Archive for February 28, 2010

Rules for Writing

The Guardian recently ran a series of two articles titled, “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction.” It was inspired by Elmore Leonard’s famous and fabulous list (which I wrote about back in Oct, 2008). The folks at The Guardian asked a long list of impressive writers for their personal do’s and don’ts. You can check out the original, lengthy articles here . . . and here.

As a public service, here are a few highlights:

Diana Athill: “Cut (perhaps that should be CUT): only by having no inessential words can every essential word be made to count.

Anne Enright: “The first 12 years are the worst.”

Anne Enright: “Only bad writers think that their work is really good.”

Anne Enright: “Try to be accurate about stuff.”

Richard Ford: “Don’t read your reviews.”

Jonathan Franzen: “You see more sitting still than chasing after.”

Neil Gaiman: “The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.”

David Hare: “Style is the art of getting yourself out of the way, not putting yourself in it.”

PD James: “Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.”

PD James: “Nothing that happens to a writer — however happy, however tragic — is ever wasted.”

AL Kennedy: “Remember writing doesn’t love you. It doesn’t care. Nevertheless, it can behave with remarkable generosity. Speak well of it, encourage others, pass it on.”

Michael Morpurgo: “It is the gestation time which counts.”

Andrew Motion: “Work hard.”

Joyce Carol Oates: “Keep a light, hopeful heart. But expect the worst.”

Helen Simpson: “The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-It on the wall in front of my desk saying “Faire et se taire” (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as “Shut up and get on with it.”

Zadie Smith: “Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.”

Rose Tremain: “Forget the boring old dictum “write about what you know.” Instead, seek out an unknown yet knowable area of experience that’s going to enhance your understanding of the world and write about that.”

Sarah Waters: “Novels are for readers, and writing them means the crafty, patient, selfless construction of effects.”

51 Great Bob Dylan Covers: A Chronological Guide

I’m a sucker for cover tunes. I’m always curious to hear a fresh new take on a song, almost any song. It’s like a conversation between two artists, a nod, a wink, a genuflection. Sometimes it’s pure fun; other times, disastrous and ill-advised. Since Bob Dylan is my favorite songwriter, I’ve made a small hobby out of listening to cover versions of his songs. Below are some of my favorites.

Note: I’m taking this chronologically, according to the dates in which the original songs were written (not the dates of the cover versions). In some instances I might be wrong, since the origin of some tunes is open to debate. Also, I’m not saying these are the only great versions of Dylan songs; I decided not to make myself too crazy over this, or to make this list go on forever.

One last thing before I lose you to the scroll: If you are interested in Dylan covers, you need to check out this extraordinary data base of songs featured at Dylancover.com.

Tomorrow Is a Long Time, Elvis Presley Honorable mention: Nick Drake, Nickel Creek.

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Blowin’ in the Wind,” Stevie Wonder

Girl from the North Country,” The Lions Honorable Mention: Roseanne Cash, The Eels.

A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” Mavis Staples (from Bonus Disk, “No Direction Home” DVD)

The Times They Are A-Changing,” Keb Mo  Honorable Mention: Mason Jennings

When the Ship Comes In,” Arlo Guthrie Honorable Mention: Marcus Carl Franklin.

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Percy’s Song,” Fairport Convention

“Spanish Harlem Incident,” James Mercer (The Shins)

“To Ramona,” The Flying Burrito Brothers

It Ain’t Me Babe,” White Antelope (The Fleet Foxes) Honorable Mention: The Turtles.

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It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” Dave’s True Story

Can’t Leave Her Behind,” Stephen Malkmus & Lee Ranaldo

Like a Rolling Stone,” Drive-By Truckers Honorable Mention: The Creation.

Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,Nina Simone

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Positively Fourth Street,” Bryan Ferry

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Pledging My Time, Luther Johnson

Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” Cat Power

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Absolutely Sweet Marie,” Flamin’ Groovies

I’ll Keep It with Mine,” Marianne Faithful

As I Went Out One Morning,” Mira Billote

All Along the Watchtower,” Jimi Hendrix

Wicked Messenger,” The Black Keys Honorable Mention: The Faces.

