Archive for Fan Mail

Fan Mail Wednesday #300: Shyan Loves Scary Stories

Wow, this is the 300th fan mail response I’ve shared on Fan Mail Wednesday across more than ten years of blogging. I don’t know if that’s a world’s blog record, but it’s certainly the most on my street. Here’s Shyan’s letter and my reply . . .

 

Shyan writes . . . 

I replied . . .

=

Dear Shyan,

It’s so nice to get mail, don’t you think? A real letter. Thanks, also, for including a stamped, self-addressed envelope. Much appreciated. In my work, I still receive snail mail fairly regularly, though not an overwhelming amount. But I wonder about someone your age. How many old-school letters have you received in your young life?

I’m glad you enjoyed the books in my “Scary Tales” series. I loved writing each one, particularly since I hadn’t written anything quite like it before. I love the shivery aspect, the dread and suspense. I especially loved breaking away from the demands of the realistic fiction genre, which is what I usually write. Suddenly, in the “Horror” genre, my imagination felt free, unchained. It’s hard to describe, but it was like I was exercising muscles I hadn’t used before. For each story, the impossible suddenly felt . . . possible. The trick was selecting that one impossible thing and then playing it out in a realistic context.

I believe that everything I write contributes to my future projects. The skills accumulate. I learned lessons and honed skills from those six “Scary Tales” titles that I was able to bring to future books. For example, my most recent novel, Blood Mountain, is a book a reader like you might enjoy. This story is realistic fiction — no zombies or evil dolls — where two siblings are lost in the wilderness. I wanted to generate much of the page-turning excitement and suspense that I achieved with “Scary Tales.” So, Shyan, if you feel like you’ve graduated beyond those books, but still want something similar-but-different, please give Blood Mountain a try.

I was glad to read that you wrote your own scary story. It’s interesting to ponder what scares us. Oh, there are obvious things –- ghosts and roller coasters and dark caves filled with bats – but it’s cool when you can think of some specific detail that feels fresh and new. A faucet that drip, drip, drips. A ghostly flicker on a television screen that makes you think, “Wait, what was that?” The feeling we get at the dentist’s office, when maybe something isn’t quite right.

Hmmmm. That gives me an idea . . .

Thanks for writing, Shyan.

(I love your name!)

All good things,

James Preller

Fan Mail Wednesday #299: In Which I Answer 10 Questions About BYSTANDER

I was glad to receive this email from a teacher dedicated to the idea of online learning. I’d been invited to her middle school in Beacon, NY; it was on the calendar; and then the world hit “pause.”

As a bonus, there’s news in here about my upcoming book, Upstander.

She wrote . . . 

   

Dear James Preller,
Due to circumstances, the students were so disappointed that they missed an opportunity to hear from you.
We just finished your story about a week ago. We all really enjoyed it! Attached below are some questions the 6th grade students came up with. 
We would love to hear from you, if you have  a chance.
Hope all is well. Stay Safe.
Best Regards,
Rachel V & the 6th Grade Class

 

I replied . . .

1. Is this story based on prior experiences that you had?

Not directly, no. Of course, real people and true experiences are often the starting points for any work of fiction. But the story is made up.

2. What was your inspiration to create Bystander?

At the time, I’d been writing a lot of Jigsaw Jones books, gearing my work for younger readers. My three children were getting older, moving beyond elementary school. I wanted to try writing something that was longer, deeper, for an older audience. After casting about for ideas, and doing a variety of research, the theme of bullying presented itself. Most importantly, I felt that I had something of value to contribute to that conversation.

3. Are you currently writing any books?

Always! That is, there’s always something in the works. Right now I’m at the very early (and often utterly miserable) stage of beginning a book. I have the kernel of an idea, a middle-school athlete who suffers a severe concussion, but that’s about it. The characters are barely breathing, the details are fuzzy. In more exciting news, I’ve completed a prequel/sequel to Bystander, titled Upstander. It’s a stand-alone story about Mary that begins before the Bystander timeline, overlaps a few key scenes, and extends a bit beyond it. Mary has her own story to tell, her own family struggles to overcome. We also learn more about Griffin, and Chantel, and Eric, and the rest. Right now, I’m waiting to see what my publisher, Macmillan, comes up with for a cover. Got any bright ideas? My most recent published book is Blood Mountain, a wilderness survival story involving two siblings lost in the mountains. I love that book, exciting and suspenseful!

4. Is the main character, Eric, based on you?

Not really, no. His role is primarily that of witness. He’s new to the school and meets all these characters for the first time. And just like the reader, Eric has to decide what he thinks about these people and how they act toward each other. I did loosely base Eric’s father on my brother, John, who also suffered from mental illness.

