Tag Archive for James Preller childhood
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!
As an author, mine was not the story of the wide-eyed boy who loved weekly trips to the library, the happy ritual of laden arms lugging home precious treasures. No, we didn’t do that stuff in my family. For starters, my mother didn’t drive. Besides I was a do-er, not a sit-around-and-read-er. So I came late to children’s books. The first time I read Where the Wild Things Are or Harold and the Purple Crayon, for example, was as a 24-year-old junior copywriter, living in Brooklyn in a railroad apartment, and working on the Scholastic Book Clubs. That’s when I first appreciated children’s literature, if you’ll pardon the expression.
I realized that there was more here than met the eye, that a children’s book, in the hands of a true artist, could be as psychologically deep and powerful as any other work of art. It changed my whole way of thinking about children’s books — and about what they (and I) could aspire to become.
I was reminded of that dawning while I read Carmen Deedy’s new book, co-authored with Randall Wright, The Cheshire Cheese Cat — a clever romp, certainly, a delightful fast-paced read, yes, a charming tweak on historical fiction, surely, but also . . . more. This is simply a lovely, near-perfectly rendered work, with surprising depth at its core, marvelously illustrated by the great Barry Moser. After reading it, I asked my friend Carmen if she wouldn’t mind answering a few questions. And look, here she comes now.
I take it the Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub is an actual place on Fleet Street, in London, and you’ve been there. Was that for research, or did the idea for the book originate from that visit?
The blame lies squarely on the shoulders of the organizers of a lovely Welsh event, the Beyond the Border Storytelling Festival. In 2002, I was invited to tell stories on the grounds of a 13th Century castle. No lie. As if that were not fanciful enough, on our first night in London we stumbled (by purest happenstance) upon this gem:
My three daughters were with me that night and everyone began to talk at once. Rebuilt in 1667? Hadn’t the Great Fire of London taken place in 1666? That meant this inn had been rebuilt a mere sixty-three years after the death of Queen Elizabeth! Once inside, we discovered a place as enchanting, anachronistic, and mysterious, as we could have wished for. As we stood in the small entryway and looked around, one of the girls leaned toward me and whispered, “Best Harry Potter set, EVER . . .“
I’ll say. A more thorough investigation of the premises turned up this:
(Think of it as the British equivalent of “George Washington Slept Here.”)
The idea for the story came from a game of “What If?” What if . . . every mouse in London with means had come to the inn, in search of the best cheese in the realm? And what if . . . the cats were there for mice? But, what if . . . ONE of those cats hated eating mice. Rather, he secretly loved, um, cheese?
It struck me that here is a book that delights in language. You were inspired, in part, by words themselves. And you didn’t hold back.
We second-guessed ourselves more than once. Still, my fellow writer (Randall Wright) and I had decided from the onset that we wanted to tell the story in language that was reminiscent of books we had loved as children. If those stories engaged us, we would faithfully slog through unfamiliar words and odd phrases. And if we had prevailed, we reasoned, why shouldn’t today’s children be able to do the same? We decided to trust our young readers.
Oh, that’s interesting. I was just expressing a similar thought to my editor, Liz Szabla, about my upcoming young adult novel, Before You Go. It’s a story that takes some time to introduce characters, explore setting, set wheels in motion. It’s not plot, plot, plot every step of the way. On bad days, I worry about that: Does the book start too slow? Are those first 50 pages not dramatic enough? And ultimately I came to the same conclusion as you did, that I have to trust in my readers. That is, that they actually like to read.
I can’t wait to read Before You Go! Sounds wonderfully beguiling. When do I get that Advanced Reader’s Copy? Nudge, nudge.
Hold that thought. The book’s not out until July, and the ARC seems far away. I can’t wait for it, I’m super proud of it, but . . . we’re not here to discuss me. I’m sorry I brought the whole thing up. You were saying?
Once we decided to use words we loved, we dove into the text with semantic abandon. It was so liberating that, frankly, we went a little nuts. Before the Great Vocabulary Purging we had over six hundred higher level words—words that were not anywhere near the suggested lexile for middle grade readers. Worse yet, they had begun to interfere with the story. That was the deal breaker. We ultimately replaced, removed, or contextually defined over 500 words. Nonetheless, with a nod from our brilliant and long-suffering editor, we still managed to subtly retain many words of which we were particularly fond –– roughly seventy. We then added a glossary as part of the back matter . . . and decided, once again, to trust the young whippersnappers.
