One thing about being a published author is that every blue moon your publisher asks you to do things. For example, I was just called on to answer a series of questions which will be published in the back matter of the paperback edition of The Fall (coming in October, 2016).
This is not usually my favorite thing to do. I enjoy talking about the work, the writing, but I’m not a fan of questions that focus on personality. At the Albany Teen Con this past year, the day’s events got kicked off with questions from the audience addressed to the panel of authors. Almost every question focused on personality. What’s your favorite food, etc. I realized that readers like to know this stuff, and that I have to get over it (to the degree I’m able).
So here you go, Dear Nation of Readers, a sampling of some of the Q & A which will appear in paperback later this year. The complete version is simply more than any single blog reader should be required to endure.
When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
As a young kid, ages 8-10, I used to invent these elaborate dice games that revolved around baseball. Roll a seven, the batter strikes out; roll a three, he hits a double. I filled entire notebooks with the box scores of these imaginary games. Looking back across the decades I realize that: 1) Dice games? OMG, I’m getting old; and 2) I was experiencing, and passionately seeking out, the core experience of being a writer. I was alone with an empty notebook and a pen in my hand. Later in life, those fictional baseball statistics became words and stories. The clear dream of desiring to become a writer happened in college.
What’s your favorite childhood memory?
There are so many and they come in such a disordered jumble, like the splatters of an action painting by Jackson Pollack. I have snippets and impressions. Overall, the feeling is of being small in a crowded household. Being safe, being loved, being entertained. One story: I shared a room with two older brothers, John and Al, when I was quite young. John had an electric guitar and at night, he would turn off the lights and scare me with it. He’d hit a low note, make creepy noises in a deep voice, and I would hide in the darkness under the bed –- shivering with fear and loving it.
What were your hobbies as a kid? What are your hobbies now?
Do kids have hobbies? It seems like the wrong word for it. I’m sure I was pretty sports obsessed; I was active and athletic. Music has always been a presence in my life. The accumulated family record collection was pretty incredible, and for some reason I really connected to those records at a young age. The thing I wish for every young reader is to have passions, interests, things that get your blood pumping. In general, for me, that’s usually connected to the arts in some way. Books, movies, music, paintings, etc. But I have to admit, thinking about my teenage years, we spent a lot of time hanging out. Getting together with a few friends and doing a lot of nothing much. When I look at the lives of my own children, that’s a part that seems missing in today’s world. There’s just not enough free time. I loved hanging out! Is that a hobby?
What book is on your nightstand now?
I mostly read adult books. I just finished with Norwegian Wood by Haruk Murakami, who is a beautiful writer; the book before that was Intruder in the Dust by William Faulkner. Now I’m reading a nonfiction book about the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963, Carry Me Home, by Diane McWhorter. On the children’s front, I just reread every “George & Martha” book by James Marshall. They are hilarious and perfect.
What sparked your imagination for The Fall?
After I wrote Bystander, I received many requests for a sequel. And I always thought, well, no. I felt satisfied with that book, finished with those characters. But I realized that I was still interested in the subject matter, the social dynamics of young people at that age. I began to feel a degree of sympathy for the so-called bully. I wanted to try to write something from the bully’s point of view, perhaps to show a fuller picture than I was seeing in other books and articles. When I read in the newspaper about a girl who had killed herself because of being “terrorized on social media,” I set down the newspaper and immediately started writing in my notebook. It was that direct. I knew I wanted to tell the story of a boy who wrote some terrible things on her social media page. I kept wondering, “Can we be defined by the worst thing we do?”
What challenges do you face in the writing process, and how do you overcome them?
I’ve published more than eighty books in my life. The gift that comes with that is an awareness that sooner or later, eventually, I do get around to putting words on the page. In the words of a writer friend, “I know I can land the plane.” Even so, part of my “process” is that I go through unproductive periods. I’m lazy, unfocused, distracted, a mess. A period of self-loathing eventually sets in. It happens every year, these creative lulls, and every time I grow to hate myself for it. And yet, every time, I fight my way out of it. I recently learned something from cooking (and I hate to cook). It’s the idea of marinating. The chicken tastes so much more flavorful after we marinate it for a period of time. Now I see those quiet, supposedly “unproductive” times as perfectly necessary and valid; it makes for a better, richer book at the end. Even when it looks like I’m not productive, hey, check it out: I’m marinating!