I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” Norah Jones

To Be Alone with You,” Maria Muldaur

Lay Lady Lay,” Magnet & Gemma Hayes

Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You,Ann Peebles

If Not for You,” George Harrison

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Sign on the Window, Jennifer Warnes

When I Paint My Masterpiece,” The Band Honorable Mention: Emmylou Harris

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Goin’ to Acapulco,” Jim James

“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” The Byrds

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I”m Not There,” Sonic Youth

Billy,” Los Lobos Honorable Mention: Gillian Welch

Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” Antony and the Johnsons

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On a Night Like This,” Buckwheat Zydeco Honorable Mention: Los Lobos

Forever Young (A Capella), Audra Mae & Forest Rangers Honorable Mention: Pretenders

You Angel You,” New Riders of the Purple Sage

Tangled Up in Blue,” Jerry Garcia Band Honorable Mention: Vitamin String Band

A Simple Twist of Fate,” Mary Lee’s Corvette

You’re a Big Girl Now,Lloyd Cole Honorable Mention: The Go-Betweens

You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go,” Madeleine Peyroux

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Buckets of Rain,” Neko Case

O Sister,” Andrew Bird

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Changing of the Guards,” Patti Smith

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Senor (Tales of Yankee Power),Willie Nelson with Calexico

“New Pony,” The Dead Weather

I Believe In You,” Sinead O’Connor Honorable Mention: Cat Power

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Pressing On,” John Doe

Every Grain of Sand,Emmylou Harris

Dark Eyes,” Iron & Wine with Calexico

Everything Is Broken, R. L. Burnside

Make You Feel My Love,Adele

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Fan Mail Wednesday #78-80 (Thursday Edition)

My apologies — bloggy weirdness going on with my typeface below, but I’ve already spent too much time trying to fix it. The truth is, I’m not good at letting these things go (I like my i’s dotted and my t’s crossed). But, enough. Here’s a three-for-the-price-of-one deal!

Letter #78:

Dear Mr. Preller,

I am Miguel. I am in 4th grade. I like the Jigsaw Jones especially the Groaning Ghost because one part they said don’t eat the evidence and the end when they had a party. I have 3 brothers. 1 brother is in 1st grade the other two are four years old. What’s your favorite book you wrote? Do you like to play any sports other then baseball. How many books have you wrote? What new books are you writing in 2010? How many books are you writing in 2010-20ll? I hope you write more books of Jigsaw Jones.

Sincerely,

Miguel

I replied:

Dear Miguel,

Thanks for your letter. I’ve got you beat by one brother. Growing up, I was the youngest of seven children, five boys and two girls. We had the girls outnumbered! But you’ve got LITTLE brothers, whereas I specialized in the BIG ones. Jigsaw Jones is the youngest in his family because I know all about that. In your case, Miguel, you could write about being the oldest, and how the younger ones sometimes drive you crazy (wild guess).

When I was your age, I didn’t play many organized sports, but I constantly played DISORGANIZED ones! That’s the big difference between kids when I grew up (born in 1961, back in the waaay back) and kids today. I played pickup basketball behind the local elementary school, and we played tackle football almost every day until it snowed. Then we played some more. No adults standing around, no fancy equipment, nobody setting up teams, blowing whistles, or settling our disagreements for us. We had to work it all out for ourselves. It’s like a lost skill.

(Sorry if that makes me sound old, but I guess I kind of am.)

I have a new book coming out this summer, called Justin Fisher Declares War! It’s set in a 5th-grade classroom and involves a boy who attracts trouble. It’s pretty funny, I think, but that’s not really for me to decide. Very quick and easy to read.

I’d love to write another Jigsaw Jones book, but right now there are no plans for that. It’s up to my publisher. Fortunately, I wrote 40 of them, so there should be enough to keep you busy for a while!

JP

Letter #79:

you are the best author in the world. I love your books more then ice cream. my name is natessa but people call me Tessa i am in second grade in illinois. maybe you can visit my school. love tessa

I replied:

Tessa,

Thanks for that great email. More than ice cream?! Really? Any flavor?

Wow, that’s something — I never dreamed of beating ice cream. But I have dreamed of eating ice cream!

I love to visit schools and talk to kids. Maybe someday I’ll meet you in Illinois!

In the meantime: read, think, feel, grow!

JP

Letter #80:

James,

My four year old was given the Jigsaw CD (via Wendy’s), The Case of the Mummy Mystery, and that got him hooked on all the books. He has the mummy book memorized, which is hilarious when we read it to him and make any ‘mistakes’ at all, he’ll correct us. I typically read the first couple words and let him finish the paragraph. He LOVES Jigsaw Jones and often calls his 1 year old brother ‘Theodore’ instead of his given name, Eli. He also calls me ‘Mila’ and says that he is ‘Joey’. Not sure why he’s Joey Pignatano and not Jigsaw, but you can’t decode the mind of a four year old, can you?

Just thought I’d send out my big thanks and congrats because these books are a big hit in our house and Ethan’s first ‘big boy’ book that he’ll sit the entire book through without concern for ‘no pictures’.

I particularly love that there are not any rude words in the book, name calling, or other random things that some authors think they need to pull the kids in. There are couple books we read that I have to change the words (idiot, stupid, that’s not fair, shut up, etc. are not cool in our house).

Love your work and excited to be picking up more books. Take care, love to your family.

