Helena Ku Rhee is the author of The Turtle Ship, a forthcoming picture book by Lee & Low (Fall 2018). Helena, trained as a lawyer, followed an uncommon path by negotiating her own book deal. She tells Kite Tales about her debut and navigating publishing without an agent.
Erlina Vasconcellos: Tell us about your book and the process of getting to a finished manuscript.
Helena Ku Rhee: The Turtle Ship is about a boy who saves his embattled country by designing a battleship shaped like his pet turtle. The idea came from stories my parents told me about South Korea, the country where they were born. It’s a fictionalized take on historical facts about Admiral Yi Sunsin and his turtle ship, which was the first ironclad ship in the world. I wrote the first draft a decade ago, and put it aside. While I sensed the seed of a good story, it didn’t feel quite right. So I let it germinate and kind of forgot about it. Fast forward to 2014, I dug up the story, and realized very quickly that I was telling it from the wrong character’s perspective. In the old draft, the story was told from the king’s perspective, and I changed it to be from the perspective of a little boy.
EV: How do picture books fit in with your career as a lawyer?
HKR: I’ve been writing ever since I could string words together on paper and won my first fiction contest in the third grade when my school district held a story competition. I even incorporated pencil drawings, so I guess I’ve always been interested in picture books! In college, I majored in English and wrote short stories for campus magazines. I dreamt about becoming a professional writer, but my practical side (AKA my mother’s voice) won out and I attended law school. I’ve been fortunate to have had a really great career as a lawyer, and now I work in business affairs at a movie studio. But at my core, I’m a writer, so I can’t help but write stories whenever I can.
EV: What made you decide to sell the book without an agent?
HKR: I actually had an agent a few years ago who shopped around a middle grade novel I’d written. Though some editors had nice things to say, that book didn’t sell. It was really heartbreaking because I felt so passionate about the book, and like many people, I made the mistake of believing that securing a good agent at a well-known agency would be a slam-dunk entry into the publishing world…In 2015, I sent The Turtle Ship to Lee & Low as an unagented submission. When I returned from a trip to southeast Asia in early 2016, I was thrilled to find the nicest letter waiting for me from Lee & Low.
EV: Do you think someone who isn’t a lawyer could represent themselves?
HKR: It’s possible to do, but I think it could be pretty hairy. Someone used to reading contracts can quickly pinpoint the key business terms versus the legal boilerplate, so it was actually fun for me to apply my professional skills to my publishing contract. A savvy and careful reader could definitely understand the nuances of a publishing contract, but even sharp non-lawyer friends have invariably asked questions like, “What does this part mean?” So I would definitely caution non-lawyers to seek advice from an agent or lawyer who works on publishing deals.
EV: Are you open to signing with an agent in the future?
HKR: Yes! I definitely want to find representation for my next project, mainly because I want to be viewed as the nice author throughout the entire process, rather than the tough negotiator who’s playing hardball for better contractual terms. I’m going to attend the SCBWI conference this summer in L.A. and I hope to meet an agent or two there. [Update 5-22-17: Helena recently signed on to be represented by Bill Contardi of Brandt & Hochman for her future projects.]
EV: Can you tell us about the illustration process?
HKR: The selection of the illustrator, Colleen Kong-Savage, was nothing short of miraculous, and I’m not exaggerating! After I received my publishing contract with Lee & Low, I attended the portfolio showcase at SCBWI during the summer of 2016 to see what was there. I saw Colleen’s portfolio and kept going back to it, again and again. Her illustrations really stood out to me, among the hundreds of brilliant portfolios I saw that day! So I took one of her postcards and looked up her website. I sent her a fan email, and told her I’d written a book about a boy and his pet turtle, and would love to introduce her to my editor. I had no idea that months beforehand, Jessica (my editor) had already pinpointed Colleen as a potential illustrator for The Turtle Ship.
EV: What was it like meeting Colleen and your editor, Jessica Echeverria, in New York last April?
HKR: It was so cool to visit Lee & Low in NYC and meet them in person. What a treat to speak about the characters and scenes with people who are as invested in the book as I am, and who handle the story with such passion and respect! I got to meet some of the staff at Lee & Low, and their dedication to publishing multicultural/diverse books is so impressive. Looking at their bookshelves really moved me.
Author photo is courtesy of Chris Seid Photography
All other photos courtesy of Helena Ku Rhee.
Erlina Vasconcellos is the Kite Tales assistant editor. When she isn’t working as a journalist, she is writing — and rewriting — a picture book and a middle grade novel. Find her on Twitter: @noterlinda