Tag Archive for Behind the Scenes with James Preller

Fathers, Sons, and Baseball

I originally posted this back on July 10, 2008 — before I knew how to insert photos.


Fathers and sons and baseball. You can almost hear the violins, the sap rising from the roots. It’s a tired cliche, of course, but that doesn’t render the dynamic meaningless.

My father, ten years before I came along, with Neal or Billy.

My father wasn’t a sports guy; I can’t remember him ever turning on the television to watch a game of any sort. Hey, I can’t remember having catch with him. But I had four older brothers, and my baseball-loving mom, and a dozen kids on the block for that. Dad was Old School. I think of him as more CEO/CFO in Charge of Household as opposed to today’s helicopter-style parent, forever hovering, eager to bond and share and become best buddies. That wasn’t my father’s way.

So, basically, I played Little League and my father did other things. And I want to make this clear: It was perfectly okay. But one year, when I was ten years old and playing for the Cardinals — astonishingly vivid memories of those games — somehow my father got roped in as a coach. He didn’t know a blessed thing about baseball. Didn’t care to know. The manager, hard-nosed Larry Bassett, taught my father how to keep the scorebook and I’m fairly certain that was the full extent of his usefulness.

I found it embarrassing. Not horribly so, but it felt odd to see my father on the ballfield, clueless and unathletic. What did the other boys think? It was 1971 and my dad was painfully uncool. I loved baseball deeply, passionately. In that sense, we lived on separate planets. Of course now, years later, I see it from a different perspective. And it boils down to this: He was there. As a parent, isn’t that 98% of the job? Just showing up, day after day. Being there. My father is gone now, died almost two years ago, fell on the front lawn and never got back up. Maybe that makes you (me) appreciate those times, those presences, all the more. For he will never “be there” again.

He never read Six Innings, either. If he did, I would have told my father that I loosely modeled a character after him, Mr. Lionni, Alex’s dad, right down to the thick-framed glasses and questionable attire, the black socks, brown loafers and shorts. There’s a scene when Mr. Lionni takes his baseball-loving son, Alex, for extra batting practice. That scene sprang directly from my childhood; I remember the one and only time my father pitched batting practice to me — awkwardly, poorly, like he was hurling foreign objects. But I was struggling with the bat, the same as Alex in my book, and that man, the father, tried to help the best he could.

In Six Innings, it’s a minor scene (pp. 56-58), just a little backstory about one of the boys on the team. But for me, it resonates across the years, like an echo across a vast canyon. My dad and baseball. Our moments together on the diamond, a burnished memory, glowing like hot coals almost forty years hence. He was there. I didn’t appreciate it then, though I certainly recognized the uniqueness of the event; I was just a boy. But that’s what writing gives us, the opportunity to revisit, revalue, remember in the root meaning of the word — to re-member, to make whole again, to bring those disparate things together. Me and Dad and baseball.

Postscript: Oh, yeah, about the name Lionni. That’s another tribute to a great children’s book author by the name of Leo. Someday I should put together a full roster. I see James Marshall manning the Hot Corner, nimble and loose; Maurice Sendak on the hill, strong-armed and determined; maybe sure-handed Bernard Waber over at second base . . .

Addendum II: Today is 1/16/2015, and I came across this post while hunting for other prey. It’s been a week consumed with writing — I’m trying to finish a book today that I started four years ago — and I’ve neglected the blog. Not that anybody cares. Anyway, here’s something. Also: a curiosity. My father was named Alan J. Preller, and grew up on Long Island. The new GM of the San Diego Padres, A.J. Preller, also grew up on Long Island. It’s not a common name. I’ve talked it over with my brother, Al, and we’ve decided he’s probably a second-cousin or something, connected to my late Grandfather, Fred Preller, 22-year assemblyman from Queens, NY. Ah, baseball.

Jigsaw Jones: What’s In a Book Cover?

One of the central themes of this blog is that whatever touches my life as a writer is valid content. Or as my pal Matthew Cordell might say, “blog fodder.” So, thus: I recently got this note from my editor at Scholastic, Matt Ringler:

TITLE: Jigsaw Jones Electronic Mystery: The Case of the Secret Skeleton
AUTHOR: James Preller

Jigsaw Jones is sneaking into the janitor’s storage closet. We see him standing in the doorway. It’s dark but Jigsaw has a flashlight. In a back corner, lit up by the beam of light is a plaster human skeleton, hanging from a stand by its head. The skeleton should be the size of a normal person, like the ones used in science class to study anatomy. Jigsaw looks frightened. We can also see the normal paraphernalia that would be in the storage closet (i.e. mops, brooms, buckets, etc.). Visibly crumpled in the skeleton’s hand is a piece of paper (a clue).

