The name AJ Preller been in the news quite a bit lately, ever since he was named General Manager of the San Diego Padres. I’ve gotten a kick out of that, since A.J. Preller was also my father’s name. Doing a bit of research, I learned that both of our families lived in Long Island. I thought about it and decided, why not? So I sent him this letter:
Dear AJ Preller,
I’m writing because I think we may have a connection. Don’t worry, I’m not seeking anything (I’m a diehard Mets fan). We both love baseball and we might be related.
Fred W. Preller
My family, like yours, came from Long Island. My father’s name was Alan Jay Preller. His father was Fred W. Preller, from Queens Village, NY, where he was a NY State Assemblyman for 22 years. He briefly ascended to Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. I think if there’s a gossamer-thread connection between us, it might be there, since it’s my understanding that Fred was part of a large family. In later life, Grandpa had a summer place in Smithtown, Long Island. I don’t know; I’m not a student of family ancestry. The first time I saw a color television was in Grandpa’s Queens Village home. He was watching the Yankees and the grass was sooo green.
Through his political work, Grandpa even had a baseball field named after him –- Preller Fields (later named the “Padavan-Preller Complex” sometime after Grandpa passed away) -– which is on Hillside Avenue in Jamaica, NY. Photo, above.
Anyway, I’m a children’s book author and my deep love for the game led me to write this book, SIX INNINGS, an ALA Notable, which I now send along to you.
As you know, Preller is not a common name here in the United States – though it pops up in Argentina and South Africa, curiously. I always get a kick out of reading my father’s name -– your name -– in the sports pages. AJ Preller! My long-lost cuz!
Carry on and good luck with your Padres. I think you’ve done a great job so far, similar to what Omar Minaya accomplished in his first year with the Mets, seeking to make a moribund franchise newly relevant.
I originally posted this back on July 10, 2008 — before I knew how to insert photos.
Fathers and sons and baseball. You can almost hear the violins, the sap rising from the roots. It’s a tired cliche, of course, but that doesn’t render the dynamic meaningless.
My father, ten years before I came along, with Neal or Billy.
My father wasn’t a sports guy; I can’t remember him ever turning on the television to watch a game of any sort. Hey, I can’t remember having catch with him. But I had four older brothers, and my baseball-loving mom, and a dozen kids on the block for that. Dad was Old School. I think of him as more CEO/CFO in Charge of Household as opposed to today’s helicopter-style parent, forever hovering, eager to bond and share and become best buddies. That wasn’t my father’s way.
So, basically, I played Little League and my father did other things. And I want to make this clear: It was perfectly okay. But one year, when I was ten years old and playing for the Cardinals — astonishingly vivid memories of those games — somehow my father got roped in as a coach. He didn’t know a blessed thing about baseball. Didn’t care to know. The manager, hard-nosed Larry Bassett, taught my father how to keep the scorebook and I’m fairly certain that was the full extent of his usefulness.
I found it embarrassing. Not horribly so, but it felt odd to see my father on the ballfield, clueless and unathletic. What did the other boys think? It was 1971 and my dad was painfully uncool. I loved baseball deeply, passionately. In that sense, we lived on separate planets. Of course now, years later, I see it from a different perspective. And it boils down to this: He was there. As a parent, isn’t that 98% of the job? Just showing up, day after day. Being there. My father is gone now, died almost two years ago, fell on the front lawn and never got back up. Maybe that makes you (me) appreciate those times, those presences, all the more. For he will never “be there” again.
He never read Six Innings, either. If he did, I would have told my father that I loosely modeled a character after him, Mr. Lionni, Alex’s dad, right down to the thick-framed glasses and questionable attire, the black socks, brown loafers and shorts. There’s a scene when Mr. Lionni takes his baseball-loving son, Alex, for extra batting practice. That scene sprang directly from my childhood; I remember the one and only time my father pitched batting practice to me — awkwardly, poorly, like he was hurling foreign objects. But I was struggling with the bat, the same as Alex in my book, and that man, the father, tried to help the best he could.
In Six Innings, it’s a minor scene (pp. 56-58), just a little backstory about one of the boys on the team. But for me, it resonates across the years, like an echo across a vast canyon. My dad and baseball. Our moments together on the diamond, a burnished memory, glowing like hot coals almost forty years hence. He was there. I didn’t appreciate it then, though I certainly recognized the uniqueness of the event; I was just a boy. But that’s what writing gives us, the opportunity to revisit, revalue, remember in the root meaning of the word — to re-member, to make whole again, to bring those disparate things together. Me and Dad and baseball.
