Tag Archive for The Haunting of Charles Dickens

James Preller Interviews . . . Lewis Buzbee, Author of “Bridge of Time”

Lewis, I was just so impressed with your new book, BRIDGE OF TIME (Macmillan, May 2012). Congratulations. When I was reading the Advance Reader’s Copy, I wished I could talk to you about it, ask questions, dig a little deeper. Then I realized: Hey, I operate my own fully-licensed blog right here in America. I’m kind of a big deal. So I figured I’d invite you over and we’d talk it out. (Besides, Vonnegut is not answering my emails.)

That’s odd. Kurt and I were just talking the other day. So it goes.

I mentioned Vonnegut almost randomly, since as a matter of policy I drop Vonnegut’s name as often as possible, but thinking of it now, old Kurt dabbled quite a bit in time travel himself. Billy Pilgrim — of Ilium, New York –- tumbling from past to present to future. And it seemed totally natural, not science fiction –- that yes, life is like that, we’re constantly traveling through time in our heads.

“Unstuck in time” is the phrase Twain used here to describe Time Travel, and I lifted unapologetically from SLAUGHTER-HOUSE FIVE. Vonnegut is too important, I agree, to overlook, especially today. But it also seems to me that Vonnegut is a direct heir to Twain. In the book, Twain makes a passing reference to his friend Kurt, whom he met while unstuck in time, and it was Kurt who coined the phrase.

That’s a wonderful detail, Lewis. In my upcoming Young Adult novel, BEFORE YOU GO, one of the central characters just finished reading BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS. There’s really no big reason for it, other than to tell you something about that character’s likes and interests. Frankly, I loved the idea of four teenage boys in a car, talking — however briefly — about Kurt Vonnegut — and it leading to a minor argument. That’s Kurt, always stirring things up. We do what we can to pay homage to our heroes.

Writers, for the most part, become writers because they started as readers. We’re nothing without those who came before us. We owe them all the props. Especially Vonnegut for me. When I was sixteen, I read SLAUGHTER-HOUSE FIVE, and my world was never the same.

This is the third book in what I like to think of as your “Dead Author” trilogy, following STEINBECK’S GHOST and THE HAUNTING OF CHARLES DICKENS. In this story, we meet Sam Clemens, who later goes on to fame and fortune under the pen name, Bret Easton Ellis.

I prefer to call these “literary mysteries.” And no, not Bret Easton Ellis. Some of Twain’s writings are actually in the more advanced past tense.

Oh, wait, you’re right. My bad. The girl who usually comes in to shuffle my note cards has been out sick. Hold on, give me sec.

Color coding, my friend, that’s what it’s all about. Works for socks and other underthings as well.

Ah-ha, Twain! That’s it. Um, okay, each book is thematically linked, but not at all formulaic. Reading one tells you nothing of the others.

I really didn’t want to write the same book with plug-in characters. And I tried to offer different aspects in each book. Steinbeck has a male protagonist, Dickens a female, and with Twain, one of each. I also tried to look at different aspects of a writer’s life. In Steinbeck, the writer himself is dead and remains as a spirit, in the form of his books. With Dickens, I was looking at The Great Man as a living author, but a fully successful one. With Twain I focused on that crucial summer when Twain made the jump from journalist to fiction writer, when Clemens really became Twain.

To me, that decision was central to the book’s success. We meet Sam Clemens, struggling writer, not “Mark Twain,” established literary lion. Clemens, like the main characters, Lee and Joan, is still unformed. We can relate to him. All three main characters are poised on the verge of becoming. The future awaits them, exciting and terrifying. I love that about your story, and really it’s what I love about children’s literature in general. There’s this beautiful sense of self-realization, of youth unfurling, of learning how to be. Your book celebrates the cusp of life.

This is one of the reasons I love to write for middle grade readers, because that’s what their whole lives are about, bidding farewell to childhood and entering into the murkiness of the grown-up world, with just enough awareness to be both brilliant and naive in their choices. I remember that so much from my own junior high life, how much I tried on different costumes and personae, trying to see what fit, and all the while watching the adults around me and trying to figure out how they became who they were now.’

I’m fascinated by middle schoolers, it’s such an age of transition, false starts and new beginnings. Filled with self-doubt and uncertainty. Who am I, where do I belong? Everything is up for grabs, which is tremendously exciting, because it’s also a time of great possibility. As you know, I have a 7th grader in my own house, and as maddening as he’s become –- and I confess to sometimes wanting to strangle him, his eye-rolling impatience — I often feel great sympathy for my son: the hormones, the emotions, the explosion of brain cells in the frontal cortex. It’s a wild ride. The saddest aspect about middle school life is their desperate desire to fit in, their longing to belong, and that often manifests itself in dull conformity. Everyone wearing the same clothes, worried about what everybody else thinks.

