Tag Archive for 100 Scope Notes

Alan Silberberg Interview . . . Part Two

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 . . .

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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.

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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.

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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:

* Kurtis Scaletta

* Lewis Buzbee

* Carmen Deedy

* Deborah Kovacs

* Matthew Cordell

* Jack Rightmyer

* Travis Jonker (100 Scope Notes)

* Betsy Bird (Fuse #8)

* Bill & Karen (Literate Lives)

James Preller Interviews . . . Kurtis Scaletta, author of “Mudville” and “Mamba Point”

Sorry, you’re going to have to wait a minute. I know you’re in a big hurry and everything. People nowadays expect their blog entertainment to run like clockwork, click, click, click on that mouse. Well, go grab a seat. There’s some old Field & Stream magazines on the table.

It shouldn’t be too much longer. Please have your co-pay ready.

I’m waiting for author Kurtis Scaletta, who agreed to come here all the way from his home in  Minneapolis for an interview. But you know how that goes, bad weather, costly delays: snow, ice, Vikings . . .

Seriously: Kurtis is an original new voice in children’s literature. His first book, Mudville, earned him wide acclaim, including being named one of the Top 10 Sports Books for Youth in 2009 by Booklist. His next book, Mamba Point, is due out in July, 2010. Even better, Kurtis claims to be writing a completely crazy book, hopefully for 2011. The truth is, I’m rooting for Kurtis Scaletta  — and I know that after meeting him, you will be, too.

Hey, Kurtis. Finally, you’re here! Thanks for coming all the way from Minneapolis. Take off your wet things. Yes, the snow pants, socks, and mittens, too. I’ll throw them in the dryer while we talk. Here’s a terry cloth bathrobe and some bunny slippers.

Thanks. It’s great to be here in balmy Albany. Your orange tree is doing great. Um, do you mind turning on the A/C?

Not a problem. Are you bothered by the noise from the steel drum band in my backyard? I could ask them to stop, but like most of my neighbors in upstate NY, I could listen to “Shake, Shake Senora” all day long — and frequently do.

I actually listened to a lot of Caribbean music while writing the last one, but more Marley and less Belafonte.

Now that you mention Harry Belafonte, I remember that song gets featured nicely in Tim Burton’s “Beetlejuice.” But don’t try to sidetrack me, Kurtis. I’m onto your tricks. We’re primarily here to talk about me. I mean, Mudville. The book turns on what strikes me as just a wonderful, imaginative leap –- a rain delay that lasts 22 years. Do you remember the circumstances of getting that idea? Was it a lightning bolt moment?

It’s kinda predictable, but I was watching a baseball game that went into a rain delay and one thing led to another. I did already have some of the characters in mind and I was trying to figure out what to do with them.

But that was a fantastic idea, literally, and introduced an element of magic realism into the story. Have I got that right? Is it something you resisted at first? Or do you have an interest in speculative fiction?

I like to tread a fine line between the improbable and impossible. All of my books do it. I call them “tall tales” myself. Sounds less pretentious. I mean, I ain’t Marquez or Borges. I read a lot of speculative fiction when I was younger, especially Harlan Ellison, but I don’t really see myself in that arena.

Are you excited about Mudville coming out in paperback?

Definitely. Something about the Yearling logo makes it especially neat. I remember a lot of great books having that horsey from when I was a kid.

It’s cool because Six Innings is coming out in paperback around the same time. Come to think of it, we should be bitter rivals. Where’s my trident?

Yeah, I guess other kids baseball writers are in competition. Unfortunately, they’ve also proved to be decent dudes. I’ve met John H. Ritter, Mick Cockrane, and John Coy, and in all three cases had to pocket my shiv.

Ah, disappointing. Nothing quite beats a brawl between children’s authors. After Mudville, was there an expectation that you were going to follow with another sports book?

I did worry for a while that I would be expected to deliver a series of sports books. I figured I could write one or two, but I’m not Mike Lupica and I have a lot more interests besides sports. I remember my wife saying, “In seven years when you’re writing the lacrosse book, you’ll wonder what the heck you’re doing.” But when I started talking to my editor about ideas for a second book, she was more taken with the Africa book than other suggestions, which included sports books. So I chalk that up to landing at a great house with a great editor.

