We met Val Emmich when he won our Jersey City Pitchapalooza at Word Bookstore. He was so comfortable presenting, he paused in all the right places, and he put the right emphasis on all the right words. And he had a fantastic story. We found out he’s also a very accomplished actor and musician, which explained his ability to present himself. One of the greatest things about being a book doctor is when one of your patients gets a fab book deal with a fantastic publisher. Val did exactly that. So we thought we’d pick his brain about exactly how he managed to add Author to his impressive resume.
The Book Doctors: What were some of your favorite books as a kid, and why? What are you reading currently?
Val Emmich: I have pretty poor recall of my childhood years, which may be surprising coming from someone who just wrote a whole novel about a child with a near-perfect memory. That said, I do remember ripping through as many Hardy Boys books as I could. I also have a vivid recollection of listening to one of my teachers read aloud to our class Charlotte’s Web. I was riveted by it, probably because it’s about animals and I love animals, more than I love people. Right now, I’m reading Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, a recommendation from my father, and The Nix by Nathan Hill.
TBD: David was also an actor who became a writer of books. How do you think this helped you as you craft a first novel?
VE: Acting is about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Embodying a character that isn’t you. It requires empathy and observational skills. You keep searching for how to get to the heart of the person you’re trying to portray. You’re looking for a detail that speaks to you. How someone walks. How he got that scar on his chin. How he styles his hair. This is all very similar to the character work necessary for writing a novel. Additionally, the process of reading and breaking down scripts was really instructive, both in terms of understanding the motivation and objective of a given scene and also how stories are structured and paced.
TBD: Tell us about The Reminders.
VE: Joan is ten and she’s got this rare condition where she can recall nearly every day of her life in exact detail. Then there’s Gavin, an actor in his thirties, who’s just lost his partner and soulmate, Sydney. Gavin attempts to rid his life of all reminders of Sydney, hoping it’ll soothe some of his overwhelming pain. But then he learns that Joan possesses detailed memories of Sydney, stories about him that Gavin has never heard, and Gavin has no choice but to dive back into the past. Meanwhile, Joan wants something back from Gavin. She’s the girl who can’t forget, but she’d rather be the girl who can’t be forgotten and she believes that Gavin, a semi-celebrity, might be able to help her achieve that dream.
The idea for the novel first came to me when my daughter fell out of a shopping cart in Home Depot and landed on her head on the concrete floor. Around the same time I saw a piece on 60 Minutes that featured people with this real-life memory condition known as highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM) and I had this absurd thought: What if my daughter’s bonk on the head resulted in her somehow acquiring this specialized memory? That ridiculous hypothesis, the playfulness of it, set the tone for the whole novel.
TBD: Please describe your path to publication.
VE: The quick version. I wrote one novel. It sucked. I wrote a second novel. It sucked less. I wrote a third novel. It was decent enough to get me an agent. We tore the novel apart, and I built it back up again essentially from scratch. Then my agent sold the book and my editors tore it up and I put it back together yet again. By the time the novel was published, in May of this year, it had been ten years of dedicated writing, along with tons of reading (other novels, how-to books), attending writers conferences and picking the brains of the few writers I had access to who had written books.
TBD: Was it difficult writing in two voices?
VE: Very. The most difficult parts were making sure the voices were both distinct and compelling. The consensus among my earliest readers seemed to be that Joan was the star of the book. I knew I’d never be able to have Gavin outshine her. That’s not his role. Still, I wanted to make sure his sections didn’t feel like a letdown after hers.
I’d listen to different music when writing in each voice. I found songs that seemed to tap into the energy of each character. After listening to the songs over and over, the music began to trigger an almost Pavlovian response in me where I’d immediately enter the head of that specific character. Also, I focused in a boringly technical way on the language used by my two protagonists. I created a detailed spreadsheet that counted the frequency of each word in each section. It showed me a lot about what I was organically doing with each character, and at that point, it was a matter of removing what made the two voices similar and emphasizing what made them different. Eventually, this overt hypersensitivity to vocabulary became second nature and I was able to write fluidly, making Joan and Gavin their own distinct people on the page.
TBD: We notice that you are doing house concerts to promote your book. What exactly are they, and how did you come up with the idea?
VE: It just made sense. The book is partially about music. I’m a musician, songwriter, and performer. I record and release albums. I have music fans. I hoped my music fans would also be interested in reading my book. On top of all that, I’ve been to enough poorly attended author events at bookstores, and even when they’re well attended, they can be boring when it’s just straight-up reading. I wanted to do a hybrid event, some reading, a bit of discussion, plenty of music. I didn’t feel like a bookstore or traditional music venue was going to offer the intimate, casual vibe I had in mind as well as the guarantee of a crowd. I wanted a place where people could relax and stay a while and where I could really forge a personal connection. I reached out to some of my fans and asked if they’d be interested in hosting shows in their homes and inviting all their friends. They said yes.
TBD: How does being a musician and songwriter affect your prose writing?
VE: Prose writing requires an ear, just like songwriting. You need to have a sense of rhythm. Also, with a song (at least with my songs) there’s usually a refrain or leitmotif that emphasizes an important theme or emotion. I try to do the same thing in my writing, sprinkle in timely repetitions to drive home something that I deem significant. But I think the biggest thing I’ve learned from my life in music has to with my understanding of the audience. Over two decades of performing in front of a crowd and engaging online with listener feedback, I’ve learned a lot about how to make people feel something. The goal is the same when writing prose: to trigger a reaction in the reader.
TBD: What are you working on next?
VE: I’ve started writing a new novel. Before I get too deep into it, I plan to record and release new music. Songwriting is more tactile and physical than prose writing. It also takes far less time. I need a more immediate artistic fix right now.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
VE: Treat it like a real job and remember that even a so-called real job involves plenty of goofing off. Carve out time to write, whatever works for you, thirty minutes, four hours, however long and sit there, even if you’re not actually typing words or producing pages, just sit there. Even when you’re staring at a white page, mind wandering elsewhere, that’s okay. That’s work. Sitting there with that dumb look on your face is part of the job. Do it again the next day. And the next. If you miss a day, no worries. Miss two days? Doesn’t matter. Put yourself in that chair as many times as you can over as long a stretch as you can. If you keep showing up in that chair, over time, enough time, you might have something. Might not, but there’s no other way to do it. If you want it, that’s what’s required: hours. There’s less magic involved than the would-be writer might imagine. At the end of the day, it’s simple math. It’s a whole bunch of hours added up. Start spending them.
Dubbed a “Renaissance Man” by the New York Post, Val Emmich is a writer, singer-songwriter, and actor. He has had recurring roles on Vinyl and Ugly Betty as well as a memorable guest role as Liz Lemon’s coffee-boy fling, Jamie, on 30 Rock. Emmich lives in Jersey City, New Jersey, with his wife and their two children. The Reminders is his first novel.
We met Jacqueline Mroz when she put together the Montclair Literary Festival. From our first meeting and all the way through the end of the festival, she was smart, she was funny, she showed up on time, and she smelled good. So we were not surprised to learn that she had gotten a book deal. Now that Scattered Seeds: In Search of Family and Identity in the Sperm Donor Generation is out, we thought we’d pick her brain about what it’s like to navigate the rocky seas of the publishing world.
The Book Doctors: What was the inspiration for Scattered Seeds?
Jacqueline Mroz: The inspiration for the book came from a New York Times article that I wrote in 2011 about a sperm donor who had 150 kids. Once I started looking into the fertility industry, I found it was full of fascinating stories and people.
TBD: How is it possible that one man biologically fathered 150 children?
JM: The sperm bank continued to sell this man’s sperm for years–and it was very popular. Most donors are asked to donate around 3 times per week. Also, each donation is divided up into somewhere between 8 and 25 vials, which are then sold to women around the world. Those numbers can really start to add up!
TBD: How did you get that great article in the New York Times? What was the fallout from it?
JM: I came across the original news story through my sister, who was trying to have a baby on her own, using donor sperm. She noticed on a message board for Single Mothers by Choice that one mom wrote about her unease when she found out that her daughter had 75 half siblings. I was intrigued and decided to dig deeper—that’s when I found out that there was a sperm donor with 150 children. The article was very popular and was picked up all over the world. As a result of the story, a state legislator in NYC introduced a bill to limit the number of kids that a sperm donor could have—but she wasn’t able to get enough support to push the bill through.
