Zibby welcomes professional ballerina and faculty member at the Pacific Northwest Ballet, Miriam Landis, to discuss LAUREN IN THE LIMELIGHT, a heart-warming middle-grade novel that revolves around three young dancers in a small-town ballet school in Mercer Island as they navigate the challenges of ballet, including the significant milestone of going on pointe. Miriam shares insights into her writing process during the pandemic, her decision to start her own publishing house, Rhododendron Press, and the importance of authentic representation in literature, especially for the dance community.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Miriam. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Lauren in the Limelight.

Miriam Landis: I’m thrilled to be here. Thank you so much for having me, Zibby. I’ve listened to your podcast forever, so it’s really amazing to be here myself.

Zibby: Thank you. I’m always open for tips, improvements, whatever I can do from someone who listens regularly. Feedback always welcome.

Miriam: Oh, my gosh, no, I love it. I’ll ponder that, but no. I get so much pleasure out of it. You feel like you’re really part of a community of writers. Everything you do, I feel connected to all the different arms of your organization. I just think you do the best job.

Zibby: Aw, thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Lauren in the Limelight, this is your third book, first middle grade. You have two other, all of which have beautiful ballet imagery. You teach ballet. Talk about this specific book, but I want to hear about your whole career and everything.

Miriam: So many things. I could interview you. I have so many questions for you. This book in particular, it is my first middle grade. It centers around three young dancers who all live on Mercer Island, which is where I live, which is a small suburb right outside of Seattle. It’s about ten minutes across a bridge to Downtown Seattle. They go to a very small-town ballet school here on Mercer Island. The book chronicles the year that they go on pointe. For ballet dancers, that’s a really big — it’s like the bat mitzvah year. You get your pointe shoes. It’s a really big deal. It follows them through that year. During that year, they also audition for the Pacific Northwest Ballet School, which is where I’ve been on the faculty for thirteen years, so I kind of know that spot. They also prepare for their school’s performance of Alice in Wonderland. I spend a lot of time with kids this age since I teach them. I’m also a mom of four. I have eleven-year-old twins and a six and an eight-year-old. You know .

Zibby: You’re the only person I feel like I’ve ever met with such a similar breakdown.

Miriam: Oh, my gosh, but you don’t have twins, do you?

Zibby: I do.

Miriam: You do?

Zibby: Yeah, I have sixteen-year-old twins and an almost-nine-year-old and a ten-year-old, so eight and ten.

Miriam: Zibby, you’re the only person I’ve ever met who had twins and kept going.

Zibby: There are others.

Miriam: Most people, they get their twins, and they’re like, goodbye. Okay, so you know. All four of them are students at Pacific Northwest Ballet School.

Zibby: They’re all girls?

Miriam: No, there’s one boy. The twins are boy/girl. The twins are in The Nutcracker this year, which is super fun. We’re like the von Trapp family dancers. It’s a little cheesy right now. I’m sure we’re going to outgrow it. There’s a lot of ballet. There’s a lot of ballet viewings in this house. My husband has nothing —

Zibby: — I was going to ask how he feels.

Miriam: Oh, gosh. Especially after this book tour, he’s like, no more ballet. He’s a physician, so he’s just like, can we please stop? They’re all acting out The Nutcracker in the living room. We have five ballet schedules. It’s just bonkers.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. My little guys are in the midst of The Little Mermaid. We have acting class here every Tuesday with eight kids and screaming, singing through the house. It’s chaos.

Miriam: How does your husband like that?

Zibby: He’s always just like, “Okay, so it’s very loud.”

Miriam: The noise-canceling headphones go on.

Zibby: Exactly. Wow. In the midst of all of this, you’re writing. When did you do this? When did you write the book?

Miriam: When did I write the book?

Zibby: Yeah, when did you write the book?

Miriam: The writing, all of it predates the kids, the family, the whole thing, the ballet. That goes back to my childhood, so I can never really shake it. This book in particular, I wrote it during the pandemic. You can probably relate to this. I had four kids at home twenty-four/seven, on Zoom school. It was super fun. I had to make my own fun. I had actually been working on adult fiction for a while and trying to get an agent for a long time and getting close, but no cigar. I consider that my big training novel. I put it in a drawer. I was like, I’ll just write another ballet book, because I had done these. The other two are twenty years old. Then I thought about it. My kids are eleven. Are they going to continue ballet? I’m like, that’s the age group I didn’t get before. That book is when they’re sixteen to eighteen. This one, they’re eighteen to twenty. I was like, I missed that big year where they go on pointe. In a fairly short amount of time, maybe five months, I wrote Lauren in the Limelight. Then I spent two years querying it. There’s a whole backstory to the book. I’d love to talk about what’s in the book because I think that that’s probably what readers would be most interested in.

Zibby: Go ahead.

Miriam: This book has been a huge journey. Actually, all these books have been a huge journey because forever, the publishing industry has told me ballet is too niche. Ballet is too niche. One of the reasons that I started writing them initially is that there is almost nothing to comp them on the shelf. If you go to the dance section, you find children’s books that are illustrated about dance. Then you find nonfiction, memoirs of famous dancers, history of the great ballets. There’s a few middle grade, YA. Again, when I was even querying to come up with comp titles, it was Ballet Shoes from 1970. There’s very little. What is there is mostly not written by dancers in the way that — I’m so deeply enmeshed in the dance world. I’ve lived and breathed it for forty-five years.

Zibby: The ultimate Dance Moms is you.

Miriam: I’m going to have nightmares that you said that because I’m so not a dance mom.

Zibby: I’m kidding. I’m kidding.

Miriam: I know, but you know what I mean? I’m so in the culture that that is a — I love Dance Moms. I love them, but I also am prickly about the stereotypes and the caricatures. Anybody that you talk to who’s in the dance community — the dance community is a really small, tight — it’s like when you see your fellow Jews. You’re like, oh, you’re a fellow — it’s a really tight community. I remember when the movie Center Stage came out. I was dancing in Miami City Ballet at that time. A lot of my friends who I was at ballet school with were in that movie. We were all like, okay, this movie is finally going to tell our story. It’s finally going to show what our experience is like without sensationalizing it or caricaturing us or whatever. I know that’s a cult classic, but none of them ever quite hit the note I wanted to see that I felt like reflected my experience and who I was authentically as a person, not just a dance stereotype or something. These books just felt like I wanted — the older ones were more like I was writing for my younger self. This one, I just want my students to feel seen, my kids to feel seen. When I was a kid, if you saw someone like you in a book, you felt seen. You felt safe. There was a place for you in this world. I just have never seen characters like this in a book. That felt super important to me.

Zibby: Delve more deeply. Go into plotting, how you found the plot, the characters, what you’re most excited about. What should everybody know about this book that they now have to run down the street, ballet dancer or not — maybe they have to twirl. Twirl down the street.

Miriam: Twirl down the street. There are three characters in the book. There’s Lauren, obviously. All three kids basically represent a big lesson that they need to learn that they learn by the end of the book. Lauren is the dancer who — she’s grown up in Mercer Island. It’s always come easy to her. She walks into her studio, she’s the best. She never has to try very hard. Her parents, they don’t really want her to continue because financially, it’s expensive. The dad works in the arts and thinks it’s a terrible career. That’s Lauren. Then we have the new girl. The inciting incident at the beginning is, this new girl named Serena arrives from New Jersey, and she’s the best. We’ve all had that experience where you get really comfortable, and then someone is way better than you. Serena is very talented. Her mother was a professional dancer. She’s also the most traumatized of the kids because her brother — not to spoil, but her brother had passed away. The family has moved because of that. Her mom wants her to dance, is taking out a lot of her trauma on her child. Serena has all the skills, but maybe it isn’t really in her heart to do that. Then the third character, which is a whole fodder of conversation, is Bryan. Bryan is a Black boy who also wants to dance on pointe. This was probably the hardest character to write and the one I felt the most scared to write, especially in today’s climate. If you’re a middle-aged white woman writing about a Black twelve-year-old who wants to dance on pointe, I just knew that I would be up against a lot there. I also felt like if I didn’t write him, who was going to write him? He was never going to appear in a book.

Especially where I work, at PNB, within the dance community, PNB has really been on the forefront of inclusion and really allowing dancers to do things that they haven’t done in the past. We have nonbinary dancers in the company who perform on pointe. It just felt super important to include him. He’s a him in this book. Bryan’s journey has nothing to do with skin color or pointe shoes or anything like that. It’s really about learning to have the courage to be who you are inside even if the outside world does not see you the way that you see yourself. That’s Bryan’s journey. I tried really hard to get that character right. It was very important to me. All of those kids had a lesson to learn. Lauren needs to learn that she has to work if she wants to achieve something. If she wants to achieve excellence, hard work is there. You can’t just walk in and — that’s a big coming-of-age lesson. Bryan learns that he can be himself. Then Serena learns that she also can be herself. She doesn’t have to be what her parents expect or dictate her to be. That’s their story. It’s not a complex story. For twelve-year-olds, I think it’s a pretty big coming-of-age realization. Then the other thing I want to show you is that this book is illustrated. I don’t know if you looked through it. It was very important to me, A, that it was illustrated because dance is so visual. I should’ve probably marked —

Zibby: — How beautiful. Here, I’m holding one up, but listeners obviously can’t —

Miriam: — Oh, good, you have one up. They’re there at the dance store.