I had a similar experience after Six Innings. I remember when your lovely wife said to me . . .

She encouraged you to write the Africa book, right?

Exactly! She’s been helpful in so many, many ways. I was wondering, how do you deal with reviews? You received such wonderful notices for Mudville. Are you thick-skinned, or more of a whimpering baby like me?

I really appreciated the good reviews, and the non-mention in one major outlet actually hurt more than the slam in another. I mostly just want people to know I exist, I think.

Are you hungry? I’ve got a Yodel, a Ho-Ho, or a Devil Dog. Which one do you want? Orange soda or root beer? And yes, Kurtis, it’s raining gum drops. That’s the way we roll here at jamespreller.com.

Yeah, and I guess the definitive word is “roll,” with that kind of diet. I’ll have the Yodel and the Orange pop, thanks.

Sorry, all out. Here’s a can of tuna fish and a hammer.

I’ll bring the tuna home. My five cats will appreciate it.

Five cats? I’m not going there. You went to school for writing, didn’t you? So is it safe to assume that you believe writing can be taught?

Well, the truth is that it was 17 years ago and I mainly had to figure out what to do with myself. But I do think I benefited from working with my advisor Elaine Ford, who is a terrific writer and was very frank and helpful with her feedback on my works in progress.

I can’t deal with “frank and helpful.” I’m more of a looking-for-false-praise kind of guy.

I’ve read that a lot of sensitive geniuses are like that. Anyway, it was a long time before I  actually got published, but that had to do with me and not the University of Maine. Still, I think creative writing is in a weird position where there is both an abundance of non-academic “how to” manuals and workshops but very little serious scholarship on teaching and learning and very little about best practices or pedagogy that is based on evidence. My day job in higher ed is showing here I think.

Kurtis, you have a pretty active blog and I enjoy reading it. Do you think it’s helped you professionally? And if so, in what ways?

Now I use my blog as a way to connect to readers, librarians and teachers, but the biggest help it’s given me was before I got published. Before I had my professional authorial blog I had a book review blog, now defunct, and a personal/chatty blog, also defunct. Blogging was a turning point for me as a writer because I started writing every day and I met and started talking to other writers and people who care about kids books. My day job is not in writing or literature and I was way out of the loop, so I’m glad I got connected to a community and started writing again.

You have a new book coming out, Mamba Point, inspired in part by your experiences living in Monrovia, Liberia. That’s not near my old haunts on Long Island, is it?

Well, they’re on the same ocean, so sure. Just a skip across the pond.

So the story involves . . . dancing?

You’re just trying to get me worked up, aren’t you?  One of my missions now is to get people to learn the difference between a mamba, which is a deadly snake, and a mambo, which is a risque latin dance.

A confusion that has led to many senseless deaths, I might add.

Seriously, because those mambo dances are tougher than they look!

Do not confuse the Mamba with the Mambo. Kurtis Scaletta is here to help.

Please, Kurtis, continue about your book.

Mamba Point is about a kid who moves from a small midwestern air force town to Montrovia, Liberia, in 1982. He’s worried about making new friends, just starting to get curious about those creatures called girls, and mostly wants to read comic books and play games. So far, that’s pretty autobiographical. But this kid is harassed by a black mamba… at first he’s scared out of his wits, but ends up kind of befriending it. They have a kind of connection. Then there’s a little adventure story thrown in, for good measure. Needless to say, that gets pretty far away from my own experiences. But there’s a lot of stuff that’s straight from my own life, and a lot about what it’s like for an American kid to move to Africa.

We both felt the death of J.D. Salinger, in my case more than expected. You mentioned “The Laughing Man” as your favorite Salinger story. What’s so great about it?

There’s lots to love about that story. The outer story is the typical spare, haunting modern story we all read in lit classes, but then there’s a completely ridiculous, endless, laugh-out-loud adventure story that’s narrated throughout. And there’s a pretty sweet baseball scene, too.

You’ve also written elsewhere about your admiration for the books of Betsy Byars.

You identify with the misfit, don’t you?

That was definitely what attracted me to her books. In the late 70s/early 80s when I reading her books, there was often a quirky misfit kid at the center. I really connected with them. I think she’s one of by biggest influences; I think I learned a lot of what I know about creating characters from Betsy. I really became aware of it in the middle of writing Mamba Point.