Trinity

I replied:

Dear Trinity:

Thank you for sharing that story. Your description of Ethan reminds me of when my middle child, Gavin, was in his Beatrice Potter stage. He was three or so and had a complete set of all the books. Used to carry them around everywhere, a challenge that required great effort. It was wonderful — a little nutty and eccentric, yes, but wonderful — and I loved the opportunity he gave me to read those books over and over again. Such lovely stories, true classics. I enjoyed discovering the lesser-known titles (to me, at least), but still remember The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies as my personal favorite.

We frequently played “Peter Rabbit.”

I’d be Mr. McGregor, chasing Gavin all around the house. Lisa would stand in as Peter’s mother. Maggie, Gavin’s younger sister by eighteen months, would want to play, too. Which led to this memorable exchange:

Me: “Okay, who do you want to be Maggie?”

Maggie: “Butter!”

Me: “What?”

Maggie (more insistent): “Butter!”

Me: “Butter?”

This went back and forth for a long while, to the point where we had linguists flown in from Princeton University, all to no avail. The house was in crisis. Maggie, frustrated and angry. Finally, we got it: Not butter — “Potter!”

She wanted to be Potter!

Thanks for reminding me of that story. As for the memorization, Gavin did the same with Peter Rabbit. I distinctly remember him reciting, almost word for word, the first 25-30 pages of that book. Three years old! Craziness. These kids are such sponges. I felt grateful for Beatrice Potter, that his young developing brain was filled with such incredible images and language.

I was happy to read your closing comments about the Jigsaw Jones series. My children were taught that words like stupid and fat were bad words. And truly, bad thoughts to have about other people (and “words” and “thought” are indelibly linked). So I made it a point to keep these words and therefore those thoughts out of the Jigsaw Jones books. And like you, I’ve often been disappointed by some of the (unnecessary) choices made in children’s books and movies in the hopes of bringing in that older, edgier audience. There’s time enough, later in life, for that stuff. I mean to say: I totally hear what you are saying and couldn’t agree more. I’m not trying to sit in judgment. It’s just that as writers we all have to make choices of what we want to put out into the world. And likewise, as parents, what we bring into our homes.

My best,

JP

The Bystander Effect

Very interesting short video — maybe it seems a little familiar at first — which makes a couple of keen observations about bystander apathy, “the diffusion of responsibility,” and how one person can create a new group (at 2:36 in the clip) and maybe save a life.

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And this one is terrifying, frankly. I had the same reaction as the mother did, at 3:00 in the clip, with tears in my eyes. But then I cry at everything; it’s like a big joke at my house.

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James Preller Interviews . . . Kurtis Scaletta, author of “Mudville” and “Mamba Point”

Sorry, you’re going to have to wait a minute. I know you’re in a big hurry and everything. People nowadays expect their blog entertainment to run like clockwork, click, click, click on that mouse. Well, go grab a seat. There’s some old Field & Stream magazines on the table.

It shouldn’t be too much longer. Please have your co-pay ready.

I’m waiting for author Kurtis Scaletta, who agreed to come here all the way from his home in  Minneapolis for an interview. But you know how that goes, bad weather, costly delays: snow, ice, Vikings . . .

Seriously: Kurtis is an original new voice in children’s literature. His first book, Mudville, earned him wide acclaim, including being named one of the Top 10 Sports Books for Youth in 2009 by Booklist. His next book, Mamba Point, is due out in July, 2010. Even better, Kurtis claims to be writing a completely crazy book, hopefully for 2011. The truth is, I’m rooting for Kurtis Scaletta  — and I know that after meeting him, you will be, too.

Hey, Kurtis. Finally, you’re here! Thanks for coming all the way from Minneapolis. Take off your wet things. Yes, the snow pants, socks, and mittens, too. I’ll throw them in the dryer while we talk. Here’s a terry cloth bathrobe and some bunny slippers.

Thanks. It’s great to be here in balmy Albany. Your orange tree is doing great. Um, do you mind turning on the A/C?

Not a problem. Are you bothered by the noise from the steel drum band in my backyard? I could ask them to stop, but like most of my neighbors in upstate NY, I could listen to “Shake, Shake Senora” all day long — and frequently do.

I actually listened to a lot of Caribbean music while writing the last one, but more Marley and less Belafonte.

Now that you mention Harry Belafonte, I remember that song gets featured nicely in Tim Burton’s “Beetlejuice.” But don’t try to sidetrack me, Kurtis. I’m onto your tricks. We’re primarily here to talk about me. I mean, Mudville. The book turns on what strikes me as just a wonderful, imaginative leap –- a rain delay that lasts 22 years. Do you remember the circumstances of getting that idea? Was it a lightning bolt moment?

It’s kinda predictable, but I was watching a baseball game that went into a rain delay and one thing led to another. I did already have some of the characters in mind and I was trying to figure out what to do with them.

But that was a fantastic idea, literally, and introduced an element of magic realism into the story. Have I got that right? Is it something you resisted at first? Or do you have an interest in speculative fiction?