Zibby: It’s gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous.

Miriam: Jill Cecil and I actually danced together as kids, but we didn’t really know each other as kids. Here’s Bryan with his pointe shoes. Here’s one of the three kids in front of the Space Needle.

Zibby: This one, making it look easy as this dancer sails through the air in a complete and total split, is that even possible?

Miriam: It is. The story behind the illustrations that’s super cool is that — there is a woman, Jenny Barlow, in Salt Lake City. Jill and I both grew up in Salt Lake City. My dad was the only rabbi in the state for almost twenty years. That’s a whole other story.

Zibby: Wow, oh, my gosh.

Miriam: That dance community is very small. We all knew each other as kids. There is this wonderful woman who went on and founded her own ballet school that I danced with. We reached out to her and asked, “Could we come and photograph the students?” so we had something to illustrate off of. There was one crazy weekend where I flew to Utah. Jill and I went to the studio. These students actually acted out the story of Lauren in the Limelight. We photographed it. In a perfect world, there would’ve been fifty illustrations. We had these wonderful kids who were so excited about — that’s when I knew the book had to be, because all these kids were like, this is our story. Tell our story.

Zibby: That’s amazing.

Miriam: That image that you held up is actually taken off of a photograph of real kids doing that. I was very inspired by those kids. I went home and wrote another draft of the book. The character of Bryan really evolved because of Eli, the kid who was Bryan at the photoshoot. It really just helped me see those characters super clearly.

Zibby: Wow. I have been hearing, because I’m actually trying to sell a middle-grade novel right now —

Miriam: — Oh, yeah, we could talk about that.

Zibby: I keep hearing how this market for middle-grade fiction is so hard and it’s collapsing in this dire state. Tell me about how you got the book published and your journey to that. Did you hear things like that? How did you persevere? Here you have this absolutely beautiful package. For those listening, the book, it’s a hardcover, paper-over-board, glossy. It looks gorgeous. It’s a beautiful package. Talk about that.

Miriam: Thank you. We can talk about that, actually, especially because I know this is a podcast for readers, but I know a lot of writers listen to it too. It’s very much surrounded in a lot of love from the writing community. I published this book.

Zibby: Yourself? Wow.

Miriam: I started my own publishing house. This is why I think I reached out to you years ago and said, “Do you ever have time for a fifteen-minute mentorship call?”

Zibby: I am so sorry I did not know that. It’s not on your website. I didn’t remember that you said that. I feel terrible.

Miriam: No, I am not public about that.

Zibby: Okay, all right. I’m like, did I miss something big? Oh, my goodness.

Miriam: No, you did not. The other thing to know about my background is — yes, I danced. I trained at School of American Ballet. I danced with Miami City Ballet. Then I had a ten-year gap where I was out of the ballet industry. I went to college. I went to Stanford. Then I worked in book publishing.

Zibby: I did read that. Yes, I saw that.

Miriam: My first internship was with Alice Mayhew. I don’t know if people know who she is. She was the heavy-hitting nonfiction editor at Simon & Schuster for decades. I recopied her rolodex. I was a fly on the wall in her office for a long time. Then I worked at Hyperion with some of our other mutual friends. Will Schwalbe was my boss at one time. I have been very fortunate to be in the room with people that do the big things. When I finally reached the moment where I was like, well, nobody’s going to do this for me, I better do it myself, I went, oh, my gosh, I spent the last thirty years preparing for this without knowing that I was preparing for it. During that time where I was working in book publishing when I originally moved to New York, it was because I was writing that book, Girl in Motion. When I left ballet — any professional dancer who leaves ballet, it’s this crack of your identity where you’re just like, who am I? What am I doing?

The way I dealt with it was I wrote about it. I had it in my mind I was going to write this book. When I was in New York, I actually had an agent who — at the time, she and I were just young assistants going and getting drinks in New York, but she’s now one of the biggest agents in the industry. She’s fabulous. She tried to sell the first two books, actually. She tried to sell them. This is in 2005. It was right when Twilight was big. We kept hearing ballet is too niche. It’s too sweet. I’ll be very frank. I didn’t really know how to write a novel. I had just poured my guts on the page. I was twenty-six. There was room for improvement in those books. We spent a year trying to sell them. We could not sell them, so I put them in a drawer. I ended up moving to Seattle to work on the Amazon Books team.

Zibby: I saw too. You worked for the Amazon Book Review before they did a live blogging. Yes, I read that.

Miriam: Yes, I used to blog for them when it was Omnivoracious. I sort of was a fly on the wall everywhere. I’ve done publishing house, Amazon, bookstore. I’ve worked for Island Books forever. It’s in my DNA, all the stuff. Anyway, put those away. When I met my husband and we got engaged, it was right when CreateSpace started at Amazon. I was working there. My husband pulled those books out of the drawer. He was like, “Well, let’s just put them up there. You know how to do it.” You know. I think it’s shifted a lot since whatever that was, 2007, but there’s a stigma around self-publishing. I had been up in the most elite rooms at Simon & Schuster and Hyperion going, oh, they’re self-published. We were turning people down left and right. To me, I felt ashamed at the idea of doing that at that time. When you have someone who loves you and believes in you, it changes the game in a huge, huge way. He talked me into doing it. We self-published those books in the most — they were not designed. These are the new editions, by the way. They were not designed. They were edited by me. We just uploaded them and published them. Zibby, those books sold over ten thousand copies.

Zibby: What? That’s amazing. Good for you.

Miriam: Isn’t that nuts?

Zibby: Good for you. That’s amazing.

Miriam: If I have any message to give anyone, it’s that if you know who you’re writing to and you know your audience, the publishing industry is just a big gatekeeper. Honestly, when we’re writing, we’re writing for readers. We’re not writing for executives who are making business decisions. Some of that was because I’d been in the ballet industry for so long. There wasn’t even, really, social media then. I would put it on Facebook. I had danced in so many places that I just knew people in all those places. I’d been teaching. It was total word of mouth. Those books, they’re not great. There just were no competitors. There’s just nothing on the shelf next to them. There also aren’t a lot of former dancers who are writing, at least not former professional dancers. You could line us up in a short row. Those books went away. I went on. I had four kids. I did a lot of other things and then started writing again. Sorry, I know I need to get through my story.

After querying Lauren in the Limelight for two years, I was like, okay, this time, I’m going to get a real — we’re going to start over. I’m going to do this the right way. I’m older. I know what I’m doing. I know the writing is better. Kept hearing the same, no, no, no. Then I had this moment where I read this article about a woman who went viral on TikTok and got her book deal. It was a YA book. I was getting really creative at that point. I was like, I’m just going to make a book trailer and see if I can get it to go viral. I made a book trailer. I know people in the ballet world in every place, so I had a lot of my ballet friends who have big platforms — I asked them, will you post the trailer? The trailer went to maybe ten to fifteen thousand people. It wasn’t huge. A retired agent who knows the ballet industry contacted me and said he wanted to work with me on the manuscript. We actually did a rewrite. I had a lot more help that someone else believed in it.

Then the other thing that came of that — this is a very strange story. Social media is a whole other subject. I’ve taught adult students forever, for thirteen years here in Seattle. There’s a big community of adult dancers who come and take my class. I know them so well. It’s a really wonderful community, but we don’t always know who we are outside of our leotards. At this time, I had this one student who has been in my class forever who came to me and said, “I saw your book trailer. I have a really big following on Instagram. Let me help you build your Instagram.” Before this, my husband and I were very private. It just was the most awkward-sounding thing ever. She was like, “You have this huge community of students who have been in your adult class forever. Let me just ask you questions about what we do in ballet class.” I don’t know if you — I think we’re friends on Instagram. You probably don’t even read. I do these videos that are, hey Miriam, where’s your foot in tendu? These videos went viral. The first four videos went to over half a million people.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, good for you.

Miriam: At that point, I went — I’d heard enough “no” about the book. I had in my mind, I knew how I could reach the readers because of the ballet community. I knew I had help doing the social media aspect of it. My husband came to me, and he said, “I am so tired of you hearing people tell you you’re not good enough.” This had been years. I think I queried three hundred agents. I will just say it. I just knew this project needed to be. I knew the reader. I was up in front of the reader, but there was this big industry in the way.

