Lisa, welcome to Read Local OK.
First of all, congratulations on your debut picture book, Suki and Sam, AND for winning first place at Oklahoma Writers Federation, Inc. in the Juvenile Book Category. You must be very happy.
I am incredibly happy that Suki and Sam won an award this year at OWFI. Writing a children’s book has been an interest of mine since I began reading them as a child! The story idea for Suki and Sam has been my longtime companion while I’ve learned about the craft of writing, submitting a manuscript, and publishing. Now the finalized version of Suki and Sam is helping me continue to learn about how to get the book into the hands of readers.
Can you tell us a little bit about your writing journey?
The idea for Suki and Sam gave me the courage to “step out” as a writer. I was an established psychologist working with children and kept my writing life very separate from all but my family members. Wanting to write the best version of this book about grief for children encouraged me to begin to attend writer’s conferences, which taught me very quickly how much I needed to grow as a writer. Apparently, a great idea is not enough! How to convey the idea took me a great deal of time.
I am a social person, and writing is done in isolation. It was surprising and helpful to me that the conferences not only gave me access to essential information, they also connected me to a community of creative people. I joined a critique group early in my journey, The Inklings, and these kind writers gave me the feedback my story needed to evolve into the full-fledged book that just won an award. I also met my publisher, Marla Jones of Doodle and Peck, at a conference.
Where did you get the idea for Suki and Sam?
It is difficult but rewarding work as a psychologist to work with grieving families. I have always been drawn to the transformation of a grieving person as they come to accept their loss and develop a new relationship with their deceased loved one.
The idea for Suki and Sam came while I was folding laundry and watching television when my baby was napping. On the TV there was an artist who was demonstrating his art live in the studio. George Rodrique was an artist who created the blue dog series, a group of paintings that had a blue dog as the central theme. When Rodrique was interviewed, he shared that the inspiration for the image of the blue dog was his childhood dog. I thought that this would be an interesting way to show the transformation of grief in how he painted his dog back into his life, one canvas at a time.
Through my writing journey, I learned how to convey the heart of the story of how grief impacts children and inspire the hope I see through my clinical work. The napping baby is now a married woman, it took a while for the inspiration to become a book—but it was time well spent.
Suki and Sam is a poignant read. What has been the response from readers?
Readers sometimes cry when they read the book or tell me that they want to read it later so they can cry privately. It is written and illustrated with the intention of evoking the emotion of grief in the reader. I’ve had readers tell me that they have given Suki and Sam as a gift to a child or adult who is mourning the loss of a pet or a family member. I am grateful that the book finding its way to help people where they are in their life.
Do you use Suki and Sam in your practice?
In the earliest versions of Suki and Sam, I would tell the story to children who were grieving, and it was helpful. Currently, there are school counselors and private practice therapists who are using the book in their work with grieving children. I have received feedback that it has been therapeutic, which is very rewarding.
Honestly, it is a little awkward to pull the book from my shelf and read it with a child, since I am the author. I don’t want a child to feel pressured to tell me that they like it because I wrote it, I want them to focus on the story and how it resonates with their experience. Over time I expect I will find a smooth way to reintegrate the book into my practice, but for now, I have it in my waiting room along with many other Oklahoma authored children’s books.
Your illustrator, Dorothy Shaw, did a wonderful job on the artwork. Did you collaborate with her? How much input did you have?
The inspiration of a grieving artist painting his emotions was a strong part of the story. I chose to put “notes to the illustrator” throughout my manuscript to give some idea of the pictures I had in my head without writing them into the words. I knew all along that someone else would have creative license to do the illustrations. All illustrators have a choice about whether to follow the notes or not, as they are creating from their own imagination. Some of the notes were followed, others were improved and expanded from my original thoughts. I am thrilled with the result, which felt very collaborative. I am so grateful that Dorothy Shaw made the story come to life. She is delightful to work with and I consider Suki and Sam our book.
Do you belong to any writing groups or organizations? If so, how have they helped you?
I believe I thrive in a creative community. I belong to Oklahoma Writers Federated Inc. (OWFI), which is for all genres of writing, and the Society of Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). OWFI has a yearly conference, which I have attended since 2000! I recently made some changes to my work schedule so that I can get more involved in SCBWI. They have informative monthly meetings, regular retreats,
and great webinars. My critique group, The Inklings, participates in some online and face to face meetings monthly, and we have two retreats a year. The writing community has been welcoming, inspiring, and also helps me with accountability. I work best with a balance of alone time to write and connection and deadlines to move me forward from that first draft.
What’s next for you? Do you have other things in the works?
I am eager to begin school visits for Suki and Sam with illustrator Dorothy Shaw. Sharing the story and sparking a conversation about grief has always been the goal of writing the book.
My writing career plan is to write feeling-centric books that evoke emotion and show ways to express and manage the feeling for children. My day job gives me an advantage in understanding the emotional life of children and the challenges of modern-day life for families. I recently starting writing a story about anxiety. I’m excited to begin the journey again!
Dr. Lisa Marotta is a clinical psychologist and writer. She has a thriving private practice and writes healing stories for children and their families. A sought-after speaker, Dr. Marotta regularly shares mental health information at schools, churches, and other organizations in the Oklahoma City area. Her parenting advice has been featured in MetroFamily Magazine, and her essays and poems have won numerous awards. Dr. Marotta hopes her debut book, Suki and Sam, will help children navigate the complex feelings of grief. Follow her website, www.drlisamarotta.com, where she blogs about positivity, creativity, and happiness.