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FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #266: All About Monsters

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Sam writes . . .

 

Dear Mr. Preller,

HI! My name is Sam. I am in 4th grade. I was wondering if I could interview you for a school research project. my topic is monsters. I can send the questions by email if it is convenient for you.
 
Sincerely,
Sam
 
And the next day . . .
 

Hi Mr.Preller! These are the interview questions.

 
 1) what is the most common monster?
 
 2) what are common monster traits?
 
 3) why are monsters feared?
 
 4) how are most monsters created?
 
 5) how do your monsters act?
 
 6) how did you create your monsters?
 
Thanks for making the time to do this!
 
sincerely,
Sam
Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from "Scary Tales: I Scream, You Scream."

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from “Scary Tales: I Scream, You Scream.”

 
I replied . . . 
 –
Sam,
– 
You should know that I don’t know any monsters personally — and I mean, monster-monsters, not monstrous people or events — we all c8ef36cf51ff34e2a2e8e1bbed323631have a little monster inside us, I believe — so I’m not sure I have the exact brand of expertise you seek. For my “Scary Tales” series, for example, I usually make up “monsters” that I imagine might frighten a reader, or frighten me, though I have yet to write a story about a monster-dentist. Talk about scary! I could call it, THE ROOT CANAL! Or, I don’t know, THE BRACES TIGHTEN!
 –
(I never had braces, but the idea terrifies me.)
 –
Another scary title for a monster story might be, oh, THE CONGRESSMAN!
 
Yikes, horrifying. 
 –
So I guess in that sense monsters can come in all shapes and sizes. Not necessarily swamp monsters or werewolves or zombies.
 –
Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from "Scary Tales: The One-Eyed Doll."

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from “Scary Tales: The One-Eyed Doll.”

 
Anyway, that said, let me try to answer your questions, Sam.
 
1. The most common monster? The one under your bed.
 
2. Common traits? They like to hide in dark places.
 
Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from "Scary Tales: Swamp Monster."

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from “Scary Tales: Swamp Monster.”

3. Monsters are feared because they are . . . other. Different. Not us. But the reverse can also be true. In my book Swamp Monster, the creature from the swamp, the so-called “monster,” simply wants her baby back. An egg has been stolen from her. She’s a loving mother. So I ask you, as I did in the book, who is really the monster in that story? I guess it depends on your point of view.

 –
4. Monsters are created from the dark places in our imaginations. Once they are dreamed up, they are free to go about as they please. There’s no putting the toothpaste back into the tube, so to speak.
 –
5. Like every other character in a book or story, monsters want something. The question is always: What does this character want? In The One-Eyed Doll, the “monster” — I use quotes here, because I’m not always comfortable labeling these creations as monsters — wants to be a real girl. Not a monstrous desire at all. But of course, in order one_eyed_dollesec01to get what she desires . . . well, that’s the scary part. The wanting can be a sort of disease, a sickness that allows you to do horrible things. Greed is the kind of disease that can turn ordinary people into monsters. They want what they want. When I think of monstrous people in our world, the common characteristic is a lack of empathy. They don’t care about anyone else but themselves. Selfish, greedy. They don’t care who they hurt as long as they get what they want. Once you begin to think about how someone else might feel . . . once you walk around in someone else’s shoes, see life from their point of view . . . that’s when you lose your ability to be a monster.
(These are complicated thoughts, Sam, and I’m not sure I’m articulating them well, but maybe worth a conversation with a teacher or parent or some friends. There are so many types of monsters in the world, it’s hard to keep them sorted out. Can you be a bully if you truly, deeply think about how your target feels? Can we rip the immigrant father away from his children if we truly succeed in imagining their hearts and minds? Can we pollute a river if we care about our planet and the people who live on it?)
– 
To me, a monster is almost always deeply egocentric, unable to think of anyone else’s feelings but his/her own.
 
Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from "Scary Tales: Nightmareland."

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno from “Scary Tales: Nightmareland.”

 
6. How do I create them? The glib answer is that, as a writer, my job is to make things up. And I do that piece by piece, characteristic by characteristic. When I wrote a book about bullying, Bystander, the character who was the “monster” in that story — a boy who did 9780312547967monstrous things — I made sure that he was attractive in many respects. A good-looking kid. A smooth talker. Nice smile. That’s what made him especially dangerous. He didn’t appear, at first, as a monster. Quite the opposite. Sometimes the scariest kid in class is four feet tall and wears blonde pigtails and has a terrific smile. And sometimes the monster might be childhood illness, as in my book Six Innings. Or a mother’s cancer in The Courage Test. Not something I made up, but recognized as a actual terror in the real world. But again, let’s get back to traditional monsters, and what the monster wants. In Good Night, Zombie, the monsters are zombies. They aren’t complicated. They just want to eat. Unfortunately, we’re on the menu!
 –
Thanks for your questions.
 
I’m curious. What are you going to do with them? 
 
My best, 
 
James Preller