Postscript: Oh, yeah, about the name Lionni. That’s another tribute to a great children’s book author by the name of Leo. Someday I should put together a full roster. I see James Marshall manning the Hot Corner, nimble and loose; Maurice Sendak on the hill, strong-armed and determined; maybe sure-handed Bernard Waber over at second base . . .
Addendum II: Today is 1/16/2015, and I came across this post while hunting for other prey. It’s been a week consumed with writing — I’m trying to finish a book today that I started four years ago — and I’ve neglected the blog. Not that anybody cares. Anyway, here’s something. Also: a curiosity. My father was named Alan J. Preller, and grew up on Long Island. The new GM of the San Diego Padres, A.J. Preller, also grew up on Long Island. It’s not a common name. I’ve talked it over with my brother, Al, and we’ve decided he’s probably a second-cousin or something, connected to my late Grandfather, Fred Preller, 22-year assemblyman from Queens, NY. Ah, baseball.
I came across a photo today and figured I’d tell you about it. Blog fodder, you know.
This is me five years ago, after throwing batting practice on a hot night:
It was the eve of the championship game for the 10-year-old All-Stars. Bethlehem vs. Colonie. I remember it clearly. My son, Gavin, got the nod as starting pitcher that day (I was coach, not manager, and did not make that decision), mostly by virtue of his being rested and available. He wasn’t our best arm, but on that day he was cool and in control. Gavin hit his pitch count limit after five innings and we had to pull him. Our team was ahead against a very resilient group from Colonie, leading 8-5. Time to go to the bullpen. At that moment, everything that could have possibly gone wrong, went wrong. Three outs from an elusive championship, those poor boys got smoked. It still makes me shake my head in grim wonder. We ended up losing by 10 runs, after one of the most brutal innings I’ve ever witnessed. I’ll never forget that game. I wanted to win, and I genuinely wanted for those boys to experience that championship feeling. Alas, and oh well.
It often amazes me how these games can linger in memory. When I wrote Six Innings, back in 2008, I was struck by how clearly I remembered Little League games that I had played back in the early 70s when I was 9-10-11 years old. It gave me the conviction to write the book in the first place. The games meant something to these kids. That I can vividly recall individual plays across 40 years is a testament to that fact. I can still see that ball rolling through Don Cognato’s spindly legs.
This is a place in life where these boys live. Where a lot of life’s momentous events are played out. It’s a cliche to say that a player leaves his heart out on the field, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. I know I left my heart on a lot of ballfields across the years, and I wasn’t the only one.
There’s a moment in Six Innings when I try to capture that feeling. Well, not a moment, exactly; I try to achieve it throughout the entire book. But there’s one particular moment when I suppose I try to elevate the language a bit, try to lift off above the turf. The staccato rhythms give way to longer, more poetic sentences. It happens after a thrilling play at the plate in the top of the 5th:
In that instant, everything freezes, a DVD on pause, then explodes into action. Both teams, the fans, the coaches — shouting, cheering, hooting, protesting — every emotion galvanized at once, a kinetic charge of energy rising up through the five layers of the earth’s atmosphere, their cries and dreams climbing from troposphere to exosphere, soaring into the velvet void of deepest space. A roar that happens on Little League fields every day, in every town, city, state, and country all over the world, from Logansport to Osaka, San Cristobal to Little Rock. The sound the game makes when it is played passionately, with young hearts.
Hey, how’s this for cool? The cover of the Korean translation (uh, it’s the one on the left):
This coming Saturday, I’ll be coaching a Little League team of 11- and 12-year-old boys in a championship game. For the 12’s, this game will be the culmination of their Little League experience. Some boys will move up to play at the Babe Ruth level, on the big fields, jumping from 60-foot basepaths to 90; for others, this game will be it. The end of a boyhood passage, giving way to skateboards and girlfriends, basketball and boredom and who knows what comes next.
For me, this last Little League game is a happy way to conclude a long relationship at Tri-Village Little League in Delmar, NY. I coached my oldest son, Nicholas, for his last four seasons. Then I coached Gavin’s teams for all seven of his seasons, which overlapped with two years of coaching Maggie, too. That’s 11 years of coaching at the Little League level, mostly as manager. Then you can add 7 years of managing in a men’s hardball league, plus Fall Ball, Travel, All-Stars, etc.
