Archive for Interviews & Appreciations

TALKING ABOUT WRITING with David Lubar: On Revision, Rejection, and the Rewards of an Extraordinary Career

 

David Lubar knows a lot about writing books for children. And not just any books — but books that young people will eagerly (and actually!) read. He’s a productive, unpretentious, forthright and seriously funny man who continues to enjoy a remarkably successful career. I thought that I’d invite David to talk about his work and craft. He keeps a terrific, informative website, so we bypassed most of the biographical info that a reader can easily find elsewhere. Look: Here he comes now. Um, yeah. That’s David on the right. He hangs with a well-heeled crowd.

(And no, he didn’t write the Clifford the Big Red Dog books. They’re just friends.)

 

David, you strike me as a writer who thinks about pleasing the reader.

I think about pleasing the stranger who took a seat across the aisle from me on a bus. I’m pathetically eager to please everyone. So, yeah, I want to please my readers.

I don’t mean to be glib. It’s just that we’ll hear from authors who will say, oh, I write only for myself. Or for posterity or to please the muse. Obviously I’m forced to generalize — you’ve written a wide range of books — but you seem front-and-center with your intention to connect with readers, share some laughs, a fright, entertain.

You’re not glib at all. I write to entertain. I have friends who do that, and I have friends who write to feed their soul. Obviously, those things are not mutually exclusive. I love exploring ideas. My muse most often catches fire when I have a high concept to play with. If an idea excites, intrigues, or astonishes me, I figure it will have some sort of effect on my readers. That also means I’m often forging ahead without a road map. It’s all about discovery.

Yes! I wrote a chapter last week that completely surprised me. Totally unexpected. Off the map. It was thrilling and, I think, lifted the story up. These days, I often grumble (to myself: I’m a professional!) when asked to provide a plot synopsis and full outline before the real writing — and the discovery — begins. I’m always like, “They know I haven’t written this yet, right?”

Same here. Though this can lead to problems for me, since I can end up trying to stuff too many threads into a book. I get sidetracked very easily. I often make charts after the first draft so I can track the plot threads.

Maybe this connects with your previous life when you worked as a video game programmer. In that context, of course you are trying to please the consumer. Everything is designed to give pleasure — active engagement — of one kind or another.

That’s an interesting observation. And you’re absolutely right –- I always wanted my games to be fun. And I wanted to make the player think. There should be problems and obstacles, but they should always be a fun type of problems to solving. “How can I use this water pistol, a jar of honey, and a gutted trout to slay this cyclops?” (Not a real example from any of my games. Yet.)

The artist as a young magician.

How do you stay in touch with your audience? Is it tapping into something internal within you — that poor 12-year-old trapped in David Lubar’s body?

I used to do a lot of school visits. (I had the amazing good fortune to decide to stop traveling a year or so before the pandemic.) Having lunch with a group of readers in the library is a great way to keep in touch with kids. It’s also a great insight into how vital it is for every school to have a library, and a librarian. Since schools have two or three lunch periods, you can meet a lot of kids in one day. Having said all of that, I do think my inner 12-year-old is pretty close to the surface.

Beyond the standard large-group presentations, I often ask for an added session that I call, “Cookies and Conversation.” It’s 25-30 minutes with a small group of students who are willing to give up recess to hang out with an author, kids who need to be there, where we talk informally about writing and anything else under the sun. It’s always a highlight for me, because I’m not broadcasting, I’m receiving. And, also: cookies!

That’s a great idea. I know that the lunches where the kids are the ones who want to come are the most fun and interesting.  

Yes, but I never get to eat — and all that chewing!

I try to grab a slice of pizza (it’s almost always pizza, except when they make hotdogs because of the Weenies connection) and eat it before the kids arrive. Otherwise, I’d just do that between groups. 

Unlike some writers I’ve met, you seem to actually enjoy writing.

I love it. When things flow, time disappears. I love the deep journey of exploring the world in a novel, the speedy gratification of banging out a short story, and the instant thrill of crafting a good one liner. While I tend to speed through first drafts of stories, I should add that I am a compulsive reviser. I’ll go over a story ten or fifteen times throughout the process. And that’s before anyone else sees it.  Having said that, I also love playing video games. I’m perfectly capable of enjoying things that might strike others as a waste of time.