That’s the great conflict, isn’t it? Wanting to fit in, yet dreaming of being your own self. My daughter is in 8th grade — more eye-rolling than 7th — and I see her working hard at both. I do think this is one thing that the best middle grade novels — heck, any of the best novels — can do, give the reader permission and courage to find themselves in that grand sea of confusions.

By the way, “This American Life” did a brilliant episode on Middle School –- so insightful and entertaining. Please, by all means, check it out. You know I wouldn’t steer you wrong. You can access the full transcript, too.

You did steer me wrong once, but I called AAA and they got me out of that ditch.

Back to the main river: I think if you wrote about the later Mark Twain, it could have easily led to a tone that was too reverential, all hail The Great One, full of wisdom. But this way, Sam is as flawed and vulnerable –- as human — as Lee and Joan.

I love that Twain here frequently says to Joan and Lee, listen, I’m new to this whole time-travel thing, too, and I’m as clueless as you are. That’s a great thing to hear from an adult. I think it gives you more confidence in yourself at that age, and it also makes you feel like less of a freak. If I’d gone for full-blown Twain, the white-suited figure we all know, it would have become, I think, an exercise in bad down-home imitation. In early drafts of the novel, it was that, to an extent, and I had to work hard to resist it.

The book also serves as a love note to San Francisco. The city itself stands as an essential character.

I end up writing about San Francisco over and over again, and it’s always a love note. I’ve lived here twenty-six years now, and not a week goes by that I don’t look up and thank my lucky stars. But San Francisco is also a perfect setting for this book in particular because it’s a place people have always come to in order to become who they most want to be. There’s that freedom here, that license, if you will. It’s not a mistake, really, that it was here that Clemens found his Twain.

Yes, exactly. In the book, Miss Greta speculates on the question of why San Francisco? Why are these time-traveling incidents –- where some select few travelers get unstuck in time — — happening here, in this city, of all places. She tells Joan:

There are other places we’ve heard about. But San Francisco’s a good one. Very popular that way. People come here to find their futures. You can be who you want to be here. Keep a remember on that.”

Keep a remember on that. Very nice. You love this city, don’t you?

I do love it, for its natural beauty and for the freedom of it. It’s been a true gift to raise my daughter, now 13, in this city, and see how that’s worked out for her personally, and how she views other people. Everyone here is a freak, in some way, an eccentric, which means of course that everyone is an individual and treats others with the same respect.

Obviously, you must have done a lot of research.

One of the great things about writing these books has been able to say, “Oh, I have to go work now,” and then settling down to read Steinbeck, or Dickens, or Twain. I mean, really, Work?

I was happy to come across a video interview with M.T. Anderson. He was asked about his typical workday and he talked about the importance of exercise –- that it was a perfectly valid, essential part of his day as a writer. And I need to be reminded of that permission, you know, that it’s okay to do yoga or take a walk or whatever, that it’s part of my job. So, thanks for that, M.T. (By the way, did I say “do yoga”? I meant, “lift enormous amounts of heavy weights.” I don’t want my Nation of Readers to get the wrong idea; I’m a very tough guy.)

Hey, for some of us, doing yoga is lifting enormous amounts of weight. Listen, writin’ ain’t coal-mining, let’s be clear on that. But it’s true, so much of a writer’s job — at least in my experience — takes place away from the desk. Staring out the window, taking walks, whatever. Writers are, Stein said, “those upon whom nothing is lost.” It’s part of the job. You look at everything, are interested in everything.

Huh? What? Are you still here?

Focus, focus. You take your ritalin this morning?

Look: a bird!

I’ve also become a rather devoted historical researcher — histories, biographies, fashion, technologies, and my favorite of all, maps. Whenever I’m working on a new novel, I’ve got tons of old maps pinned up over my desk, as if they were blueprints and I were just the contractor on the job. Building a whole city in your head and populating it. Work, indeed.

Joan discovers that taking a bath in 1864 was a major hassle.

Listen, no one really wants to go back into the past. Even for the wealthiest of the wealthy, they were mean and dangerous times. A simple infection could kill you, if you made it past childhood. These issues rarely come up in time travel, so I wanted to touch on that. The past? Great place to think about, but no thanks. I’ll stay here with hot showers and antibiotics. It’s silly to romanticize the past, which, at one time, of course, was the absolute present. One of the things Joan notices about SF in 1864 is how new it looks. To her 2012 San Francisco is sort of old and falling apart.

You take delight in the language of the times. “Sorry don’t milk the goat, “ Miss Greta says at one point.

I may have stolen that from Dr. Phil, I’m afraid.

Ha! We stand on the shoulders of giants.

But it also comes from steeping myself — again and again — in Twain, whose language just pops all over the place. I’ve got notebooks filled with expressions and words I just couldn’t fit in. My two favorite Twainisms that made it into the book — he uses these in both Huck and Tom Sawyer are, “Honor Bright,” a mild oath along the lines of “I’ll be,” and “Hang fire,” meaning it’s time to chillax.

Literally, to hang the lantern on a hook. Settle in. Hang fire.

I also had fun teaching Twain — who would have been curious to learn it — about the slang of Joan and Lee’s time. Lee teaches him how to say ”Dude” at one point, and “Freak out.”

You write powerfully about the discrimination experienced by the Chinese residents in San Francisco during the 19th century. The so-called “Chinese Menace” or “Yellow Peril.” For Joan as a fully assimilated Chinese-American to see it, and feel it, and by frightened by it, well, I just thought you brought that period home in a very real, hard-hitting way. Joan was the key to telling that part of the story.

San Francisco was a horrid place to be Chinese, for long, long decades, but now the Chinese community in SF is very powerful and very much the majority. These are my neighbors I’m talking about, my daughter’s schoolmates. This goes back to what I was saying about the past. Things have gotten better — slowly, slowly, but better.

In each of these books I’ve tried to bring in really urgent social issues: racial discrimination and violence in both Twain and Steinbeck, child labor in Dickens. It seems a disservice to any reader — young or old — to overlook these matters. And besides, that’s one reason we still turn to these three writers, their concerns for social justice, their unflinching attitudes toward our cruelties.

The book is also, at its heart, an old-fashioned adventure. Amidst all the research and big ideas, it’s important to remember that.

In the first draft, it was all adventure, all chase and struggle. My editor, Liz Szabla, told me time travel was really hard and I needed to be careful. I came to discover, through Liz’s editing, that I’d used time travel as a gimmick, when what I really wanted to do was write a book about time. That was hard. The adventure has to serve the bigger concerns of the book; a book that’s just car chases and gun fights is really only a lousy movie.

I think far too many books today aspire to only that, the dream that somebody in Hollywood will turn it into a lousy movie. Ca-ching!

I’m not saying I’m not interested in a movie deal. No chump, me.

No, of course, we’d all love to pay off the mortgage and get college squared away. Fame and glory on the red carpet with Brad and Angelina. However, there seems to be an increasing amount of books written as if, well, they were not intended for readers. Plot, plot, plot; frantically paced. I decided that, for me, the ultimate reader is someone who isn’t afraid of being bored. Like a baseball fan. That is, I have to trust that the reader is going to hang with me a little bit, because I’m not really set up to write every story like it’s a roller coaster ride. Does that make sense? I don’t plan on boring anybody, exactly, but I can’t be overly worried that I need a car chase in the next three paragraphs or my readers won’t turn the page.

I write, I believe, for people who like to read, who want to see the world in a slower, more engaged way. We have enough “fast” media in the world. Books are meant to be slow, which of course, takes away nothing of their excitement.

Lewis, don’t tell my wife, but I think I’m falling in love with you. Anyway! Almost midway into the book, Joan and Lee realize that this fellow they’ve been hanging around with, this Sam Clemens guy, is actually . . . Mark Twain, the famous author. I wondered about that a little bit, how many typical middle schoolers would know about Twain. Or care. And the great thing about BRIDGE OF TIME is that it’s incidental: Twain, the great author, doesn’t really matter. A reader doesn’t have to know a thing about him to enjoy this story.

Lots of middle schoolers will have read Tom or Huck already, though not most. However, when I visit middle grade classrooms I always ask about Twain, and most know something about him, or at least about Huck. The interesting thing about these writers — especially Twain and Dickens — is if you haven’t read the work you still know about them because they are such a part of the cultural currency. Yes, even in this iMac iMad world we live in. Bah Humbug. There you have it. I also chose each of these writers, however, with the hope of getting that one interested reader to move on to Steinbeck, Twain, or Dickens. This is the age, really, when kids will begin to read their first adult books, and these writers are perfect for that time.

Yes, we’ve touched on that topic before. How for readers of our vintage, there was no “YA” exactly, we just merrily went on to Steinbeck or Bradbury or Vonnegut or Brautigan. Then I guess S.E. Hinton came along, Paul Zindel, and others who became intensely interested in those earlier stages of life, the teenage years, and the publishers figured out there might be a market for it.

