I’ve been so overwhelmed lately, visiting far-flung schools, working hard on my “Shivers” project, all while fighting “flu-like symptoms” for the past ten days.
Anyway, part of my blogging experience has always been one of talking to myself in the dark. I’m never sure that anyone much cares. But, okay, so be it. Now that this blog is nearing the completion of its fourth full year, I thought I’d give myself a break by reposting a few of old favorites that newer readers might have missed.
It’s not abject laziness, it’s a celebration, people!
I was writing — learning and growing along with the children — until eventually I was writing fiction worthy of publication. It might have happened sooner had I had a room of my own and fewer children, but somehow I doubt it. For as I look back on what I have written, I can see that the very persons who have taken away my time and space are those who have given me something to say.
I remember reading Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom. Great book, and a fascinating look into the glory days of Old School children’s publishing, comprised of remarkable letters to Sendak, Wilder, Steptoe, Krauss, Brown, and many more.
Nordstrom was the editorial director of Harper’s “Department of Books for Boys and Girls,” 1940 to 1973, and her fingerprints are on such books as Where the Wild Things Are, Goodnight Moon, Charlotte’s Web, The Giving Tree, William’s Doll, The Carrot Seed, and Harriet the Spy.
Anyway, one of the things I remember from that book is that she advised her writers against having children! Too distracting! The little ones would get in the way of the work. And, yes, Nordstrom, without children of her own, was absolutely right — and utterly wrong.
I think to write — and write well — is to go deep into yourself. It requires commitment. Time, energy, space (physical and mental). But like Patterson says, isn’t it nice when real life intervenes? Somebody scrapes a knee, competes in a swim meet, maybe needs a talking-to or a lift to a friend’s. That joyful noise pulls you away from the work, a distraction and an interruption, and yet feeds it, sustains it, motivates it, makes it all worthwhle. Every minute.
Again, that beautiful line:
I can see that the very persons who have taken away my time and space are those who have given me something to say.
I wanted to connect in my own head and then in the readers’ heads with the real people behind those beloved works — to briefly see the world and their process through their eyes, and so, hopefully, to help their readers gain insight into both process and result. I am still very interested in the point of tangency between creators and their creations.
I think for me, it’s so important in interviews to stay alive to the moment. You know, to hear what’s being said and to respond. That’s why I’m disappointed by so many blog interviews, which are obviously just somebody typing out answers to a list of questions. Which is fine and good, just don’t call it an interview.
What I love about writing is that well-chosen words can retain their liveliness even centuries after they are first put down.
Oh. I guess what I love about writing is the cash money bling. But we’ve always been different that way!
I have written a lot of books, both fiction and nonfiction, many of which draw upon the natural world. Years back I wrote a novel called Brewster’s Courage, a co-creation with my friend, illustrator Joe Mathieu, about a black-footed ferret who rides his bicycle from South Dakota to Louisiana to pursue his love of Cajun music. I’ve always had a soft spot for that book.
Can we talk about that a little bit? I mean, here’s a fine book that you’re immensely proud of, and now it’s out of print. It can be a disappointing profession, can’t it?
That was something I had to learn to accept. It happens to all of us. But whenever I engage one-on-one with kids through that book, or any of the others, really, it’s still a huge kick. My reasons for writing it and the reaction I get to it have always been consistent, so I try to get joy from the first-hand experiences and try not to let the bigger picture cloud my thoughts.
My personal coping strategy is to I cry myself to sleep, muttering “It’s not fair, it’s not fair.” But whatever works for you! Tell us more about some of your titles.
Another book I loved writing was Noises In the Night: The Habits of Bats, for which I spent some time in the jungle in Panama with a group of amazing tropical bat researchers. I wrote several books in conjunction with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, including one about exploring the deep ocean, another about the crazy glow-in-the-dark jelly animals that look like fireworks and nightmares (that one was called Beneath Blue Waters: Meetings with Remarkable Deep-Sea Creatures, co-authored with Kate Madin), and another about what it’s like to go to sea on a research cruise.
What’s so compelling about ocean life, anyway?
So unexplored (estimates vary but it’s commonly stated that less than 10% of the ocean has been explored). Imagine that. Central to earth’s climate. The source of life on earth. The greatest untapped sources of energy. Shipwrecks. Doubloons. Those incredibly weird fish that have fishing rods growing off the ends of their noses.
Not to mention some other fantastic ones like Opisthoteuthis agassizii, also known as “Dumbo.”
