Extra, Extra: Some John Green Interview Outtakes

As long-time readers of this blog know, I've been a fan of John Green's work since Looking for Alaska, which was one of the first novels I read that featured hyper-smart, sarcastic southern teenagers like the ones I grew up around. (And they even drank the same syrupy sweet Boone's Farm we sometimes snuck – don't tell my parents. Kidding! I think they caught us and there was an epic grounding.) Anyway, John and I have known each other online for years, share a whole bunch of friends in common, but had never actually gotten a chance to chat.

So of course I said yes when I was asked recently if I'd interview him for the LA Times, in honor of winning the Innovator's Award, which will be presented at the Festival of Books. We had a nice long talk (aside: it's strange to talk to someone for the first time whose voice is so familiar), but the newspaper space, it can only accomodate so much. One of the tough things about interviews is that sometimes you have to pick out little bits and pieces, and the rest disappears forever. And of course we went down some nerdy paths that don't really fit in a piece for a general audience, many of who may not be regular YA readers.

You should all go read the interview at the LA Times, in which John says smart things about teenagers and the future of publishing and activism and misconceptions about YA…

…and then come back and read these further smart thing rescues from the cutting room floor. Basically, I feel like I have a moral imperative to post these, because a) I have them transcribed already and b) John had a cold and still did not balk when I said things like, "Elaborate on business models!" Plus, as an amateur contemporary art geek, I am super-excited about "The Art Assignment" (PBS Digital series created and hosted by Sarah Urist Green) and wanted to talk lots about that.


On the vlogbrothers: When we started, we really liked YouTube and we liked the idea that online video could be a portal for communication and collaboration. In my wildest imagination it never occurred to me that we would still be making videos seven and a half years later, let alone that we would have such a broad audience. We never imagined the reach that YouTube would eventually have or the role that we would get to play on that platform.

I guess the first time it ever occurred to me that we could do this as a job was in 2008, about a year and a half after we started making videos, when YouTube introduced advertising. We made something like 225 videos before YouTube had ads. It still seems weird to me that it’s a job. I’m a very old-fashioned YouTube user and so I romanticize the non-monetized days.

On books and publishing: I think the book is an underappreciated technology, and I think that the novel is an underappreciated form of storytelling. One of the reason that books are proving somewhat more robust than CDs or DVDs did is that books are really good technology. They’re extremely functional, and they deliver 99 percent of the experience someone wants when they’re reading a book.

My big concern is not the overall health of book publishing or the overall health of reading. My big concern is that publishing is going to become so blockbuster driven that we’ll lose some of the depth that makes us special and unique in contemporary artistic discourse. Because right now Hollywood makes what – 150 or 200 movies a year, and we publish 10,000 books a year? That’s a huge advantage. We have much more diversity. There’s much more room in publishing for books that may have a smaller built-in audience, and that’s really important.

On experiments with narrative: When I was trying to think of why I might have won this award – which I’m very grateful for, but I don’t feel like my publishing life has been tremendously innovative – the only thing I’ve ever made that was truly innovative was Tom (This Is Not Tom). Which was read in total by perhaps 1200 people because you had to solve such complicated riddles in order to read the story. The story was really an afterthought. People enjoyed solving the riddles, but then they’d be like, ‘Oh, right, I’ve got to read this thing again.’

I’m interested in trying to find non-traditional ways to share text stories, or even multimedia stories that involve a lot of text. But I don’t think that it’s ultimately going to be me who makes a lot of progress on that front. It’s going to be some person who’s younger and more talented than I am and has a deeper understanding of the internet and the way that young people share and experience story today. And I’ve accepted that.

On being an introvert: People think, ‘Oh, you make YouTube videos, so that means you’re outgoing,’ but actually the problem is that you make YouTube videos alone in your basement, talking into a camera and then spending four or five hours alone in your basement doing this very meticulous, repetitive work of editing a video. And writing is kind of the same. It’s very isolated and introverted and I love that. It gives me tremendous pleasure. So as long as I’m making videos by myself or writing by myself, they feel like complementary activities to me. But when I have to go out and do other stuff and talk to people, that’s a whole different ball of wax.

On “The Art Assignment” (This is where I was all, business models and PBS, talk about that): Hank and I are not that interested in making stuff for the most possible people. We’re interested in making stuff that people will feel really passionate about or that people will feel like is important to them. So, PBS – even though everyone sees it as this ultimate legacy media company – in truth, for a long time now, they’ve been very innovative in this sense. Not many people watched Bob Ross teach them how to paint. That was never one of the most successful shows on television. Except that it was one of the most successful shows on television. Even though only 50,000 people were watching it, all of them were being transformed by it. They were forming a relationship with painting and art that they didn’t have before they watched the show. And that’s so much cooler than having 10 million people watch something that you made and not really care about it.

It’s astonishing to me that almost everyone in America can name a living writer or a living musician and very few people – including me before I met my wife – can name a living artist. And so I think what inspired us on “The Art Assignment” was thinking about that and also thinking about the old days of YouTube back in 2007 and 2008, when it was a very collaborative environment and where projects were shared together. Instead of videos being something that existed because you watched, videos were more project-oriented.


And that's a wrap!

Another aside, this time about Bob Ross: My grandfather, when he was dying of cancer, got really into watching Bob Ross, and even got a paint set.

And now you should all go watch the latest episode of "The Art Assignment":

Extra, Extra: Some John Green Interview Outtakes Read More »

Gabfest: A Convo With Kim Curran

StrangeChemLadies The delightful Kim Curran‘s Shift was one of my favorite books last year. It features teen Scott Tyler, who discovers he has the power to undo any decision he’s ever made — something that turns out to be more problematic than it at first seems. Just before Control, the sequel, was set to come out in August from Strange Chemistry, I asked Kim if she’d like to have a little conversation over email about the past year — our debuts and what it was like having a second book coming out, and all the fun and angsty stuff that goes along with that. We started almost immediately, but release seasons tend to get crazy, which is why you’re only getting this now. And, might I add, both our debuts are still on crazy sale in e-book (probably not for much longer).

That’s a photo of me and Kim (along with our fellow Strange Chemists Cassandra Rose Clarke and Julianna Scott) at WorldCon in Chicago last year.