And that’s it, one of the early steps toward designing a book cover. The manuscript, you should know, is not yet finished. In paperback publishing, it often isn’t. The book won’t be out for a year — but covers need to be placed in catalogs and brochures; the marketing guys need ’em in well advance. And you don’t want to mess with the marketing guys.

Matt and I discussed the “cover concept” over the phone. Then he had to present it at a meeting to get approval before taking the next step. Which is, I’m pretty sure, speaking with the art director who will contact the cover artist, R.W. Alley.

NOTE: At this point, I decided to do a quick Q & A with Matt Ringler.

Hey, Matt, thanks for helping me out. So what’s involved with getting this particular cover concept approved? Is it anything like, for example, meeting with the Spanish Inquisition?

I’d say it’s more like the “History of the World” version of the Spanish Inquisition, you know, with Mel Brooks singing and fully choreographed synchronized swimmers.

See, that’s where we part ways, my friend. I prefer the Monty Python version, with soft cushions and comfy chairs. [See clip below.]

The trickiest part is making sure everybody is happy. In this case everybody means: the author, the editor (me), the editorial director, the art designer, the manager of the Book Club this title is going on, and a creative director. After all those people sign off on it, the illustrator gets to add another important opinion. I don’t know how many times you’ve ever been around seven people who fully agree on anything. Personally, I have never seen it happen.

The Seven Dwarfs seemed pretty high on Snow White. [That’s the Disney spelling, btw.]

Well, you know what Randy Newman would say about that.

The Dwarfs would have hated the song “Short People” — with unanimous agreement, I’d bet. Too bad they didn’t design book covers.

It’s rare to get full agreement on anything, and that’s a positive thing. Different perspectives often work to improve a book cover. From most conversations I’ve had, many people are under the impression that an editor only corrects spelling and grammar mistakes. While that helps with the job description, I think the most important quality needed in an editor at this stage in the process is diplomacy. I’m happy when all of those people are satisfied and the cover concept arrives on my desk with all of the necessary signatures.

Once the concept is approved, what next?

The next step is to discuss it with the art designer. The designer will then discuss the cover ideas with the artist. A time line will be set. A rough sketch will then come in to the designer, who will place that art into the template of the book cover. At that stage, everybody will look at it again to make sure it works.

I have to say, I love this process stuff — how crayons are made, or Hershey’s Kisses, or whatever — I find it so interesting how many small steps are taken to make a book happen. When do you think the rough sketch will come in?

Most people aren’t aware of the hundreds of minor decisions that are made before each book is published. The time it takes to get a sketch depends on several factors: how fast the artist works, how busy they may be at that time, the book’s schedule, when the final art is due, etc. The standard time is about three weeks to a month. It is important to leave enough time for the illustrator to make any changes that may be needed.

Thanks, Matt. I intend to keep my loyal blog readers — who, clearly, and I don’t think this is saying too much, are willing to lay down their lives for me — posted on this whole process. We’ll be talking soon (and not just about the New York Mets, and our shared pain, but about actual work, too!).

Thank you, Jimmy. I always look forward to our conversations, and I know we will one day have one about a championship Mets team — even if we are old and retired by then!

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

NOTE: Here’s some links to the follow-up posts in this seven-part series: One, Two, Three, FourFive, and Six, and Seven. Read them all and experience the awe and wonder of the creative, collaborative process!

Inside Scoop: Book Covers, Along Came Spider

On Sunday night I began to write a post about my new “Jigsaw Jones” cover, but didn’t have all the info I needed to make it happen. So, instead, let’s just dub this COVER WEEK and begin here:

A while back, in May, I tried to discuss some cover changes that Scholastic went through for my book, Along Came Spider. Unfortunately, at the time I was less than adept at some technical aspects of blogging. So it failed miserably. But today I can show you the two covers, rejected and final, in one place. Please click the link above if you wish to read more background discussion.

Note that the “rejected cover” was the real cover until very late in the process. It was used in promotions, put into catalogs, everybody had signed off. Then, at the last minute, and practically overnight, it was completely redone with an entirely new direction.

The original (rejected) cover:

The final version: