Archive for Interviews & Appreciations

Be Astonished

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

— Mary Oliver

A Conversation with Author Alan Katz: On Growing Up, New Books, and Getting Serious About Comedy

 

“I was very careful to stay in the world of
‘fiction based on truth.’
I’m not trying to fool or misinform readers —
I just want them to laugh until milk comes out
out of their noses.
Even if they’re not drinking milk.”
— Alan Katz

 

 

I’m so pleased to share my visit with Alan Katz, one of my favorite people in children’s books. An accomplished humorist — he started by writing jokes for Henny Youngman while in high school — Alan has a hilarious new series coming out in October. Come, let’s hang out with him and talk about classic comedy, growing in Queens, NY, and podiatry. Lots and lots of podiatry.

 

 

Just checking: Is this Alan Katz the humorist? Because I just spent the last half hour talking to Alan Katz the podiatrist, from Boise. Wrong guy. However, I did get great advice on bunions. You gotta soak ’em in a hydroxychloroquine solution!

I am a humorist, not a podiatrist. Though interestingly, my father owned a lot of children’s shoe stores, so my background is in feet.

I’m eager to talk about your new books, but first let me ask you this: You used to write for “The Rosie O’Donnell Show?”

I spent five years as one of the writers on The Rosie O’Donnell Show, contributing song parodies, games, guest bits, jokes, and more hilarity. I am a six-time Daytime Emmy loser for that effort. I also worked on Rosie’s short-lived 2011-12 series for Oprah’s network; I flew back and forth to Chicago (from Connecticut) every week.

We’ve seen comedy writers depicted on many TV shows and movies: “The Larry Sanders Show,” “30 Rock,” “Late Night,” others. Which one gets it most right?

I’d probably say, “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” I always wanted to be Rob or Buddy, and my experience with Rosie was most like their writers’ room.

I have clear memories of the banter between Rose Marie and Morey Amsterdam (and wow, Richard Deacon as Mel Cooley was a great straight man). There was real warmth amidst all the quips, putdowns and repartee.

That’s pretty much how it was at the Rosie Show. There were six writers when I got there, and after a year or so, it went to just two of us — the amazing Caissie St. Onge and me. Lots of banter. Lots. And lots of incredible friendship.

Thanks for indulging me. Now let’s talk about this new book. Wait, hold on: There are four? Aren’t you special!

Special? Nah, I’m ordinary. But in a special way. Thanks for asking. Three of the books are the first in a new series I call Lieographies: The Absolutely Untrue, Totally Made Up, 100% Fake Life Stories of the World’s Greatest Heroes. They’re paperbacks being released on October 15th by the wonderful folks at Tanglewood Publishing, and they’re illustrated by the amazing Tracy Hill.

          

Tracy’s artwork is hilarious and spot on. 

There’s a Lieography about Amelia Earhart, one about Babe Ruth, and one about Thomas Edison. Each book is all about what didn’t happen to these fine figures. The books are written to accentuate the humor. I’m looking to inspire young readers to read, laugh, and think creatively. And, the last chapter of the book contains some real historical insights on the subjects, to pique readers’ interests in the true stories. Hopefully, they’ll laugh, they’ll learn, and then they’ll go find out more!

My first thought was envy: no research! But I guess you actually did need to know what happened . . . so you could write accurately about what didn’t happen . . . or something like that.

I was very careful to stay in the world of “fiction based on truth.” I’m not trying to fool or misinform readers — I just want them to laugh until milk comes out of their noses. Even if they’re not drinking milk.

Ha!

Dear Readers, here’s the opening salvo from the Amelia book . . .

On her first birthday, Amelia Earhart dedicated her life to flight.

“Aga boo ka pleh ma,” is what the adults standing near her heard.

“Isn’t that cute?” asked her mother.

“It’s totally adorable,” answered her father.

“Sheer poetry!” exclaimed her grandparents at the exact same time. Then they both said, “Jinx. You owe me a soda! Jinx. You owe me a soda!” over and over.

But Amelia hadn’t said anything cute, adorable, or poetic. According to the exact translation in the Larry Webster Baby-to-English Dictionary, what Amelia had said was…

“I believe that I will dedicate my life to flight. I believe that there is a way for women and men to soar high above the clouds to places as yet unreached. I believe I can make a powerful difference in this world. And most of all, at this very moment, I believe that I need a diaper change.”

Educators who’ve seen Lieographies herald them as a way to enjoy reading as they sharpen their critical thinking. Some have used the titles for “compare
and contrast” lessons — “Mr. Katz said this happened, but let’s see what really did happen.” I love that.

By the way, visitors to Lieographies.com will be able to see a new Lieographical “fact” every day. Today’s is: “Paul Revere was chosen to make the famous midnight ride because he owned the only horse with headlights.”

And you also have a short story collection coming out?

I do! The fourth new book is being released on October 6th by Running Press. It’s called Really Stupid Stories for Really Smart Kids, and it features illustrations by Gary Boller (I love his work!), and it’s 20 short stories to make kids laugh. They’ll read about The Day It Snowed Snowmen, a school smelling bee, and much more. A lot of the writing was inspired by my four amazing kids and their school lives, play lives, and life lives. I had a blast writing this book…and I hope that kids will read one or more of the stories at bedtime. Or snacktime. Or anytime.

Let’s shift a bit. Where did you grow up? What was your family like?

I grew up in Fresh Meadows, Queens. The town that had a giant electronic sign above the LIE. But lights were always out, and it mostly read F-ESH ME—OWS. My dad was a Stride Rite retailer (and a very funny man). My mother was very kind and supportive my whole life, though interestingly, she wasn’t funny until my dad died. My brother (eight years older) and I were close as children, though we had very different childhoods.

Ah, Queens, yes. My parents grew up there (next door neighbors, actually). This explains your love for the New York Mets. And yes, sometimes the punchlines really do write themselves.

I am in mourning over this season. Although as I like to say, the Mets finished first. See, the Yankees are still playing, but the Mets are done. So…they finished first.

I imagine you were always funny. Was there a point you can remember as a child when you realized, hey, I can make people laugh.

I had the humor bug very young. I was a mediocre ventriloquist, and I did extemporaneous “shows” in the lunchroom every day. Just me, talking to Jerry Mahoney. My mother made matching sweaters for me and the dummy. I still have Jerry, and his sweater still fits.

I wasn’t the class clown, but I wrote for him. Humor was a way to fit in (though if the bullies didn’t like my jokes, they’d chase me for more). Also, my father sold the bullies Puma Clyde sneakers at his wholesale cost to get them to stop bothering me. It worked, but I often think about the logic of equipping them with better footwear in which to chase me.

If only he sold ankle weights.

Please don’t try to be funny.

Right, leave it to the professionals. Would you mind sharing another photo from your childhood?

Here you go.

Um, Alan. I’m fairly certain that’s a photo of a young Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Excellent spelling. But wrong.

I consider myself mildly funny, or occasionally funny with a chance of showers. But I’ve learned that the worst thing I can do as a writer is try too hard to be funny. Especially recently! Take my Jigsaw Jones series. There’s a lot of humor in those books. But I just try to tell the story, keep the mystery moving along, and trust that my sense of humor naturally leaks into it. 

Your Jigsaw Jones books are funny. You are funny. And I don’t think there’s such a thing as trying too hard to be funny. That’s like saying it’s possible to try too hard to be a podiatrist, which I’d never do.

I can see that you are correct about trying. It’s an important point, or counterpoint to the lazy notion that humor is supposed to be “natural” or “effortless.” Comedians rack their brains working on their acts. I phrased it wrong, I think I’m trying to get at the idea of forcing it — and how that works (or doesn’t work) for me. The best jokes come off as seemingly effortless. You don’t see the sweat. The key might be the editing function. Like taking photos, where you take 20 snapshots to get 1-2 keepers, maybe we need to attempt a variety of jokes, knowing that not every one can land. Is any of this making sense? Or am I trying too hard?

You’re definitely right. I always say, “If you don’t like that joke, there’s always one to replace it.” The trick, really, is to deliver the most appropriate joke — even if it isn’t quite the funniest.

