I’ve found that my relationship with each book I’ve written changes over time. This must be true for other writers. We work intensely on the manuscript, through the endless revisions and copyedits, deeply engaged, and then the book goes out into the world. Done, finished. We’re proud, thrilled, hopeful. Our minds then turn to the next task, radars up, our occupation of daydreams and research.
Meanwhile, the world does what it does.
I’ve found that my feelings about the book shift in subtle ways according to the response it receives. The reviews, certainly. There are sales reports and Amazon rankings and the craziness of GoodReads and the tone in my editor’s voice, who gives good news or says little.
Should I ask? I decide not to ask. Better not to ask.
And worst of all, that slippery thing: The Buzz Factor. Likes and shares and retweets and the cold, clammy horror of being ignored on social media.
You learn, once again, that you have not written an “it” book. Entertainment Weekly will not be calling. Oprah isn’t enthralled. Even Betsy Bird doesn’t seem to care.
Friends kindly ask, “How’s the book doing?”
And I think: Gee, I don’t know, but whatever it is doing, it is doing it very, very quietly. Because after all it’s a book — a silent slothlike creature moving stealthily about the forest, unaccompanied by fanfare and timbrels.
The feeling, accurate or not, is this: I made a book and the world just shrugged. It can be dispiriting. A vague disappointment settles into the pit of the stomach. A small distance creeps in between the book and me.
Stupid, I know.
And, in fact, monumentally stupid because before all that outside stuff wedged between us, I knew I had written a good book. Maybe even a very good book. Even so, the world so often yawns. Life goes on pretty much exactly as before.
The response to the book can create a rift between author and object. Maybe I don’t love it as much anymore. Maybe something’s wrong with it, or wrong with me. The perceived world’s indifference gets in the way.
Then time passes.
And for some reason I pick up the book I wrote four years ago and leaf through the pages. Parts surprise me. There are passages where I think: Hey, that’s pretty good. And in that moment, the book returns to me, it comes back like a bounding, beloved hound that had crawled under the fence for one long, wretched night.
Returned home again. Found.
So to celebrate that reunion, and the good things — and the extraordinary things, nominated for the Sakura Medal in Japan — that the world has given back about The Fall, I thought I’d share a small section of the story. It is a book about hard things written in short, accessible chapters. Here’s one example, where Sam writes in his journal about Morgan, who has died. He describes a moment between them that never happened. At least, not in the way he imagines.
(Don’t worry, folks. Here’s a blow up that you can actually see with human eyes.)
The article below came out the day before Halloween over at the Kirkus Reviews blog. It was written by the fabulous Julie Danielson, who also writes one of the best blogs in the whole dang internet: Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Check it out, bookmark it, love it. Julie also has a new book out, co-written with Betsy Bird (of Fuse 8 fame) and the late, great Peter D. Sieruta.
I haven’t read this one yet, by the firm of Bird, Danielson & Sieruta, but it’s high on my reading list.
But enough about those guys. Let’s bring this conversation back to me, me, me.
Tomorrow is Halloween, and author James Preller wants to scare your children—the safe, exhilarating type of scare, that is, which comes from a well-constructed set of spooky stories just for the younger set. He’s been doing this not just on Halloween but all during the year with Scary Tales, his chapter book series of ghost stories, launched last year and illustrated by Iacopo Bruno.Chilling and thrilling and very often spine-tingling, the series offers up serious page-turners for students who enjoy reading frightening tales while on the edge of their seats. It’s a far cry from Preller’s Jigsaw Jones series of chapter books, which debuted in 1998, the beloved fictional detective stories for children that are still circulating in libraries. The latest and fifth book in the Scary Tales series, The One-Eyed Doll, was just released. It brings readers hidden treasures, deserted houses, and a creepy one-eyed doll, who moves and tells stories. Needless to say, it’s a good fit for Halloween—or, really, any time of year.Next year, Preller will also see the release of a middle-grade novel, one that follows 2009’s Bystander, which the Kirkusreview called “eminently discussable as a middle-school read-aloud.” The Fall, as you’ll read below, addresses bullying, but not for the sake of jumping on the bullying bandwagon. That’s to say that as soon as many schools kicked off anti-bullying crusades in recent years, we suddenly saw a flock of books about bullying in the realm of children’s literature. But Preller isn’t one for the “bully” label.Let’s find out why.–The Scary Tales series started in 2013, yes? How much fun has it been to scare the pants off of readers?–Writing “scary” has been liberating. A blast. In the past, I’ve mostly written realistic fiction. But for these stories I’ve tapped into a different sort of imagination, what I think of as the unpossible. The trick is that once you accept that one impossible element—a zombie or a ghost in the mirror—then the story plays out in a straightforward manner.All storytelling has its backbone in realistic fiction.–So many kids, even at a surprisingly young age, are eager to read scary stories. I tried to fill that gap. “Scary” thrills them. It makes their hearts beat faster. Yet I say to students, “I’m sorry, but nobody gets murdered in these books. There are no heads chopped off. No gore.” To me, the great sentence is: The door knob slowly, slowly turned. That delicious moment of anticipation, of danger climbing the stairs. I’ve tried to provide those chills, while still resolving each book in a safe way.–You do a lot of school visits, as I understand it. What do you see the very best teachers and librarians doing (best practices, if you will) that really get children fired up about reading? –In its essence, teaching is enthusiasm transferred. The best educators seem to do that naturally—the excitement, the love of discovery. It leaks into everything they do. I think it’s about a teacher’s prevailing attitude, more than any specific activity.–Speaking of school visits, I assume you still visit schools to discuss Bystander, especially given the subject matter. How have middle-schoolers responded to that book in school visits? –The response to Bystander has been incredible—and humbling. Many middle schools have used it as their “One School, One Book” community reads, which is such an honor.I attempted to write a lively, unsentimental, informed, fast-paced story. I hope that I’ve given readers something to think about, while leaving them to draw their own conclusions. I didn’t write a pamphlet, 10 steps to bully-proof your school. Robert McKee, in his book Story, says that stories are “equipment for living.” I believe in the power of literature to help us experience empathy.–What’s next for you? Am I right that there’s a new Scary Tales coming out in 2015, as well as a new novel? Working on anything else you’re allowed to discuss now? –I have an ambitious hardcover coming out next year, titled The Fall (Macmillan, Fall 2015), in which I return to some of the themes first explored in Bystander. We’ve seen “the bully” become this vilified subcreature, and in most cases I don’t think that’s fair or accurate. Bullying is a verb, a behavior, not a label we can stick on people to define them—especially when we are talking about children. Walt Whitman wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”The book is told in a journal format from the perspective of a boy who has participated in bullying—with tragic results—and now he’s got to own it. A good kid, I think, who failed to be his best self. To my surprise, the book ended up as almost a meditation on forgiveness, that most difficult of things. The opening sentence reads:
“Two weeks before Morgan Mallen threw herself off the water tower, I might have sent a message to her social media page that read, ‘Just die! die! die! No one cares about you anyway! (I’m just saying: It could have been me.)”
I was guided throughout my writing by a powerful quote from the great lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson: “I’ve come to understand and to believe that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children’s literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
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 . . .
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.
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.
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:
True story: I was telling a teacher friend about the video contest the other day, urging him to check it out, and thought to myself: “Hmmm, blog fodder!”
Because once you have a blog, the world quickly divides into two parts: blog-worthy or not so much.
Here, give this 90 seconds and we’ll talk:
Fun idea, right? Simply compress the full story of a Newbery Medal or Honor Book into a video that runs no more than 90 seconds.
I can see how a good teacher, with a lively classroom, could make hay out of something like this. Get creative, allow students to actively contribute in different ways, read and learn how to analyze (not to mention summarize) a classic book, and so much more.
“We’ll just put the books . . . ANYWHERE!” — from the film, “Party Girl.”
Question: Why does this image from “Desk Set,” starring Katherine Hepburn as librarian Bunny Watson, remind me of Elizabeth Bird? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
While I’ve got you, I have to share this fabulous clip that should tickle the fancy of any librarian. Finally, a realistic portrayal. The actress is Parker Posey, America’s indie-film queen, from the movie, “Party Girl.”
And more seriously, here’s the trailer for a documentary titled, “Hollywood Librarian: A Look at Librarians Through Film,” a film I totally missed when it came out in 2004. It’s now available on DVD. Some notes from the Media Education Foundation:
This film’s subject is librarians: who they are, what they do, why they do it, and the impact of their work in people’s lives. The underlying meaning is how we express our own humanity, how we listen to ourselves and one another in the realm of the written and read word — a uniquely human privilege.
Audiences will be surprised and delighted by the fascinating librarians in this entertaining and enlightening film, and will emerge with a greater appreciation for the range of literature and materials available to them thanks to our nation’s librarians.
The film was written and directed by Ann M. Seidl, a library consultant. For a bref interview with Ann, you want to click wildly right now.
Tip of the hat to the great pop culture blog, Pop Candy, for the inspiration.