Archive for February 25, 2016

13 Questions & Answers: On Childhood Memories, Writing Advice, Favorite Fictional Worlds, and More

One thing about being a published author is that every blue moon your publisher asks you to do things. For example, I was just called on to answer a series of questions which will be published in the back matter of the paperback edition of The Fall (coming in October, 2016).

This is not usually my favorite thing to do. I enjoy talking about the work, the writing, but I’m not a fan of questions that focus on personality. At the Albany Teen Con this past year, the day’s events got kicked off with questions from the audience addressed to the panel of authors. Almost every question focused on personality. What’s your favorite food, etc. I realized that readers like to know this stuff, and that I have to get over it (to the degree I’m able).

So here you go, Dear Nation of Readers, a sampling of some of the Q & A which will appear in paperback later this year. The complete version is simply more than any single blog reader should be required to endure.


When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?

pen-and-notebookAs a young kid, ages 8-10, I used to invent these elaborate dice games that revolved around baseball. Roll a seven, the batter strikes out; roll a three, he hits a double. I filled entire notebooks with the box scores of these imaginary games. Looking back across the decades I realize that: 1) Dice games? OMG, I’m getting old; and 2) I was experiencing, and passionately seeking out, the core experience of being a writer. I was alone with an empty notebook and a pen in my hand. Later in life, those fictional baseball statistics became words and stories. The clear dream of desiring to become a writer happened in college.

What’s your favorite childhood memory?

There are so many and they come in such a disordered jumble, like the splatters of an action painting by Jackson Pollack. I have snippets and impressions. Overall, the feeling is of being small in a crowded household. Being safe, being loved, being entertained. One story: I shared a room with two older brothers, John and Al, when I was quite young. John had an electric guitar and at night, he would turn off the lights and scare me with it. He’d hit a low note, make creepy noises in a deep voice, and I would hide in the darkness under the bed –- shivering with fear and loving it.

What were your hobbies as a kid? What are your hobbies now?

Do kids have hobbies? It seems like the wrong word for it. I’m sure I was pretty sports obsessed; I was active and athletic. Music has always been a presence in my life. The accumulated family record collection was pretty incredible, and for some reason I really connected to those records at a young age. The thing I wish for every young reader is to have passions, interests, things that get your blood pumping. In general, for me, that’s usually connected to the arts in some way. Books, movies, music, paintings, etc. But I have to admit, thinking about my teenage years, we spent a lot of time hanging out. Getting together with a few friends and doing a lot of nothing much. When I look at the lives of my own children, that’s a part that seems missing in today’s world. There’s just not enough free time. I loved hanging out! Is that a hobby?

What book is on your nightstand now?

James Marshall's fabulous characters, Martha and George.

James Marshall’s fabulous characters, Martha and George.

I mostly read adult books. I just finished with Norwegian Wood by Haruk Murakami, who is a beautiful writer; the book before that was Intruder in the Dust by William Faulkner. Now I’m reading a nonfiction book about the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963, Carry Me Home, by Diane McWhorter. On the children’s front, I just reread every “George & Martha” book by James Marshall. They are hilarious and perfect.

What sparked your imagination for The Fall?

After I wrote Bystander, I received many requests for a sequel. And I always thought, well, no. I felt satisfied with that book, finished with those characters. But I realized that I was still interested in the subject matter, the social dynamics of young people at that age. I began to feel a degree of sympathy for the so-called bully. I wanted to try to write something from the bully’s point of view, perhaps to show a fuller picture than I was seeing in other books and articles. When I read in the newspaper about a girl who had killed herself because of being “terrorized on social media,” I set down the newspaper and immediately started writing in my notebook. It was that direct. I knew I wanted to tell the story of a boy who wrote some terrible things on her social media page. I kept wondering, “Can we be defined by the worst thing we do?”

What challenges do you face in the writing process, and how do you overcome them?

I’ve published more than eighty books in my life. The gift that comes with that is an awareness that sooner or later, eventually, I do get around to putting words on the page. In the words of a writer friend, “I know I can land the plane.” Even so, part of my “process” is that I go through unproductive periods. I’m lazy, unfocused, distracted, a mess. A period of self-loathing eventually sets in. It happens every year, these creative lulls, and every time I grow to hate myself for it. And yet, every time, I fight my way out of it. I recently learned something from cooking (and I hate to cook). It’s the idea of marinating. The chicken tastes so much more flavorful after we marinate it for a period of time. Now I see those quiet, supposedly “unproductive” times as perfectly necessary and valid; it makes for a better, richer book at the end. Even when it looks like I’m not productive, hey, check it out: I’m marinating!