Zibby: You didn’t even need them.

Miriam: I just said, okay. I started Rhododendron Press. I hired my own packager. I had my illustrator. I hired her. We said, I’m not buying a new car. I invested in it like it was my business, just like you. Here we are. Now we’ve got these new editions of the old books. That’s a whole other thing. I went and revised them and brought them up to snuff. Now I have three titles. I did them in the way that I wanted them to be. I didn’t have anyone telling me what the cover should look like, that it needed to be more salacious or it needed to be something that the world thinks the ballet industry is which it is not or I don’t want it to be seen as. That’s my story. Sorry, that was a lot of talking.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, that’s amazing. How are you distributing it?

Miriam: Through Ingram and through Amazon. I was very fortunate that I’ve been really involved in the indie bookstore scene here for a long time. I’ve worked for Island Books forever. I did their blog, a newsletter. I hosted their open book club. They were super supportive of me. Like you, I’ve spent most of my life just supporting other artists. I really believe in it. It’s very meaningful to me. I’m actually a lot more comfortable doing the kind of thing you’re doing than being the author. That energy of wanting to support and love others, it comes back to you. The best part of this has just been finding community. I feel like my community has grown. I’ve done this tour where I basically went to all the places where I lived and danced. Just all those old connections coming back has been really, really meaningful. To see young dance students reading the book and feeling like they could talk to me, that I wasn’t this scary faculty member at this exclusive ballet school, it really gave me hope for what the ballet world might be for my kids. I’m only one person, but if I don’t show up, who’s going to show up and make it better?

Zibby: Are you going to publish other people’s books, or you’re just going to stick with your own books? Do you have a vision for it?

Miriam: That’s a good question. I’ve gotten that at a couple events. I don’t know. That’s the full-on answer. I really don’t know. I am working on an adult novel. I would like to have more time to write. I didn’t set out to be a publisher. I really wanted that time. Also, I have four young kids. My husband works. I also have a part-time job that I love, the teaching. I don’t really know. I feel like every few years in my life I’ve totally reinvented what the heck I’m doing. I’m not opposed to it. I think it would have to be a book I felt as passionately about as I did about mine. It isn’t my life aspiration to be a publisher. I’m glad I have the framework for it. That’s my short answer.

Zibby: Okay, that’s good.

Miriam: I could. I might.

Zibby: We’ll see. We’ll stay tuned. I love it. I love your whole story. I’m so glad that our paths connected. I know this is still a podcast. I was in Seattle last year. Was it two years ago? Anyway, I never went to Mercer Island, but I went to Bainbridge Island twice in two days, which was crazy. Hopefully, we can, at some point, meet in real life. Let’s please stay in touch because all the stuff you’re doing is very cool. The dance community, all these micro communities are so important. Producing content that a particular group of people love is the most important thing there is. Who better to know that than the person in it? If you come to New York, by the way, I just saw this amazing play called How to Dance in Ohio. You have to go see it. One of the characters is someone who had been at Juilliard and got injured.

Miriam: Darn. I was in New York. I had an event at the Capezio flagship store.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, what a good idea.

Miriam: That was the kind of thing where, if you’re an indie publisher, the bookstores, there’s a line out the door. I could not get an event. On a whim, I called up the Capezio store. I talked to the manager and said, “I know this is a crazy idea, but would you be willing to?” They were like, “It has to go through corporate. That’ll never happen, but I’ll ask,” this wonderful manager. I forgot about it. I was like, oh, that’ll never happen. Two months later, she called and said, “Can you be here in two weeks?” I was just in New York. I took the whole family.

Zibby: Oh, no. Next time.

Miriam: I will be there again. I love New York.

Zibby: Congratulations on Lauren in the Limelight. This is such an inspiring story, both the story and the lessons therein, but also the backstory. It’s a two-for-one deal. Very cool.

Miriam: Yay! It’s such a pleasure to meet you. Thank you for everything. To support an indie author like me, it just shows what a big heart you have. I really treasure people who are not gatekeepers, but uplifters of others. I think that that is something so special that you do. You’re really appreciated. Probably, people don’t tell you that enough because you spend so much time appreciating other people. We really appreciate you. Thank you, Zibby.

Zibby: Thank you. Thank you. Have a great day, Miriam. I’m glad to be in touch.

Miriam: You too. Nice to meet you. Buh-bye.

Zibby: Bye.


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