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

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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.

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Vonnegut

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

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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:

 

THE MISTAKE

 

By James Preller

 

 

1

 

     “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.

 

2

 

     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.

 

 <<snip>>

14

 

     “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!

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

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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:

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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

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #226: Word from an Aspiring Author

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Here’s a kind note from an aspiring writer.

Hi! My name is ___ and I am a fifth grader from Sacandaga Elementary school. I was sick when you came and I was so sad. I love to write and your books inspire me! I am reading Justin Fisher Declares War and it makes me randomly laugh! I love having your signature in it! I wish I could have met you! I write to get my mind off things. I am going to start a book called Fake inspired by Bystander! Please get back to me, wish I could have seen you!

Confession I never liked the cover to this one, was hoping for something much more funny and school based, but I do like the tag line: "Fifth grade is no joke."

Confession: I never liked the cover to this one, was hoping for something funny and school-based, but I do like the tagline: “Fifth grade is no joke.” Too bad you can’t see it. Grumble, grumble.

I replied:

 ____, what a bummer! I’m sorry you were sick, I could have used a friendly face in that rough crowd. Just kidding. Everyone at Sacandaga was great — in fact, I loved it so much, I even learned how to spell Sacandaga. When in doubt, type an “a.”

I wrote Justin Fisher immediately after Bystander, which was fairly serious, so I felt like writing something that was humorous and light-hearted. I’m glad you enjoyed both of them, my yin and yang. 

Please give me your address and I’ll try to get something in the mail to you one of these days. But be patient, I’ll be traveling soon. 
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I’m always glad to hear from a fellow writer. And for the record, Fake is a great title.
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JP

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #225: Kentucky Student Pretends to Be . . . Me!

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I received this note from a mother the other day:

My son, Joey, completed his reading project that I mentioned in an earlier CourageTestFrontCvre-mail.  He had to read three books from one author, provide summaries to the class, create a poster, and be the author for a class presentation.  This is a picture of him after the big event.  He read Bystander, The Fall
and Before you Go.  His classmates were very interested in the subject material.  They asked many questions after the presentation.

In any case, thought you might like to see the picture.  We were going to put facial hair on but the teacher did not allow make up.

Joey is looking forward to your new book, The Courage Test.

I keep imagining this dear, kind mother sitting at the kitchen table shaking her head, “Why, Joey? Why?”

There are, of course, copious tears.

There’s even a Youtube video of Joey, as James Preller, giving a brief presentation. It was a strange sensation for me, as if staring into a mirror and seeing a much improved version of my actual self. I liked that Joey wore the Mets hat, and it’s fairly remarkable that he came up with an Oneonta sweatshirt. It is too bad about the rule against facial hair. That would have nailed it.

Thank you, Joey. I’m grateful and a little shocked that you would pick me out of all the possibilities. Though I suppose I was a better choice for you than, say, Beverly Cleary. I just don’t see you in those glasses.

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Two Quick Cartoons on “The Writing Life.”

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I recently came across these two comics and they made me, well, not LOL, but I believe that I chuckled inwardly, silently. My funny bone was tickled.

I didn’t make a big show of it.

Remember back in the early days of the interwebs when people used to type ROTFLMHO (or other body parts)? That drove me insane, because I would immediately envision it. A person actually rolling on the floor — the dirty floor! — rolling! — and laughing like a lunatic. Hahahahahaha. And rolling.

Who does that?

Yet I’d read it multiple times a day. Fortunately, those dark days of the interwebs are gone.

Wait, where was I?

Oh, yes, this, taken directly from my life:

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And this:

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Thank you, Peanuts, and thank you, Simpsons. Charles and Matt, two masters.

Carry on, writers!

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #224: Still No Snow, Etc.

As we learned from Susan on Seinfeld, licking envelopes is a dangerous business.

As we learned from Susan on Seinfeld, licking envelopes is a dangerous business.

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Just answered a big batch of letters about Bystander.

I replied:

Dear _______:

Here I am, another Saturday. I’m reading reports of snow all over the Northeast, and outside my window: nothing. Not a flake. It’s almost a bummer. Almost.