When I think of the best MG and YA writers, I don’t make any distinctions in age groups. For example, I’d put Virginia Hamilton’s PLANET OF JUNIOR BROWN up against any “adult” novel, and the adult novel would pale. Good writing is good writing: period. Alas, much of what gets published in the MG and YA niches is just dreck, plain and simple. But in this way, it resembles most of what gets published in the adult trade, pure dreck. This is as old as publishing itself.

I identified with an aspect of Sam Clemens, the part of him that was fearful, that lacked self-confidence, doubted if he was good enough. You know, I’ve really felt that all my life –- I feel that right now with the book I’m writing — and I’d bet that most artists have experienced those same doubts. Clemens is scared out of his mind, paralyzed, that he’s not up to the task of becoming the writer he always wanted to be. Is that something you’ve felt?

I feel it every day. I mean, no matter what I’m doing, I still feel a fraud, and that I might get caught out at any moment. Don’t we all feel that way a bit? And kids especially. But I never feel it more intently than when I sit down to write. From having read so many journals and biographies and letters, etc., of other writers, I’m convinced this is true of all artists. No matter how much I’ve written, when I sit down to begin a new project, I think, I have no idea what I’m doing. And this is good. If you set out knowing exactly what you’re doing, well, then you’re probably going to write something stale, without surprises. The poet Richard Hugo put it so gracefully: “Hope hard always to fall short of success. It’s the doubt that makes you work harder.

Finally there comes a time when Sam must face his own future –- which is what the book is about, for all of us, daring to become our very selves. There’s a lovely scene between Joan and Sam. She recognizes the fear he’s experiencing. And Joan tells him what she believes Twain would say to him (Sam), if he (Twain), only could: “He would tell you that you must try. That you should cast off.”

Sam would not look at Joan.

“I am afraid to even try,” he said.

It was strange to see Sam this way, all the brash taken out of him. Deflated. But oddly reassuring, too. It made Sam seem more real.

“I am afraid of trying,” Sam said, “because I want so badly to be who I think I might one day be. And if I fail . . . I’ll have no future at all.”

We’re back to the doubt. You can be paralyzed by it, or you can recognize it and make the big leap forward. Kids, too, know that adults are often full of b.s., and can see through facades like x-ray machines. It’s just better for them to have it acknowledged. Sam’s doubt does paralyze him for a while, but in the end, it’s his doubt that propels him forward.

I have to say this. As a rule, I hate time travel. It never makes sense to me, and too often it’s handled crudely, non-sensibly. I mean, yes, there’s a conceit, as readers we have to take that leap of faith and go with it. But, but, but. It still has be remain credible –- the reactions, the motivations, even the science, to a degree — and I think you achieved that in the best possible way.

Time travel — which we believe to be impossible — is mostly a wish-fulfillment fantasy. If only I could have saved Lincoln . . . But I don’t believe the world can be changed that way. I do believe, however, that our awareness of time — through history and literature and other media — can give us a much clearer sense of ourselves. In the end, this is what I aimed for.

But, my goodness, it must have been complicated to write. No? I mean, just keeping it straight, keeping the internal logic in line with some kind of familiar reality. Was there a lot of revision?

Oh lord. There were long chapters in the early drafts — I did five MAJOR revisions of this book — where Lee and Joan and Twain just sat around talking about time and how it worked. It took me forever to get it down to just what I wanted. And finally the answer came from Twain. In the book, Sam talks about the Mississippi and how sometimes it’s so large, you think you’re still on the river but you’ve really gone into a side channel and you’re away from the main current, often for miles. That’s what Sam says to Joan and Lee about Time Travel — it’s just a diversion, one that gives you a better view of the real thing, and in the end, you’ve got to go back to the main current. That’s where life happens.

I see that you dedicated the book to your editor, Liz Szabla.

Liz took a huge chance on me with STEINBECK’S GHOST, buying it on a proposal, and then when that was done, took another chance on these ideas about Dickens and Twain. Really did change so much for me. Not only is she a brilliant editor — meaning she see through to the essential heart of a story and leaves behind the silly “market” questions, she offers what writers really need, the sense of support. Publishing a book hardly ever “changes” your life in some miraculous way, but it does give you the support you need to go on, write the next one. She’s the rarest of editors.

Agreed. We’re very, very lucky to have her on our side. You know, my hair bristles when I hear complaints about messages in books. As if that’s a bad thing, or an avoidable thing. I contend that you can’t tell a story without values and messages embedded throughout. The issue is one of craft –- how artfully these messages are delivered. And in this book, one message can be reduced to two words: CAST OFF. “Have fun. Look around. It’ll be okay.” Dare to dream. Or as Maurice Sendak ended his recent interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, “Life your life, live your life, live your life.

There’s a huge difference between a message and a moral. Messages are deeper, more subterranean, closer to the heart, unsaid. Yes, Twain does come out and say it, but it seems almost frivolous at the time. What better message could there be? It’s what friends do for one another, offer that permission and challenge.

Good distinction. Joan again seems to get the deepest thoughts:

“Joan no longer believed what Sam had said, back on the Paul Jones, about lessons and morals and how they could ruin an exciting adventure. She now firmly believed, from her own experience, that the best adventures offered you lessons, no matter what. If not, an adventure was just a roller coaster ride. An amusement. A true adventure, Joan realized, took you places –- or times –- you could not have begun to imagine. Always something to be learned in the unknown.”

If a book is true to life — and not just some pre-fabbed fantasy world—then there have got to be lessons — or messages. A book is a way for the reader, I think, to examine the world deeply and courageously. Or at least a way of finding that courage. I read books because they talk about the world, and when I’m done, they make me want to go out into it.

Do you have a favorite part of the book?

There’s a scene where Lee and Joan and Twain, while being chased, take a small sailboat out onto San Francisco Bay, and I think it’s my favorite bit of prose ever. The danger of the pursuit has passed, but the danger of the black water is still there. I like that.

While the flames from the Paul Jones licked into the night sky, Sam unfurled and hoisted the sail, and a soft southerly breeze caught and inflated it. The boat jerked once, then set off gliding over the black water.

Lee stared forlornly after the Paul Jones.

The waning moon offered enough light to enchant the night. The bay was black but visible. It was perfectly quiet out here, and Lee was happy with that.

They emerged from their sheltered cove into the open bay, and a stiff wind caught the sail. It felt to Lee as if a hand was pushing the boat from behind.

Up ahead was the black silhouette of Yerba Buena Island, partway between San Francisco and Oakland. Where the Bay Bridge and the man-made Treasure Island was supposed to be.

As the boat came even with the southern tip of Yerba Buena Island, a sharp hissing noise filled the air. But before Lee could turn, three sleek sails hove into view on their starboard. The three boats were longer and thinner than Sam’s old clunker, and their sails were enormous. The boats rode low in the water, the sails tipped so far over they etched the surface of the bay. One dark shape manned each tiller.

You write beautifully, Lewis. And readers should know that the above passage came on the heels of a tumultuous scene with butchers, cleavers, shotguns and burning ships (are you listening, Hollywood?!). The veritable calm after the storm: Expertly paced. My old friend, the great Scholastic editor Craig Walker, used to say that the best thing Twain ever did was get Huck out on the water. Because then it was all there, the physical liquid space, sliding through the solid world, but also floating on literature’s richest metaphor: water -– of consciousness and time, currents and dangers, life’s eddies and so on.

That’s why Huck is Huck. He’s out on the water, watching the placid, unchanging towns go by. You get a better view of the world from there, and you’re going some place, changing with the world as it changes you.

Lewis, thank you for giving us this beautiful, inspiring book. Look, as you know from my private complaints, I’m often brutally dissatisfied with children’s books. There are so many that I find to be cynical, commercial, copycat, disappointing. And, yes, the counterpoint holds true: many are rich and wonderful, the best books imaginable. With the BRIDGE OF TIME, I declare you on the side of the angels. I respect and admire what you’ve achieved here. Because you wrote an adventure, a fun story, but also a story that is deep, that has meaning, and heart, and enduring value. It’s the genuine article. I wish for this book to find the audience it deserves –- and earn some starred reviews in the process. Good luck to you, Lewis. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I must . . . cast off.

James, all I can say to such praise is, “the check’s in the mail.”

Forget that, Lewis. My dream is to make it out to the Left Coast someday. Catch a baseball game, watch Timmy pitch, and chat our way through nine innings.

You’re on. We have the best garlic fries in the league, and Gulden’s Spicy Brown mustard for our dogs. Or we can even go for free. Part of the right field fence at AT&T has a clear view from outside the park, and anyone can go there and watch the game in what we call The Arcade. I think that’s where writers belong anyway, outside looking in.


If you enjoyed this interview, please check out my 2009 interview with Lewis, back when he was a hirsute middleweight, boxing under the name Louie “The Buzz Saw” Buzbee. The interview is in three parts, it’s lively and fun and features a taser.

Want to see Lewis on television? Sure you do! Click here for a nice interview, based on his wonderful book, THE YELL0W-LIGHTED BOOKSHOP.

By Dickens: Rewriting Christmas

Charles Dickens has been wildly (and unexpectedly) popular around here lately, with children’s authors speaking about him in revered tones, and not just because of the holiday season.

As Carmen Deedy, author of 14 Cows for America, told me in a recent interview:

I just re-read Great Expectations this summer, and there were places  where I laughed out loud. What a wordsmith, what a keen observer of human nature. Dickens made you see the human being within the characters. Why, even the loathsome and repulsive Miss Haversham (the elder) becomes a pitiable creature by book’s end. And his descriptions, and the marvelous names for his characters . . . ya know, I AM aware that it’s not cool to love Dickens anymore. I mean, a full page devoted to describing a room? But, oh, what a room . . .

What’s more, author Lewis Buzbee — in another recent interview — revealed that his new title, due in Fall, 2010, will be called The Haunting of Charles Dickens. And just the other day, I saw that my cyber-friend and fellow author, Kurtis Scaletta (Mudville), recently blogged a strong defense of Mr. Dickens’ great works. The money quote:

When people disparage classics as boring, stuffy books nobody wants to read, it’s clear they haven’t read Dickens, whose books are crammed with excitement, great characters, and everything we want a novel to be. That’s hardly surprising, since what we expect of a novel has largely been formed by the works of DIckens in the first place.

Oh, and that’s not all, dear friend of jamespreller.com. In an upcoming interview (we’re almost done!), author and all-around “book person” Deborah Kovacs gushes about Dickens, too. I’m telling you, it’s in the air, the great revival of interest in the old master.

From The New York Times:

Charles Dickens left behind one, and only one, manuscript for “A Christmas Carol,” the tale he wrote in 1843 of an unfeeling rich man and the boy who pricked his conscience. Kept under lock-and-key for much of the year at the Morgan Library and Museum, the manuscript is not widely available, one reason, perhaps, why it has been all but impossible to track the many revisions Dickens made to the manuscript as he struggled to get his story right. A high-resolution copy of the manuscript’s 66 pages, which you can examine below, may finally change that.

Ángel Franco/The New York Times

Click here you can examine each page of the manuscript, even toggle back and forth between hand-written and typed versions.

To read more about Dickens and the story behind this classic ghost story, written under financial pressure (that great motivator, fiscal panic!), click here and enjoy. For book lovers and those who enjoy the writing process, Christmas just came early.

One thing Carmen Deedy was wrong about: these days, it is very cool to like Dickens.

James Preller Interviews . . . Lewis Buzbee (finally, it’s over!)

Well, it’s been a wonderful week and I’ve really enjoyed having Lewis Buzbee as my co-host, trailing after me like a lost puppy . . .

Believe me, if I had any idea he’d act like this, I never would have asked Lewis to stay for an entire week. But Don Rickles canceled, Sammy was busy, and Barbra never returns my calls.

Seriously: I don’t hang with authors much. I don’t get invited to conventions or even blog tours or — come to think of it — neighborhood block parties, so it’s not like I get the chance to meet many high-flying literary types. I tend to spend my time with my wife, my kids, and other people here on earth. But when I read The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, I felt an immediate connection to Lewis. I had to talk with this guy. I wanted to push his doorbell, spend the weekend. Separated by 3,000 miles, I did the next best thing: Asked him for an interview.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of interviews half as much as I did. I feel like I’ve not only discovered a terrific writer — someone whose career I will follow, whose books I will read — but also, something more lasting, more meaningful: I’ve found my 163rd Facebook friend.

If you missed the fun, click here to catch up on Part One or Part Two.

And we’re off . . .

Is John Steinbeck still your favorite author?

Least favorite question.

Oh, man. Sorry. Now I feel like Geraldo.

He’s my first writer, for sure. And reading him again and again as an adult, I learn more from him every time. But there’s a million others out there who are my favorite writers. I go with E.M. Forster on this. I don’t see writers in any competition, I see them all working together in the big round reading room of the British Library. Isn’t it a miracle we have so many great writers to read?

So,  yes, he has to be my favorite.

What have you learned from him?

I hope what he wrote to a young Peter Benchley, who was in boarding school at the time. He was friends with Peter’s father. Steinbeck wrote, “Only a fool is willfully obscure.”

Yes, excellent. You put that in Steinbeck’s Ghost.

In other words: the exact opposite of what they taught us in college! To me, so much of my adult writing life has been about unlearning those lessons, the obtuse writers that we were supposed to admire and love. I mean, yes, some are great. But there’s definitely an Emperor’s New Clothes thing going on: I don’t understand it, I can’t comprehend it, so golly it must be good! More and more, I respect writing that has clarity, directness, and restraint. An absence of flash. I’m striving to write sentences like, “He put the glass on the table.

Many of my students — I teach part-time in the MFA program at University of San Francisco — are under the impression that subtlety is the goal. And by that they mean murkiness. One of them recently told me, “I love stories that leave you completely confused about what’s happening.” Okay, fine.