If you could live in any fictional world, what would it be?

CourageTestFrontCvrI’m not really a “fictional world” kind of guy. The real world is quite enough for me. I am curious about the past, however, so if I could have a magical tardis like Doctor Who, and travel from place to place, and time to time, that would be great. The thing is, I believe that books do that for us. Books are the tardis, the magic portal into other worlds. I just finished a manuscript titled The Courage Test, and in order to write it I had to read in depth about the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-06. What an amazing time, when America was new and wide-open and little known. When I want a fictional world, I read a book.


Who is your favorite fictional character?

I don’t make lists of favorites. First place, second place, third place, and so on. I’m just not built that way. Instead, they all sort of co-exist swimmingly in the gumbo of my mind. I love Gandolph and Hermione, Wilbur and Atticus Finch, the character in Hemingway’s Old Man in the Sea (did we ever learn his name?), that fabulous fat-bellied father in Hop on Pop. As a writer, I really enjoy slipping into the fictional world of Jigsaw Jones. He’s always a good time.

I do love writing about these two characters, entering their world.

I do love writing about these two characters, entering their world.


What’s the best advice you have ever received about writing?

Jane Yolen talks about “BIC.” Butt in chair! If you want to write, you have to sit down and do it. Talking about it won’t get the work done. Also, from other sources, write from the heart. And . . . the day you send out a book submission, start a new one. The worst thing you can do is sit around and wait for someone else’s approval. Be true to yourself, that’s another one. Trust that good work will find its way into the world. And lastly, you don’t have to write your book in order! You can bounce around. Write the scene that feels most urgent at that moment. You can always go back and fill in the empty spaces at

The new paperback cover to THE FALL (September 2016). Now available only in hardcover.

The new paperback cover to THE FALL (September 2016). Now available only in hardcover.

a later time. Every book is different, and requires different things from me as a writer. For The Fall, that was a book I very much wrote out of sequence. I think this was because of the journal format. By the end, I had a lot of separate piece I had to weave together, like sewing a patchwork quilt. The challenge was that Sam’s mind -– like any mind -– would bounce freely from the present to the past and back again in an instant. One minute he’s remembering something that happened a year ago, then he’s back in the present moment looking at the rain outside the window. Writing a book that offered up that time-traveling experience was a real challenge, since I didn’t want to confuse the reader in the process. Um, er, what was the question?


What advice do you wish someone had given you when you were younger?

I don’t know, I think life has to teach you through experiences as you go along. I’m not convinced that anyone can tell us the secrets, you know? We have to stumble along and fall and learn and grow. When I look at my own children, I wish for them to be open to new people, new experiences. Not be too judgmental. To greet the world with open arms and an open mind. But I can also see that part of growing up, developing into your own unique self, is to look at aspects of the world and think: “Not me, not me, not me.” In a sense, we need those walls to build a sense of our own home place. So do I have any advice? Be kind, be kind, be kind.

What do you want readers to remember about your books?

Every book is different, so is every reader. Simply to be remembered at all is the goal. To have somehow made a lasting impression, whatever it might be, is a huge accomplishment for any writer. I hope that my books are open enough –- porous, in a way -– that each reader is free to respond in his or her own way. It’s not a case of, “Here, this is the message.” It’s more like, let’s take this trip down the path. Keep your eyes and ears open, keep your heart open. The thoughts you have along the way are entirely your own.

If you were a superhero, what would your superpower be?

Flawless grammar. Yes, I’d be the dullest superhero in the world (not the most dullest).

What would your readers be most surprised to learn about you?

chicken_lgI can juggle a chainsaw, a bowling pin, and a live chicken. Also, I didn’t know that I’d be a writer at an early age. I wasn’t even much of a reader. It came later. In my teens, as I said early, my main focus was on hanging out. I’m pretty good at it, by the way. So that’s what I’d say to you, Dear Reader: Hey, you never know!

SCARY STUFF: Highlights from My Interview at the “Awake At Midnight” Blog


I want to direct readers to a recent interview I did over at the Awake at Midnight blog. My gracious interlocutor, Sean, was well prepared, asked great questions, and best of all, genuinely respects and values the craft of scary stories. Honestly, it was one of the better blog interviews I’ve ever done — so thank you, Sean. Great work.

Please start clicking wildly right here to get the whole kaboodle in full glory. In the meantime, here’s a few random sample selections, just because.


