An interview with Margaret Cardillo, author of Just Being Audrey
Just Being Audrey is a lovely nonfiction picture book, and like the woman it’s about, it has a certain je nais sais quoi that makes you want to read it over and over. Last week you met illustrator Julia Denos. This week, her literary counterpart. We’re so excited to welcome Margaret Cardillo to Girls of Summer today. MM
I used to live in South Florida, too. Were you always from there? Tell us a
little bit about where you live and the space where you create lovely stories
like Just Being Audrey.
I was born and raised in Naples, Florida. I am a Florida girl through and through, though I can keep up in New York no problem. I now make my home in the Coconut Grove section of Miami with my husband and dog. It’s like a jungle. We have wild peacocks on our roof and sometimes we walk around and expect a dinosaur to come out of the overgrowth. It’s beautiful and magical and full of stories all on its own. My workspace is everywhere. I get my best ideas in the weirdest places. But I do have a space in the house, which is important. It is a tiny desk in the corner of our dining room next to an enormous bookcase. I look out onto our street, which is really more like a television with all the characters (two legged, four legged) that go by. That and some tea and that’s all I need.
Audrey Hepburn is an American icon, even though she never thought of herself that way. What was it about her that made her a good subject for a picture book for young readers? Were you intimidated at all by writing about someone with such a towering reputation?
At first I just wanted to write her biography because I could picture it in my head and it was beautiful. I knew how incredible her life was and I wanted to share it with a new generation of fans. I became a fan when I was young and she was a great role model for me. (I always tease my mom that she’s lucky I like Audrey over a lot of other women I could have looked up to.) And as I wrote I realized that one of the things that makes Audrey so special is that she really used her celebrity and fame for all the right reasons. You get some of that today, but not enough. She survived a tough childhood, as an adult, she became one of the best in her field, and then she dedicated her life to helping others. She had an inspiring life and all the while maintained her grace and loveliness and elegance. She had an amazing spirit. What more could you ask for?
As far as writing about someone like her—someone so beloved—it was very important to me to do her justice in the book. Every time I felt like I couldn’t take another pass at the manuscript, I thought of her and her life and how important it is to get it right and I took another pass. Seeing people and fans respond to it in such a positive light has been extremely rewarding.
It’s obvious that a great deal of research went into this book, and it must have been a challenge to fit the story into the strict page count of a picture book. How did you research and how did you go about deciding which details to
highlight as plot points? Were there things you had to cut?
That was one of the hardest parts. I think the first version of the manuscript was 12 pages. The final was slightly fewer than 3 pages. That’s a lot of cutting. What you have to do with a children’s biography is really find the theme and the story and stick to that. You can’t fit every detail, but when you find the crux of the story of the person, you follow that line and build your writing around it. And I have to say that the first version was quite different from the last. Really, the only thing that stayed the same was the first line. But that’s all part of writing. My research consisted of reading a lot of books, reading and watching online interviews, and (the hardest part) watching and re-watching her movies. I tried to justify buying some Audrey-inspired clothing to get me in the mood, but I reigned myself in. Then, at a certain point, I had to stop researching and just write from the heart.
Were there any surprises you found out about Audrey Hepburn along the way?
Yes! I had no idea she was so tall. She was 5’7 or so. I always thought she was short like me. I also had no idea how self-deprecating she was. She never thought of herself as this beautiful, talented person—just a regular girl. I think that’s what kept her so accessible and why so many people love her. And, what surprised me most is how hard she had to work for everything. How much practice and effort she put into all aspects of her work. When you see an Audrey film, her acting looks effortless. But in fact she had worked very hard to get to that point. Now that’s talent.
Like you, I was mesmerized by Audrey Hepburn when I was a child. If you
could watch only one of her movies again, which would you choose and why?
Are you serious with this question? Please tell me this would never happen! Haha. But if I could only watch one I think it would have to be ROMAN HOLIDAY. It is such a special movie—it’s her first major Hollywood role and she won an Academy Award for it. You can just feel this fresh face breaking out—the world didn’t know what was coming! Also, I’m Italian and her tour through Rome is magical. Plus, it has one of the best Hollywood/non-Hollywood endings ever.
You were once an editor with Hyperion. Now, you’re an author. What made you switch roles? In what ways have the skills you developed as an editor helped you as an author?
I have always wanted to be a writer—since I was a little girl. And while being an editor is one of the best jobs in the world, I knew that the longer I stayed at that job and the more writers I accrued on my list, the harder it would be to leave. I felt like I was young and could be a little foolish and try an MFA program and dedicate myself to writing for two years and if it didn’t work out it was okay. Thank goodness it did. (Though writing can work out at any age—no matter what your situation is.)
As for the skills, I can still have that “editor voice” in my head when I’m writing, which is both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes I need to tune that out and let myself just write and make mistakes and be cheesy and melodramatic and overwrite everything so that I can get down to the good stuff. It’s hard, but being an editor was some of the best training I could have for being a writer.
I like that Just Being Audrey celebrates the role of mothers in their daughters’ lives. In the book, you suggest that Audrey Hepburn’s mother played a big part in influencing her daughter’s outlook on fame and dignity. I notice, too,
that you dedicated this book to your own mom, referring to her as “very Audrey.” So tell us, how is your mom like Audrey?
There’s never enough you can say about moms. I’m obsessed with the Olympics and one of my favorite parts is when they pan to the moms (and dads) in the stands. My mom is so very Audrey. She’s lovely and kind and makes everyone feel special and comfortable in her presence. She also has a great fashion sense—simple and elegant. Also, she puts her family first–her family is the most important thing in her life. She has really dedicated herself to us, as Audrey did to her boys. I had lied to her about who I dedicated the book to. And then the day I was leaving for my honeymoon my parents came over to Miami to take us out to lunch. I showed her an early copy of the book and told her to open to the dedication page. Needless to say, many tissues were used that day.
You might still be pinching yourself at the opportunity to work with Julia Denos, whose lovely illustrations fill the pages. (Our interview with Julia is here.) How were you two paired up? What are your thoughts on how well
she captured the spirit of the woman you were writing about? In the process
of making this book, did you make changes to accommodate each other?
Yes, I think my arms are still black and blue from the pinching. The art director at HarperCollins linked us and when my editor sent me Julia’s webpage I remember opening it up and emailing her immediately and saying “I don’t care what has to be done, Julia Denos needs to illustrate this book.” Julia is a dream. Not only was she perfect for the book, but she has also become a lovely friend. I am the luckiest author to have her as the illustrator on the book. I can’t imagine the book looking any other way, she did such an amazing job. I want her to illustrate my life.
Neither of us made changes to accommodate each other that I am aware of. It really was just a perfect pairing.
Are there next projects you’d like to tell us about?
Yes, I am working on a few other picture book biographies of strong female characters. More on that soon.
Finish this sentence for me.
Strong girls…are born, but more often than not, they’re made.
Win your very own autographed copy of Just Being Audrey.
Leave a comment on this post to enter.
(We appreciate any tweets or blog mentions.)
The eeny-meeny-miny-mo drawing will be August 10, 2012.
We’ll contact the winner shortly after that.