And probably my all-time favorite, Vampyroteuthis infernalis (loosely translated as “Vampire Squid from Hell”).
That’s disgusting, DJ, you’re like totally grossing out my Nation of Readers. So what are you writing right now?
My two most recent books channel the brain waves of a dog who hangs out at the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston (Catie Copley and Catie Copley’s Great Escape). I’ve got two other projects underway, one a memoir, one a poetry project. They may converge at some point, or the memoir may spend its energy and then make room for something else.
There’s also a novel that’s been “in development” for a very long time. I’ve got some nonfiction ideas that I’m pretty excited about as well. I’m also READING like crazy, piles (virtual: Kindle) of manuscripts and books every week. And on the “side” I’ve also been reading everything Dickens wrote. This will, of course, occupy me for the rest of my natural born days. How did he do it?
He drank a lot of Red Bull. But it’s surprising: Dickens keeps coming up around here. Lewis Buzbee mentioned him in an interview, then Carmen Deedy sang his praises, now you. Who would have figured that he’d be today’s “It” boy. What have you learned from him?
I’ve become immersed in his characterizations, both those in his novels and those in some of his earliest published work. As an exercise and perhaps eventually something more, I’m experimenting with character sketches inspired by Dickens’ Sketches by Boz, his first published book.
I understand that you are now Editorial Director of Publishing at Walden Media. What in the world does that mean? Did they give you a nice chair? Free office supplies? What?
REALLY nice chair. Office supplies. Popcorn. Filtered water. Occasional Pelligrino. Our publishing group is a small division of the film studio Walden Media, which is based in Los Angeles, though our group is based outside Boston. I am Editorial Director of the group, so am responsible for the acquisition and publishing of a small but growing list of between 6-10 books a year mostly targeted to middle-grade readers. We worked on a joint-venture basis with Penguin Books for Young Readers for four years (2004-2008). We published a lot of great books with Penguin, the highlight being Savvy, a first novel by the incomparable Ingrid Law, which racked up a slew of honors and awards, culminating with a 2009 Newbery Honor.
Our movie colleagues are currently developing Savvy as a feature film. Since late 2008, we’ve been in partnership with HarperCollins, where we’re launching a joint imprint called Walden Pond Press in January. Our first book on the list is the heee-larious Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce, who is also the author of Millions and Framed. It was originally published in the UK, where it was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal.
Last year, as I recall, you attended some kind of open panel discussion about the year’s best children’s books at ALA. I remember, because you kindly wrote to tell me all the nice things they said about my book, Six Innings. What was that like, sitting in on that process?
Any and all attendees of the midwinter meeting of the American Library Association are welcome to observe the deliberations of a group of librarians who determine the Best Books for Young Adults. They pull together a list of about 250 books, and discuss them all, then winnow down the list to their final selections. Your wonderful book was one of the titles under consideration, and it was a real thrill to hear all the great things they said about Six Innings. I figured you’d want to know what they were saying, so I took notes and sent them to you.
And I appreciated it, believe me. As you know, sometimes the universe seems indifferent to our best efforts. It’s so important to get that validation — even if, on some levels, we must proceed on faith when we don’t get it.
That’s one reason why school visits are really important. And you’ve got to admit, it’s pretty fun to be the “special visitor.”
I know that after a while those trips get old, but there’s nothing like it during the “proceeding on faith” phases.
Tedd Arnold told me that he felt it was important to keep in touch with young readers — what makes them laugh, what makes them tick — especially after his own kids got older. He said, “I don’t want to lose track of their squirmy little reality.” You must have been thrilled when Savvy was named a Newbery Honor Book.
Probably one of the best days of my life. It was such a powerful YES to all of us who believe in the book and in Ingrid Law, in her spectacular storytelling ability. I still get a lighter-than-air feeling when I remember the instant we got the news. I know that many of my friends and colleagues in the children’s book world have experienced such peak moments on more than one occasion, but I bet they would all agree with me that certain special moments are frozen in an amber glow forever. Having collaborated with you in interviewing so many living legends way back when, it has been a thrill to be part of the team bringing a brand new legend to the world.
Any favorites for this coming year?
I loved The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z by Kate Messner and Models Don’t Eat Chocolate Cookies by Erin Dionne. Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins is beautiful as well. Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine is incredibly moving. I recently read When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, and just thinking of it makes the theme song from the Twilight Zone play in my head. On the non-fiction side, I loved Charles and Emma by Deborah Heiligman.