Do you read a lot of children’s books?

Yep. More than I read grown-up books. You kind of have to know what’s going on in the industry, so I read a lot so I know how to position my own books in a crowded marketplace. I do try to work in a couple of grown-up books but it’s hard to keep up as it is. Right now I’m in the middle of several books including The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate and Marchello in the Real World. They are both great.

Okay, tell me about this new “work-in-progress.” But it has to be in 139 characters or less; I’m tougher than Twitter and I think it’s time people knew it.

Wake, ME is about a small town in Maine that’s taken over by a giant fungus and couple of kids who believe it portends the town’s doom.

I want that book right now! Lightning Round: I know you’re into music, Kurtis. Give us ten songs on your imaginary mixed tape.

This one goes to eleven: “Train Whistle Blues” by Merle Haggard; “Driver 8” by R.E.M., “Play a Train Song,” by Todd Snider, “Waiting for a Train” by Jimmie Rodgers, “The Train Carrying Jimmy Rodgers Home” by Greg Brown, “Trains” by Ryan Adams, “Let the Train Blow the Whistle” by the Old 97s, “Freight Train Blues,” by The Weary Boys, “King of the Road” by Roger Miller, “Downbound Train” by Bruce Springsteen, and “Downtown Train” by Tom Waits (not Rod Stewart). Sorry, I have a one track mind.

Got any Oscar favorites? Best Picture of the Year?

I seriously love “Up.” It’s probably the only nominated movie I saw, and I don’t think it’ll win best picture (just best feature-length animated film), but the first 15 minutes of that movie are beautiful. It’s a really wonderful and imaginative story after that, and the dog was great, but it’s that long prologue that gets to me. Sniff. That being said, the smart money is on “Avatar.”

I thought the opening minutes of “Up” were extraordinary, compressed storytelling. Beautiful. After that, I didn’t care so much. I’m going to go with “The Hurt Locker.” Five favorite blogs?

For the animal pictures and bad puns, Michael Northrop’s blog; for good advice to writers, editorial anonymous and kidlit.com. For book reviews, Minnesota Reads. For baseball, the sadly departed bat-girl.com.

Oh, I loved bat-girl! “Less stats, more sass.She also did those incredible Lego recreations of great (and not-so-great) moments in Twins baseball history.



I’m glad she’s appreciated even outside of Twins’ territory. You might also know her alter ego, Anne Ursu, who’s written a terrific fantasy series for kids. My wife says her grown up books are good, too, but I don’t really read grown up books.

I’m your reverse in that way; I read mostly adult.

Besides the time issue, I’m like an open pitcher of milk in the refrigerator. It’ll take on the taste of whatever’s around it. So when I read something, especially something really stylized, it affects my own voice. So I have to avoid getting deeply immersed in a novel when I’m writing. And these days I’m almost always writing. Kids books, I can usually read in a day, and shake it off.

Interesting, and again, that’s the exact reason why I don’t read them — especially when I’m deep into my own writing, when it’s an absolute no-go for me. We’re like two peas living in completely different apartments.

I worry about having too much consciousness about the marketplace. You start to hear about what sells and what doesn’t, and become too familiar (I think) with the conventions of the business — a business that’s often predicated on ripping off ideas from the bestseller list. Follow that to the end and you’re writing about a boy wizard with a sassy friend who falls in love with a smoldering vampire who’s really a geek who . . . and on and on. It seems like too much information can get in the way of originality. Thoughts?

It’s more about voice than subject matter. I’ll read a collection of essays by David Sedaris and start writing like David Sedaris, even though I’m still writing my own completely original work about the boy wizard who falls in love with a fairy, but to win her love he has to battle the vampires in dystopia with his werewolf buddies and his pet dragon. Or I’ll read Cormac McCarthy and start writing like Cormac McCarthy, even though I’m working on a tween romance.

You know what I like about you, Kurtis? Even though you strike me as having this heightened awareness of the business, you went out and wrote Mamba Point, a personal, deeply-felt story that has NOTHING to do with the trends of the marketplace. Last I looked, kids were not clamoring for more books set in Liberia. Yet you wrote from the heart. And that sound you hear is cheering, my wishing you success with this story.