I like to tread a fine line between the improbable and impossible. All of my books do it. I call them “tall tales” myself. Sounds less pretentious. I mean, I ain’t Marquez or Borges. I read a lot of speculative fiction when I was younger, especially Harlan Ellison, but I don’t really see myself in that arena.

Are you excited about Mudville coming out in paperback?

Definitely. Something about the Yearling logo makes it especially neat. I remember a lot of great books having that horsey from when I was a kid.

It’s cool because Six Innings is coming out in paperback around the same time. Come to think of it, we should be bitter rivals. Where’s my trident?

Yeah, I guess other kids baseball writers are in competition. Unfortunately, they’ve also proved to be decent dudes. I’ve met John H. Ritter, Mick Cockrane, and John Coy, and in all three cases had to pocket my shiv.

Ah, disappointing. Nothing quite beats a brawl between children’s authors. After Mudville, was there an expectation that you were going to follow with another sports book?

I did worry for a while that I would be expected to deliver a series of sports books. I figured I could write one or two, but I’m not Mike Lupica and I have a lot more interests besides sports. I remember my wife saying, “In seven years when you’re writing the lacrosse book, you’ll wonder what the heck you’re doing.” But when I started talking to my editor about ideas for a second book, she was more taken with the Africa book than other suggestions, which included sports books. So I chalk that up to landing at a great house with a great editor.

I had a similar experience after Six Innings. I remember when your lovely wife said to me . . .

She encouraged you to write the Africa book, right?

Exactly! She’s been helpful in so many, many ways. I was wondering, how do you deal with reviews? You received such wonderful notices for Mudville. Are you thick-skinned, or more of a whimpering baby like me?

I really appreciated the good reviews, and the non-mention in one major outlet actually hurt more than the slam in another. I mostly just want people to know I exist, I think.

Are you hungry? I’ve got a Yodel, a Ho-Ho, or a Devil Dog. Which one do you want? Orange soda or root beer? And yes, Kurtis, it’s raining gum drops. That’s the way we roll here at jamespreller.com.

Yeah, and I guess the definitive word is “roll,” with that kind of diet. I’ll have the Yodel and the Orange pop, thanks.

Sorry, all out. Here’s a can of tuna fish and a hammer.

I’ll bring the tuna home. My five cats will appreciate it.

Five cats? I’m not going there. You went to school for writing, didn’t you? So is it safe to assume that you believe writing can be taught?

Well, the truth is that it was 17 years ago and I mainly had to figure out what to do with myself. But I do think I benefited from working with my advisor Elaine Ford, who is a terrific writer and was very frank and helpful with her feedback on my works in progress.

I can’t deal with “frank and helpful.” I’m more of a looking-for-false-praise kind of guy.

I’ve read that a lot of sensitive geniuses are like that. Anyway, it was a long time before I  actually got published, but that had to do with me and not the University of Maine. Still, I think creative writing is in a weird position where there is both an abundance of non-academic “how to” manuals and workshops but very little serious scholarship on teaching and learning and very little about best practices or pedagogy that is based on evidence. My day job in higher ed is showing here I think.

Kurtis, you have a pretty active blog and I enjoy reading it. Do you think it’s helped you professionally? And if so, in what ways?

Now I use my blog as a way to connect to readers, librarians and teachers, but the biggest help it’s given me was before I got published. Before I had my professional authorial blog I had a book review blog, now defunct, and a personal/chatty blog, also defunct. Blogging was a turning point for me as a writer because I started writing every day and I met and started talking to other writers and people who care about kids books. My day job is not in writing or literature and I was way out of the loop, so I’m glad I got connected to a community and started writing again.

You have a new book coming out, Mamba Point, inspired in part by your experiences living in Monrovia, Liberia. That’s not near my old haunts on Long Island, is it?

Well, they’re on the same ocean, so sure. Just a skip across the pond.

So the story involves . . . dancing?

You’re just trying to get me worked up, aren’t you?  One of my missions now is to get people to learn the difference between a mamba, which is a deadly snake, and a mambo, which is a risque latin dance.

A confusion that has led to many senseless deaths, I might add.

Seriously, because those mambo dances are tougher than they look!

Do not confuse the Mamba with the Mambo. Kurtis Scaletta is here to help.

Please, Kurtis, continue about your book.

Mamba Point is about a kid who moves from a small midwestern air force town to Montrovia, Liberia, in 1982. He’s worried about making new friends, just starting to get curious about those creatures called girls, and mostly wants to read comic books and play games. So far, that’s pretty autobiographical. But this kid is harassed by a black mamba… at first he’s scared out of his wits, but ends up kind of befriending it. They have a kind of connection. Then there’s a little adventure story thrown in, for good measure. Needless to say, that gets pretty far away from my own experiences. But there’s a lot of stuff that’s straight from my own life, and a lot about what it’s like for an American kid to move to Africa.

