At a recent school visit, an eager student came up to me after a presentation hoping for an interview. Unfortunately, it was toward the end of the day, I still had books to sign, etc. There wasn’t time. I said I’d be happy to answer questions if she wrote to me. Usually it ends there.
And guess what? She persisted.
We admire that attribute in young women, don’t we?
Here’s the email, sent by Chloe’s librarian, and my response.
I apologize for the rush, but a student of mine, Chloe, has some interview questions that she needs answering as soon as possible.
1. What was the first book you ever wrote?
2. What was the favorite book that you’ve ever written?
3. If you were not an author, what would be your second career and why?
4. From where do you get your inspiration? Do your kids inspire you?
5. When you were young, were you good at reading?
6. What is your favorite book?
7. What “role” did you play when you were in school? Were you the teacher’s pet? The sports jock? The bully? etc
8. Why don’t any of your characters get killed?
9. How does your childhood affect your career as a writer?
10. What made you decide to become a writer?
11. Are you working on a new book? And if so, what is it about?
12. Would you want to choose any of the covers for your books?
13. How long do you think you will keep writing?
Thank you so much!
Since this is a rush, let me answer without too much thinking . . .
1. Maxx Trax: Avalanche Rescue! It was a picture book about superpowered trucks.
2. Blood Mountain, coming in October. 3. Editor. Something with a creative element involving books.
4. Inspiration is all around me, including my children.
5. Good at reading? Hmmm, I think so; I don’t recall having any problems with it. But I was not an enthusiastic reader until high school, college.
6. Of all books? Oh my. Where the Wild Things Are is pretty darn good! I like Owl Moon a lot. My favorite novel from the past year is titled Overstory by Richard Powers.
7. I didn’t really fit into a category. Not a jock, not a clown. I flew under the radar with a small group of close friends. The misfits?
8. I have had characters die in The Fall and Before You Go, but those books are for older readers (grades 7-up). I’ve also had characters face serious illness in Six Innings and The Courage Test. So it’s not all been just rainbows, cupcakes and unicorns. And, technically, Adrian in Better Off Undead is a 7th-grade zombie — he died and reanimated — so I’ve got that covered, too.
9. My childhood, my roots, profoundly affect everything I write. Most clearly and obviously in the Jigsaw Jones series, where he is the youngest of a large family — like me.
10. I don’t think we “decide” to be writers, so much as we pick up a pen and make time to write. It can be a journal, a letter, a poem, a story, whatever. It’s just how I’ve processed my thoughts and feelings.
11. I am the “thinking” stage of a new book that features Mary, a minor (but crucial) character in the book Bystander. Haven’t written a word yet — but I’m getting there!
12. Would I like more of a voice in the creation of my book covers? Yes, yes, yes.
13. I will write until the day I die. There’s no reason to stop. Of course, I may not have any readers left. But the truth is, I’d do it anyway!
I’m happy about this positive review for The Fall in the July issue of Booklist.
Thank you, Teri Lesesne!
“Readers will put this puzzle together, eager to see whether Sam ultimately accepts his role in Morgan’s death, and wanting to see the whole story of what one person could have, and should have, done for Morgan. Pair this with Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why (2007).”
I’ll take it!
Here’s the whole shebang:
The Fall. Preller, James (Author)
Sep 2015. 256 p. Feiwel and Friends, hardcover, $16.99. (9780312643010).
Sam Proctor is just an ordinary guy, neither an athlete nor a scholar. He goes with the flow, which is why he was part of the gang who piled on a girl named Morgan. A few comments on her home page, some name calling—it was harmless, right? But the taunts and posts grew uglier until Morgan stepped off the town’s water tower and killed herself. Sam now wonders about his culpability. At first, he rationalizes: he wasn’t the worst of the bullies, and it’s not like he pushed her off the edge. In short, episodic chapters, Preller provides readers with a rare glimpse into the mind of a bully (though Sam would never admit he is one). The pace is fast, yet the story unfolds slowly, one piece at a time. Readers will put this puzzle together, eager to see whether Sam ultimately accepts his role in Morgan’s death, and wanting to see the whole story of what one person could have, and should have, done for Morgan. Pair this with Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why (2007). — Teri Lesesne
I get a lot of great letters from readers, but this one is particularly awesome because it’s from a future author . . . who maybe already writes better than me. Rats!