Flannery O’Connor wrote that in a time when there is too much noise in the air, and everyone is heard of hearing, the writer needs to practically shout, use primary colors, be bold. Yep.

Talking about Steinbeck, I’m reminded of how I read many of his books as a young teenager. He and guys like Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (probably my favorite at that age) were the young adult literature of my youth. There was no such thing as “YA.”

I think that that’s my ultimate goal as a writer, to crack open the brain, and unleash the words, of a fourteen-year-old. To meet the big ideas about the world that are just forming in their enormous brains. As a bookseller, who should pay attention to categories, I was never one for categories. Good is good. That’s that. Bradbury, Vonnegut, Steinbeck — that’s a good desert island stack.

You recently wrote your first children’s book, Steinbeck’s Ghost. How did that happen?

Like I said, I wasn’t a voracious reader as a kid,  so I missed a lot of great kids’ lit. But the very first bookstore I worked in was run by three wonderful women, who were all passionate experts about kids’ books. And they made certain that I read as much as I could, and that I understand, not only the importance of kids’ books, but the variety and expertise of kids’ books, their sophistication. So my whole adult life, I’ve been a reader of kids’ books. And I’ve always wanted to write my own.

I’m glad you did, just don’t eat up too much of the market share. Oh, wait. We”re not supposed to be in competition. Can’t I just quietly hate you?

As they used to say at a Clean Well Lighted Place for Books in San Francisco, “It’s a bunny eat bunny world.”

You became a father relatively late in life. How do you think that’s affected you as a writer? As a reader?

Lord, what a question. It changed everything.

When my daughter was born, I was halfway through the second draft of a six hundred page novel that was all very clever and erudite and luminous. But I threw myself, gladly, into being a dad, changing diapers and staying up nights for feedings, strollers, all the rest. It was a blast. By the time I got back to that novel, I was disenchanted with it — it seemed so unessential, so small. And I immediately began writing a whole new crop of stories about what I felt were bigger things. That became After the Gold Rush, my first book of stories.

My daughter “restored me to life,” as Dickens said, reminded me what was essential. And since then, I’ve written so many books, with such urgency. She not only reminded me what to write about, but showed me, perhaps for the first time, why I was writing. Dude, seriously, it’s life and death stuff — that’s how it makes me feel.

Katherine Paterson has a wonderful line about that, reflecting on being a parent and a writer: “I can see that the very persons who have taken away my time and space are those who have given me something to say.” There it is, I couldn’t possibly say it better. Like we were talking about before — she said it for us, articulated that chaos of the heart, and I’m grateful to her for that.

God, what a great line. I wish I’d said that. Can we pretend? That’s the wonderful thing about being a parent, and I think a lot of people miss this part — especially the “workaholics”: my pleasures here are purely selfish; she gives me so much.

And then, of course, there was reading to her. She’s eleven now, and we still read together every night. But the first day she was home from the hospital, I read to her — Beatrix Potter, Maurice Sendak. And it’s been such a journey to follow her through that development, through all the picture books, then the chapter books, then the middle grade novels. Yes, that had a huge influence on my desire to get into the kids’ section.

What’s your daughter’s name? I’m guessing it’s Flannery, Harper, or Willa.

Maddy. Yes, Madeleine. Actually named after a character in the Bill Forsythe movie, “Comfort and Joy,” who is a kleptomaniac, and her boyfriend follows her around department stores watching her steal, and he’s always saying, in his Scottish accent, “Ach, Maddy; ach, Maddy.”

Ach, Maddy — that’s funny. What’s next for you?

My second middle-grade reader, The Haunting of Charles Dickens, will come out in September 2010, and I’ve just finished Mark Twain and the Mysterious Stranger, September 2011.

Quick idea here, Lewis, if the series is successful: Marcel Proust and the Madeleine Tea Cake. Kids are always clamoring for more Proust — plush toys, bed sheets, lunch boxes, 8-track tapes. Or how about, Ernest Hemingway and the Disappearing Absinthe. Maybe you could package it with “Death in the Afternoon by Chocolate” brownies or something. Hey, it’s your series — do with it what you’d like. I’m just typing out loud here.

I was thinking more like Kafka Goes Krazy. I think Kafka is the perfect karacter for kids to relate to. I mean, you know you did something wrong, and have to stand trial for it, but you just don’t know what it is you did. Plus, it’s got movie written all over it.

Actually, I think Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” is the most borrowed idea in children’s picture books. Imogene’s Antlers, anyone? A Bad Case of Stripes? There are many variations. And I love that idea today, waking up in a transformed body. It’s probably a great story starter in the classroom.