We both felt the death of J.D. Salinger, in my case more than expected. You mentioned “The Laughing Man” as your favorite Salinger story. What’s so great about it?

There’s lots to love about that story. The outer story is the typical spare, haunting modern story we all read in lit classes, but then there’s a completely ridiculous, endless, laugh-out-loud adventure story that’s narrated throughout. And there’s a pretty sweet baseball scene, too.

You’ve also written elsewhere about your admiration for the books of Betsy Byars.

You identify with the misfit, don’t you?

That was definitely what attracted me to her books. In the late 70s/early 80s when I reading her books, there was often a quirky misfit kid at the center. I really connected with them. I think she’s one of by biggest influences; I think I learned a lot of what I know about creating characters from Betsy. I really became aware of it in the middle of writing Mamba Point.

Do you read a lot of children’s books?

Yep. More than I read grown-up books. You kind of have to know what’s going on in the industry, so I read a lot so I know how to position my own books in a crowded marketplace. I do try to work in a couple of grown-up books but it’s hard to keep up as it is. Right now I’m in the middle of several books including The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate and Marchello in the Real World. They are both great.

Okay, tell me about this new “work-in-progress.” But it has to be in 139 characters or less; I’m tougher than Twitter and I think it’s time people knew it.

Wake, ME is about a small town in Maine that’s taken over by a giant fungus and couple of kids who believe it portends the town’s doom.

I want that book right now! Lightning Round: I know you’re into music, Kurtis. Give us ten songs on your imaginary mixed tape.

This one goes to eleven: “Train Whistle Blues” by Merle Haggard; “Driver 8″ by R.E.M., “Play a Train Song,” by Todd Snider, “Waiting for a Train” by Jimmie Rodgers, “The Train Carrying Jimmy Rodgers Home” by Greg Brown, “Trains” by Ryan Adams, “Let the Train Blow the Whistle” by the Old 97s, “Freight Train Blues,” by The Weary Boys, “King of the Road” by Roger Miller, “Downbound Train” by Bruce Springsteen, and “Downtown Train” by Tom Waits (not Rod Stewart). Sorry, I have a one track mind.

Got any Oscar favorites? Best Picture of the Year?

I seriously love “Up.” It’s probably the only nominated movie I saw, and I don’t think it’ll win best picture (just best feature-length animated film), but the first 15 minutes of that movie are beautiful. It’s a really wonderful and imaginative story after that, and the dog was great, but it’s that long prologue that gets to me. Sniff. That being said, the smart money is on “Avatar.”

I thought the opening minutes of “Up” were extraordinary, compressed storytelling. Beautiful. After that, I didn’t care so much. I’m going to go with “The Hurt Locker.” Five favorite blogs?

For the animal pictures and bad puns, Michael Northrop’s blog; for good advice to writers, editorial anonymous and kidlit.com. For book reviews, Minnesota Reads. For baseball, the sadly departed bat-girl.com.

Oh, I loved bat-girl! “Less stats, more sass.She also did those incredible Lego recreations of great (and not-so-great) moments in Twins baseball history.



I’m glad she’s appreciated even outside of Twins’ territory. You might also know her alter ego, Anne Ursu, who’s written a terrific fantasy series for kids. My wife says her grown up books are good, too, but I don’t really read grown up books.

I’m your reverse in that way; I read mostly adult.

Besides the time issue, I’m like an open pitcher of milk in the refrigerator. It’ll take on the taste of whatever’s around it. So when I read something, especially something really stylized, it affects my own voice. So I have to avoid getting deeply immersed in a novel when I’m writing. And these days I’m almost always writing. Kids books, I can usually read in a day, and shake it off.

Interesting, and again, that’s the exact reason why I don’t read them — especially when I’m deep into my own writing, when it’s an absolute no-go for me. We’re like two peas living in completely different apartments.

I worry about having too much consciousness about the marketplace. You start to hear about what sells and what doesn’t, and become too familiar (I think) with the conventions of the business — a business that’s often predicated on ripping off ideas from the bestseller list. Follow that to the end and you’re writing about a boy wizard with a sassy friend who falls in love with a smoldering vampire who’s really a geek who . . . and on and on. It seems like too much information can get in the way of originality. Thoughts?

It’s more about voice than subject matter. I’ll read a collection of essays by David Sedaris and start writing like David Sedaris, even though I’m still writing my own completely original work about the boy wizard who falls in love with a fairy, but to win her love he has to battle the vampires in dystopia with his werewolf buddies and his pet dragon. Or I’ll read Cormac McCarthy and start writing like Cormac McCarthy, even though I’m working on a tween romance.

You know what I like about you, Kurtis? Even though you strike me as having this heightened awareness of the business, you went out and wrote Mamba Point, a personal, deeply-felt story that has NOTHING to do with the trends of the marketplace. Last I looked, kids were not clamoring for more books set in Liberia. Yet you wrote from the heart. And that sound you hear is cheering, my wishing you success with this story.

Okay, whew. I hate it when Jamespreller.com gets all soggy. It seems like we’ve drifted a fair distance from our original list of bloggy goodness. By my count, you’ve only listed four.

Well, you know, I know a billion writers with blogs, but yours stands out. A newby writer like me learns stuff about the profession of writing. I also like the reader mail, which I’d love to do myself but I don’t get enough of to do. I think your blog is a good example of what writer/bloggers should do, connecting with teachers and readers. So much of it ends up being us writers just talking to each other.

That’s very kind of you to say, thanks. But I can tell from the buzz of my Kenmore dryer that your clothes are dry and it’s time for you to depart balmy Albany — alas, before you had time to visit nearby Cohoes, just ten miles north on 787, alleged home of Kilgore Trout — to brave the Minneapolis winter. As a parting gift, please accept this rare, 1988 VHS edition of “Beetlejuice.” It may look like it’s just a crummy old tape found in the bottom of my closet, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

Um. So, thanks for the interview . . . yeah. Are you sure you don’t have an extra Yodel?

Oh, fine. Knock yourself out.

——-

FOR MORE INTERVIEWS . . .

If you enjoyed this interview with Kurtis Scaletta, you might not like the others. They aren’t very good.

After Kurtis, there’s a huge drop-off.

But go ahead, be a glutton for punishment: Lewis Buzbee, Deborah Kovacs, Carmen Deedy, Matthew Cordell, Karen Roosa, Ellen Miles, Daniel Mahoney, Jack Rightmyer, and R.W. Alley.

Also: interviews with the folks behind Literate Lives (Bill and Karen), The Happy Nappy Bookseller (Doret), Fuse #8 (Betsy), and 100 Scope Notes (Travis).

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Music Video Weekend/Poetry Friday Combo Platter: “Gentle On My Mind”

While I was writing it, if I had any idea that was going to be a hit, it probably would have come out differently and it wouldn’t have been a hit. That just came real fast, a blaze, a blur.”
—John Hartford

Here’s another one of those songs that I recall hearing in my earliest years — a song that was not chosen or selected by me, it was just there, leaking through the airwaves — a song that I only gradually came to recognize as a work of genius. Again: This improbable hit, written in 1967 by John Hartford, struck my tender self as fairly uncool. This was not the hard rock blasting through the walls of my brothers’ rooms. For starters, Glen Campbell had huge success with it and used it as the theme song for his cornball variety show; hell, my grandmother liked Glen Campbell — and she didn’t have teeth! We forget nowadays just how uncool — how reviled — country music was at the time. It was Redneck Music, hillbilly stuff. Those were the people who actually liked the Vietnam War. Or at least so we, the Lords of Popular Opinion, thought.

An aside: It’s another reason how stunning and courageous it was when Dylan went country with “Nashville Skyline”; he was showing respect to a form of music that rockers of the time openly mocked. But we’ll push that big topic aside for another day, the Dylan book I’ll probably never write.

The song has aged extremely well. “Gentle On My Mind” has been covered by everybody, including hipsters of all varieties. One of my favorite versions, not available on Youtube, is by Mark Eitzel, formerly of the San Francisco-based band, American Music Club. Fans of the song might want to track down Eitzel’s version off his covers CD, “Music for Courage & Confidence.” Available on iTunes for 99 cents.

Another favorite artist, Lucinda Williams, recorded it for the odious movie, “Talladega Nights” (it played while the credits mercifully rolled).

Scroll down a second and take a look at those insane, long-winded lyrics. What a mouthful. How does a singer deliver all that? You get those incredible rolling lines, a sense of naturalistic movement aided by Hartford’s artful use of enjambment. The lyric moves and flows like the Mississippi River that John Hartford loved as a child. There’s surprising turns of phrase everywhere, flashing moments that grab my ear: ‘It’s not clinging to the rocks and ivy planted on their columns now that bind me/Or something that somebody said because they thought we fit together walking.”

I love that crazy collision of almost archaic poesy crashing against the syntax of the common tongue; “something that somebody said” indeed. As my buddy Craig Walker used to say, “It’s the damnedest thing.” And I’m sure he must have loved that song, because Craig loved those moments whenever high art and low art met. After all, his favorite movie was “Five Easy Pieces.” But again, thinking of Craig, I digress.

Here’s a few versions for your enjoyment (or mine, I suppose).