Gwenda: So, you and I debuted at the exact same time, as the launch titles for Strange Chemistry. We exchanged many excited and panicked and commiserating emails, and even got to do an event together in Chicago. It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since that happened. Looking back from this lengthy vantage point (or you know, what feels like one), what came as the biggest surprise for you about publishing your first book?

Kim: Wow! How this year has flown. I remember that time so well: our increasingly panicked direct messages and emails as we got to know each other and realised that the idea of being published was driving us both a little crazy. Knowing you were there, strapped into the same amazing rollercoaster, was a huge reassurance and kept me sane. I couldn’t have asked for a better ‘book sister’.

As for what’s surprised me most, I guess it was the fear. I didn’t expect to be quite so terrified. You spend so long dreaming and hoping for this thing to happen. And yet when it does, it’s a mixed bag of excitement beyond anything else and abject terror! It feels very different this time around with book two. Calmer. More familiar. It’s a bit like falling in love: the first time is always the most intense. 🙂

How about you? How did you find the process? And how are you finding the idea of book two hitting the shelves?

(The rest of our chat continues behind the cut…)


Gabfest: A Convo With Kim Curran Read More »

Pencils Down & A New Interview

And so ended the great YA Scavenger Hunt of Summer 2012 with its bountiful prizes! Special content is being pulled down and winners are being calculated to be announced over at the main site in a couple of days.

The response to the Blackwood contest was shockingly fabulous, and now will result in some epic tallying on mine and my lovely assistant Mr. Rowe's part. I wasn't really thinking how we would calculate with so many entries…and so we will be doing by it hand with slips of paper, a certain number for each comment depending on how many entries you receive. I'll photo-document. (And I'll email the winner, as well as it being posted over at the main site.)

The delightful Kaylie Ashton (follow her!), who runs the YA Bluewater Reading Group at the Bluewater Waterstones, has posted an interview with me at the YA Bluewater blog. Kaylie asked great questions, and this was a fun one. It also yielded what I am calling right now as the truest thing I will ever say (perhaps because I did this interview mid-revision from draft zero to draft one of The Woken Gods; in other words, while mad):

Writing a novel is like chasing a whirlwind with a butterfly net. And, if you’re lucky, after a great deal of work managing to catch that whirlwind, which is actually a story, and then showing it to other people and hoping they say, “Oh, that’s a story,” and not, “What is that? It just looks like a big mess of stuff blowing around.”

Also? I compose a dream fictional character dinner party. Check it out if you're so inclined.

Pencils Down & A New Interview Read More »

WBBT Stop: Andrea Seigel

Andrea Andrea Seigel is one of my favorite writers. Ever since I randomly picked up her debut novel Like the Red Panda at the library, I've been ecstatic whenever I hear she has written a new novel. Her work is full of cross-over appeal for young adult audiences, which is why I was especially happy The Kid Table was being published as YA. (Spoiler for the interview: We talk about this below.) I actually believe that Andrea's work is semi-unclassifiable in the best possible way. It's less saccharine than anything out there, while still being very sincere. Her characters aren't always traditionally likeable, and that's what makes me always, always end up liking them. Her novels are recognizable as "Andrea Seigel novels" without ever being repetitive. And The Kid Table is the perfect cure for holiday mania, following a cast of relatives from festive occasion to festive occasion, with decidedly unpredictable results. So without further ado…

GB: As I always do, I'll start by asking you about your writing process with this book. How did you approach it? Do you have a pretty set working pattern or does it change from project to project?

Andrea Seigel: I used to be completely religious about writing 2 double spaced Courier New pages a day. They had to be decent pages or I wouldn't close the file. Each day, I would start by reading over the previous two pages and making sure they were solid, and then I'd continue on with the next two. But with this book, first I really got crazy and went with a different font because Courier "looked wrong" for the narrator. I wrote in Century Schoolbook. And then life intervened when my dad got diagnosed with brain cancer maybe three-quarters of the way through, and I started falling behind on that religious clip. One day while visiting him in the hospital, I guess I either got my laptop too close to a large magnet or I bumped it against a wall because when I tried to turn it back on that night, it no longer recognized that I had a hard drive. I think I still had a page left to do that day. And at that point, I melted down and even though the dude at Apple eventually recovered my files for me, I just didn't feel the same about my regimen. I think I used to be a lot more of a machine than I'm capable of being now. I tried to return to the regimen with the book I'm currently writing, but I don't feel driven by that same loop. I guess this is probably because I had some kind of magical thinking attached to the 2 page a day thing, like I'd come to believe that that's why I got published–that it was a spell–and when it got broken, it was impossible to go back to believing in it. 

GB: I'm always fascinated by big cast novels about families. Was there a kid table in your own childhood?  Did you grow up with a big extended family or is Ingrid's experience something totally foreign to your own?

AS: We had a kid table at family events, but I always had the hardest time warming
up to my relatives. I Kidtablecover think your parents assume that if you're a kid, then you're going to instantaneously bond with other kids– especially if you've been put with them since you guys were drooling–but I've never been especially close to my cousins, and so every get together felt like starting over. I'd get really anxious and my mom would be like, "This is your family!" and I had no idea what that was supposed to mean, because for me "family" only referred to the people you lived with and could yell at without feeling strange about it. So I definitely didn't have the relationship portrayed in the book, and that's probably why I wrote it–out of some kind of fascination with people who always feel like they have this club they belong to.  

GB: I'm curious whether you feel there's a difference in how you come at your work for adult readers vs. this new YA novel? To me, your work has always held appeal for both audiences, but I wonder if it feels different to you. Or if you've noticed a difference in the response you've gotten for the new book?