Hello Mr. Preller,
My name is Emily _____, age 11, and I wish to be an author someday. I read your story Bystander and loved it! Although I didn’t like how the story ended between Eric and Griffin. I was expecting some sort of face off between them but it never happened. So, I wrote my own ending to the story. I go to school in Portland. I handed in the story into my teacher for her advice and she made a note that said (and i quote):
There are so many great qualities in this story — wow!
really suspenseful and exciting
great phrasing description
You should send this to author to read — really he will appreciate it i’m sure.
Anyway, so i decided to send it to you! here it is:
How Bystander should have ended…
It was November. A couple months have passed since Griffin and Eric interacted with one another. Griffin and his new crew ruled the halls of the school. Eric wished that if he imagined it enough Griffin would leave, but when you enter reality, it’s not something you can expect to happen.
Day by day, the boys exchange dirty looks with one another… until Eric decided to tell the “Griffin crew,” who was boss.
“Ok, Griffin, I am going to tell you this, and I’m only going to say this once…” Eric said grabbing Griffin by the shirt.
“We need to settle this like men,” Eric spoke with rage.
“On the basketball court. If I win, you stop bullying people forever. But if you win, then I leave the school…forever.”
Griffin almost laughed.
“Really? And who would be on your team?” Griffin snickered. Eric’s face turned pale as sleet.
“I can find a team,” Eric trembled as he spoke. A crowd of people came fast, swarming like bees. Everyone was there. Then Eric heard a voice he hadn’t heard in a while.
“I’ll be on his team!” shouted a voice. Everyone looked back to see David Hallenback standing, head held high.
“Ha-ha. Are you kidding?! Hallenback you can’t even do a push up!” Griffin teased. Eric knew he couldn’t be a bystander again.
“I’ve seen him do a pushup!” Eric lied. David’s cheeks got less red as if Eric’s words soaked up all the embarrassment.
“Well you can only have two people on your team… who would join?”
Then Griffin heard a voice that he recognized call out:
“I will,” It was Cody. Who knew someone so annoying could be so kind?
“Uhh, dude! You’re in my crew!” Griffin called out.
“I ditched you remember?” Cody said. He walked over to Eric and high fived him. It was then three on Griffin’s team and three on Eric’s team. Griffin was with, a new kid named Caiden, and tomboy named Piper. Eric was with David and Cody.
“I’m going to win this thing,” Griffin said.
“I beg to differ,” Eric smirked.
It was the day of the game and everyone was there. Eric’s team started with the ball. By the time it was almost over, Eric was losing, 39 to 40. There was 8 seconds on the clock. Griffin’s team had the ball.
Then the horn blew. Griffin was heading towards the basket when Hallenback made a quick steal from Griffin and was heading towards the basket. 3 seconds, 2 seconds… then you could hear the most amazing sound in the world, the swoosh of the ball going into the net. Eric won. It was like Eric could walk on air.
“HALLENBACK, HALLENBACK, HALLENBACK!” everyone chanted. Griffin’s anger was boiling up more than dry ice in hot water. Let’s just say, sometime’s a fairytale can turn into reality.
Thank you for your time.
Thank you for sharing your alternative ending to Bystander. I’m really impressed. I feel like a stranger handed me a gift out of the blue. “For me? Thank you.”
You are such a good writer. Great action and suspense. It’s smart how your brought basketball back into the story, a tale of justice settled on the “court.” Best of all, I think, was your convincing use of dialogue. To me, believable dialogue is the key to writing compelling, fast-paced stories with lively characters.
When I first started writing, I often got stuck writing long passages filled with interior thinking. Nobody every moved! You know what I mean? Those times when we’re trapped inside a character’s head. So he thinks and thinks and thinks, and shares with the reader lots of interior thoughts. But on the page, that can get boring very quickly. Nothing happens. It took me years to learn a lesson that you already instinctively know: get characters talking to each other, create conflict . . . and get out of the way! I guess it’s obvious, really. Good writing does both, it goes inside and outside. It’s important to get inside a character’s head, at least once in a while, but in terms of showing action — that is: showing, not telling — we need to give readers a clear picture of “the outside.” You do that masterfully.
The ending of Bystander has generated more comments than any other aspect of the book. When I wrote that final scene, I realized that it might not be satisfying in the conventional sense, especially to a reader with a sense of fairness. In stories and movies, we like to see the bad day get it in the end. But my ending was anti-climactic; I did not opt for the big dramatic finish (which you accomplished so well). I went the other direction. For me, I wrote the ending that I thought was most true to the world as I understood it, even if, well, it was not a storybook conclusion. But I hear you, Emily, and you are not wrong to feel the way you do. I just wanted you to know why I wrote the ending the way I did. I followed my own idea of true.
