I was recently invited for an interview by Brittney Breakey over at AUTHOR TURF. Brittney has really accomplished a lot with her site. It’s worth checking out. She’s recently interviewed Holly Goldberg Sloan, Sally Nicholls, Gennifer Choldenko, Jo Knowles, Kathryn Erskine . . . and my great pal, Lewis Buzbee.
For me, that’s a double-edged sword. I’ll be honest, I’ve always hoped to be the kind of person who somebody wanted to interview. It’s an incredible compliment. And a true honor.
In my career, some of the first work I ever did was interviews of authors for promotional brochures. I think Ann McGovern was my first interview, back when I worked as a junior copywriter for Scholastic. Or it might have been Johanna Hurwitz. I don’t think I saved them. This would have been in 1985, I guess. Life went on and I’ve interviewed some talented authors and illustrators over the years.
You’d think I’d have learned some things along the line, but my basic feeling is usually one of disorientation, a sense that I have no idea what I’m doing, most likely saying the wrong things, awkwardly. Oh well.
I do have lucid moments, times when I think, “Okay, not terrible.” But in general I can’t read things like this without wincing, without twitching and blinking too often. I don’t know, it’s weird. I try to be honest, authentic, and hope for the best.
It’s interesting you ask this, because I recently wrote about it in my journal. A theme that I’m exploring in the book I currently writing (or should be writing), which is a quasi-sequel to BYSTANDER. I have superstitions about talking about books before they are finished, but I’ll say this: In the summer between 7th and 8th grade, a girl in my homeroom died unexpectedly. I didn’t know her well, and wouldn’t call her a friend. When I first heard about Barbara’s death, I was with a bunch of friends –- I can picture it vividly, a bunch of us lounging around — and I said something dumb, snarky, immature. Of course, the death of a peer was completely new to me, a big deal, and I didn’t know how to react. I still feel a sense of shame about it, across these forty years, that one dumb thing I said that no one else even noticed. I’ve been reflecting a lot about identity lately, the idea of self not as a revelation, but as a made thing. Something you earn. Bryan Stevenson gave an incredible presentation for TED Talks -– everyone in America should Youtube it -– and he said, “I’ve come to understand and to believe that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” That’s a huge, complicated, controversial idea –- and it speaks directly to the topic of my next book. [NOTE: I’ve embedded Stevenson’s talk, below.]
Was there ever a time in your writing career where you wanted to seriously give up? If so, how did you find the motivation to continue?
Yes, I’ve wanted to quit. Absolutely. Mostly because it’s hard, and because I’ve felt (and still feel, though less so) insecure about my own ability –- that I was a pretender, a self-deceiver, a fake. Also, it’s a bunny-eat-bunny business that can crush your soul at times. As a husband and father, I’ve worried about my ability to provide for my family, to keep paying the bills. But that’s life, right? You have to keep getting up. You can’t just lie there on the canvas. That said: Every day I feel blessed that I can do this for a living. The hard is what makes the good.
What’s your favorite writing quote?
It’s not a quote, so much as an attitude about doing the work, a sort of blue collar distrust of pretentiousness. In a phrase, shut up, sit down, and write. Or not! But either way, shut up. It’s hard, writers are told that we need to promote ourselves, we need to “have a presence” on the web, we need to “get out there.” And I just keep thinking, we need to write great books. That’s all that matters.
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing? What comes easily?
The whole thing is a challenge. One thing about having published a bunch of things over a long period of time is that I’ve come to understand that each book is its own, self-contained thing. You write the story that’s in front of you. Then you write the next one. And the next. You don’t control what happens after that and, on good days, you accept that plain fact.
No, it wasn’t you; I have no idea what I just said, either. Gibberish, mostly. I’m gibbering. Perhaps it’s time to contact the people at the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. So let’s try again and not bury the lead this time:
I keep finding out about these award/contests in seemingly random ways. There’s no official letter, no word from my publisher. It’s usually an email from someone who figures I already know.
But I don’t. I so don’t.
Anyway, again, great news for Bystander to be nominated as one of the better books for middle school readers. That’s six states I’m aware of, or seven, if we’re willing to count Confusion as a state. I always make a point of listing the other titles nominated for these awards. I do that because this blog won’t be of interest to anyone, including me, if it’s all about James Preller all the time. Also, I enjoy discovering the titles of these books, something new and unexpected always pops up, and I’m forever looking for good books to read and/or purchase for my kids. It’s an honor to share a ballot with such accomplished writers.
Virginia’s Reader’s Choice Awards for Middle School
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!