AS: You know, at first I was trying to tell myself (and other people) that there wasn't a difference between this YA book and the others I wrote. And I think I didn't want to admit that there was one because I've never liked the idea of bending yourself to be different people in different situations. I know that's bullshit because we all do it, but it's an idea that has always disturbed me because I guess I have a fantasy of a "true self." Anyway, the short answer is yes. There's a difference. I forced myself to try to have more defined arcs for my characters because I knew that a lot of YA readers seek that kind of reward–and I guess I still failed because if you look at the people who hated the book on Goodreads, it's mostly because they're frustrated that the characters don't evolve more. But I just don't see personality in an epic way. I think you sort of are who you are and of course your experiences leave dents in you as you go through life, but I'm not incredibly interested in that balls to the wall character arc where your protagonist comes out the other end of the story a new person. In fact, when it comes to my own reading, I think I'm particularly drawn to narratives where the change is really in the reader's perception of that character as she gets to know him better (I'm thinking about books like Catcher In The Rye and American Psycho and The Mystery Guest), so the real arc is the one that happens in the reader's awareness of who that character is and how he sees the world. And when it comes to my own characters, I'm just honestly much more interested in these inner shifts of perception and these small negotiations that we all make in order to keep up a somewhat legible identity for ourselves. I inwardly groan when I hear people say, "Life is the journey, not the destination"–which always sounds so, so gross–but I guess I'm describing a similar leaning when it comes to storytelling. This is also probably why I'm basically uninterested in out-and-out villains as well as epic adventures (unless Bill and Ted are having them). The most frequent note I got from my publisher on The Kid Table manuscript was that my narrator spent too much time pondering, which was a mode for an older audience, instead of gut-reacting, which is the mode for the YA audience. And that's true, I like an almost compulsive 1st person voice that's about the narration as plot in and of itself. So that's maybe also why I should think about sticking to adult in the future, is what I've been thinking.

GB: So you had some cover issues, but you managed to get them resolved. What happened there? 

AS: The initial cover struck me as being off-tone for the book. It was a girl who looked younger than   the character actually is, and she was dressed like an American Idol contestant circa Jordin Sparks, and she was with some kids at a table who were smearing food on their faces…and I just lost it over that cover. I have this intensely supportive fan named Danny, a soldier in Iraq who first emailed me about reading Panda inside a tank as it rolled over an explosive device, and I knew he was waiting for Kid Table to come out, and I just thought, "Man, I can't have Danny carrying around this cover." That was my first thought. Because Danny is so into the books I write, and it depressed me to have someone who's completely in tune with my sensibility to be so misrepresented by a cover. He was exemplary for me, and I felt like that cover was just wrong for the people who identified with what I'd written before. So anyway, I went through a series of negotiations with the publisher and we finally agreed on the green-blue cover with the fork and macaroni, which leaves a lot more up to the reader's imagination. It also has a wryness about it, and "wry" is one of the descriptions that ends up on almost all of my jacket copies, so there you go.

GB: And, last, plug some other people's stuff–what have you been reading/watching/listening to that you think other people should dash out and get?

AS: Well, 'tis the season so I have to recommend Hank Steuver's book Tinsel, which I probably loved more than anything else I read this year. He writes novelistically, meaning that he does these insightful, complex portraits of his characters and he follows their stories in the most intimate, satisfying way, but all of it is true. I wanted 5000 more pages of that book. (I'm a Jew who's a sucker for Christmas, but my love went beyond that pre-existing inclination.) Then my favorite documentary of the year was "The Wild Whites of West Virginia"– I'm so fascinated by this family of outlaws because they'll stab and shoot each other, but then there's a mythical attachment to the family bond and a stronger sense of loyalty than exists in families that don't stab each other. Again, the presentation of the "characters" in this movie is exactly my kind of thing. In music, I'm still listening to Alicia Keys' "Try Sleeping With A Broken Heart" on repeat since last winter, so I'm like the toddler who just watches the same movie over and over when it comes to songs. I can also recommend this pumpkin chocolate chip cookie recipe, which is pretty much the only thing I can bake. They come out like muffin tops. You'll love them.

Visit today's other WBBT stops (will update with links as I see them):

Adele Griffin at Bildungsroman

Susan Campbell Bartoletti at Chasing Ray

Charles Benoit
at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Sarah MacLean at Writing & Ruminating

Allen Zadoff at Hip Writer Mama

WBBT Stop: Andrea Seigel Read More »

Interview: Andrew Auseon on Freak Magnet

BioImage2AA I'm thrilled to host a stop on Andrew Auseon's blog tour in support of his new novel, Freak Magnet (Amazon | Indiebound), which I posted about yesterday. His debut novel, Funny Little Monkey, was one of the first non-fantasy YA novels I read during what was still the early days, really, of the YA boom, and one of the first places I ever saw mention of a little placed called Vermont College and its YA and Children's program. He's a writer who deserves more attention, and I hope this novel finds the wide, adoring readership it deserves. Without further ado, our conversation…

GB: I always start with a process question, so tell me about the writing of this novel. Did it differ from the way you've written your previous novels? Did you chant strange sayings and walk around your desk three times, etc.?

AA: There was a lot of levitation, days of it, actually. And I went through like six pointy wizard hats. (They are notoriously expensive here in the States, but across the border in Canada they’re covered by universal health insurance.) No, unfortunately, magic was not involved in the writing of this book, just the usual hours of crying, sleep deprivation, and fight club.

Freak Magnet came about unexpectedly. Early in 2006, I was feeling pretty burnt out from several high concept writing projects that had taken a toll on me creatively, and I started to wonder how to reclaim my inspiration. The strange thing was that instead of thinking big, I thought small, as in a single scene.

After months of writing outlines and having long discussions about fantasy worlds and plotlines, I was returning to what really mattered: character; or in this case: a boy with a big mouth in a café. The first scene I wrote in Freak Magnet was the opening chapter, in which the two main characters have a chance meeting on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. I think it’s a great first scene because it sets forth the tone of the whole story to come, not to mention the initial dynamic between its characters Charlie and Gloria. For me, one of the most satisfying aspects of that whole first scene is that it’s based on a true story, sort of. FreakMagnetHC c

In college, I had this wonderful friend named Russ, easily one of the sweetest and funniest people I’ve ever known. (I’ve spent years trying to find him, to no avail.) One night, Russ and I attended a play at the university theater as part of an assignment for literature class. The lead actress was absolutely radiant, someone you couldn’t help but notice. A few days after that performance, Russ and I were in one our favorite college dives, and this girl walked in with her friends. She looked completely different, out of her Irish period garb and makeup, but still she was unmistakable. Well, Russ, in a fit of mad inspiration, turned to me and said, “I’m going to tell that girl that she’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”

And he did, and I’ll never forget it. He sauntered right up to that pizza counter and politely introduced himself, and then gave her his message.

Now, in a perfect world, a person could say that and not be treated with scorn; but this isn’t a perfect world, and this girl was completely unprepared for Russ’s compliment. The whole encounter was a classic “looks good on paper” that exploded into flames upon execution. Russ never made such a mistake again.

