We’ve been fans of Holly Kowitt for longer than any of us care to remember. And now, our nine-year-old is a fan. And so it goes. When we heard the title of Holly’s new book, we howled, we roared, we had to have it! The Principle’s Underwear Is Missing! What more do you need in a kids’ book? Since she’s one of the funniest, most creative, and most successful writers we know, we thought we’d pick her brain on books, writing, principals, and yes, underwear.
The Book Doctors: Why in heaven’s name did you decide to become a writer? And having made that decision, why did you decide to write books for kids?
Holly Kowitt: I first became a writer to get illustration work! My cartoon-like drawing style made me a tough match for most children’s books (this was pre-Wimpy Kid) so I had to create my own projects. Which turned out to be a good thing.
Part of ending up in children’s books was random– my first entry-level job just happened to be at Scholastic. Being there naturally made me focus on kids.
TBD: What were some of your favorite books when you were growing up, and why?
HK: Harriet the Spy was my all-time favorite. The characters were so alive to me—so real and quirky—and, like Harriet, I wanted to be a writer. I also loved Beverly Cleary’s Fifteen, a low-concept, timeless coming-of-age story with the best first line ever: “Today I’m going to meet a boy…”
TBD: What books are you reading currently, and what books have you really enjoyed lately?
HK: Should be reading: Evicted by Matthew Desmond
Secretly reading: I Represent Sean Rosen, a middle grade novel by Jeff Baron.
Recently enjoyed: The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett and The Daily Show: An Oral History.
TBD: As an illustrator as well as a writer, how do you get these two parts of your brain to cooperate with each other? What are some of the advantages and disadvantages to wearing both hats simultaneously?
HK: The cartoons give me an extra way to hook reluctant readers, and add a loose, fun energy. Plus, they’re a blast to draw. The disadvantage is sometimes the text gets robbed to let the illustrations shine. It’s hard to cut a good joke, even when you realize it works better as a picture.
TBD: I just did a Google search of your name and the word “underwear,” and I got tons of hits. Did you ever think your life as a kids’ book author would lead you down this dark path?
HK: Ha ha! Children’s Book Rule #8: Use the word “underwear” whenever possible.
TBD: The Principal’s Underwear Is Missing: That may be the greatest title I’ve ever heard. How did you come up with it? And what was the inspiration for the story? Have you ever had underwear go missing? Have you ever been involved with principal’s underwear?
HK: I tried to invent the most catastrophic scenario possible for my heroines—and I think I found it. My approach to a story is always: what’s the biggest problem I could give this character? No, it’s not torn from my own life!
TBD: How do you capture the voice of the kids so well?
HK: Obvi it’s, like, crazy-hard. Some combination of subway eavesdropping, The Urban Dictionary website, profiles of twelve-year old YouTube stars, Seventeen Magazine, and Shop Jeen on Instagram gets me in the ballpark.
TBD: What was your inspiration for the story?
HK: I got the idea from Jeeves, the P.G. Wodehouse series about a rich, dimwitted young man and his very smart butler. I thought it would be fun to set the story in middle school, where a ditzy, super-popular 8th grader teams up with a 6th grade nobody. The Queen Bee has a habit of getting herself into trouble, and it’s up to her brilliant younger friend to get her out.
TBD: What’s this story about?
HK: Becca, a bookish 6th grader, accidentally zonks the school’s most glamorous 8th grader with a volleyball. To make it up to her, Becca tries to do Selfie a favor. But she accidentally grabs the wrong shopping bag—one containing a very personal item. Even that wouldn’t be so bad, if Selfie didn’t immediately lose it.
It’s the story of a friendship that holds constant surprises. It’s about exploring an off-limits older world, and finding out how it’s better (and worse) than your own. It’s about challenging the unspoken rules of middle school, and doing what’s right. It’s about losing the principal’s underwear.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers and illustrators?
HK: Billy Crystal’s ex-manager once told him to “leave a tip” with his stand-up act—to go deeper and more personal. After I finish a chapter, I go back and try to squeeze in an extra ten percent to make it funnier, weirder, realer. So my advice is to always give your work that extra push. You won’t be sorry.
Holly Kowitt has written more than fifty books for younger readers, including the Loser List series. She lives in New York City, where she enjoys cycling, flea markets, and West Coast swing dancing. Find her online at kowittbooks.com.
We’ve said it before, and will say it again: if you are writing for kids, or reading for kids, or ever were a kid yourself, it behooves you to be a member of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). That’s where we met Josh Funk. Until recently, he was in charge of the annual conference, so we got to know him in an intimate yet thoroughly professional way. Josh is a bundle of creativity, imagination and good fun. And since his new book The Case of the Stinky Stench is out, we picked his brain about kids and books, and the strange and wonderful intersection of those two things.
The Book Doctors: Welcome back!
Josh Funk: Thank you so much for inviting me back, Arielle and David!
TBD: What books are you currently reading, and why?
JF: If it’s okay with you, I’m gonna answer the ‘why’ first. I recently returned home from a two-week tour celebrating The Case of the Stinky Stench, during which I went to 19 schools, a couple of public libraries, and over a dozen bookstores. Because of that, most of what I’m reading is based on bookseller recommendations – and I couldn’t have made a better decision to go that route. Booksellers know their stuff! So here’s what I’ve got:
Out of Wonder by Kwame Alexander with Chris Colderly and Marjory Wentworth, illustrated by Ekua Holmes – this one is so good, I often read a few of the poems contained within this book during my events (usually “How to Write a Poem,” “For Our Children’s Children,” and “Spin a Song”).
7 Ate 9 by Tara Lazar, illustrated by Ross MacDonald – to me, this is a perfect picture book. It’s overflowing with cleverness, exactly my kind of humor, gorgeous illustrations, a well-crafted story, and frankly, a solution I didn’t see coming (but I’ll bet some clever kids could figure it out). With six stellar picture books under her belt, Lazar is one of my favorite picture book authors today.
Stack the Cats by Susie Ghahremani – this book makes me chuckle on every page. I bought it for my 8-month old niece, and almost kept it for myself. Absurdist humor at its best. And a counting book (as a software engineer, I do love numbers!).
Timmy Failure #6: The Cat Stole My Pants by Stephan Pastis – this series is fantastic! I’ve read each book aloud with my kids and there are at least 2 or 3 times during each book when I have to stop cause I’m laughing so hard (it was Speedo Steve this time). I can’t wait for the movie!
The Gardener by Sarah Stewart, illustrated by David Small – so this has been one of my favorite books for a long time (one of four books that I credit with making me want to be a writer). But while at Bookbug in Kalamazoo, Michigan, about 5 minutes prior to my event, the proprietor of the store came over to me and whispered, “That’s Sarah Stewart and David Small.” Long-story-short…ish – they’re regulars and it was just a coincidence they showed up. Nevertheless, I shared my love of The Gardener with them, at which point Sarah asked me why I felt so strongly about the book. I gave her my reasons and she responded with a hug. Then they signed a copy for me and posed for a picture. Needless to say I was giddy with excitement during the event.
Some other books I bought based on bookseller recommendation (but haven’t gotten to read yet) are:
- Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham
- The Lost Island of Tamarind by Nadia Agular
- Bull by David Elliott
- Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth
- Red Rising by Pierce Brown
- The Highest Mountain of Books in the World by Rocio Bonilla
- King of the Bench: No Fear by Steve Moore
TBD: If we’re not mistaken, this is your last year running the fabulous New England SCBWI Conference. What have you learned from all this, and are you ready to pass out?
JF: I was co-director of the New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Regional Spring Conference in 2016 and 2017 – and yes, my duties are now complete. It’s been an incredible experience working with my co-directors Heather Kelly, Sera Rivers, and Marilyn Salerno.
The NESCBWI Conference is a three-day conference (Fri-Sun) that takes place annually in Springfield, MA in late April / early May. This year we had over 700 attendees for the first time ever (to be fair, last year was 699, this year was 703). Planning duties have included:
- Selecting and scheduling 100+ hours of breakout workshops led by about 75-100 faculty members (each year we get well over 300 workshop proposals)
- Arranging 3-4 keynote speakers and another 3-4 keynote panels
- Organizing bonus activities like our Portfolio Showcase, Illustration Challenge, and evening activities
- Arranging professional critique opportunities with over two dozen literary agents, editors, and art directors
- Countless (but necessary) logistical arrangements with online registration databases, convention/hotel/AV staff, travel-related activities, and delegation of duties to over 100 volunteers
- And probably a lot more that I’ve already forgotten
Everything went swimmingly.
Did a New York City subway power outage cause the charter bus carrying most of the agents and editors to arrive with only minutes to spare before critiques began? Of course it did!
Did it matter that the hotel overbooked conference attendees by 14 rooms? Absolutely not!
What have I learned? Two things:
- Relax, it will always work out.
- I never want to become an event planner.
I probably would have passed out for a month … but due to the unpredictable schedules of publishing, my aforementioned book tour for The Case of the Stinky Stench started just six days later!
TBD: Tell us about The Case of the Stinky Stench. Everyone wants to know, why is the stench so stinky?
JF: Have you ever opened the fridge and smelled something funny? Have you followed that up by taking out every item until you’ve found the stinky culprit, only to find that it wasn’t the obvious ‘spoiled cheese’ or ‘rancid meat’ – but it was the last thing you’d have suspected? Who knew an innocent zucchini would turn that color? Or so that’s what happens when you put mushrooms next to mustard! (That’ll teach me to organize my fridge alphabetically.)
Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast was a race for the last drop of syrup. In this sequel, I wanted to keep the setting and characters, but change up the genre. Maybe if there’s a third one it’ll be an action-spy-thriller (wink-wink).
In The Case of the Stinky Stench, Inspector Croissant (Sir French Toast’s nephew) joins the team and they travel through the fridge chasing suspect after suspect. Is it Baron von Waffle in his evil lair (Onion Ring Cave)? Could it be a fetid fish in Corn Chowder Lake – or is the fish a literal red herring? I won’t ‘spoil’ the ending for you (but I’ll give you a hint – it is spoiled food).
TBD: How did you manage to make Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast such a great success?
JF: Thanks for the kind words about Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast, but I really can’t take credit for most of the success that it’s had.