You haven’t changed a bit, Deborah. You still have that same infectious enthusiasm for children’s books. I talk to you and I want to go read something. Where does it come from, do you think? Were you one of those little girls with your nose constantly in a book, dreaming of how one day you’d become an author?
Yes, I was. But the impetus to see myself as a writer as well as a reader goes back to a visit that Sydney Taylor (All-of-a-Kind Family) made to my school library when I was in fourth grade. I can still see her in my mind’s eye.
Reddish hair in an old-fashioned upsweep, long skirt, sitting on a tiny elementary school library chair, bookshelves behind her, awe-struck kids in front of her. I loved the books she wrote, and THERE SHE WAS. REAL.
A nice memory, and important for us jaded, gin-soaked authors to remember. Okay, lightning round. Five favorite children’s authors (note: you don’t need to list me, it’s assumed):
The list roves and changes, but here are current faves.
1. Ingrid Law because I love the way the people in her books connect with each other.
Could you expand on that thought a little bit?
The central family, the Beaumonts, are outsiders because they have a family secret which is that at the age of 13 each Beaumont comes into a Savvy, a special supernatural power, which has to be brought under control, or scumbled. They are a fiercely loving tribe, who watch out for each other and protect each other from the unkind japes of the heartless folks who surround them. They are shy outsiders, at least at the beginning of the book. But by the end, the family members at the core story learn how to trust others and open themselves up to possibilities of friendship and love.
Thanks. But you still have to finish your list.
2. Katherine Paterson because I love her dry frankness.
3. Ann Scott-Moncrieff, whose out-of-print classic, Auntie Robbo, is a book I reread often for its crisp and delicious characterizations. (JP Note: the entire book seems to be free online, here.)
4. Madeleine L’Engle because she gives young kids the tools to imagine worlds beyond.
5. Patricia Wrightson, an Australian author not well known in this country whose Nargun and the Stars was one of the scariest books I’ve ever read.
I heard the new Palin book is pretty frightening, by the way.
Oh, did she write a book?
Don’t you watch “The Late Show” with David Letterman? He’s mentioned it a few times, including some writing tips. Five favorite songs?
You could substitute many Beatles songs for #5, and this list does change, but CURRENTLY any one of these would do at just about any time.
1. “Waterloo Sunset” by Kinks
2. “Steal My Kisses” by Ben Harper
3. “Yellow Moon” by the Neville Brothers
4. “Moondance” by Van Morrison
5. “Run for Your Life” by The Beatles
Any favorite websites you could recommend?
I enjoy reading what those in the Kidlitosphere have to say.
It’s late at night, you are sitting peacefully. There’s a drink in your hand and you are rereading a favorite book. What’s the drink? What’s the book?
The drink is Cointreau.
The book is Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey.
Well, DJ, my producer is waving frantically and it looks like we’ve run out of time. I really enjoyed catching up with you. You worked at Sesame Street during the heady Don Music days, wrote a wide variety of books, chatted with the most respected authors in children’s literature, edited manuscripts, worked on movies, on and on — and at the absolute center of everything you’ve done is your love for children’s literature. If not quite fame and glory, it sure looks like a brilliant career to me.
As a parting gift, please accept this 6,000 BTU window air conditioner (with remote!) that typically cools 150-250 square feet — just in time for the holidays!
Well, it’s been a wonderful week and I’ve really enjoyed having Lewis Buzbee as my co-host, trailing after me like a lost puppy . . .
Believe me, if I had any idea he’d act like this, I never would have asked Lewis to stay for an entire week. But Don Rickles canceled, Sammy was busy, and Barbra never returns my calls.
Seriously: I don’t hang with authors much. I don’t get invited to conventions or even blog tours or — come to think of it — neighborhood block parties, so it’s not like I get the chance to meet many high-flying literary types. I tend to spend my time with my wife, my kids, and other people here on earth. But when I read The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, I felt an immediate connection to Lewis. I had to talk with this guy. I wanted to push his doorbell, spend the weekend. Separated by 3,000 miles, I did the next best thing: Asked him for an interview.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of interviews half as much as I did. I feel like I’ve not only discovered a terrific writer — someone whose career I will follow, whose books I will read — but also, something more lasting, more meaningful: I’ve found my 163rd Facebook friend.