I’ve got a big pile of 25 letters from Elma, NY, including one from you. This feels a little like déjà vu. It is impossible for me to respond to each letter individually. It would also be dreadfully boring, since many contain similar questions. You all read BYSTANDER. So I’m sending out this single letter, one size fits all!

Proof: The letters on my office floor.

Proof: The letters on my office floor.

BTW: I can’t stand licking all these envelopes. Gross. I feel like I might die, like George’s fiancé on “Seinfeld.”

Anyway: Juliana wondered why Griffin would ditch his old crew. My intention was to show the reverse, that his friends had grown tired of Griffin’s petty cruelties; it wasn’t cool anymore. Research shows that bullying peaks in middle school, and quiets down after that. Partly I think that’s because people wise up. After the conformity of middle school, everyone trying to fit in, dressing alike, a lot of people realize that it’s okay to be themselves. Anyway, that was my thinking about Griffin moving on to new friends. He was forced to, since many of his old friends had drifted away. Remember, Griffin is not without charm. He’s smart, clever, good-looking, charismatic. Attracting new friends isn’t the hard part. The real trick is in keeping them.

Valerie asked about the inspiration for different characters. Most of them were composites -– that is, bits and pieces from real people, things I read, etc. Real people were the starting points for David, and Griffin’s father, as well as Eric’s father, who is based lightly on my brother John, who also suffered from schizophrenia.

Jessica asked for a signature, but was kind enough to add: “If not, that’s totally O.K.” Loved that!

Many asked about a sequel. THE FALL is not exactly that, it’s more of a companion book, but it should appeal to readers who enjoyed BYSTANDER. I hope! My next book coming out is called THE COURAGE TEST (October), about a father and son who travel along the Lewis & Clark Trail. I’m very excited about it. There’s a brief excerpt on my blog.

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.

Braden complimented me with an astute observation. He liked that I “did not rush to get the story over with.” Yes, Braden, thanks for noticing. It took me years to learn that skill, a common mistake in young writers. I try to recall the idea of “downshifting,” slowing down, allowing the moment to exist in full. A lot of writers just want to type “THE END.” And I get that, I do. My editor helps me, too; she’ll say, “Pause a beat. Slow down.”

Jenna says: “School ends in June so please write back if you can!” Yes, booyah, I just nailed another deadline!

Mikayla was interested in my family. I’m the youngest of seven children. I have a lot of information at my blog, jamespreller.com. Check it out 

Jacob’s favorite part of the book was when Eric got beat up. Guess what? It was my favorite part to write! I’d never done that before in a book. I also set that scene at a real place by my old high school in Wantagh, NY. Yes, President Nixon’s dog, Checkers, really was buried by my school.

Lily, that last scene is Eric’s wish, his heart’s desire, the reunion with his father that he longed for. Maybe it will happen, maybe it won’t.

Ethan, no worries, I wasn’t bullied in school. Classic bystander type. But I remember everything.

Alessandro, I would love to travel more, after I get my kids through college. So many places to see, other countries, but also love to see more of America. I really want to go on a river trip by the White Cliffs in Montana. (I recently got obsessed with Lewis & Clark.)

Coming in October, 2016: A father and son travel along the Lewis & Clark Trail, a road trip that offers readers a genre-bending blend of American history, thrilling action, and personal discovery.

Coming in October, 2016: A father and son travel along the Lewis & Clark Trail, a road trip that offers readers a genre-bending blend of American history, thrilling action, and personal discovery.

Aubrey writes: “My favorite character would have to be Mary because she basically changes throughout the whole book.” Yes, yes, yes! Mary may be a minor character, but she is critical and possibly the book’s true hero. She’s key, for exactly the reason you stated. Brilliant, Aubrey!

For those of you I haven’t mentioned: Riley, Ryan, Lauren, Melanie, Ada, Owen, Daniele, Brandon, Mary, Ethan, Cal, Maggie (my biggest fan), Maddy, Anna, and Liam. Sorry, just ran out of time! Thank you, one and all. Teachers, too!