But why wouldn’t someone want to hear a compliment like that? One of the reasons I wrote Freak Magnet was to give my old friend—and all the other good guys out there like him—the treatment he so deserved. It’s hard to put yourself out there, but sometimes the truth needs to be spoken aloud, even if it means getting kneed in the groin. (That, to clarify, did not happen. Thank goodness.)

GB: One of the things that most impresses me about this book is how absolutely distinct each first-person voice isCharlie and Gloria will never be confused with each other. And it's such an effective way to make the reader fall in love with each of them, and also to slyly comment on how rarely we truly know what the other person in a relationship is thinking. How quickly did those voices come together for you? Did the novel start with the characters or did the idea of doing a love story come first?

AA: Wow. Thanks. I’m so glad you liked them. Charlie and Gloria were a joy to write, even when they weren’t cooperating with me, or when they were quarreling with each other.

The love story and the characters occurred simultaneously. I always intended Freak Magnet to be a story about two characters from very different backgrounds coming together, so the endgame was never in doubt. I also knew that in order to create the kind of friction I wanted, and even the moments of awkward silence, I needed two characters that would never normally associate with each other in the course of daily life—two near opposites. Half the fun of writing, and reading, a relationship like this is watching them fumble around trying to figure the other person out. That’s the story in a nutshell: clumsy groping.

Before I ever starting calling them Charlie or Gloria, I had developed pretty good sense of who my lead characters would be—their basic worldviews and insecurities. However, the specifics of their particular dysfunctions took years to evolve.

For example, I always knew that Charlie would be that guy at the coffee shop everyone wants to avoid. There’s just something about him: his interruptions, his nervous energy, and his complete lack of self-awareness. That kind of openness really makes people uncomfortable, and I knew that kind of tense atmosphere was one I wanted to explore with Charlie. I love his character, because he’s someone that only a handful of people appreciate. And that “what you see is what you get” attitude cuts both ways. So often he’s sticking himself into other people’s business, but at the same time he’s walking around extremely vulnerable.

In contrast, Gloria was always going to be the epitome of the person who finds Charlie odd, even repellent, because she doesn’t like people who wear their hearts on their sleeves. She is unable to do it, so she resents those who can. She also hates being the center of attention, preferring instead to lurk in the shadows. That gives her some small modicum of control. Charlie is out of control, and so he is constantly crashing into Gloria and rearranging her carefully laid plains. She hates that, but needs it.

One of the first tasks that my editor and I did when starting the Freak Magnet revi sions was to continue tightening the two voices to make them more distinctive. I’m glad to hear that this was a valuable effort, since the success of the entire novel rests wholly on the believability of the two main characters. Plus, it was very exciting to write in two voices, each at a different extreme on the spectrum.

As a poet, Gloria uses staccato rhythms, simple syntax, and at times even musical speech patterns. She doesn’t waste her page real estate. I like that. She says what she thinks, but often with a bit of style, or some commentary. One of the tools I use occasionally in her narration is the parenthetical. These are asides, when she chooses to add a more in-depth observation or a subjective opinion to what she’s reporting. Those were pretty amusing, because I can just imagine her giving you the facts, but then adding one last detail because she just has to. When writing Gloria, I imagined how she would write her poems and let that guide my prose.

Where Gloria used a more controlled, lyrical voice, Charlie reveled in his rambling. I wanted his way of speaking to be extremely indicative of a mind that doesn’t know when to slow down or stop. His brain is always racing, always wondering where to next direct his speeding train of thought. Writing his voice was a joyride, but, as one could probably guess, it certainly provided its fair share of challenges. We pulled back a lot of with Charlie, because his musings often lead the reader away from the focal point of the scene, and that proved distracting. I had to train Charlie, to keep him in check; but wow, was it ever fun to let his mouth off the leash. He says everything he wants to say, unfiltered. Living through him was pretty vicarious thrill.

GB: So, this is a love story, but it's a highly unconventional one. Is this in any way a response to love story tropes or does it reflect something you feel is missing in most relationship stories (and especially in YA)? Also, what's the most outrageous thing you ever did in the act of pitching woo? 

AA: I would love to say that Freak Magnet is my response to YA love story tropes, but I don’t read enough YA fiction these days to feel like I have a firm grasp of what’s the norm. I wish I were so clever. My only goal in writing the book was to tell a love story that felt like it could have happened to me, or someone I knew, complete with all the idiotic gaffes, weird coincidences, and incredible moments of connection that real life has to offer. In my experience, love is a very messy business, and sometimes I feel that we idealize it so much that we skew expectations, make it out to be something that’s out of our control and thus requires nothing of us. That’s wrong. Love should be the most demanding.

I grew up during a period when romantic comedies were a pretty big draw at the box office, and those kinds of magical romances left their mark. Freak Magnet definitely possesses elements of that formula—the reliable best friends, the serendipitous encounters, etc.—but like in my previous novels, I wanted the darker parts of the story to have bite. There’s a lot of sadness to overcome in this book, a lot of rocks to sail past on your way to the beaches. I think a good example of the kind of story I wanted to tell would be the Cameron Crowe movie Say Anything. The two teens in that story are really well rounded characters with a believable collection of strengths and weaknesses, and their path to happiness leads them through obstacles, some of which you don’t see coming. The genius of that story is that the two kids are forced to grow up in order to overcome those challenges, and their newfound love is perhaps the single most important catalyst of that change. They literally could not have done it alone.

As for me, I wouldn’t say there’s one particular moment that stands out as my Gettysburg of woo. However, there was a time in my life—specifically when I was pursuing the girl who is now my wife—when I went a little crazy, did things I wouldn’t dream of doing now, either because I’m not an idiot anymore, or because that kind of mad inspiration really does strike only once, maybe twice in a lifetime. If I told you some of those things, you’d probably think I was a freak too, which I guess is the point.

GB: You're also a video game designer. How does that inform your writing or vice versa? Are the processes at all similar? Why do video games get a bad rap from so many adults?

AA: It’s a very different kind of work than writing novels. Probably the most obvious difference is that I’m part of a team, and most of the time, my words need to blend seamlessly with the words of others in my department. Everything we do is a global effort. We are creating a huge world, and all of the pieces have to fit together organically and fade into the background. Essentially, writing for games is all about enabling the player, providing a narrative within which he or she can create new, more unique personal stories—water cooler moments for nerds. With my novels, I’m able to do exactly what I want and make a mess of things. Not so with games. There are too many other people involved. Oh yeah, and gobs of money.