Whoa, dude, that’s deep. I remember listening to a radio interview with Demetri Martin and I really liked it, because he wasn’t funny at all. He came off as this thoughtful, sensitive, articulate guy. It was the opposite of Robin Williams in his prime, where every second was filled with this manic drive to entertain. There must have been a thousand times when you were introduced, “This is Alan. He’s soooo funny!” Then the person looks at you expectantly. Do you ever feel a certain pressure to being funny on demand?

I do get that from time to time. But it’s really no different than bringing a friend to a podiatrist, and saying, “This podiatrist is soooo good at fixing feet.” The pressure is on, but you do what you do, and the anticipation turns to laughs…or healthier feet.

Did you have favorite comedians growing up? 

I was — and remain — a huge fan classic comedians such as Jack Benny, Buddy Hackett and others. In high school, I wrote for Henny Youngman ($7 a joke; I’d send him 20, he’d circle three and send me $21. By parents always wondered if he’d absconded with the other 17.). I very much enjoy old time radio (on the Internet), appreciating the extraordinary wordplay. But my number one hero was Soupy Sales. I’m proud to say I was able to do a couple of projects with him, and it was one of the high points of my career.

As a kid, I grew up loving those early Bill Cosby albums. I listened to them over and over. It was awful what he became, and forever tainted that great legacy.

Never found him funny. And his abhorrent behavior was long-known and tolerated, which is shameful.

What about Allan Sherman?

Another hero. Like Soupy, I had all of his albums. I still do, in fact. I’ve read his autobiography dozens of times. And I met him—backstage at Freedomland (a long-gone Bronx amusement park) in the early 1960s. Sweatiest man I’ve ever met. But funny…funny…funny.

I recently fell down a Rodney Dangerfield rabbit hole. Just got on Youtube and watched a series of his classic appearances on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. My God. He’d just get on a roll and Johnny could only sit back, shake his head, and laugh. Rodney would barrel from topic to topic, riffing: “Kids today,” “My wife, oh, she’s a piece of work,” “I saw my doctor yesterday,” and it was all hysterical and fast, expertly delivered. Nobody can do that anymore.

It’s very true. Rodney was an original. I recently read a biography about him. Quite interesting.

Alan, thanks for coming by. Your gift of complimentary steak knives is already in the mail. I’m sorry I couldn’t afford an envelope. You are one of the truly generous, caring people in this bunny-eat-bunny business. I’m so glad to see you healthy, cracking wise, and putting out great work.

You are very kind. 

 

 

Alan Katz has been a print and television comedy writer for more than twenty years. In addition to being a multiple Emmy nominee for his work on “The Rosie O’Donnell Show” and Disney’s “Raw Toonage,” he has written for children’s programming on Nickelodeon, ABC Television, Warner Brothers Animation’s Taz-Mania, and many others. Alan lives in Weston, Connecticut, with his journalist wife, Rose, and their children Simone, Andrew, Nathan, and David. Visit him online at AlanKatzBooks.com. Be sure to wear a mask, or else you might be recognized. 

A Conversation with Lori Mortensen: About Edward Gorey and the Craft of Picture Book Biographies

“As I delved into the research,
I couldn’t wait to write an equally memorable
picture book biography
about this curious,
whimsical,
one-of-a-kind artist.” 
— Lori Mortensen

I’ve been making an informal survey of picture book biographies of late, a favorite genre. So many great titles out there. One of the best is Lori Mortensen’s NONSENSE: The Curious Story of Edward Gorey. Here is an oddball, innovative, breezy, confident, utterly charming book that lives up to its subject. No small accomplishment: a book that Edward Gorey deserves. So I’ve set out a bowl of mints, fluffed up the throw pillows, put on my hazmat suit, and invited Lori over for a chat. Come, let’s say hello.

 

How did this book and subject come about for you?

