Archive for September 16, 2008

Backstory: A Sense of Smell

Like most people, I have a nose. But mine doesn’t seem to work very well. Smells don’t really register with me on a conscious level. I mean, sure, I get the big unavoidable ones, like fresh brownies in the kitchen or dirty diapers on a toddler. But I’m not a guy who is going to smell a glass of wine or a bowl of soup; I just throw that stuff down the gullet and move on. I’m sure that on an unconscious level I respond to many smells. Who knows, on some animal level I’ve probably formed personal likes and dislikes, felt attracted or repelled, based on odors — not that I’d know it.

Good writers, I think, strive to engage all the senses in their writing. For me, when it comes to the sense of smell, that means work. It doesn’t come naturally. When I was writing from Trey Cooper’s point of view (POV) in Along Came Spider, I knew that I was writing about a sensitive kid. A boy who smells things. The book loosely alternates POV between Trey and Spider Stevens. In Trey’s chapters, I made an effort to bring the sense of smell into the descriptive passages. Part of his affection for crayons comes from that comforting odor, that sweet olfactory sensation, entangled in childhood memory, the smell working on him on some deep level. Crayons feel safe. Therefore in this book, when Trey encounters people, smell is often part of the description.

Of the classroom aide, Mrs. Mowatt: “She was large and overflowing and smelled of cocoa butter.”

Of Ryan Donovan: “Ryan was loud and his face was too near and his staring eyes hurt and his mouth smelled like garlic.”

On the night sky: “The air was cool and smelled of pine and moved like a panther from rock to rock.” And: “The smell of decayed leaves and the corpses of flowers filled his nostrils.”

On the library: “Trey glanced at the shelves that lined the walls, the new books, the smooth polished tabletops that smelled of Lemon Pledge, the chairs tucked in and neatly arranged.”

And so on. It was just a little thing I did to build character, nothing major, one attribute that I gave him which seemed consistent with his condition. He smelled things . . . even if I didn’t.

By the way, my daughter Maggie has a heightened sense of smell. She’s always commenting on various odors (some of which her father carries, alas, and Maggie frowns upon — she hates peanut butter breath). We were in the car the other day; I was driving Maggie and a friend to gymnastics. The subject of the mall came up. Maggie stated that she did not like the mall. Her friend, Katie, an enthusiastic shopper, was surprised: “Why not?”

“I don’t like the way it smells,” Maggie said. “It’s all . . . buttery.”

Funny, right? But then you think of those pretzel shops that are everywhere, and the movie theaters with buckets of popcorn drenched in a yellow liquid vaguely butter-ish something, and the overall pungent queasy smell that pervades, and realize that Maggie is absolutely right.

The nose knows!

Song of the Week, Month, Whatever

This clip features “Mercy Now” by the brilliant songwriter, Mary Gauthier. Somebody edited together a string of stunning, startling photos of the ravages of Hurricane Katrina and, well, I think the overall effect is pretty powerful. And did I mention that my wife, Lisa, and I are going to see her in concert tonight . . . performing inside an egg?

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

MERCY NOW by Mary Gauthier

My father could use a little mercy now
The fruits of his labor
Fall and rot slowly on the ground
His work is almost over
It won’t be long and he won’t be around
I love my father, and he could use some mercy now

My brother could use a little mercy now
He’s a stranger to freedom
He’s shackled to his fears and doubts
The pain that he lives in is
Almost more than living will allow
I love my bother, and he could use some mercy now

My church and my country could use a little mercy now
As they sink into a poisoned pit
That’s going to take forever to climb out
They carry the weight of the faithful
Who follow them down
I love my church and country, and they could use some mercy now

Every living thing could use a little mercy now
Only the hand of grace can end the race
Towards another mushroom cloud
People in power, well
They’ll do anything to keep their crown
I love life, and life itself could use some mercy now

Yeah, we all could use a little mercy now
I know we don’t deserve it
But we need it anyhow
We hang in the balance
Dangle ‘tween hell and hallowed ground
Every single one of us could use some mercy now
Every single one of us could use some mercy now
Every single one of us could use some mercy now

Book Signing: September 27

Book signings can be uniquely depressing events, the classic party where nobody comes. You go to a store, someone hands you a Sharpie, you sit at a desk behind a short stack of books . . . and nobody shows. Most every author could tell you that story, between muffled sobs and shots of bourbon. (Muffled shots and sobs of bourbon?) Even worse, there are the ordinary patrons of the store who did not come for the “special author appearance” but, instead, arrive solely to purchase a new cookbook for Cousin Muffy. They wander near the author’s table, curiously sniff, give a tight-lipped (suspicious) nod, then perambulate over to Paperback Bestsellers.

Or you have this conversation, while they gingerly pick up your book as if it were an explosive device:

Patron: “Did you write this?”

Author: “Yes, it’s a children’s book.”

Patron: “I don’t have any children myself.”

Author: “I see.”

Patron: “They should all be cooked in boiling lard!”

Author: “Okaaaaaay.”

Which is why I’ve pretty much sworn off the humiliation of book store signings.


I’ll be at the Open Door Book Store in Schedectady, New York, on September 27th, from 1:00 – 2:30.

Stop in for a chat.


Fan Mail Wednesday #12: The Thursday Edition!