My best,

AUTHOR TO AUTHOR: A Conversation with Audrey Glassman Vernick

 

I’m not exactly sure when Audrey Glassman Vernick became a blip on my radar, but suddenly she was blipping everywhere. I felt like one of those guys in the mission control tower, trying to determine if this green blip was a “friendly” or an incoming missile. Ultimately, I decided that Audrey was a rising star.

I had the chance to meet Audrey personally, as opposed to through her books, at the 2015 Princeton Children’s Book Festival (thank you, Alison Santos!). We were at a backyard gathering, tired and happy after a long day. I bravely introduced myself, and we enjoyed a brief, easy conversation. I liked her immediately.

Anyway, I invited Audrey over to my swanky blog for today’s conversation. Here she comes now . . .

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AGV: Why, it is swanky!

JP: I know, thanks. It’s the Picasso poster, isn’t it? I saved it from college. 

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That’s the definition of class. It’s not just a hand or flowers. It’s both! And thanks for having me.

Glad to have you. About a month ago I read a bunch of your books. I was especially taken by Edgar’s Second Word, illustrated by Priscilla Burris. I even wrote to tell you how much I loved it, calling it “a small masterpiece.” Do you remember your reply?

I hope my first response was thank you. And I suspect my quick follow up was that you were one of approximately six people who read that book.

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Yes, you were gracious. But you also mentioned that I was one of the few people to have actually read it. Which just goes to show that this is a crazy business. Your book has so much heart. It’s expertly constructed, like a well-built cabinet. We learn Edgar’s first word, “NO!” early on, so there’s a built-in tension: What will his second word be? That curiosity keeps us turning the pages. I was worried that the second word might be a letdown, but you totally delivered.

Thank you! Tension (and the building up thereof) is my very least developed writer skill, so extra thank you!

I interviewed James Marshall back in the early 90s, and he maintained that a strong ending for a book was essential. I’ll always remember what he told me: “The ending is what people remember. If the book fizzles at the end, they remember the whole thing as a fizzled book. It’s important to have a very satisfying ending for the reader. They’ve entered a world and now they are leaving it.” Wise words, and again, I think you nailed it with Edgar’s Second Word.

Let’s stop right here so I can faint. James Marshall!

I know, I was bragging to impress you. He’s one of my children’s book heroes. I can vividly remember our conversation. Heck, I can remember picking up the phone. James was friendly, funny, genuine, completely unpretentious.

George and Martha are the two main loves of my life. They are quoted with solemnity in the Vernick home.

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Do you have a favorite line?

A truth about me (which does not go over well with kids at school visits): I am unable to pick a favorite anything except sports team (Yankees). Unable. So I could write some great lines here but then, minutes later, I’d erase and replace. (It is not easy being me.) Also, you sort of have to be looking at George and Martha along with reading their words to get the full picture. All that said, an oft-repeated line that comes to mind (you won’t even believe how lame this is) is:

 

“Boo!” cried George.

“Have mercy!” screamed Martha.

 

Nice, subtle. His humor is always natural, never seems forced. You never get the feeling that Marshall is trying too hard. 

The blog I had and still kind of have was in large part an homage to those two, about literary friendships.

Oh, nice idea. There’s Frog and Toad, of course. Do you know the book Patrick and Ted by Geoffrey Hayes? It’s pretty perfect.

I do not. But I shall seek it out. Pronto!

I blogged an appreciation of it a while back. Let me see, it’s around here somewhere. Here you go, click on the link

A scan from PATRICK AND TED by Geoffrey Hayes.

A scan from PATRICK AND TED by Geoffrey Hayes.

Back to your question.

Wait, there was actually a question?  

The ending! You asked about the ending! It was the first, and only, thing I knew about the book when I started writing it. I received an email from a college friend whose young not-book-loving son (Edgar!) sat through his mother’s read-aloud of Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten? and, at the end, said, “Again.” I shared that with my wise agent, Erin Murphy, who said, “Well obviously you’re going to use that in a book, right?”

