Back in November I posted about reading Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. I was struck by the crisp dialogue in that book, and ended up focusing my post on that aspect of her writing. I even included a PRO TIP! free of charge. That led to a comment from my friend, Kurtis Scaletta, who told me that he uses Fitzhugh to teach dialogue. I decided to invite Kurtis, who is an accomplished author, for a further chat on the subject.
Greetings, Kurtis. What is it that you admire about Fitzhugh’s dialogue?
When I was re-reading her books as an adult, I realized how dialogue-heavy they are, and how much of the character and even the plot is revealed through dialogue. I don’t think it was clear to me as a kid, but I really noticed it as an adult. I mean, I guess good writing is like that–you don’t notice what the author is doing.
That’s what I say on school visits when asked to give advice. Read like a writer. Try to notice what the author is doing. If you feel excited, if you strongly dislike a character, or even if you grow bored. What is the author doing to create that effect in you?
I’ll try to remember that answer because it’s better than mine. 😉
You mentioned that you use Fitzhugh’s work to teach dialogue. Could you give us a mini-lesson?
I have used the first chapter of Sport, which is about two pages and almost completely dialogue. It’s an emotionally devastating passage because the mother is really a terrible person. But in her little harangue you learn everything you need to know about the premise, a sketch of the three main characters (Sport, his mom, and his dad) and their personalities. I would just have people read it and then take a few minutes to write what they know about the characters and their situations. It actually helps here that not nearly as many people have read Sport as Harriet, because they had to draw only on that chapter instead of their memory.
That’s a heartbreaking scene. What a way to open the book.
It is, and I’ve learned that “unlikeable mother” is one of the hardest things to slip past the gatekeepers of middle grade, right up there with killing an animal. Fitzhugh could do what she wanted to because she was Louise Fitzhugh.
Why do you think dialogue is important?
For example, I’ll have written something that’s all expository then think, oh, I could have this kid talking to another kid and give people all this info while also introducing the other character. And then I can show their personality and crack a few jokes at the same time. And even then, once I’ve revised, I find it all happens in fewer words and is more fun to read.
It’s definitely faster to read. And, of course, it gets us away from too much interior monologue. In dialogue, the presence of “the writer” really falls away and the characters step forward.
I also pull up a scene in Harriet with three friends chatting — Harriet, Sport, and Janie — which is less expository but the interactions, the way the characters talk to each other, is very revealing of character. I love the scene where she and another girl are talking about the best way to get away with murder–like literally, how they could kill someone and get away with it. Girls are allowed to be so human in her books.
There are parts of Harriet’s personality that are shocking by today’s standards. Fitzhugh allows Harriet’s flaws to shine through. She thinks awful things. Even better, Harriet goes right on without always learning the easy lessons. There isn’t a big group hug at the end of the book –- and I love that.
The scene I actually use in class was from chapter two, where Harriet and Sport and Janie meet up before the first day of school and size up the other kids. They are being pretty mean to the other kids, but it really reveals their own insecurities. And even with the meanness there’s some empathy there. I feel like the topic of bullying has become very cut and dried; there are victims and bullies. This scene shows it as more complicated. But as I’ve told you before, I think your book Bystander is special for the same reason, it shows that the same kids can be bullies one day and victims the next.
Thanks, I appreciate that — and, hey, I agree! But let me ask: Where are you teaching? I thought you were a fancy children’s book author, sitting on soft cushions, looking down from some high tower?
Well, cushion dry cleaning isn’t cheap. I teach (and work full time) at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. I’ve run a middle grade fiction class every couple of years, sometimes online and sometimes in person.
When I was in college, I spent a summer recording conversations with friends. We’d just hang out and I’d roll tape. Then I’d type up all the spoken words –- the pauses and ums, the wrong turns and overlaps and abandoned thoughts — eventually adopting a free verse style of spacing and line breaks. I was such an English major! It taught me a lot about how people really talk. But books are artifice, even realistic fiction, so I also learned that you can’t often do that in a written work. You have to veer away from “real talk” in order to tell a more realistic story.