TBD: How do you think that the process of sperm donation, and the industry it has spawned, ultimately affects kids and parents?
JM: Sperm donation can be great for families or women who aren’t able to have kids otherwise, but for some children who are born through anonymous sperm donors, it can be difficult. Some of these kids become confused about their identity, and end up endlessly searching for their biological fathers, trying to figure out who they are and what they inherited from their donors. There’s also the risk of rare, genetic diseases being passed on from donors to their biological children, and then spreading through the population. (I wrote about this in another Times article.)
TBD: What are some tips for people who want to artificially inseminate?
JM: For someone who is looking to use a sperm donor, I would recommend using the Sperm Bank of California in Berkeley. They’re extremely ethical, they limit the number of kids that a sperm donor can have, they’re a nonprofit, and they try to connect kids with their donors when they’re of age. I would also make sure that the sperm bank tests its donors for a significant number of genetic diseases — and I would ask how many kids the donors has already!
TBD: Why isn’t there more oversight into what is one of the most personal areas of human existence?
JM: It’s hard to get the government to institute more oversight over the industry since there are actually few people that really want it — the parents want to have a baby, and the doctors and sperm banks want to help people — and make money. But that’s starting to change, as donor-conceived children are starting to come of age and demanding their rights. The other problem with oversight is it’s a slippery slope, and many are afraid it could lead to (even) more regulation of abortion.
TBD: What was your takeaway from talking to same-sex couples who have used artificial insemination to have a child?
JM: They are grateful for this chance to have children. Also, some of the single mothers by choice that I spoke to have been particularly good at finding and reaching out to their kids’ half-siblings — it gives them an extended family that their children might not otherwise have. Many visit each other and take vacations together.
TBD: How did you go about getting this book deal?
JM: The newspaper article was extremely popular, so I used that and my proposal to find an agent. My agent, Jane Dystel, is amazing!
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
JM: Writers’ groups can be very helpful, especially if you’re having trouble finishing something that you’re working on. You can ask the other writers to give you a deadline to help you get things done.
Jacqueline Mroz is a veteran journalist specializing in reproductive and family issues. She lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with her husband and three children.
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Susan Wolfe on How to Get a Great Blurb, the Importance of Maternity Leave, and Reading to be a Writer
We first met Susan Wolfe when we taught a workshop at Stanford, where we were the least educated people in the room. We were struck by what a seasoned professional she seemed, even though she was a novice author. She asked all the right questions, she worked her ass off, and it didn’t hurt that she had actual bona fide talent. Her first book was a big success, and now that Escape Velocity, her second novel, is out, we picked her brain about transitioning from the world of law to the world of books.
The Book Doctors: What were your favorite books as a kid and why?
Susan Wolfe: The first real book I ever read was The Black Stallion by Walter Farley. I was in Mr. Adams’ second grade classroom in San Bernardino, and he gave me permission to read on my own while the rest of the class finished up something else. So I found The Black Stallion, settled into my chair, and the next thing I knew the class was laughing. Apparently, I had whinnied. I was so shocked to look up and see that I was back in that classroom that I still remember the way the light was filtering in through the windows.
I had just discovered that reading created a little room out behind my head where I could go to have adventures and be other people. That little room has been my solace and a major source of learning and pleasure ever since.
I also loved The Wind in the Willows (I wanted a yellow motor car!) and Stowaway to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron (Maybe a little low-tech now). And my sister Linda, who was three years older, read me entire Zane Grey westerns (Riders of the Purple Sage, Thirty Thousand 0n the Hoof) before I could read them myself.
TBD: What are you reading now, and who are some your favorite authors and books?
SW: I just finished Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, which I found moving, funny and original. Now I am halfway through The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.
Some of my favorite books and authors so far:
- Moby Dick
- Madame Bovary
- Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
- The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
- The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt. (I still love a good western!)
TBD: How did you learn to be a writer?
SW: First and foremost by reading a really wide range of fiction for years and years. For example, my two favorite authors of dialogue are Elmore Leonard and Henry James, for very different reasons. Thinking about these two helped me understand what I wanted my dialogue to accomplish.