If you could live in any fictional world, what would it be?
I’m not really a “fictional world” kind of guy. The real world is quite enough for me. I am curious about the past, however, so if I could have a magical tardis like Doctor Who, and travel from place to place, and time to time, that would be great. The thing is, I believe that books do that for us. Books are the tardis, the magic portal into other worlds. I just finished a manuscript titled The Courage Test, and in order to write it I had to read in depth about the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-06. What an amazing time, when America was new and wide-open and little known. When I want a fictional world, I read a book.
Who is your favorite fictional character?
I don’t make lists of favorites. First place, second place, third place, and so on. I’m just not built that way. Instead, they all sort of co-exist swimmingly in the gumbo of my mind. I love Gandolph and Hermione, Wilbur and Atticus Finch, the character in Hemingway’s Old Man in the Sea (did we ever learn his name?), that fabulous fat-bellied father in Hop on Pop. As a writer, I really enjoy slipping into the fictional world of Jigsaw Jones. He’s always a good time.
What’s the best advice you have ever received about writing?
Jane Yolen talks about “BIC.” Butt in chair! If you want to write, you have to sit down and do it. Talking about it won’t get the work done. Also, from other sources, write from the heart. And . . . the day you send out a book submission, start a new one. The worst thing you can do is sit around and wait for someone else’s approval. Be true to yourself, that’s another one. Trust that good work will find its way into the world. And lastly, you don’t have to write your book in order! You can bounce around. Write the scene that feels most urgent at that moment. You can always go back and fill in the empty spaces at
a later time. Every book is different, and requires different things from me as a writer. For The Fall, that was a book I very much wrote out of sequence. I think this was because of the journal format. By the end, I had a lot of separate piece I had to weave together, like sewing a patchwork quilt. The challenge was that Sam’s mind -– like any mind -– would bounce freely from the present to the past and back again in an instant. One minute he’s remembering something that happened a year ago, then he’s back in the present moment looking at the rain outside the window. Writing a book that offered up that time-traveling experience was a real challenge, since I didn’t want to confuse the reader in the process. Um, er, what was the question?
What advice do you wish someone had given you when you were younger?
I don’t know, I think life has to teach you through experiences as you go along. I’m not convinced that anyone can tell us the secrets, you know? We have to stumble along and fall and learn and grow. When I look at my own children, I wish for them to be open to new people, new experiences. Not be too judgmental. To greet the world with open arms and an open mind. But I can also see that part of growing up, developing into your own unique self, is to look at aspects of the world and think: “Not me, not me, not me.” In a sense, we need those walls to build a sense of our own home place. So do I have any advice? Be kind, be kind, be kind.
What do you want readers to remember about your books?
Every book is different, so is every reader. Simply to be remembered at all is the goal. To have somehow made a lasting impression, whatever it might be, is a huge accomplishment for any writer. I hope that my books are open enough –- porous, in a way -– that each reader is free to respond in his or her own way. It’s not a case of, “Here, this is the message.” It’s more like, let’s take this trip down the path. Keep your eyes and ears open, keep your heart open. The thoughts you have along the way are entirely your own.
If you were a superhero, what would your superpower be?
Flawless grammar. Yes, I’d be the dullest superhero in the world (not the most dullest).
What would your readers be most surprised to learn about you?
I can juggle a chainsaw, a bowling pin, and a live chicken. Also, I didn’t know that I’d be a writer at an early age. I wasn’t even much of a reader. It came later. In my teens, as I said early, my main focus was on hanging out. I’m pretty good at it, by the way. So that’s what I’d say to you, Dear Reader: Hey, you never know!