Interestingly, I find picture book ideas in many different ways, from a title randomly popping into my head at the library (Mousequerade Ball), to my neighbors’ dogs escaping from their backyard and racing down the street (Cowpoke Clyde and Dirty Dawg). For NONSENSE! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey, I was out on my morning walk and happened to catch a podcast about Edward Gorey on Stuff You Missed in History Class. As I listened, his name and dark style sounded very familiar, and I was sure he’d illustrated a memorable book from my childhood. When I arrived home, I searched my bookshelves and found The Man Who Sang the Sillies, a collection of silly poems written by John Ciardi and illustrated by Edward Gorey. One of the most memorable poems, “The Happy Family” began:

Before the children say goodnight,

Mother, Father, stop and think:

Have you screwed their heads on tight?

Have you washed their ears with ink?

The poem was accompanied by Gorey’s illustration of children scrambling around their bed trying to catch their floating heads. As I delved into the research, I couldn’t wait to write an equally memorable picture book biography about this curious, whimsical, one-of-a-kind artist.

 

Let’s pause here to give up a cheer for creativity and morning walks. So, Lori, how does one undertake a picture book biography? I mean, getting started. Just read everything, take lots of notes, and wait for genius to strike?

 

 

Once I’m intrigued by a subject, I jump into research and see what I can uncover. These days, there is a treasure of online resources right at our fingertips that include museums, historical sites, newspapers, experts, archives, photos, libraries, and books. As I research a subject, I copy links into a document along with the information I’ve found until I’ve gathered a firm foundation of information. Research takes time as I buy, borrow, and read as many books as I can about the subject. When my initial research phase is complete, I organize the information into chronological order, so I understand the information in the order that they happened. As I study the information,
an underlying theme or thread emerges. In the case of NONSENSE! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey, the path seemed clear — how Edward Gorey, a child prodigy, created a sweet and sinister style that has influenced a generation of creators from Lemony Snicket to Tim Burton.

 

It seems like picture book biographies of late are more focused on “slice of life” storytelling, rather than a comprehensive cradle-to-grave treatment. The genre, perhaps once a little stiff, is bursting with creativity and freedom.

I love picture book biographies. Because they are a mere 32 pages, authors have a daunting, yet exciting challenge to shine a light on the most intriguing and meaningful aspects of the subject’s life for young readers. Sometimes that results in a “slice of life” approach, where writing about the achievement alone is key. Other times, it’s about the subject’s journey from birth to their achievement that shows how their childhood influenced their accomplishment (as was the case with my book about Edward Gorey), and lastly a biography that spans their entire life, from birth to death.

As you noted, picture book biographies are more creative than ever, and it was a delight and a pleasure to write NONSENSE! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey, and share his unique story with today’s young readers.

At a certain point, you must have far too much material for a picture book. How do you reconcile all that great info that you didn’t include? Is it agony? I see so many books increasingly cluttered with back matter –- one recent title I came across had 8 pages of it! — and I’m not a fan.

You’re right! Picture book authors have to make tough choices and sometimes scenes that I would have liked to include just don’t make the final cut. That was especially true for my picture book biography, Away with Words, The Daring Story of Isabella Bird, about Victorian traveler, Isabella Bird, who was the first female member of the Royal Geographical Society and wrote 10 books about her exciting explorations. Talk about tough choices! Hopefully, I chose the best.

And as you noted, extra information is often included in the back matter. While you don’t want to go overboard, back matter often includes a more complete life-to-death narrative, author notes, timelines, and glossaries. Back matter is especially important element for today’s nonfiction books so they can offer as much as possible in the STEM/STEAM market for schools and libraries.

This book is written in free verse. Tell us about that decision.

Since Gorey was a unique personality, it seemed only right to tell his story in a unique way as well. I read a lot of picture book biographies and took special note of tone, structure, and arc. One of my favorites has always been Strange Mr. Satie, by M.T. Anderson. With each page, Anderson’s unique details drew me into this musician’s strange life, full of odd circumstance, eccentric decision-making, and controversial musical excursions. With all that input brewing in the background, I began writing about Edward Gorey.

 

It wasn’t long before a quaint, quirky voice emerged that seemed to already know where it was going. This was a happy occurrence because so often it’s a process of trial and error with many false starts. When I wrote this story, however, everything seemed to fall into place as if there was a sign pointing the way.