Second, by writing. That’s what everybody says, so here are some specifics:
- When I decided to write my first book, I needed to get a feel for how much should happen in a given chapter. So I made a chart showing what happened in each chapter of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Then I made sure to have about that same amount happen in each of my chapters. That was hugely helpful to me in setting the pace of the book.
- I was lucky enough to have a good editor for my first book, and I tried out almost every suggestion he made. Some of them didn’t work out, so I ultimately rejected them, but I gave all the suggestions a real try.
- When I was writing my second book, I found a workshop at Stanford where all we did was listen to 20 pages of somebody’s manuscript and then comment. This was great for two reasons: first, some of the comments were helpful. Second, I learned that reading my own work out loud is a terrific way to figure out what works and what doesn’t. For some reason, I can hear things that aren’t right. I also tried two other workshops where the instructor gives little writing projects, and those felt to me like a waste of time. Could have just been the instructors, but I didn’t get much out of them.
- 4Finally, I am lucky enough to know two other writers whose writing and critiques of my work I respect. We have our own workshop and get to know each other’s work thoroughly. I can’t say enough about how helpful this three-person writing group has been to me.
TBD: How did you first get published?
SW: This will not be instructive to anybody else, but it is sort of interesting.
I was a lawyer on maternity leave when I started my first book, The Last Billable Hour (a murder mystery set in a Silicon Valley law firm). When it was time to return to work I told the partner at my law firm that I couldn’t come back because I was writing a novel. He said (among other things), “When you finish, you should show it to my old college roommate Jared Kieling, who is now an editor at St. Martin’s Press.” I thought “yeah, yeah” and kept writing.
One day while I was working away in my writing room, my phone rang and it was Jared Kieling of St. Martin’s Press. He said, “Mike said he’s never seen your fiction, but if it’s anything like the quality of your legal writing I should probably take a look.” A few months later when I finished it, I tied the printed manuscript with string and sent if off to him. He bought it, and the book went on to sell more than 100,000 copies and win the Edgar Award.
The only downside to this amazing and wonderful story is that it gave me very unreasonable expectations of how easy it is to get published. With my second book I woke up and joined the rest of humanity.
TBD: What was the inspiration for Escape Velocity?
SW: Two-sentence synopsis: Escape Velocity is a wickedly hilarious* thriller about a reformed con artist in a Silicon Valley software company who decides to revive her con artist skills to straighten out her very screwed up company. She needs to get enough money to move out of her car and make a home for her little sister before it’s too late.
My inspiration for the book comes from my own work as a lawyer. I have spent most of my adult life practicing law here in Silicon Valley, partly in-house at several high-tech companies. I liked working in-house, but I sometimes got frustrated that a few people who worked for the company—from accounts payable clerks to highly paid executives—seemed unable or uninterested in doing their jobs. Due to incompetence or egotism or out-and-out self-dealing, some people just seem to burrow into a company like ticks on a tormented dog, and no amount of damage they cause ever seems to dislodge them. If you’ve every worked in a company, you’ve met these people!
So I thought the malfeasance and nonfeasance (as we say in the law) were interesting, and even entertaining in a nice black kind of way. I thought other people might like to know about the chaos, or if they already knew about it, they might like to know that somebody else had experienced it, too. After all, as C.S. Lewis said, “We read to know we are not alone.” I also thought people might enjoy seeing some incredibly annoying people get their comeuppance.
But then I needed a main character, and along came Georgia Griffin. She is young, inexperienced and from a completely alien environment, so she experiences the wonder that is Silicon Valley high tech right along with the reader. She is also highly intuitive and a little bit tougher than people around her might expect. She is blessed with a job that makes people underestimate her. She badly needs the company to succeed in order to realize her personal goal of finding a better life than the one she was born to, and she reluctantly decides to use her con artist training—sparingly—to help the company succeed.
The surprise to me was that Georgia’s moral and psychological complexities gradually became central to my story. Georgia wants to be a good person, but she does a few sketchy things. At one point I wrote out the fifteen points of Georgia’s moral code. She adheres strictly to her moral code, but it’s a little bit different from other people’s. (For example, “Point #13: Cause the least harm necessary to be effective.” ) So I ended up focusing on the question of whether Georgia succeeds in the effort to turn away from her con artist background.
*According to Hank Phillippi Ryan, award-winning author of Say No More
TBD: How has being a lawyer affected you as a writer?
SW: In some ways that’s hard to know since I’ve always been both. Here’s what I can say:
My books are shot through with my actual experiences as a lawyer. The most obvious impact is on my plots, but my experience also makes my dialogue authentic and helps me create a powerful sense of place.
I worried that my legal writing would make my fiction writing ponderous, but it turns out the two kinds of writing issue from different parts of my brain. So no recognizable impact of one on the other.
I do think being a lawyer has made me more precise, which creates a risk I will over-explain things “for the avoidance of doubt” as we sometimes say in contracts. I hope I fight this effectively.
Finally, I would say I’m a serious writer without being a literary one. I suspect lawyering makes me opt for clarity over poetry when a choice must be made.
TBD: How did you manage to juggle a legal career and a writing career, when both seem like ridiculously time-consuming jobs?
SW: Not. Very. Easily.
And you left out my third ridiculously time-consuming job, which was raising two daughters. For years I would lie in bed and look up at the ceiling thinking, “Baby, Book, Law. Baby, Book, Law.” I was determined to make them all fit.
There were times I did make them fit. I wrote my first book, The Last Billable Hour, when I had only my older daughter. I would write 15 hours a week with babysitting until we ran out of money, and then I’d go to work as a contract lawyer (by project or by the hour) until I had enough money to pay the bills. I got the whole book done that way, and it was a happy, productive time in my life.
The second book was more challenging. By then we had two daughters, and I had a much bigger job as the head lawyer of a company. I decided to go to Starbucks from 6am to 7:30am twice a week to work on the book, and my daughter Catherine, who was eight or nine at the time, decided to go with me. She would sit very quietly and focus on her homework so that I could concentrate. I loved those mornings, but then it turned out I didn’t have one single unstructured moment in my life and was going slowly berserk. So I gave up writing until I was ready to leave law entirely, which is when Escape Velocity finally got written.
TBD: How did you manage to get such great blurbs for your book?
SW: It’s interesting that you ask me that, because my editor Jared Kieling asked me the exact same thing regarding my first book. Answer: I asked people.
I asked them very humbly to consider this great favor for a fellow author.
I spoke to each author about why I admired his or her writing and why I hoped they would like mine.
I asked for three or four times as many blurbs as I actually got, and tried to remind myself not to take it personally if they refused or just blew me off. Writers (and professors and deans and chief lawyers of companies) are very busy people. Fortunately, many of them are also generous.
TBD: How does your title Escape Velocity relate to your story?
SW: In physics, escape velocity is the minimum speed a rocket ship needs to escape the earth’s gravitational pull. Here in Silicon Valley the term is used as a metaphor to describe the amount of money a start-up company needs in order to stop taking money from venture capitalists. The company’s founders try to achieve escape velocity from outside interference by becoming self-sustaining.
In my book, Georgia’s upbringing with her con artist father exerts tremendous pull over her, first because it’s the life she knows and feels competent to navigate, and second because she loves her father. As the story unfolds, the reader realizes she also rather enjoys the excitement. But she doesn’t want a con artist life. So a central question of the novel is whether she has the strength of character to achieve escape velocity from the only life she knows. I don’t think many people accomplish that, and I have been fascinated by readers’ varying opinions about whether she succeeds.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
SW: Elmore Leonard gave me the best writing advice I ever received, and I am happy to pass it along.
I had gone to his reading at a bookstore, and when it was time for him to autograph my copy of his book I asked him to wish me good luck with mine. He asked a question or two about what I was writing and then signed his book. After I turned to go he called after me, “Susan!”
“Don’t let anybody else write your book. You write your own book.”
So there you are. Share your writing, read it out loud, listen to intelligent people’s advice, and then decide for yourself.
