Zibby speaks to author and Zibby’s Bookshop manager Katrina Leno about her quirky middle-grade fantasy novel, THE UMBRELLA MAKER’S SON. Katrina delves into the fantasy world of Roan, where it is always raining, and the struggles of young Oscar, whose family legacy as umbrella makers clashes with his own dreams. They delve into Katrina’s writing process, her path to becoming an author, and how her experiences working in a bookstore, living abroad in Scotland, and working in fashion have influenced her writing.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Katrina. Thank you so much for coming on "Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books" to discuss The Umbrella Maker's Son.

Katrina Leno: Hi. I'm so excited to be here.

Zibby: This is so funny for us since you are the Zibby's Bookshop amazing store manager. We get to talk all the time about that kind of stuff and not as often about your book.

Katrina: Actually, my one-year anniversary at the bookshop is coming up in just a couple months. 

Zibby: Aw.

Katrina: I know. I know. Time really flew by.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, wow. You really swept in and just got us all straightened out. It's amazing what you've done with the place. Thank you. The Umbrella Maker's Son, tell listeners what your book is about.

Katrina: This is my first middle-grade novel. It's for ages eight-ish to twelve-ish. I have always wanted to write a middle-grade novel, so this is really exciting. My previous books have all been for teens. I've had this idea for a really long time. A really long time, meaning, fifteen, twenty years. I kept trying and sort of failing to write it. I would write different iterations. I would write a short story. At one point, I thought it was going to be a graphic novel. The general idea of the story has really stayed the same. It's a fantasy. It takes place in another world. It takes place in a city called Roan. In Roan, it is always raining. It focuses on a little boy named Oscar. His father is an umbrella maker. His father's father was an umbrella maker. His father's father's father was an umbrella maker. It really runs in the family. It makes sense because it always rains in their city. In recent years, a big bad wolf industry corporation company has swept in and started making very cheap umbrellas. It has threatened the whole Buckle Umbrella corporation. Oscar's dad is really struggling to pay bills. Oscar is struggling because he doesn't want to be an umbrella maker, and he doesn't know how to tell his dad that. That is the jumping-off point for the whole story.

Zibby: I love it. The way you write is so wonderful. I know I told you this at the time, but my son, who is a big reader, was clutching this book to his chest, leaving school, coming home from school. It was the best thing ever. It was like bringing a little piece of you into their school. It was just so cool.

Katrina: That's so sweet.

Zibby: He is a very discerning reader, so that is the highest praise. 

Katrina: I imagine, yes.

Zibby: I also enjoyed it myself tremendously. You're so great and clever. Your little asterisks -- how do you even say that?

Katrina: Asterisks. [laughter] 

Zibby: With all this commentary. Your voice is just so accessible and relatable. There's such a fun sense of humor to it and yet also immersive. It's great. What a great premise for a story. That's why we brought all these umbrellas for the store, but now nobody's buying them. At least we have them. Tell me more about how you -- you had the idea for a long time -- how you turned it into a reality.

Katrina: I started writing this version of it during the early pandemic. I think I just needed something really happy and joyful to work on. My last couple young adult books had been darker, which is also very fun to write, but I think I needed a little bit of a break from that. I also just needed to work on something that -- at the time, to me, it felt very low pressure. It had never worked before, so I went into it, maybe, assuming a little bit that it wasn't going to work this time. It was never like, I need to write this book that I sell. It was just like, I need to write something that's going to make me happy and that's going to take my mind off things. I really think it was just a happy coming together of all these different things. Finally, this story clicked in my head. It was the right time. It was the right place. It worked. It's interesting that you mention the footnotes, the asterisks. That was one thing that when I was trying to sell the book, my publisher -- I sold it to Little Brown, who had done my previous few YA novels. My editor at the time was like, "We really love this book, but we don't think footnotes are right for a middle-grade novel. We don't think kids will understand them." 