That’s the writing process, isn’t it? Get it all down on paper. You can always pull back in later revisions.
Absolutely. My first drafts are pitiful in the extreme. It takes me four or five rewrites to stop cringing as I edit. And I swear, every few years I seem to end up sharing a table with an author who will drolly insist, “I just sit down and write without much revision at all.” Where do these people come from? I think they grow them under florescent lights in some green house in Nova Scotia.
In a crucial moment, the feline protagonist, Skilley, is advised by Maldwyn the Raven, “You want the truth, Master Skilley? Then find out just what manner of cat you really are . . . and brazenly, unabashedly, boldly, be that cat.” Of course, that’s the toughest task of all, isn’t it? Be yourself. Especially for a middle grader, looking at everybody else for social cues, who to talk to, what to listen to, what movies to like, how to dress, who to sit with, and so forth. Tough on cats, too.
Tough on Skilley, that’s for certain. But the careful reader may find that Skilley’s greatest challenge is not, in fact, protecting the mice, neither is it out-witting Pinch, or even returning Maldwyn to the Tower –– but rather becoming, well . . . Skilley.
“Outing” himself as a lover of cheese, as it were.
Here I am, world, my true self. Emerson had some thoughts on this topic . . .
Because the storyline is meant to appeal to a “chapter book” crowd, we tried to tackle difficult subjects by couching them in language that softened their gravity; friendlessness, abuse, betrayal, death . . . okay, and we spared Too.
I have to admit this here. Too was not meant to live. I mean, the mouse was DEAD until the near final draft. Great pressure was brought to bear, however; the Save Too lobbyists were small, but thunderous in their disapproval of her death. We caved. Since the book was released, I’ve had a couple of elementary readers tell me it was a good thing Too didn’t die or they would’ve been reeeeeeeeally mad. Phew.
I’m a pretty tough-minded person when it comes to stories. I want them to be true, not phony, and certainly not convenient. But that has to be balanced with an awareness of your reading audience. Their expectations don’t have to be met, exactly, but they do need to be considered. For that age group, I felt that Too’s survival was appropriate.
I confess that I was happy to pull a Lazarus for little Too.
Because I’ve heard you speak a couple of times over the years, I guessed that there might have been a bit of your father in the character Maldwyn. That no-nonsense, tough-minded advice the Raven gives about apologies:
“It is not enough to say you are sorry. You must utterly own the terrible thing you have done. You must cast no blame on the one you’ve injured. Rather, accept every molecule of the responsibility, even if reason and self-preservation scream against it. Then, and only then, will the words ‘I am sorry’ have meaning.”
My father is 87 years old and the finest storyteller I know; his stories are very real, and if they do teach you something, they don’t bludgeon you with truth. And he is funny. Funny is something Maldwyn doesn’t “do.” He’s a bit too self-important. And yet, I do adore Maldwyn. The old thing is petulant and snappish. And it would be easy, and understandable, to misread him. But I suspect that beneath Maldwyn’s curmudgeonish exterior there is a wealth of sadness and conflict. He has betrayed his Queen and his country (at least under the very strict code of honor he holds himself to), and yet somehow he knows, I think, that to forbid a bird his right to flight is a harsh sacrifice for Queen and country to exact.
You co-wrote the book with Randall Wright. What was your process for that –- and what led you to make the choice of collaborating. Pure laziness?
Nope –– paralyzing fear, more like; the fear of uncorking what might be an unending flow of words. I like perimeters; rubrics comfort me. I mean, once you tell picture book writers to disregard the word count, they are often undone for days. It’s . . . dizzying. Lucky for me, I met Randall Wright. Randall and I were working at a children’s conference. We were seated next to one another at a dinner table and quickly engaged in the requisite “So what are you working on?” author swap. I’d been recently toying with Pip and Skilley, so I told him the story.