A lot of games. A lot of faces. A lot of hanging around the ball field, staring up at the clouds, hoping the rain holds off.
I played, too. This is my age-12 season. Top row, center. Wantagh Little League.
I threw left, batted right, like Cleon Jones and Rickey Henderson.
But this game on Saturday will be my first championship game at the Majors level. I was fortunate enough to coach a team that won at the Intermediate level, some years back with Nick. Took it to ‘em, 6-zip, behind the strong arm of Nick Hodem. Unfortunately, my Nick was sick at that time, fighting cancer, and he missed the final game.
In 2008, I published my first hardcover novel, Six Innings, inspired and informed by my lifelong love of the game. The book, subtitled “A Game in the Life” (and yes, that’s a Beatles reference), is about a single championship game and the boys who play in it. I’m proud to say that it was named an ALA Notable and, by Booklist,one of the TOP 10 BEST SPORTS BOOKS OF THE YEAR.
Here’s a couple of paragraphs that come very late in that book:
Coach Reid watches the boys as they celebrate, resists the urge to join them, to leap arms outstretched on top of the pile. No, this is their moment. It isn’t about Coach Reid, or any other adults. It is enough, more than enough, to stand back and watch.
Branden runs up, ecstatic. “We did it, Dad!” he exclaims. “We did it!”
The son throws his arms around his father, and the father squeezes back, hard, hoping to capture the memory like a summer firefly in his hands, wanting the moment to last forever, burning brightly, and knowing that somehow, amazingly, as sure as they stood, it would.
I have written exactly one piece of fan mail in my life, to the baseball writer, Roger Angell. I’m sorry, that tag does him a disservice; Angell is a writer, period, a great one, a crafter of sublime sentences, a keen observer, a man who feels things and captures living moments. His writing goes deep into baseball and beyond it. Angell’s more than a great writer; I suspect he’s a great man.
I had written Six Innings and wanted him, an important stranger, to have a copy of my book. I wanted him to love it, of course, to recognize me as a fellow traveler, but writers don’t have much say over how the world responds. You release the work into the wild and hope it finds food, shelter, a home, and thrives. Six Innings went on to earn an ALA Notable. And almost as good, Mr. Angell wrote a kind, handwritten letter in return.
Lately I had been thinking about “the ideal reader,” and decided, perhaps cleverly, that my ideal reader would be someone who wasn’t afraid of being bored. That’s been my concern of late, because so many children’s books these days are high concept and plot-driven, because we hear over and over again that boys don’t read, and if they do open a book they will sit still only for wall-to-wall action. And I guess I sometimes fret that I don’t deliver that kind of pleasure. In truth, I only infrequently read that kind of book. So, yes, please, if I may order one to go, I’d like a reader who will hang with me during the slow parts.
And I heard in that wish an echo. And realized, once again, that the notion was not entirely my own. Authentic, yes; original, not exactly.
I remembered something I heard Mr. Angell say at a public reading on March 1, 1989, at Peter Norton Symphony Space in New York. The program was a special evening in Selected Shorts history, dedicated to great writing about baseball, created by Roger Angell along with his friend, A Bartlett Giamatti, who was soon to assume his duties as Commissioner of Baseball. I remember the reading vividly. Years later I tracked down the CD compilation and now revisit selections each Spring. Some of my favorite stories from that night include John Updike’s, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” W.P. Kinsella’s “The Thrill of the Grass,” T.C. Boyle’s hilarious “The Hector Quesadilla Story,” and Giamatti’s classic, “The Green Fields of the Mind.”
I recalled, most especially, the night’s opening remarks made by Angell. So I got out the CD, listened and listened again while scribbling on a yellow legal pad, until I could transcribe the brief exchange I’d remembered. As far as I know, there isn’t a transcription available on the net, so here you have one brief moment — an exchange that struck me, and has stuck with me, for more than 20 years. Angell makes a simple comparision, doesn’t extend it much, doesn’t labor over it, gets in and out, yet it made me laugh and it still gets me thinking today.
For here we are: Baseball season, pitchers and Molinas, is almost upon us. The massive spectacle of the Super Bowl has come and gone. It’s time for quieter pleasures. During my workday this past week, I arranged indoor practices for my 12-year-old Travel Team. Sent out emails, talked to the uniform guy about new jerseys. And today in my capacity as a Board Member for my local Little League, I ordered more than $4,000 worth of baseballs and assorted equipment.