Yeah, people don’t talk in dialogue do they? Even Sam Shepard and David Mamet with all their incomplete sentences and non-sequiturs and interruptions are making something a bit tidier than real dialogue. So dialogue is an artifice, sounding realistic but still artifice.
Are there common mistakes that you see in students when they are writing dialogue?
I think in middle grade with dialogue or first-person narratives writers can try too hard to “sound like a kid,” and it generally means a lot of sarcasm, self-deprecating remarks, and slang. That’s probably the most common problem. I think it’s OK to do that in a draft, then dial it back. But it really comes down to getting a feel for your characters and not making them cookie-cutter “kids,” but real people.
Tell us a little about your next book?
I have a book coming out this year about a video game competition now called Lukezilla Beats the Game. It’s entirely inspired by my own gamer son, his interests and ambitions, so that made it a lot of fun to write. It’s probably not going to win any Newbery awards or get starred reviews describing it as “beautiful and important,” but when I tell kids about it they get really excited.
That’s how I feel about my “Scary Tales” series. The enthusiastic readers are out there – it’s just a matter of getting through the gatekeepers who may not, you know, really dig the scary thing. Or, in your case, approve of video games.
My son was an enthusiastic reader of those books, in fact. Especially the one with the swamp monster and the twins.
What a great kid! But again, as an author, you are able to watch your (obviously amazingly intelligent) son, Byron, interact with books –- and also NOT interact with books. He’s not the biggest reader in the world. How has it changed your perspective on children’s literature?
He’s nuts about Dav Pilkey, and so are all his buddies. He loves Phoebe and her Unicorn by Dana Simpson. He met her in person and she was incredible. And he likes the Dragon Master series by Tracey West. Those are about the only books he’ll drop what he’s doing for. Like mom comes home with a new book and he quits his video game or turns off the TV to read it.
It’s great to see kids get as excited about a new book as they are about a video game or a toy. He’s a very different kid than I was. I was a pretty quiet and solitary kid, and write books like the ones I loved reading as a kid. He’s very social and hates to be alone. His favorite books are the kind Ramona calls “noisy.”
Right. We sometimes forget that when we ask children to read, we are asking them to be quiet, and solitary, and passive. For many boys, that’s the direct opposite of what they love to do — to be active and boisterous with a gang of friends.
I think that’s the big difference in this new book, which was written more for him than the kid I used to be. It’s noisier. But there’s still some quiet stuff.
That’s really interesting. And I relate. There’s long been a literary conversation about audience, the ideal reader, this question of who we’re writing for: to try make the general reader happy, or a specific person, or maybe write for the child we used to be. With this book, you are clearly writing primarily for one specific reader. Did it clarify the task for you?
Very much, I didn’t have all these other critics in my head saying different things. I just had one real kid who’s the target audience actually reading it with me as I went.
Yeah, you weren’t trying to please the librarians on the awards committee. You wanted to write a book that Byron would actually read and enjoy. I love that.
He wants the next book — the one I haven’t even started writing — to be about cats. He loves cats and there aren’t as many cat books as dog books. I think he’s imagining something like Dogman but with cats. We’ll see where that goes.
Ha, it sounds like the perfect Hollywood elevator pitch: “It’s Dogman – but with CATS! We’ll get Julia Roberts to play the lead!”
Or Taylor Swift, since she has experience. Hmm . . .
Thank you for your time, Kurtis. It’s always a great pleasure talking with you, because you are a real book person and it comes through in everything you do and say and ponder. I wish you the best of the luck with Lukezilla Beats the Game. Sounds like a winner to me.
Kurtis Scaletta lives in Minneapolis with his wife, nine-year-old son, and five (!) cats. His website is kurtisscaletta.com and not-always-child-appropriate twitter is @kurtisscaletta. You can get occasional essays by email at tinyletter.com/skutir.