His ideas arrive at moments sometimes unexpected, and on occasion the plot lines are delivered by a friend or a colleague.
Such was the case with Marc Harshman’s latest children’s book, “Mountain Christmas.”
“I was asked to do this book about two years ago by Bill Clements, the proprietor of the West Virginia Book Co. and the publisher of the Quarrier Press. Bill and I have been friends for some time, and he’s been very kind to me,” explained the poet laureate of West Virginia. “Bill has handled my books in West Virginia and throughout Appalachia, and he told me that he thought we needed a West Virginia Santa Claus book, and since it was Bill who asked me, I was more than pleased to do what I could do. A ‘Mountain Christmas’ is the result of Bill’s request.
“The storyline simply involves Santa Claus coming to West Virginia, and the book opens high on the mountain at Spruce Knob. I can tell a little theme within this story involves our soldiers coming home for Christmas, and that’s because West Virginia has always had a disproportionate number of men and women in the armed forces.
“I thought that this is a scene not unusual for a young man or young woman to be coming home to their families come Christmas time, and that’s why the soldier near the middle of the book shows up again a little later in the story,” he continued. “That military service has been very important to many people in West Virginia, and it still very much is today.”
“Mountain Christmas” represents the very first time in his career of writing children’s books when Harshman was free to select the illustrating artist, and he chose Wheeling’s Cecy Rose.
“She’s a genius,” Harshman proclaimed. “I knew Cecy was a great artist just from seeing her work through the years, and I also knew that she had studied at the Rhode Island School of Design which is one the premiere institutions in America.
“There’s a whole art to illustrating that is different than being a wonderful painter, and Cecy knows exactly what illustrating a book means,” he continued. “I do not know how to go about it, but I did know that when you create a page, an illustrator must know where to leave the white space for the text of the book to go in, and I think that’s its own little art in itself.”
Readers of “Mountain Christmas” will recognized many of the locations where Harshman’s story takes one’s imaginations, and he attempted to reach all of the five different regions of the Mountain State.
“One of the things that I had in mind for this book was to give it a reach to the whole state of West Virginia, and that is why you will see a different region of the state with every turn of a page,” he revealed. “I honestly do not know a state with more diverse geography than West Virginia, so it was not an easy task to accomplish.
“You will see Blackwater Falls, Jackson’s Mill, Spruce Knob, and yes, the Wheeling Suspension Bridge in this book along with many other areas,” he continued. “I composed the story and then gave it to Cecy. That’s when she created the artwork for each page, and I can tell you that we were all thrilled with the illustrations from the get-go.”
But an author of a children’s book, Harshman explained, is not common in the children’s book writing business.
“Many of my children’s books have been published by major New York (publishing) houses, and when I have sent the manuscripts to them and after they have decided they wanted the story, they begin looking for an illustrator,” Harshman explained. “Those major publishing houses keep what I refer to as a stable of illustrators that they have often worked with in the past.
“Honestly, I have been pleased with the illustrations for my books every time. And let’s remember, those publishing houses are in the business of making money,” he said. “They want the books to sell, so they want to make the best matches that they can make so that happens. And those folks know artists and illustrators far better than I do, so I am happy to trust them to make those choices.”
Another aspect of “Mountain Christmas” that Harshman finds unique and quite useful is the font that’s been used to tell the story.
“This book has been prepared in a font that is friendly to dyslexic readers,” Harshman said. “Open Dyslexic is a new open-source font that includes regular-bold and italic-bold styles. It is being improved continually based on input from other dyslexic users.
“This was Bill’s idea, and I am really pleased that he thought to take the risk and to be so filled with forethought to do something like this,” the author continued. “It really does look different, and I wasn’t sure I liked it when I first saw it, but I have heard from many teachers since it came out, and they all have been very glad that the font was used. So it’s a win-win as far as I am concerned.”
Harshman was raised in Indiana but has lived his entire life in West Virginia with his bride, Cheryl, who is also an artist and author of children’s books. He has authored 11 children’s books to date, according to his website (www.marcharshman.com), and those publications have been printed in five different languages.
“I always look forward to meeting those who have purchased my books in the past and are buying this one and people who have finally discovered my children’s books,” Harshman said. “It has been a very busy year that has included far more activity than what I anticipated when 2015 began.
“I am, of course, very thankful for the fact that my writing wins the favor of so many,” he continued. “It makes me hope that the ideas keep coming to me in any way they arrive. That really doesn’t matter that much to me.”
When he makes those appearances, Harshman is consistently asked for advice concerning how to enter into the children’s book-publishing world, and he always offers the same keys to success.
“The number one piece of advice is simply that you have to write the best piece you can,” Harshman offered. “And then write it again and make it better, and keep doing that until you can’t make it any better.
“Then, and only then, you can think about publishing. And in the case of publishing a children’s book, I believe you have to completely immerse yourself into the children’s room at a public library, and we have one of the best in the state here at the Ohio County Public Library,” he insisted. “That way you can really see what’s going on in the world of publishing children’s books.”
Harshman also warns that an author’s queries are often turned down by publishing houses.
“Rejection is a part of the publishing business, and most authors get a huge stack of rejection letters before they ever get that first publication,” Harshman said. “And yes, I have been rejected on many, many occasions.
“But I knew I wanted to be a writer at an early age, and then it really took a hold of me while I was in college,” he recalled. “I was really writing feverishly then, and I knew it was something that I wanted to keep doing. I didn’t think I would make a living doing it, but I did know that it was something I wanted to do during my lifetime.”
It’s not always easily, a career as an author of poetry and children’s books, and there is much more to it than just writing.
“The business end of the business is the biggest hassle,” Harshman said. “I have to do more of it than I like. As a poet, I have to do nearly all of it. As a children’s author I do not because I do have an agent for that side of the business.
“I’d rather just be writing. That’s what I do best,” he continued. “But it’s what I have to do to make it all work, and if I wish to write more and more, then it’s something I plan to handle to the best of my ability.”
And Harshman has continued writing, and that is why in February 2016another Harshman book will be released. This one, “One Big Family,” was illustrated by Sara Palacious and published by Eerdmans. He will also have a book of poetry – “Believe What You Can” – later this year by the West Virginia Press.
“’One Big Family’ is a book that I wrote around 20 years ago, and I sold it, too,” Harshman said. “But it was a title that got lost in the shuffle of a corporate merger, so I kept floating it around until finally someone decided that it was a story that they want to put out there.
“That’s the publishing world and the life of a writer,” he added. “It all depends on the story and the person’s reading and seeing it, and ‘Mountain Christmas’ is a perfect example of how it all comes together very, very well.”
(Photos and illustrations provided by Marc Harshman)