Talking about a favorite scary book from childhood:

“At a young age, I endlessly pored over those illustrations. They were frightening and fascinating. I can close my eyes and still picture them. That’s the thing I’ve learned about scary. It jars you. It upsets you. It disturbs your universe. And for that reason, it sticks to you.”



From Scary Tales: SWAMP MONSTER.

On how to judge if a story is too scary?

“For starters, I decided that children today are quite sophisticated. They’ve all watched Harry Potter. If they picked up a book by their own choosing that’s called “Scary Tales,” the worst reaction would be for them to shrug and say, “That wasn’t scary.” They are seeking a certain quickening of the senses, the heart beating faster. You don’t go on a roller coaster and hope it travels at cautious speeds. For readers at this level, which I’ve seen range from grades 2 all the way up to reluctant readers in grades 6, I decided that no character would get killed. In the end, everyone comes out okay. I would deliver the reader back to a safe world. As for your other question, how do I know? Well, I don’t. I can’t know. But I’ve learned that the best children’s writers have a natural sense of their audience, a way to tap into the age group that is completely outside any sort of calculated analysis. I think we see that in everyday conversations between adults and children. Some folks can make that connection, others simply can’t.”

On how to convey shivers without getting too intense for young readers:

“I always think of Alfred Hitchcock, that close-up of the footsteps slowly climbing the stairs, step by step. I decided that the best sentence for my purposes was: The doorknob slowly, slowly turned. It’s all about tension, the twisting knot in the stomach, anticipation and suspense -– rather than the bloody payoff and cathartic release.”

Scary Tales: ONE-EYED DOLL, illustrated by Iacopo Bruno.

Scary Tales: ONE-EYED DOLL, illustrated by Iacopo Bruno.

On why scary stories are important:

“Many brilliant scholars and artists have spoken eloquently about the value of a good, safe scare: The experience of it, and the experience of moving beyond it. Whew, you know? I survived. I have decided that some of us actively seek the bone-rattling thrill of having our universe disturbed. A feeling of “up-set-ment.” As a parent watching the development of my children, I’ve come to believe that growth follows a simple, reliable pattern. There’s a period of disequilibrium, followed by equilibrium, in an endless pattern, like a set of stairs going up, up, up. You can’t grow without some sort of “dis-ease.” A new school, a new job, a new friend. You grapple with the changes and adjust. A lot of people want to be scared; they like it. There’s value in having our universe disturbed.”


Art by Iacopo Bruno from SCARY TALES: NIGHTMARELAND.

Art by Iacopo Bruno from Scary Tales: NIGHTMARELAND.

Again, I’m not looking to steal content from Awake at Midnight, just hoping to wet your whistle (and whet your appetite). See what I did there with my fancy grammatical flourishes, wet and whet used correctly? There’s lots more over at Sean’s place.

Thanks for stopping by.

Kurt Vonnegut, via Circe Berman in BLUEBEARD, on a Writer’s Happiest Moment


I read Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut a while back, somehow it had eluded me until then, underlining passages and adding stars and all sorts of enthusiastic marginalia. Today I keep coming back to one particular passage, which I’ll share below. I don’t think you need much setup, so now this:

She asked me what had been the most pleasing thing about my professional life when I was a full-time painter — having my first one-man show, getting a lot of money for a picture, the comradeship with fellow painters, being praised by a critic, or what?

“We used to talk a lot about that in the old days,” I said. “There was general agreement that if we were put into individual capsules with our art materials, and fired out into different parts of outer space, we would still have everything we loved about painting, which was the opportunity to lay on paint.”

I asked her in turn what the high point was for writers — getting great reviews, or a terrific advance, or selling a book to the movies, or seeing somebody reading your book, or what?

She said that she, too, could find happiness in a capsule in outer space, provided that she had a finished, proofread manuscript by her in there, along with somebody from her publishing house.

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“The orgastic moment for me is when I hand a manuscript to my publisher and say, ‘Here! I’m all through with it. I never want to see it again,'” she said.


Excerpt from New Short Story Collection for YA Readers, I SEE REALITY


About 18 months ago I was invited to contribute a short story to an “edgy” YA compilation, tentatively titled I See Reality. It would ultimately include twelve short stories by a range of writers. I was interested, but did not exactly have one waiting in my file cabinet. So I said, “Give me a few days and let’s see if anything bubbles to the surface.” After some thought, I knew the story I wanted to tell, and I knew the format in which I wanted to present it.

Wallace Stevens wrote a poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” that had always captivated me. I admired its fragmentary nature, the way the text moves from perspective to perspective to create an almost cubist mosaic. Of course my story, “The Mistake,” did not come close to achieving anything of the sort. But that was the starting point, the push. I decided to play around with that idea. The final story included twenty-two brief sections.

