Archive for January 30, 2010

Music Video Weekend: “Shakin’ All Over”

My son Gavin, ten years old, is a true musician. He’s played piano for seven years and started playing guitar two-three years ago.

It’s fascinating to watch him slowly develop his own personal taste in music. The big hurdle is that at his age, Gavin simply isn’t familiar with a whole lot of music; doesn’t have strong personal associations with different tunes that might attach themselves to specific times, places, faces.

While I don’t mean to force-feed him my taste in music, I do try to expose the G-Man to a wide variety of sounds. Living under this roof, that’s going to happen naturally. There are also songs that I feel he’s got to hear, and know, and play. For example, the classic riff from “Shakin’ All Over.”  The song was first popularly played by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates in 1960, and reached #1 in the U.K. charts. The riff belongs in any guitarist’s vocabulary.

I played a few different versions of the song for Gavin, Johnny Kidd’s of course, and The Who at Leeds, plus this new find, an alt-country singer who I’m pretty excited about, Eileen Jewell. I just picked up her latest disk, “Sea of Tears,” and think she’s the real deal:

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She’s cool, don’t you think? I want to see that band in a small bar some night.

Gavin will then seek out various lessons on Youtube, which is just an amazing resource for musicians. Here Kim Mitchell explains the importance of this riff as it pertains to soloing in general, how it relates to the pentatonic scale, and in his words, “just wanking around”:

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Then this English bloke, Dave Jones, who seems very nice, patiently offers a step-by-step lesson. You’ll likely find this boring, and I don’t expect many readers will look at it, but I think it’s fascinating, this man unraveling the mystery.  (The “Shakin’ All Over” riff begins at 4:40 in the clip.) Twenty minutes later, Gavin is playing the riff and moving on to his spelling homework.

I want to add how grateful I am for the quality of these lessons — and many more that are available. These guys are teachers, givers, living examples; the league of gentleman, the brotherhood of rock-n-roll. It’s so cool that Gavin can learn from them. Thanks Kim, Dave, and all you others.

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“I hope to hell that when I do die somebody has the sense to just dump me in the river or something. Anything except sticking me in a goddam cemetery. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday, and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you’re dead? Nobody.” –J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

I guess I’ll have to pull this one off the shelf again — and read it yet another time — and always with awe. What a voice. Rest in peace, Mr. Salinger. And thank you.

Some more quotes from the book.

And here’s an obituary worth reading. I’m sure there are many more to come.


UPDATE: Wow, consider this question: What’s In Salinger’s Safe? Has he been writing all along?

“Teachers Make A Difference,” performed by Taylor Mali

I understand that in some exotic cultures poetry — actual poetry — is celebrated on Fridays. For example: here, and here, and here. This week I decided to play along. But with a difference. Here at, we’re all about winning. So I’m getting a head start.

Seriously, if you know a teacher, you might want to share this.

Here’s slam poet Taylor Mali answering the question, “What do teachers make?”

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From the incredible TED site:

Mali is a vocal advocate of teachers and the nobility of teaching, having himself spent nine years in the classroom teaching English, history, math and SAT test preparation. He has performed and lectured for teachers all over the world, and his New Teacher Project has a goal of creating 1,000 new teachers through “poetry, persuasion and perseverance.”

Fan Mail Wednesday #74-75

I’m feeling pushed these days — mostly in a good way — so it’s hard to get to these letters. The demands of standard mail can be time-consuming and expensive. I’ll admit it: sometimes I get behind and never catch up on my replies. Then I feel awful about myself and vow never to fall behind again. Rinse, repeat.

And so it goes.

Like I’ve said before: I really appreciate letters that come with Self-Addressed, Stamped Envelopes.

I heated up my trusty, dusty scanner for these two. First, I received a lovely drawing from a girl named Lindsey:

I replied:

Dear Lindsey,

Thank you so much for your kind letter. It is not everyday that I receive such beautiful, creative artwork in the mail. I especially liked your idea for the book tree (not shown in the scan above) — I wish books really did grow on trees! Then I could go out and play instead of sitting here alone at my desk trying to think up new ideas.