I have two nieces who I'm very close with. They're both nine. At the time, they were seven when I was trying to sell this. I was thinking about them. I was like, actually, to me, it feels almost like an inside joke and an inside conversation between me and the reader. Both of my nieces, after they finally read the book this past year, they were like, "We loved the footnotes. We had never seen a footnote before. We thought that was so cool." It felt so grown-up for them to read. I was like, you have to learn what a footnote is eventually, so what better way than in a story like this? I feel like it makes a lot of sense because it takes place in a fantasy world, so a lot of the times, the footnotes are explaining a word we don't have in this world. They're explaining a sport we don't have in this world. They're explaining different types of rain, of course, in this city where it's always raining. The whole experience was just really joyful to write and really exciting to have kids, like your son and my nieces, read it and really respond to it. I was like, I was right. [laughs] 

Zibby: You were totally right. Even if the kids didn't know what a footnote was -- think about all the crazy things that happen in children's books. There are flaps. There's Choose Your Own Adventures. There's just so many formatting things that people are always putting in front of kids. Then from that, they go to just text. If nothing else, it's just blocks of text in different places or something. I'm glad you held firm on that. 

Katrina: I'm happy too because there was a moment where I had this conversation with my agent -- she really loved the footnotes. It was definitely a conversation. Then of course, the audiobook rights sold, and it was another conversation. They were sort of like, "We can't put footnotes in the book. That doesn't make sense for an audiobook." Actually, my niece was listening to the audiobook. She played me some. I had never listened to it before because I'm kind of a hands-off author. Once it's out in the world, go do what you want to do with it. Great, it's an audiobook. That's awesome. I had never wanted to listen to it myself. She played it for me. They do omit some footnotes, but then they also do some footnotes as asides, little, almost, parentheticals in the way that they -- it really worked out. The audiobook is very fun too.

Zibby: You've referenced your past books. What number book is this?

Katrina: This is number eight.

Zibby: Wow. How did you get your start writing? Did you always want to be a writer? Tell me about your younger life and this vast sense of creativity that you have, and imagination?

Katrina: As corny as this sounds, it was a calling from a very young age. I used to write short stories when I was six or seven. I was really fascinated with books. My mom used to take me to the library every day after school. I would just get a stack of books. That's kind of all I did. I played with Barbies. I played with Matchbox cars. My main hobby was just reading. I remember the moment -- I had this little epiphany when I was nine or ten. I asked my mom, "Where do books come from, actually? How do they get to the library?" She said, "People write them." Thirty years later, I remember this conversation so distinctly because my brain was like, what? People write books? You can just choose to do that? It never went away. I was writing short stories. I wrote a lot of super angsty poetry in middle school and high school. Then when I was in high school when I was sixteen, my English teacher brought a short story competition into the classroom. It was for young writers. The prize was to be published in the Connecticut Literary Review. I'm pretty sure that's the name. It was this old literary magazine. I won. It was very cool. I went to this little awards ceremony. Then my story was published. It was called The Long Way. I do not know if I could even find a copy. Someone asked me the other day. I was kind of telling this same story. They were like, "Can I read it?" I'm like, "I have to go back and look for that."

Zibby: Wow. That is so special. Don't you wonder, too, about the person who didn't get chosen who was sitting right next to you and how their life dream of being an author might have gotten totally squashed? Almost, how little encouragement we need. It's not that that's little. That's a huge deal. It's a huge, huge deal, but just that without encouragement, so many dreams just die right there.

Katrina: I've also been rejected so many times and not quit. Hopefully, that person did not quit. It was kind of weird how they chose a semifinalist. I don't know how many there were. Let's say three or four. Then they brought everyone into a room. There were definitely little sixteen-year-olds who didn't get chosen. I hope they kept on with it. At the end of the day, winning a writing contest when you're sixteen is fun, but it's not the decider of whether you are worthy of this career.

Zibby: Then did you go to college? You decided you wanted to go to college for writing and everything? What happened next?

