Hello Mixed-Up Filers!
Are we in for a treat! A couple of years ago, I was fortunate enough to meet Francesco Sedita and take a workshop he was giving on humor. Besides being extremely funny, he couldn’t have been nicer.
If you don’t know him, he’s the President and Publisher of Penguin Workshop at Penguin Young Readers, and I’m thrilled to feature him in the Editor Spotlight!
JR: Hi Francesco, thanks for joining us today!
Before I even get into the publishing side, I have to say that your resume is all kinds of impressive. To start with, you had my utmost respect when I read that you used to do stand-up and interned on Saturday Night Live. Anyone who knows me, knows that humor and anything funny are always at the top of my must lists, so can you tell us what those experiences were like?
FS: Yeah, this was a majorly formative experience for me on a whole lot of levels. The question people always ask, and we can get it out of the way, was who was on the show when I was there. It was Mike Myers, David Spade, Adam Sandler, Jay Mohr, Tim Meadows, Julia Sweeney, Melanie Hutsell, Sarah Silverman, David Spade, Chris Farley, Ellen Cleghorne, Phil Hartman. (This is not in order of favorites at all, by the way. And Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger hosted the Valentine’s show and Kim was one of the loveliest, kindest people I have ever met. It’s one of my favorite memories of that time. I once picked Courtney Love and a tiny Frances Bean up in the lobby to bring them to the show and she was incredibly kind. And Nicole Kidman smells of elegant lilac. And Sarah Silverman used to take me to the parties in her limo with Melanie and I felt VERY BADASS.) It was all a terrifying dream come true. Look, I made a lot of coffee for some pretty jazzy people, but I also did get to sit at the table and contribute a bit. And that was really mind-blowing. Norm MacDonald was writing there then, and he read my stuff and would talk me through my skits and I’m forever grateful.
JR: Okay, now that I heard all that, besides my respect, you have my jealousy as well! Wow, that must have been amazing! How about standup, another thing I’ve always wanted to do?
FS: As far as standup, it’s something I have always admired and I just did it for a white-hot minute. I really liked it. I wasn’t out yet so it never felt true to my real humor and point of view. I have warned my friends that I am going to text them and have them show up to the Comedy Cellar one night to try it again. Gulp. (Also, RuPaul accidentally outed me at a party when I was 19 and it is a story that I will tell one day very soon. Yes, RuPaul.)
JR: Okay, now I must hear the RuPaul story! You have an open invitation to come back, if you ever want a forum to tell that on!
By the way, I practically lived at the Comedy Cellar and Cafe Wha? at around the time I’m guessing that you performed, so if that’s the place that you were back then, I might’ve seen you! Getting back to bookish things, could you tell us a little bit about your path to becoming an editor/publisher, and working for Penguin?
FS: As with many things in life, this is best done over a cocktail. But here’s the quick version:
I was living in the East Village, I had written, directed, and produced an immersive show (take that, “Sleep No More”) that ran Off-Off Broadway for some time. I was making no money and my parents were very generously supporting me. But then one day, my phone rang. My parents had been at a cocktail party at their lawyer’s house and had met Si Newhouse.
#1: I didn’t know my parents had a lawyer. Like, why?
#2: I didn’t know my parents went to cocktail parties.
#3: I didn’t know who Si Newhouse was.
I was really pissed. The next day, someone from Random House HR called to set up an interview. I went. I had platinum hair and a nose piercing.
#1: Sailors pants. Real ones.
#2: A ruffled tuxedo shirt. Like real ruffles.
# 3: Platform shoes.
The poor woman looked at me and said, “You should be in publicity!” And so I interviewed the next day at Knopf with the really lovely Paul Bogaards, who I consider one of the smartest people I’ll ever know, and he hired me. (I didn’t wear the outfit, PS. But the receptionist asked me to take my piercing out and I refused.)
I left a year later for grad school, freelancing at the Random House imprint to make some money. When Bogaards found out, he sent someone to get me and told me I had to work at Knopf if I was in the building. I returned. He let me leave and go to classes during the day. Then I graduated, left Knopf again, had two stupid internet jobs when everyone had them, and then wound up at Scholastic in the Reading Clubs. My first interview there was meant to be on September 11, 2001. So chilling and odd. I’ll never forget that phone call.