I recently talked with Andrew Smith in another “Talking About Writing” interview, and we both revise as we go, continually. There’s no clear distinction between “first draft” and “revision.” Is that true for you?

Absolutely. It’s a major change from when I started. Back in the 1970s, all I had was a typewriter. I’d type my whole first draft. Then make changes on the whole manuscript before retyping it. These days, I always go over the previous day’s work before pushing ahead. Until the ms. gets too long, I might reread the whole thing each morning. The first page or two will inevitably be much more polished than the last.

Same for me. You make a distinction between “serious story writers” and “writers of serious stories.” Do you feel that humor and scary and strange — the types of things you tend to write — and readers tend to love — are generally disrespected? Not by the kids, but, you know, by “them.”

There is definitely a hierarchy of respect. The stories that few people read, and even fewer understand (often because the writer has forgotten to relate an understandable sequence of events) get the most respect from the academic world. (This is changing, thanks to the many wonderful people in colleges and universities who have a passion for a broader range of literature.) Humor is looked down upon in many of the arts, though many of our greatest artists understood joy, play, and delight. A lot of my work could be categorized as funny short-fiction horror for young readers. That’s not exactly fodder for respect and awards. But I can’t complain about that. I’m doing my work with my eyes open.

It’s good work. You have dedicated readers.

I try not to boast too often, but I can honestly say I feel that I’ve created some excellent stories and novels. The people in the trenches, the librarians, teachers, and parents who give books to kids, have validated this. Early in my career, I really wanted to win the big awards. I desperately wanted institutional accolades and validation. But I get that from my readers. And somewhere between the fart joke on page seven and the slapstick accident on page thirteen, there’s an insight into Zeno’s paradox, time travel, fish biology, or some other dose of mind candy that worked its way into the narrative. The Weenies collections have given me a playing field where I can try all sorts of forms and structures. I doubt I’d want to write a novel that’s nothing but dialogue or a monologue, or one that’s told from the viewpoint of an inanimate object. But I can do that in a story. One of my favorites of my stories, “M.U.B.,” is a dialogue between a girl and the monster under her bead. I discovered it’s a fun read-aloud at schools if I get a kid to read the kid part and I do the monster part. I’d never have written it if I hadn’t been in the mood to experiment with that format.

I love your sense of playfulness, of trying out ideas just to see what might happen. I sometimes amuse myself by asking the question, “Are you are real writer or just making stuff up?”

I think writing is the only thing I’ve ever done where I never felt like an imposter. Though it pleases and amuses me that I can earn a living by making stuff up. 

Earlier in your life, you had a persistent dream — to be a writer. You seem like a methodical, passionate, “all in” type of guy. How did you go about learning to become a writer?

I wrote. I read. I read lots of great writing, and I read lots of books about writing. It wasn’t a direct path. I wanted to be a cartoonist, and I wanted to be a song writer. I have very little drawing ability. Back in the 1970s, when I was sending out cartoons, that was a liability. I’m sure I gave the cartoon editors at various magazines a lot of laughs, but not in the way I’d intended. As for song writing, I have no sense of pitch, and no real feel for song structure beyond ballads. So I failed pretty spectacularly at both those career paths. But I managed to break in with short humor. I did well with light verse, and sold jokes to comedy services. (There were places that sold packets of jokes to places like radio stations.) I managed to sell some magazine humor, and eventually wrote tutorial articles about programming after I got an Apple II and taught myself to program it. I also wrote five novels that are still taking up a drawer in a file cabinet. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say I typed them.

Near where I live, the local college frequently hosts guest authors. They come, talk, read something, answer questions from the audience. Great writers, the best in the world. And I always want to ask (but never do): Are you happy with how things turned out? Was it what you had hoped?