Here’s a good one:

Lieber Herr Preller,
Ich würde gerne wissen wieviele Bücher Sie von Puzzle Paul geschrieben haben.Ich mache nämlich einen Vortrag über Ihnen und ihre Bücher.

Dear mister Preller,
I would like to know, how many books you have write about puzzle Paul? I am making a prestation for school about your Books.
Thanks a lot and many greets.

Viviane S from Switzerland

PS: I like your books very much

Quick background for my blog readers (and I thank you for that): Yes, as you may have gathered, quite a few Jigsaw Jones mysteries have been translated into German. In the process, he was renamed “Puzzle Paul.” My books have appeared in several different languages, including French, Spanish, and Italian. I recently learned that the translation rights for Six Innings have been sold for Korean, and I can’t wait to see that!

My response:

Many greets to you, Viviane!

It is exciting to hear from a reader in Switzerland. I traveled in your beautiful country once, back when I was a hitchhiking, tent-sleeping, bread-and-cheese-eating (read: poor) college student in the, ahem, early 1980’s. Cough, cough. Good times, good times.

In English, there are 37 different Jigsaw Jones titles. However, I think there are about 8-10 that have been translated into German. Which, frankly, amazes me. Did you realize that the original, English-language versions feature only black-and-white illustrations, while the German editions come in full color? Though the German editions translated my words, the publisher hired a new artist, Peter Nielander, to create all new artwork — and the books come in hardcover! In German, my book, The Case of the Class Clown, is called, Der Spinnentrick, and there are spiders on the cover!

If you have any specific questions you’d like for me to answer, please send them along and I’ll be happy to answer them. I’d like you to get high marks on your presentation! In the meantime, you might want to look here or here for more info.

Thanks for reading my books!


P.S.: Your note inspired me to search in my files for a thick, thick folder of long-forgotten poems I wrote decades ago. I found the one I was looking for, written while I was sitting on a rock in Montreux, age 21. Ah, to be young and full of words!

More Backstory: Writing Spider

Teachers often ask about “the writing process.” That’s an uncomfortable thing for me, since it seems fertile ground for pretentiousness. But to answer the question honestly, “my” writing process is the only one I can speak about with any author/ity. I can’t really talk about IT without dragging MYSELF into it. So apologies in advance if I come off as just another self-absorbed, belly-gazing ninny. I’m not, really. Honest. I mean it!

So in the interest of discussing “the” writing process, I have to talk about my own. When I began Along Came Spider, I started by sitting in on a fifth-grade classroom (previously discussed here). At one point, after a few months, I tried a different classroom of fourth-graders taught by Mary Martin at Glenmont Elementary. Now one of the things I love to do is look at everything hanging on the walls. I copy a lot of it down, word for word. One of the posters I found, evidently penned (markered?) by Mary, was this:


Say Something Nice to Someone

You look nice * Hello! * Thanks for your help * Way to go! * Nice day, isn’t it? * A-OK * Bravo! * Well done * You are awesome * Keep up the good work * Remarkable * You rock * I know you can do it * How are you? * Super * You’re the best * Cool!

Somewhere along the line I combined that poster with a specific character and a specific event. The character was Trey Cooper, a boy who struggled with social cues. I imagined what he might make of such a poster, how he might interpret it, find it helpful, or possibly confusing.

Then I remembered a moment in Chris Porter’s classroom, something I had scribbled about in my notebook weeks previously. This is exactly what I wrote on 2/2/07 while in that classroom, here in it’s crude form, lifted from a spiral notebook:

Here’s Ms. Porter getting the class’s attention for a social studies lesson. She’s explaining something when — whirrrrr — you can see the eyes spin in her head like the wheels of a slot machine. She stops and looks, there’s Lee , sharpening a pencil. Ms. Porter had a rule about that, and it made her crazy when it was broken. She gave her students a lot of freedom — they were fifth-graders after all, the crowned kings and queens of Erstwhile Elementary, and, in turn, Ms. Porter expected her students to behave maturely, to act further along the evolutionary spectrum than the chimpanzees they sometimes resembled.

Of course, none of that survived even the first draft of the book — except for the basic dynamic of the scene. Here’s how that scene actually concludes in the final version, Chapter Two, pp. 14-15. Note that I moved the point-of-view closer to the character (now named Trey, not Lee), and away from the adult teacher’s perspective:

Mrs. Wine was looking intently at him, hands on her hips, lips tight, like she was sucking on a Sour Patch Kid. The tips of her ears had gone bright red. Three rhyming words — hips, lips, and tips — all signaled Mrs. Wine’s unhappiness. Trey was getting better at figuring these things out. Hips, lips, tips. Hips, lips, tips.

“Are you finished?” she asked.

Trey thought for a moment, considering Mrs. Wine’s question. He decided that it was a trick question, one that he had better not answer (since, of course — obviously! — he was not finished, nowhere close, for he still had seven pencils to go). At the same time, she expected a response of some kind. Mrs. Wine stood looking at him, that sour expression still on her face, waiting for something.

Thinking of the poster, Trey blurted, “A-OK!”

“Excuse me?”

“Super!” Trey exclaimed, beaming.

“Please take your seat, Trey. We’ll discuss this later.”

“Mrs. Wine,” Trey answered, “you are awesome . . . and you rock!”

Strange, Trey thought as he made his way back to his seat. Mrs. Wine didn’t smile back.

Something must be wrong with that poster.