Susan Wolfe is a lawyer with a B.A. in literature from the University of Chicago and a law degree from Stanford University. After four years of practicing law, she bailed out and wrote her Edgar Award-winning first novel The Last Billable Hour. She returned to law for another sixteen years, first as a criminal defense attorney and then as an in-house lawyer for Silicon Valley high-tech companies. Her second novel Escape Velocity was published in October and just won the 2017 IPPY Gold Medal in suspense/thriller from the Independent Publishers Book Awards. She lives in Palo Alto, California with her husband Ralph DeVoe. authorsusanwolfe.com
Phillip Lopate on Worshiping at the Altar of Literature, Mother’s Rage, and the Power of University Presses
Phillip Lopate is one of the smartest guys we know–about books, about words, about literature, and, frankly, about life. So when we found out he had a new memoir coming out called A Mother’s Tale, we thought we’d pick his brain about why words and mothers matter.
The Book Doctors: What were some of your favorite books and authors as a kid, and why?
Phillip Lopate: As a kid, I was drawn to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, books about Greek mythology, and just about any nonfiction young adult book about baseball. I was not a very selective reader; I read just about everything in my local library. Taste came later.
TBD: How did you become a writer? Can someone actually learn to write, or are some people just born writers?
PL: I initially thought I was not smart enough to become a writer, but experimented with story-writing for my own amusement. I was the editor of my high school and my college literary magazine, which required a certain amount of posing and bluffing. Mostly what I was was a reader. I worshiped at the altar of literature. I do think it helps to have talent, but persistence matters more. Writers are made, not born.
TBD: Why did you choose to work with a university press for this book, which doesn’t seem inherently academic? We’re interested in the change in academic presses over the years and wondered if you could share your observations.
PL: I chose a university press because, frankly, a bunch of commercial presses passed on the manuscript, saying they weren’t sure how to sell it. Then I found out that Ohio State University Press was starting a new nonfiction/essay imprint, and I submitted it to them and they were happy to snap it up. You have to find a publisher who will love your book, whether it’s a trade or academic press. In these days when publishers are under so much pressure to make money, the line between commercial, academic and small independent presses is very thin. Any port in a storm, as they say.
TBD: You wrote, “I was put on earth to understand my mother’s pain I have not gotten very far in the process.” I feel much the same. What did you learn about her pain writing A Mother’s Tale?
PL: I learned a lot about my mother’s range, and her alternation between being very shrewd and self-deluded. As for her pain, some people find tremendous animation in self-pity and rage: there’s not a lot you can do about it.
TBD: Does writing help you understand things you don’t know about yourself, other people, and the world?
PL: Writing certainly helps to understand myself better, as well as other people. I have only to start to explain something I’ve thought or done and I begin to get a whiff of defensiveness and alibi-ing. I just have to talk to myself on the page. Essays are perfect for that kind of back-and-forth, with a drive toward greater honesty.
TBD: I tried to talk with my mother about sex with very little success. What was it like hearing your mom talk about her sexuality?
PL: I cannot say it was much fun as her son hearing my mother talk about her sexuality. But in retrospect, I’m glad for her expressiveness and lack of self-censoring. I think it helped me to become a writer, and to appreciate that things are what they are.
TBD: Family secrets and lies seem to be a universal fact of life. What did you find out about yours?
PL: There is no getting around family secrets: every family has them. I learned a little more about my mother’s affairs and how my father responded to them. I also learned how my mother fit into her historical period, how she reacted to the big public events of the day.
TBD: Your mother seems to be such a larger-than-life character. How did her melodrama affect your personality development?
PL: My mother’s melodramatic temperament pushed me in the opposite direction: I became skeptical of Drama, and a bit clinical and detached. A spectator, in effect, with an aversion to tantrums.
TBD: How would you characterize the book’s genre?
PL: I would say it’s like a play, a dialogue between my mother and my younger self, with my present, older self commenting and kibbitzing.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but what advice do you have for writers?
PL: Read a ton, and put in a thousand hours at your desk. Don’t get discouraged by what nay-sayers tell you. You’ll know when you’ve hit pay dirt.
Phillip Lopate is a central figure in the resurgence of the American essay, both through his best-selling anthology The Art of the Personal Essay and his collections Bachelorhood, Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body, Portrait Inside My Head and To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction. He directs the nonfiction MFA program at Columbia University, where he is Professor of Writing.
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.
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.