I’m not sure I really understand why video games get a bad rap. I think some of it has to do with the fact that many adults don’t understand what video games are, exactly, which is the same thing that happened for a long time with comics. There’s still a misconception that the bright and shiny world of the Nintendo and the Playstation is the domain of children, and not to be taken seriously. Platforms like the Wii perpetuate this myth. (All those years of flying turtle shells and glowing stars may have done every other video game a disservice.) Like any form of entertainment—books, movies, music, you name it—there is an incredible variety of video games.

Games have ratings, like just about every other form of entertainment we consume. If a child’s guardians don’t take an active role in educating themselves about what their children spend their time doing make poor decisions, then they forfeit their right to blame game developers for the results. True: Grand Theft Auto is a violent video game. Also true: no one under 18 should ever play it. Would you give your kids a Sopranos DVD and hope for a rosy outcome? I sure hope not. I am allowed to play Grand Theft Auto because I am a mature adult who is able to appreciate its rich, sprawling narrative, and because I’m a sociopath.

GB: Finally, recommend some things by other peoplewhat have you been reading/listening to/watching/playing that you think people would be well-advised to check out.

AA: I am woefully out of touch with what’s cool. Maybe that makes me a freak, like Charlie. I exist almost completely inside a bubble, often yanking in my wife and two daughters to join me when I have something interesting to say, like, “Where are my keys?” or “What did you do with your diaper?” And like everybody else out there, I’m insanely busy. I don’t think I even remember what it’s like to have interests. But let me give it a shot.

After years of procrastination, my wife and I have finally gotten around to watching “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” which has been a lot of fun. It’s a show that carries so much baggage in the form of hype, that I have trouble coming at it objectively. Luckily, it’s really clever and weird and funny.

I listen to a lot of music, but it’s mostly while I’m writing, so I tend to avoid lyrics as hey can cause brain-lock. I usually gravitate toward atmospheric music, post-rock artists like Sigur Rós, Hammock, and the Album Leaf, or electronic musicians like Ulrich Schnauss. If there was one album, or collection of music I’ve spent a lot of time listening to recently, it’s probably the original soundtrack to the TV show “LOST,” by Academy Award-winning composer Michael Giacchino. The guy’s a genius, and the melodies are too simply gorgeous for words.

When I’m not working, I try to play games, and I usually prefer board and card games to the electronic variety. The card games “Dominion,” “Bang,” and “Race for the Galaxy” are all excellent. One of the more fun board games I’ve played in recent weeks has been “The Adventurers,” which is inspired by old adventure heroes like Indiana Jones and Allan Quartermain. You explore an ancient temple, trying to survive long enough to escape with a bag full of treasures… and your life. It’s a great game for kids too, because there are all sorts of little contraptions and components—a wall that closes in on you, a giant rolling stone, and a pit of lava. Get your white-knuckle thrills!

As a parent of young children, I don’t get to read nearly as much as I would like to, at least not novels. However, there are advantages to having toddlers and kindergarteners, namely kid lit! My favorite author is Cynthia Rylant. Her work is just amazing, and if you have daughters, the “Cobble Street Cousins” series is a must, as is “Mr. Putter and Tabby.” For the older set, I would recommend the Scott Pilgrim graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley (I cringe when calling them graphic novels, because they are nothing like classics such as Watchmen or From Hell). They’re not high art, and O’Malley really needs to learn to draw another face, but he perfectly captures the strange vagrant lifestyle of your early twenties. Plus, he does some really interesting things with integrating video game culture with traditional narrative. It’s unique, and pretty ridiculous. I haven’t been neglecting novels altogether. I devoured George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones” fantasy series, completely riveted from start to finish. I’m not normally into fantasy, but Martin’s books are a juicy combination of courtly intrigue, bawdy sex, violent combat, and peculiar characters. They’re making a long-running HBO series, so you know it has to be pretty damn good.

Okay, I think it’s been established that I talk way too much. So I will make my exit. Thanks so much to Gwenda for hosting me on Shaken & Stirred today, and I hope everyone has a chance to check out Freak Magnet. Later!


You can find out where the next stop on Andy's blog tour is at his own blogand, like I already said, pick up this book.

Interview: Andrew Auseon on Freak Magnet Read More »

An Interview with Libba Bray


When I was asked to host the fabulous Libba Bray on her blog tour, of course I said YES. It is not every writer who will valiantly take to the streets in a cow suit wielding a ukelele to support their artistic vision. Also? I really, really, HUGELY love her new novel, Going Bovine (Amazon/Indiebound), about a teenage boy diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (aka mad cow). Just ask the people at Blue Heaven, who I recommended it to over and over again last week. But hey, maybe you need some convincing, or you just like reading fun interviews. Now you're all set, either way.

GB: Tell me about your process while writing Going Bovine, as my readers love a good process ogle. You mention that you originally wrote this for a workshop run by the fabulous Cynthia Leitich Smith (who I was lucky enough to get to work with a bit at Vermont College) and her husband Greg in the acknowledgments; what part did that play? This book obviously enters all new territory for you–was the process of writing it different than how you approached the Gemma Doyle books?

LB: I love the phrase “process ogle.” That’s great. I’ll footnote you when I use it. So the story behind Going Bovine does start with the beauteous Miss Cyn and the dashing Mr. Greg. They ran the most wonderful, warm writers’ workshop in Austin, TX, called WriteFest. Cyn invited me to be a part of it for June 2005. When she rang me up in November 2004, I was on the third draft of my second book, Rebel Angels. She said I would need to submit a complete manuscript to her by May 1st, and I said yes, sure, because at that point, I was so deeply submerged that you could have said, “May I remove one of your kidneys while you type,” and I would have answered, “Uh-huh. Sure. Knives in kitchen.”

Flash forward to February 2005: I’ve finally finished revisions/copy-edits on Rebel Angels and I go, oh crap. I need to write a book. In three months. I am doomed. I call up Cyn and say, “You’re kidding about that complete manuscript bidness, right?” And she, rightly so, says, “No. I am not. May 1st. Get crackin’, missy.” Thank you, Cyn, and your velvet whips. I was really up a creek. The only things I knew for sure were: This was a book about a kid with mad cow disease. It was a road trip novel that would take the characters through the South with a stop in New Orleans. Disney World was involved. It was a way to explore my fears and feelings about existence. And it was loosely based on Don Quixote. That, my friends, is not a royal flush. It’s like one ace, a smattering of low cards, and a joker the dealer accidentally shuffled in.

