Diana Athill: “Cut (perhaps that should be CUT): only by having no inessential words can every essential word be made to count.
Anne Enright: “The first 12 years are the worst.”
Anne Enright: “Only bad writers think that their work is really good.”
Anne Enright: “Try to be accurate about stuff.”
Richard Ford: “Don’t read your reviews.”
Jonathan Franzen: “You see more sitting still than chasing after.”
Neil Gaiman: “The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.”
David Hare: “Style is the art of getting yourself out of the way, not putting yourself in it.”
PD James: “Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.”
PD James: “Nothing that happens to a writer — however happy, however tragic — is ever wasted.”
AL Kennedy: “Remember writing doesn’t love you. It doesn’t care. Nevertheless, it can behave with remarkable generosity. Speak well of it, encourage others, pass it on.”
Michael Morpurgo: “It is the gestation time which counts.”
Andrew Motion: “Work hard.”
Joyce Carol Oates: “Keep a light, hopeful heart. But expect the worst.”
Helen Simpson: “The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-It on the wall in front of my desk saying “Faire et se taire” (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as “Shut up and get on with it.”
Zadie Smith: “Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.”
Rose Tremain: “Forget the boring old dictum “write about what you know.” Instead, seek out an unknown yet knowable area of experience that’s going to enhance your understanding of the world and write about that.”
Sarah Waters: “Novels are for readers, and writing them means the crafty, patient, selfless construction of effects.”
I’m a sucker for cover tunes. I’m always curious to hear a fresh new take on a song, almost any song. It’s like a conversation between two artists, a nod, a wink, a genuflection. Sometimes it’s pure fun; other times, disastrous and ill-advised. Since Bob Dylan is my favorite songwriter, I’ve made a small hobby out of listening to cover versions of his songs. Below are some of my favorites.
Note: I’m taking this chronologically, according to the dates in which the original songs were written (not the dates of the cover versions). In some instances I might be wrong, since the origin of some tunes is open to debate. Also, I’m not saying these are the only great versions of Dylan songs; I decided not to make myself too crazy over this, or to make this list go on forever.
One last thing before I lose you to the scroll: If you are interested in Dylan covers, you need to check out this extraordinary data base of songs featured at Dylancover.com.
“Tomorrow Is a Long Time,“Elvis Presley Honorable mention: Nick Drake, Nickel Creek.
“Blowin’ in the Wind,”Stevie Wonder
“Girl from the North Country,”The Lions Honorable Mention:Roseanne Cash, The Eels.
“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,”Mavis Staples (from Bonus Disk, “No Direction Home” DVD)
“The Times They Are A-Changing,”Keb Mo Honorable Mention: Mason Jennings
“When the Ship Comes In,”Arlo Guthrie Honorable Mention: Marcus Carl Franklin.
“Percy’s Song,”Fairport Convention
“Spanish Harlem Incident,”James Mercer (The Shins)
“To Ramona,” The Flying Burrito Brothers
“It Ain’t Me Babe,” White Antelope (The Fleet Foxes) Honorable Mention: The Turtles.
“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,”Dave’s True Story
“Can’t Leave Her Behind,”Stephen Malkmus & Lee Ranaldo
“Like a Rolling Stone,” Drive-By Truckers Honorable Mention: The Creation.
“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” Nina Simone
“Positively Fourth Street,”Bryan Ferry
“Pledging My Time,“Luther Johnson
“Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again,” Cat Power
“Absolutely Sweet Marie,”Flamin’ Groovies
“I’ll Keep It with Mine,”Marianne Faithful
“As I Went Out One Morning,”Mira Billote
“All Along the Watchtower,” Jimi Hendrix
“Wicked Messenger,”The Black Keys Honorable Mention: The Faces.
“I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” Norah Jones
“To Be Alone with You,”Maria Muldaur
“Lay Lady Lay,”Magnet & Gemma Hayes
“Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You,” Ann Peebles
“If Not for You,”George Harrison
“Sign on the Window,“Jennifer Warnes
“When I Paint My Masterpiece,”The Band Honorable Mention: Emmylou Harris
My apologies — bloggy weirdness going on with my typeface below, but I’ve already spent too much time trying to fix it. The truth is, I’m not good at letting these things go (I like my i’s dotted and my t’s crossed). But, enough. Here’s a three-for-the-price-of-one deal!
Dear Mr. Preller,
I am Miguel.I am in 4th grade. I like the Jigsaw Jones especially the Groaning Ghost because one part they said don’t eat the evidence and the end when they had a party. I have 3 brothers. 1 brother is in 1st grade the other two are four years old. What’s your favorite book you wrote? Do you like to play any sports other then baseball. How many books have you wrote? What new books are you writing in 2010? How many books are you writing in 2010-20ll? I hope you write more books of Jigsaw Jones.