First off, it has incredible illustrations (thanks, Brendan Kearney) and the Sterling Art Department put together a fantastic cover design. When the art started making its way around the Sterling offices, it got the Marketing and Publicity teams excited enough to create a big promotional push – they even made tote bags to give out at BookExpo! All that helped the Sterling Sales Reps get the book into stores big and small across the country.
And let’s face it, I had absolutely no control over everything in the previous paragraph.
But I did what I could. I created a book trailer:
Yes, that’s me singing (I created the whole trailer on my iPhone using the GarageBand app and iMovie).
I spend a lot of time on Twitter @joshfunkbooks sharing writing tips, educators’ blogs, other people’s good news, and generally putting out positive vibes in the kidlit world.
I attended many other author events in the years leading up to Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast’s publication. Not only did I learn a lot about what makes great events, but I met lots of authors, educators, and booksellers in the process.
I’ve tried to give back to the writing community. I co-directed the NESCBWI 2016 and 2017 Regional Conferences. I’m on the board of The Writers’ Loft in Sherborn, MA (if you’re in New England and you haven’t been – you MUST visit). I even created a 12-Step Guide to Writing Picture Books on my website – it’s basically a high level brain dump of everything I’ve learned about writing since I started.
But I think more than anything, what’s made Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast a success is the readers. Enthusiastic booksellers across the country who handsell it daily, like those at The Novel Neighbor in St. Louis and Octavia Books in New Orleans. Teachers and librarians who exuberantly share it with their students. And folks like you, The Book Doctors, who invite me to chat about it here.
TBD: How did studying computer science help (or hinder) you as a writer?
JF: I’d like you to imagine (because it’s true) that I’ve been sitting at my computer thinking about this for a very, very long time. I typed a few paragraphs, and then deleted them (because they don’t really answer the question OR have a point). I thought some more, typed some more, and deleted some more. Lather, rinse, repeat. Ultimately, the answer to your question is as follows:
I don’t think it’s helped or hindered me as a writer. I’ve been a software engineer for almost two decades. And I enjoy the day job. It’s possible that I’d had a lot of creativity bottled up over that time which is finally spilling out at a rate faster than one might expect.
So maybe the answer is that at first studying computer science hindered me as a writer, but now it’s helping? I guess it’s a wash. (Ha! Lather, rinse, repeat!)
TBD: How did you come up with all the cool extra stuff for kids: activity kits, character cards, etc.?
JF: Once again, the activity kits were all thanks to my publishers and illustrators. For Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast and The Case of the Stinky Stench, Sterling’s Marketing and Publicity (and probably Art and Design) teams put them together. They’re incredible! Coloring pages, word searches, mazes, crosswords, and a whole bunch of other stuff – all free to download and print from my website on my ‘Stuff for Kids’ page!
As far as the character cards, I was just about to order some bookmarks back in the summer of 2015 when I saw the option of ordering Collector’s Cards. At this point I realized two things:
- I write picture books, which rarely require bookmarks.
- Collector’s cards can easily be used as bookmarks.
So I began designing collector’s cards. And I had a lot of fun with that! For Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast, I made one for each of the main characters. I made six different ones for Pirasaurs! (thanks to Michael Slack for his help designing those), and I made three more for The Case of the Stinky Stench.
I even made an online quiz to determine Which Pirasaur Are You?! – I’m Bronto Beard, in case you were wondering.
TBD: What are you working on next?
JF: It’s interesting that you ask! I just spent a few hours revising [REDACTED] based on my editor’s comments. As you know, I’m very interested in the topic of [REDACTED]. And I’m excited to dive into [REDACTED], that’s gonna be fun to work on. I’ve seen some of [REDACTED]’s illustrations and they’re perfect.
In the near term, I’ve got a book called It’s Not Jack and the Beanstalk coming out this fall (9.19.17), illustrated by Edwardian Taylor. It’s not just a fractured-fairy-tale – it’s a META-fractured-fairy-tale – one where Jack doesn’t want to do what the reader tells him to do. Trade his cow for five beans? That’s a terrible idea! Climb the beanstalk? But there’s probably a giant up there! This one will make for a hilarious reader’s theater – and it’s my first picture book that isn’t in rhyme. If you don’t follow Edwardian Taylor on Instagram, you’re missing out. He is an incredible character designer.
Then, in 2018 I’ve got at least two more books coming out. In the spring, it’s Albie Newton (about a genius’s attempt to make friends on his first day of school – and his classmate’s ability to accept his ‘quirks’). This one is illustrated by Ester Garay – and everything I’ve seen so far is beyond adorable!
Then, Lost in the Library: A Story of Patience and Fortitude is the first picture book in Macmillan’s partnership with the New York Public Library – and I got to write the story of the two lion statues (Patience and Fortitude) that guard the steps on 5th Avenue. When Patience goes missing, Fortitude must search the entire library to find him! I’d already been a fan of Stevie Lewis’ art, and when they told me she had signed on to illustrate, I couldn’t have been more thrilled.
And yes, both Albie Newton and Lost in the Library are in rhyme.
TBD: How did you come up with your very entertaining live show? What have you observed that writers who present well do in common?
JF: Attending all of those author events before I released a book certainly paid off! I ‘spied’ on so many different author presentations! I learned what worked well with different ages and audience attention spans. And I definitely learned a thing or twelve from amazing performances by the likes of Ame Dyckman, Kate Messner, Tara Lazar, Bob Shea, Anna Staniszewski, Lynda Mullaly Hunt, Jarrett J. Krosoczka, and many others kidlit stars.
But it really comes down to one thing: know your audience. I’m reading to kids ages 0-10(ish) and their caregivers. I’ve got to be entertaining and enthusiastic for those two groups.
Not all crowds are the same. Some jokes work better in one situation vs another. But I always try to have fun – and I hope that’s what lasts in the minds of the readers.
TBD: Why is Twitter your social media platform of choice?
JF: Twitter is a great way to interact with readers. I’ve become e-friends with many educators, booksellers, writers, illustrators, and booklovers of all sorts on Twitter. And in many cases I’ve ended up getting to hang out with these folks in real life because of Twitter. I schedule most of my classroom Skype visits with teachers and librarians in Twitter chats. Sometimes teachers tweet me questions on their students’ behalf.
I’ve even attended several conferences that stemmed from Twitter relationships. This summer, I’ll be attending my third nErDcampMI, a national literacy conference for educators started by the founders of the Nerdy Book Club. The Nerdy Book Club is blog with daily guest posts (mostly by educators and authors), but it is also an unofficial ‘club’ that is open to anyone who loves books (especially those written for children). These nErDcamps are popping up everywhere (New England, Long Island, Kansas, New Jersey, Pacific Northwest, soon in North Carolina) – and they’re an amazing place to for educators to connect with each other and with book creators.
Just like most of the kidlit world, the kidlit Twitter environment is incredibly welcoming and supportive.
TBD: We hate to ask this, but what advice do you have for writers?
Outside of that, my best piece of advice is to keep writing new things – especially when writing picture books. This is for a couple reasons:
- The first story you write is unlikely to be the one that sells. Get it critiqued. Revise it. It’ll be a great learning experience. But don’t revise it to death. Take what you learn from writing that first story and write another.
- A literary agent will want at least 3-4 picture book manuscripts they think they can sell right now before they’ll sign you – which means you probably need 6-8 that YOU think are complete.
The more you write, the better writer you’ll become. Just like I tell students during school visits – it’s like playing sports and instruments – the more you practice, the better you get. The stories I’m writing today are better than the ones I wrote two years ago, which are better than the ones I wrote two years before that (at least I think so).
So keep writing!
Thanks again for having me! I wish you a wonderful summer of reading!
Josh Funk writes silly stories and somehow tricks people into publishing them as picture books – such as Lady Pancake & Sir French Toast and its sequel The Case of the Stinky Stench along with Pirasaurs!, Dear Dragon, It’s Not Jack and the Beanstalk, Albie Newton, Lost in the Library, and more coming soon! Josh is a board member of The Writers’ Loft in Sherborn, MA and was the co-coordinator of the 2016 and 2017 New England Regional SCBWI Conferences. Josh grew up in New England and studied Computer Science in school. Today, he still lives in New England and when not writing Java code or Python scripts, he drinks Java coffee and writes picture book manuscripts.
Josh is terrible at writing bios, so please help fill in the blanks. Josh enjoys _______ during ________ and has always loved __________. He has played ____________ since age __ and his biggest fear in life is being eaten by a __________.
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We recently attended the annual New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Regional Conference in Springfield, Massachusetts, and one of the things we love about that conference specifically, and great writers conferences in general, is getting to sit in on lectures and talks by people we don’t know, but should know. One of those people is Dana Meachen Rau. David happened to stumble into her class and ended up learning so much about how to create memorable and complex characters, how inanimate objects can be used to help communicate the emotional state of our characters, and so much more. Now that the dust has settled on that conference, we thought we would pick her brain about books, writing, and all that jazz.
The Book Doctors: How did you become interested in writing and drawing as a kid? What were your early inspirations and why?
Dana Meachen Rau: Truly, I don’t remember how it all started. My parents always encouraged my early attempts at writing and drawing. Creative expression is empowering, especially to a little kid. I do remember a lot of play. I had a brother who was always a willing participant—he’s blind, and together we invented whole worlds that neither of us could see, but that felt completely real. Instead of a sandbox in the backyard, we had a dirt hole, where we planned to dig a tunnel to a multiple-room clubhouse. (Imagine a time before apps when kids played in dirt holes!) The clubhouse never happened, of course, but that didn’t seem to matter.
As a reader, I didn’t devour every shelf of the library. Instead, I had a few well-worn books that I read countless times—Charlotte’s Web, Encyclopedia Brown, and my absolute favorite and forever inspiration, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. When I reread it recently, I tried to pinpoint what drew me in so passionately as a kid. It must have been the visuals, the silly language, and the underlying creepiness. It was subversively magical.
TBD: How did you get a job editing children’s books, and what did you learn from this that you could apply to your own writing?
DMR: After college, I wanted a job with a tangible end product, and that led me to publishing. Luckily, instead of having to move to big and scary NYC, I landed a job at a small children’s publisher in Connecticut—and I mean small. I was the only member of their editorial department, so I communicated with a bunch of freelancers—authors, illustrators, editors, consultants, designers. It was a crash course in children’s publishing. I moved on to Children’s Press, where I edited early readers and school-and-library nonfiction until my son was born and I began freelancing.