What I wanted to say, what I was moved to address: I wanted to write a story that touched upon teenage pregnancy and the important role that Planned Parenthood plays in the lives of so many young women and men. We live in a challenging time when women’s reproductive rights are under almost daily attack. When the very existence of Planned Parenthood is under political and violent assault. This is a health organization that supplies people — often young women from low income groups — with birth control, pap smears, and cancer screening. According to The New England Journal of Medicine: “The contraception services that Planned Parenthood delivers may be the single greatest effort to prevent the unwanted pregnancies that result in abortions.”

Most importantly for this story, Planned Parenthood provides abortions as part of its array of services, a procedure that is legal in the United States of America. Abortion has long been debated, discussed, argued, and decided in the Supreme Court. As divisive as it may be, abortion has been declared a legal right in this country. And it touches young lives in profound ways.

Anyway, yes, I know that I risk offending people. Maybe I should just shut up. But when my thoughts bend this way, when I start to worry what people might think, I remind myself of this quote by Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

I stand with Planned Parenthood.

Here’s the first two brief sections from my story, plus another quick scene, followed by review quotes about the entire collection from the major journals:




By James Preller





     “What do you think we should we do?” Angela asked.

     “I don’t know.” Malcolm shook his head. “What do you want?”

     It was, he thought, the right thing to ask. A reasonable question. Her choice. Besides, the truth was, he didn’t want to say it out loud.

     So he said the thing he said.

     “What do I want?” Angela said, as if shocked, as if hearing the ridiculous words for the first time. She stared at her skinny, dark-haired boyfriend and spat out words like lightning bolts, like thunder. “What’s that got to do with anything, Mal? What I want? How can you even ask me that?”

     “I’m sorry,” he said.

     “I’m sorry, too,” she replied stiffly, but Angela’s “sorry” seemed different than his. Malcolm was sorry for the mistake they made. Their carelessness. And in all honesty, his “sorry” in this conversation was also a strategy to silence her, a word that acted like a spigot to turn off the anger. Angela’s “sorry” encompassed the whole wide world that now rested on her slender shoulders. Malcolm understood that she was sorry for all of it, all the world’s weary sorrows, and most especially for the baby that was growing inside her belly.




     Angela on her cell, punching keys, scrolling, reading, clicking furiously.

     At Planned Parenthood, there was a number she could text. She sent a question. Then another. And another.

     She was trying to be brave.

     Trying so hard.

     It wasn’t working out so well.





     “Angela?” A nurse appeared holding a clipboard, looking expectantly into the waiting room.

     Angela rose too quickly, as if yanked by a puppeteer’s string.

     The nurse offered a tight smile, a nod, gestured with a hand. This way.     

     Her balance regained, Angela stepped forward. As an afterthought, she gave a quick, quizzical look back at Malcolm.

     “Love you,” the words stumbled from his throat. But if she heard, Angela didn’t show it. She was on her own now. And so she walked through the door, down the hallway, and into another room. Simple as that.

     Malcolm sat and stared at the empty space where, only moments before, his Angela had been.



Contributing authors include Jay Clark , Kristin Clark , Heather Demetrios , Stephen Emond , Patrick Flores-Scott , Faith Hicks , Trisha Leaver , Kekla Magoon , Marcella Pixley , James Preller , Jason Schmidt , and Jordan Sonnenblick .


Review by Booklist Review

“The hottest trend in YA literature is the renaissance of realistic fiction. Here, as further evidence, is a collection of 12 stories rooted in realism. Well, one of the stories, Stephen Emond’s illustrated tale The Night of the Living Creeper is narrated by a cat, but, otherwise, here are some examples: Jason Schmidt’s visceral story of a school shooting; Kekla Magoon’s tale of a mixed-race girl trying to find a place she belongs; Marcella Pixley’s operatic entry of a mother’s mental illness; and Patrick Flores-Scott’s haunting take on a brother’s life-changing sacrifice. Happily, not all of the stories portray reality as grim. Some, like Kristin Elizabeth Clark’s gay-themed coming-out story, Jordan Sonnenblick’s older-but-wiser romance, and Faith Erin Hicks’ graphic-novel offering about gay teens, are refreshingly lighthearted and sweet spirited. Many of the authors in this fine collection are emerging talents and their stories are, for the most part, successful. One of their characters laments how some don’t want to know about what goes on in the real world. This collection shows them.”