I taped your picture on the wall in my office, so I can look over at it each day for inspiration. I’ll think of you and smile.

Thank you for that gift!


Letter #75:

This also came in the mail (I scanned only the front page; it goes on, and on, a bit longer, but you get the idea):

I replied:

Dear Mukul,

Thanks for your letter. I need all the ideas I can get, so thanks for including a few spare ones of your own. I wish that I had so many ideas that I could give them away for free.

Um, they were free, weren’t they?

I don’t, like, owe you any money, do I?

I love traveling. Sadly, we haven’t been able to do much of it in the past several years. We’re working hard to pay our bills and save our money; we’re not in spending mode these days. But a dream that I’ve had for a long time is to bring my family to Ireland. I’ve been there several times on my own, but not in many years. I have roots there, since my grandmother was born in Ireland. She came to this country as an immigrant. In a way I can’t fully explain, I’ve always felt welcome and at home whenever I’ve visited that country. It’s as if there’s a part of me still there, almost magically, and I reconnect to it when I step on those shores. I wish I could live in Ireland for half the year — maybe someday. But mostly I’d love for my children to experience it, to feel just a little bit of what I’ve felt.

There are so many, many places I’d love to visit. Vietnam and India, Australia and Denmark, Costa Rica and New Jersey! The list goes on and on. Hopefully some of those dreams will come true.

Thanks for writing to me.


Stories Behind the Story: The Case of the Snowboarding Superstar

As part of a continuing (read: sporadic) series of posts, I take a look back at old Jigsaw Jones titles with the intention of providing my Nation of Readers with more “extra juicy” background info.

If you are like me, you might gag at the thought of yet another writer describing his “creative process.” There is something oh-so-wearying about it. The phrase, “Don’t be a gasbag,” leaps to mind. But let’s see if I can pull this off without too much self-aggrandizement. The simple truth is that I am proud of this series and I sometimes (often?) wonder how much longer they’ll be around. I see this blog as document, as archive.

Today’s title is seasonally appropriate, Jigsaw Jones #29: The Case of the Snowboarding Superstar. It begins with Jigsaw chatting with two of his brothers, Daniel and Nick, as they prepare for a family ski vacation.

Some background: My father was a veteran of World War II, who returned home, got married, went to college on the G.I. Bill — a great investment by the Federal Government, by the way — and looked with my mother for a nice place to settle down and raise a family. Suburbia, preferably. He found a newly-built home in Wantagh, Long Island, designed after the Levittown model (for a fascinating history on that, click here). They bought a three-bedroom house for somewhere along the lines of $12,500.

One problem: My parents kept having children. Seven in all. It got crowded. At one point when I was still quite young, my folks slept in the back bedroom, my two sisters (Barbara and Jean) shared a small room, three boys had the front room (John, Al, me), and my father turned the garage into a bedroom for the oldest boys (Neal and Bill). I have strong memories of those early childhood days, sharing that crowded room with two big and somewhat mysterious brothers.

Below, here’s my whole family except for Mom, 1967. We always dressed that way! I shared a bedroom with the two goons on the right — don’t let the ties fool you.

The dynamic in the book’s first chapter, with two older brothers schooling Jigsaw, springs directly from my sense of those times.

They are teaching Jigsaw how to talk cool, in the snowboarder’s hipster jargon:

“Let us quiz you, Jigsaw,” Nick said. “What do you call someone if you don’t know their name?”

I thought for a moment. “Dude,” I answered.

“Excellent!” Nick cheered. “What’s a face-plant?”

“It’s when you fall into the snow face-first.”

“Awesome, Jigsaw,” Daniel said. “Totally gnarly!”

“Gnarly?” I asked. “What’s that?”

“It means very, very cool,” Nick explained. “Do you smell me?”

I sniffed, confused. “What?”

“Do you smell me?” Nick repeated. “It means, do you understand?”

“Not exactly,” I groaned.

In the next chapter, Jigsaw gets to try out his new language skills on Mila Yeh, his partner and best friend:

“I’m jealous,” Mila complained. “I wish I were going  on a ski trip.”