My editorial work laid the groundwork for my writing career in ways I didn’t anticipate. It taught me the value of feedback and revision. I can self-edit while the manuscript is in my hands, but I can also let it go to all the fresh eyes that have a stake in the process. Everyone wants it to be the best it can be.
TBD: Do you think it’s important to write every day?
DMR: I suffer from journal envy. Many writer friends pour out their thoughts onto pages daily, and I’ve tried to be like them. But all I have to show for my efforts is a pile of journals with “Finally, I’m going to start writing a journal!” scrawled on the first pages followed by a bunch of empty ones. I just can’t make it happen.
But it is important to write every day, and I do in some form. Often, it’s related to my current project. But sometimes it’s a lesson plan, a random idea for the future, a quick poem, or even an email. The purpose of all writing is to effectively communicate an idea or image. That’s an important skill to practice. That’s what writing every day is…practice.
Even if I don’t have hours or even minutes to work on my latest project, at least I’ve been maintaining my writing skills. Then muscle memory kicks in when I have more extended time to write.
TBD: How did you become a writing teacher, and what effect has that had on you as a writer?
DMR: I developed a 10-week creative writing class for the Warner Theatre Center for Arts Education (Torrington, CT), to hone in on the basics of creative writing. I tested out writing exercises (some sane, some wacky). It was a chance to experiment. I realized I craved an extended relationship with students, so I sent out my resume to local colleges. When the University of Hartford needed an adjunct to fill out their Fall 2016 schedule, I jumped at the chance.
I teach rhetoric, the art of persuasive writing and speaking, and while it might not seem to apply to creative writing, it has most definitely fed my work. I keep persuasion in mind every time I draft a scene between two characters who are manipulating each other. I think of rhetoric when trying how to sway a reader toward a certain understanding. The intentionality of each word choice applies to both rhetoric and creative writing.
I’m still trying to find that perfect balance, though, between teaching and writing. My current work-in-progress novel has been pushed to the back burner while I navigate my way as a professor. But the benefit of the back burner is that the story is still stewing. Because time is more precious, my chances to write have become a treat to look forward to. When I do have time to write, I’m amped up, eager, and ready to dive in.
TBD: What’s it like writing books for the wildly popular Who Is (Was) … series? And why are their heads so big?
DMR: Out of the blue in 2013, I got a call from the Who Was editor. She had been reading a biography I had written more than a decade before, and thought my voice would be a good fit. Since then, I’ve written six books for the series, with another one waiting on my desk.
Who Was has been one of the most fun series I’ve ever worked on. The process starts with full immersion. I surrounded myself with research, absorb it, map out a plan, and get writing. I don’t work linearly—each manuscript is like a sculpture. First I build the armature, then I slop on lumps of clay. I mold here, shape there, take bits away, add elsewhere. Each book has its own process and personality. Eventually it all comes together under the helpful guidance of my astute and savvy editor, Paula Manzanero.
The best part of writing this series, though, is the reaction from kids. They love those big heads! All the covers (more than 150!) were illustrated by Nancy Harrison, but the idea for the big heads (and for the series) came from editor Jane O’Connor. She says the big heads were inspired by the caricatures that used to appear on the cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. She thought they would have fantastic kid-appeal.
She was right. When I visit schools, the kids can’t hide their excitement over what they call the “Bobble-Head Bios.” Almost everyone has read at least one, some kids collect them, and they all have their favorites.
TBD: Tell us about your road to publication and how you navigate the stormy seas of the book business. And how in God’s name does one person write 340 books?
DMR: As I mentioned above, I started my career as an editor, and my first few books were for the companies I worked for. When I went freelance, I continued writing for them and for other school and library publishers. Books for the school and library market are often work-for-hire assignments, so my “day job” for the next 15-ish years involved taking on as many assignments as I could to earn a steady income (thus so many books!). I wrote for a variety of age levels on all sorts of topics—roller coasters, cupcakes, sneakers, ladybugs, aliens, suffrage, rocks and minerals, robots, planets, brains, sandcastles, rock climbing. You name it, it’s very possible I’ve written a book about it! Meanwhile, I was also working on picture books and middle grade novels, submitting them to publishers, and marking off rejections on my spreadsheets. So, while I passed the 300 mark for published books, I also passed the 300 mark for rejection letters. (It’s all part of the process for authors writing and submitting over so many years!)
In 2013, I got the itch to become a student again, so I enrolled at Vermont College of Fine Arts to get my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Coming out of that program, I secured an agent, who’s currently marketing a middle grade and a picture book while I work on a YA novel.
Through the years, no matter what the project, I grew as an author. I’ve also realized that there isn’t, nor should there ever be, a point of “arrival.” It’s healthy to give yourself goals along the way, but success is more about the development, patience, and perseverance of the journey.
TBD: What is an objective correlative, and why is it so important?
DMR: I first learned the term objective correlative in graduate school from author Tim Wynn-Jones, and it sounded so academic and important. But it’s quite a simple concept, at least how I interpret it—an author can use an object (setting or event) to correlate to an emotion. In other words, you don’t have to name an emotion to communicate it to readers, you can show it through sensory description. Suzy doesn’t have to say she feels neglected. Instead, Suzy can be looking at a dying, cobwebbed-covered plant on the windowsill that never gets any sun. That says neglected more than the word “neglected” ever could. The plant becomes shorthand for the emotion, so when the plant is reprised in the story, we feel “neglect” again. And then, if that same plant is thriving and blooming by the end, we feel the significance of that change, too.
TBD: How do you inject emotion into characters in a book?
DMR: For me, it all comes down to empathy—getting the reader to feel the same feelings as your character. I think of emotion as the engine of the story. A character’s wants and desires will drive what the character does (action/plot), what the character sees (setting), what the character says (dialogue), and what the character remembers (flashback). Everything in a story has to be in service to the emotions.
To get readers to empathize with characters, the author has to empathize with his or her characters, too. If you can tap into your own authentic, vulnerable, core emotions when writing, then those emotions will show up on the page and transfer to the core of your reader.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
DMR: This is a great question! Lord knows I’ve needed all the writerly advice I could get my hands on through the years.
Write what scares you…We often say we want to be bold and brave, but that’s not possible without fear. If you don’t think you’re a poet, write a poem. If you don’t think you could ever write YA, try it. You have nothing to lose, but everything to gain. You’ll most likely surprise yourself by easily conquering what you thought impossible.
Find a community… Often the people in your immediate circle (spouse, kids, family, every day friends) don’t understand the writer part of you. You need to find a team. Teams have teammates, of course, who understand the game. But they also have cheerleaders to spur you on and coaches who offer advice to help you become the best version of yourself. Join a critique group, join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, find your people.
Give yourself permission to play…for so long I thought I needed to be efficient with my writing time. But when I experiment, I create an unexpected (and better) result. Turn off the side of your brain that tells you your writing must have a purpose (and even worse, that it has to be good!). In other words, dig in the dirt hole. You never know what you’ll discover.
Dana Meachen Rau is the author of more than 340 books for children and young adults, including early readers, biographies, history, science, cookbooks, and craft books. Her most recent titles include Who Was Cesar Chavez? and Who Are the Rolling Stones? A graduate of Trinity College in Hartford CT, and Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, VT, she currently teaches writing at the University of Hartford. To find out more about her books and her blog, visit www.danameachenrau.com.
I work with Rosa Daneshvar, a wonderful writer who’s writing a novel about emigrating from the Middle East. My parents are immigrants, so I’m first-generation, and I’m fascinated by how the experience of coming to America has changed over time. We were talking about what’s happened to her, as this administration tries to ban Muslims, and I was horrified by what she told me. So I picked her brain about what it’s like living in the United States right now when your faith is under attack.
The Book Doctors: So, Rosa, where are you from in the Middle East, and how have President Trumps actions affected you personally?
Rosa Daneshvar: I am a Muslim from Iran. Never in my thirteen years of life in the States had I felt such a feeling of terror. It started the day after President Trump’s executive order came out– when my sister’s frantic back-to-back phone calls deprived me of my lazy slumber on that Saturday morning – when I opened my eyes to dozens of messages exchanged between my brother in Canada, my sister in Washington, my father in Michigan, and my youngest sister in Iran. They all wanted me to confirm the news that there was a travel ban and deportations.
TBD: That sounds terrifying, what happened next?
RD: In the brief moment that it took me to get from my bed to my computer, my naïve, half-sleep, half-dazed self was confident that it couldn’t be true. I was assured that my family had been carried away with false news. Because it was preposterous. Then I found myself staring at the news in disbelief. It couldn’t be. I searched for more information but I found none.
TBD: What did you do?
RD: My first impulse was to write a post on Facebook to see if my Iranian friends could give me more information. I wrote: “My mom is a green-card holder and visiting home for two months. Does the executive order mean she cannot come back to the US? Has anyone had any news on this?”
Then I sank into my chair. A terrible sense of despair overwhelmed me. Gradually I realized the depth of problem my family was in. My mom only had enough money for her two-month stay, during which she was going to take care of my 79-year-old aunt after her knee surgery. With the financial exchange sanctions on Iran, we were not going to be able to send her money to live on until we figured out how she could come back. Mom herself had had knee surgery two months ago. What if she had a complication and needed to see her doctor? How could Mom live in a suitcase in my aunt’s small two-bedroom apartment indefinitely?
TBD: We were able to contact anybody back home?
RD: Yes, I called home to inquire from my youngest sister about my mom’s reaction. As soon as her image loaded on the screen, I recognized those colorful tiles of my aunt’s bathroom. My sister had locked herself up in there to cry freely without worrying others. I asked if she was worried about herself. I told her there was no news about American citizens. She said she was sick with worry about Mom.
TBD: It must be so challenging to live with this every day. What’s that like?
RD: There is profound fear, uncertainty, and confusion, just like it’s always bubbling just below the surface. My family and I have spent countless hours searching the news, checking social media, and calling government agencies and lawyers to see if our mom would be able to come back. It’s exhausting, and very stressful.
TBD: The headlines just seem to feed fears. But the media doesn’t seem interested in filling in the blanks behind the hysteria, to get to the real stories of how people are being affected.