Randall had published several YA novels with Henry Holt. He kept saying things such as, “It’s just like a picture book, Deedy. You just keep writing until you don’t have anything left to say .” Then he’d start laughing. I’ll admit I toyed with the idea of poking him in the eye with my salad fork — but I didn’t. As Pip would say, we weren’t close enough friends for that yet. By the time the meal was over, we had agreed to collaborate.
You guys seem really inspired by the literary tradition, particularly the multi-scene, fast-paced ending –- the mouse, Pip, melting away in the cooking pot, the ferocious battle between Pinch and Maldwyn, and Queen Victoria’s startling arrival. As writers, you must have felt like circus entertainers, all those plates spinning at once.
I’m afraid we made our own heads spin a bit. But we enjoyed building up to those final scenes. Admittedly, toward the end of the book we felt as though we were in the midst of a game of literary high-stakes Jenga. Can we add just one more element? Will the whole thing topple?
The rewrites, research, and fact checking, were endless, as well. And I loved it to bits. Truly. Research is my favorite part of writing. Since I’ve mentioned research, if your readers want to know more about ravens, Dickens, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, etc., please check out the new website: www.cheshirecheesecat.com
Oh, dear. This is awkward. I’m afraid there’s been a misunderstanding. I don’t actually have, um, what one might call actual readers, per say. I’ve had folks stop by, but usually it’s by mistake, a search gone terribly wrong. You didn’t think that this conversation would actually help your career in any way? That there would be . . . readers?
Sorry, kid. I’ve been to the blog and I’m on to you. You don’t have readers, you have FOLLOWERS.
Followers? I kind of doubt it. Besides, I prefer to think of them as my zombie hordes. And I mean that in the nicest way possible, people. Nothing a good dermatologist couldn’t fix. They are doing incredible things with embalming fluid and Botox these days.
I know you are deep into Dickens. Without thinking too hard, can you name one thing you admire about his work?
Hmmm. Names. He was brilliant at creating names for his characters. Here’s a sample: Magwich. Sweedlepipe. Drood. Pecksniff. Havisham. Pumblechook. Sykes. Bumble. According to Greenfield’s Dictionary of Literary Characters, Dickens created 989 named characters in his career!
Charles Dickens himself becomes a minor but crucial character in the story. In fact, you even write in the voice of Dickens in his journal. No shortage of guts, have you? I would have found that terrifying.
Randall wrote most of the first drafts for Dickens’ journal. Our system –– one that quickly emerged on that first writing weekend –– was for each of us to take on a chapter, which would then be edited or even rewritten by the other person. After the edit or rewrite, back to the original author it would go. We would continue to pass a chapter back and forth fifteen or twenty times before we signed off on it and moved on. I don’t know if this would serve as a model for other writing teams, but we found it to be a great system for us.
As to writing in dear Boz’s voice? I know, I know. Leave that sort of cheek to Americans. But we did so with fear and trepidation, truly . . . gulp. Next question, please? Would you like to know how old I am?
That sounds like a trick question. A trap! So I’ll sidestep that, thank you very much, in favor of another one. Barry Moser’s illustrations strike me as exactly right. How lucky are you to be so well published. Tell us about when you first saw his illustrations.
Barry is brilliant. Period. I first discovered him twenty years ago and have been his shameless acolyte to this day. As you can imagine, I was over the moon when he agreed to illustrate the book. Randall and I love every character that Barry’s keen mind and graphite pencil have rendered –– although I will admit the battle scenes are among my favorites. Huzzah, Mr. B!
Good luck with this book, Carmen. I’m so proud of you. It’s already received starred reviews from School Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and Kirkus — you must be thrilled. Look, I don’t read enough contemporary children’s literature to make an informed opinion on what should or shouldn’t win a Newbery Medal. However, I did accurately predict both The Graveyard Book (though I didn’t think it deserved the actual Medal) and When You Reach Me. Like most folks, I didn’t know about last year’s winner, Moon Over Manifest. (And by the way, that was very nice — to be surprised at a time when the so-called “kidlitosphere” has made it almost too easy to quickly and decisively form the illusion of consensus, even if, in reality, it represents only .001 percent of readers; to me, the Moon Over Manifest selection was as if the traditional establishment reasserted itself and said, “Not so fast, bloggers! We decide.”)