Okay, whew. I hate it when Jamespreller.com gets all soggy. It seems like we’ve drifted a fair distance from our original list of bloggy goodness. By my count, you’ve only listed four.

Well, you know, I know a billion writers with blogs, but yours stands out. A newby writer like me learns stuff about the profession of writing. I also like the reader mail, which I’d love to do myself but I don’t get enough of to do. I think your blog is a good example of what writer/bloggers should do, connecting with teachers and readers. So much of it ends up being us writers just talking to each other.

That’s very kind of you to say, thanks. But I can tell from the buzz of my Kenmore dryer that your clothes are dry and it’s time for you to depart balmy Albany — alas, before you had time to visit nearby Cohoes, just ten miles north on 787, alleged home of Kilgore Trout — to brave the Minneapolis winter. As a parting gift, please accept this rare, 1988 VHS edition of “Beetlejuice.” It may look like it’s just a crummy old tape found in the bottom of my closet, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

Um. So, thanks for the interview . . . yeah. Are you sure you don’t have an extra Yodel?

Oh, fine. Knock yourself out.

——-

FOR MORE INTERVIEWS . . .

If you enjoyed this interview with Kurtis Scaletta, you might not like the others. They aren’t very good.

After Kurtis, there’s a huge drop-off.

But go ahead, be a glutton for punishment: Lewis Buzbee, Deborah Kovacs, Carmen Deedy, Matthew Cordell, Karen Roosa, Ellen Miles, Daniel Mahoney, Jack Rightmyer, and R.W. Alley.

Also: interviews with the folks behind Literate Lives (Bill and Karen), The Happy Nappy Bookseller (Doret), Fuse #8 (Betsy), and 100 Scope Notes (Travis).

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James Preller Interviews . . . Travis, of 100 Scope Notes!

I’ve enjoyed doing this semi-organized, possibly-ongoing series of interviews, especially when it comes to meeting important voices in the kidlitosphere. I hope you agree that it’s nice to get to know the people behind some of our more frequently-visited blogs. One such destination is the oft-entertaining, 100 Scope Notes. Travis has a lively mind, he’s young and insightful, and — to be perfectly honest — it seemed like it would be cool to hang out with him. I mean to say: If I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t do it. I’m like a Roman Emperor that way, sort of a cross between Tiberius, Caligula, and Herod Agrippa, but with typing skills. But let’s move along, folks . . . because here comes Travis, hauling around a pile of books.

Greetings, Travis. It’s nice to finally meet you. Thanks for stopping by.

Well, it’s an honor. Sorry I’m late — I was away for a week visiting family.

How’d that go?

Great, but very filling. You ever have it happen where a trip back home all of a sudden becomes an eating tour? It’s like all decisions were based around food. I found myself saying things like, “Well, we can’t go to the ‘60s-style drive-in tonight, because I really wanted to get to the Italian restaurant with the moose head on the wall. And let’s not forget about the homemade cookie shop for dessert.” You can see how things can get out of hand pretty quickly.

Oh, I get it. You’re here for the cheese log.

You have one of those? If you’ve got a box of Toasteds crackers, it’s on.

You’ll be putting it on the Ritz, my friend. As the  1950’s ad campaign so truly proclaimed: “Nothing tastes as good as Ritz . . . but Ritz!”

So, tell me. You became a librarian in 2005, and started blogging back in the halcyon days of late 2007. That officially makes you a grizzled veteran of the blogosphere. Did you have a plan when you started?

Let me begin by saying I have played a lot of soccer in my day, and have thus taken many, many soccer balls to the head. I’ve always had a hard time remembering which books I’ve read and why I liked them or didn’t like them. My memory not what it should be, I began 100 Scope Notes mainly to record my thoughts and feelings about books I was reading. I also like the idea of making book reviews entertaining in their own right, so I’m always trying to accomplish that.

So it really began as a classic “web log” without any great ambitions. Did you think anyone would read it?

Hmm. Yes, I suppose I figured I could dupe a few shut-ins into reading my opinions, but I didn’t expect much more than that.

It’s very impressive what you’ve accomplished. (Listen to me, I sound like Yoda: “Lost a planet, Obi Wan has.”) Congratulations.

Thanks. Fun, it has been.

Grow up, where did you?

Northern Michigan. Are you familiar with the Mackinaw Bridge? Close to that.