RD: Absolutely. “Muslim ban.” “Making the country safe.” “Securing our borders.” None of the headlines was a satisfying explanation of what was unfolding before us. There was a huge gap of missing information. I wanted to fill that gap because I knew it well. It was only a few years ago that I was in the shoes of those who were impacted by the executive order. I kept wondering why were the people who were among the most educated and progressive demography of my hometown targeted as a potential threat? Perhaps the extreme vetting that visa applicants had already gone through, not to mention multiple costly and onerous trips to a third country, was not widely understood. Surely people could see the political aspect of the executive order and how it was not about securing the borders or about terrorism but purely a move that was there to serve an agenda. Just as no one would question the desire for secure borders, no one would blame one for wanting a safe country. Yes, all these things were true, but how could I make people see what I saw? How could I take them to the corners and niches of that humongous room that the travel ban was, which everyone stepped into it just a foot and walked out of without seeing all there was to see? In searching for an answer, I found myself not thinking about the people who were going to be immediately sympathetic to what I had to say, but about the people who were going to turn their backs to me, the so-called “White Americans.”
TBD: Well, I am a white American, what do you want to tell me? What do you want to tell us?
RD: So when I say “White American,” I mean the notion of White American, the negative epithet that is currently used to imply certain characteristics and a set of beliefs: a group of people who would turn their backs to me as soon as I say, “Hi, my name is Rosa and I am a Muslim from Iran.”
What diversity in the States had taught me is that too many times my ignorance had opened the door of my perceptions to a manipulative world that wanted to build an imaginary foe in my head, to bundle a group of people together and label them in a negative way. Too often the image I had let others build for me had been proven wrong. I came to this country 13 years ago with a dependent student visa in hand, like many people who, under the executive order, were not allowed to board their flight with that same visa. I landed in Boston, as my then husband was going to start his graduate studies at MIT. Not long after my arrival, in that melting pot, I met someone who for 22 years had been portrayed to me as a detested enemy. When that Israeli student asked me where I was from, a dazed fear overcame me. How was he going to react when I told him I was from Iran? This is how he reacted: he invited us to his home. We met his kind, pregnant wife and their sweet, little daughter. Even then, my shy and intimidated self was nervous about the conversations we were going to have. My Israeli friends were not like how we were back then: timid, quiet, and culturally shocked. They talked about Persian cuisine and the Persian cookbook that they used to cook from back home. They told us about our similarities and about the reminiscences of our countries’ past cultural exchanges. With their kindness and rich cultural maturity, they turned that intimidating night into something that felt like a casual catch-up with a good old friend. Having had that experience and many more, I will not let anyone build a new perception of “White Americans” for me. No one else should accept any type of group labeling.
TBD: It does seem like we fear the thing we don’t know, and often when we’re exposed to another culture we see how similar we are rather than how different.
RD: Yes! Those types of exposures germinated something invaluable in the diffident and international student that I was, something that gradually flourished to become a defining principle of my character: that perceptions are like crafts. They are not authentically yours if others have formed them for you. My Israeli friend and his wife taught me a priceless lesson. They now live in Israel with their beautiful kids. We have stayed in touch. They are my friends.
TBD: How has living in America all these years changed the way you see yourself in the world?
RD: With every change of status, I had an opportunity to see a new facet of the society. I started my own graduate studies in Chemical Engineering and held a student visa, like many student-visa holders who, under the executive order, were sent home. Along with my professional growth, I nurtured the diverse cultural exposure that was an intrinsic part of American society I was living in. Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism were not dry concepts that I would come across in books or news, but an enticing reality of the people who I interacted with daily. Atheism and agnosticism were no longer unfamiliar words in my vocabulary. It was proximity to different religions that helped make happen my long-held desire of attending a church service with my Christian friend. It debunked the “Muslims are not welcome to church” myth. I was fascinated by the merry atmosphere of the service and sense of community.
TBD: What other immigration statuses have you held and how have they impacted your life?
RD: After seven years of residing in the States on a visa, I became a permanent resident, like many individuals who were affected by the executive order. Working became a new reality in my life. My change in status lifted the restraints of a life on a visa, where crossing the borders to visit my family was risking my standing in the States. I did not miss my brother’s wedding like many of my friends. I started working as a scientist in one of the largest biopharmaceutical companies in the world. After years of exposure to this culture, America—that one big entity that had been like one individual with one opinion and personality—started to morph into millions of pieces with countless opinions, ideologies, and beliefs. I learned that there was a red and a blue and that I had lived in the Blue all along and that the Red was something that opposed my opinions and me: a Muslim from Iran.
TBD: Yes, we’ve had lots of difficulties talking about politics as we go on the road to places that seem to be fine with rabid sexism, religious intolerance and racial prejudice.
RD: Exactly. I am guilty of holding prejudice myself. All through my residence in the Blue I remained wary of the Red, even when the hands of destiny made me work alongside one in my team who loved talking about politics. If I was accidentally caught up in political conversation in my conservative colleague’s presence, I was that quiet person who wanted to keep work relationships separate from personal opinions. That did not last long. Now we have walked many walks and talked many talks. I learned, once again, that I had been wrong in assuming one voice and one entity for the Red and that it had as many opinions as it had people. My colleague is the one who said, “You cannot really understand your viewpoint until you can eloquently articulate and defend a viewpoint you disagree with.” Her opposing views challenged me to re-evaluate all that I had thought was right, and separate what I deeply believed in from what I had borrowed from others without scrutiny.
TBD: Being a writer, you know how important the nuance of words and intricacies of vocabulary are to participating successfully in a culture. It seems like that’s one reason people who come to a new country sometimes hide among their own and don’t really attempt to assimilate. Have you found that?
RD: You are absolutely right. After thirteen years, I am not that international student who is forced to a shy corner by the new culture. Only after these many years, worries of making mistakes while speaking in a foreign language do not force me into silence and solitude. I do not immerse myself in the Iranian community to shield myself from the unfamiliar world that I live in. Now I have lived in the States long enough to get half of the cultural references and realize that the Seahawks and the Red Sox are sports teams. I am fluent enough in the language to make myself understood and brave enough to talk and make mistakes and learn from them. And I have learned enough social norms of communication to surround myself with people of different colors and race.
TBD: Didn’t you recently become a citizen?
RD: By pure chance, I took my oath of citizenship two days before President Trump’s inauguration. It’s deeply unfortunate to say that I feel lucky to have taken my oath before the change of administration. It shouldn’t be this way. My sister shouldn’t have halted her wedding plans because her future in-laws cannot attend the wedding due to the travel ban. My parents should not worry about crossing the border to visit my brother in Toronto. My brother shouldn’t be banned from entering the U.S. to see us. Our story is just one of the many thousand stories of people who have been affected by the travel ban.
TBD: Do you feel the acrimonious contentiousness of this recent election has divided people, and unleashed an anger simmering beneath the surface?
RD: I do. The excessively lengthy political race and its side effects have put profoundly disproportional weight on our differences and have instigated unhealthy hate and anger. “Unanimity” and “global agreement” are attractive and elevating notions, but are not meant for a healthy society. One cannot champion diversity and not welcome differences of opinions. It is barbaric to attack an idea or a group when you don’t know what that idea or group is about. At this time when our differences are being magnified by people who are running their own race, and rage is being fanned by people who are playing their own game, it is time for all of us to start a dialogue with each other. It is necessary for us, now more than ever, to eloquently articulate and defend a viewpoint we disagree with. Dialogue is the only means to peace. It is time that we the people have a dialogue, not to change each other’s convictions, since convictions fast changed are short-lived, but to understand each other and challenge our firm, long-held beliefs against reality.
TBD: Do you ever worry that exposure to different religions and cultures will water down your own sense of who you are, what God you worship, what you believe in fundamentally?
RD: Getting to know my Israeli and Christian friends neither converted me to Judaism or Christianity nor turned my Israeli and Christian friends to Islam. My conversation with my Republican colleague did not revolutionize me to take on a new political identity. Those exposures empowered me with knowledge of new realities, and broadened my perspective so much that no biased, agenda-driven media outlet can ever again color for me every Israeli or Jew with the color of their choice. No politician can provoke me to be against other religions. No uninformed entity can wrap my opposing ideas in one box and sell it to me. Deep understanding of the reality of the world we live in is what all of us need.
TBD: As someone who has come to this country and embraced it, what would you like to say to America?
RD: The enduring greatness of this nation has been the result, in her walk through time, of a continuum of right decisions. Let’s continue to take that walk together, not in unanimity but in unity. Let’s make that right decision together, not in complete agreement but with sincere understanding. To my so-called “White American” friends, my name is Rosa. I am a Muslim and I am from Iran. Who are you? What are your concerns?
Rosa Daneshvar was born in Tehran, Iran and moved to the United States for graduate studies in 2004. She now lives in Los Angeles, where she is a Chemical Engineer at the world’s largest independent biopharmaceutical company. Her first novel is Darya Chronicles. Inspired by her own cultural experiences and challenges of living away from home, she tells a story of the turbulent life of an Iranian woman, Darya, who has moved to the States for her graduate studies. Rosa is an avid Western horseback rider and dreams of having her own ranch with horses and cattle. Visit her at: rosadaneshvar.com
We were lucky to receive a stack of books from Rare Bird Books, a publisher we love. We fell for Inside V by Paula Priamos, who also wrote the memoir The Shyster’s Daughter. So we thought we’d pick her brain about writing, thrillers, memoirs, and how she got published.
The Book Doctors: What kind of books did you like to read when you were a kid and why?
Paula Priamos: Well before kindergarten I taught myself how to read with the book Black Beauty. I started sounding out the small words first and then I’d read those same basically one syllable words to my mother and I’d fill in the rest, concocting my own story about a runaway horse, a plot that had nothing to do with the words on the page. Oftentimes I grew frustrated that I didn’t understand the bigger words. But my mother would patiently help me sound those words out and eventually I read her the entire book. As I got a little older I gravitated towards Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries because I loved having to figure things out.
TBD: What was the inspiration for Inside V?
PP: I always start writing with characters first before conflict and I conceptualized this couple in my head, a man and woman, who are in the kind of relationship that begins with infidelity and quickly winds up in marriage. Yet even with a couple of solid years spent as husband and wife their relationship remains intense – deeply sexually and emotionally connected – and sometimes it’s even dangerous because their passion for each other doesn’t level off or stabilize. They remain in the throes of that initial passion that first brought them together.