Anyway, about the Newbery . . . um, Carmen, are you all right? You look pale. Why have you got your eyes and ears plugged? Don’t you want to talk about the Newbery?
Okay, well, I can see that we’re out of time. I’ve just received word that there’s no more space on the internet. Please accept this hefty log of Kraft Velveeta Cheese as a token of our appreciation. And good luck with the book!
Dad was the father of seven children, a veteran of World War II who served in the Pacific. After the war, he graduated from Boston University in two and half years, because why in the world would anybody want to waste another minute in school. There was a life to be lived, a brass ring to grab, things to do. Let’s get on with it.
It was a different time, a different generation.
Dad settled with my mother on Long Island, became an insurance man, started having kids rapid fire in the Catholic fashion, built a business. I was the youngest in the family, the baby. On rare weekend days I’d tag along when my father needed to pop into his rented office on Wantagh Avenue for an hour or two. We never specialized in father-and-son type stuff, whatever that was, and I’m sure the word bonding did not apply to relationships back in those days, only glue, but I do recall those trips to his office. Dad’s place of business offered that most wondrous of commodities, office supplies — electric typewriters, staplers, a copier, boxes of paper clips and, best of all, tracing paper.
I marveled at its magical properties. Dad didn’t part with his supply easily, that stuff cost money, so I was thrilled and grateful whenever he brought a stack home. Those are nice memories for me, a lifetime away. I sometimes wonder: Whatever happened to that kid? That boy with the tracing paper? Where’d he go?
From around that time, somewhere in the mid 60’s, another day presses forward for attention. One spring morning we set off together — in the hazy gauze of remembrance, just me and dad — to a farm somewhere. Because dad knew a guy, a customer who had a stable and a few horses. He possessed, in others words, shit to spare. And the price was right.
I must have been about five or six years old at the time, no older. We got to the farm, out east on Long Island probably, and I stood around while my father chatted with the owner of the place. Maybe I looked into the stable, fearfully eyed the horses. Did I want to feed one of them an apple? No, I did not. I was shy, watchful and quiet. Eventually my dad keyed open the car truck, borrowed a shovel, and filled it to the brim with horse manure. I stood by, mystified, awestruck. Trunk full, steam rising, we headed back home, where I watched my father spread the still semi-moist shit around the front lawn. It was good for the grass, he explained. Nature’s fertilizer.
My older brothers and sisters recall those times with profound mortification. Imagine the embarrassment they felt, the acute stabbing horror, especially those of a certain age, when the opinion of one’s peers meant only everything. I can’t say this plainly enough: My brothers hated it when dad spread horse shit on the front lawn — even worse, on hot days it smelled like holy hell, the stink filling your nostrils — and yet my father performed the same ritual every year.
And here’s the thing about my dad, really the essential memory of him. He didn’t care. Alan J. Preller simply did not give a hoot what anybody thought. He never did. He embarrassed us, he ticked off people, annoyed relatives, said what he thought and did what he did. Dad lived on his own terms, remarkably indifferent to opinion. And if that made him impossible at times, well, so be it. He wasn’t trying to please anybody.
My father passed away a few years back, coincidentally enough while spreading fertilizer out on the front lawn in Southampton, where he retired. He had moved beyond horse manure by then, thank God, nowadays they’d hang you in Southampton for that, but there was still no way he was going to push around one of those crummy lawn spreaders. No, dad preferred a Maxwell House coffee can, dipping it into a big bag of fertilizer, sprinkling it imprecisely across the yard with a grand sweep of his arm. And to be honest, it’s more fun that way. Believe me, I know.
There he was out on the lawn, doing what he always did, and that’s when his heart gave out, when he fell, when my father left us.
These days, when I’m particularly infuriating — insensitive, implacable, impossible — my exasperated wife, Lisa, will proclaim that I’m becoming just like my father. I won’t listen to anyone, I’ll just do whatever I want. And as I age, it only gets worse. That’s her complaint. The funny thing is, I always hear it as a compliment.
Happy Father’s Day, folks. A good day to pull some weeds, mow the lawn, tend the garden and then, like my father often did, wander into the kitchen, reach into the bottom cabinet where he kept the bottle of Dewar’s, and announce, “It’s five o’clock somewhere.”
Here’s to you, old man. Cheers and memories.