Archive for November 30, 2021


“I’m a little worried about how much I’ve been thinking about my fingerprints. All the places I’ve been, the things and people I’ve touched, the marks I’ve left behind.”The Fall, JP 



In my writing, here and there, I’ve frequently returned to the idea/metaphor of fingerprints. Probably most cogently in The Fall, a book about identity and figuring out who you are (among other things). 

And I’ve also been writing about trees (Blood Mountain, mostly, and in some new work not yet published). Not only writing, but trying to learn about them. Reading, stopping to look, researching. 

So when I saw this meme, it resonated. 





Fan Mail Wednesday #316: Eight Questions from an Old Fan

You never know what’s going to be in ye olde in-box. In this case, more sophisticated questions and, in return, more realistic answers. 


Michael writes . . .

Growing up I was a big fan of your Jigsaw Jones books. I can’t remember when I last read them, but I’ve never forgotten them! I am currently enrolled in an English Capstone college course that features an assignment for me to interview someone with an English-related occupation, and my mind jumped to authors, which then jumped to you. If you are willing to answer a few questions within the next couple days, I’d greatly appreciate it. If you do not wish to or are unavailable after Wednesday, no worries. Thank you very much for your writings and I hope this message finds you well.


I replied . . . 
Sure, let’s see what you’ve got. Obviously if it’s too many questions, under a tight deadline, that’s not going to work.
Michael again . . .
I appreciate your interest! To make it easier, as the professor okay’d the e-mail method, I will send you the questions here and you may answer them at any time, at any length you wish. Here’s what I have:
1) What is your favorite aspect of your job?
2) What is the biggest con about your job?
3) What traits or skill would be most useful for someone or desirable for someone entering the field you are in?
4) What was the deciding factor for you in choosing this career over other ones?
5) What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing the career you are in?
6) What is a typical work day like for you?
7) Did you find unexpected barriers in pursuing your work and / or communicating with others in the field?
8) Is there anything you would have done differently in preparing for your career?
Please take your time, and whenever you can respond is excellent. I am eager to learn about you and your field! Thank you very much!
My reply . . .

1. The writing, when it is going well. There’s a lot about the business that is wonderful and parts that are heartbreaking and awful. The act of creating is the thing that pulls me back every time. It’s the core of what I do. The pleasure and satisfaction of making things, of self-expression, of putting something out into the world that would never exist without me.

2. The biggest con? Oh, gosh. The financial insecurity.
3. Talent. To do this job, you have to believe that good work will find a way.
4. It wasn’t a cold analytical decision. Certainly not a “reasonable” one. I’ve always believed in following your enthusiasms, trusting your enthusiasms, and that worthy considerations such as benefits and a solid health plan never entered into it. I wanted to do something that I loved. You don’t really go into it as “a career,” so much as you try to do this one thing in front of you, then the next, then the next, etc. For me, it started with a love of books and writing that has never let go. Not to be over-dramatic about it, or too self-regarding, but writing well — for years and years and years — is extremely hard and not always rewarding. You have to pick yourself up off the floor a lot.
5. Know that it’s going to be difficult and uncertain, that you’ll most likely need to make money another way. I’d advise doing it on the side until you are firmly established. Get a good job. Or, hey, partner up with a lawyer! OTOH, I think there’s a period — oh, youth! — when you should pursue your dreams to the fullest with total commitment. But there may be a point when you realize that you’ll never play shortstop for the Yankees. It’s good to have some kind of backup plan.
6. Desk, laptop, normal hours.
7. Being a mid-list author with a proven track record — quality work, solid working relationships, hitting deadlines — all the stuff that comes with being “a pro” — can become a negative at a certain point. I didn’t expect that. You are clearly not the Next Big Thing. The numbers don’t lie. In our culture, we tend to discard too easily and are forever chasing after the Next Big Thing.
8. I am not positive that I should have done this at all, at least as a primary job. Might have been a mistake. But here we are, feels like it’s too late now. The final chapters haven’t been written yet.
James Preller
Art by R.W. Alley.

Fan Mail Wednesday #315: Alexander in Alabama, Still Deciding If He Wants to be a Writer



This one came the old-fashioned way, so here’s a snap of it . . . 


My reply . . . 


Dear Alexander,

It’s a mystery. Your letter is dated “September 3,” but the envelope is postmarked “21 Oct.” And here we are in November. Time flies, I guess. Or maybe it’s just a really, really long walk for you to the post office?

Anyway, we’re here now, altogether!

