I was asked to answer questions to be included in the back matter of the paperback edition of The Fall (October, 2016). You’ll find those answers below. At the bottom, “Part 2,” I’ve included a few old answers from previous questions.
Thanks for your interest.
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. However, the Mets did not share that dream.
When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
As a young kid, ages 8-10, I used to invent these elaborate dice games that revolved around baseball. Roll a seven, the batter strikes out; roll a three, he hits a double. I filled entire notebooks with the box scores of these imaginary games. Looking back across the decades I realize that: 1) Dice games? OMG, I’m getting old; and 2) I was experiencing, and passionately seeking out, the core experience of being a writer. I was alone with an empty notebook and a pen in my hand. Later in life, those fictional baseball statistics became words and stories. Sometime in college, around my sophomore year, I began to dream about becoming a writer.
What’s your favorite childhood memory?
There are so many and they come in such a disordered jumble, like the splatters of an action painting by Jackson Pollack. I have snippets and impressions. Overall, the feeling is of being small in a crowded household. Being safe, being loved, being entertained. One story: I shared a room with two older brothers, John and Al, when I was quite young. John had an electric guitar and at night, he would turn off the lights and scare me with it. He’d hit a low note, make creepy noises in a deep voice, and I would hide in the darkness under the bed – shivering with fear and loving it.
As a young person, who did you look up to most?
I looked up to my brothers and sisters. I was the seventh and last child, at last eight years younger than the five oldest. So we weren’t exactly peers. I was a kid and they were teenagers, buying cars and surfboards, going out on dates and getting into fights. It was like living with aliens from another planet. Each brother and sister was remarkable and mysterious in his own way. Neil was the resident moody genius, who passed on to me his love of NYC and Bob Dylan; Bill was the motorhead, working at gas stations and going off to war in Vietnam. John had “Popeye” muscles; Al was, and still is, the stable, reliable one. Barbara was the oldest girl, off and married at a very young age; Jean was the nearest to my age, just three and a half years older, and therefore probably my clearest rival.
What was your favorite thing about school?
PE and recess, of course. This is a question that depends so much on age. But I think friendship was the biggest thing for me, moving beyond the world of family into the larger realm of classmates and neighbors. By high school, my friends were my world, and school brought us all together.
What were your hobbies as a kid? What are your hobbies now?
Do kids have hobbies? It seems like the wrong word for it. I’m sure I was pretty sports obsessed; I was active and athletic. Music has always been a presence in my life. The accumulated family record collection was pretty incredible, and for some reason I really connected to those records at a young age. The thing I wish for every young reader is to have passions, interests, things that get your blood pumping. In general, for me, that’s usually connected to the arts in some way. Books, movies, music, paintings, etc. But I have to admit, thinking about my teenage years, we spent a lot of time hanging out. Getting together with a few friends and doing a lot of nothing much. When I look at the lives of my own children, that’s a part that seems missing in today’s world. There’s just not enough free time. I loved hanging out! Is that a hobby?
Did you play sports as a kid?
Socially, I played a ton of football and basketball and baseball with friends. On an organized level, I wrestled a little bit, and I played baseball in school. As I got older, I stopped identifying with the so-called “jocks” in my school. We were awfully stratified by grades 7-8, everyone in his or her “group,” so sports faded away as a powerful presence in my life, only to reaffirm itself once again as I became a father of three active children.
What was your first job, and what was your “worst” job?
I was a busboy in a restaurant during high school, working Tuesday and Wednesday nights at the Circle M Diner on Wantagh Avenue. Most fabulously, I worked in a record store at a “mini mall” in Levittown, on Long Island. I used to hitchhike to work after school. It was a different world at that time. I was crazy about music –- still am! –- and this job just felt like the coolest thing ever. In the summer, I worked at various Jones Beach concessions. I gave that job to the main character in the book Before You Go. We had a lot of fun. I also washed dishes in a couple of restaurants, and that’s a job that eventually gets old.
What book is on your nightstand now?
I mostly read adult books. I just finished with Norwegian Wood by Haruk Murakami, who is a beautiful writer; the book before that was Intruder in the Dust by William Faulkner. Now I’m reading a nonfiction book about the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963, Carry Me Home, by Diane McWhorter. On the children’s front, I just reread every “George & Martha” book by James Marshall. They are hilarious and perfect.
How do you celebrate publishing a book?
I don’t, actually. I guess it’s a private feeling, that day the first book actually comes in the mail, and I hold it in my hands. If I sign a contract, if I get a check in the mail, going out to dinner with my wife and children is a nice treat.
Where do you write your books?