I’m just starting a new adult nonfiction book, along the lines of Yellow-Lighted Bookshop. It’ll be called Blackboard: The Life of the Classroom, and will concern itself with classrooms and what happens in them. It’ll include history, too, but also the memoirs of a student, and of a teacher.

Wow, huge topic, sounds interesting — I’ll look forward to reading it. Now strap in, Lewis, here comes The Lightning Round. Five favorite TV shows, all-time?

Simpsons, South Park, Cheers, M*A*S*H, iCarly (my new favorite).

Five best concerts you’ve ever  seen?

Tom Waits on New Year’s Eve; Elvis Costello’s Spinning Wheel Tour; Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming Tour; Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense Tour; Bruce Springsteen in San Jose, 1978.

I’ve seen all those bands except for Tom Waits, but I’ve been listening to him a lot recently (just read this, which was only okay).

I love Tom Waits, and he is a genius. But frankly, a lot of the more recent stuff is just too, well, obscure. I’m not a musical genius. I like songs. I have all his albums up through the early nineties. Then it stops. But I’d love to have lunch with him someday.

Five favorite bookstores?

City Lights; Green Apple Books; Booksmith; Books, Inc.; all in San Francisco. Shakespeare and Co., Paris, because it’s in Paris.

You are outside somewhere, peaceful under the night stars. There’s a song playing and a drink in your hand. What’s the song? What’s the drink?

Van Morrison’s “PIper at the Gates of Dawn,” with a Martini, Sapphire, shaken, very very cold, and only the faintest touch of Vermouth (one should only whisper the history of Vermouth to the martini).

Last five books you’ve read?

Listen, I was told there would be pie. Is there pie? No pie? Oh, okay.

When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead; Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins; A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore; Dubliners, James Joyce; Beginners, Raymond Carver (in the glorious new Library of America edition).

I just met Rebecca Stead, ever so briefly. Got a signed copy of When You Reach Me for my kids. I don’t think she realized how fabulous I was, or else she would have been more excited. Don’t you think? A lot of talk about that book. How’d you like it?

It’s a great voice she has, and a real great, what I call “kid brain.” I also like that she and her publisher were willing to go back to the 70’s. Near history, not movie history. I dug it, completely. Like Konigsburg, she knows how intense every moment of childhood is, and she knows that kids are intensely involved with the lives of adults, too.

Wouldn’t now (cough, cough) be a good time to talk about my books? I mean, dude, throw me a bone here. It’s how we met, isn’t it?

I didn’t know you wrote. Oh, you’re that James Preller! Hmmm. It’s true. I recently read Bystander, and wrote you a somewhat unabashed fan letter. Because, like Stead and Konigsburg and L’Engle and Cormier, you get what the best kids’ writers get and what makes me want to keep doing this: kids are way, way smarter than we think they are, and their lives are as worthy of serious literature as adults. Perhaps more. Then I read Six Innings, which I loved, and I thought, crap, this guy is too good.

Yeah, baby!

But seriously, where’s my pie, Mr. Preller?

I lied about the pie. Listen, bro, thank you so much for hanging around, putting in all this time. I can only hope my Nation of Readers goes out and buys all your books. You should expect a huge spike in sales. Please except this new Kindle 2 as a parting gift. It’s lightweight, 20 percent faster than the original Kindle, and lasts four to five days without needing to be plugged in or whatever. Let’s see a book compete with that! Plus, you can use it as a doorstop.

Can you hand me the chainsaw, please? The chicken is getting antsy.

Last thought,  as the credits roll . . .

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. . . the nicest thing I can say about Lewis Buzbee is that after you talk to him, you want to go out and buy a book. You want to catch up on all those treasures you’ve missed. You want to walk into a good bookstore, run your fingers down those beautiful spines, bring the weather with you. We all feel it, everybody here. We’re readers. We love books; it’s at the core of everything we do. Thank you, Lewis Buzbee, for reminding us of that love. Now get outta here, ya big lug, before I hit you with a pie.



If you enjoyed this interview with Lewis Buzbee, you might like interviews with other author/illustrator types:

Matthew Cordell, Karen Roosa, Ellen Miles, Daniel Mahoney, Jack Rightmyer, and R.W. Alley.

For stars of the kidlitosphere, there’s the bloggers behind Literate Lives (Bill and Karen), The Happy Nappy Bookseller (Doret), Fuse #8 (Betsy), and 100 Scope Notes (Travis).

And if you want to read an interview where I’m the interviewee, go here.

You know what? I think I should interview myself! James Preller Interviews . . . James Preller! I bet a fistfight would break out.