All I really want to do is get out that old glove one more time. That simplest pleasure of all, a game of catch.
Well, here’s Angell and Giamatti, as they set the stage back in 1989:
A. Bartlett Giamatti:
“Why does baseball appeal to writers so much?”
The similarities between reading and baseball are evident to all of us, and may account for the enormous flood of baseball writing that goes on and on, and so much of it very high quality.
Baseball after all is a linear game. It’s the only one that is linear in the sense that one thing happens, and something else happens, and there’s a pause, and there’s a time for writers to think about it, and keep score, and take notes.
A Bartlett Giamatti:
It’s always occurred to me that intellectuals like baseball because it goes slowly enough so they can understand it.
Well, certainly I would hate to try to write intensely moving paragraphs about basketball, which is a swirling and beautiful sport of an entirely different nature, with a different feel to it. But one of the things about baseball which is like reading, in addition to the obvious things like chapters and, ah, is that if you think about both baseball and reading, they are occupations for people who are not afraid of being bored. But — you can laugh, but — also it really is one of the great pleasures of baseball. If you sit there in the early innings, there’s that wonderful time when you wait and see what kind of game this is going to be. Every game is so different from the other, and you need those early chapters, sometimes very slow moving, in order to lead up to the end of the book, the end of the game. Not dissimilar.
Just dug this unpublished poem out of the file cabinet, must have written it about 25-30 years ago, so might as well finally see the light of day. I always liked this one, that connection between the boy and Willie Mays, the white ball a communion wafer, H.D.’s companionship of the flame across time, space, generations.
Speaking of my lifelong love affair with baseball, one of my happiest moments as a writer was the day I published this book, which felt like an outpouring of years and years of baseball thoughts, dreams, memories . . .
In 2008, Feiwel & Friends published my first hardcover novel, Six Innings, a book that was eventually named AnALA Notable. The cover was fabulous, featuring the work of gifted illustrator Chris Sheban, whose style you might recognize from the covers of Because of Winn-Dixie, Brooklyn Bridge, Punished, The Tiger Rising, and more.
Six Innings sold reasonably okay, earned some kind reviews (and a Judy Blume comparison!), and nobody got rich; we were happy. When it was time for the book to go to paper, my publisher had to make a decision. Come up with a new cover, or simply reproduce the existing cover in a paperback format, which is what they did.
And the paperback edition did not sell. Understatement. It struck out, looking.
This could be for a variety reasons, but one line of thought was that we were dealing with two different markets. The hardcover, with awards and good reviews, sold well in the institutional market. Paperback was a different animal, targeted more directly to the reader. I want to say the less sophisticated consumer, but that’s not right. Children these days are plenty sophisticated, it’s just that their tastes are their own. To them, these days, the photographic approach seems to hold more immediacy. At least that’s the current thinking.
So check out the new look (the original is up top in the header):
While I’ve got you (as my dad used to say), Linda Sue Park’s Keeping Score was another baseball-themed book that came out at the same time. And I confess: I hated the cover. That poor book, I thought. It just struck me, a former 10-year-old boy, as all kinds of wrong.
Someone must have agreed. Take a gander at the paperback.
Quite a difference, huh? It doesn’t look remotely like the same book. Curiously, in this case, the publisher went from a photographic to an illustrative approach, but more significantly re-thought the cover content and updated the design. A successful change, I think, though a dog and a fire hydrant makes me think of only one thing. Was that the idea? Dog pee? Maybe dog pee figures into the book somehow (I have not read it). The ex-boy in me wouldn’t have picked up that cover, either.
It’s also possible that the book was rewritten, with the girl character replaced by a black lab.
In the end, covers are a tricky business. The author’s job is what’s inside.
I love hearing from readers of Six Innings, maybe because it’s the kind of book that I would have read as a boy that age. I feel a connection to those guys.
Oh my, time flies. It looks like your letter was set aside for a while. I hope you are not to upset with me for the delay.
I was glad to read how you found the book, Six Innings, in the library, just picked it up and figured, Why not? Nice that you compared it to a rollercoaster ride, that’s a strong image and, I think, an appropriate one. A good book should bring you up and down, have slow parts and fast parts, wicked turns and gentle pauses. It should take you on a ride.