Thank you for reading my Jigsaw Jones books. I like your strategy: If bored, read book. Works for me, too. 

The trick to the Secret Valentine, by the way, was that it centered on a gender assumption. You see this technique in other mysteries in movies, books, and television. It’s a magician’s trick, too, called a misdirection, where essentially the “trick” is to get you looking at the wrong thing. The detective assumes that the perpetrator (the person who carries out the “crime,” in this case, simply sending a card) is female. Well, not always!

I liked Jigsaw’s complaint to Mila early in the mystery: “You know what the worst part is. This girl is ruining a perfectly good holiday. I mean, I like Valentine’s Day. You get to eat cupcakes. Why does she have to drag love into it?”

So, you suggested a book title: The Case of the Neighborhood Gaser. But you neglected to describe the plot. Is this a book about someone who FARTS A LOT??!! Are you suggesting that I write an entire book about flatulence? 

Scene one: Jigsaw and his friends enter a Mexican restaurant. “Tacos all around,” Joey orders . . . 

Anyway, thanks for the idea. 

Er, I guess. 

You wrote, “If you don’t get to read my letter it’s fine.”

Too late, my friend, too late.

I’m always glad to hear from my self-proclaimed #1 fan (though, be warned, you have rivals). Thank you, too, for the Self-Addressed, Stamped Envelope (SASE). I appreciate that. Stamps ain’t cheap!

Probably the book I’m happiest with, if you asked me today, is titled Blood Mountain. It’s a wilderness survival thriller. You might also like my “Scary Tales” series: Swamp Monster, One-Eyed Doll, Nightmareland, etc. 

I hope this letter finds you well & in good spirits. By which I mean to say: I sincerely hope you aren’t a turkey. Thanksgiving is around the corner and things might get rough on the old ruffled feathers.

James Preller

UPSTANDER Excerpt: “He Keeps Asking Me, ‘Send a Pic, Send a Pic.'”


“She’d heard that older guys collected pics of girls
and swapped them like trading cards.
It was pretty gross.
But also a little flattering.
Like it might be nice to be asked by the right person,
even if the answer was still definitely no.
Some girls said it was no big deal,
that sharing a photo was the new first base.”


In this scene, early in Upstander, Mary is visiting at Chantel’s house. Readers of Bystander should recognize Chantel Williams as the name of a character who was on the receiving end of some internet bullying. In Upstander, we meet her as a fully-formed character. An athlete, an older sister to three brothers, a friend. 

Chantel’s phone buzzed. She glanced at it and shook her head. Mary sensed the message had upset Chantel, because she grew quiet and had a far-away look in her eyes. Chantel held out her phone and said, “He keeps asking me to send a picture.”

At that moment, Mrs. Williams entered the kitchen. Chantel hurriedly pocketed her phone. “It looks great, girls, thank you. Mary, you are welcome to stay if you’d like. I believe Chanti had her hopes on a horror movie. I’d be happy to drop you home if you can’t get a ride.”

Mary looked at Chantel, who smiled and nodded.

“That sounds great, Mrs. Williams. I’d love that!” Mary replied. “Thank you very much.”

Mrs. Williams pointed two index fingers toward the ceiling, reminding Mary of an old Western gunfighter. “Listen, I’ve got the three amigos up there. Jamel and Keyon are in the tub. I have no idea on God’s green earth what Darius is up to. I think he’s building a Lego space station or alien prison or some such folderol.” She waved a hand, amused by it all. “We haven’t had any drownings yet, and I’d like to keep it that way.”

“I can help—” Chantel began to offer.

“No, Chanti, you entertain our guest while I wrestle those rascals into bed.” Mrs. Williams made a loud whew sound, as if she was exhausted, but her eyes told a different story. They twinkled brightly. Maybe she didn’t mind all that mothering after all.

The girls didn’t pay close attention to the movie, except for the really good parts. They’d both seen it already. Instead, they huddled close, sharing one light blanket, and talked.

“Who is asking you for a pic?”

“Hakeem,” Chantel answered, her voice barely above a whisper. “Promise you won’t tell. It’s so stupid.”

“Of course,” Mary said. She paused a beat. “What did you do?”

Chantel craned her neck to make sure her mother wasn’t nearby. “I didn’t even understand him at first,” she admitted. “I was like, a picture of what?”

Both girls cackled.

“You didn’t, did you?” Mary asked.

“No!” Chantel answered. But after a pause, she admitted, “I didn’t say no, either. I made excuses like, ‘I’m busy’ or ‘I look bad right now.’ You know?”