Katrina: I had a very strange college experience. I went to a college that didn't work out. I ended up transferring to Emerson in Boston, which is a very liberal arts school. I was there for three semesters. I just think I wasn't super ready to be away from my family and be immersed in this new -- I was, maybe, a late bloomer. I was super lonely. It wasn't working out, so I dropped out of that college. I took a little bit of a break. Then I ended up finishing my degree at UConn, the University of Connecticut, which is not a liberal arts school. It's a very big sports school, a big teaching school, everything except writing, but I did major in English. I was able to live from home, just commute. I majored in English, but I don't really think that's -- I would almost suggest that people, maybe, don't do that if they're interested in writing. I almost think learning about any other topic in the world is going to be helpful in your writing and inform your writing. I did a master's program in writing, actually, too, in Scotland. That was not necessary at all. I loved it. I loved living in Scotland for a year. That part of it was all really great. The program itself, I wish I had done something totally random and just learned about different things. I love learning about literature and writing, though, but I don't think you have to.

Zibby: Interesting. Why Scotland?

Katrina: Honestly, I don't know. I had always wanted to go there. I had never been there before. I was looking at a couple different programs abroad. It was a master's program, not an MFA, so it was only a year. I was really interested in genre fiction at the time. This is a fantasy book. A lot of my young adult books have elements of fantasy in them. I found a course in genre fiction. It was basically a one-year master's program that specialized in fantasy and science fiction. I thought that was really cool. You don't really see a lot of that here. In America, literary fiction is the only kind of fiction that is important or worth studying. That's so silly. The program kind of called to me. It ended up not being a great program, though. Again, just the experience of living extremely outside of my comfort zone for a year was beneficial to my growth. I actually sold my first book right before the program started. I was in the program for a year doing revisions on my book. Then I came back to America, and my book came out. My first book came out in 2014. It was a very exciting few years.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. What was the name of the first book?

Katrina: My first book that came out was called The Half Life of Molly Pierce. It feels so long ago. I wrote it when I was twenty-six/twenty-seven and then sold it when I was twenty-seven. It came out when I was twenty-nine. Oh, this year is ten years. It's the book that I feel the least attached to, the least close to. It feels like a different person wrote it, to be honest. It feels like another lifetime ago. It launched a whole very, in my mind, successful, satisfying career of writing books for younger people. It's always what I've wanted to do my whole life.

Zibby: That's amazing. Tell me about bookstore life and what that's like for you now and how it's informed your writing, if at all.

Katrina: I have always wanted to work in a bookstore. Writing is incredible. A small selection of people are able to write as a full-time career. Most people are not. I've always had jobs here and there supplementing my writing income, a different experience. Usually, that was in fashion. I worked in fashion for a very long time. Then I was let go a year into the pandemic. I took a couple years off. I applied for some copywriting jobs, applied for some copyediting jobs. I've never really wanted to do that, but it sort of made sense as a writer. What do I do now? I guess copywriting. Then I really wanted to work in a bookstore. I had somehow never worked in a bookstore before. I applied for a job at Diesel before Zibby's was open. They didn't hire me, which is a loss on their part. Then I just happened to be talking to my partner's aunt one day. She works for Ingram, of course. She was like, "What about Zibby's Bookshop? They just opened." 

I had never heard of it. It had been open for two weeks at that point. It really fell into my lap and became such a cool experience. It's the best. It's close to my apartment. Everyone who works there is just delightful. We're a really close team. When I think now about writing -- eventually, I'd love to write an adult novel. I think working at the bookstore has been incredible for that because I know more about books than I feel like I ever have before. We're constantly talking about new books that come out. We're constantly getting new books in the store. Everyone's reading something. There's so much time to just talk about literature. The store carries all ages. For me, it's been really helpful being like, what adult books are coming out? What adult books are getting popular? Eventually, hopefully, I'll write my first adult book. I think this whole experience will be very helpful for that.

Zibby: That's great. I'm writing my next novel. It's set in a bookstore in Santa Monica. [laughs] 

Katrina: Amazing. That's awesome.