As a writer, I’ve often thought of my readers as passengers on a rollercoaster. They pick up the book, strap into the seat, and it’s my job to take them on a satisfying ride – and safely back again.
I don’t know, however, that the book had a point, per say. I think you get out of it what you get out of it, and it’s different for every reader. I didn’t really have a message in this one, though I did want to honor the friendship between Sam and Mike, as well as pay tribute to the game I love.
Thanks for your letter. I’m sorry for the delay in my reply. Despite my best efforts, every year I seem to reach a point when I get hopelessly behind in my fan mail. I guess my goal of “keeping it real” isn’t the most efficient approach. I once printed up cards that I’d sign and send, but it felt too phony, like I was working in a factory rather than responding to a real person.
I can’t believe you played in a State Championship game! Wow, that must have been an exciting experience. I know a few players I’ve coached who would throw up before big games, that crazy mixture of emotions, fear and nervousness and over-the-moon excitement. I hope you played well (and avoided hurling).
“Play ball,” yes, that’s what it’s all about. Just going out there, playing a game you love, and giving it your best, win or lose. The idea, I think, has been with me all my life. I grew up loving baseball, and still vividly remember Little League games from my childhood. As an adult, I’ve coached my three children in Little League, Travel, and All-Stars. I also spent seven years coaching a men’s hardball team. Coached more than 500 games, easy. Baseball offers up a world that I know. Also, I’ve read a ton of books about the sport, so it felt like a dream come true to contribute something to the bookshelf in my office that’s dedicated to baseball. There I am, next to writers like Roger Angell, Daniel Okrent, Bill James, Roger Kahn, Charles Alexander, Lawrence Ritter, Arnold Hano, Mark Harris, and many more. All of us pulling on the same oar.
Since you asked: You might enjoy my book, Bystander. It’s pretty much written at the same level as Six Innings, and is set in a middle school. Click here for more information.
If you missed Part One of the Alan Silberberg Interview, it’s absurd for you to be here. I mean, really. Please follow the link to catch up.
Don’t worry, we’ll wait . . .
Late in the book, Milo gathers together a number of objects that remind him of his mother, that press the memory of her into his consciousness. Where’d you get the idea for that?
I think that comes from the fact that I really don’t have anything from my mother. Things did get thrown away or given away and it really was like she died and then she was erased. When I was writing the book I started to think hard about my mom and tried remembering objects that evoked her to me. That became a cartoon called “Memories Lost” which were all real objects from my childhood that connected me to her. After making that cartoon, it struck me that Milo would want to go out and replace those objects somehow and that’s why he and his friends hit up the yard sales.
There is a scene toward the end in one of my books, Six Innings (a book that similarly includes a biographical element of cancer), that I can’t read aloud to a group because I know I’ll start to slobber. It’s just too raw, too personal for me. And I suspect that might be true of you with certain parts of this book. I’m asking: Are there any moments that get to you every time?
I think there are two specific parts of the book that choke me up, though lots of little places make me reach for tissues. The chapter where Milo goes to the yard sale and finds a blanket that reminds him of the one his mom had will always get to me. My mom had that blanket, the “pea patch blanket” in the book — so as Milo wraps himself in it and remembers her getting sick — I am always transported to the image of my mom and her blanket. The second place in the book happens in cartoon form, when Milo remembers the last time he saw his mother, which was when she was already under anesthesia being prepped for surgery and she has had her head shaved and he can see the lines for the surgery drawn on her head like a tic tac toe board. That image is directly from my memory of my last time seeing my mother. It’s pretty heavy stuff.
And so powerfully authentic. Milo describes that period after his mother died as “the fog.” Was that your memory of it?
I think trauma at any age creates a disconnect inside us. I think the fog settled in for me slowly. As the initial shock of my mom’s death wore off a sort of numbness rolled in over me. It was a survival technique to cover all that hurt stuff with an emotional buffer and I think that’s what I mean about “the fog”. It’s like I knew there was a pain in me but I didn’t want to touch it or think about. It was just always there as a dull feeling deep inside. The Fog.
Speaking of fog, you watched a lot of TV as a kid.
Ha! My two sisters called me “the walking, talking TV guide” because I always knew what was on and what channel. I’d never be able to do that today with all the satellite and cable channels — but back then, I was an authority on the network TV schedule!
We never got it at my house, but I remember being jealous of families who had subscriptions to TV Guide.