Review by School Library Journal Review

“Gr 10 Up-Tackling feelings-from grief to joy, from sorrow to hope, and from loss to love-this short story collection portrays real emotions of teenagers in real-life situations. Included in this volume are the conversation a girl has with herself while preparing to break up with an emotionally manipulative boyfriend, the story of a survivor of a high school shooting, an illustrated vignette told from the perspective of a family’s cat about a creeper at a Halloween party, and a short work in comic book format about the surprising secret of a high school’s golden couple. . . . With authors as diverse as Heather Demetrios, Trisha Leaver, Kekla Magoon, and Jordan Sonnenblick, this collection unflinchingly addresses subjects such as sexuality, abortion, addiction, school shootings, and abuse. VERDICT From beginning to end, this is a compelling work that looks at the reality teens are faced with today.”


My thanks to editors Grace Kendall and Joy Peskin of Farrar Straus Giroux/Macmillan for inviting me to take part in this refreshing collection of stories. My editor at Feiwel & Friends, Liz Szabla, helped make the connection possible.

12728003My two books that might have the most appeal to YA readers would be Before You Go and The Fall.

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #227: The New Technology Embedded in this Letter Just Made My Head Explode!

This letter from Madison in Chicago was particularly amazing because it included a video message:

Scan 5

Fortunately my wife, Lisa, was home to help me with it. She downloaded a “QR Reader” app on her phone, we scanned the blobby thing, typed in the password, and instantly a video of Madison appeared on the phone. There she was, reading from my book! Incredible.

Here’s the letter in full, with my reply below:

Scan 2

My answer:

Dear Madison,

Wow, that was so cool. I’ve received many letters before, but yours was the first to include a QR Code. Is that what you call it? Amazing and wonderful to see you in that video. You read very well, and I liked where you were standing with those funky planks in the background, giving your video an artistic touch. Bravo! I appreciate all the work you put into it, and my guess is that your teacher helped a great deal in bringing this new technology into the standard “letter to the author” format. Very cool.

61ZJfCfXgSL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Thanks for reading four out of the six books in my “Scary Tales” series. Good point about Malick in One-Eyed Doll. He really did show a tremendous amount of courage. I liked that aspect of the story, that he was an older brother who looked out for his younger sister, Tiana.

You asked about six billion questions, so let me get to those:

* Correction: I’m now 55 years old. Rats.

* Correction #2: Thank you, but I do look at least several days older than 30. Weeks even. Months, years. Let’s put it this way: If someone thinks I’m 53, I smile, say thank you, and explain that I’ve been eating right and exercising.

* I have given up my dream of playing for the New York Mets. They don’t need me. But just this morning I signed up with a men’s hardball baseball team. I managed a team for years, then gave it up when I decided to coach my son’s All-Star and Travel teams. He just turned 16 and doesn’t need me in the dugout anymore, so now it’s my turn. I guess the lesson there is that if you enjoy something, keep doing it . . . even if it’s not for the New York Mets.

CourageTestFrontCvr* New books? Yes, for sure, that’s my job. I have a new book coming out this October that also touches on the theme of courage. It’s called The Courage Test. It’s about a father who takes his son on an unexpected trip — the entire time, the boy, Will, wonders what’s really going on — and they travel from Fort Mandan in North Dakota west along the Lewis and Clark Trail. So there’s a lot of history built into the story, about the Corps of Discovery, the native people they encountered, Sacagawea, York, and more. They meet new people along the way and have various camping and whitewater adventures. And they do encounter a bear, both literally and metaphorically. I hope you read it! I am also writing a new Jigsaw Jones book. 

* I’ve won some awards over the years, nothing too spectacular, usually by making state lists and whatnot. Books that have won something include: Along Came Spider, Wake Me In Spring, Six Innings, and Bystander

* I can write a Jigsaw Jones book, or a Scary Tales, in two months. Longer books for older readers tend to take more time. Six months, nine months, even years. 

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from Scary Tales #5: ONE-EYED DOLL.

Illustration by the great Iacopo Bruno from Scary Tales #5: ONE-EYED DOLL.

* My brothers are named Neal, Bill, Al, and John. My sisters are Barbara and Jean. Sadly, I have lost two brothers, Neal and John. Both are gone but not forgotten. My children are Nicholas, Gavin, and Maggie. The boys don’t like scary stories or movies, but Maggie is more like you. She loves to feel a sense of suspense, fear, and anticipation where her heart is racing, going boom, boom, boom. I think I wrote that series for readers like my Maggie.

* Cats are Midnight and Frozone. Our dog is Daisy.

Thank you for your fabulous letter. You really knocked it out of the park.

James Preller