So I took a trip to New Orleans for research. (Why do I not set books in Tahiti or Rome? Must work on this…) I’d been to NOLA many times, and it was always a special place to me. But I was shocked by the entrenched poverty—and this was six months before the unforgiveable horrors of Katrina. Books have a mood, and that was certainly part of the mood. I started writing in my notebook while riding the cable cars and walking around the graveyards and sitting in the cafes. It felt like I was visiting another planet, in a way. I was there for three days, then I came home and hit the ground running. I think the benefit of only having about 2 ½ months to write a first draft was that I got out of my own way. I didn’t have time to equivocate and feel scared and pull back, overthink, overanalyze myself into a state of paralysis. It was damn-the-torpedoes time. There were moments while writing when I’d shake my head and think, This is never going to work. (In point of fact, some of it didn’t work. The talking penis scene comes to mind. I don’t need to elaborate, do I? No. I didn’t think so.)

At WriteFest, I had a chance to workshop the novel with Cyn, Greg, Anne Bustard and Brian Yansky, taking in their insightful, generous notes. I showed it to my editor, Wendy Loggia at Random House, and she bought it, though if you want to know the true meaning of silence, sit in a conference room with your publisher and editor when you cheerfully announce to them that the follow-up to your Victorian schoolgirl supernatural fantasy series is a funny mad cow disease road trip novel narrated by a profane sixteen-year-old boy. Good times, good times.


And then I had to put the book in a drawer while I wrote the last book in my trilogy, which, as has been documented was like the Bataan Death March without the funny bits. Flash forward again: (really, Going Bovine does concern time travel so this is good practice) In the spring of 2008, I dusted off the manuscript, read everybody’s notes, and started in fresh. Of course, by now, the novel was informed by new ideas, new thoughts. One of the things I love about research is the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon of it all: You start off looking up string theory and it leads you to many worlds theory and the supercollider and Michio Kaku and Ed Witten. And then, while wanting to know more about the Norse god Balder, you end up finding out aspects of Norse mythology that fit neatly with your story in a wonderful, strange writing kismet. You read up on that, which somehow leads you to Greek mythology and Ovid and Mardi Gras and so on and so on. It’s like turning on your radio late at night listening for far-off signals, feeling thrilled when you manage to pick up some odd program out of Boise or Omaha or Toronto. I love that part.

I wrote a second draft and, in addition to Wendy’s terrific editorial notes, I was helped out by Justine Larbalestier and my Madison, WI, writer pal, Maureen Leary. All of them pointed out my little darlings and my underwritten scenes and the places where I was coasting rather than digging and revealing. The thing about writing, for me, is that it’s always about trying to strip away the filters that lie between me and whatever’s at the heart of that novel, that painful truth I say I want to find but that I really am afraid to uncover. That’s what revision is all about.

So. That’s the story, morning glory. More than you wanted, I’m sure. You’re probably having a “process ogle” hangover now.
GB: Cameron's voice is so strong and nuanced and unique. Did the character come to you pretty much fully formed?

LB: Characters never come fully formed. I wish they did because then I would have more time to eat Swedish fish and paint my toenails in colors not found in nature. However, Cameron’s voice came to me pretty quickly. It was a harsher voice at the start, akin to a teenage Dr. House. But through the writing and rewriting (and rewriting and rewriting), what emerged was a less caustic version with more of the hills and valleys of somebody experiencing his own evolution.
GB: Do you fear the eating of hamburgers and mad cow disease yourself? (Or, more seriously, it's fascinating how funny this novel is while tackling something that is really scary–any kind of disease that attacks identity or sanity.)

LB: I wish I could say I’ve stopped eating beef. I haven’t completely. But I think twice about it now and choose other options often. In all seriousness, researching mad cow disease was so frightening that it has been sort of a wake-up call about my eating habits, about how meat happens in this country. I read one article that suggested that prions, which are the brain-attacking bad guys of mad cow, might play a role in Alzheimer’s, too. Given that Alzheimer’s is a huge factor in my genetic line, that really got me. All I can say is, I’ve started paying more attention to my food, and I tend to go vegetarian a lot more these days. In fact, I think vegetarianism is in my future for a number of reasons.
GB: Disney World–place of magic or terrifying land of terror?

LB: Depends on whether or not the Lost Boys inside the Peter Pan ride have been fed. But I’m gonna put in a vote for magical.
GB: What books/music/movies have you been reading/listening to/watching lately that you'd recommend?

LB: Let’s see. I’ve read Stitches, David Smalls’ amazing and haunting graphic memoir. I loved Natalie Standiford’s How to Say Goodbye in Robot (October 1st pub date) and Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me. One of my favorite books of last year is Toby Barlow’s Sharp Teeth, which won the ALEX award. L.A. werewolf noir in verse. It’s awesome. (I’m reading over this and thinking, Man, there is just some fantastic stuff out there right now. Go read, people!) I’m reading Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island as my airplane reading. I love a good mystery/thriller. Next on my list is David Levithan’s 9/11 novel, Love Is the Higher Law. I’m pals with David, and sometimes I forget what a freaking awesome writer he is because we’re busy being goofy and eating pizza. I read part of this and was reminded very quickly.

Movies are harder, because unless it’s a kids’ movie, I don’t get out that often. NYC babysitters are as expensive as the housing. I did manage to get out to see District 9, which was great, even if it did make Children of Men seem like a Disney musical. I like dark, post-apocalyptic, dystopian things. It’s actually going to be my decorating theme. Why clean when you can just tell everyone, “I’m going for a sort of dystopian decor”? I’d recommend a documentary I watched about a year ago, The Nomi Song, about 1980’s performance artist, Klaus Nomi. I found that very moving—one of those inspirations that made me want to raise my game. And, I’m not gonna lie, my recent NetFlix queue included a guilty pleasure: Highlander. There can be only one.

Music wise, I’ve been bopping along to Frank Portman’s single for his book, Andromeda Klein. It’s a total earworm. Same with the Yeah, Yeah, Yeah’s Mystery Girl. And I’ve been listening to some old stuff, like Chris Whitley, songs from John Hughes movies in tribute, Harry Nilsson (one of my faves to write to), Roy Orbison’s “She’s a Mystery to Me,” a recording of the Widor Toccata, which makes me wish I hadn’t quit piano lessons in eighth grade, a little Sam Cooke, X, Sigur Ros. Led Zeppelin. Because it’s always Zeppelin time.