A great place to grow up and very picturesque. I love it. Pretty far up there, however. Let’s just say that there were times in elementary school where I was slightly embarrassed to admit that I didn’t snowmobile for fear of getting shunned by my peers.

I find your blog very inspiring. I mean, authors tend to blog out of necessity, some sense of self-promotion. Other folks blog because it’s part of their job. But your blog, and others like yours, either by teachers or librarians or enthusiastic parents, comes from what appears to be a purer place, an abiding love of children’s books.

I definitely want the focus to be on books. Self-promotion isn’t really my bag. I have this completely unreasonable desire to Google my name and have it say “I’m sorry, that person must not exist, for we can find no evidence saying so”. I’ve been doing pretty well at that so far, although I guess this interview may hurt the pursuit of that goal. I’m a school librarian, so the blog is mostly for others in my profession. I use blogs I trust for finding great books, so I want to do the same for others.

So why children’s books? How did you get here?

That direction was not always clear. Roald Dahl was the first author I loved back in elementary school. In middle school I was huge into comics and then I went through a serious periodicals phase in high school . . .

Travis, hey, it’s perfectly natural for boys of a certain age. Bodies mature, maybe you discover your father’s (cough, cough) “periodicals,” as you prefer to call them, and . . .

Wow, I really walked right into that one.

I guess you did.

I had an agreement with the high school library aide where I could go behind the counter and grab the latest magazine issues before they went on the shelves. Thus I have perused more issues of Entertainment Weekly than I care to mention. When I went to college, I knew I wanted to work with the elementary school crowd. Getting back into children’s books stemmed from that. There are so many great books for kids that it was easy to get sucked back in. After I picked up my elementary teaching certification, I went back to school for library/media. Now I work in a school district with four elementary schools that I split time between.

You have an eye for book covers. I enjoy it when you highlight “Unfortunate Book Covers.” It pains you when a good book has a bad cover. Tell us a little bit about that. Do you think there are common mistakes?

I think folks who work in the book world can identify with this. You love a particular book and put it face out on the shelf, assuming that it will get snatched up right away. Most do, but occasionally there is one that seems to have been coated with child repellent. I’m glad that my hurt comes through, because it’s truly painful to see a great book sit just because its cover has seen better days.

Two of the books I’ve featured, Boy and Danny the Champion of the World, were especially difficult to call out, because I really, really love those books. I think sticking with a cover for too long is the most common mistake. I understand that there are lots of reasons why every book can’t get a makeover every ten years, but there are plenty of books that get passed over because they don’t look current. Really, there is an endless supply of these, so I see that feature popping up for quite a while.

I wonder if Jigsaw Jones falls into that category. He’s about that age.

Naw, I don’t find that that’s the case in the schools where I work. Actually, it’s pretty rare for series books to fall into the Unfortunate Covers territory. Readers get familiar with the characters and continue checking out books in the series, so a bad cover doesn’t have as much of a negative effect.

I enjoy your “cover controversy” posts, where you highlight look-alike covers. Do you have a larger point about imitation, or are you simply pointing out coincidences and trends just for the fun of it?

My whole motivation for pointing out similar covers boils down to something along the lines of, “Hey, look at that!” I would imagine that creating appealing covers is a difficult job, so I don’t get too frustrated that popular trends emerge. Although there are two cover types that I think have to go:

1. Girls in Victorian-era costumes.

2. Socks.

I think I speak for everyone when I say that we appreciate your courageous vow to keep us “updated with any new sock-related cover art developments.” You strike me as a talented writer. Intelligent, inquisitive, and funny. Do you write fiction? And I’m really hoping that your answer is, “Yes.”

Do nonsensical ramblings count as fiction? If so, then yes, I write fiction almost daily. If that description doesn’t cut it, then the answer is no.

You’re in –- “nonsensical ramblings” definitely qualifies. It’s probably how most writers get started.

While I once toyed with the idea of writing a collection of “inspired by real life” short stories, all I have to show for it is a list of chapter titles that I lost a few years back. I have been getting some encouragements lately, however (and I’m counting this question as one), including some from an author/illustrator whom I really respect. So a commitment of pen to paper may be in the cards at some point.

