News, Notes & Inside Info from a Children’s Book Author

Q & A

I was asked to fill out a long questionnaire by one of my publishers. I stared at the list, aghast, for about a month. I received a polite query: “Are you finished with those questions yet?” So I sat down one day and did it. And now that it’s done, I figured I might as well put it here. Enjoy!

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What did you want to be when you grew up?

As a southpaw from Long Island, I dreamed of pitching for the New York Mets.

When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?

College, at Oneonta, New York. But in my teen years, I often wrote and kept a journal. I’ve found that it often helps to write things down, get words on a page, to discover what I’m truly thinking and feeling. We not only write what we know, we discover what we know . . . by writing.

What’s your first childhood memory?

I vividly recall hiding under a table – and refusing to come out – when my grandmother visited from Queens Village. She was old and wrinkly, with pointy glasses, and wore a dead fox around her neck. Terrifying.

What’s your favorite childhood memory?

I’m the youngest of seven children, so what I remember best – outside of the manic joy of Christmas – was the chatter and clatter and spilled milk of dinnertime together. It was like a nightly hockey game, complete with thrown elbows, clutching, grabbing, and roughing penalties.

As a young person, who did you look up to most?

Do you mean I’m not a young person anymore? I had two older sisters and four older brothers – each remarkable and mysterious in his own way. Neil was the resident genius, who passed on to me his love of NYC and Bob Dylan; Bill was the motorhead, working in gas stations, and always the friendliest when I was little; John played guitar and had “Popeye” muscles; Al was, and still is, the stable easy-going one. And I was the pup, lapping it all up.

What was your worst subject in school?

English. Grammar, specifically.

What was your best subject in school?

P.E. and recess.

What was your first job?

Jones Beach concessions, West End Two. Great times.

How did you celebrate publishing your first book?

Very quietly.

Where do you write your books?

I usually write at my computer, in the basement of my house. Someday I dream, like the rat in The Tale of Despereaux, of reaching the light, the light! For Six Innings, I wrote much of my first draft in longhand, at the Bethlehem Public Library in Delmar, New York.

Where do you find inspiration for your writing?

Since I usually write realistic nonfiction, I try to begin with an accurate understanding of a child’s world, often by sitting in on various classrooms in my community. I have three children, ages 8, 10, and 16, so that helps me stay connected. I don’t think you can examine something like “childhood” under a microscope, like a lab technician in a cold, white room. For a writer, you’ve got to feel it, and for whatever reason, I still remember.

When you finish a book, who reads it first?

It depends on the book. My editor, usually.

Are you a morning person or a night owl?

I’m a lunch and snack time person. But as a father in a busy house, my strategy has been to try to outlast everyone. Then the house is mine, all mine! The older I get, the tougher that becomes.

What do you value most in your friends?

Tolerance, kindness.

Where do you go for peace and quiet?

Excuse me? Peace and quiet? What in the world are you talking about?

What makes you laugh out loud?

Will Ferrell in “Old School.”

What’s your favorite song?

This changes over time. I’m a huge fan of all things Dylan, constantly rediscovering songs I thought I knew. But to name one song, this moment? Townes Van Zant’s, “To Live Is to Fly.” Thus the character in Six Innings, Dylan Van Zant.

Who is your favorite fictional character?

Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird. I also like Frank Bascombe from Richard Ford’s novels, Rabbit – for his flaws and failures — from John Updike’s series, and just about everybody in Go, Dog! Go!

What are you most afraid of?

Not being able to pay my bills.

What time of year do you like best?

Spring and autumn, the transitional seasons.

What’s your favorite TV show?

New York Mets baseball.

If you were stranded on a desert island, who would you want for company?

My wife and children.

If you could travel in time, where would you go?

I’m most fascinated by the late 60’s. And I guess I continue to return to that period, in my way, as a writer. It feels like those core childhood years have the deepest imprint. I’m forever going back, digging in the dirt.

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

Write from the heart. And . . . the day you send out a book submission, start another one. The worst thing you can do is sit around and wait for someone else’s approval. Be true to yourself, that’s another one.

What do you want readers to remember about your books?

That for a time they came along with me for a ride – and that they were in good hands.

What would you do if you ever stopped writing?

Edit. Books are my life’s work, and I’d love to be able to play the role of an editor, help writers realize their talents, giving them the support and the opportunity that is so hard to come by. I think many of us are capable of great things, sometimes all it takes is someone in your ear, saying, “You can do this. I believe in you.” So much of life is people putting limits on you, defining you, placing you in convenient boxes. It’s so great when the possibilities open up. Part of being a great editor, with few exceptions, is giving up the dream of writing for yourself. The job is to serve the work, another writer’s work, and I’ve never been able to give that up completely. A little too selfish, perhaps.

What do you like best about yourself?

Oh, dear, please, no. I guess I like it when I’m describe as “down to earth.” I certainly dislike pretentiousness in other people. Anyone with a superior attitude turns me off, completely.