Zibby: I cannot just write my life here. I've got to at least mix up the details. Maybe she should be blonde. I don't know. I know I'm hardly there compared to you, but the time that I've spent there has already totally changed -- when you watch people shop and just listen to the conversations, it's the best listening thing. What are people looking for? Why? Who's recommending? It's a dream.

Katrina: It's really special. It is just not inspiring helping someone choose a dress. It's so inspiring talking to people about what they want to read. I know so many customers' names now. We have a customer who comes in every week for her new read. We have a customer who comes in every week with her daughter for her daughter's new read. It's so nice.

Zibby: It's so nice. How do you manage your writing brain versus everything else? When you were in fashion, when would you write? At night or the weekends? How did you pull that off?

Katrina: I'm always better in the morning. Usually, I'm writing in the mornings. Unless I'm really on a time crunch or really feeling inspired by something, it's hard for me to write at night. Night is my reading time, my decompressing from the day. I usually get to the bookstore around nine, nine thirty, so up by six, write for an hour and a half, maybe two if it's a great morning. Right now, I'm working on edits for my book that comes out next year. It's another teen book. It's called Haunted Hearts. It's being published by Wednesday Books at Macmillan, which is very exciting. The routine looks a little different now. It's less frantic writing. It's more like, how do I fix this plot hole my editor pointed out? On the weekends, I try to stick to that same schedule, write in the morning and then have the rest of the day. Routines really work for me. I don't really write at coffee shops, even though it sounds so romantic. I love when people are able to go write at coffee shops. It doesn't really work for me. I always immediately have to pee or I'm hungry or I'm thirsty or just immediately distracted by everything going on around me. I'm sitting at my desk writing for a couple hours, and then we're done.

Zibby: That's really cool. Do you have a pub day yet?

Katrina: I don't. We're hoping for November 2025, which feels like a million years off, but then I remember that we're almost in March of 2024. Your book comes out in a few days, which is so exciting.

Zibby: It does. My next book is supposed to come out in October of 2025. I have no idea how I'm going to do that because I haven't finished writing it yet. [laughs] 

Katrina: You still have a couple months. 

Zibby: I'm glad Diesel did not hire you because, seriously, it's been such a wonderful thing working with you and having you run something that's so important to me and doing such a good job. It's really wonderful.

Katrina: Thank you. I feel the exact same way. I really do.

Zibby: Do you have any parting advice for aspiring authors?

Katrina: Yes. I think my biggest advice is don't hold on too closely to any one piece of advice. Growing up, I always heard the same -- I read a lot of the books. There's some great writing books out there. I read all of them. I kept hearing advice that didn't end up serving me. You have to write every day, or you're not a writer. Who came up with that? My god, if you'd rather go on a hike than write, go on a hike. I'm so of the mindset that everything you do informs your writing, even if it doesn't look like writing at all, even if it's going on a hike or going on a walk or going for a run or going on a bike ride or going shopping sometimes. I'll just make sure whatever I'm doing I'm open to what's going on around me. You never know what you're going to hear or see that sparks an idea. Just stay open to the idea that everything around you can be inspiration. You don't have to fit yourself into one specific idea or one specific box of what a writer is supposed to do or look like.

Zibby: I love that. Last question. Do you prefer rain or sunshine?

Katrina: Oh, man. I love them both so much. I can't pick. I love the rain in LA especially because the city just changes when it rains. It really changes in a way that -- I lived in New York for a while. It doesn't change on the East Coast. People are just like, great, it's raining. Here, it's this special thing. I think for now, my answer will be rain.

Zibby: Love it. It is raining here, or it was. Actually, it looks like it still might be. I was toting my umbrella around today, so it was the perfect day for The Umbrella Maker's Son. There we go. That's why it rained today, apparently, for our interview.

Katrina: I like that. Yes, exactly.

Zibby: Katrina, congratulations. So excited about your next book, oh, my gosh, and your wonderful career and your adult book to come. It's just so cool. I'm so excited for you.

Katrina: Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you for having me. This was really fun.

Zibby: My pleasure. Bye.

Katrina: Bye.


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