Dean Martin:

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Jim Ed Brown:

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John Hartford & Glen Campbell:

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Elvis Presley:

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It’s knowing that your door is always open and your path is free to walk
That makes me tend to leave my sleeping bag rolled up and stashed behind your couch
And it’s knowing I’m not shackled by forgotten words and bonds
And the ink stains that have dried upon some line
That keeps you in the backroads by the rivers of my mem’ry
That keeps you ever gentle on my mind

It’s not clinging to the rocks and ivy planted on their columns now that bind me
Or something that somebody said because they thought we fit together walking
It’s just knowing that the world will not be cursing or forgiving
When I walk along some railroad track and find
That you’re moving on the backroads by the rivers of my mem’ry
And for hours you’re just gentle on my mind

Though the wheat fields and the clotheslines
And the junkyards and the highways come between us
And some other woman’s crying to her mother cause she turned and I was gone
I still might run in silence, tears of joy might stain my face
And the summer sun might burn me till I’m blind
But not to where I cannot see you walking on the backroads
By the rivers flowing gentle on my mind

I dip my cup of soup back from a gurgling, crackling cauldron in some train yard
My beard a roughened coal pile and a dirty hat pulled low across my face
Through cupped hands round a tin can I pretend to hold you to my breast and find
That you’re wavin’ from the backroads by the rivers of my mem’ry
Ever smiling, ever gentle on my mind

A Comment from Geoffrey Hayes: Books for Boys

I don’t usually highlight a reader’s comment in this way, but comments to old posts tend to get lost in the slipstream. I recently heard from author/illustrator Geoffrey Hayes, recent Geisel Award winner, in response to something I’d written a while back.

Commented Mr. Hayes:

Dear James,

I just happened upon your site and was surprised to find my book “PATRICK AND TED” mentioned so warmly. It seems like I wrote this story so long ago, but you reminded me that I’ve always written from feelings and emotions first. I never thought of this as specifically a “Boys Book”, maybe because it doesn’t focus on those things that one traditionally finds in books for boys. In my opinion there is a narrow view in today’s publishing world about just what boys will and won’t read — stories with a female protagonist for one. For every generality you can apply to boys (and girls) we tend to forget that each child is an individual and therefore multifaceted. Thanks again for your kind words and fond memories.

Sincerely,
Geoffrey Hayes

I agree with every word, and it’s a message I’d like to shout from the mountaintop.

But mountains are so darn high, and so awfully hard on the tootsies, let’s save our strength and just blog about it. Besides, if I’m up on a mountaintop, I can shout ’till my lungs burst and nobody’ll ever hear me. Why? Because I’m up on a mountaintop! That’s the last place you’d go to spread a message. Who makes up these ridiculous expressions anyway?

Thank you, Mr. Hayes — and congratulations on the well-earned award.

Fan Mail Wednesday #77

Let’s cut the preamble and get right down to it.

Dear Mr. Preller,

I am an English Major. Your novel, Bystander was brought back by my professor as a ‘prize” when she attended an annual English Teacher Conference. I didn’t get the book then, but I had a chance to read the inside description, and asked for it for Christmas.

I only just now began to read the book, and I’m on chapter 8.

In addition to having an interest in English/Writing, I’m a filmmaker also. And, I wanted to know if you have thought about selling the rights to your book. I’m pretty intent on writing a screenplay based on your book. But, in order to even show it to people, I need the rights to do so. This may not even be possible, as I know rights can be very expensive and after all, I’m only a college student.

But, it’d be really cool if I could write a screenplay of your story.  My family thinks I’m crazy, asking you, but I thought I could at least try.

If this request can not be fulfilled, I totally understand.

But, at the very least, I am enjoying your story immensely and think it really has the potential to make a great film.

Eric

I replied:

Dear Eric,

You flatter me. And if you think I’m vulnerable to cheap ploys like that, then you’re exactly right. I loved your letter.

Business first: I don’t have film rights to give. It’s something that’s handled by my publisher, Feiwel and Friends, an imprint of Macmillan. You can write to them at: Feiwel and Friends, Rights & Permissions, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010. I don’t know how they handle that stuff, but I’m guessing you’re right, it’s probably involves money (but much less than you’d think).

Regardless of how the legal folks respond, I’m honored that my book inspired you. I’ve often had similar thoughts when reading stories, “Man, I can see this as a short film.” I think it would be a worthwhile project for you, going through the process of moving a story from paper to film. You’d learn a lot, I’d think. Even if you just tried to figure out one scene, made a little three minute film, it could only help you grow as an artist.

I recently visited a few schools and gave the older kids, grades 4-6, my quick “Show, Don’t Tell” lesson. We discussed how a successful writer attempts to paint a picture with words, and how as readers we see that movie in our heads. Good writing is extremely visual, concrete; it conjures images. Now I’m not saying that I’m an accomplished writer by any means — though I’m trying my best, and still learning — but your reaction really touches me because it speaks to my goal as a writer. I want readers to see it. And if they see, then they will feel.