He’s my first writer, for sure. And reading him again and again as an adult, I learn more from him every time. But there’s a million others out there who are my favorite writers. I go with E.M. Forster on this. I don’t see writers in any competition, I see them all working together in the big round reading room of the British Library. Isn’t it a miracle we have so many great writers to read?
So, yes, he has to be my favorite.
What have you learned from him?
I hope what he wrote to a young Peter Benchley, who was in boarding school at the time. He was friends with Peter’s father. Steinbeck wrote, “Only a fool is willfully obscure.”
Yes, excellent. You put that in Steinbeck’s Ghost.
In other words: the exact opposite of what they taught us in college! To me, so much of my adult writing life has been about unlearning those lessons, the obtuse writers that we were supposed to admire and love. I mean, yes, some are great. But there’s definitely an Emperor’s New Clothes thing going on: I don’t understand it, I can’t comprehend it, so golly it must be good! More and more, I respect writing that has clarity, directness, and restraint. An absence of flash. I’m striving to write sentences like, “He put the glass on the table.”
Many of my students — I teach part-time in the MFA program at University of San Francisco — are under the impression that subtlety is the goal. And by that they mean murkiness. One of them recently told me, “I love stories that leave you completely confused about what’s happening.” Okay, fine.
Flannery O’Connor wrote that in a time when there is too much noise in the air, and everyone is heard of hearing, the writer needs to practically shout, use primary colors, be bold. Yep.
Talking about Steinbeck, I’m reminded of how I read many of his books as a young teenager. He and guys like Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (probably my favorite at that age) were the young adult literature of my youth. There was no such thing as “YA.”
I think that that’s my ultimate goal as a writer, to crack open the brain, and unleash the words, of a fourteen-year-old. To meet the big ideas about the world that are just forming in their enormous brains. As a bookseller, who should pay attention to categories, I was never one for categories. Good is good. That’s that. Bradbury, Vonnegut, Steinbeck — that’s a good desert island stack.
You recently wrote your first children’s book, Steinbeck’s Ghost. How did that happen?
Like I said, I wasn’t a voracious reader as a kid, so I missed a lot of great kids’ lit. But the very first bookstore I worked in was run by three wonderful women, who were all passionate experts about kids’ books. And they made certain that I read as much as I could, and that I understand, not only the importance of kids’ books, but the variety and expertise of kids’ books, their sophistication. So my whole adult life, I’ve been a reader of kids’ books. And I’ve always wanted to write my own.
I’m glad you did, just don’t eat up too much of the market share. Oh, wait. We”re not supposed to be in competition. Can’t I just quietly hate you?
You became a father relatively late in life. How do you think that’s affected you as a writer? As a reader?
Lord, what a question. It changed everything.
When my daughter was born, I was halfway through the second draft of a six hundred page novel that was all very clever and erudite and luminous. But I threw myself, gladly, into being a dad, changing diapers and staying up nights for feedings, strollers, all the rest. It was a blast. By the time I got back to that novel, I was disenchanted with it — it seemed so unessential, so small. And I immediately began writing a whole new crop of stories about what I felt were bigger things. That became After the Gold Rush, my first book of stories.
My daughter “restored me to life,” as Dickens said, reminded me what was essential. And since then, I’ve written so many books, with such urgency. She not only reminded me what to write about, but showed me, perhaps for the first time, why I was writing. Dude, seriously, it’s life and death stuff — that’s how it makes me feel.
Katherine Paterson has a wonderful line about that, reflecting on being a parent and a writer: “I can see that the very persons who have taken away my time and space are those who have given me something to say.” There it is, I couldn’t possibly say it better. Like we were talking about before — she said it for us, articulated that chaos of the heart, and I’m grateful to her for that.
God, what a great line. I wish I’d said that. Can we pretend? That’s the wonderful thing about being a parent, and I think a lot of people miss this part — especially the “workaholics”: my pleasures here are purely selfish; she gives me so much.
And then, of course, there was reading to her. She’s eleven now, and we still read together every night. But the first day she was home from the hospital, I read to her — Beatrix Potter, Maurice Sendak. And it’s been such a journey to follow her through that development, through all the picture books, then the chapter books, then the middle grade novels. Yes, that had a huge influence on my desire to get into the kids’ section.
What’s your daughter’s name? I’m guessing it’s Flannery, Harper, or Willa.