“Snowboarding,” I corrected her.

“It sounds hard,” Mila said. “I hear that beginners fall down a lot.”

“Maybe,” I said. “But I think it will be sick.”

“Sick?” Mila asked. “Who’s sick?”

“Not who,” I said. “It. Snowboarding will be sick.”

Mila frowned. “I don’t get it.”

“It’s the opposite of wack,” I explained.

Okaaay,” Mila murmured.

“Do you smell me?” I asked.

Mila sniffed. “Well, now that you mention it, you do smell a little ripe.”

Don’t they have a nice friendship? Anyway, some random things:

* I loved the setup for the book, with Jigsaw away from Mila for the first time. It gave the book a different shape — and put Jigsaw in a tough situation. After all, this was #29 in the series, so I was eager to find new ways to keep it fresh. I know that some successful series, like The Magic Tree House, tend to follow a more rigid formula. And I understand the reasons why that’s appealing and reassuring for young readers. But it just wasn’t me. For better and for worse, I kept trying to mix things up.

* Mila mentions to Jigsaw that she’s practicing for a piano recital. Her song will be “The Maple Leaf Rag.” This comes from my son, Gavin, who also played that song in a recital.

* Grams and Billy are left behind to “mind the fort.” This expression, used by Mr. Jones, was something my father commonly said. I love his old verbal habits, the phrases he often used, and I try to keep them alive as best as I can — more than ever now that he’s gone. It’s a way of keeping that connection alive. I hear those phrases and think of Dad, all the more so when his words come out of my mouth.

* I once edited a book on snowboarding, written by Joe Layden. I learned a lot about the sport in the process, so it was comfortable territory for me to explore in the context of a Jigsaw Jones mystery.

In my story, a star snowboarder named Lance Mashman (love that name!) is at the lodge for an upcoming exhibition. However, someone steals his lucky bandanna — and with it, his confidence. While working on No Limits, I was impressed by many of the top female snowboarders, such as Shannon Dunn and Victoria Jealouse. They had a vitality and strength that inspired me, qualities I love to see in my own daughter. Also, they conveyed a refreshing take on competition, much different than you normally hear in the context of traditional athletics. So I invented the character of Tara Gianopolis, a rival to Lance, and a very cool young woman:

Illustration by Jamie Smith — crudely scanned.

“But you two compete against each other,” I said. “You are enemies . . . .”

Tara shook her head. “Man, you don’t know much about snowboarders, do you? This isn’t like football or basketball. We’re athletes, but we’re just trying to be the best we can be. It’s about nailing a backside rodeo or pulling off a perfect McTwist. It’s not about winning medals or beating people. It’s about freedom and creativity.”

“So you don’t care if you win?” I asked.

“I care, I guess,” Tara said with a shrug. “But as long as I ride well, I’m okay with whatever happens.”

* One of the suspects turns out to be Lance’s manager, Bubba Barbo, named in honor of my former editor, Maria Barbo. Once again, that’s a great aspect of writing mysteries. The genre forces the detective out into the world, this moral compass encountering life, making observations, going places, meeting new people all the time. As a series writer, that holds tremendous appeal — new characters in every book. Here’s a snippet from a conversation between Jigsaw and Bubba:

“It sounds like you think Lance is annoying,” I commented.

Bubba growled. “I don’t think he’s annoying. Lance is annoying. He’s always late. He drives me up a wall and across the ceiling.”

“You don’t like him?” I asked.

Bubba made a face. “Whaddaya, kidding? I love the kid,” he said. “Lance has talent. He’s a genius on a snowboard. A great athlete. And besides that, Lance has heart. He’s good people. You know what I’m saying?”

Yes, I knew what Bubba was saying. “I heard that he fired you this morning,” I said.

Bubba stepped back, surprised. Then he laughed out loud. “Lance fires me every week and twice on Sunday,” Bubba claimed. “It doesn’t mean anything. We’re a team.”