And I’ve been playing a lot of Beatles Rock Band.

Don’t tell my editor.

Get more of the Libba Bray online tour-stravaganza at:

Teen Reads

YA Books Central

An Interview with Libba Bray Read More »

An Interview with Joshua Henkin

Authorphoto100x150So, yes, I’m late to this party*. I’ve been intending to interview Matrimony author Joshua Henkin on the site for, oh, AGES, and he’s been entirely gracious during an extended period when I’ve been so busy that pretty much all optional commitments have gotten continually pushed aside. But: We finally managed to get the interview done, and talk about all sorts of interesting things–writing workshops, craft and process (of course), recommendations–so I think you’ll agree it was worth the wait. If you’ve somehow missed the book, check out this review in the New York Times by Jennifer Egan. And now, without further ado…

GB: I usually start out by asking people about their work process and how it changes (or doesn’t) between projects? Can you tell me a little about what yours looked like for Matrimony?

JH: Well, it took me ten years to write Matrimony, and I threw out more than three thousand pages, so I sometimes think that my work process should be an object lesson in how not to do things. But actually, the book needed to brew as long as it did. My first novel, Swimming Across the Hudson, is told in first-person and is set over the course of approximately a year, whereas Matrimony is told from more than one point of view and covers about twenty years. So pretty early on I knew this was going to be a more ambitious novel and that I would need to approach it differently. Part of what I was doing was figuring out how to write a novel, since I was trained as a short-story writer, and though Swimming Across the Hudson didn’t literally grow out of a short story, it has the sensibility of a long short story–say, in the same way that Richard Ford’s early novel Wildlife does. So I was learning how to operate on a bigger canvas.

One interesting thing that happened early on was that my computer broke down, and while it was in the shop I was forced to write by hand. This turned out to be a real blessing. I’m an absolutely compulsive rewriter and reviser, and my natural inclination is to revise as I go along–to try, on the sentence level, to make everything perfect before I move on to the next scene. This approach is possible (though perhaps not particularly advisable) when it comes to a short story because with a story you can potentially see the whole in advance. But with a novel, you can’t see the forest for the trees, and you need to just write for a couple of years without really knowing what you’re doing or where you’re going. If you revise too early, it’s like building a house and working on the ornamentation on the doorpost before you’ve laid the foundation. You may end up with a beautiful doorpost, but it doesn’t belong in the house. Well, writing by hand helped me combat my tendency to revise too soon. There’s something about writing on computer that, in my case at least, makes me feel compelled to try to make things beautiful–probably because the words look neat on the screen and so I’m drawn to trying to make them neat in deeper, more important ways. But because my handwriting is so bad I had no illusion looking at the page that what I was writing was anything but rough, and this allowed me to plow forward without looking back. So even when my computer came back from the shop, I continued to write much of the first draft by hand.

One other process struggle was the simple fact that I was a different person when I finished Matrimony from who I was when I started it. When I began the book, I was single, living in Ann Arbor, and when I finished it, I was married, living in Brooklyn with my wife and two daughters. I’d gone from my early thirties to my early forties, which is a time of significant change for most people, and no matter what age you are, a lot happens over the course of ten years; your preoccupations and obsessions shift. So one of the struggles for any writer, but particularly for a writer whose book took as long to write as mine did, is to keep the voice consistent over narrative time, to make the novel’s themes and concerns part of a seamless whole. A writer wants to make his or her novel feel as if it was written in one sitting, and the farther away the book is from having been written in one sitting the greater the challenge is to make it appear that way.

An Interview with Joshua Henkin Read More »

WBBT Stop: Jane Yolen & Adam Stemple


Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple published their first collaborative novel, Pay the Piper: A Rock ‘N’ Roll Fairy Tale, a couple of years ago and followed that up with a sequel, Troll Bridge: A Rock ‘N’ Roll Fairy Tale, which released in paperback over the summer. Jane is known far and wide and probably even in outer space as the "American Hans Christian Anderson," having written nearly 300 books and won pretty much every award you can win. Adam is a well-known musician (aka rock and roll star), poker player, and all around good guy; his debut novel Singer of Souls came out in 2005 and a sequel is in the pipeline from Tor as we speak. Oh, and in case you didn’t know already, Jane is Adam’s mother. They were nice enough to take the time to answer some questions about their collaborative efforts, so let’s get to the good part.

GB: First question is always process porn for the writers out there, so tell me about how you write solo. You can start at whatever part of the process you want–when an idea occurs to you, when you actually start writing, when the deadline’s looming, outlining/not outlining, etcetera. Does this change depending on the project or are your work habits fairly consistent?

JY: Every project is different for me. Let me tell you a story.

I once heard Norton Juster tell a group of  third graders–my daughter among them–that he got his ideas from a postbox in Poughkeepsie. Some of the students thought he meant it. One boy even raised his hand and asked how far away Poughkeepsie was.

My daughter knew better. She knew from having lived with me all of her eight years. She knew that I got my ideas from everywhere: newspaper articles, other people’s books, magazines, rock lyrics, folk songs, overheard conversations, dreams, her life, her brothers’ lives, her father’s life, her great grandparents…oh, and gossip. Gossip is often the beginning of stories.

There is nothing a writer will refuse in the making of story. Here are a few of the places I have gotten ideas.

*Reading the local newspaper, I was riveted by a photo of a boy with his prize-winning frog named “Star Warts”. The  boy’s smile was enormous, his frog-well–even more enormous. But I knew that it wasn’t frogs  that were supposed to give you warts, it was toads. (Well, they don’t actually. It’s just a superstition.) But suddenly Commander Toad in Space was born, the idea of a ship called the Star Warts carrying a crew of amphibians was too funny to resist. I eventually did seven Commander Toad books and loads of reluctant readers began their reading with the Commander, Mr. Hop, Lieutenant Lily, and the rest.

*An editor friend called me up and said, “My son is three and hates to go to bed and he loves dinosaurs. Can you do anything for him?” Now Adam and his brother Jason had been the same at that age, so much so, that even though I’m a lousy seamstress and can’t sew a straight hem,  I actually embroidered dino pillows for each of them. So for my editor’s son, instead of an embroidered pillow, I wrote How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? The opening rhymes simply tumbled out and the book practically wrote itself.