That’s a great question. It really gets to the heart of the writing life. And I’ve thought about it from somewhat of a sideways angle. If I could magically go back to the beginning of my writing career, knowing everything I know now, I don’t think things would have turned out any differently. I’ve had plenty of opportunities to break through to a higher level. For example, I was one of the writers who were invited to do a series when Scholastic created their Branches imprint. The imprint, aimed at kids who are just moving from easy readers to chapter books, has been wildly popular. Some of the titles in the series have gone well beyond their initial set of four volumes. If I’d written something with broad appeal, I’d still be writing Branches books today. But I went for the rather metaphysical concept of a kid who finds a coin that gives him the power to make those around him do strange things. It was fun and funny, and it found an audience, but it was definitely not suited for general readership. So you could say I blew a huge opportunity. But I had fun writing the books, I reached some readers who might have needed that sort of story, and I paid my bills through honest labor. I have no gift for generating mass appeal, and I have no skill at the sort of self promotion that can bring national attention. But that’s okay. I’m happily married, debt free, I have an amazing daughter who will play video games with me, and I have enough retirement savings to live comfortably. Several of my books are still selling well, decades after they were released. So I’d be a fool to feel any other way than satisfied. I did what I loved, it worked out, and a lot of young readers enjoyed my books.

I’m glad to hear that. Are there aspects to this business that have disappointed you?

Sure. I’ve waded through all sorts of shit storms. Writers, publishers, and editors are people. Some people are wonderful. Some aren’t. Some want to help you. Some want to hurt you. Some are excellent at their job. Others are terrible. Publishing is a business. You’re either an asset or a liability. If your publisher needs to throw you under a bus for the sake of the bottom line, the passengers on the bus are going to feel a bit of a bump in the road. Editing is a profession. Editors answer to publishers. Your editors will never love you as much as they love their paycheck.

Whoa, I’m italicizing that one. My great pal, Craig Walker, an editor at Scholastic, once told me that I needed to think not about what Scholastic could do for me, but about what I could do for them. That is, make them money.

I think, because writing is so personal, and rejections of various flavors, both of manuscripts by publishers and of published works by readers and reviewers, is so woven into the writing life, writers are especially vulnerable to feeling all sorts of bitterness, resentment, and envy. But this also allows for heroic moments and acts of grace. There are writers I’d take a bullet for. There are even writers I’d share my best bourbon with.

Kids often ask about rejection and I try to frame my response around the larger context of life itself. The world rejects us constantly. We get cut from teams, not invited to birthday parties, love someone who doesn’t love us back. We’re too fat, too slow, not attractive enough. Somehow we all have to push through that and believe in ourselves, believe in our value.

Wow. I’ve never thought of it that way, but that’s such an excellent answer. I will definitely share it with anyone it might help.

Let’s be honest. We’re both old white guys, over 60. Not past our prime as writers, but also not the hottest demographic in the marketplace.  I’ve talked to quite a few well-known authors — big, recognizable names — men and women — who have talked about leaving children’s books. There’s just a general sense of disappointment. Of no longer being valued. Do you think that’s just the nature of things? Out with the old, in with the new?

Sure. I definitely got a sense that I was drifting into obscurity and irrelevance during the last few conferences I attended. That’s probably the case in most fields. Each new generation kills and eats their predecessors. Other than one contractual obligation, I’m taking a break from writing at the moment. But if there’s a book I feel I want or need to write, I’ll write it and hope someone loves it enough to publish it. There’s a lot of joy in knowing I can write whatever I want. It could be an adult novel, a light-verse collection for kids, a collection of essays, or even a screenplay. Or none of the above.

You’ve said that revision is your favorite part of writing.

Absolutely. First of all, it’s essential because, as I mentioned earlier, I bang out my first drafts pretty fast. So there’s a lot to clean up and reorganize. My brain doesn’t hand me things in a perfect chronological sequence. I need to put all those afterthoughts where they belong. Or put them out of their misery. And I need to go back and describe important items, places, and people, because I tend to gloss over that in the first draft. Just as important, revision is a pleasure because it’s really an exercise in problem solving. I feel a physical jolt of joy when I solve a tough problem in a story, or when a new plot opportunity hits me. It’s craft. It’s invention and discovery.

To me, that’s the thing that keeps me going in this business. Getting off the floor, dusting myself off. The work. The pleasure of creativity. Making things. All that other noise can get disheartening at times. But writing a story, those moments when we’re leaning in, that’s the part I’ll never give up.

Nicely put. We make new things. It brings us joy. If we’re lucky, it brings joy to other people.

It’s a disconcerting form of self-sabotage, but more and more I’ve been writing things that don’t fit the marketplace. Picture books that are too long. Chapter books that are too literary. Stuff that won’t even get past my agent, because no editor will buy it. And yet I write it anyway. I’m an idiot, clearly. 