Right.

I don’t know if this happens to you, but when a book fails to sell, fails to reach an audience, I tend to slowly, inexorably begin to think of it as a failed book. And by extension, I begin to see myself as a failed writer. Intellectually, I know that’s wrong, but that’s my reality. So that’s why I’m dwelling on Edgar a little bit here. I want to be sure that you know it’s a great blipping book!

That’s a very George-to-Martha thing to say (maybe not the blipping part). Thank you! I have my dysfunctions when it comes to this publishing business. I suffer some jealousies. I focus on benchmarks I have not achieved. But I am pleased to say that in this one particular case, I still really love this book. Priscilla Burris’ illustrations are unspeakably sweet and perfect.

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Yes, she did a terrific job. The right tone. 

And the people who read it respond so well to it. It just didn’t find its people. That happens. It wasn’t the first time it happened to me. A nice side note is that it was named a highly commended title by the Charlotte Zolotow Award for Outstanding Writing in a Picture Book.

First Grade Dropout, illustrated by my pal Matthew Cordell, turns on a lovely mistake. A boy absent-mindedly calls his teacher, “Mommy.” Where did that idea come from?

Some years I take part in Tara Lazar’s Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo), in which you try to come up with a picture book idea each day of the month. One day I wrote “kid calls teacher mommy,” something I know happens in my sister’s second-grade classroom with some frequency. (I’ve since learned it happens in nearly every classroom.)

Yes, it rings true. That’s probably why it’s funny.

FirstGradeDropoutIt sat on that list for years because it wasn’t a story yet, just an incident. One day I decided to give it a try. In my experience, you sometimes have to start writing a picture book to find the story. And that voice just came out. It happened again a few months ago, when I was looking for a follow-up to that book. I brainstormed ideas with my editor, but while we had fun and shared lots of embarrassing elementary-school memories, we didn’t hit upon anything usable for a book. Once I started writing, though, I found the idea for Second Grade Holdout, which is coming out next year (because Matt is F-A-S-T as well as fantastic).

I am crazy about Matt. I once slept in his guest room. He even drove me to the airport. Strangely, Matt insisted on dropping me off sixteen hours early, which was confusing.

You are wise to be crazy about Matt. He’s kind and funny and so talented. Immensely likable.

Well, let’s not get carried away, Audrey. He’s okay. But I’ll be hog-tied if I let Cordell hijack this interview! So, yes, you discovered the idea for Holdout . . . through the act of writing. Jane Yolen’s famous “butt in chair” advice. How do you actually get work done, Audrey? Do you have a time clock where you punch in each morning? Or do you wait for inspiration?

Somewhere in the middle. I am not disciplined. With picture books, I write when inspiration strikes, but with novels I need to force myself to sit and write. And I have to come up with sad little bargains to keep myself in the chair, writing.

Such as?

I’m only allowed to sit in the comfy chair with the heated blanket when I’m working on a novel. And once I’m there, it’s still a whole bargaining thing. If you finish the chapter, you can shower. Or eat breakfast. Or walk the dog.

Oh, that poor dog. Getting back to James Marshall, you share a great trait with him. You’re funny. And even better, you are able to write funny, which is a distinct and rare talent. There’s never enough of that in children’s books. Children’s publishing went through a biblio-theraputic period where every picture book had to be about something important. Laughter lagged behind.

I agree that there’s never enough funny. But there are so many more now than there used to be. The books that were considered funny when I was a kid and, for the most part, when my kids were little, were more amusing than genuinely funny. Lots of modern picture books are flat-out hilarious. It’s a really fun time to be writing them.

Can you name a few of your favorites?

See previous explanation of ever-changing favorites. That said, I believe the Pigeon books kind of burst the door open to a new kind of funny. Bob Shea’s books often crack me up and I have serious title-envy about his Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great. Like debilitating jealousy.

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Deborah Underwood’s Cat is a brilliant new character.

I really liked Ryan T. Higgins’ Mother Bruce and Julia Sarcone-Roach’s The Bear Ate Your Sandwich.