Absolutely! We didn’t have a subscription either but I would read the one at my friend’s house up the street and just soak it all up so I could be the authority for the upcoming week back home! Even before my mom’s death I loved TV — but after she died it really became a safe place to get absorbed into the fiction of other people’s lives. I loved cartoons and comedies the most back then.
You’ve written for television in the past. In what way do you think that helped when it came time for you attempt a novel?
The best thing about being a reformed TV writer is I already knew how to structure a story and more importantly, thanks to my animation writing especially, I was already really good at setting the scene and making sure to also describe the action. Scripts rely on good dialogue so that was a skill I’d already started to hone. When I started Pond Scum (my first book) I thought of it as a long episode of a great TV show and I let the chapters drive the story as if it was a script.
When I talk to students on school visits, I’ll sometimes do a quickie “show, don’t tell” lesson, and I’ll describe it as creating a movie in the reader’s mind — in part because my skin crawls when I hear it described by authors as “painting pictures with words.”
Yeah, the writer as painter image doesn’t quite skew in my head either. And I bet the kids really relate to your idea of imagining a movie in their mind. That’s nice.
I wonder, what did the novel format allow you to do that, perhaps, you couldn’t achieve while writing for television?
TV is dictated by the time of each episode, whether it’s 30 minutes or 60 minutes the writer is being told how many pages to write and where the commercial act breaks appear. There are producer notes and network notes and it really is a bit of writing by committee. I am really thankful for my TV writing experience — but I so appreciate the freedom of writing a novel where I can do whatever I want and am not restricted by time issues or rules of what my characters can and can’t do. I am so much happier being in control of the world I create when I write a novel. Of course there are notes that must be worked with from the editor at the publishing house — but I have always found that to be a collaborative experience to make the book better. In TV — notes were usually a headache and lots of times they never even made sense! My book editors, Donna Bray on Pond Scum and Liesa Abrams on Milo — have made me a better writer and I am so thankful to them for that.
Can you think of anything specifically that they taught you?
I think one of the best lessons I’ve gotten was to stay true to the kid voice of the story. Sometimes I let my characters talk the way I’m thinking and the situation is all kid, but the language comes out too adult. Maintaining the kid POV is always in the back of my head thanks to my editors.
Yeah, I have that struggle, too. Once I created a second-grade character with rheumatoid arthritis who had a fondness for lemon cakes, Jay Leno, and bargain-priced resort wear. I had to rethink it. Question: How do you know when something’s funny?
That’s the million dollar question! I wish I knew that answer. I think I have a good sense of humor so if something strikes me as being funny — it usually is at least amusing. I’m not too big on dissecting jokes or looking for rules of comedy (with the exception of “the rule of three” and “words with a “k” sound”).
Yes, the classic scene from Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys” with George Burns and Walter Matthau. I can’t find the exact quote, but the basic idea: Alka-Seltzer is funny. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. L’s are not funny. M’s are not funny. Lettuce is not funny. Cucumber’s funny. Cab is funny. Taxi, not so much.
I saw the play version on Broadway and wish I could remember the cast but my mind is a blank. But it was funny. Very funny. As far as knowing when something is funny or not — I also like to run things by my wife and son — if they don’t at least crack a smile I know I am way off base!
I have this memory from college. This guy Dave used to introduce me to people, saying, “This is Jimmy. He’s really funny.” And I hated that. I finally had to say, like, Dave, dude, you’re killing me here. First, the pressure was ridiculous, and secondly, I didn’t want to play the clown. I can be funny at times, but it has to come in naturally. That’s how I feel about writing, too. I think I’m in trouble when I try to be funny.
Yeah, I was that guy at times but thankfully I can’t tell jokes so no one puts me on the spot anymore. I’m more of the guy who stands in the back of a group listening and then I add a zinger to the conversation — I’m a punch line guy who then shrinks back into the shadows!
Well, then feel free to say something funny, Alan. I’ve been waiting pretty patiently. Zing away. I sense that my Goofball Devotees are becoming restless.
No, really. This is when I bomb. The pressure to be funny will always result in the most un-funny thing possible, which I think I just proved with this last sentence.
No, that was hysterical, I laughed just watching the sweat pore off your head as you tried to think of something funny. Like the great scene with Albert Brooks in “Broadcast News.”
There’s a great line by one of the camera crew in that scene: “Nixon didn’t sweat this much.”