For fun, here’s a clip of Victoria Jealouse (and others) in action:

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Click below for other posts in this series. Some day I’ll get around to every book:

Jigsaw Jones #7: The Case of the Runaway Dog

Jigsaw Jones #15: The Case of the Haunted Scarecrow

Jigsaw Jones #16: The Case of the Sneaker Sneak

Jigsaw Jones #28: The Case of the Food Fight

Jigsaw Jones #10: The Case of the Ghostwriter

One Minute Blast of Inspiration

Some days, you find exactly what you need.

“Keep going.”

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Music Video Weekend: “The Dark End of the Street”

I usually begin these things with approximately the same sentence: I’ve been listening to this song all week, and I see no reason to change that pattern now.

“The Dark End of the Street,” written by Chips Moman and Dan Penn, has been covered by many talented musicians, including Ry Cooder, Richard and Linda Thompson, Bruce Springsteen, Eva Cassidy, Linda Rondstadt, Gregg Allman, Elvis Costello, The Eels, Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, Gary Stewart, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Percy Sledge, Cat Power and more. I love how a song is in no way an immutable object, but a thing that lives and transforms in the breath of each performer; “song” exists somewhere in that shared distance between the musician and the written tune.

Which version is the best? It’s hard to go against Percy Sledge; unfortunately, no quality Youtube renditions exist. At the same time, there’s nothing like the 1967 soul original (#10 on the R&B charts!), as sung by James Carr:

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At the dark end of the street
that is where we always meet
hiding in shadows where we don’t belong
living in darkness, to hide alone

You and me, at the dark end of the street
You and me

I know a time is gonna take it’s toll
we have to pay for the love we stole
It’s a sin and we know it’s wrong
Oh, our love keeps going on strong

Steal away to the dark end of the street
You and me

They gonna find us, they gonna find us
They gonna find us love someday

You and me, at the dark end of the street
You and me

When the daylight all goes around
And by chance we’re both down the town
Please meet, just walk, walk on by
Oh, darling, please don’t you cry

You and me, at the dark end of the street
You and me

Obviously, it’s a cheating song — or more appropriately, “a cheatin’ song” — one of the rich sub-categories in the songwriting tradition. You’ve got everything you need in one troubled broth: darkness, betrayal, lust, and guilt.

I find there’s nothing quite like hearing the song’s author give it a go, even if that person is not technically a great, or even a good, singer. Because technique will forever pale compared to from-the-gut emotion. Check out Dan Penn (co-writer of the tune), accompanied by legendary “road warrior” Spooner Oldham:

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Here a young Ry Cooder lets his slide guitar carry the emotion:

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These examples could go on forever, but let’s conclude with the resurgent Peter Green, blues hero and founding member of Fleetwood Mac, performing the song in late 2009, Hamburg, Germany:

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Okay, has everybody gone to the bathroom? You all strapped in? It’s going to be a long trip.

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The video above, “The Known Universe,” attempts to convey would it looks like to travel across the known universe.

Here’s some background info:

It takes viewers from the Himalayas through our atmosphere and the inky black of space to the afterglow of the Big Bang. Every star, planet, and quasar seen in the film is possible because of the world’s most complete four-dimensional map of the universe, the Digital Universe Atlas that is maintained and updated by astrophysicists at the American Museum of Natural History. The new film, created by the Museum, is part of an exhibition, “Visions of the Cosmos: From the Milky Ocean to an Evolving Universe,” at the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan through May 2010.

As my friend said, it will either bore you to tears or blow you away. Make you feel insignificant and meaningless — or inspired to be a part of this elegant, mysterious fabric of life. One thing I do know is I want my kids to see it, and that’s one of the great advantages of this blog. I put on here what I want, and it is automatically archived, so it becomes a diary, a journal, my document. Enjoy the ride.

Fan Mail Wednesday #73

Here’s a quick one . . .

