manuscript before I even sent it out, so I sent it to Dr. Frank J. Mazzotti from the University of Florida, an expert on invasives. I was a bit worried that the cartoon characters would be looked down on by scientists, but he wrote that he liked the concept, so after that, I went on with it. On one of my Everglades trips, I met an Outreach Coordinator from UF, who was willing to read the manuscript also. That’s why it’s good to write about one’s own region. You run into people, other people introduce you to people that can help you, etc.
LM: How long would you estimate that this project took you from start to finish? About how many drafts before submitting to the editor? About how many editorial revisions? Enquiring minds love to know the answers to these questions to get an idea of what the process can be like!
MM: I think I worked on it exclusively for about two years, maybe longer. When I was writing ANOLE INVASION, which was published in 2018, I was already reading about and thinking about the pythons. I took the original manuscript to my SCBWI critique group first, led by Ruth Vander Zee at the time and received helpful ideas. But the editorial revisions came mostly as a result of suggestions from the scientists and science liaisons who read and commented on the manuscript. A biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (the group that hires the hunters), did a very thorough reading of it and finally, approved it. I had to leave out words such as “deadly,” because she didn’t want me to go around scaring people away from the Everglades. When I got a letter that the publishers of Pineapple Press, who had published three books of mine, had sold to Rowman & Littlefield, I already had the manuscript written. I immediately contacted someone at Rowman & Littlefield, and I got a positive response. It seemed to take forever before it was finally accepted by acquisitions editors there. Then it gets strange–it was sent to the brand-new editor at Pineapple Press. Debra Murphy, who had no experience as an editor was honest enough to tell me that PYTHON CATCHERS was her first book as editor. Since then, she’s had many, of course, but she made no edits whatsoever on mine except to tell me she didn’t like the original author portrait I sent (holding a python skin). But she didn’t touch the text. It was an unusual situation, I’m sure.
LM: This book is packed with amazing photos. How did you go about securing the photographs? Was this a costly endeavor?
MM: This was the hardest part of the project. Do you know how hard it was to find a photo of someone releasing a python? I finally bought one that I had to scan. A few were free, the ones from Everglades National Park Services and Big Cypress National Preserve, and my husband, James Gersing, a photographer. But the rest I had to pay for. One cost a small fortune–it was a photo from the Associated Press–they don’t give out their photos for free. I spent all of my small advance and then some on the photos. Maybe it’ll sell enough for me to break even. I hope so.
LM: Would this book be considered a “Work-for-Hire”? For those of our members who are not familiar with this publishing category, please define.
MM: No, it’s not a work-for-hire. I received a traditional contract with a small advance and a standard royalty. I sold three books as work-for-hire to the educational market a few years ago. They told me exactly what vocabulary I could use for the second-grade readers and paid me a flat fee for writing each. I didn’t have to provide anything but the story and the text. PYTHON CATCHERS was a project between my brother, Mauro Magellan, the illustrator, and me, ours from beginning to end.
LM: How did you go about deciding what to include in the backmatter? Did the publisher assign this or assist in deciding this? Or did you draft this? If this was a submission, did you include it in the original submission?
MM: It was important for me to have the section called “What You Can Do” in the backmatter, and it was part of the original submission. Children need to learn early on that letting pets loose, cats, reptiles, any pet, will cause disaster for the native population. It’s amazing how little the editor asked of me. Like I said, I fell into a rather unusual situation. I thought I was going to get some feedback from the company, but they just took what I gave them and it ended up in the book. Every word. Nothing cut. I felt I had to go back and tighten the back matter as well as the manuscript myself because I know that the 4-8-year-old target group wouldn’t stick with me if I put too much in. So what I finally left in “What You Can Do” needs to be read. I hope the parents read it to them. The section I titled “More Invasion Facts” are for parents or teachers to learn about even more disasters that are on the way from loose Burmese pythons and other invasives.
LM: What is your next project on the horizon?
MM: I’m working on two new picture books, one on dragonflies and another on a Cuban-American primatologist, who I’ve been interviewing about her fabulous life. Every once in a while, I pick up a middle grade novel that I can’t get out of my head, and which will eventually have to be finished.
LM: How wonderful that your brother was brought on to illustrate this book! How did this come about? Would you say that being able to suggest an illustrator is unusual or unusual in your experience?
MM: When I wrote my first three books for Pineapple Press, it was part of a series, so the editor provided all the illustrations, and I provided the photos. However, strangely enough, I had signed a contract saying I would be responsible for illustrations and photographs, so when Rowman & Littlefield accepted my book, they said they would use the same contract, and I had to provide the illustrations! Well, it was surprising, but my brother is a legit illustrator, and he and I have worked together before, so it was a no-brainer. If more editors accepted author/illustrator teams, we’d submit to a lot more places. We work well together.
PAL SPOTLIGHT is a monthly feature, which highlights SCBWI Florida members and their new PAL books. If you have a PAL book (check here to make sure your publisher is considered PAL by SCBWI.) coming out in 2020, please contact Lynne Marie two months before your pub date at firstname.lastname@example.org.