The threat to their marriage in the form of a seventeen-year-old girl accusing the husband of sexual assault came to me next, and the events and other characters in the book pretty much played out in my head. It felt as if I spent most of the time writing this novel rapidly filling up lined notebooks, then typing it all on the computer, just trying to catch up.
TBD: How did you approach writing a novel, as opposed to a memoir?
PP: I wrote my memoir with literary elements like a narrative arc, scenes and dialogue, so it wasn’t very hard to segue into a novel. There are some literary people who claim a writer can’t write in more than one genre, but I think that mindset is false and quite limiting.
TBD: What was it like to be the daughter of a shyster?
PP: I was the only one out of my two siblings who stayed with my father after my parents decided to divorce when I was a young teen. I’m actually proud to be a shyster’s daughter. My father, in his day, before he was disbarred for embezzlement, was a sharp criminal defense attorney. He was a clever showman who rarely needed to rely on notes when he gave closing arguments, and he angered more than one veteran prosecutor when he’d successfully get his clients off. Over the years he’d done some bad things, crossed legal lines he knew he shouldn’t, and essentially became as morally corrupt as the clients he was defending. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t know how to teach me morals. My father taught me how to read people, to question their motives and to stand up for myself when I need to. I know I’m a much stronger woman for having been raised by him.
TBD: How do you think growing up in Southern California affected you as a writer?
PP: Being a So Cal native is a great thing. I live in an area that is ethnically diverse and with that comes all kinds of intriguing people to write about, conflicts to be had. Geographically Southern California offers mountains, the ocean, deserts and all kinds of city culture, so there are fantastic places to set the backdrop of my scenes. In Inside V, the story takes place in LA, the Valley, Palm Springs, and in Newport Beach.
TBD: What draws you to the thriller category?
PP: I love thrillers, whether it’s books or films. There is nothing more satisfying than reading or watching a smart and unpredictable whodunit that deals with character and story in equal measure. I wrote my memoir in a way that leaves the death of my father a mystery up until the end of the book, so it only made sense when I decided to write fiction that it be a thriller.
TBD: What are you working on next?
PP: I’m more than halfway through another thriller, set in the LA area and with another Greek female protagonist. That’s where the similarities end. This protagonist is not as headstrong as “V” nor as confident, but she gains strength in other ways throughout the narrative. The plot is different. She is trying to move on from a failed first marriage, a former husband who isn’t ready to let her go, all while she atgetting publishedtempts to find an old childhood friend who’s suddenly disappeared just hours after they’d been reunited.
TBD: How did you go about getting this novel published?
PP: I had a disagreement with the literary agent who was going to send this novel out to publishers. This particular agent wanted me to fatten up my lean novel and make it more of a typical “women’s mystery novel,” which I did not want to do. I feel that some of these bulkier books derail the tension lines with unnecessary details and languishing asides. Instead I had a person who’d worked PR for my memoir send it to the publisher at Rare Bird, and, as it turns out, she sent it to the right place. The publisher loved that it was the type of book a reader could finish in one day while curled up on the couch or on a long plane ride.
TBD: What advice do you have for writers?
PP: I teach creative writing and one of the first things I tell my students is to be both humble and confident. Know that you’re not immune to criticism and helpful suggestions, but also know that you can’t please everyone nor should you try. Keep an open mind without losing your own creative vision. Try not to get frustrated with what may seem like a slow process of seeing your work to publication because, in the end, there’s nothing like the rush of holding your own beautifully bound book for the first time and knowing it now has the potential to reach countless readers.
Paula Priamos’ writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, ZYZZYVA, Crimewave Magazine in the UK, The Washington Post Magazine, and The San Francisco Chronicle, among others. She is the author of the memoir The Shyster’s Daughter and teaches English and creative writing at CSU San Bernardino. Visit her at paulapriamos.com.
If you live in the Bay Area, which we did for many years, and you have a penchant for the dark side that draws you toward the underbelly of noir, you know Eddie Muller. He’s a legend. Let’s face it, you don’t get to be the Czar of Noir for nothing. So when we found out he was editing the new Oakland Noir, part of the great noir series by Akashic, we jumped at the chance to pick his dark brain about Oaktown, writing and the book business.
The Book Doctors: What are your earliest memories of being interested in noir? What were some of your favorite noirish books when you were going up, and why?
Eddie Muller: I’m of an earlier generation, pre-VCR. I was first drawn to noir by movies I’d see on Dialing for Dollars, weekdays afternoons when I’d cut school. Stuff like Thieves’ Highway and Cry of the City and The Big Heat. I started combing TV Guide to find movies with “Big,” “City,” “Street” and “Night” in the title. There’s a title: Big City Streets at Night. I’d watch that. The look of the films and the attitudes of the characters resonated with me. I was at the epicenter of the hippie movement in San Francisco, but I was intrigued by this earlier generation’s style and attitude.
In high school I started reading Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and the die was cast. In that way, I’m like virtually every other crime fiction writer. It’s amazing the influence those guys had, especially Chandler. His prose was intoxicating. Reading Hammett’s short stories made you want to be a detective. Reading Chandler made you want to be a writer. After that, you just start devouring everything. At a certain point I began distinguishing between mystery writers and crime writers. And I became less interested in the detective whodunnits and more fascinated by the noir stuff: Patricia Highsmith, Jim Thompson, David Goodis, Charles Willeford. Their books don’t resolve neatly. Things aren’t going to end well.
TBD: What are you currently reading?
EM: I’m looking forward to a couple of days off so I can read Paul Auster’s latest, 4321. I’ve seen some discouraging reviews, but I read everything of this. He’s my favorite living author. I enjoy how his mind works and I like how he translates it to the page.
TBD: What are some of your favorite noir classics, and again, why?
EM: Derek Raymond’s Factory series books are pretty great, especially I Was Dora Suarez. He really turned detective stories into noir literature. Forgive me for touting the obvious touchstones: Hammett’s big three: Red Harvest, The Maltese Falcon, and The Glass Key. Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. Here’s the thing about crime fiction: you end up loving a writer’s body of work more than a single book. I like reading David Goodis, but I can’t say I like Cassidy’s Girl more than Nightfall. Same with Jim Thompson. Charles Willeford, The Burnt Orange Heresy. I like Highsmith’s Ripley novels. I like Highsmith in general. She still doesn’t get her due because, obviously, she was a woman writing in what’s perceived as a man’s genre. I had that bias once, as a younger and stupider man. Then I wised up. More guys should wise up.
TBD: Having been published in San Francisco Noir, part of the Akashic series, I’m a big fan of these books. How did you become involved with Oakland Noir?
EM: Well, we were both in that San Francisco noir collection! I was sort of wondering when Johnny Temple, Akashic’s publisher, would get around to Oakland. I mean, seriously, how can you have Duluth Noir before Oakland Noir? As it turns out, Jerry Thompson, who’s a writer and bookseller in Oakland, had pitched Johnny on an Oakland Noir collection but hadn’t gotten a green light. Then Jerry approached me about co-editing the anthology—and I guess because Johnny and I had some history we got the go-ahead.
TBD: What was it like editing all these amazing writers?
EM: It was great! Jerry and I shared a vision of what we wanted the book to be—an accurate demographic reflection of the city. Meaning we wanted an appropriate gender/racial/ethnic mix to the stories. Which can be tricky. You want good well-conceived, well-written stories, not just stories featuring a black or Asian or Hispanic character. Let’s be honest: it’s a crap shoot. Jerry did the hard work of selecting most of the contributors, because he knew the literary landscape of Oakland; I pulled in a couple of my buddies, Kim Addonizio and Joe Loya. We had a vision of how the book should play out, but you can’t tell writers what to write. In the end, I was happy with the result. The reviewer for Publishers Weekly complained that some stories weren’t really noir, but the Kirkus reviewer understood completely: our mission was to reveal the city beneath the mainstream perceptions, to use genre fiction show sides of Oakland not usually seen.
TBD: What do you think separates great noir from everyday pulpy potboilers?
EM: Empathy. Great noir writing makes you feel and contemplate lives gone off the rails. That’s not entertaining for a lot of people, but to me it’s one of the purposes of art.
TBD: What exactly is a noircheologist? (Spell check really hated that word!)
EM: I dig through the past to rescue and revive this stuff. That’s the mission of the Film Noir Foundation, which I founded in 2006. We rescue and restore films, specifically noir, that have slipped through the cracks and disappeared. There are a lot of savvy small publishers who are noircheologists on the literary side, but I’m the guy when it comes to film. We recently resurrected a terrific 1956 noir film from Argentina, Los tallos amargos (The Bitter Stems), and preserved a sensational picture from 1952 called El vampiro negro; it’s an Argentine reworking of Fritz Lang’s M. I’m on a crusade now to show that film noir was not specifically an American thing.
TBD: You have one of the coolest nicknames around: “The Czar of Noir.” How did that come about? And how can I get a nickname that cool?
EM: A woman named Laura Sheppard, event coordinator at the Mechanic’s Institute Library in San Francisco, was introducing me one night. She was reading the far-too-lengthy bio I’d supplied—you do that when you’re young and trying too hard—and, frankly, I think she just got tired of it. So she said, “Hell, he’s just the czar of noir.” It’s been the gift that keeps on giving. If you want a cool nickname, I can put you in touch with Laura.
TBD: Will you ever get tired of noir?
EM: I don’t think so. Not once I realized there was far more to it than what was ascribed by the original scholars on the subject. It annoys some purists when you stretch the boundaries, but who cares? We sold out a week of shows at the Museum of Modern Art in New York presenting virtually unknown film noir from Argentina. Akashic’s Noir series has been a fabulous way of getting new writers published and providing a valuable anthropological–literary experience. There’s been a long overdue rethinking of this terrain as strictly a male-only province. All good, as far as I’m concerned.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers in general, and writers of noir specifically?
EM: Understand that noir is not about the body count. It is often about violence—the psychological pressures that lead to it, and the inherent drama in trying to stem the tide. It bothers me when books and films featuring ugly people engaged in relentless killing are described as “noir.” It’s not. Those are just Tom and Jerry cartoons for post-adolescent boys. Not entertaining to me, and not of any significant value to the culture at large. I guess my advice would be “Aim a little higher.”
Eddie Muller is the world’s foremost authority on film noir. As founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation he is a leading figure in film restoration and preservation, and a familiar face and voice on the international film festival circuit, DVD special features and Turner Classic Movies, where he hosts Noir Alley every Sunday morning at 10am EST.
We met Barry Lyga when we were waiting to sign books at the (thoroughly awesome) New England SCBWI conference. Turns out we are all Jersey-crowd–the Garden State representing! We had a funny chat, and then we checked out his books. This guy is a powerful writer. His new book, Bang, is out, so we picked his brain about books and publishing and whatnot.
The Book Doctors: Who were your favorite authors, and what were some of your favorite books when you are a kid?
Barry Lyga: I had such eclectic tastes as a kid! I loved old classics like Poe and Milton, but I was also obsessed with modern sci-fi authors like Joe Haldeman, as well as comic books by the truckload. Paul Levitz and Alan Moore were two of my favorite comic book writers. I read Haldeman’s Dealing in Futures short story collection over and over as a kid — those stories really opened my mind as to what was possible in storytelling. Oh, and I can’t forget to mention Ken Grimwood’s classic Replay. That book blew my mind. I re-read it every year, and it still knocks me down every time.
TBD: How did you learn to become a writer?
BL: I sort of figured it out on my own, really. I knew at a very young age that I wanted to tell stories, and I was manic in my reading. I read constantly. Every chance I had, I would have my nose in a book. So I sort of absorbed a lot of the lessons and the rhythms of writing and internalized them subconsciously. Which isn’t to say that I was a great writer the first time my fingers touched the keyboard! Hell, no! I still had to practice and hone my craft, which took literally decades. But no one ever really sat me down and taught me how to start — I figured that out on my own and then just kept iterating and trying until things started to click.
TBD: How did you find your first agent, and what was your road to publication?
BL: I met Kathy Anderson at a writers conference in early 2005. I had won the Editor’s Choice award at the conference, so she was looking for me. And I had seen one of her lectures the day before I won the award, so I was looking for her. And then it turned out I was scheduled for a pitch session with her! So, it was a fortuitous meeting.
She read the manuscript I had at the time, which was my first YA novel: The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy & Goth Girl. After a couple of weeks, she offered me representation and I accepted. Then we talked about the book a little; she had some suggestions and I took ‘em. About five months later, she sold that book and my next one at auction. We haven’t looked back since!
TBD: Do you ever get pushback for writing books for teenagers that are so full of darkness?
BL: Not from anyone in the business. Occasionally there are people out there in the wider world who take issue with something I’ve written, but they are — thankfully — a minority. I think most people recognize that my books aren’t promoting the darkness or proselytizing for it; they just reflect it for the reader.
TBD: What did you learn about writing while working in the comic book business?
BL: I worked in comics on the distribution side, not the creative side. So honestly, the most important lesson I learned was that I wanted to be on the creative side!
But there WAS writing involved in that old job; it just wasn’t creative. It was a lot of marketing copy and so on. I did learn a substantial work ethic from that. I learned how to edit myself. I learned how to heed the sanctity of a deadline, which has stood me in good stead — in 12 years as a professional author, I think I’ve missed exactly one deadline. Thanks, comics!
TBD: Tell us about BANG.
BL: BANG is the story of Sebastian. Ten years ago, when he was four years old, Sebastian was playing with his father’s loaded handgun. It went off. And killed Sebastian’s four-month-old baby sister.
Now, ten years later, he’s still living with the guilt, the horror, the shame, and he’s decided he doesn’t deserve to live. How can you find forgiveness for something so unforgivable? How can you atone for a mistake you made before you even knew what a mistake was?
And there’s pizza. Believe me — the pizza is important. It’s a pretty dark book, so the pizza matters.
TBD: What are you working on next?
BL: I wish I could tell you! I have two projects in the hopper right now, but contracts have yet to be signed, so I’m not supposed to say anything about them. They’re both dream projects, for completely different reasons, and I’m so, so incredibly excited about them. Stay tuned!
TBD: What do you love most about being a professional author? What do you hate most about it?
BL: I love the freedom. I don’t mean the freedom of dictating my own hours and days (which is amazing; don’t get me wrong!), but rather the freedom of knowing that I am the one deciding what I do next. No one comes to me and says, “OK, your next book is about a kid who can talk to chickens…but he has a poultry allergy! Make it so!” I have the freedom to decide what stories I will tell. Some of them succeed; some of them don’t. But they’re all mine.
As to what I hate… I really hate the uncertainty. Which, of course, is the flip side of the freedom! There’s no way to know which, if any, of the stories I decide to tell will strike a chord with the reading public. If you made a graph of the sales of my books, it would look like a cardiac patient’s EKG. It’s all over the place. There’s nothing you can do about it, of course, but that doesn’t stop me from hating it!
TBD: You’ve written some pretty grim books on some really difficult topics. How does that affect you personally?
BL: Until recently, it didn’t! I mean, I wrote a book about child abuse (Boy Toy) and a whole series about serial killers (I Hunt Killers) and it never bothered me. I slept the sleep of the just every night, no matter what horrors I’d conjured during the day.
But BANG was different. Maybe because I was a new father. I was writing about a dead four-month-old baby while my own four-month-old baby was sleeping in a bassinet next to me. This book really, really got its hooks into me, and while that bothers me, I hope it will get its hooks into readers, too.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
BL: I always tell writers: It’s OK to suck. It’s OK to look at something you’ve written and not like it. That just means that you’ve grown as a writer, developed better taste and better instincts, in the interim. So, take that new perspective and write something new. Inevitably, you’ll look back on that in a little while and think that it sucks, too! But that’s all right. That’s progress. One of these days, you’ll write something that only half-sucks, and then you’re on your way!
Called a “YA rebel-author” by Kirkus Reviews, Barry Lyga has published seventeen novels in various genres in his eleven-year career, including the New York Times bestselling I Hunt Killers. His books have been or are slated to be published in more than a dozen different languages in North America, Australia, Europe, and Asia. Lyga lives and podcasts near New York City with his wife, Morgan Baden, their nigh-omnipotent daughter, and their preternaturally chill son. His comic book collection is a lot smaller than it used to be, but is still way too big.
We’ve been fans of Todd Colby for a long time. He’s one of the most creative people we know. He’s always making something: art, poetry, mayhem. So when we saw that his new book, Time for History, is out, we picked his fertile brain.
The Book Doctors: Why the heck did you decide to become an artist, of all things?
Todd Colby: The alternative is just, well, boring. Why not live in a state that allows me to pay attention to the world a little closer and then celebrate or mourn the delicious and repulsive state we’re all in?
TBD: For as long as I can remember, it seems people have been talking about the demise of art. And yet, we seem to be in a moment right now where poetry is flourishing. Why do you think that is?
TC: When the going gets tough, like right now, people need a lot more than the latest news cycle whopper to inspire themselves, at least the people I like to be around. They need some depth, something that lasts, or makes them laugh or cry or recognize their own lives in a new light. Movies can do that, music certainly, but poetry has that special distillation of language, rhythm, and meaning that is reassuring and makes me more mindful when it’s really working right.
TBD: How has your career as a poet influenced your career as a visual artist?
TC: They’ve always worked hand in hand for me. In fact, I feel little distinction between the two and shift from being a poet to a visual artist with great ease. I mean both arteries of expression come from the same “Todd,” and that goes for my musical excursions with my old band, Drunken Boat. At the same time, different things that I need to express require different modes. It’s really nice to have options. I feel lucky that way. I will say that when I’m painting or making any kind of art, time moves in very odd chunks. Hours will go by and suddenly I’ll realize it’s dark out or that I haven’t peed for a very long time. That sort of concentration in almost any form is just beautiful.
TBD: What was the inspiration for your new book?
TC: I was doing an artist’s residency on Governors Island provided by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council during the winter and spring of 2015. A friend had given me a huge stack of antique linen postcards as a gift. I brought them with me to the island thinking I could do something with them. One day while strolling around Governors Island I thought, “There are no monuments to poets here!” So, I began altering the postcards by writing captions in oil markers over them. I made a lot of postcard monuments to Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Gertrude Stein, James Schuyler, James Baldwin, Emily Dickinson and many more. I still feel compelled to make them. It is enormously satisfying to rename monuments that celebrate poets and writers I love.
TBD: How would you describe the art you’re doing in this book?
TC: Time for History is an expansion of the themes I explored on Governors Island. There is some political and social commentary that comes through in a few of the pieces that I made after Trump was elected. And oddly, there’s a narrative that emerges as one goes through the book in sequence.
TBD: How did you go about getting this particular book published?
TC: My dear old friend and frequent collaborator, the artist Marianne Vitale approached me with the idea of putting a selection of the hundreds of postcards I’ve made into a book. We’ve done collaborative books together over the years, so she knew what I was capable of, believed in me and the project and helped get the whole thing moving along. She introduced me to a book designer she works with, Nicolas Borel. He designs with a very keen eye and understanding of a book as object and then he subverts that expectation and expands the notion of what a book is, and what it can be. He was a joy to work with.
TBD: Who are some of your favorite artists, and why?
TC: I love Joe Brainard and George Schneeman. They both lived in NYC, and had close ties to the Poetry Project (where I also serve on the board of directors) and they both collaborated with a number of poets I respect and admire, like Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley, John Ashbery, Bill Berkson, and so many more. I also love the painters Amy Sillman. Jack Whitten, Louise Fishman, and Sue Williams; all of them are very different from one another, but they are all fierce, agitated, funny, precise, and driven. All of these artists occupy distinct thrones in the palace of my artistic loves.
TBD: Do you think working in a bookstore has influenced you as someone who does art and puts it into a book?
TC: Yes. As the manager and programmer here at 192 Books, I have been able to meet a wide variety of incredibly talented and creative people. People who I’ve admired so greatly over the years come into the store and talk about their art and their lives. Interacting with them, asking them questions, and getting to know them has been a real life changer for me.
TBD: Do you make something every day?
TC: I do. I try to make or write something a few times a day, even while I’m at work.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for artists?
TC: Keep doing it. It’s important that whatever you want to do gets done. Don’t fall into line. Don’t do what you think other people want you to do because that is just a giant bummer for you and everyone else.
Todd Colby is the author of six books of poetry, most recently of Splash State (The Song Cave, 2014) and Flushing Meadows (Scary Topiary Press, 2012). He was the editor of the poetry anthology Heights of the Marvelous: A New York Anthology (St. Martin’s Press, 2001) and serves on the board of the Poetry Project. He was the lead singer for the critically acclaimed band Drunken Boat.