Maddy. Yes, Madeleine. Actually named after a character in the Bill Forsythe movie, “Comfort and Joy,” who is a kleptomaniac, and her boyfriend follows her around department stores watching her steal, and he’s always saying, in his Scottish accent, “Ach, Maddy; ach, Maddy.”
Ach, Maddy — that’s funny. What’s next for you?
My second middle-grade reader, The Haunting of Charles Dickens, will come out in September 2010, and I’ve just finished Mark Twain and the Mysterious Stranger, September 2011.
Quick idea here, Lewis, if the series is successful: Marcel Proust and the Madeleine Tea Cake. Kids are always clamoring for more Proust — plush toys, bed sheets, lunch boxes, 8-track tapes. Or how about, Ernest Hemingway and the Disappearing Absinthe. Maybe you could package it with “Death in the Afternoon by Chocolate” brownies or something. Hey, it’s your series — do with it what you’d like. I’m just typing out loud here.
I was thinking more like Kafka Goes Krazy. I think Kafka is the perfect karacter for kids to relate to. I mean, you know you did something wrong, and have to stand trial for it, but you just don’t know what it is you did. Plus, it’s got movie written all over it.
Actually, I think Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” is the most borrowed idea in children’s picture books. Imogene’s Antlers, anyone? A Bad Case of Stripes? There are many variations. And I love that idea today, waking up in a transformed body. It’s probably a great story starter in the classroom.
I’m just starting a new adult nonfiction book, along the lines of Yellow-Lighted Bookshop. It’ll be called Blackboard: The Life of the Classroom, and will concern itself with classrooms and what happens in them. It’ll include history, too, but also the memoirs of a student, and of a teacher.
Wow, huge topic, sounds interesting — I’ll look forward to reading it. Now strap in, Lewis, here comes The Lightning Round. Five favorite TV shows, all-time?
Simpsons, South Park, Cheers, M*A*S*H, iCarly (my new favorite).
Five best concerts you’ve ever seen?
Tom Waits on New Year’s Eve; Elvis Costello’s Spinning Wheel Tour; Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming Tour; Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense Tour; Bruce Springsteen in San Jose, 1978.
I love Tom Waits, and he is a genius. But frankly, a lot of the more recent stuff is just too, well, obscure. I’m not a musical genius. I like songs. I have all his albums up through the early nineties. Then it stops. But I’d love to have lunch with him someday.
I just met Rebecca Stead, ever so briefly. Got a signed copy of When You Reach Me for my kids. I don’t think she realized how fabulous I was, or else she would have been more excited. Don’t you think? A lot of talk about that book. How’d you like it?
It’s a great voice she has, and a real great, what I call “kid brain.” I also like that she and her publisher were willing to go back to the 70’s. Near history, not movie history. I dug it, completely. Like Konigsburg, she knows how intense every moment of childhood is, and she knows that kids are intensely involved with the lives of adults, too.
Wouldn’t now (cough, cough) be a good time to talk about my books? I mean, dude, throw me a bone here. It’s how we met, isn’t it?
I didn’t know you wrote. Oh, you’re that James Preller! Hmmm. It’s true. I recently read Bystander, and wrote you a somewhat unabashed fan letter. Because, like Stead and Konigsburg and L’Engle and Cormier, you get what the best kids’ writers get and what makes me want to keep doing this: kids are way, way smarter than we think they are, and their lives are as worthy of serious literature as adults. Perhaps more. Then I read Six Innings, which I loved, and I thought, crap, this guy is too good.
But seriously, where’s my pie, Mr. Preller?
I lied about the pie. Listen, bro, thank you so much for hanging around, putting in all this time. I can only hope my Nation of Readers goes out and buys all your books. You should expect a huge spike in sales. Please except this new Kindle 2 as a parting gift. It’s lightweight, 20 percent faster than the original Kindle, and lasts four to five days without needing to be plugged in or whatever. Let’s see a book compete with that! Plus, you can use it as a doorstop.
Can you hand me the chainsaw, please? The chicken is getting antsy.
Last thought, as the credits roll . . .
. . . the nicest thing I can say about Lewis Buzbee is that after you talk to him, you want to go out and buy a book. You want to catch up on all those treasures you’ve missed. You want to walk into a good bookstore, run your fingers down those beautiful spines, bring the weather with you. We all feel it, everybody here. We’re readers. We love books; it’s at the core of everything we do. Thank you, Lewis Buzbee, for reminding us of that love.Now get outta here, ya big lug, before I hit you with a pie.
FOR MORE INTERVIEWS . . .
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