Good to know. I understand that 2016 is going to be a big year for you.

I have four books coming out.

Wow. Girl is on fire. You realize I kind of hate you now? A little.

I can both understand and accept that and will just quickly add that it’s possible I have four books coming out in six months -— the pub date for the last release of the year has not been set.

Shoot me now. I mean: I’m sooooo happy for you!!!!!

Aww!

I’m curious, how do you do it? I find that writing picture books can be so difficult. I’ve been seriously trying for the past year and everything comes out half-baked, half-finished, half-awful. There are times it feels like throwing darts in a darkened room. It’s so easy to go down the wrong path. I wonder if you can talk about your process a little bit. Do you begin with a character?

I write both fiction and nonfiction picture books, and for the nonfiction ones, I look for a subject, get obsessed, research and write.

Do you first clear the topic with an editor?

I float it more than clear it. Or maybe those are the same. I am not writing with a contract, to be clear.

And for your fiction titles?

Just about every one has been different. Sometimes, the title comes first and leads the way to the story. Teach Your Buffalo to Play Drums was the first of those for me. Once a whole first page came to me, unbidden:

“Zander was a monster. This wasn’t strange as his father was a monster. His mother too. Oddly, his sister was a fairy. And his dog was a skunk.”

That last sentence just killed me. (And then, as with many lines I love, I had to fight to keep it.) That’s from Unlike Other Monsters, coming out in June.

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And his dog was a skunk. That’s a funny line. Comedy gold! Sometimes with the right sentence, even just a few words, or the right rhythm, a door seems to open. You can suddenly find your way in.

I don’t think any of my picture books has started with a character, which I didn’t realize until you asked. With novels, it’s always character. But it’s usually title/concept or incident that gets me started with picture books.

Getting back to what you said about going down the wrong path -— to me, that’s what is so great about picture books! If you do it in a picture book, you erase the last 100 words and go back to the fork. With a novel, hacking out 50 pages feels like pulling out a minor organ.

I maybe once cried when cutting 10,000 words from my book, Six Innings.

The first novel I wrote, Water Balloon, I wrote these extra 50 pages before the story really got going. I so wanted credit for those pages.

Even so, picture books have to be “just so.” You know? I feel like there’s more forgiveness in a longer work. More room to wander. With a picture book, basically 30 pages, there’s not a lot of space to get lost. That’s why I’ve concentrated on longer works, because I felt it gave me more control over my (and the book’s) fate. 

I adore picture books. I love writing them. I love the very fact of them. I enjoy every step of picture book writing and revising. But getting a first draft of a novel done -— the avoidance I have to fight is embarrassing. I’m in that place now. At least ninety percent through a novel I’ve been working on for years. I am looking forward to being done but not to what I have to do to be done.

That’s how I feel about exercise.

Me too.

I could be wrong here, but it seems there are not many folks that are exclusively writers who have built a reputation in picture books. There’s Tony Johnston, Eve Bunting, Ruth Krauss, Mem Fox, Charlotte Zolotow. It’s not a long list. Mac Barnett, of course, is doing great work now. Though it was only last week when I first realized that he wrote Sam and Dave Dig a Hole. I had previously thought of it strictly as a Jon Klassen title.

Well, crap. I guess I knew that but I never knew it in words. Thanks.

You’re welcome! I like that you’re a big baseball fan. Where’d that come from?

When kids ask this at school visits I always give the super-articulate answer that goes something like, “It’s hard to say why you like what you like. For example, I love pizza. Why? Because it tastes good.” Note to self: Work on that response.

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I was on a panel recently with a bunch of seasoned writers –- Todd Strasser, David Levithan, others –- and they all had such great, pithy answers to audience questions. I was like, “Damn, I have to raise my game.” The whole staring and stammering thing won’t cut it.

I don’t think anyone will ever say that about me. You know what impressed me about that Vernick? Pithy answers.

Pithy can feel too slick on some folks. I like your stammering authenticity.

My love of baseball -— sunny days (I will always take a day game over a night game); the fact that it’s a sport without a clock, with a lot of time for a mind to wander, to wonder, to draw connections; and it’s a sport with an immensely rich history (albeit one with very few women in it).

I associate baseball with my mom, who is still a huge fan at age 89. She taught me how to throw, how to catch. So there’s a lot of transference there: by loving baseball, I’m expressing love for my mother. Also, I loved playing, and still do. Now that I’m finished coaching (had a 15u travel team last season), I’ll probably return to a Senior Men’s Hardball team next spring. Read that as: Old guys clutching their hamstrings. We’re all still boys at heart. Did you ever get to play?

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First I have to say I just love that, your connection to your mom there. Organized sports for girls didn’t exist when I was younger. I played softball at camp and was sometimes good. In my neighborhood, it was mostly punchball in the street. A neighborhood of girls. Seriously, I think there was only one boy and we were terrified of him because he once threw a firecracker at my sister.

He was probably terrified, too. Don’t we all throw firecrackers when we’re afraid? I know you are a Jersey Girl, and a mother, but outside of that, I don’t know much about your background.

Okay, first of all, no. I grew up in New York City -— in Queens. I’ve lived in NJ 19 years. Wow. That’s a long time. But I definitely do not identify as Jersey Girl. Strike that from the record!

Done. Both my parents were from Queens, so I like this better, anyway.

I live near the ocean. When I lived on eastern Long Island —- my home before this one, and Boston before that -— my house was a block from the Long Island Sound. I hope to always live near a big body of water. My present and future dogs probably hope so too.

Have you written a dog-and-ocean book yet?

I cannot sell a dog book. It kills me.

I hear hedgehogs are trending. Or was that five years ago? It’s hard to keep up.

I wrote literary short fiction for adults before writing for kids. It’s a very good way to learn to accept rejection.

So how did you get into children’s books?

It’s a sad story. You’ve been warned.

When I was in my early twenties, my mother was taking a children’s writing class at the New School in NYC and she sent the first novel she wrote to one publisher (Dutton) and it was accepted. She died two months later, a pedestrian on the sidewalk, hit by a car around the block from my childhood home.

200px-Morning-glory-C6295bMy family was reeling for years. And in that time, we had to work with my mother’s very patient editor. My mother hadn’t even received her editorial letter at the time of her death, so all the revision fell to us. As you might imagine, we didn’t want to change a single one of her words. So that was my first step, as the literary executor of her estate. (The book, The Morning Glory War, was published in 1990 and received a really nice review in the Sunday Times.)

Wow. You must have taken a deep breath before typing that out. Like, “Okay, here goes, you asked.” I know that feeling, Audrey, since my oldest is a two-time cancer survivor. I’ve lost two brothers. These are not happy stories to tell at parties. Oftentimes, it’s easier not to get into it. And you’re right, it is sad, but it’s also an incredible story.

Yeah, as I wrote that out, I could see clearly that my family led me here.

Years later, I fell in love with the art of an outsider artist named Tim Brown, showed his art to one of my sisters, and she said that it belonged in a children’s book. Together, we wrote that book.

Which book is that?

Bark and Tim: A True Story of Friendship.

Hey, um, Audrey, this is nice and everything but . . . are you going to leave? I mean, ever? Or am I supposed to feed you now? I guess I have a pull-out couch . . .

Yeah, maybe tomorrow I’ll start pulling my stuff together. I could walk your dog. Do you have a dog?

Daisy. And two cats. And three kids. And four . . . well, it all stops at four. I don’t have four of anything.

I’m sure you have four readers of your blog!

Oh, dozens more. Dozens! We’re basically talking to ourselves here. It’s like the Cone of Silence in “Get Smart.” But before you go, is there anything you can share about your upcoming books? 

Okay, since you asked:

The Kid from Diamond Street: The Extraordinary Story of Baseball Legend Edith Houghton, illustrated by Steven Salerno, nonfiction about a Philadelphia girl playing professional baseball from age 10.

 

The real Edith Houghton.

The real Edith Houghton.