Anna Staniszewski is one of our daughter’s favorite authors. Our daughter is nine, with great taste in books, so we always pay very close attention to who she’s loving as a middle grade reader. We were all lucky enough to meet Anna at least year’s New England SCBWI Conference and had the chance to pick her brain after about writing, writers, MFA programs, kids’ books, and whatever else spilled out of our collective heads.
The Book Doctors: I’d like to start with the MFA programs, because we hear such conflicting things, particularly for children’s book writers. What are the benefits of going to a program like the one at Simmons College where you teach?
Anna Staniszewski: I hear that question a lot. For me, I think that it comes down to two things. If you want to be a published writer, you have to put in the work. Some people need a structured environment like an MFA program. I know I did. For other people, they can do it on their own. Another benefit of having an MFA program is the community aspect of it. You have this network that you’re part of—people with similar interests and goals. Some say you can’t be taught to write. While I think ultimately the actual storytelling voice is hard to teach, I obviously believe that you can teach someone to write, because I attended an MFA program and I teach in one.
TBD: What kinds of things do you actual teach in an MFA program for children’s literature?
AS: When the students come into the MFA program at Simmons, we really break down the basics. We look at character, plot, structure, setting, all those things, which seem really basic because we do so many of them by instinct, because we see how they work in other people’s stories. But if you really break down how they work, then you can take them and use them in your own story. The more aware you are of the different building blocks of fiction, the more consciously you can use them to benefit the story that you’re working on.
TBD: What was the transition like going from student to published author to teacher?
AS: When I first started at Simmons, I originally went for the MA of Children’s Literature. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to go into publishing. But my first semester there they were just launching that MFA program–this was over ten years ago–and so I thought that’s exactly what I want to do, I want to do both those things. Once I knew that, I was really focused throughout that program on wanting to be published when I graduated, and then when I finished, I actually applied to the Writer Resident Program at the Boston Public Library and, miraculously, got it the next year. Right after I graduated I was a writer-in-residence at the BPL, which was amazing. I think that really gave me such a boost of confidence that writing could be a real job for me! Right after I finished at the BPL, I went to teaching. Originally, for the first year that I taught, I taught all over the Boston area. I was really lucky when an opening popped up in Simmons, where they needed someone to teach in the MFA program, so I was able to do that right around the time that I got my agent. That was interesting to go through the submission process all while I was teaching other students who were trying to get to the same point.
TBD: One thing that we run into all the time is that people think that it is easier to write a children’s book than an adult book, particularly when it comes to picture books, and what I find amusing, in terms of length of time, is that it takes longer to publish a picture book than it does any other kind of book that I’ve ever seen.
AS: Absolutely! I sold my first picture book in 2011, and it is coming out in 2017. It was a long process! (Even though book publishing is a slow process, it’s rare for a book to take this long.) I think because there are so few words, you have to pick the exact, perfect words for every spread. And then there’s this whole other element if you’re not the illustrator and you just have to wait and hope that it all comes together! Writing picture books is such a specific craft, I was actually a little bit intimidated by it for a while. For me, writing a novel somehow feels less scary.
TBD: For those writers out there who really know nothing about the craft of picture books, do you have a few tips?
AS: I would say the big thing is thinking about what would you like to see illustrated because I think a lot of times you’ll have a certain idea of “wouldn’t this be cute” and “wouldn’t this be fun,” but then you really have to think, “Can I get several illustrations out of this?” Then there are the parts of your book that not only could be illustrated, but also are begging to be illustrated! That’s why you need to find an idea that doesn’t just resonate with people, but that’s demanding to be illustrated.
The other thing I often tell students, because this is true of my own experience, is that an idea is not a story. The picture book I mentioned that’s coming out in 2017–the one that took six years–that was one where it took me a good year to find what I was actually trying to say. I came up with the idea, “Oh, wouldn’t it be fun if a boy turned a dog into a dinosaur?” And so I kind of played around with it, and it just wasn’t really working. I think part of it was because I wasn’t really thinking about the illustration potential. But I think a bigger part of it was that while it was a fun idea, it wasn’t really a story. And so I had to really dig into it. It took me a while to find what it needed to be about, which was the relationship between the boy and what turned out to be just a dinosaur.
Probably the most important thing in a picture book is the emotional component to the story. Because picture books are so short, there’s so little time to get the point across. You need something readers can really connect to on an emotional level because otherwise it’s just a fun story and you forget about it. But if there’s that deeper emotional layer, then readers will come back to it over and over.
TBD: We love that last one! We do a lot of work with writers to try to help them figure out how to pitch their books, and many writers have tremendous difficulties doing this. We get so many pitches where we don’t see an emotional connection with their main character. They just have an idea, there’s no actual plot or story there.
AS: It’s true, because by the time you finish reading a story, if there’s no emotional component and there’s no real plot, you find yourself asking, “Why did I just read this?” There has to be something there, even if it’s not a traditional story arc. My picture book, Power Down, Little Robot, is not a traditional story arc. It’s about a robot that doesn’t want to go to bed. It tries out all these different things to prevent going to bed, so it’s more like a list-type story. But I really try to highlight the mother-son relationship there. I hope, by the end, readers feel changed by the story, even if it doesn’t have a traditional beginning, middle, and end.
TBD: It’s confusing to many people who are starting out in the field what the category Middle Grade even means–the age range, where it diverges from early reader, how it stretches up to YA but doesn’t cross over into it. Can you give us your thoughts on this?
AS: I get this question all the time as well. I think people define it slightly differently, but this is how I think about it. I think the characters are typically between the ages of eight and twelve or thirteen. There are also early chapter books, and I do include those in early middle-grade, so in early chapter books, the protagonist can sometimes be in second grade or age seven. But a lot of early readers of chapter books are very much riding that line between picture book and novel. So I look at early chapter books on a case-by-case basis to know where exactly those fall. I feel like once you get into high school, that’s where it gets tougher. In my novels, most of my characters are thirteen or fourteen, which is at the upper end of middle-grade, often referred to as “tweens.” And even fifteen years ago, those would have been published as YA. Because YA has aged up so much, middle-grade has had to expand a little bit and the characters have become a little older.
While part of the way I define middle grade is by age, part of it I define by focus. It’s not only the content, but also how you deal with the content. So in middle-grade, if it’s younger middle grade, you might get away with a little bit of romance, but there are a lot of kids who don’t want that in their books. Whereas if it’s upper middle-grade, you might see a little bit of romance and you might see some darker things like war and death. With the latter, they tend to be handled a little bit more in the background or off-screen, so they are certainly there and they’re impacting the main character, but not in a direct way. For example, if there’s a character with something very serious going on in her life, maybe that’s not happening to the main character, it’s happening to the main character’s friend or somebody else in the family. In middle grade, you’re still kind of discovering what the world is like, whereas in young adult, I’d say it’s “Now that I know what the world is like, how do I fit in?” In YA, the focus is more inward, where middle-grade is more outward.
TBD: In your bio you write, “When she’s not writing, Anna spends her time reading, daydreaming, and challenging unicorns to games of hopscotch.” We thought this was so funny, and it’s just the sort of thing our nine-year-old daughter would love. Speaking of our nine-year-old daughter, she loves your books so much and just had the experience where she sat down with The Dirt Diary and couldn’t get up until she finished. You captured something that felt grounded in reality yet she could fantasize. How do you come up with your stories? Are they things that just come to you, or are they things you’ve been thinking about since you were little?
AS: I feel that I never have a lack of ideas. I feel like my brain is open, that it’s always asking “What if this happened?” I’m always kind of twisting the things that I notice, and thinking about “What if I told it this way?” Then it’s just a matter of figuring out what am I most excited about, and that’s what I decide to write about. But sometimes I feel like the process is a little bit mysterious. With my first book, My Very UnFairy Tale Life, I was working on something completely different. I was working on a sort of depressing book that ended up not going anywhere, and I needed something fun to work on. So I sat down and I just thought “Okay, I’ll just write a fun scene, just for myself,” and I wrote a scene about a girl who came home from school to find a talking frog sitting on her bed, and if that was me, I would have screamed and run out of the room, but she was so annoyed at the sight of the frog, and she actually grabbed that frog and she threw it out a window. I thought, “Who is this character? I need to know more about her!” I would write a chapter or two every once in a while, just for my own amusement, and that’s how that book came about. With my book The Dirt Diary, I heard a story on the radio about a girl who used to work for her mom’s cleaning business and a bell went off in my head. So for me, the premise comes first a lot of times, but it’s not until I connect with the characters that I go with it.
I feel that what you were saying about being rooted in the real world with a little bit of fantasy or magic, those are the kinds of stories I’ve always loved the most, and so I feel like that’s what I most enjoy writing as well.
TBD: We were impressed with how you dealt with class issues in The Dirt Diary. Our daughter happens to be in a public school that is very mixed, class-wise, from the very top to the very bottom. We were happy to see her reading a book that made her think about class. Speaking of which, your dedication may be our favorite ever: To anyone who has ever had to clean a toilet.
AS: I always thought I’d write fantasy. I wasn’t sure I had realistic fiction in me until I started writing it. For me, I guess what helped me was that I felt like my entire middle school existence could be summed up in the word “embarrassed.” I was nothing but embarrassed all the time. I also needed to know “Where do I fit in?” So a lot of those class issues are things that I experienced in school, where there were kids who lived in the big fancy houses and their families had big fancy cars, and then there were the rest of us. There was a lot of pressure no matter where you were on that hierarchy, and I thought that was something worth exploring. It also felt very true to my character because of the situation I put her in, and it also felt very true emotionally for me. A lot of people ask me how much of that story comes from my personal experience, and it’s very little. I did not clean houses for a living. I try to avoid cleaning houses at all, even my own. But I feel the emotional element is very true to life, and so I feel like I took a character who is very shy and very awkward, and took those qualities from myself when I was her age and amplified them by ten.
TBD: Something we run into every day with clients trying to get children’s books published is the desire tell us what their book is trying to teach. I would love for you to say something about the didactic nature of children’s books, and what do you advise on that?