Oh yeah. That sounds familiar. I like to say I’ve always worked hard but rarely worked smart. But I got lucky. I am incredibly fortunate to have managed to do well with short stories. Everyone will tell you that stories don’t sell. It’s true, for the most part. Novels sell much better than story collections. And most publishers wouldn’t even consider a collection from an unknown writer. I didn’t care. That’s what I wanted to write. I kept at it. And it worked out.

Yes, I admire that so much. I’m inspired by that. I aspire to that mode of writing. Being true to yourself outside of any conventional ideas of what you “should” be writing (and still managing to survive financially). Somehow you created a format that no one was clamoring for, no one wanted. But you made it work and created your own joyful universe. 

I am incredibly fortunate that it worked out well. And I will happily give a lot of the credit to Bill Mayer. His cover art is what gets kids to pick up those books. It’s my job to keep them reading, but I might never have that chance if the covers weren’t so intriguing.

Last question. I read somewhere that you believed that Character, Driven was your best book.  Tell us why you feel that way.

It’s a visceral thing. The feeling comes from my gut, not my brain. I think, in part, this comes from writing something for the oldest segment of YA readership. I could get as deep, honest, and brutal as I wanted. Not that I’ve held off on anything essential to the story in my younger books, but I think all writers practice some degree of internal censorship. And I think that’s a good thing. We all should have a sense of our audience. The book is also one of my few real-life novels. Dunk, which I considered my best book until I wrote Character, Driven, is also real life. Maybe that’s a clue about what I should write next. Not that I expect to finally start making smart business decisions at this point in my life.

You are beyond that now, aren’t you? You’re free. That’s the wonderful thing. I’m eager to see what comes next.

Good point. I’m beyond the need to make smart business decision as far as earning a living, but I guess I was thinking in terms of reaching a broader audience. As nice as it is to follow my muse — and if my muse tells me to write 1,000 haiku about banana peppers, so be it — it would also be nice to reach a larger audience, or even to have a bestseller. Admittedly, that’s mostly for the sake of my own ego. As for your eagerness, I appreciate it. That’s most kind of you.  

Well, David, I want to thank you so much for spending this time with me. It’s been fascinating to meet you in this way. I especially appreciate your openness and honesty. I hope we get to hang out in real life someday. And I’m curious about that bourbon you mentioned. 

Currently, the best bourbon on hand is Woodford Double Oaked. That was a splurge. But there’s always Templeton Rye and Basil Hayden’s Dark Rye in the cabinet, for sipping, and Old Overholt for making an old fashioned. I hope I get a chance to enjoy a glass or two with you.

 

 

DAVID LUBAR is the author of more books than, frankly, I care to list. He created the Nathan Abercrombie, Accidental Zombie series, as well as the uproarious Weenies Stories short story collections. For older readers, there’s Hidden Talents; Flip; Character Driven; and many more. He’s renowned for his sense of humor, empathy, and zippy storytelling that reaches even the most hard-to-reach kids. He lives in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Google him to find out more (I’m tired).

 

795.Sch_Jigsaw_jones_0.tif

As for me, James Preller: You might know my Jigsaw Jones mystery series. My most recent book is titled 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. 

GREAT NEWS! “UPSTANDER” Steps Into the Spotlight, Including an Interview with Yours Truly!

I’m so pleased to share a link to Judy Bradbury’s impressive, educator-friendly blog. As a writing teacher and literacy specialist — and a children’s author in her own right — Judy’s blog is filled to overflowing with teaching tips, strategies for connecting books with readers, and so much more.

This month, Judy featured my new book, Upstander, and included a very cool interview with yours truly. Maybe that’s more Jimmy than you can stand? Anyway, I hope you can check it out — full link here — and bookmark Judy’s page for future reading.

IN THE MEANTIME, SOME HIGHLIGHTS

From Judy Bradbury’s introduction: 
Upstander by James Preller is the moving prequel/sequel to Bystander. The story captures the nuances of contemporary family relationships and how they can be both tested and strengthened by individual members’ actions and thoughts, as well as their wills, weaknesses, and wishes. Mary–a minor character in Bystander–struggles and ultimately grows from her experiences facing her brother Jonny’s substance use and her own school-related conflicts. Her story is at once heart-wrenching and heartening. 

AND HERE’S A FEW SNIPPETS FROM THE INTERVIEW

(Again, for the whole shebang, stomp on this link . . . right here!)

JB: How did you decide on the title?

JP: With Bystander, I was fortunate to write one of the first realistic middle-grade books on bullying. I stumbled upon the right topic at the right time. That book got a lot of attention and was often a “one book/one school” selection. Which is a mind-blowing honor. On visits, I kept coming across that idea, often expressed as a poster in the halls: “Be an upstander!” Anti-bullying, when it becomes too strident, can become a negative message. Many schools opted to emphasize the positive: kindness and community. I am 100% behind that initiative. Thus, Upstander.

JB: Tell about one hurdle you experienced in the creation of Upstander or provide a memorable (or humorous!) anecdote related to the making of this book.

JP: What happens frequently for me is that I’ll have an idea for a

Young Do and James Preller, after a celebratory lunch at The Cuckoo’s Nest in Albany.

book, then I’ll soon realize that I’m not nearly smart enough to write it. A lot of loose ends fell together when I reached out to Young Do, an executive director who operates a care and substance use treatment facility, Hospitality House, in Albany, NY. Young became a generous source of insight and information. In fact, the opening of the book grew directly from a personal story that Young shared about his own experiences with his brother. He told me a story and I thought, “Oh, that’s how the book begins!”

JB: What did you learn from writing Upstander?

JP: I think my compassion for everyone concerned— friends and family members—deepened significantly. The more I learned, the more empathy I felt. 

TO LEARN MORE ABOUT JUDY BRADBURY, THIS CONVERSATION WILL GET YOU STARTED!

A Guided Tour of Delmar’s Little Free Libraries

Wouldn’t it be cool, I thought, if somebody could make a map of my town’s Little Free Libraries?

After all, we love ’em, right?

I see them here and there in a random, disorganized way. Where are they exactly? And how many are there?

So I did a little crowdsourcing — and internet sleuthing — and came up with a starter list. I doubt that it’s complete. And one could certainly make the argument that such a list should include other nearby, closely connected neighborhoods of Bethlehem proper.

But I’m happy to just start the ball rolling. If you know of another neighborhood LFL that I’ve missed, please let me know and I’ll include it here in what could ultimately become a Master List.

As for that nifty map? Sorry, I don’t have those cartography skills. Truth is, I hardly have any skills at all!

HERE’S WHAT HAPPENED

For the tour, I grabbed a bunch of books that were around the house, since the concept of a LFL is to “Take a Book, Leave a Book.” Because we recently had a “bear scare” in our little town, I figured that young readers might be primed for Jigsaw Jones: The Case of the Bear Scare. Besides, I had a pile of ’em doing nothing in a closet.

 

ADDENDUM NOTE (6/18/21): I’ve updated this list with 4 more LFLs, addresses at the bottom of the tour. 

14 PARTRIDGE ROAD

         

A lovely beginning. This LFL contained almost exclusively adult titles. Neat and tidy. As our tour proceeds, I’ll refrain from rating individual libraries. I imagine that the quality of the books ebb and flow, according to usage, though I am convinced that the best LFLs are actively curated. Some old titles are better tossed in the trash, especially if no one grabs one after a period of time.

9 CATHERINE STREET

         

Gorgeous — I wish my house looked this good. And during my visit, this fine libary featured almost exclusively children’s books! Perfection.

101 ADAMS PLACE

         

There’s a fun hit-and-miss quality to visiting a LFL, not unlike stopping at a garage sale or thrift shop. Sometimes you hit gold, other times you decide to check back another day. Regardless, I’m always happy to leave a book — and grateful to the owners for sharing these libraries with our community.

160 ADAMS PLACE

         

A surprisingly high percentage of these people are my friends. Maybe not that surprising, since I’m drawn to book people and, of course, these LFLs are in my purview. Here’s an example of the odd kind of book you can find. Nothing I’d ever search for, or even think I’d like, but interesting. I didn’t take it home — but I almost did.

107 ELSMERE AVENUE

This is on the corner of Elsmere and Norge. I drive past it all the time. The trick is to turn on Norge, climb out of the automobile, and take a look. Or, better yet, walk or take a bike. Worth a stop.

25 LINDA COURT

         

We don’t play favorites here at James Preller Dot Com. But this is the sweetest LFL I came across on the tour. Good vibes abound, you can sense a child’s touch. Also, a different approach in the construction. It looks . . . portable!