Then the story goes that I was in Clubs for a few great years and then moved to the Trade group, where I became Creative Director and worked on Harry Potter and lots of other wonderful things, like Jeff Smith’s Bone and Goosebumps. And then Penguin called.
JR: That’s an incredible journey, and way to hold your ground on the nose ring! 🙂 You met so many wonderful people. After all that, what was the first book you worked on?
FS: The first book I edited was when I was Creative Director at Scholastic. It was my dear friend (and writing teacher in grad school) Ann Hood’s first middle grade novel, How I Saved My Father’s Life (And Ruined Everything Else). Ann and I still love the parentheses on that one. I was petrified to edit such a great writer. She was kind and patient.
JR: What’s changed in publishing between the time you started and now?
FS: You know, sort of everything and nothing. We will always want great voices, great, authentic points of view, and to make objects that people will hopefully hug when they turn the final page.
JR: Speaking of changes, you’re also a producer on the wonderful Netflix program The Who Was Show?, based on your great history series of the same name. I devour shows about history, and yours is done very well. What has that experience been like and how heavily involved with the show are you?
FS: Now, this is another dream come true. It started as an “I dare you” kind of thing from my boss at the time, the great Don Weisberg. And so I called two amazing friends from grad school and we made a short pilot: What would happen if Andy Warhol met Laura Ingalls Wilder?? We had casting calls, shot in a friend’s farm, laughed a lot and stressed a lot. It was a dream come true. And then Penguin sold it to Netflix! #WHATWHAT?!?!
JR: (Since the interview, The Who Was Show was nominated for FIVE Daytime Emmy Awards! So, if anyone isn’t watching, get to it! Congrats and good luck, Francesco!)
JR:What do you enjoy the most about your job?
FS: This incredible Workshop team that I get to work with every day. They are bold, funny, curious, daring, and committed to making magic in every title. That’s not easy and I love them all for it.
JR: What sort of books do you look for?
FS: We are so open. Make us feel something. We like to laugh, I LOVE to cry, and do so at least once a day in a meeting.
JR: Are you very hands-on with your authors?
FS: Yes. Unless the author is like “um, personal space, please” then I will stop asking you to go out for lunch and drinks.
JR: Can’t be too many authors turning down free lunches! 🙂 What’s the state of publishing right now, in particular, Middle Grade?
FR: It’s exciting. It’s a time to take big risks, a time to challenge ourselves to think different, to think bigger, and to strive for the ever-evolving definition of relevance and excellence.
JR: What advice can you give to authors?
FS: Write your face off. And stop asking what’s going on in the marketplace. Write what you want to write, what you need to write. Let us people on the other side worry about the marketplace for now. (This changes when you sell the book. Then you gotta know.) Oh, and don’t walk around thinking you deserve anything just because you write or have an idea or have written 46 books. I say this to myself all the time. I will write all weekend sometimes on my personal projects and I find myself thinking things should HAPPEN because I decided to shut off The Real Housewives and commit to my craft. Not happening, buddy. Not happening.
JR: Excellent advice. I think I was given similar when I first started, “Don’t believe your press clippings.” What was your favorite book as a child?
FS: Charlotte’s Web. My mother read it to me many times and it’s so vivid in my head that it vibrates.
JR: I think I bawled my eyes out when I first read it. Definitely a moment I remember from childhood. And speaking of childhood, what’s one thing from your childhood that you wish could come back?
FS: Smurfs. With me in total control. I have some ideas for Azrael that would change the face of cat books! And Gargamel is totally going on Queer Eye.
JR: Now all I can think about is Gargamel on Queer Eye. I think Jonathan is going to have his hands full with those eyebrows.
JR: How can people follow you on social media?
FS: I’m terrible at Twitter and a little meh on fb so find mr_francesco on Insta, where you can see my adorable cat, Alfredo!
JR: I can’t believe we didn’t include pics of Alfredo!
JR: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us, and the best of luck with the Daytime Emmy Awards!
Well, that’s it for now, my Mixed-Up friends. Dorian Cirrone says I’ve mingled with the public long enough and wants me to get back to my cubicle at Mixed-Up Files Headquarters, so until next time . . .