I was an English Major in college, like you. I went through a phase when I walked around with a tape recorder, documenting conversations between different people. Then I’d go home and type them out exactly as I heard it on tape: people interrupting each other, speaking in half-broken thoughts, fragments, the conversation working in layers, backtracking and taking sudden leaps forward. I wanted to understand how dialogue really worked, Eric, so that I could one day write fictional scenes that sounded realistic, true. It was a great time in my life, feeling all those possibilities opening up to me. Maybe you feel some of those same things.

Oh, and hey, while I’m thinking of it, I’m LOVING the new Patti Smith book, Just Kids. It touches on those same feelings, the artist as a young man or woman. Recommended!

Back to my book and your film: I think you should do it anyway. Just a scene or two. Don’t get bogged down in the whole book. But go through that process, honor that inspiration, even if it only leads to nowhere much. Every time you make something new you learn from the experience; you grow. Don’t worry too much about where it will all end up. That’s not the job of the artist. Your job is to follow your enthusiasms, take that path into the deep dark woods. And let’s not completely forget food, clothing, shelter, all that good stuff. You’ll have to figure that out, too. And the thing is: you will.

Again: Follow your enthusiasms. And remember, like Basho said, “Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.”

My best,

JP

P.S. Stay in touch!

Children’s Books That Address Intolerance . . . On Several Fronts

Kendal Rautzhan, a nationally syndicated columnist, recently ran an article about children’s books that addressed intolerance. The article featured three books:

Let’s Talk About Race by Julius Lester, illustrated by Karen Barbour

Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up By Sitting Down by Andrea Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney

Bystander by James Preller

Of my book, Rautzhan wrote:

Expertly written and rich on multiple levels, “Bystander” weaves a realistic tale of the bully, the bully’s targets and the physical and emotional pain that the victims suffer. It explores what might happen when someone decides to no longer be a bystander and to do something about the bully’s behavior.

Thank you, Kendal. I’m happy for this book — and this topic — to receive some attention. And it’s great to be in such fine company!

Dear Teacher: An Author’s Take on School Visits

I have been enjoying school visits for the past 15 years. I’ve played a role in great successes and I’ve had visits that have felt flat and, for me at least, unrealized.

Same guy. What was the difference?

Which is another way of asking, “What makes a successful author visit?”

Here’s a clue: I don’t think it’s the author. I’ve given talks when teachers have walked into the room enthusiastic and eager — curious to meet me, to hear my talk — and I’ve seen teachers arrive late, who appear put-upon and vaguely annoyed. They flip through papers, check their watches, see it all as an inconvenience rather than something germane to their mission as teachers. Students feed directly off those attitudes; it’s what they are taught. I’ve seen kids enter a room bubbling with excitement. I’ve seen it in their eyes. They were going to meet a real, live author. Someone whose books they’ve talked about and read. Other times, other groups: it’s more like, “Why are we here again?” They may not even be sure.

Here’s what I’ve concluded: A school visit isn’t something that happens to a school. It is something that a school does.

Let me put that another way:

Authors don’t “do” school visits.

Schools “do” author visits.

It’s an important distinction. An author visit is not passive for the school. It’s active. And it requires a lot of work, with a lot of different people pulling on the same oar. Schools make these visits happen — and by “schools” I mean the principal, librarian, teachers, service workers, and PTA/PTO. The author showing up? That’s after most of the real work’s been done.

At least 85% of what transpires for a visit is up the school, not the author. In fact, it’s not that much about “the event” itself, which happens in a flash and is soon over. A small part of a given day. The author comes and goes. Then it’s P.E. and lunch and recess and the math quiz. What endures is what happens in the school before and after the visit.

For an author visit to make sense, it has to be part of some greater context, a school’s emphasis on literacy, it’s fundamental belief in the value of reading and writing. The author is part of something much larger. Or else, seriously, don’t bother. Save the money.

Schools should think of a visiting author as a distant uncle they’ve invited over for Thanksgiving dinner. They’ve been preparing, shopping, cleaning, and cooking long before Uncle Jimmy ever shows up. Sure, he’s funny and nice and will add to the festivities, might even help make it a wonderful afternoon. But without all your work — if there’s no turkey! — then it’s not going to be much of a visit. And guess what? Uncle Jimmy isn’t going to hang around to do dishes. He won’t be eating the leftovers either.

What you get out of an author visit is in direct proportion to what you put into it — just like everything else in life.

There’s a wealth of practical “how to” information out there addressing every aspect of the successful visit. For some easy tips, try starting at these sites:

* How To Have Great Author Visits — from Pamela Curtis Swallow and Deborah Heiligman

* Planning, Fundraising, & Tips — from Scholastic

* Terri’s Tips for Terrific Author/Illustrator Visits — from Theresa Finch, Librarian

* Visiting Authors Dot Com — lots of good stuff here, start digging.