Mary nodded. She didn’t know, she’d never been asked before, but it was exciting to think about. Mary wondered if Hakeem had asked Alexis or Chrissie. Some boys were like that. She’d heard that older guys collected pics of girls and swapped them like trading cards. It was pretty gross. But also a little flattering. Like it might be nice to be asked by the right person, even if the answer was still definitely no. Some girls said it was no big deal, that sharing a photo was the new first base.

“I like him,” Chantel said. “Hakeem’s nice and funny and—

“—kind of good-looking,” Mary added, exaggerating slightly.

Chantel let out an embarrassed laugh. “I guess, yes. But he keeps asking me. ‘Send a pic, send a pic. You look so good.’ All that stuff. Persistent, you know? I’m afraid if I shut him down, he’ll stop talking to me.”

They both stared at the movie for a few minutes.

Someone was getting stabbed with scissors. “Lupita Nyong’o is so beautiful,” Mary said, admiring the actress on-screen.

“I know,” Chantel agreed. “Her skin is perfect.”

“Boys can be such idiots,” Mary said.

“Are they all like that?” Chantel asked.

Mary shrugged. She didn’t know. “It seems like a lot of them are, maybe. Like it’s normal for them.”

Chantel shook her head. “He says the pictures fade away after seven seconds . . .”

“Yeah, but they can take screen captures,” Mary warned.

“Hakeem keeps saying he’s not a screenshotter,” Chantel said. “And you know what? That makes me think he is. If I sent him something, he’d have it forever.”

“Yeah,” Mary said. “And who knows what he’d do with it after that.”




Addendum: In order to write this scene, or even to imagine it, I had to do a lot of reading, reflecting, digging around for stories, experiences, attitudes. Most if not all of what appears in the above scene is a direct result of things I “overheard” in my research. 

This Saturday, 11/6, You Can Zoom Into the Rochester Children’s Book Festival — from Anywhere — and It’s Free!


The Rochester Children’s Book Festival goes VIRTUAL this Saturday, November 6th for a full day of FREE panel discussions and readings with a diverse assortment of children’s book writers and illustrators.

I’ll be staggering around in Room 2 at 2:00pm, moderating a (hopefully!) lively and (hopefully!) entertaining conversation about chapter books and series writing with Michelle Knudsen, Laurie Calkhoven, and Judy Bradbury. See below for a full list of participating authors and events.



You can also order signed book from all participating authors through the festival website.

REGISTER NOW by clicking this link and following the instructions.

Here’s the schedule for the day:


10:00 AM


Read To Me Corner – Picture Book Stories Read By The Author

Annette Dunn

Susannah Buhrman-Deever

Unseld Robinson


Picture Books: How Are You Feeling? Coping With Emotions

Heidi Stemple

Jane Yolen

Susan Verde

James Howe

 11:00 AM

 ROOM 1 

Graphic Fiction: Drawing Demonstration  (Interactive – Pencil And Paper Required)

Frank Cammuso

Steve Ellis

Brian Yanish


For Our Younger Book Lovers: Stories and Songs (Interactive)

Iza Trapani

Tiffany Polino

Margaret Pence

12:00 PM


Fantastical Fantasy for Middle Grade Readers

Vivian Vande Velde

Sheela Chari

Bruce Coville


Historical Fiction – Fact and Fiction Storytelling

Keely Hutton

Elizabeth Falk

Susan Williams Beckhorn

Marsha Hayles

1:00 PM


Diverse Themes in Middle Grade Literature​

Alex Sanchez

MJ and Herm Auch

Leslie C. Youngblood


How Authors Use Poetry and Verse To Tell A Story

Linda Sue Park

Joseph Bruchac

Nikki Grimes

2:00 PM


Picture Books: Fiction and Non-Fiction

Susannah Buhrman-Deever

Kevin Kurtz

Mylisa Larsen


Get Hooked on Chapter Books: Mysteries, Non-Fiction, and Humor

James Preller

Laurie Calkhoven

Michelle Knudsen

Judy Bradbury

3:00 PM


Doing It All: Writing and Illustrating Your Books

Jeff Mack

Frank Cammuso


How Picture Book Authors and Illustrators Work Together​

Peggy Thomas

Kathleen Blasi

London Ladd

Yuko Jones

4:00 PM


How To Write Non- Fiction That Middle Graders Want To Read​

Ronny Frishman

Rose O’Keefe

Andrea Page

Sally Valentine


Read To Me Corner – Picture Book Stories Read by the Author

Mylisa Larsen

Yuko Jones

Kathy Blasi