What have you gotten out of the blogging experience? I’m sure a lot of people look at it and think, “Oh dear, that seems like a lot of work.” What’s the payback?

I like the fact that the work I do on 100 Scope Notes makes me better at my job. I’m able to make better decisions in terms of book purchasing and recommending because I’m reading and writing about these things all the time. I also like the creative aspect of it, coming up with different ways of talking about children’s lit.

What makes a good blog?

I have a prepared statement for this. Here goes. Ahem:

1. Authority. How well do you know your stuff? Can you explain why you liked/didn’t like a book? (Note: Writing in all caps is not a good way to show authority).
2. Voice. Do I feel like I can connect and identify with you? Do you like Frisbee? Me too – we can hang out.
3. Opinions. Dude, you gotta take a stand. Did you like a book or not? Don’t be shy. Do you seem like a reasonable person who makes sound judgments? Did you like the song, “We Built This City”? If so, then your opinions are suspect.
4. Updates. There are exceptions, but as a general rule, if you only post once a month, I’m going to lose interest.

Well said. And for the record, I can say with 100% conviction that I hate the song, “We Built This City.”

What about author blogs. What do you like about them? And what don’t you like?

I like the behind the scenes stuff. It’s also a plus if they have an opinion of some of the book-related topics of the day. Also, it helps when they don’t do that “click here to read more!” thing, which really cramps the style of anyone checking out the site from Google Reader.

I find some of them fall into the trap of being too relentlessly self-promotional. Like, I know you are a big success and everything, but I’m kind of getting turned off here.

You’ve gotta have a good balance — talk about your books, but talk about not your books too.

You seem really exited about going to ALA in Chicago. Why is that? Don’t get out much?

The short answer is no. Here’s the long response: I’m excited because it sounds like cool things happen there. I’ve always wanted to attend the ALA conferences, but could never swing it. This time there is no excuse, as the conference site is just a couple hours away. I’m going to write some posts for 100 Scope Notes and the ALSC (Association for Library Service to Children) blog while I’m there, so that should be fun. I’m expecting a good time. I got a little too excited and made up some business cards. Currently, I’m busy planning out my food schedule for the trip. So far I’ve got Ann Sather for breakfast, Shaw’s Crab House for dinner, and — wait, this is sounding familiar.

I hear that Matthew Cordell likes cupcakes. You should try to meet him.

Say no more. I just added a chance meeting with Mr. Cordell to my itinerary.

Keep a cupcake in your pocket just in case. Why did you pick the name, “100 Scope Notes”?

It wasn’t a moniker that I’ve always had in my back pocket. When I knew I was going to start a blog, I wanted the title to be a library term. I cracked open my Dewey decimal classification guide and started looking around for something. In true librarian form, I always have Dewey nearby –- even in the car, where I keep a travel-sized reference in the glove compartment. Just kidding, but that would probably be a big hit if someone published that. Anyway, when I came to the term “scope note” I figured that would be a good choice. A scope note helps to clarify or define, which I thought was appropriate. I added the 100 because I thought it would be easier for people to remember and find if they were doing a search for it.

With today’s changing delivery systems, this age of New Media, are you concerned about the future of “the book”?

You know that section in Popular Science where they look back at an article that appeared in the magazine 60 years ago that says something like, “In 1996, civilization will rely on invisible, fudge-powered trains for travel,” and we all say. “ha-ha, look how silly we were”? I think making a prediction about where books are heading might come off a bit like that. But if I had to make one it would be this: In the year 2012 we will have invisible books that will somehow be fudge-powered.

You also review books for the School Library Journal. Lately there’s been some blog chatter about blog reviews, the quality or lack of quality, etcetera. Is there a difference when you post a review on your blog compared to the reviews you do for SLJ?

I have been keeping up on that blog vs. journal discussion and it makes for some interesting reading. There is definitely a difference between my reviews for SLJ and 100 Scope Notes. In SLJ I do my best to stick to a more professional format. The length guidelines really force you to make every word count. Writing this type of review has definitely made me more conscious of getting to the point and has made me a better writer overall.   Then I write a blog review and it’s like, “Hey, I can do anything I want here!” I like having the opportunity to do both styles. While some of my blog reviews are nontraditional, I still hold myself responsible for giving my honest opinion with information to back it up. I would like to think that the quality, while delivered in a different way, remains the same.

