The Trades Interview 2004

If you do things right, for the right reasons, success will naturally follow. If you ever need a living example of this, look to Patrick Carman. A father of two daughters, Carman founded four successful businesses before turning his talents toward writing, and his first effort, The Land of Elyon, is ramping up to be a children’s market literary phenomen. And certainly, while the writing is well done, I can’t help but think that part of the success is reward for Carman’s efforts with the “Lifetime Mentoring Program,” a counseling organization for troubled youth, created by Carman, or for his family’s involvement with the Agros Foundation, a non-profit organization that helps developing communities in Central America.Whether it’s the raw talent or a gift from on-high, the final result is that The Land of Elyon (recently reviewed here at The Trades) is gathering increasing notice, heralding the arrival of a new, serious player in the market.The Trades was fortunate to be able to speak with Carman just after a charity signing event he had performed in Walla Walla, Washington, during the holiday wine tasting weekend. As I’m seeing on your website,, this began as a series of bedtime stories for your daughters. Author Patrick Carman with daughters Reece (left) and Sierra (right.) Yes. It started out as a story I told to my two girls–they’re now seven and nine–and I was telling it to them a couple of years ago. I would come home once a week and tell them a little piece of the story. At that time, it was really just about a girl who lived in this kingdom that was surrounded by walls, and she had figured out a way to escape, and every week she would escape and have some new outlandish adventure–meet some crazy person out there–and there would be some sort of moral lesson to the evening; and then we’d have an activity.I did that for a few months, and filled up a journal, and it wasn’t until a little while after that I took all that information and formed it into a book. How did it go from bedtime stories to journal notes and finally a book? Did someone prompt you to write it down, or did you have an idea that having notes might be useful?My wife wanted to have an evening out with her friends, so this started out just as something to do with my kids, and this seemed like a fun sort of diversion rather than going out to the movies or going out to fast food.As far as it turning into a book… I started out as an entrepreneur, and I’ve had several different companies, and what I always tell people is that I was sort of a frustrated artist up until I started writing, and a lot of the companies that I ran were formulated to do creative endeavors. And while the companies did fine, I felt frustrated, creatively. So when I got done taking all these notes and I thought about writing a book, I was, first of all, scared, which I think most people are when they sit down and try to write an entire book, but also, as soon as I started, it just felt like… I don’t know… kind of like when a person who is a natural artist starts drawing pictures and they actually look like real pictures. It felt like it was the right medium for me, the one I’d been looking for. Of course we all do lots and lots of writing, but lots of us never think about, ‘I wonder, if I tried to right a book, would it be any good.’Once I started, I didn’t really tell anyone besides my wife. I spent a lot of time on the first book–probably nine months for a first draft, which for the length of the book seemed like a long time to me. I just loved doing it. I understand you self-published this originally, but when you had first completed the manuscript, did you shop it around at all to existing publishers?I did. It got rejected by everybody. But we had all the librarians in Walla Walla, who were very excited about it, and then we had a bunch of teachers… all these people that I sort of felt, ‘Well, they must have some idea whether it’s trash or not,’ and they were all very excited about it. I was in a situation where I had sold a company and had a little bit of time and extra money on my hands, to where I was willing to risk a certain amount and put it out there myself.The thing that I think really made the difference for us was that we started going to elementary schools and I started speaking at assemblies. That started here in Walla Walla, a small town with six elementary schools, and through a series of networking, those teachers would call friends of theirs in the next town over, and the next town over, and pretty soon we were in Seattle. We’ve probably been to thirty or forty schools around Seattle. What seemed to be the magic equation was to go to about three schools a day, and talk to maybe 1200 kids, and do a really high energy, fun assembly about the book, and leave them a little coupon that would invite them to come to the book store that night and get a free autographed poster–and if they wanted to get a book, they could. We started having these outrageous events–hours and hours and hours, with hundreds of people buying books in one night. I think our biggest one was about 550 in one night.The northwest Scholastic representative, the sales guy, by chance ended up at Third Place Books, a very large independent bookstore… The woman who runs the community relations part of Third Place Books really got behind the book, and she started calling all of her friends in the publishing field, and then when he came in she said, ‘You just have to read this and take it back to New York and show it to those guys.’ That was Gene Smith, and he flew back to New York, and read it on the way back, and put it on Craig Walker’s desk. Craig Walker is the Senior Editor at Scholastic–there are two Senior Editors, him and Arthur Levine, the guy who does the Harry Potter books–and he loved it. And then everybody all of a sudden loved it. So they called and bought all three of the books in the series.As an author, that’s a huge thrill. And since then, it’s gotten–even by Scholastic’s own admission–a little out of hand as far as how big a deal they’re making out of it. So I’ve travelled around and visited with all the key accounts–Target, Borders, Barnes & Noble, Baker and Taylor–and everybody’s going to have floor displays and everybody’s buying tons of books.The tour–this is a little bit different than what they’ve done in the past–it goes for as long as four months. It will be a tour bus that’s skinned to look like the book, and myself and my wife and my two kids are all going to drive from Seattle to New York over a four month period. I’m going to blog from the road, so every week there’ll be an article and photographs from the road. My nine-year-old is really into filming, so she’s going to do a film segment once a week or two weeks for Scholastic News. It’s been definitely beyond my expectations and an awful lot of fun. Are all three of the Elyon books finished?They are! When they bought the first book, the first draft of the second book was already finished. The second book, when I had originally conceived it, Alexa had turned sixteen. As you might imagine, when I sat down with the editors, they both said, ‘Yeah, that’s not gonna work.’ In being so naive about the book business, I thought, ‘Well, I’ll get this book out and maybe it’ll take me four years to get another one out, and all the fans will be four years older.’ So I don’t know what I was thinking. At any rate, we had to pull that all back, so I pretty much had to write half of the second book over again. But that one’s done now, it’s all been approved, it’s in copy editing. The same guy who did the artwork for the first cover is now painting the second cover. The thi
rd book, I’ve just finished the first draft–and this is the last book in the series–about a week ago. As the series runs its course, do we ever find out who Elyon is?The second and third book are focused quite a bit more on that, so you’ll find out a lot more as the series progresses. The first book is a small, encapsulated story about this kingdom that she’s in. The second book takes off and goes all out into the other areas of this whole island, and you find out about who Elyon is, and that there are other forces involved in what’s going on, and Alexa gets wrapped up in the whole thing. So will the second and third books be larger in page count than the first?No, they’re the same. I can’t write that long a book, it would be too hard. I don’t know about you, but at least for me there’s a point when I feel where it’s time to start winding down. At 60,000… 65,000 words it seems like… it’s not that I can’t do more, it just seems like I can’t do more. The story is told. When Warvold built the walls… the threat that’s in the first book wasn’t a threat until after the walls were built. So I’m wondering, what was it that Warvold was afraid of, and is Alexa going to encounter that?Now see, you’re asking questions I can’t answer. You remember when they were in the forest council, and Alexa and the grizzly bear were talking about some of the stuff, and how Warvold had misunderstood some things? You’ll find out much more about Warvold the person and why the walls really were built, and what’s really going on in the second and third book. With three books out of the way, what are you going to do now? You’ve built several different business before, are you going to try something even more different next?I don’t think so. There are two things that I love about the things that I’m doing now. One is that I really enjoy writing. Some people find it so difficult, I just love to sit down and write. And I also really enjoy going into the schools–which is why I’m so happy to be involved with Scholastic, because they’re so involved in schools. For example, this tour, I’ll go to 200 schools, and they’ll all be assemblies, so I’ll get to talk to 75,000 to 100,000 kids. To get up in front of a group of kids for twenty to thirty minutes and just talk about writing and how important it is to read and the creative process–I just love doing that!I don’t think I’ll go back to Elyon–so many of the series now, kids are almost primed for seven books to ten books in a series–and this really feels finished with three; and yet there are certainly things we could do down the road. I don’t imagine I’ll go back to that any time real soon. I’ve got some other projects I’d like to do that are standalone books, probably two or three of those, and then maybe go back and try to do some other things with the Elyon stuff. Has Elyon been optioned for movie rights, as so many children’s books have been lately?Scholastic would prefer to let a title get up on its feet before they approach the media rights, and I agree with that. A lot of times media rights get sold and it just doesn’t do anything. What we’re hoping is that by the time we get back from the tour we’ll be able to do something with that, but who knows? It’s such a long shot.

Patrick Carman