Tag Archive for Preller on Writing Process

My Interview at “Author Turf”

I was recently invited for an interview by Brittney Breakey over at AUTHOR TURF. Brittney has really accomplished a lot with her site. It’s worth checking out. She’s recently interviewed Holly Goldberg Sloan, Sally Nicholls, Gennifer Choldenko, Jo Knowles, Kathryn Erskine . . . and my great pal, Lewis Buzbee.

For me, that’s a double-edged sword. I’ll be honest, I’ve always hoped to be the kind of person who somebody wanted to interview. It’s an incredible compliment. And a true honor.

In my career, some of the first work I ever did was interviews of authors for promotional brochures. I think Ann McGovern was my first interview, back when I worked as a junior copywriter for Scholastic. Or it might have been Johanna Hurwitz. I don’t think I saved them. This would have been in 1985, I guess. Life went on and I’ve interviewed some talented authors and illustrators over the years.

You’d think I’d have learned some things along the line, but my basic feeling is usually one of disorientation, a sense that I have no idea what I’m doing, most likely saying the wrong things, awkwardly. Oh well.

I do have lucid moments, times when I think, “Okay, not terrible.” But in general I can’t read things like this without wincing, without twitching and blinking too often. I don’t know, it’s weird. I try to be honest, authentic, and hope for the best.

Below, you’ll find a brief excerpt of a much longer interview. Click here for the whole shebang.

What’s the worst thing you did as a kid?

It’s interesting you ask this, because I recently wrote about it in my journal. A theme that I’m exploring in the book I currently writing (or should be writing), which is a quasi-sequel to BYSTANDER. I have superstitions about talking about books before they are finished, but I’ll say this: In the summer between 7th and 8th grade, a girl in my homeroom died unexpectedly. I didn’t know her well, and wouldn’t call her a friend. When I first heard about Barbara’s death, I was with a bunch of friends –- I can picture it vividly, a bunch of us lounging around — and I said something dumb, snarky, immature. Of course, the death of a peer was completely new to me, a big deal, and I didn’t know how to react. I still feel a sense of shame about it, across these forty years, that one dumb thing I said that no one else even noticed. I’ve been reflecting a lot about identity lately, the idea of self not as a revelation, but as a made thing. Something you earn. Bryan Stevenson gave an incredible presentation for TED Talks -– everyone in America should Youtube it -– and he said, “I’ve come to understand and to believe that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” That’s a huge, complicated, controversial idea –- and it speaks directly to the topic of my next book. [NOTE: I’ve embedded Stevenson’s talk, below.]

Was there ever a time in your writing career where you wanted to seriously give up? If so, how did you find the motivation to continue?

Yes, I’ve wanted to quit. Absolutely. Mostly because it’s hard, and because I’ve felt (and still feel, though less so) insecure about my own ability –- that I was a pretender, a self-deceiver, a fake. Also, it’s a bunny-eat-bunny business that can crush your soul at times. As a husband and father, I’ve worried about my ability to provide for my family, to keep paying the bills. But that’s life, right? You have to keep getting up. You can’t just lie there on the canvas. That said: Every day I feel blessed that I can do this for a living. The hard is what makes the good.

What’s your favorite writing quote?

It’s not a quote, so much as an attitude about doing the work, a sort of blue collar distrust of pretentiousness. In a phrase, shut up, sit down, and write. Or not! But either way, shut up. It’s hard, writers are told that we need to promote ourselves, we need to “have a presence” on the web, we need to “get out there.” And I just keep thinking, we need to write great books. That’s all that matters.

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing? What comes easily?

The whole thing is a challenge. One thing about having published a bunch of things over a long period of time is that I’ve come to understand that each book is its own, self-contained thing. You write the story that’s in front of you. Then you write the next one. And the next. You don’t control what happens after that and, on good days, you accept that plain fact.

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Appreciation: The Ending of “The Bad News Bears.”

To be clear up front, we are talking the 1976 original with Tatum O’Neil, Walter Matthau, etc.

By the way, a shout out to the names of these characters: Amanda Whurlitzer, Coach Morris Buttermaker, Ogilvie, Engelberg, Jimmy Feldman, Rudi Stein, Tanner Boyle, Ahmad Abdul Rahim, Kelly Leak and Timmy Lupus. The names seem perfect to me now, especially when heard through the muttering lips of Coach Buttermaker, “Listen, Lupus, you didn’t come into this life just to sit around on a dugout bench, did ya? Now get your ass out there and do the best you can.”

I’ve watched it several times, most recently about seven years ago. Great movie, though the language might startle you with its profanity and ethnic slurs. Pretty harsh by today’s politically-correct standards. The through-line of the movie moves inexorably toward the big, championship game. We’ve seen the Bears come together, struggle and lose, then learn to win, and now the stage is set for the film’s dramatic conclusion: The Big Game. We’ve seen this setup countless times before.

The first time I watched the movie, the game’s ending surprised me. It came down to a close play at home plate, the scrappy Bears about to tie it with two outs in the last inning . . . the baserunner slides, the catcher applies the tag, the dust rises . . . “Out!” the umpire calls.

Game over. The Bears lose.

What? Really?

For years I’ve marveled at (and appreciated) that decision by screenwriter Bill Lancaster and director Michael Ritchie. They didn’t allow the Bears to win the big game. Nope, they lost it. Because, when you think about it, winning was never actually the point to this story, not in a satire about Little League competition. But still, the Bears lost; it was shocking. Partly because you almost never see that in books and movies, for all sorts of reasons.

I might be more sensitized to endings than ever before, since I’ve been frequently queried about the ending to Bystander. I recently came across some of my early notes on the book that made it clear how I fully understood that my original ending lacked drama, it just didn’t hit it out of the park. I sensed that some readers might want more, particularly when considering their heightened feelings about fairness, justice. So I cooked up an alternative, a more satisfying ending, more complicated and conflict-oriented, and arrived at something pretty cool where the bad guy got it in the end. Not too shabby, way better from a purely dramatic point of view, but it didn’t satisfy me — because it didn’t ring true. Not to life as I knew it. So I reinstated my original ending, the one where life goes on without trumpets or tidy bows, unicorns or rainbows. The kid gets through it, basically. Survives. It gets better.

I don’t know what made me think of The Bad News Bears last night, but I remembered what happened in the scene immediately after the game. It was trophy time, that dreaded, heartless cheer, “Two, four, six, eight! Who do we appreciate?” The hated Yankees received a ludicrously-oversized trophy. And as consolation prize, the Bears were handed a dinky second-place trophy — and also, it should be recognized, offered grudging respect by the (still condescending) opposition.

It’s at this point, the movie’s true ending, when Tanner Boyle barks these immortal words:

“Hey, Yankees. You can take your apology,

and this trophy, and shove it straight up your ass!”

That was the film’s true ending, of course. It was never about the game. It was about winning respect, and self-respect. About being a team. In the end, Lancaster and Ritchie gave the Bears the much greater victory. There they were, hopping around like idiots, spritzing non-alcoholic beer on each other, happy and . . . triumphant. They lost the game, sure, so what, but ended the film on the perfect note. Pretty terrific, if you ask me.

See for yourself . . .

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