Dear James Preller,
My name is Justin W. and this is my friend Dan S. We are sixth grade boys and we would like to compliment you on your book Six Innings. We  read it for book club and thought it was great. Nando Sanchez was our favorite character. He was so funny. Like the part where his teammates describe him as the outfielder that ate waffles on the bench and in the field. Thanks for making my book club exciting instead of boring like last year. If you could please send two autographs to: Justin W. and Daniel S. at 791 Eisenhower Avenue Bridgewater New Jersey 08807. Also, my friends Joe and Alex would like to say hi (but they don’t need any autographs) Thanks so much!!

From your biggest fans,
Justin and Daniel

I replied:

Justin and Daniel,

Thanks for the compliment; I strive to write books that are not boring. And I really do appreciate it when anyone picks up and actually reads one of my books. I’ve sent along the autographs via snail mail. I have no idea what you’ll do with them. Just don’t let me find ‘em on eBay, where I’m sure they’d go for 25 cents a pop. Easy.

Actually, I’m always baffled by anyone who wants my autograph — a firm handshake is so much better. Since in our situation that would be difficult (I’m not Reed Richards), hey, I’ve complied with your request.

As far as Joe and Alex go, tell those guys I don’t want their autographs either! So there.

Thanks, have a great 2010.


Fan Mail Wednesday #72 (Monday Edition)

Forgive my sporadic postings of late, it’s been a hectic time, and deadlines loom. This week I’ll be away for three full days on school visits. Always a positive experience that definitely helps keep the wolf from the door, but it takes me away from my desk job.

Oh yes! Congratulations to Rebecca Stead, winner of the Newbery Medal for When You Reach Me.

This had been the consensus pick of the BlogHive for the past six months, so no surprises there. I don’t read many children’s books a year, but I read and enjoyed this one, and I’m glad to say that I have a signed hardcover copy on my bookshelves. This puts me on a hot streak, because last year the same was true of The Graveyard. So if you want to win a Newbery, you need me to read your book.

Also: I’ve been neglecting my fan mail of late. So let’s see if I can begin to rectify that.

Dear Mr. Preller,

Our names are Claire, Aiden and Julia. We go to Stratford Academy- Honeyspot House in Stratford , Connecticut. In our class, your books are our favorites. We have some ideas of stories that maybe you could write about in your Jigsaw Jones series. Here are some of our ideas:

The Case of the Living Lollipop

The Case of the Magical Mattress

The Case of the Horrible Hair Cut

The Case of the Terrible Teacher

The Case of the Moon Monkey

We have a few questions for you: How do you publish a book? How long does it take to write a book? Do you always have 12 chapters in your books?

Thank you for writing such great books. We look forward to hearing from you!

Your friends,
Claire, Julia and Aiden

I replied:

Dear Claire, Julia, and Aiden:

Thanks for those ideas. As a matter of policy, I’d definitely want to read ANY book about a Moon Monkey — though I’m not sure exactly how to write one. However, the Living Lollipop sounds  gross and sticky. I always say the same thing in these situations: I encourage you to keep these ideas for yourself. Of course, that’s the thing with ideas; they aren’t exactly to be kept, like toy chihuahuas in little purses.

Ideas are like doors: they need to be opened, and the way to do that is to think and write in a spirit of exploration. What happens when you open that door? For example, pick one of those ideas and work on it. Feel free to use Jigsaw or Mila as your characters, or make up your own. Ask yourself: How does it feel to get a horrible haircut? What would it look like? How would the kids in school react? What might a nice friend say? What about someone who wasn’t so nice? Think about it, puzzle over it, and perhaps try to write one small scene. All the while staying alert for new ideas, and new doors, you might encounter along the way.

I usually have two months to write a Jigsaw Jones book. Once I have the idea for a plot — the basic story in my mind — I can write it fairly quickly (in a matter of weeks). But coming up with that idea can often take a long, unhappy time. The Jigsaw Jones books range from 10-13 chapters, and usually come in at around 6,000 words each.

About “publishing,” I think  writers your age should self-publish. I’m a big believer in DIY — Do It Yourself. Write your own stories, add illustrations if you wish, make extra copies, and sell your stories to friends, neighbors, and family (Grandma will buy one every time, guaranteed).

Make your own books. It’s fun. And it’s exactly how I started.

Thanks for writing. Happy Martin Luther King Day!