What do you think of negative reviews?

They’re essential. I don’t delight in writing negative reviews, but people need to know the truth.

But what if they CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH? (Um, sorry. That was my Jack Nicholson impression. Pretty intimidating, right?)

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I have yet to upgrade my VHS version of “A Few Good Men”, but I would say that’s pretty accurate. The rub is that I’m always looking to read books that I think I’ll enjoy, thus you’re likely to find more positive reviews on 100 Scope Notes. This fact makes professional journal reviews so vital as they review everything: good, bad, ugly, unreadable, and ridiculous.

If you could meet any author, who would that be? I mean, besides me.

Well, my other number one would have to be Jon Scieszka. Although now that he’s the Children’s Lit Ambassador, a meeting might be tough to pull off. Security detail, helicopters, body doubles, armored cars, you know how it goes. I also have some mixed feelings when it comes to meeting authors. I never really know how to chat them up. Do I steer down the “undying affection” road and just talk about the author’s books, or should I go with the more difficult to pull off, “You’re famous but I’m cool so I’m going to talk to you about other things” approach? It’s a tough choice so I usually just hedge my bets and remain uncomfortably silent. Any suggestions?

I think you treat them the way you treat anybody else, from the waitress at TGI Fridays to your neighbor to the high-powered executive. As equals, you know. At the same time, if he or she has written something that has touched you in some way, that means something to you, that’s always a nice thing to hear.

Ah, the old, “Imagine you’re at T.G.I. Fridays” approach. Very crafty, Preller. I will attempt this technique.

Oh, please, Travis. You can call me, “Mr. Preller, Sir.” Lightning round: Five websites you can’t live without?

Pitchfork Media
Yes, yes this music site has sort of gotten a bad rap lately due to large doses of hipster backlash, but I’ve been reading it for years and when they like an album, I often like it too. I also completely borrowed some of their ideas for my site.

A Fuse #8 Production
A great childrens lit blog: informative, funny, thought-provoking. This one was starting back when I was beginning my library career, and it’s been fun to follow ever since.

BuzzFeed
While I probably read every Entertainment Weekly from 1996-2004, I no longer have easy access to that magazine. BuzzFeed fills some of the gap. Slightly gossipy for my tastes, but they seem to have a thing for kid’s books, which I appreciate.

Facebook
No description needed

Question: I’m 48, so I know what I’m doing on Facebook, i.e., misguided nostalgia, reconnecting with people who didn’t like me the first time around. But a young fellow like yourself, what are you doing? Connecting with old preschool buddies?

No, no, of course not. Elementary school buddies.

Titlewave
Working at four elementary schools, I place a lot of book orders. Follett’s Titlewave site is the best in the biz as far as I’m concerned. Wow, I really sound like a pitchman right now, don’t I? Moving right along…

20×200
This site is cool. Artists create works and they sell different sized prints beginning at 20 bucks.

What music are you listening to these days?

Music is a big thing for me dating back to my saxophone virtuosity in middle school band. I was the second to last chair, but then the last chair guy moved to another school, so I was demoted for the rest of my days. I also was a DJ for my college radio station where I did theme nights. As you can imagine, themes such as “Depressing Songs” and “Songs I Can’t Stand” made for uplifting listening.

Oh, you are one of those “mixed tape” guys. Confession: I make a new playlist on my iPod every month of the year. And Travis, I just have to say: Are you feeling this, too? Because I think we’re starting to bond.

I’m a bit obsessive with the iTunes –- I rate all the songs and make ridiculous smart playlists, like, “Please list songs that I have skipped less than 10 times, but have played more than 20. Move songs with artist names that contain the word ‘Cougar’ off the list.” Between iTunes, GoodReads.com, and 100 Scope Notes, I occasionally feel like I just rate things all day long.

What are your five most played songs on iTunes? No cheating.

“This Must Be the Place,” Talking Heads. “No One Does It Like You,” Department of Eagles. “Karma Police (Live on David Letterman),” Radiohead. “Trains to Brazil,” Guillemots. “Soul to Squeeze,” Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Any recent favorites, discoveries?