While writing it, did you have any awareness of how the book will be illustrated, or by whom? Chloe Bristol’s illustrations strike the perfect note. She’s just amazing. Lucky you!

Interestingly, even though I’m not an illustrator, I always have images in mind when I write. In fact, I write my manuscripts with scenes and page turns in mind because that’s what picture books are all about. When authors take these elements into consideration, it will make their manuscript even more appealing and effective.

In the case of Nonsense! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey, I didn’t have any idea who would illustrate it, but it seemed likely that whoever illustrated it would have the same sweet and sinister style as the subject, Edward Gorey. I was delighted when Versify brought Chloe Bristol on board because her style was the perfect match to tell Gorey’s story.

What’s next for you, Lori?

That’s always a great question because one of the wonderful things about writing is that there’s always something exciting just around the corner. In 2021, I’m looking forward to the release of my humorous picture book, Arlo Draws an Octopus, inspired by the countless hours I spent as a child trying to draw at the kitchen table where I had my own share of crumpled “disaster-pieces” just like Arlo. In between releases, I’m tapping away at the keyboard, conjuring, coaxing, and prodding my next story to life, and waiting for good news that’s just around the corner.

Thanks for swinging by my swanky blog, Lori. Yes, the mints are free. Sure, of course, go ahead, take all you want — pour the whole bowl into your pockets. Okay, that’s fine. Anyway! Have a safe trip home, Lori. Thanks for inspiring us!

 

Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s author of more than 100 books. Recent releases include NONSENSE! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey; If Wendell Had a Walrus, illustrated by Matt Phelan; Away with Words, the Daring Story of Isabella Bird, illustrated by Kristy Caldwell; Mousequerade Ball, illustrated by Betsy Lewin; and many more. Coming in May, 2021, Arlo Draws an Octopus, illustrated by Rob Sayegh Jr. Please feel free — because, after all, you are free — to visit Lori’s unimaginatively-named website at lorimortensen.com. 

The Pleasures of Speculative Fiction: Scary Tales and Outer Limits and the Genius of Harlan Ellison

A teacher-friend posted this image on social-media, what she calls her “custom reading pillow.” I like it!

And, yes, I love the book tucked inside it, from my “Scary Tales” series.

Writing those books was a pure pleasure. All my life up to that point, I’d honed pretty true to the Realistic Fiction genre, both as a writer and a reader. Give me a closely-observed scene of a family sitting around the dinner table and I was happy. That’s still true, but I’ve grown over the years. 

For “Scary Tales,” I was able to open up to new inspirations and wild imaginings, new channels of communication. Zombies! Swamp Monsters! Benign Robots! Creepy Dolls! Good times, good times. And I made sure the books were fast-paced and easy to read, in hopes of connecting with hard-to-reach readers (best for grades 3-5, I’ve met many middle school readers who tell me they don’t usually like books, but love that series. Alas, Macmillan never had as much success getting those books into the public’s awareness as we’d hoped, so the series stopped at six stories.

        

In format, I was hugely influenced by Rod Sterling’s “Twilight Zone” series. Each story was unique: new characters, new setting. They were unified only in that each one promised a similar experience for the reader. Creepy, twisting, full of page-turning suspense.

The book tucked inside the pillow is titled I Scream, You Scream, and it turns on a boy who might not be all that he seems to be.

Okay, spoiler alert!

Illustration by Iacopo Bruno!

I was recently reading about “The Outer Limits” television series, which I only vaguely remember from my childhood. One episode gets mentioned a lot, often topping lists of best episodes ever: “The Demon with the Glass Hand,” written by the legendary pioneer of Speculative Fiction, Harlan Ellison. It’s on Netflix now, or Amazon Prime, one of those, streaming on television. The story hinges on a “shocking” conclusion, which might not shock modern viewers, since we’ve seen it borrowed many times since (“Terminator” and “Bladerunner,” most notably). I don’t know if Ellison was the first writer to pull it off, but he certainly did it in a big way, blowing minds on national television. What the what??!! Watching it, I couldn’t help but recognize that I owed “Outer Limits” and Mr. Harlan Ellison a tip of my hat along with my lasting appreciation.