I have a windowless basement office that contains some books, a desk, and my computer. Sometimes I’ll go to my local library in Delmar, New York, just to be among people and all those books. One danger of this job is that I tend to get stuck indoors too much. I often dream, like the rat in The Tale of Despereaux, of reaching the light, the light! These days I tend to write much of my first draft in longhand in a composition notebook
What sparked your imagination for The Fall?
After I wrote Bystander, I received many requests for a sequel. And I always thought, well, no. I felt satisfied with that book, finished with those characters. But I realized that I was still interested in the subject matter, the social dynamics of young people at that age. I began to feel a degree of sympathy for the so-called bully. I wanted to try to write something from the bully’s point of view, perhaps to show a fuller picture than I was seeing in other books and articles. When I read in the newspaper about a girl who had killed herself because of being “terrorized on social media,” I set down the newspaper and immediately started writing in my notebook. It was that direct. I knew I wanted to tell the story of a boy who wrote some terrible things on her social media page. I kept wondering, “Can we be defined by the worst thing we do?”
What challenges do you face in the writing process, and how do you overcome them?
I’ve published more than eighty books in my life. The gift that comes with that is an awareness that sooner or later, eventually, I do get around to putting words on the page. In the words of a writer friend, “I know I can land the plane.” Even so, part of my “process” is that I go through unproductive periods. I’m lazy, unfocused, distracted, a mess. A period of self-loathing eventually sets in. It happens every year, these creative lulls, and every time I grow to hate myself for it. And yet, every time, I fight my way out of it. I recently learned something from cooking (and I hate to cook). It’s the idea of marinating. The chicken tastes so much more flavorful after we marinate it for a period of time. Now I see those quiet, supposedly “unproductive” times as perfectly necessary and valid; it makes for a better, richer book at the end. Even when it looks like I’m not productive, hey, check it out: I’m marinating!
If you could live in any fictional world, what would it be?
I’m not really a “fictional world” kind of guy. The real world is quite enough for me. I am curious about the past, however, so if I could have a magical tardis like Doctor Who, and travel from place to place, and time to time, that would be great. The thing is, I believe that books do that for us. Books are the tardis, the magic portal into other worlds. I just finished a manuscript titled The Courage Test, and in order to write it I had to read in depth about the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-06. What an amazing time, when America was new and wide-open and little known. When I want a fictional world, I read a book.
Who is your favorite fictional character?
I don’t make lists of favorites. First place, second place, third place, and so on. I’m just not built that way. Instead, they all sort of co-exist swimmingly in the gumbo of my mind. I love Gandolph and Hermione, Wilbur and Atticus Finch, the character in Hemingway’s Old Man in the Sea (did we ever learn his name?), that fabulous fat-bellied father in Hop on Pop. As a writer, I really enjoy slipping into the fictional world of Jigsaw Jones. He’s always a good time.
What was your favorite book when you were a kid? Do you have a favorite book now?
I distinctly remember the experience of looking at the same book over and over again, yet I cannot for the life of me remember the title. I don’t even think I knew how to read yet. It was a thick, richly illustrated collection of stories from, I believe, the “Arabian Nights” or some such thing. It was filled with fearsome genies, wicked sea monsters dragging ships to the dark ocean floor, an enormous Cyclops, and other wild sights to incite my imagination. I endlessly pored over those illustrations. They were frightening and fascinating. I can close my eyes and still picture them. That’s the thing I’ve learned about “scary” in books and movies. It jars you. It upsets you. It disturbs your universe. And for that reason, it sticks to you.
If you could travel in time, where would you go and what would you do?
Gosh, there are so many answers to this, because it would all be fascinating. Born in 1961, I grew up in the ‘60s, so of course I have a sense of that remarkable time in America, but I’d love the chance to see it from an adult perspective. Recently, as I said above, I became captivated by the exploration of this country by Lewis and Clark. They saw sights that no other white person had ever seen before, they were the first ones to encounter a coyote, a grizzly bear, a pronghorn sheep. Native people had seen those creatures, of course, but for that group of explorers it was all new. Imagine it: to climb a hill and see, for the first time, the Rocky Mountains looming in the distance, white-capped and massive and so formidable. Or the experience of encountering a band of natives, the Shoshones or Nez Perce, and trying to find a way to communicate peacefully. It’s a world that is long gone. So, yeah, that’s the appeal of traveling back in time. Then there’s the Middle Ages, and the height of the Roman Empire, or to be in the crowd at the Sermon on the Mount, listening to the words of Jesus Christ. The mind reels at the possibilities.
What’s the best advice you have ever received about writing?