Thanks for your letter. I’ve got you beat by one brother. Growing up, I was the youngest of seven children, five boys and two girls. We had the girls outnumbered! But you’ve got LITTLE brothers, whereas I specialized in the BIG ones. Jigsaw Jones is the youngest in his family because I know all about that. In your case, Miguel, you could write about being the oldest, and how the younger ones sometimes drive you crazy (wild guess).
When I was your age, I didn’t play many organized sports, but I constantly played DISORGANIZED ones! That’s the big difference between kids when I grew up (born in 1961, back in the waaay back) and kids today. I played pickup basketball behind the local elementary school, and we played tackle football almost every day until it snowed. Then we played some more. No adults standing around, no fancy equipment, nobody setting up teams, blowing whistles, or settling our disagreements for us. We had to work it all out for ourselves. It’s like a lost skill.
(Sorry if that makes me sound old, but I guess I kind of am.)
I have a new book coming out this summer, called Justin Fisher Declares War! It’s set in a 5th-grade classroom and involves a boy who attracts trouble. It’s pretty funny, I think, but that’s not really for me to decide. Very quick and easy to read.
I’d love to write another Jigsaw Jones book, but right now there are no plans for that. It’s up to my publisher. Fortunately, I wrote 40 of them, so there should be enough to keep you busy for a while!
you are the best author in the world.I love your books more then ice cream. my name is natessa but people call me Tessa i am in second grade in illinois. maybe you can visit my school. love tessa
Thanks for that great email. More than ice cream?! Really? Any flavor?
Wow, that’s something — I never dreamed of beating ice cream. But I have dreamed of eating ice cream!
I love to visit schools and talk to kids. Maybe someday I’ll meet you in Illinois!
In the meantime: read, think, feel, grow!
My four year old was given the Jigsaw CD (via Wendy’s), The Case of the Mummy Mystery, and that got him hooked on all the books. He has the mummy book memorized, which is hilarious when we read it to him and make any ‘mistakes’ at all, he’ll correct us. I typically read the first couple words and let him finish the paragraph. He LOVES Jigsaw Jones and often calls his 1 year old brother ‘Theodore’ instead of his given name, Eli. He also calls me ‘Mila’ and says that he is ‘Joey’. Not sure why he’s Joey Pignatano and not Jigsaw, but you can’t decode the mind of a four year old, can you?
Just thought I’d send out my big thanks and congrats because these books are a big hit in our house and Ethan’s first ‘big boy’ book that he’ll sit the entire book through without concern for ‘no pictures’.
I particularly love that there are not any rude words in the book, name calling, or other random things that some authors think they need to pull the kids in. There are couple books we read that I have to change the words (idiot, stupid, that’s not fair, shut up, etc. are not cool in our house).
Love your work and excited to be picking up more books. Take care, love to your family.
Thank you for sharing that story. Your description of Ethan reminds me of when my middle child, Gavin, was in his Beatrice Potter stage. He was three or so and had a complete set of all the books. Used to carry them around everywhere, a challenge that required great effort. It was wonderful — a little nutty and eccentric, yes, but wonderful — and I loved the opportunity he gave me to read those books over and over again. Such lovely stories, true classics. I enjoyed discovering the lesser-known titles (to me, at least), but still remember The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies as my personal favorite.
We frequently played “Peter Rabbit.”
I’d be Mr. McGregor, chasing Gavin all around the house. Lisa would stand in as Peter’s mother. Maggie, Gavin’s younger sister by eighteen months, would want to play, too. Which led to this memorable exchange:
Me: “Okay, who do you want to be Maggie?”
Maggie (more insistent): “Butter!”
This went back and forth for a long while, to the point where we had linguists flown in from Princeton University, all to no avail. The house was in crisis. Maggie, frustrated and angry. Finally, we got it: Not butter — “Potter!”
She wanted to be Potter!
Thanks for reminding me of that story. As for the memorization, Gavin did the same with Peter Rabbit. I distinctly remember him reciting, almost word for word, the first 25-30 pages of that book. Three years old! Craziness. These kids are such sponges. I felt grateful for Beatrice Potter, that his young developing brain was filled with such incredible images and language.
I was happy to read your closing comments about the Jigsaw Jones series. My children were taught that words like stupid and fat were bad words. And truly, bad thoughts to have about other people (and “words” and “thought” are indelibly linked). So I made it a point to keep these words and therefore those thoughts out of the Jigsaw Jones books. And like you, I’ve often been disappointed by some of the (unnecessary) choices made in children’s books and movies in the hopes of bringing in that older, edgier audience. There’s time enough, later in life, for that stuff. I mean to say: I totally hear what you are saying and couldn’t agree more. I’m not trying to sit in judgment. It’s just that as writers we all have to make choices of what we want to put out into the world. And likewise, as parents, what we bring into our homes.
Very interesting short video — maybe it seems a little familiar at first — which makes a couple of keen observations about bystander apathy, “the diffusion of responsibility,” and how one person can create a new group (at 2:36 in the clip) and maybe save a life.
And this one is terrifying, frankly. I had the same reaction as the mother did, at 3:00 in the clip, with tears in my eyes. But then I cry at everything; it’s like a big joke at my house.
Sorry, you’re going to have to wait a minute. I know you’re in a big hurry and everything. People nowadays expect their blog entertainment to run like clockwork, click, click, click on that mouse. Well, go grab a seat. There’s some old Field & Stream magazines on the table.
It shouldn’t be too much longer. Please have your co-pay ready.
I’m waiting for author Kurtis Scaletta, who agreed to come here all the way from his home in Minneapolis for an interview. But you know how that goes, bad weather, costly delays: snow, ice, Vikings . . .
Seriously: Kurtis is an original new voice in children’s literature. His first book, Mudville, earned him wide acclaim, including being named one of the Top 10 Sports Books for Youth in 2009 by Booklist. His next book, Mamba Point, is due out in July, 2010. Even better, Kurtis claims to be writing a completely crazy book, hopefully for 2011. The truth is, I’m rooting for Kurtis Scaletta — and I know that after meeting him, you will be, too.
Hey, Kurtis. Finally, you’re here! Thanks for coming all the way from Minneapolis. Take off your wet things. Yes, the snow pants, socks, and mittens, too. I’ll throw them in the dryer while we talk. Here’s a terry cloth bathrobe and some bunny slippers.
Thanks. It’s great to be here in balmy Albany. Your orange tree is doing great. Um, do you mind turning on the A/C?
Not a problem. Are you bothered by the noise from the steel drum band in my backyard? I could ask them to stop, but like most of my neighbors in upstate NY, I could listen to “Shake, Shake Senora” all day long — and frequently do.
I actually listened to a lot of Caribbean music while writing the last one, but more Marley and less Belafonte.
Now that you mention Harry Belafonte, I remember that song gets featured nicely in Tim Burton’s “Beetlejuice.” But don’t try to sidetrack me, Kurtis. I’m onto your tricks. We’re primarily here to talk about me. I mean, Mudville. The book turns on what strikes me as just a wonderful, imaginative leap –- a rain delay that lasts 22 years. Do you remember the circumstances of getting that idea? Was it a lightning bolt moment?
It’s kinda predictable, but I was watching a baseball game that went into a rain delay and one thing led to another. I did already have some of the characters in mind and I was trying to figure out what to do with them.
But that was a fantastic idea, literally, and introduced an element of magic realism into the story. Have I got that right? Is it something you resisted at first? Or do you have an interest in speculative fiction?
I like to tread a fine line between the improbable and impossible. All of my books do it. I call them “tall tales” myself. Sounds less pretentious. I mean, I ain’t Marquez or Borges. I read a lot of speculative fiction when I was younger, especially Harlan Ellison, but I don’t really see myself in that arena.
Are you excited about Mudville coming out in paperback?
Definitely. Something about the Yearling logo makes it especially neat. I remember a lot of great books having that horsey from when I was a kid.
It’s cool because Six Innings is coming out in paperback around the same time. Come to think of it, we should be bitter rivals. Where’s my trident?
Yeah, I guess other kids baseball writers are in competition. Unfortunately, they’ve also proved to be decent dudes. I’ve met John H. Ritter, Mick Cockrane, and John Coy, and in all three cases had to pocket my shiv.
Ah, disappointing. Nothing quite beats a brawl between children’s authors. After Mudville, was there an expectation that you were going to follow with another sports book?
I did worry for a while that I would be expected to deliver a series of sports books. I figured I could write one or two, but I’m not Mike Lupica and I have a lot more interests besides sports. I remember my wife saying, “In seven years when you’re writing the lacrosse book, you’ll wonder what the heck you’re doing.” But when I started talking to my editor about ideas for a second book, she was more taken with the Africa book than other suggestions, which included sports books. So I chalk that up to landing at a great house with a great editor.
I had a similar experience after Six Innings. I remember when your lovely wife said to me . . .
She encouraged you to write the Africa book, right?
Exactly! She’s been helpful in so many, many ways. I was wondering, how do you deal with reviews? You received such wonderful notices for Mudville. Are you thick-skinned, or more of a whimpering baby like me?
I really appreciated the good reviews, and the non-mention in one major outlet actually hurt more than the slam in another. I mostly just want people to know I exist, I think.
Are you hungry? I’ve got a Yodel, a Ho-Ho, or a Devil Dog. Which one do you want? Orange soda or root beer? And yes, Kurtis, it’s raining gum drops. That’s the way we roll here at jamespreller.com.
Yeah, and I guess the definitive word is “roll,” with that kind of diet. I’ll have the Yodel and the Orange pop, thanks.
Sorry, all out. Here’s a can of tuna fish and a hammer.
I’ll bring the tuna home. My five cats will appreciate it.
Five cats? I’m not going there. You went to school for writing, didn’t you? So is it safe to assume that you believe writing can be taught?
Well, the truth is that it was 17 years ago and I mainly had to figure out what to do with myself. But I do think I benefited from working with my advisor Elaine Ford, who is a terrific writer and was very frank and helpful with her feedback on my works in progress.
I can’t deal with “frank and helpful.” I’m more of a looking-for-false-praise kind of guy.
I’ve read that a lot of sensitive geniuses are like that. Anyway, it was a long time before I actually got published, but that had to do with me and not the University of Maine. Still, I think creative writing is in a weird position where there is both an abundance of non-academic “how to” manuals and workshops but very little serious scholarship on teaching and learning and very little about best practices or pedagogy that is based on evidence. My day job in higher ed is showing here I think.
Kurtis, you have a pretty active blog and I enjoy reading it. Do you think it’s helped you professionally? And if so, in what ways?
Now I use my blog as a way to connect to readers, librarians and teachers, but the biggest help it’s given me was before I got published. Before I had my professional authorial blog I had a book review blog, now defunct, and a personal/chatty blog, also defunct. Blogging was a turning point for me as a writer because I started writing every day and I met and started talking to other writers and people who care about kids books. My day job is not in writing or literature and I was way out of the loop, so I’m glad I got connected to a community and started writing again.
You have a new book coming out, Mamba Point, inspired in part by your experiences living in Monrovia, Liberia. That’s not near my old haunts on Long Island, is it?
Well, they’re on the same ocean, so sure. Just a skip across the pond.
So the story involves . . . dancing?
You’re just trying to get me worked up, aren’t you? One of my missions now is to get people to learn the difference between a mamba, which is a deadly snake, and a mambo, which is a risque latin dance.
A confusion that has led to many senseless deaths, I might add.
Seriously, because those mambo dances are tougher than they look!
Do not confuse the Mamba with the Mambo. Kurtis Scaletta is here to help.
Please, Kurtis, continue about your book.
Mamba Point is about a kid who moves from a small midwestern air force town to Montrovia, Liberia, in 1982. He’s worried about making new friends, just starting to get curious about those creatures called girls, and mostly wants to read comic books and play games. So far, that’s pretty autobiographical. But this kid is harassed by a black mamba… at first he’s scared out of his wits, but ends up kind of befriending it. They have a kind of connection. Then there’s a little adventure story thrown in, for good measure. Needless to say, that gets pretty far away from my own experiences. But there’s a lot of stuff that’s straight from my own life, and a lot about what it’s like for an American kid to move to Africa.
We both felt the death of J.D. Salinger, in my case more than expected. You mentioned “The Laughing Man” as your favorite Salinger story. What’s so great about it?
There’s lots to love about that story. The outer story is the typical spare, haunting modern story we all read in lit classes, but then there’s a completely ridiculous, endless, laugh-out-loud adventure story that’s narrated throughout. And there’s a pretty sweet baseball scene, too.
You’ve also written elsewhere about your admiration for the books of Betsy Byars.
You identify with the misfit, don’t you?
That was definitely what attracted me to her books. In the late 70s/early 80s when I reading her books, there was often a quirky misfit kid at the center. I really connected with them. I think she’s one of by biggest influences; I think I learned a lot of what I know about creating characters from Betsy. I really became aware of it in the middle of writing Mamba Point.
Do you read a lot of children’s books?
Yep. More than I read grown-up books. You kind of have to know what’s going on in the industry, so I read a lot so I know how to position my own books in a crowded marketplace. I do try to work in a couple of grown-up books but it’s hard to keep up as it is. Right now I’m in the middle of several books including The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate and Marchello in the Real World. They are both great.
Okay, tell me about this new “work-in-progress.” But it has to be in 139 characters or less; I’m tougher than Twitter and I think it’s time people knew it.
Wake, ME is about a small town in Maine that’s taken over by a giant fungus and couple of kids who believe it portends the town’s doom.
I want that book right now! Lightning Round: I know you’re into music, Kurtis. Give us ten songs on your imaginary mixed tape.
This one goes to eleven: “Train Whistle Blues” by Merle Haggard; “Driver 8” by R.E.M., “Play a Train Song,” by Todd Snider, “Waiting for a Train” by Jimmie Rodgers, “The Train Carrying Jimmy Rodgers Home” by Greg Brown, “Trains” by Ryan Adams, “Let the Train Blow the Whistle” by the Old 97s, “Freight Train Blues,” by The Weary Boys, “King of the Road” by Roger Miller, “Downbound Train” by Bruce Springsteen, and “Downtown Train” by Tom Waits (not Rod Stewart). Sorry, I have a one track mind.
Got any Oscar favorites? Best Picture of the Year?
I seriously love “Up.” It’s probably the only nominated movie I saw, and I don’t think it’ll win best picture (just best feature-length animated film), but the first 15 minutes of that movie are beautiful. It’s a really wonderful and imaginative story after that, and the dog was great, but it’s that long prologue that gets to me. Sniff. That being said, the smart money is on “Avatar.”
I thought the opening minutes of “Up” were extraordinary, compressed storytelling. Beautiful. After that, I didn’t care so much. I’m going to go with “The Hurt Locker.” Five favorite blogs?
Oh, I loved bat-girl! “Less stats, more sass.” She also did those incredible Lego recreations of great (and not-so-great) moments in Twins baseball history.
I’m glad she’s appreciated even outside of Twins’ territory. You might also know her alter ego, Anne Ursu, who’s written a terrific fantasy series for kids. My wife says her grown up books are good, too, but I don’t really read grown up books.
I’m your reverse in that way; I read mostly adult.
Besides the time issue, I’m like an open pitcher of milk in the refrigerator. It’ll take on the taste of whatever’s around it. So when I read something, especially something really stylized, it affects my own voice. So I have to avoid getting deeply immersed in a novel when I’m writing. And these days I’m almost always writing. Kids books, I can usually read in a day, and shake it off.
Interesting, and again, that’s the exact reason why I don’t read them — especially when I’m deep into my own writing, when it’s an absolute no-go for me. We’re like two peas living in completely different apartments.
I worry about having too much consciousness about the marketplace. You start to hear about what sells and what doesn’t, and become too familiar (I think) with the conventions of the business — a business that’s often predicated on ripping off ideas from the bestseller list. Follow that to the end and you’re writing about a boy wizard with a sassy friend who falls in love with a smoldering vampire who’s really a geek who . . . and on and on. It seems like too much information can get in the way of originality. Thoughts?
It’s more about voice than subject matter. I’ll read a collection of essays by David Sedaris and start writing like David Sedaris, even though I’m still writing my own completely original work about the boy wizard who falls in love with a fairy, but to win her love he has to battle the vampires in dystopia with his werewolf buddies and his pet dragon. Or I’ll read Cormac McCarthy and start writing like Cormac McCarthy, even though I’m working on a tween romance.
You know what I like about you, Kurtis? Even though you strike me as having this heightened awareness of the business, you went out and wrote Mamba Point, a personal, deeply-felt story that has NOTHING to do with the trends of the marketplace. Last I looked, kids were not clamoring for more books set in Liberia. Yet you wrote from the heart. And that sound you hear is cheering, my wishing you success with this story.
Okay, whew. I hate it when Jamespreller.com gets all soggy. It seems like we’ve drifted a fair distance from our original list of bloggy goodness. By my count, you’ve only listed four.
Well, you know, I know a billion writers with blogs, but yours stands out. A newby writer like me learns stuff about the profession of writing. I also like the reader mail, which I’d love to do myself but I don’t get enough of to do. I think your blog is a good example of what writer/bloggers should do, connecting with teachers and readers. So much of it ends up being us writers just talking to each other.
That’s very kind of you to say, thanks. But I can tell from the buzz of my Kenmore dryer that your clothes are dry and it’s time for you to depart balmy Albany — alas, before you had time to visit nearby Cohoes, just ten miles north on 787, alleged home of Kilgore Trout — to brave the Minneapolis winter. As a parting gift, please accept this rare, 1988 VHS edition of “Beetlejuice.” It may look like it’s just a crummy old tape found in the bottom of my closet, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.
Um. So, thanks for the interview . . . yeah. Are you sure you don’t have an extra Yodel?
Oh, fine. Knock yourself out.
FOR MORE INTERVIEWS . . .
If you enjoyed this interview with Kurtis Scaletta, you might not like the others. They aren’t very good.