 

I Won A What?, illustrated by Robert Neubecker, about a boy who hopes to win a goldfish and ends up with something a wee bit bigger. And better.

Unlike Other Monsters, illustrated by Colin Jack, with the opening page mentioned above. And a novel, Two Naomis, written with my dear friend Olugbemisola Rhuday Perkovich.

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How did you co-author a book? It’s seems difficult, fraught with peril. How did you handle it?

I have co-authored four books. Two Naomis was the first novel. We each wrote from the point of view of our own Naomi. So my chapters were the even-numbered ones — individual writing of separate chapters. When I co-wrote picture books, first with my sister and most recently with Liz Garton Scanlon, we just back-and-forthed a lot. Both experiences were really freeing and so much easier than doing it alone.

So what’s for dinner?

Get out! 

But before you go, by way of thank you, please accept this set of steak knives as a parting gift. I wish you all the luck in the world, Audrey. Keep up the great work.

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FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #’s 222 & 223: Two for the Price of Nothing!

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Okay, let’s roll. This one is from Kieran in Jersey, and in the interest of time I’ll only show an excerpt:

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Scan

I replied:

Dear Kieran,

Thanks for your letter. Like you, I prefer The Case of the Snowboarding Superstar over The Case of the Groaning Ghost. There are 40 Jigsaw Jones books. I wanted them all to be brilliant and funny and entertaining, but of course no one can hit home runs every time they get up to the plate. Like the great slugger Ted Williams said, “I just try to put a good swing on the ball.”

As for your questions:

Jigsaw Jones has been out of print for a few years, but he's making a big comeback in 2017. I'm so happy about this.

Jigsaw Jones has been out of print for a few years, but he’s making a big comeback in 2017. I’m so happy about this.

1) Yes, I am currently writing my first Jigsaw Jones story in seven years. I don’t have a title yet, still fooling around with it. I believe we are hoping that it will come out in 2017.

2) I have gone skiing in some of the same places as you. These days, I prefer cross-country. No lines, no crowds! I’ve never gone snowboarding because I’m pretty sure I’d die.

3) Sorry, I don’t have any photos to send out. That’s just not something that fits my personality. Just the thought of a stack of glossy photos on my desk kind of grosses me out. I think I’m happier in the shadows. You’ll find the autograph below.

My best,

JP

 

Letter #223 comes from Spokane, WA . . .

Scan 2

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I replied:

Dear Dakota,

Hey, thank for that most excellent, typed letter. As you might know, I also write books for younger readers, and it’s refreshing to receive a letter that isn’t stained with grape jelly.

Thanks for reading Bystander and Six Innings. If you aren’t completely sick of me, you might also like The Fall, which explores some of the same themes as Bystander, but from the perspective of the so-called “bully.” It’s written in a first-person journal format, which makes it relatively quick and easy to read.

Coming in October, 2016: A father and son travel along the Lewis & Clark Trail. And, yes, the cover doesn't lie: There's a bear.

Coming in October, 2016: A father and son travel along the Lewis & Clark Trail. And, yes, the cover doesn’t lie: There’s a bear.

Yes, I love baseball. I guess you are a Mariners fan? I grew up a Mets fan, watching the games with my mother, and let me tell you, we’ve endured some rough seasons. But things are looking up these days. Got to love those big arms. My dream was to be a pitcher, but no fastball. Didn’t have the arm. Stupid DNA.

Good luck with ball this season. From the evidence of your letter, you are well on your way to becoming a very accomplished writer. I hope you keep it up. Sometimes our talents surprise us, in that they don’t always come from the expected places. You might dream of becoming a great ballplayer, like I did, only to discover that you have an innate talent for architecture, or medicine, or writing.

You never know!

BTW, nice signature. It will come in handy when you’re famous. 

JP

THE COURAGE TEST, Coming in October: Cover Reveal, Excerpt, Keynote

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A father and son

travel along the Lewis and Clark Trail,

a road trip that offers readers

a genre-bending blend of American history,

thrilling action,

and personal discovery.

