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Teresa Robeson: InHERview

It’s always thrilling for me to do an inHERview with a friend and critique partner, and Teresa Robeson is no exception. Sweet, smart, and soft-spoken, Teresa gives the impression that she can find joy in almost anything. She is also patient; after thirty minutes of tech difficulty, we forego Skype and chat via phone.

“Thank you for enduring! Let’s jump right in,” I say. “Tell me about the first pivotal moment in your life.”

“Well, one of those odd pivotal moments for me was when I watched Star Wars: A New Hope, when it came out in 1977.” Teresa’s laugh is playful and light. I can’t help but think of all the Star Wars fans in my life who would agree.

“I think I’m one of the only people alive who hated Star Wars when I first saw it,” I admit. “Why did the movie have such an impact on you?”

“I had always been interested in sci-fi, but Star Wars was the first time I saw graphics that looked so real! The movie also made me fall in love with astronomy, because I felt like I was actually in space myself. I thought I wanted to be an astrophysicist and I started subscribing to astronomy magazines and I had all these grand plans.”

“So what happened? Why did you change your mind?” Teresa laughs again.

“My good friend, Douglas Florian, summed it up pretty nicely – he said, ‘Teresa, you need more chutzpah.’ And I thought, you know what? That’s been my problem my entire life. I just lack self-confidence. When I didn’t get top grades in every subject, I thought I was too stupid to go to grad school. It wasn’t until I married my husband, who was doing his PhD, and I hung out with other grad students in his department that I realized I was perfectly capable of doing a graduate degree! At that point, I considered going back, but my husband asked me to consider what I’d do with it. He said, ‘Would you want to teach?’ I said, ‘Heck no! I don’t want a job where I have to interact with people all the time.’ He said, ‘Would you do research?’ And I said, ‘Not if I have to travel to far-away observatories a lot.’ He said, ‘So why do you want to do a graduate degree?’ It made me think. When we moved to Indiana, his salary could support us, so I home schooled the kids and could focus on my writing here and there. It felt like the right decision, and I’m glad I made the choices I did.”

“With QUEEN OF PHYSICS as your debut, you obviously still love science. How do you quench that thirst for knowledge? Do you study in your spare time?”

“Yes, I do!” Teresa’s excitement for academia pours out. “I read magazines and books, and I take courses through a company called The Great Courses. They offer everything from humanities through various sciences. I take classes on physics, quantum physics, astrophysics, mathematics. Things I’m interested in. I’m taking one on nuclear physics now.”

“Have you considered working astronomy into a picture book”

“I have one that I hope to sell someday soon. I’ve worked on it since 2012, but I think it’s in a good spot now. I’m going to a nonfiction retreat and will have an editor look at it.”

“I hope she loves it,” I say. “Let me go back to Star Wars before we move on to your second pivotal point. Were you more drawn to the effects, was there a character you connected with, or was it the writing? Or some combination of them all?”

“The effects, definitely, because the writing is terrible. Everybody knows that about George Lucas—he’s a terrible writer!” We both laugh like this is the funniest joke ever told. I completely agree with her.

“So we know you love the stars, and we know where that love began. What’s another pivotal moment that changed the course of your life?” I ask.

“Meeting my husband, of course! Like a lot of new college graduates, I felt lost because I didn’t end up doing what I thought I’d do. So I went back to try a second undergrad degree in climatology, which is how I met my

husband. He was doing his masters at our alma mater. This might sound bad, but he was my TA in my Intro to Climatology class. But I swear we didn’t start dating until well after class was over!”

“I don’t judge!” I laugh. “Where did you attend college?”

“The University of British Columbia. In Vancouver.”

“What was your first date like?”

“Oh, it was a of casual thing. He was playing soccer with other grad students one Saturday, so I went out to watch him. We had lunch afterward and chatted about food, of course.”

“Are you a foodie?”

“Yes! I always say my three great loves are food, sleeping, and family. And he cooks! He offered to make enchiladas for me.”

“How long did you date before you married?”

“We only dated a couple years. He was finishing his masters and started his PhD in Delaware, where he grew up. One coast to another is a ridiculous distance, so we didn’t want to do that for long. We started dating 1987 and got married in 1989.”

“Did you finish that degree?” I ask. Teresa sighs.

“I have ¾ of a climatology degree. My first undergrad degree is in linguistics with specialty in speech science. It’s meant to prepare students for audiology or speech therapy, but as I mentioned, I don’t like working with people.”

“So then you moved to Delaware?”

“Yeah. We got married in 1989 and he finished in 1992. That’s when he started as a Professor—teaching climatology, statistics, and physical geography classes—at Indiana University, where he still works now. Then we had our first son in 1996, and our second son was born in 1997, which seems very closely spaced but I was almost 33 with the first. I didn’t want to wait too much longer. We have a milestone anniversary this year; we’ll be married thirty years in August!”

“Are you going anywhere to celebrate?”

“Nah. We never celebrate or exchange gifts. We’re so alike! We’re laid back about it.” As someone who buys her own birthday presents, I appreciate her practicality.

“So we have Star Wars and family. What is the third pivotal moment you’d like to talk about?”