What is your worst habit?

Does insomnia count? I think concentration is critical to performing well in just about anything. It’s why I think all of today’s talk about “multi-tasking” is malarkey. I often lack a laser-like focus that is so essential to my job.

What is your best habit?

I read a lot.

What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?

My life as a father.

Where in the world do you feel most at home?

Is this a trick question? At home! But outside of that, I’m always happy on a hiking trail, somewhere in nature. On trips to Ireland I’ve felt connected in ways I can’t fathom or explain. And I love – even to this day – sitting out in centerfield during a ballgame (note: I play in a men’s hardball league), searching the sky for high-flying baseballs. I think it connects me to something innocent and pure, chasing a round white ball under a blue sky. I remain a boy at heart.

What do you wish you could do better?

I wish I could throw a real good fastball.

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

That I am so ordinary, so . . . unsurprising. On school visits, especially back in my early days, I was often troubled when teachers/students put “the visiting author” up on a pedestal. I’m not comfortable with that role. So then I found the solution: My task was to show them how utterly ordinary I was, that authors are no more special than doctors or architects or any one else. I’m just another guy who works hard and does his best. That I’m . . . just like them.

Do you experience writer’s block?

I don’t believe in it, frankly. It’s one more of those “mystical” things that writers are supposed to endure. I have a lunch pail attitude to my job, since I don’t have the luxury – in time or money – to sit around waiting for the muse to descend. I’m trying to pay the bills, you know? So I make things up. What I have learned – and what I will concede – is that there are times when the energy fails. (Writing, to me, requires great enthusiasm and energy.) I realized a while back that it was usually a sign that I was boring myself: That the story I was writing, or the specific scene, was flawed somehow. I was on the wrong path – and boring myself to tears. When the writing is right, I am fully engaged. When bored by my own words, I need to walk away and rethink things. Usually it means honing in a little closer to the rumblings of my own heart.

Why did you write Six Innings?

I had to write a book about baseball; it was inevitable. Baseball has touched my life in every way that it can be touched, it’s an invisible thread that connects all the corners of my life. Most vividly in my childhood memories, most profoundly with my mother – watching games, having catch, connecting through the game. As a father, I’ve spent a lot of time around Little League fields. I’ve coached and managed many teams. I’ve watched those kids, tried to help the best I could, and always came away convinced that I learned more than they did. It’s a world I know. But more than that, it’s a world where many boys live – passionately. Serious business. We remember those games, those times, forever. For the book, I wanted to use baseball as a way to explore character. The friendships, the struggles, the inner lives as they are revealed in thought and action during a six-inning baseball game.

Do you use real life in your books?

Yes, all the time. My experiences, thoughts, feelings, dreams – my life is the primary source for everything I write. Could it be any other way? I can’t imagine it. For Six Innings, I drew upon a lifetime of experiences. Yet surprises still came in the process of putting words on paper. One by one, different characters stepped forward. One boy, who soon served as the book’s “play-by-play man,” ,was very sick. To be honest, it was territory I resisted visiting. A place I didn’t want to go. Because it was personal, something we experienced in our own family, something still raw and heartfelt, something that was not mine to own. It was my son Nick’s journey, reinvented and relocated, yes, but in every meaningful way true to the core. You learn surprising things during a time of serious illness, unexpected “gifts” arrive in many forms. Oddly, you come away enriched, the heart bursting. And when you feel something that powerfully, well, that’s always a good time to write.

Why children’s books?

Good question. I guess, like much in life, accident played a significant role. Out of college, knowing that I wanted to write . . . I became a waiter at Beefsteak Charlie’s. A year later, I moved to Brooklyn and got a job as a junior copywriter at Scholastic, pulling down $12,500 a year, writing for the K-1 SeeSaw Book Club. My job was basically to read a ton of books and describe them to teachers and kids. It required two different voices. For teachers: “In this classic tale, H.A. Rey’s mischievous monkey . . .” For students: “YIKES! That crazy monkey is in trouble again!” I met a lot of great books in that job, and the dream took hold. Anyone who works with children – or, for that matter, any parent, or anyone who has ever spent time with children – knows that kids give back. They respond, purely and directly. You get an immediate response from children that is so satisfying. Today I get fan letters that amaze me. At some point kids figure out that the book in their hands was written by a real person (not, as I once imagined, beamed down from another planet). Sometimes I’ll walk into a classroom and can see it in a few sets of eyes: A reverence. I am not foolish enough to believe that they are in awe of me — I’m just a guy – but they love and respect books, and the thought of actually writing one seems like such an impossible, miraculous thing. My goal is to de-mystify the process. And in short order, after spending only a few minutes in my presence, the awe fades away. To be clear: I don’t believe in the cult of celebrity, but I am still awed by books, still feel the wonder of stories, the life-changing power of words. I am grateful to have played a small role in that Great Conversation between reader and book.