Back to Milo, did you worry that maybe you’d be blowing the appeal of your funny story by including the grief aspect. I mean, did some voice whisper in your ear, “Man, this is not the way to sell books to boys.”
Yes! As I mentioned, the initial goal was to just write a “funny book.” But once I realized what Milo’s story was — that he was the boy whose mom had died — it became a challenge to tell the story in a way that was both touching and funny. I stopped thinking about whether it would sell or not and concentrated on telling the story from a true place inside me. I had some deep seated confidence that this book would find its place and it was meant to find its way to Liesa Abrams at Aladdin. She embraced Milo immediately from her heart. I think that trying to write a “commercial” book is the worst way to go about it anyway.
So you think I should scrap the Geek Supernatural Romance I’ve been trying to write?
What? No vampires or zombies in it?
NOTE TO SELF: More vampires, jump on zombie craze.
Now, where were we? Oh yes, Alan Silberberg! Haven’t you gone home yet? How important are the illustrations to the book’s appeal?
I think it was important for me to add my cartoons to this story, in other words, be able to write and illustrate a book. Though I think the story could stand just fine as a text-only book, it’s clear that cartoons help get the book into certain young hands. But apart from that, I really felt the cartoons could add a dimension of story-telling to the book (not just funny eye candy).
You’ve said elsewhere that the words usually come first, that you are truly illustrating the story. But how does it affect you as a writer, knowing that you’ll have those illustrations? I’d think it would help with, say, a joke or funny moment. You’d be delivering the punch-line two different ways.
Exactly. I find that when I know there can be a cartoon anytime I feel like it — the writer part of my brain and the cartooning part kind of team up. I get a voice inside my head telling me, “Hey, you could punctuate that joke with a great doodle!” Certainly I found with Milo that there are parts of the book where I was having a hard time writing until I imagined how a cartoon would help the chapter be lighter or in some cases the opposite, where a cartoon could tell the sadness of the story in a visual way. I guess the writing was a little easier because I always had my cartoons to fallback on if I got stuck.
Any new books from you on the horizon? Or have you gotten up the courage to finally pursue that career as a catwalk model?
My legs are my best asset! Actually, I am almost done with the first draft of a new book for Aladdin. It’s another book that will include my cartoons but it is much more of a silly book than Milo. It’s a buddy story about two friends who want to be the school cartoonists and get more than they bargained for when their wishes come true.
Lightning round: Adam Sandler or Chris Farley?
Gonna have to go with Sandler.
Ouch. Okay, chin up: Ali or Frazier?
I’ll go with the Kelsey Grammer guy. Never liked Ali McBeal.
Separated at birth?
I think that’s Ally but . . . let’s move right along. The Halloween treat that makes you go back to the house a second time?
Has to be Nestles Crunch!
Top of your head, five favorite books?
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole and Walker Percy, Adrian Mole by Sue Townsend(any and all), Half Magic by Edward Eager and N.M. Bodecker(it was the first book I remember loving as a kid), The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott.
Five favorite movies?
The Big Lebowski, Memento, Back To The Future, Monsters Inc, Defending Your Life.
First album you ever bought as a kid?
The Who’s Quadraphenia.
Five most played songs on iTunes? No cheating.
“This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody)” Talking Heads, “I’ve Had It” Aimee Mann, “New York City Serenade” Bruce Springsteen, “Generator (Second Floor)” Freelance Whales, “Into The Woods” Soundtrack.
Nice list. It’s often a surprise what floats up to the top. Full disclosure, my five most played includes four Dylan tunes (“Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” “Positively 4th Street,” “Tell Me That It Isn’t True”) and Van Morrison’s, “And It Stoned Me.” So: you live in Montreal, which surprisingly is still in Canada. Five favorite places in the city?
1) Schwartz’s has the best smoked meat sandwiches on the planet. 2) Westmount Library lets me fall asleep in their cozy chairs. 3) The Old Port of Montreal for the relaxed tourist ambiance of Europe with a Canadian twist 4) Shaika Café, where I like to write and watch the other people write while they watch me 5) This chair in my house. Love it!
Alan, thanks for stopping by. I’m glad we got a chance to meet. I’ll be watching your career and rooting for your success. Please accept this set of bamboo flatware as a parting gift. You’ll love giving your meals a tropical twist with real bamboo-like handles! The complete set serves one (and might be missing a fork). Shipping not included.
Some links to more interviews conducted by yours truly: