TALKING ABOUT WRITING with Andrew Smith: Award-Winning Author, HS Teacher, Reader, Music Lover, Free Thinker

I wanted to try something a little different with today’s interview — which actually took place across weeks and several emails — and I knew that Andrew Smith was exactly the kind of writer who would be up for it. I simply wanted to talk about writing. Learn some things, maybe come away inspired. And hopefully offer up something that might be of interest to you, Oh Dear Reader. May this post lead you to check out some of Andrew’s (most excellent) work. He’s an original voice.

Andrew, your career has been marked by brave choices and a restless, out-of-the-box creativity. Recently on social media you shared some favorite Fan Fiction, where readers responded to your books with their own art. I love that.

I’ve collected so much over the years. I definitely hold onto things, and I guess in many ways we’re lucky that our careers in writing started in the Paper Age and is now in the Digital Age. But the hardest part for me here was finding where exactly I was keeping all this stuff.

Einstein had similar problems. Let’s see what you can put your hands on. 

These first two were sent to me digitally from fans of GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whoa, that’s inspiring. 

And these are on paper. The first is from a fourth-grade student in Kansas who read my middle-grade The Size of the Truth, and the second is a pen-and-watercolor from a fan of Grasshopper Jungle who mailed this to me all the way from England.

 

What a tribute — you must be blown away?

This is a difficult feeling to express. I think sometimes I feel as though I’m two people at the same time, and this other, more fortunate self is a kind of dream state that has been cleaved from me, and that guy has access to all the things I don’t believe I deserve. So when I look at these gifts, or when I read the letters I’ve received, it’s almost like I’m living vicariously through the experience of someone who is by every measure blessed.

That’s lovely. Yes, there are times in our profession when we are truly gifted, when we receive. For example, I’ll meet a six-year-old who loves my books. The purity of those eyes, that face, what those books mean to that particular child. And there are no satisfactory words for that experience, at least none that I can conjure up. 

Well, I will say that when I went out on tour for my first middle-grade novel, I visited kids from grades four through eight, and I could not believe how kind and adorable those kids are. But then, too, I once visited a high school (and—ugh!—I think it was in Minneapolis or Chicago, but I can’t remember), and my host told me that the majority of the kids in the school were non-native speakers of English. And I thought, cool, I come from California and I am totally comfortable in schools like that. But all these kids came from Poland and Lithuania! And, after reading Grasshopper Jungle, which has a lot of Polish history in it, they all wanted to teach me swear words in Polish. That’s pretty kind and adorable too.

That’s such an Andrew Smith-type story. I’ve often had the experience that a great book will make me look out the window. You know what I mean? Instead of the usual goal that a good book keeps you turning pages, turn turn turn, for me a great book actually achieves the opposite. I stop reading because it got me wandering down the rabbit hole of my own thoughts. It’s the ultimate “reader response.” Spacing out to the rumble of your own mind. These young people read your work and were inspired to create.

It is a remarkable thing; and it’s something that I never thought I would accomplish, even if I never really articulated in my mind what exactly it was I wanted to accomplish through my writing, if anything. But it does give me a kind of ache in my chest to see people of all types and ages, from all over the world, who wanted to make something of beauty and then gift it to me after reading a story I wrote. That’s the kind of stuff that raises gooseflesh on me. I get very choked up by it. And I can honestly say that although I love to draw, I have never drawn anything from reading. On the other hand, when I feel like I’m getting dragged-down in my own writing or when I want to try to give my mind a new way of seeing things, the first thing I go to is some great new book that I haven’t read yet.

You strike me, from a distance, as “prolific” to the point of “borderline obsessive.” I know you work full-time as a high school teacher. Let’s just call it productive. What are your work habits?

I’m a list-maker, for one thing. I keep lists of things I need to do and I cross them off as I go. I don’t feel bad if I don’t get through a list, but I feel really great when I do. I start every morning before school with one cappuccino and then exercise and a 3-mile run. I’m usually working on my writing every day whenever I can (even on days when I teach school). I don’t set arbitrary word goals per day because I don’t write on spec. I just want to do something GOOD every day, even if GOOD means one tight, necessary paragraph—because that’s forward progress. 

Thank you for that. I cringe whenever I read authors boosting about that day’s word count. Sometimes it’s best when there’s a negative word count. A day of cutting, dumping, ditching. We get closer to the stuff worth keeping.

Sometimes I will stop what I’m writing and just go back to the beginning and read what I’ve done, always asking myself, “If this book were in my hands, would I keep turning the pages? Would I NOT want the story to end?” Those are my objectives when writing. 

Right now, I am in the final act of a novel I’ve been writing throughout this year of the pandemic, and I keep asking myself those questions because I’ve gone back to read it from the beginning, and I kinda don’t want it to end, which may explain why I’ve spent a year now writing it.  

Do you revise as you go? The standard advice tells us not to do that — but I have to confess, I’ve never just been able to blast through with a completely horrible first draft. I reread and revise constantly, while still trying to maintain some forward motion.

Yes! I frequently claim that I do not revise, but that’s not entirely the case. What I do not do is draft spew to race to the finish line with the intention of fixing or cleaning things up. So in that regard, I don’t revise in the traditional sense. But I can spend days (or more) on a single paragraph or line until it fits properly into the thing that is assembling in front of me. So every day begins with going back over the previous day’s writing, and I will invariably change words or discover something that needs to be brought forward, illuminated more.

That’s one of the things about getting some books under your belt. You begin to learn how you work. It’s an individual thing. Even in the darkest storm, you develop the confidence that you know how to land the plane.

Yes, but the technology of the plane itself is changing and I guess you have to adapt to new flying conditions. I have definitely seen a change in my approach over the years and all the books. Like my running, or my hikes through the hills these days, I am slower than I used to be, but I also appreciate that slowness and how it gives me the ability to look around and absorb things, to take a breath once in a while. There used to be such an urgency in getting through a project and then getting on to the next one, and the next one after that. But now, it’s like what’s the rush? I know where I’m heading. How about you? Do you feel a different kind of natural stride at this point in your life as a writer?

Yeah, I’m writing a lot of haiku! My attention span — and my patience — are both shrinking. Or, less glibly, I do suppose there’s a minor tradition of older writers moving toward an increasingly spare, spartan sort of writing. Leaner, closer to the bone.

When I was younger, I never allowed myself to step away from my work, but in the past 14 months or so I have found times when I just can’t do it. Psychologist Adam Grant refers to this Sargasso Sea of the pandemic mindset as “languishing,” but to me it has been more like simply being pissed off. 

An unsettled time, for sure. The other thing is that I don’t do well unless I’m inspired. I need to build up a certain internal pressure, like a tea kettle, for the whistle to blow. I’ve never been one of those 1,000 words a day, come hell or high water, type writers. I’m not afraid of not finishing once I get started. The trouble comes with the “getting started” part.

I never focus on how many words I write in a day. I’m into key strokes, so I’ve been using a ridiculous amount of punctuation. Kidding. As a matter of fact, I have been using less punctuation in my writing. Not that it’s technically flawed, I have just always disliked certain punctuation marks—most notoriously commas and exclamation points (cringe). I think Henry James said something once about striving to get that one perfect sentence. If I can get down one perfect sentence from a day’s writing effort, then I’m satisfied. Of course, that sentence may look completely flawed the next morning, in which case I may spend three or four trips around the block trying to reorganize it.

When I was in high school and college, my girlfriend’s mother, Mrs. Loretta Flynn, was a voracious reader. I was deep into “real literature” at that time. Whereas she would usually read page-turners, just consuming books by the armload. Her biggest complaint about certain writers was always the same, “Too many words!” I didn’t understand that for a long time. Why read if you don’t like words? But now I totally get it. I also make the same complaint about some guitarists, “Too many notes!”