18 WOODRIDGE ROAD

         

Beautifully constructed and curated with a nice balance of children’s and adult’s, literary and popular. Big bonus for the tasteful peace sign attached to the side. Just the right touch. Book people are the best people.

24 TIERNEY DRIVE

         

Must have been my lucky day, because I coveted quite a few titles in this LFL. Excellent balance of children’s books on the top shelf, literary fiction for adults in the main section. I was tempted to saw it off at the base and carry it home. But that would have been wrong. Right?

1 JUNIPER DRIVE

.       

An interesting location, in front of Adams Station Apartments. The books here were, on this day, very much the type that are consumed by avid readers. My money says this is a much-frequented LFL.

RAIL TRAIL, ADAMS STREET. & HUDSON AVENUE

         

I don’t know who takes care of this LFL — but what an awesome location. Next time you go for a walk on the Rail Trail, or a jog, bring a gently used (and enjoyed) book that’s sitting around your home. Trade it in for something new.

311 KENWOOD AVENUE

Fancy lighting, don’t you think? This one is super close to the middle school, sure to get a lot of readers passing by. If you’ve good books for grades 6-8 readers, this is the place where you could donate a few.

51 FAIRWAY AVENUE

This is the last stop on our tour, 12 Little Free Libraries in all. This one has no window, no sign — but don’t let that fool you. It’s yet another LFL, sharing books with anyone who stops by, complete with a nearby bench where weary travelers can read, rest, and reflect. The owners will even let you jump in their pool. Well, maybe you ought to ask first.

 

THUS ENDS THE TOUR . . . 12 LITTLE FREE LIBRARIES IN ALL . . .

BUT MOSTLY, ALL I REALLY WANT TO SAY IS . . . 

THANK YOU!

 

OWNERS, CARETAKERS, NEIGHBORS, READERS,

FOR PROMOTING LITERACY IN OUR COMMUNITY,

FOR BRINGING BOOKS FRONT AND CENTER,

FOR SHARING THE LOVE OF READING,

FOR DOING ONE SMALL THING 

TO MAKE OUR TOWN A LITTLE BIT BETTER. 

 

ADDENDUM, UPDATE!

I’ve learned of four more local Little Free Libraries at the following locations: 

93 Winnie Street

12 Plymouth Avenue

192 Adams Street

Rail Trail II: A big one on the Trail at the main parking lot off Kenwood, near MegN’s and the New Village Deli.

 

POSTSCRIPT I

 

 

Here’s the result of my haul that day. I guess I have some reading to do. And when I’m done, I’ll pass the books along to a LFL near you.

 

POSTSCRIPT II

         

 

Our neighborhood had a black bear (or two!) visit the area recently. The above photo was posted by a resident. Yes, bears love birdseed and compost heaps. Events like that inspired my book, Jigsaw Jones: The Case of the Bear Scare, which is the title I stuck in every neighborhood Little Free Library. Watch out for those clues! The bear scat is highly suspicious . . . 

Lois Ehlert, Remembered (1934-2021): A Tribute

“I’m trying to use my art
to teach a little — making children
a little more appreciative
of the flowers they can see,
or helping to open up their eyes
to the beautiful birds
flying overhead.”

— Lois Ehlert

 

I learned today that Lois Ehlert has passed away. Born in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, on November 9, 1934, Lois went on to do great things as an author and illustrator of children’s books.

I had the privilege of interviewing Lois for a book almost 30 years ago. The interview was updated at a later point, around 2000, for the cleverly titled, The Big Book of Picture-Book Authors & Illustrators. I used to spy that book on the shelves in classrooms during school visits, though I suspect that’s hardly true anymore. Are teachers as interested in children’s books as they used to be? I’m not so sure.

Anyway, here’s the two-page spread on Lois as it appeared in that collection of profiles. The writing is directed at dual audiences: educators as well as interested young readers. 

As a writer, it’s often a little scary to go back and look at old writing. Will it be embarrassingly bad? But in this case, I felt none of that. I was simply heartened to remember Lois Ehlert again, to bring those great books back to mind, and appreciate the fine work she did.

May her wonderful books, full of color and beauty and respect for the natural world, live on.

 

 

(Sorry for the crummy photos; it’s how I roll.) 

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.