AS: I think the important thing is telling a good story, and if there’s something that comes out of that for the reader, that’s fantastic, but if that’s the aim–if you go into it looking to teach something—it will show. The story always has to come first. When I set out to write a book, I’m not thinking what I want the reader to learn, or what do I want the character to learn, I just focus on something much more simple, like how does the character change. I try to think of it in a very specific way. With The Dirt Diary, for example, it’s about a character finding her voice. Though that may imply that maybe she learned some things along the way, that’s not what the story is really about. I think about: “Where does she start?” She’s shy, she can’t speak up for herself. “Where does she end?” She comes out of her shell a little bit, she speaks up for herself, at least when she really needs to. I’m not just trying to hit the reader over the head with a lesson or a moral. As a reader, I like to be able to think about the book myself and also feel like I have grown and changed along with the character; that’s more valuable than having a very obvious and concrete lesson.
Anna Staniszewski is the author of several tween novels, including The Dirt Diary and Once Upon a Cruise, and the picture books Power Down, Little Robot and Dogosaurus Rex. She lives outside of Boston and teaches at Simmons College. When she’s not writing, Anna spends her time reading, daydreaming, and challenging unicorns to games of hopscotch. You can learn more about her and her books at www.annastan.com.
Lawrence Grobel on Warren Beatty, Joyce Carol Oates, John Lennon’s Death and the Uselessness of Celebrities
One of our operatives who scout this great nation for publishing talent alerted us to Lawrence Grobel, a wonderful writer who has lots to say about the strange celebrity culture our species created. Since his new book, You, Talking to Me, is out, we picked his brain about why our culture worships and reviles these people with these strange little talents.
Lawrence Grobel: It wasn’t intentional. After spending three years teaching at the Ghana Institute of Journalism (in the Peace Corps), I returned to the States and started freelancing for Newsday’s Sunday magazine. I also wrote a few pieces for the New York Times and for True magazine. Then I decided to give up journalism, move to L.A. and write fiction. But as soon as I got to L.A. my Newsday editor asked if I would interview “Household Names” for them, starting with Mae West. I wound up doing dozens of interviews for them, with people like Warren Beatty, Jane Fonda, Ray Bradbury, Linus Pauling, J.P. Donleavy, Henry Moore, Cher, Lucille Ball….but since these were 3,000 word interviews, I could do them in two hours. However, the form interested me, and I wondered what it would be like to spend days, weeks, even months interviewing one person. The only outlet I knew that allowed that kind of depth was Playboy, so I managed to convince the editors there that I could do 30,000-word interviews with people like Barbra Streisand, Dolly Parton, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Henry Fonda, Patty Hearst, Robert De Niro, and Saul Bellow. It’s taken me decades to finally get back to that fiction I wanted to write!
TBD: Why do you think our culture is so obsessed with celebrities, most of whom have jobs where they don’t actually do anything useful, not like doctors, plumbers, or teachers?
LG: If you put celebs into the category of usefulness, then you’re eliminating most athletes, actors, and the Kardashians. If celebs provide entertainment for people, then I suppose they serve a purpose. We elected a celebrity (albeit a minor one) president recently—and I’ve yet to believe anything he’s done so far has been useful, and yet, whatever he does certainly affects a lot of people.
Celebrities seem to exist in most cultures—some for their prowess as being stronger or more agile than others, some for their sharp wit, some for their ability to mimic others. I don’t know why we are so obsessed as a culture by celebrities, but I’ve seen how people react to seeing someone famous and all I can say is that I’m glad I’m not one. It can be frightening when a stranger approaches you in a restaurant or on a street with a demand for an autograph or a picture. I’ve been with Goldie Hawn when she was approached at a Japanese restaurant by a guy who acted like he knew her and saw how she handled it; with Al Pacino when a woman took him by surprise on the street where he lives in Beverly Hills and thrust a DVD at him, as he jumped away from her and tossed the DVD into a bush as if it might explode. I’ve been around celebs when paparazzi are waiting for them, and I can understand why they react the way they often do. A lot of it stems from when the Manson “Family” committed their crimes, making celebrities afraid. And after John Lennon got shot, it just magnified how vulnerable celebrities are. It’s no fun being a target for the insane.
TBD: Who are some of your favorite celebrities and why?
LG: Having interviewed so many, I would prefer to rephrase the question: Who, among all the celebrities you’ve interviewed or known, would you miss if they were no longer around? Of those who have already passed, I’d say John Huston, because I appreciated our conversations and his interest in my work; Truman Capote, because he said so many hilarious and outrageous things; Luciano Pavarotti, because I enjoyed his company and looked forward to seeing him in Italy, which would have been the best reason to travel to Italy; Robin Williams, because he was so quick and so down-to-earth; Miles Davis, because he was Miles Davis!; and Farrah Fawcett, because I miss our paddle tennis games, and her being “one of the guys” whenever we got together.
Of those still around, Elliott Gould, because he has become like family and is one of the truly special people I know; Christopher Walken, because he always responds to my calls, and when I send him a book of an author I think he might like, he sends me one back; Kim Basinger, because though she’s so shy, we have long phone conversations that cover whatever’s on our minds; Joyce Carol Oates, because even though she’s a goddamn genius, she always makes time to get together whenever she’s in town; and Lily Tomlin, because how can you not love Lily Tomlin?
TBD: Have you ever wanted to tell a celebrity to eff off? Who and why?
LG: The only celebrity I ever walked out on (though I didn’t say “fuck off,” it was implied) was Robert Mitchum. I went to see him while he was making That Championship Season, and during a break we went back to his trailer where he ate a sandwich and didn’t contribute to our conversation (in other words, I did most of the talking), other than to compare me—when I said that I was there doing my job—to Adolph Eichmann. When I asked him if he was comparing doing a Playboy Interview with what Eichmann did to the Jews, he said it was the same thing. That’s when I got up and told him that his publicist knew where to reach me, and walked out. Some years later, after my book on The Hustons came out, I was invited to watch Mitchum narrate a documentary about John Huston. There were 18 scenes, and for each one, after the first take Mitchum asked the director, “Too Jewish?” It was funny the first time. Not funny the second, and uncomfortable the next sixteen times.
TBD: What are some of your best interviews and why?
LG: I’d like to think that all of my work is the best that I can do at the time, but I guess that the ones that have turned into books are the ones that most people remember: Truman Capote, Marlon Brando, James A. Michener, John Huston, Al Pacino, Robert Evans, and Ava Gardner. Though I should also include the ones that got the most publicity: with Gov. Jesse Ventura, and with Coach Bob Knight. The Ventura one appeared during a slow news week because it wound up being covered by all the morning news and talk shows and put the Governor on the cover of Newsweek for his controversial remarks about religion, prostitution, sexual abuse in the Navy, fat people, and hoping to be reincarnated as a 38 DDD bra. As for Knight, he tried to throw me out of his car twice, fought with me over the tapes, punched me in the ribs, and I wound up putting that interview at the end of my Art of the Interview book to demonstrate how an interview is really like a three-act play.
TBD: What were some of your most bizarre interviews?
LG: I’d have to say the Bob Knight interview was the most bizarre. I was actually contemplating how to jump out of his car onto the highway in Indiana without breaking any bones.
TBD: What were some of your worst interviews?
LG: One of the worst was with James Franco, because he had nothing to say, other than answering “Nah” to most of my questions. But this was before he became an academic, a writer, an artist, and did some interesting films. But I’ve yet to see a really good interview with the guy.
TBD: Your first dozen books were published by major publishers like Random House, Scribner, NAL, Hyperion, Simon & Schuster, Da Capo, and the University of Mississippi Press. Why have you self-published your last dozen books?
LG: It started when my agent refused to represent a satire on yoga I’d written (Yoga? No, Shmoga!). I couldn’t understand his reaction, because he didn’t even want to read it. Then I discovered that he had repped a book called Elvis, Shmelvis, which didn’t do well and was somewhat of a nightmare for him. I told him my book was funny and he should reconsider, but he couldn’t get past the title. So I left him and decided to publish it on my own after Larry Kirschbaum at Amazon (at the time) invited me into a program they had set up for professional writers. The experience was positive, so when I discovered that another writer had a contract to publish his secret conversations with Ava Gardner at the same time I had finished a similar book about Ava, I thought I’d self-publish that as well. And then when I got the rights back from some of my other books, like Conversations with Capote and Conversations with Brando, I put them up on Amazon.
Suddenly, it became so much easier and quicker to publish what I wanted to write myself (a few novels, a memoir, a book of poetry, some collections of magazine work) rather than have to deal with satisfying a new agent, writing proposals, waiting to hear from publishers—that whole process takes months, sometimes years. Of course I don’t get the advances I used to get, nor the distribution, but I can now look at the 25 books I’ve written knowing that I’d still be waiting to hear from publishers for probably ten of them had I not decided to self-publish.
Am I happy about it? Yes and no. Yes, that the books appear exactly as I have written them and I’m proud of all of them. No, because I would like to reach a much larger audience, and reviewers don’t review self-published books. But hey, I’ve managed to do a few podcasts with Marc Maron and Adam Carolla about my work, and I’m still waiting to hear back from Terry Gross at NPR—so who knows? A writer should never give up hope.
TBD: What advice do you have for people who want to be interviewers? And what advice do you have for writers?
LG: I don’t separate being an interviewer from being a writer. A good interviewer is a good writer. Structuring a good interview involves many skills. One must be able to converse like a talk show host, think like a writer, understand subtext like a psychiatrist, have an ear like a musician, be able to select what’s pertinent like a book editor, and know how to piece it together dramatically like a playwright. Writers today have more outlets than they realize, and it’s more important than ever before to hone one’s skills, to make sure what you put out into the world is miles above the mostly crap that passes for writing these days. It takes patience, talent, and the willingness to rewrite. It’s a noble profession.
Lawrence Grobel (www.lawrencegrobel.com) is a novelist, journalist, biographer, poet and teacher. Five of his 25 books have been singled out as Best Books of the Year by Publisher’s Weekly and many have appeared on best-seller lists. He is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for his fiction. PEN gave his Conversations with Capote a Special Achievement Award. The Syndicat Francais de la Critique de Cinema awarded his Al Pacino their Prix Litteraire as the Best International Book of 2008. Writer’s Digest called him “a legend among journalists.” Joyce Carol Oates dubbed him “The Mozart of Interviewers.” He has written for dozens of magazines and has been a Contributing Editor for Playboy, Movieline, World (New Zealand), and Trendy (Poland).
His new work, You, Talking to Me, highlights the lessons he’s learned from interviewing. He is married to the artist Hiromi Oda and they have two daughters.