James Crossley (Madison Books) and Miriam Landis (author of the new middle-grade novel Lauren in the Limelight) were colleagues at Island Books, Mercer Island, WA. They reunited for this exclusive interview for nwbooklovers.org.
James: We’ve known each other a long time, and while you’ve worn many hats over the years, I know you best from working with you at the same indie bookstore (and co-writing what I still think was the best bookstore blog in the country). We had a great time discussing (and sometimes hosting) the authors we love, so it was a wonderfully strange and new experience to stand beside you as you switched from promoting other people’s books to producing one of your own. How did you get to where we first met and to that author showcase where you presented your novel?
Miriam: I’m still kicking myself that we had that surreal moment together a few weeks ago, launching Lauren in the Limelight at the PNBA trade show. Look how far we’ve come (and many other life platitudes)! And now we get to ponder it in our favorite way, by blogging together. I’m feeling immensely grateful these days.
Back to your question. I’ll explain it with an analogy rather than boring readers with my resume. Have you ever wandered down a beach, picking up seashells without knowing why, and then realized when you came home that your child needs to do a massive art project and your collection is the perfect fit? That’s how my life experiences compounded to get me to the point of publishing this book: everything I did before was a steppingstone on the way.
In short, I had a unique career experience before I met you. Starting from a young age, I trained at elite ballet schools and was a professional ballerina with the Miami City Ballet. After a late college start, I became an assistant editor at two elite New York publishing houses and did a stint on the Amazon Books team. There were two early novels that I shopped to publishers without luck and then self-published during that time. When I got married and pregnant with twins, my career objectives shifted yet again, and that’s when I walked into Island Books, asked for a job, and teamed up with you.
My first two self-published ballet novels sold over 10,000 copies, which is a nutty story for another time, and I’ll be releasing new and updated editions of them before the end of the year. Because of that, over time, I realized I had an audience, and the more I taught ballet, the more I wanted my students to see themselves in books. I wrote Lauren in the Limelight during the pandemic and spent two years querying agents with it. Over and over, I heard that ballet was too niche, but the more I heard “no,” the more I realized that I knew how to make this book work. I’ve been in both the ballet and the publishing worlds for decades and know from many angles how the sausage is made. Every job I had before prepared me to start my own press and launch this particular middle-grade ballet book. I see the project as a gift I needed to give my students, kids, and younger self.
My journey is just one person’s experience of doing the work that everyone who works in publishing does. Booksellers, authors, marketing directors, and publicists love sharing and connecting through stories. I know that’s what gets you out of bed in the morning, too. You’ve known me for a long time, James. How do you think my book industry experience helped me get to this point, and how did our early go at the Island Books blog lay the groundwork for what we’ve both done in the years since?
James: Well, posting a finished essay every week for years can’t help but improve one’s writing skills. For me, working to regular deadlines was vitally important in eliminating a certain amount of preciousness about my prose: “I can’t let people see this if it’s not perfect!” And I’ll also say that being a bookseller is great preparation for all manner of positions connected to reading and publishing. You know that better than most, having lived and worked on all sides of the industry. You understand what goes into writing a book that people want to read, and also what it takes to get that book in front of an audience. You’ve done a superb job on all counts with Lauren in the Limelight, if you don’t mind my saying–though why would you?
You spoke already about wanting to write the book for your younger self, but could you say a bit more about why the middle-grade category is so important to you? Were you tempted at any point to pen a torrid adult romance, for example?
Miriam: Thanks, my friend. I’ve been tempted to do many things, but penning a torrid adult romance isn’t one of them. But I never say never, and now that you mention it… The middle-grade category is so crucial because, around 9 to 12, kids either go deeper into becoming readers or pull out of it. My twins just turned eleven, and I’m revisiting that category again with them. It’s interesting to see how slow and different the books I read at their age appear now. The bar is higher than ever for keeping kids engaged, and they have many more distractions than we did as children. Age twelve is also the average age that ballet students get their first pair of pointe shoes, a significant rite of passage in a dancer’s journey and a breaking point where many kids quit ballet. I wanted to create a book to help kids who were reading and dancing (or pursuing any challenging activity) feel seen. You weathered this age with two kids—as a bookseller, why do you think middle-grade readers are so important?
James: Ask any adult about their all-time favorite books and they’ll probably name at least one that they read before they were twelve years old. Those are the ones most likely to stick in our minds forever, it seems. My kids are a bit older than yours, old enough that “kids” almost isn’t the right word to use anymore, but they’ve stayed avid enough readers that they’ll occasionally review books for my store’s newsletter–including yours! (Spoiler: thumbs-up was the verdict.)
Not every author is keen on doing the necessary publicity after the writing is done, but I know you have some events lined up for the fall. Are you looking forward to getting out on the road with Lauren and company?
Miriam: I’m jumping for joy that a certain child of yours not only reviewed my book but gave it a thumbs up. Day made. Thank you. To answer your question, yes, I’m beyond excited to take this show on the road. My most up-to-date tour schedule is on my website. The plans are still growing, and the whole shebang has been a meaningful way to connect with communities and people. I have three local events planned in Seattle: Sunday, October 22nd at Island Books in conversation with my Pacific Northwest Ballet colleague Naomi Glass, Wednesday, October 25th at Third Place Books Ravenna in conversation with Pacific Northwest Ballet artistic director and author Peter Boal, and Sunday, October 29th at On Pointe Dancewear in Bellevue in conversation with Pacific Northwest Ballet superstar Jonathan Batista. Then, it’ll be time to hit the road. I’ll be at Zibby’s Bookshop in LA, at the King’s English in Salt Lake City, later teaching a master ballet class at the Ballet West Academy, and at Books Inc. in Palo Alto. I’m also excited to be on Zibby Owens’ podcast, Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books, before the end of the year. As the NW Booklovers community knows, books aren’t read if no one knows about them, so I’m eager to get Lauren in the Limelight into the hands of the kids I wrote and published it for.
James: Me too. I have a stack ready to hand-sell to those kids right now.