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Keynote:

Will has no choice, His father drags him along on a wilderness adventure in the footsteps of legendary explorers Lewis and Clark — whether he likes it or not. All the while, Will senses that something about this trip isn’t quite right.

Along the journey, Will meets fascinating strangers and experiences new thrills, including mountain cliffs, whitewater rapids, and a heart-hammering bear encounter.

It is a journey into the soul of America’s past, and the meaning of family in the expansive present. In the end, Will must face his own, life-altering test of courage.

———-

Here’s a brief excerpt from the first couple of pages from THE COURAGE TEST (Macmillan, October, 2016). The spectacular cover was illustrated by Andrew Kolb. I hope you like it.

 

     My name is William Meriwether Miller. I was named after the explorers, William Clark and Meriwether Lewis. It was my dad’s idea. So I guess this trip was inevitable, like homework and awkward school dances. He’s dragging me down the old trail.

     It’s the last thing in the world I want to do.

 

Chapter 1

 

OFF THE MAP

  

“We were now

about to penetrate

a country at least two thousand miles

in width, on which

the foot of civilized man

had never trodden.”

Meriwether Lewis.

 

 

     My mother pushes me out the door and I don’t know why.

     “I don’t want to go,” I tell her.

     “I know,” she says.

     “But why now?” I ask again. “All-Stars starts this week. I don’t want to miss it.”

     “We’ve been over this,” she says.

     She might as well say what every parent resorts to when they run out of good answers: Because I said so. There’s no explanation, no more discussion. It’s time for me to go.

     I feel ridiculously, stupidly, helplessly annoyed and there’s nothing I can do about it. I see in that instant my mother is getting old. Stray gray hairs, wrinkles around the down-turned corners of her mouth. She looks tired and thin, sick of arguing with me. I carry a fully loaded, metal-frame backpack on my shoulders, and a smaller gym bag in my right hand — stuff for the long drive, all my technology’s in there. I don’t want to go, but I can’t stand here forever. So come on, Mom, let’s do this.

     “You’ll have fun,” she says. “It’s good for you and your father to spend time together.”

     I give her nothing. Not a nod. I’m not even listening. I turn my back to her.    

     “Bye,” she says, and adds, “I love you, Will.”

     I walk away like I don’t hear.

     “Will?”

     I raise my hand in goodbye without looking back.

     My father waits in the car. He steps out as I approach. I nod to him, hey. None of this is my idea. I have no say, no choice. I refuse to be happy about it. I’m not going to make this easy.

     “Here, um, let me help you with that,” he reaches to take my backpack.

     “No, I got it,” I say, leaning away.

     “Oh, okay, sure,” he says.

     He stands there, not knowing what to do.

     “Are you going to pop the trunk?” I ask. Because: obviously.

     Flustered, my father moves to the driver’s side door. He fumbles in the front pocket of his water-resistant khakis, drops the keys on the road, stoops to the ground. I glance sideways, slyly, to check how this is playing from the front window. But my mother is no longer watching.

     She’s gone.

 

——

  

     “Ready?” my father asks. His body is half-turned in inquiry, one hand on the steering wheel, the right gripping the ignition key.

     A question with no true answer.

     I don’t have a choice. So, sure, Dad, I shrug, I’m ready. But the truth is I’m not. He knows it, too, yet asks anyway. And away we roll.

     It is awkward all around.

     This is the man who moved out of the old house fifteen months ago. He started a shiny new life, soon featuring a new girlfriend, while my mother and I got stuck rebuilding the old one.

     As the car slides forward, I spy my friend, Yoenis, on the sidewalk. Tall and dark and slender, he juggles a soccer ball on his foot, tap-tap, tap and pop, and he snatches the ball between his hands. A bright smile sunbeams across his face. He’s a guy who can do anything he wants. Yoenis glimpses me through the car window and his smile drops. He waggles a finger skyward. His head shakes. I don’t know what it means. Is he pointing to the sun, the sky? Is he gesturing to God above? Or is he just saying, no, don’t go, you’ll miss everything.

     I wonder if he knows something I don’t know?