James Preller Interview: “Along Came Spider,” The Writing Process, Asperger’s, Atticus Finch, and More

The facts are fuzzy. A while back I answered ten questions by somebody who was writing a piece to be published . . . somewhere. Hey, it seemed legit at the time.

I do know that my book, ALONG CAME SPIDER, was featured in Michigan — some 1,600 copies were distributed to 4th-graders in 34 public schools — and there was a contest to “win an author,” that prize being me. Which is why, oh wild wonders, I’m winging where I’m winging next week. Grand Rapids, better batten the hatches.

What follows are my answers to the aforementioned ten questions.

1. Where did you grow up? What college did you attend?

The youngest of seven children, I was born in a blizzard in 1961, and grew up in Wantagh, on the south shore of Long Island, NY. I was an indifferent, distracted student in high school. For college, I stayed within the SUNY system and went to Oneonta –- which I loved. That’s where I became a serious, committed student.

2. What/Who motivated you to become a writer?

Look, I wanted to pitch for the New York Mets. When that didn’t work out –- and it became clear very early on –- I had to move on to Plan B. As a teenager, I kept a journal, wrote poems, scribbled lyrics to imaginary songs. Maybe it was a product of being the youngest, but even though I was intensely social, I was always able to be alone. For writers, that’s essential. You have to be okay with solitude.

3. How many books have you written?

I first published in 1986, and my career has been a long journey of trying different things, making tons of compromises along the way. Let’s say that I didn’t hit my first one out of the park. I wrote for food, I wrote to pay the bills. I’ve done more than 80 books overall, I’ve lost count. There are 40 in the Jigsaw Jones series. I’ve learned something from each and every one. But instant success? That was not my path. And I’m okay with it. Really. No, really!

4. In your opinion, what is the major theme in “Along Came Spider?”

It’s a book about the struggle to find your place, about fitting in, and some of the roots and tender shoots of bullying. It’s about being a friend, hopefully a good one, and what those responsibilities might be, which is not always so easy or so clear. In a memorable review for “Spider,” one reviewer wrote, and I quote from the opening, “I’ve read a lot of books recently about girls trying to make sense of friendships and themselves, so it was a delightful surprise to find and read an advance review copy of a book that deals with boys trying to find out where they belong . . . .” Isn’t that amazing? An experienced reviewer expressing surprise that here was a book about boys having . . . feelings. Struggling with friendship. Could it be that boys are more than just farts and fire trucks? I certainly think so. (Full disclosure: Farts are still funny, always, and fire trucks are awfully cool. It’s just that maybe there’s more.)

5. Before this interview, have you heard of the One Book, One City for Kids program? Do you think that this a beneficial program that should continue in the future?

I’ve come across the “One Book, One School” concept, particularly with my book, BYSTANDER, which deals with bullying in the context of a middle school. I’ve been able to visit many schools around the country where, say, all of the 7th grade has read that book. First off, to be clear: that’s extremely flattering, an honor I never expected. The shared reading experience across a broad spectrum is a powerful idea. Reading is such a private experience, alone with a book, it’s when readers are free to be most authentically themselves –- even when we’re not so sure who that self is, exactly. But in the school environment, I think books can serve as diving boards, departure points, starting places for conversations. When a book is shared between friends, or classrooms, or the community, it gives everyone common ground –- a shared literary experience — and a foundation for all sorts of creative, thoughtful activities. I’m completely sold on the concept. I should add that I also believe that the majority of reading, in school and at home, should be self-selected, not assigned.

6. What age groups do you generally write for?

I am either a jack-of-all-trades or wildly unfocused. It’s your call. I’ve written picture books that are right for the youngest readers, whereas my latest book, BEFORE YOU GO (Macmillan, July 2012), is for young adult readers, grades 7/8-up, though I believe adults would enjoy it too. And I’ve written for every age in between.

7. How will this book benefit the children who read the story?

I hope it offers what “story” gives every reader –- an opportunity to walk around in someone else’s shoes, as Atticus Finch advised in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. To see how someone else lives, and thinks, and feels. I really believe that’s the root of empathy, compassion, understanding, and tolerance. I believe in books and the power of literature. I want my own three children to be readers –- to learn, yes, but also for the great pleasure it gives.

8. Was this book inspired by an occurrence in your life or something that you witnessed?

I spent a year visiting a fifth-grade classroom, off and on at random times. I’d bop in, sit in the back for a few hours, hang out during P.E., then disappear for a few weeks. I made observations, took notes, and waited for a story idea to emerge out of that experience. After a while, I began to notice a few students who were outsiders, misfits, and that’s where I focused my attention. I wondered what would happen with them in Middle School, a less forgiving environment. I think I’ve always been drawn to the outsider. At that point, I read a lot of books on autism, and Asperger’s, and again felt an affinity to those kids on the spectrum. A lot of Trey’s character grew out of that research, and whatever I could sense from my own experiences, observations, intuitions. Essentially, I went in like a pile of dry grass and tinder, just looking for that spark.

9. Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?

Thank you. Seriously, thank you. A book is a living thing between a writer and a reader, like an electrical connection. Without the reader, pfft, there’s nothing. I don’t necessarily have a specific message or lesson to impart.

10. Are your books used for other literacy programs around the United States?

As I mentioned above, BYSTANDER has been featured in many schools in the past year, now that it’s available in paperback. Beyond that, I’m really not sure. You write the book and send it out into the world –- hopefully it finds readers along the way. Some books fade away, others stick around for decades. You just never know.

One comment

  1. Stefania says:

    I would like you to put up the work book of all the answers of along came spider one of my favorite books in the world. I wrote you this letter to help some people who don’t understand the story like me.As I mentionned it’s one of my favorite books but if I know a bit more things about the book it would be even better for me and the others.thank-you alot for your aprisiation. I hope one day I get to met you hopfully. I would also like to know more books that you wrote and chapter books please.I would also like to ask you a question. This may sound wierd but, How are you tell the truth. I think you are 30 years old. Another question is one day I would like to become a writer like you.
    I already wrote a chapter book and I’d like to know if i could write it to you.
    sincerly by a fan,
    Stefania

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