Thank you so much for your work. And thanks, too, for your fabulous teacher who suggested that you share it with me. I’m grateful to your both. Great job all around.
I’m sorry that it took me a couple of weeks to get back to you. I could sense your eagerness for a reply, but I’ve been deep into the final stages of a book — deadlines are tough, you know — and it’s been hard for me to address my growing (virtual) pile of letters. Plus, my mother-in-law has been visiting. And, well, maybe someday you’ll understand the difficulty of that particular distraction.
By the way, I have a companion book to Bystander coming out at the end of the summer, titled The Fall (Macmillan, 2015). It’s an entirely different story, all new characters, but in it I explore some of the same themes and issues found in Bystander. It’s probably a little bit darker, a little tougher. I’m really proud of it. As a writer, you probably how that feels.
I wish you a happy holiday, however you might celebrate this wintery season. As the band Devo said, “Merry Something To You!”
Here’s an email that resulted from a recent presentation I gave to grades 6-8 while down in Virginia:
Hello, Mr. Preller,
I go to Norfolk Collegiate and you visited my school just a few weeks ago. I never got to really ask you any questions, but yet I gave you book ideas. I’m the Freddy Krueger Girl and the Bloody Mary Girl, remember?I just wanted to ask you if you ever plan to write higher level Scary Tales Books. I remember you telling me about them and I wish you wrote some for beginning high school level or a bit higher since I’m in middle school, I still have a high reading level which narrows my selections from any interesting books like yours. Also I can’t wait for your Bystander sequel to come out and i’m looking forward to any new books in the works.
The Freddy Krueger Girl,
Thanks for your note. I very much enjoyed my brief visit to Norfolk Collegiate. That was grades 6-8, I believe. Of course I remember you. How many “Freddy Krueger Girls” do you think I meet?
I think writing a scary story for older readers would be great fun. In my current series, as you know, I try to be responsible to younger readers. I want to scare them, but I am not looking to traumatize anybody. I’m not seeking to drive 9-year-old readers into the sanitarium, locked up in a rubber room. So I mostly focus on entertainment, building suspense — the knot that twists and twists. I make sure that each story is safely resolved, and nobody gets hurt. At the same time, it’s not Scooby Doo — where the ghost is usually just a portly janitor dressed in a sheet — but it’s not truly horrifying, either. I try to straddle that middle zone of scary . . . but not too scary.
I sometimes joke on visits with elementary school students, “I’m sorry, but no one gets murdered in these stories. And I’m sad to inform you that there are no gory scenes with blood gushing out all over the place.”
They politely try to hide their disappointment.
All of which makes me think that it would be liberating to write a story for older readers like you where there were no rules. Where I could say, “Well, in fact, teenagers get murdered and there’s blood all over the place! It’s delightfully gory!”
Wouldn’t that be swell?
Thanks for your letter.
P.S. Thanks for your interest in the quasi-companion book to Bystander, titled The Fall. It’s due out in August, 2015 — I think! As I said before, it’s not truly a sequel, but it does address many of the same themes from a different, slightly darker perspective.
The first book came out in July 2013, and #5 comes out this October, 2014. Meanwhile, the manuscript for #6 has been written, edited, revised — now it’s up to Feiwel & Friends to turn those rough pages into a real book.
I’m proud of this accomplishment. Proud of the quality of these books. Six stories, each unique, with new (diverse) characters and varied settings. Each one designed to get kids turning the pages, reading books, hearts beating faster, and enjoying the experience.
As an author, I’ve had to learn to control the things I can, and to accept the process. So much is out of my hands. Will these books find an audience? Will they get past the gatekeepers? Will readers love them? I can only hope . . . while I move on to write the next story that moves me.
The next book will be something altogether different, a hardcover, THE FALL, due out in Fall, 2015. Currently that book’s opening sentence reads:
Two weeks before Morgan Mallen threw herself off the water tower, I might have typed a message on her social media page that said, “Just die! die! die! No one cares about you anyway!”
(I’m just saying: It could have been me.)
It is a book about bullying, bystanders, responsibility, friendship, and forgiveness. It is a story that opens with a powerful quote by Bryan Stevenson, taken from his 3/5/12 TED Talk: “I’ve come to understand and to believe that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
Thank you for giving my “Scary Tales” series a chance. I love those books and I’m fairly amazed that the first one came out only 14 months ago. I haven’t (only) been sitting around! And thanks, too, to everyone at Macmillan for helping to make these books possible. I’ve been fortunate.
Oh, yeah: Great books for Halloween, or any time of year!