“Getting my We Need Diversity mentorship with Jane Yolen!” Teresa enthuses without hesitation. “That was something special. I was in a down period of my life because my previous agent didn’t work out and I’d been trying to get another. I almost didn’t apply, but my critique group, the Penguin Posse, convinced me. I thought nothing was going to come of it since I wasn’t getting bites elsewhere on my manuscripts. I remember my sister was visiting in December, 2016, and I got this call from a number I didn’t know, so I didn’t answer. The voice mail was from Miranda Paul, who told me Jane Yolen had chosen me as the 2017 nonfiction mentee for We Need Diverse Books. I admit to screaming a little, and I wished I had a chance to chat with Miranda too, as she is an amazing author. I’m so excited I’ll get to meet Miranda in person this fall. Jane and I began working on QUEEN OF PHYSICS at the end of December. She’s not only brilliant, she’s also very organized and diligent. It was a delight and an honor to get to work with her.”

“Did she tell you why this manuscript spoke to her, in particular?”

“She picked it because she was really into physics, herself, and she thought the character was an awesome, kick-butt woman whose story needed to be told. After we worked on it for a few months, I went to the NESCBWI conference to meet with her. By that point we were almost done. I had to opportunity to submit to editors from that conference, and Christina Pulles really liked it. After that, things fell into place! With Christina’s interest, I approached a number of agents and eventually signed with Natascha.”

“Isn’t it funny how that domino effect happens? Silence for months or years, and then BOOM. Did you have interest from other agents?”

“Yes! I sent it to a small list of agents that I liked and thought would be appropriate for the manuscript. A couple considered it for a long time, but lists were pretty full, and they ultimately declined. One was really enthusiastic, and he asked to see a steampunk YA I’d mentioned in my query that I’d been working on since 2014. I was on my fourth draft, but I really hated it at that point and demurred. He wheedled and, against my better judgment, I gave in and shared the first chapter. Just as I’d expected, he declined. So the moral, girls and boys, is to never be pressured to share anything you’re not ready to share!” Teresa’s laugh is dry. I get the sense that she’s both joking and serious.

“Is that the same YA that won Pitchapalooza?”

“Yes, at the NESCBWI conference, in 2017. The contest is run by this husband/wife team called The Book Doctors. They go to different conferences and you can put your name in a box to vie for a spot. During the session they randomly pull out about ten or twelve people to read their one-minute pitch. The Book Doctors and agents or editors on the panel give you feedback. In the end, they confer and pick a winner. The prize is varied, but usually you get to submit to them. That year, they had over 500 attendees. Not everybody put in their name, but I figured maybe 300 would. Conference instructions dictate that if it’s your first time, you shouldn’t enter so you can first observe how it’s done. I was volunteering at the registration table, and the gal sitting next to me put my name in the box! I didn’t want to break the rules, but she said, “There are no rules.” I was a little nervous, but I figured they’d never pick me! I had nothing prepared but, just in case, I found a query letter with a synopsis of that novel. Then I got picked!”

“Did you have to get up immediately to give your pitch?”

“Yes!” Teresa still sounds incredulous. “So I went up there and gave my one-minute pitch. When they announced the winner, it was me! My story wasn’t even done yet!”

“What did you do? Did you finish it and then submit?”

“I told the agents there that I was embarrassed my story wasn’t done and explained what happened. They asked me to send it to them when it was finished, but, two years later, it still isn’t. I have a general outline and a really good plot, but I haven’t found the right voice and tone. It’s driving me crazy because I love it and I really want to tell the story.”

“How much is done?” Teresa almost cackles.

“I was almost 90% done with my first version, but scrapped it all because I hated it. I started writing it again and finished about 30% before I scrapped that, too. I tried it again and finished about 10%. Now I’m on the first chapter again.”

“You mentioned querying Christina Pulles at Sterling, but she’s with Albert Whitman now. I assume you have a new editor?”

“Yes. Rachel Stein is awe…some!” Teresa’s sing-song voice oozes affection. “She’s so lovely and had asked to work on my book. The edits were pretty much done, but we needed to ensure the science and background were accurate in illustrations. It’s going off to printers now, I believe. As I mentioned in my blog post from a few weeks ago, she took me to a business brunch when I was in New York for the Kweli Conference. She’d just come back from Japan and brought back Japanese Kit Kats with wild flavors to try. I just love her!”

“When is your release date?”

“September 17th.”

“And what are you working on now?”

“A middle-grade nonfiction. It’s about this notable woman from back in the 1700’s—I seem to have an affinity for that time period—who did physics. I don’t want to say too much about it yet!”

“How much have you written?”

“One chapter is pretty complete. I thought I had a proposal that was pretty good, but other agents at BookEnds feel it needs more personality. They shared a great example with me so I have a better idea as to how to jazz it up. I’m excited to work on that! I’m also going to be the new Illustrator Coordinator for my Indiana chapter of SCBWI.”

“That’s right! I keep forgetting you draw. Are you interested in doing your own illustrations?”

“I’d be interested, but I don’t think my agent would rep me as an illustrator; she likes a different style of art, and it would probably take me a while before I’d be ready to tackle it. Oh, now I hear Douglas’s voice in my head again telling me I need more chutzpah. Ha!”

As Teresa and I say our goodbyes, I consider her quirky brand of upbeat determination. I think of all the characters from Star Wars that my brother loved and quoted time and again during our childhood, and I realize that many of these fit Teresa’s personality perfectly.

“In my experience, there is no such thing as luck.” -Obi-Wan Kenobi

“Stay on target.” –Gold Five

“Do. Or do not. There is no try.” -Yoda

You know, perhaps we were wrong. Perhaps the writing from Star Wars isn’t so bad, after all.

May the Force be with you.

Purchase links for QUEEN OF PHYSICS can be found on Teresa’s website here.

Please follow Teresa on Twitter @TeresaRobeson, and check out her on Instagram @tmrobeson.


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