Jane Yolen talks about “BIC.” Butt in chair! If you want to write, you have to sit down and do it. Talking about it won’t get the work done. Also, from other sources, write from the heart. And . . . the day you send out a book submission, start a new 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. Trust that good work will find its way into the world. And lastly, you don’t have to write your book in order! You can bounce around. Write the scene that feels most urgent at that moment. You can always go back and fill in the empty spaces at a later time. Every book is different, and requires different things from me as a writer. For The Fall, that was a book I very much wrote out of sequence. I think this was because of the journal format. By the end, I had a lot of separate piece I had to weave together, like sewing a patchwork quilt. The challenge was that Sam’s mind -– like any mind -– would bounce freely from the present to the past and back again in an instant. One minute he’s remembering something that happened a year ago, then he’s back in the present moment looking at the rain outside the window. Writing a book that offered up that time-traveling experience was a real challenge, since I didn’t want to confuse the reader in the process. Um, er, what was the question?
What advice do you wish someone had given you when you were younger?
I don’t know, I think life has to teach you through experiences as you go along. I’m not convinced that anyone can tell us the secrets, you know? We have to stumble along and fall and learn and grow. When I look at my own children, I wish for them to be open to new people, new experiences. Not be too judgmental. To greet the world with open arms and an open mind. But part of growing up, developing into your own unique self, is to look at aspects of the world and think: “Not me, not me, not me.” In a sense, we need those walls to build a sense of our own home place. So do I have any advice? Be kind, be kind, be kind.
Do you ever get writer’s block? What do you do to get back on track?
I don’t believe in it. I think it’s one more of those mystical things that writers are supposed to endure, as a way of making us seem rarified and special. I bring 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 whisper in my ear. I’m trying to pay the bills. I’m a professional writer; it’s what I do. 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 was boring myself silly: That the story I was writing, or the specific scene, was flawed somehow. I had veered down the wrong path and was now boring myself to tears. If I was “blocked,” it was because I wandered down a dead end. When the writing is strong, I am fully engaged, alert to the possibilities. When bored by my own words and thoughts, I need to walk away and rethink things. Exercise is very important. It’s strange, but there is a body/mind connection. So when the mind needs a break, working on the body can be a very productive response. Hanging out with the dog is also good!
What do you want readers to remember about your books?
Every book is different, so is every reader. Simply to be remembered at all is the goal. To have somehow made a lasting impression, whatever it might be, is a huge accomplishment for any writer. I hope that my books are open enough –- porous, in a way -– that each reader is free to respond in his or her own way. It’s not a case of, “Here, this is the message.” It’s more like, let’s take this trip down the path. Keep your eyes and ears open, keep your heart open. The thoughts you have along the way are entirely your own.
What would you do if you ever stopped writing?
I believe that I will always write. Though I guess it’s very possible that I wouldn’t do it for a living, or might fail in my attempt. Teaching has always seemed appealing to me, but awfully hard. Can I just travel the world? The truth is that no matter where I go, what I do, I’ll always bring a notebook with me. And a pen! It’s how a writer exists in the world. We write.
If you were a superhero, what would your superpower be?
Flawless grammar. Yes, I’d be the dullest superhero in the world (not the most dullest).
Do you have any strange or funny habits? Did you when you were a kid?
I wish I had a hysterical story to tell right here, that oddball thing I always do, but I’m so freaking normal. It’s very sad, actually.
What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?
My family. My marriage. That’s the real stuff in my life. The Prellers. It is also, at times, the most difficult. That’s the great truth. We derive the most joy from life’s greatest challenges. The things that come easily never quite give us the same satisfaction. The harder the task, the greater the reward. I am such a flawed human being. I make so many mistakes. In fact, I recently taped a message to my computer: “Become a better man.” On my best days, I am trying. And yet on so many days, I fall short. That’s the struggle. And hopefully, at the end of this whole life, it will be my accomplishment: a good father, a good husband, a good man. If I can become a great writer in the process, if my books can touch lives, that would be incredible. But family comes first.
What would your readers be most surprised to learn about you?
I can juggle a chainsaw, a bowling pin, and a live chicken. Also, I didn’t know that I’d be a writer at an early age. I wasn’t even much of a reader. It came later. In my teens, as I said early, my main focus was on hanging out. I’m pretty good at it, by the way! So that’s what I’d say to you, dear reader: Hey, you never
Where do you find inspiration for your writing?
Since I usually write realistic fiction, I try to begin with an accurate understanding of a child’s world, often by sitting in on various classrooms in my community. 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.
What do you value most in your friends?
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.
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. And maybe Patti Smith, just for the cool factor.
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. I am proud of my children.
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.
What do you wish you could do better?
I wish I could throw a real good fastball.
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 announcer, 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.