Anna Olswanger is one of the busiest and most diverse professionals in the world of children’s books. Among many other roles, Anna is an award winning author, literary agent, promoter of Jewish books, and publisher of miniature books. I was thrilled to learn that Anna’s latest project is a musical version of two of her books. I couldn’t wait to learn more about the musical, Shlemiel Crooks, as well as Anna’s newest role as a book coach. Anna is an inspiration and I am thrilled to share this interview with my readers!
Tell me about the new musical Shlemiel Crooks which is based on your books, Shlemiel Crooks and Chicken Bone Man. How did the musical version of your books come about?
Two years ago, I sent a copy of Shlemiel Crooks to Sean Hartley, director of the Kaufman Center’s Poppy Seed Players in New York. Shlemiel Crooks, a Sydney Taylor Honor Book and PJ Library Book, is the story of two bumbling crooks who are goaded by the ghost of Pharaoh into stealing the Passover wine from Reb Elias' kosher liquor store. I based the book on a 1919 Yiddish newspaper article I discovered about the botched robbery of my great-grandfather’s kosher liquor store in St. Louis. I hoped Sean would think the story was funny (two crooks leave with less than they came with) and consider turning it into a musical with some of my dad's original music. I also sent Sean stories I had written about my dad, including "Chicken Bone Man," narrated by my dad's dog Jerry, which was an F. Scott Fitzgerald Short Story Contest winner. “Chicken Bone Man” is the story of a little Jewish boy in Memphis who dreams of becoming a blues piano player. Sean liked the fact that the stories were about real people. He was able to get funding and commissioned a playwright, lyricist, and composer to create the musical Shlemiel Crooks based on both books. Our original idea was to incorporate my dad's music into the play, but in the end, only one of his songs was used: "Chicken Bone Man."
How important is music in your life?
My father Berl Olswanger was a professional musician. I grew up listening to him practice the scales on the piano almost two hours every day. If he took a vacation, or he was sick, he made up the time. When I heard him practice, I felt as though everything in my world was right. The sound of the scales soothed me. My father had a dance band and sometimes they rehearsed in our home, so I got to hear that music also. I felt lucky to have original music in my life, to know musicians, and especially to have a parent who made a living in an unconventional way. He taught me by his example that it was possible to live outside the box.
How does it feel to see your story come to life on the stage?
I discovered that it's fun to let go and allow other artists to take my work and play with it. Sean, the playwright, the lyricist, the composer, and the actors have made my books into something bigger than I envisioned. So, it's also humbling.
How can your fans see the show?
People who'd like to see the musical can get information and buy tickets online.
This year's performance takes places on Sunday, April 10, 2011—and it's what the Kaufman Center is calling a "World Premiere." I understand that there are still good seats left. A book signing will follow the performance, and every child who attends will receive a free "Shlemiel Crooks" book plate. Although this will be the only performance at Merkin Hall this year, the Kaufman Center has already decided to present the play again next year.
You have another new adventure in your life. Can you tell me a bit about being a Book Coach?
Aspiring authors have SCBWI, writers groups,bookstore owners and librarians they can turn to, also friends and family, but do they have one professional who can follow their career, and offer advice and support along the way? It's true that a literary agent should be able to do that, but as an agent myself, I know there's just not enough time. Also, as an agent, you want authors to come to you with a certain level of expertise and professionalism. You don't want to have to spend hours on the phone talking to them about decisions they need to make, like what is it they want to accomplish as writers, or what do they want their writing legacy to be? And there are more practical decisions to make: What if they have one book published and can't get their second book published? What if they can't get an agent? So, I think there's room for another professional in the world of writing children's books, a book coach. As a coach, I bring my experience as a literary agent and writer to the table. My hope is to work with a select group of writers over time, follow their careers, help them make decisions about how to accomplish their goals, and ultimately help them succeed.
What are some fun facts about you?
Every night at sunset, I put nuts on my window ledge and watch the cardinals come. Sometimes, depending on the season, as many as twenty cardinals come. They are beautiful, exquisite creatures. I am left-handed. I grew up in Memphis. I once dropped out of college to live on a kibbutz in Israel. I became a vegetarian at the age of 15 and a vegan just last year. I married late, at the age of 55, to an Italian Jew who is an inspiration to me because of his passion for life. He's quick to laugh. He's also a wonderful cook. I have another book coming out later this year from New South Books,the publisher of Shlemiel Crooks. It’s for older readers and has a Holocaust theme.
Anna, Thank you so much for taking the time to visit with me. I wish you continued success in all your endeavors!