I have become a less confident writer as I’ve aged, but a more confident reader. I think that’s proof of what happens when you learn more, and become more aware of how much you don’t know. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have a fresh stack of unread books waiting for me to get to. That said, I’m totally with you on the TOO MANY WORDS parade, but I would qualify that with the caveat that I can’t tell if a book has too many words by feeling its thickness. For example, Chang Rae-Lee’s nearly 500-page My Year Abroad is absolutely perfect—I wish it were twice as long! But then I’ve also read some 250-page novels that could stand losing about 50 or 60 pages and still be just fine. (Not naming names there.)

Thanks for this diversion, Andrew, for taking time out just to aimlessly chat about writing rather than, you know, yammering on about the new book. But — what they hey! — would you mind yammering on about the new book? You’ve been exploring middle-grade fiction of late, after establishing yourself in the YA galaxy.

Yes, well I did write two middle-grade novels (the most recent, Bye-Bye Blue Creek came out in October 2020), but they may have been exceptions for me. I wrote them entirely for David Gale, my editor at Simon & Schuster who recently passed away. David was one of those people who could inspire me to try harder and do things I wouldn’t normally do. He completely saved my novel 100 Sideways Miles, which went on to be a National Book Award nominee. There is a great story behind that book’s evolution that I will probably never tell, and unfortunately it was overshadowed by another book I wrote that year, Grasshopper Jungle, which went on to get a Printz Honor. What was I ever thinking, putting out two books per year??? At the moment, I find myself receding back into my isolation—and only writing for myself with no real goal to place what I’ve been working on, which I hope is sufficiently vague. I’ve spent the last year during the pandemic writing a multi-perspective, multi-timeline novel for adults that somewhat rekindles where I was when I wrote The Marbury Lens, unsurprising considering the time during which I’ve been writing it. I suppose the pandemic is going to churn out a lot of horror in fiction.

 

Andrew, I see that we’ve run out column inches. Thanks so much for stopping by. It’s been a pleasure connecting with you and sharing our passions. I’ll be sending along a complimentary set of steak knives. 

It’s been terrific chatting with you, James. You always get me thinking about things: writing, music, reading. One day maybe we’ll record our thoughts on contemporary music or books. Like, what are you reading at the moment? I just finished reading a debut by a young author named Caleb Azumah Nelson—the novel, Open Water,  and it is absolutely radiant, tingling with life and music.

I love that you share your enthusiasms, Andrew — and so enthusiastically. I’ve been making my way through a few books: re-reading Stephen King’s Pet Sematary for what I can steal; working my way through George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (brilliant!), slowly reading Pablo Neruda’s Residence on Earth (2-3 poems a day); and on the children’s literature front, I just finished and loved Amy Timberlake’s Skunk and Badger. For music, my 21-year-old son, Gavin Preller, was signed by Kramer at Shimmy-Disc, in partnership with Joyful Noise Recordings. His debut, “There Is Wonder,” comes out on May 21st, this Friday. I hope you check it.

 

ANDREW SMITH is the award-winning author of several Young Adult and middle-grade novels, including the critically acclaimed Grasshopper Jungle (2015 Michael L. Printz Honor, 2014 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, Carnegie Medal Longlist) and Winger. He lives in a remote area in the mountains of Southern California with his family, two horses, two dogs, and three cats. He occupies himself by writing, reading, and taking long, slow morning runs on nearby trails. You can learn more about him by using Google, because that’s all I’ve got.

As for me, James Preller (since you asked!): You might know my Jigsaw Jones mystery series. My newest book is called Upstander, a stand-alone novel that also serves as sequel/prequel to Bystander. It follows Mary’s experiences, enters her home life, and includes a strong Substance Use Disorder (SUD) storyline. I’m proud that both books were named Junior Library Guild Selections — ten years apart. You can click here for more info. 

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