I really could go on for awhile on this question, so I’ll just list a few things:

Jens Lekman, Night Falls Over Kortedala
The song “A Postcard to Nina” is one of my all time favorites

Camera Obscura, My Maudlin Career
I’ve talked about them a little on 100 Scope Notes. I would hazard to guess that this band may have more librarian fans than any other. This album should come wrapped in a cardigan.

Pete and the Pirates, Little Death
This is sort of a pop rock group. Great songs, but I still have trouble telling each song apart – I guess that means they’re consistent?

Fanfarlo, Reservoir
I just got this after hearing them on NPR’s All Songs Considered. I’m glad I did. Fans of Arcade Fire would likely get into this.

Would you burn me a CD, some kind of Travis hipster pop-geek mix?

I’m already mulling over some picks. I’ll just need your mailing address.

Five favorite movies?

Pulp Fiction
This seemed completely original when it came out. Memorable characters with dialogue that immediately draws you in.

Ratatouille
Every year Pixar comes out with a new movie some critic declares that it’s their best yet. Don’t believe them –- this movie is the best they’ve ever done. Successful on so many levels and entertaining the whole way through.

2001: A Space Odyssey
This one is sort of the classic “attention everyone, I have good taste” pick, but I loved it, and I really think it changed the way people think about movies. I’m still fairly shocked that this was actually in movie theaters in 1968. Things move slowly, but the tension that builds is crazy.

Cool Hand Luke
This one started a whole older movie craze for me. I didn’t think that watching a chain gang build roads and engage in egg-eating contests would be entertaining, but I was wrong.

Classic quote: “What we got here . . .  is a failure to communicate.”

School of Rock
There may have never been a role more tailor made for an actor than Dewey Finn for Jack Black. Hilarious.

“I pledge allegiance . . . to the band . . . of Mr. Schneebly.” I put that quote in my upcoming book, Bystander, partly because I love that movie so much.

Five favorite children’s books?

Holes
This book was like my reintroduction to children’s lit. In college I wasn’t reading many kids books. I picked this one up right as I was beginning my student teaching. Amazing. The storyline fits together so well. I thought, “Dang, this is what books for kids should be.” I’m actually kinda getting chills just thinking about how great that story is.

Where the Wild Things Are
Aught Nine is the year of the Wild Things. With the movie coming out, everyone is getting nostalgic for this classic. I have to say that of all the books I read as a kid, this one stuck with me the most.

What you said about Holes is true for me with Wild Things. I found that book soon after college and it totally changed my thinking about children’s books. Everything was suddenly possible. These books could have real emotional and psychological depth. Which is why, of course, I wrote Hiccups for Elephant.

The City of Ember
Sci-fi masterpiece. There is such a great buildup in this book. A serious page-turner.

Arnie the Doughnut
This picture book should be in every library. Funny, with a delightfully absurd ending that never fails to make kids smile. One of my all-time favorite read-alouds.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
As a kid, I was on a mission to hunt down every Roald Dahl book ever written (The Vicar of Nibbleswick was the most difficult to find back in those pre-internet days, by the way). “Charlie” was the one that sent me down that path.

Well, Travis, it looks like our time is up. Thanks for hanging out and eating my entire cheese log. I admire your alert, open, engaged mind — and for a skinny guy you’ve got quite an appetite. Enjoy ALA! Blog like there’s no tomorrow! And eat like a Roman Emperor!

I’m off to start fasting . . .

Bloggy Blogness: Around the Horn

A few things:

* My Best Pal in the World Whom I Never Actually Met, Matthew Cordell, gets the “Random Illustrator” Feature over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. They do a first-rate job over there, always.

* The fabulous Brenda Bowen — most recently of Bowen Press — has dusted herself off and started a new blog, called Bunny Eat Bunny. Just a thought: Maybe Brenda should have named it Bunny Dust Bunny. Or not! Anyway, Brenda is in the process of reinventing herself (she’s like Madonna that way) and I know many of us are eager to see what’s next. In the meantime, Brenda’s blog is just a nice way to stay in touch, to see an active, insightful mind at work.

* For bright bursts of optimism, beauty and creativity, is there any place on the web better than Color Me Katie? It’s a visual site, very little reading, and always a pleasure and an inspiration.

* I’d say this spot has been my favorite children’s literature blog of late: consistently excellent.

* The first, early review of Bystander, due out in Fall of ’09 (Feiwel and Friends).