Plot Summary: Days ago, Trent awoke with no memory of his past. Since then, sinister men have pursued him constantly. He manages to stay one step ahead of them by following the advice of his hand. Made of glass and apparently capable of speech, Trent’s hand can answer many of his questions. But it cannot tell him who he is or why his enemies seek him until he finds all of its fingers. The only trouble is that they’re in the hands of his enemies.

 

AND LET’S NOT FORGET . . .

 

“The Outer Limits” had a classic opening to every episode. A disembodied voice would announce: “There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission . . . For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat: There is nothing wrong with your television set. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to . . . THE OUTER LIMITS.”

 

Joanna Cole (1944-2020), Remembered: How the Magic School Bus Got Started

I was sorry to read that Joanna Cole has passed away at age 75. I have memories of her, met her a number of times over the years. Always a gracious, friendly, kind person. To me, at least!

Joanna was what I think of as a children’s book person. The genuine article. She worked for years, wrote many books, before “getting lucky” and hitting it out of the park with Bruce Degen and the Magic School Bus series.

I interviewed Joanna for The Big Book of Picture-Book Authors & Illustrators, published back in 2001. My intro paragraph:

What’s Joanna Cole interested in? Well, just about everything! And when Joanna Cole is interested in something, she usually writes a book about it. She’s written about fleas, cockroaches, dinosaurs, chicks, fish, saber-toothed tigers, frogs, horses, snakes, cars, puppies, insects, and (whew!) babies.

THE BACKSTORY TO THE MAGIC SCHOOL BUS

Fresh out of college (and after a year of waitering at Beefsteak Charlie’s), I got a job as a junior copywriter at Scholastic for $11,500. I stayed on there in the second-half of the 1980s — the money was so good! — then moved upstate, and continued in various freelance capacities for years after that. There was a time when those folks at Scholastic were my publishing family. My very best pal from those days was an editor, Craig Walker, working under the direction of Jean Feiwel. Craig was hilarious and brilliant and we ate lunch together several times a week for many years. We loved eating chicken and rice at the deli next door. Delicious, inexpensive, and a little seedy, we way we liked it. Ah, those were happy times. Anyway, it was Craig, assisted by Phoebe Yeh, who came up with the idea for the Magic School Bus series.

The standard science books for children at the time were usually dull, dry affairs. Just deadly. Straightforward facts accompanied by black-and-white photographs. Craig had the idea of trying something bold and new, bringing humor and full-color, cartoon-styled art into the science curriculum. The first writer he called with Joanna Cole.

At the time, Joanna was respected for her well-researched nonfiction books. She was smart and accurate. In 1984, she had published a well-reviewed book, How You Were Born. But what really caught Craig’s attention was that Joanna had another side to her work; she also wrote silly, funny, playful books for young readers. Most notably, she created the “Clown-Arounds” (a precursor to Dav Pilkey’s “Dumb Bunnies” and in the same vein as James Marshall’s “The Stupids”). And that was the genius of Craig’s idea: he brought together the two sides of Joanna Cole into one book series. The science and the silly. It was as if Joanna had a split personality and Craig helped make her whole again.

As a fun fact, Bruce Degen was not the first illustrator that Craig called with the series offer. No, he phoned Marc Brown first. But at the time, Marc was busy with the Arthur books and felt he couldn’t sign up for another project. So Craig, a fan of Jamberry and the Commander Toad books, flipped through his Rolodex and found Bruce’s number. That call worked out pretty well for all concerned, including Marc Brown.

What I remember and most respect about Joanna is that she was simply an old-school children’s book writer. Making books, and more books, and more books. Plying the craft, fighting to earn a decent living. All for the love of children’s literature.

Then, yeah, one day she got a phone call from Craig.

A treasured snap of Craig and I from 1986, the year the Magic School Bus was first published.

A lucky break? Sure was! But Joanna got that call because of all the work she had accomplished before that point. She had earned her good fortune by very quietly putting in years and years of hard work. The foundation was already built. When opportunity came knocking, she had all the skills to take a loose idea and turn it into a groundbreaking series.