5. How old were you when you realized that you wanted to be an author?

Not until college. I’ve met authors who knew from a very early age that this is what they wanted to do. They loved the smell of books and visiting the library and all of that. I just wanted to stomp in puddles and play baseball for the New York Mets. I will say this: you start by being a writer. Author is a result of being successful, and accomplished, at that. Focus on being a writer. Buy a journal, a cheap composition book, and fill it up with words. Rinse and repeat. It’s available to anyone who wants it.

6. How long did it take you to write this story?

I took a few months researching the topic, visiting schools, speaking with experts, reading books, etc. During this phase, I brainstorm ideas in a notebook. Eventually, one day, I’ll start to write. It might be a snatch of dialogue, the beginning of a scene, random ideas that get more fleshed out. All in all, I think the book took me about six months before I sent it to my editor. Then I receive her comments and suggestions, then line edits from copyediting; it’s a whole extended process.

7. What inspired you to write this book?

At the time, I think there were a lot of weak ideas about bullying being presented in books and television and movies. The stories didn’t seem grounded in reality. And, yeah, I pretty much hate it when everybody just hugs at the end, “Let’s all be friends!” That’s not my understanding of how the world works. When you write a book, for me at least, there’s a process in the beginning when I don’t know if it will actually become a book or not. I might get bored, I might become overwhelmed, I might have nothing to say that hasn’t been said already. But after reading and thinking about bullying for a few weeks, I knew there was a story here that I wanted to tell. And one thing was sure: they weren’t all going to hug it out at the end.

8. What is your favorite part about the book?

I love the opening two chapters. It feels very cinematic to me, especially chapter one -– I can see it, and I hope the reader can see it -– and I think it’s a strong, captivating beginning. I don’t need books I read (or write) to be nonstop action. But it is a plus when you can grab the reader from the get-go. Also, I have a clear memory of writing the fight scene that takes place by Checker’s gravesite (which is a real spot, btw, in my hometown of Wantagh on Long Island at the Bide-a-Wee Pet Cemetery). I loved writing that scene. At the time, I’d written a lot of Jigsaw Jones mysteries. In those books, everybody is nice! Kind, thoughtful, compassionate, friendly. It was refreshing to finally let the dark side come into my writing. My main character down on the ground, spitting blood. Yes, that was a good day!

9. Was the story based on experience or was it something you made up?

I made it up, informed and inspired by a lot of research. Again: made up, but grounded in the real world.

10. What inspired you to start writing books?

After college, I got a job as a junior copywriter for Scholastic, a leading children’s book publisher. That was my first experience with the world of children’s books. The first time I read Where the Wild Things Are, George and Martha, Owl Moon, Frog and Toad, Doctor DeSoto, all those classic books. I thought to myself, I want to do that. And while I’ve never quite reached those heights, here I am, still standing, after having published my first book in 1986. A survivor. It’s not nothing.

 

THANKS FOR READING MY BOOK! HAVE A GREAT SUMMER, GOOD TIMES ARE COMING OUR WAY. WE’RE DUE!

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #298: Request From a Teacher Who Wants to Read Online to Her Class

 

I’m sharing this letter from a 2nd-grade teacher since I know it’s representative of what’s going on out there for so many parents and educators. 

 

Good evening! 
I’m a second grade teacher in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. My class has been reading some of your Jigsaw Jones books and I was wondering if I could have permission to create, maybe You Tube, a video that my students can access at home. Or, if you have another idea I am welcome to it! We are on chapter 9 of The Case of the Stolen Baseball Cards but I’d probably have to start at the beginning since it’s been over a week since we have been in school. 
We’ve already read The Case of Hermie the Missing Hamster and hope to read The Case of the Race Against Time next.
Thanks so much for your support!

Lori,

I replied . . . 
Lori,

Illustration by R.W. Alley from Jigsaw Jones: The Case of the Hat Burglar.

Thank you for your email. You are doing valuable work, and I appreciate the request. Yes, emphatically, by all means, read and share and keep doing what you do.

The only request I have, suggested by my publisher, is that you delete the videos once school is back in session.
My best to you. Stay smart, stay safe, protect the vulnerable.
With love in my heart (I’m growing extra-sappy in these times).
And again, I feel very strongly that I’m the one who should be thanking you.
James Preller

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #297: Includes a Free Pro Tip on Becoming a Writer!

 

Fan Mail Wednesday actually falls on a Wednesday this time around, because eventually that’s bound to happen. The law of averages! This letter comes from Max, a Jigsaw Jones fan in Kentucky, which I understand is a state somewhere near Ohio. Never been there, though my rescue dog, Echo, hails from those parts. I’d love to do school visits in Kentucky someday.

Don’t make me beg, people. Zing me a text at Jamespreller@aol.com and we’ll work it out. Of course, we can wait for this virus to settle down. Weird, right?

BTW, I love it when a FREE BONUS DRAWING is included. Thanks for that, Max. Anyway, the letter: 

I replied:

Dear Max,

Thank you for your kind letter. I’m so happy you read The Case from Outer Space. It is one of my favorites. Were you surprised by the ending?

Illustration by R.W. Alley.

One of the first inspirations for that book came from my love for “Little Free Libraries.” I’d seen them popping up all over the place and they appealed to me enormously. I’ve even seen schools that have them. Leave a book, take a book. I love that!

So I began to ask myself a writer’s two most important words: WHAT IF? Those are the magic words that get the imagination wandering. I thought, What if someone finds a mysterious note tucked inside a book in a Little Free Library?

Could such a thing be possible? I talked to librarians. They told me they find items inside books all the time. Photos, grocery lists, baseball cards -– even a banana peel.

Another part of the book came from a long interest in NASA and space exploration. I’ve often gazed at the stars and wondered if anyone else might be out there, somewhere in the twinkling beyond, far past our solar system of eight planets and into the outer reaches of the expanding universe. Wow. I smile just thinking about it.

If you truly wish to become a good author, there’s good news. You are already on the right path! Keep reading, keep feeding your brain with words and ideas. Just about every writer I know started out by being a reader. But you don’t have to sit around reading all day. Live! Do things! Play sports, run around, make friends, build stuff, look at clouds and trees, cook yummy desserts, enjoy yourself and everything there is in this amazing world of ours –- and, okay, also read.

And, you know, Max, maybe one day you’ll pick up a pencil and draw a picture. You’ll write down some words. Maybe start a story of your own.

Keep thinking, keep reading, keep being good old Max.

Thank you, my new friend in Kentucky, I’m so glad to receive your letter.

James Preller

 

 

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #296: This Detective Means Business!

 

I spent the last six weeks engrossed in the stretch run of a manuscript that was due on March 1st. During that phase of the process, the big finish, I’m focused and absorbed. I don’t want to eat, or shower, or change my clothes. I’m locked in on writing the book, therefore neglecting some of the other administrative duties that come with being a professional writer: school visits, book festivals, fan mail, etc. In the middle of February, I received a brief email from “Detective Andrew K.”

It read . . .

 

Hi Mr. Preller,

My name is Andrew, and I am a huge fan of your books. They really inspired me. Specifically, I enjoyed the Jigsaw Jones series.

Now, I am a detective. I hope you’ll make some new books soon.

From, 

Andrew

I wrote back . . . 

Andrew,

Wait a minute. What do you mean, you’re a detective?
You solve mysteries? You work for the FBI? Are you an old guy leaning back in a chair, feet on the desk, smoking a cigar? Or a kid, inspired by Jigsaw Jones, who solves mysteries?
Please tell me more.
(And thanks for reading my books.)
My best,
James Preller
Andrew replied, again briefly (a busy detective, I assume), to clarify the situation. Here is the entirety of that response  . . .
First of all, I’m a kid. Who is 8 years old. And your last answer was correct.
I zinged back a response . . .
Andrew,
Good to hear back from you. Thanks for reading my books. I’m glad they inspired you.
Best of luck, detective!
James Preller

I figured that was it. Now I’d have to go back to work on my manuscript. But the best (by far) was yet to come. This time, Andrew’s email arrived with an attachment . . .

Hi Mr. Preller,
I wanted to write more but I can’t type well. Please check the picture.
From Andrew
So, yeah, that was awesome and deserved a more detailed reply . . . 
Dear Andrew,
I’ve been traveling, sorry for the delay in my reply.
I loved your letter. Thank you for taking the time to write it.
Do your seven chickens have names?
I was visiting with a group of school children just yesterday and one asked me, “Are you Jigsaw Jones?”
I explained that it rarely works that way, where a writer and a character are the same exact person, so I could never say, “That’s me!”
I’m not as smart as Jigsaw, or as focused and determined, but we do share a lot of similarities. Same sense of humor, I think, and similar world view.
I am the youngest of seven children, and my grandmother lived with us late in her life. When I began writing Jigsaw Jones, I made him the youngest in a large family. I had his brothers call him “worm,” just as my brothers did to me. And, yes, I gave him a grandmother who lived in the same house.
So I guess, in some ways, I’m a Jigsaw Jones “clone” just like you. That means we’d probably be friends if we ever met — or, who knows, maybe fierce RIVALS!
Stay safe, Detective!
James Preller