*Because my husband took all our children birding, and staying out late at night owling was a particular pleasure they shared, I smooshed together (that’s a technical writing term!) all of their night journeys into the woods  and wrote Owl Moon.

*I dreamed the actual first page of Wizard’s Hall (some 9 years before Harry Potter was published) and the strange opening of The Wild Hunt some years after that. The house in The Wild Hunt is the house we have in Scotland. And the house in the Tartan Magic books is the Scottish house plus its garden.

So you see, no post box in Poughkeepsie for me. I don’t wait for the mail to be delivered. I am always ready to listen at keyholes, sneak up next to people on buses and trains and planes, read and read and read, and shamelessly steal conversations, arguments, and jokes from my children and grandchildren. Because that’s where the ideas are.

And also remember that ideas are the LEAST important part of a book. They get you started, sure, but what comes after is much more interesting.

AS: The biggest thing I had to learn about writing, was figuring out early what form the idea I have is going to take. Is it a short story idea? A novel idea? A poem idea? It can be annoying if you start on a short story only to discover it's a novel; it's disastrous to get to the middle of a novel and realize your idea was only strong enough to support something shorter.  My work habits are not nearly as consistent as I'd like. I have traumatic brain injury, which presents like pretty severe ADD, so it's difficult for me to get started. But if I can force myself to sit at the computer and stare at a page for ten minutes, I usually don't get back up until I've written 1,000-2,000 words.  Usually, when I write, I have a scene in my head toward the end of the book/story that I aim for.  In Singer of Souls, it was Douglas striding into Faery, in one story, A Piece of Flesh, it was young Victoria cooking soup in a boot, in another, The Three Truths it was Master Shichiro, a troubled samurai, commiting seppuku to protect his lord.  These scenes kept me writing, gave me a direction to travel in whenever I was stuck.  Now, what's funny is that in only one of these tales did I actually get to that scene.  Stories change and grow as you write them--at least they always have for me.  No matter how hard I try to control them, the characters eventually take over, sometimes refusing to go down that dark alley you present them--Master Shichiro does not end up killing himself--sometimes getting so beaten down by events that they fail when presented with heroic opportunities--Douglas doesn't stride manfully into Faery, but rolls in beaten and bloody, and the decisions he makes once there are questionable at best.

GB: Now I'd like to know how you've worked together collaboratively, including all the nitty gritty like how you avoided killing each other in revision. And Jane, I know you have collaborated with lots of people, so was there anything different about working with your son? Adam, likewise for you, you're a musician and very used to collaboration--do you think that made it easier to work with someone else?

JY: Well, this is from a speech we are just working on now:

All stories are collaborations--between author and editor, between author and reader. However we two have collaborated even more, by being mother and son, as well as co-writers. That means we share a history, have attitudes toward each other and toward work that are...complicated and rich, and we know which buttons to push.

And yet, we come to our writing from different places and different spaces. When we work, we may argue about characters, about word choices, about titles. Sometimes Adam gives in and sometimes I do. But it is always done with respect--for one another, and for the work.

Writing with a relative means walking a fine line. In the end, my relationship with Adam is more important to me than the work, and I will back off if we hit some immovable spot. But so far we have agreed more often than disagreed, and I love the way he writes.

AS: Being a working musician for twenty years has made everything about writing easier. A literary agent I knew who was also in a punk band, once said, "Why do authors complain about bad reviews?  When I get a bad review it's in the form of a beer bottle thrown at my head." Writers complain about contracts; the only thing sure in the music business is that if you have a contract you MIGHT get paid. Collaborations among musicians are shaky at best, with egos always at the forefront. Additionally, education and work habits are at a premium in the land of musicians; we didn't join a band to work hard and do a lot of thinking. And if there are musicians reading this who are insulted by this, please remember that I count myself in your number–when I say I don’t like working with musicians…

Oh, and congratulations on reading!

All kidding aside, I learned how to write by working with my mother. She is a wonderful writer/teacher/editor/mom. We rarely argue over what we’re working on because we largely share the same sensibilities. Makes sense, I am her son after all.

GB: What would your advice be to people working on collaborative projects? There seems to be a lot of this going on in the children’s/YA field at the moment.

JY: Talk about stuff before you begin–like whose name goes first, who has the final pass on the book, how to resolve arguments. Know what your strengths are (mine are dialogue, scene, theme. He is Mr. action, Mr. Funny, and Mr. Plot. Also anything really dark in our books and stories–blame Adam!)

AS: Respect your partner and their ideas, and be respectful to them. Make sure you are writing the same book. Talk often and listen more. Meet in person to plot the book, talk about characters, polish a theme. And in person is important. We communicate more than we know with body language, and when discussing–flighty things that can be tough to get hold of–it is important to get as much across as possible.

GB: Switching gears a bit, what artform or genre do each of you find it most enjoyable to work in and why? Or if enjoyable’s not of interest, how about what’s most challenging?

JY: I love writing picture books, fantasy, historical, poetry, and graphic novels. You won’t find me doing hard science, blood and intestine spills, or Gossip Girls.

AS: I do most of my writing in fantasy, so I must like working it. But truth be told, I like writing everything. I read a lot of fantasy, and love it, so I am familiar with the tropes and it is easy for me to move around in that kind of world. But I loved writing my historical samurai mystery stories as well. Research intensive as they were, they presented an opportunity to learn and a set of challenges unique to their genre (are you saying you haven’t heard of the thriving Historical/Samurai/Mystery genre?) that made me enjoy writing them as well. I just like writing.

GB: What are each of your next projects (any more collabs on the horizon)?

JY: We have a book called Bug which stands for Big Ugly Guy and is a novel about a Jewish kid who is picked on at school. So he makes a golem for protection that becomes the drummer in his klezmer garage band.

On my own–I have just finished a 92,000 fantasy novel, Dragon’s Heart, fourth book in my Pit Dragon trilogy (don’t laugh.) Did a nonfiction book called Bad Girls with daughter Heidi and we are in the revision process. And starting a picture book called Shortstop about Honus Wagner.

AS: I’m currently working on what my writer’s group calls a "Big Epic Fantasy." My mother and I seem to have an offer upcoming on another rock ‘n’ roll fairy tale, this one about a Jewish garage band that create a golem mostly to play the drums.

GB: What are some things you’ve read or listened to or watched recently that you’d recommend to others?

JY: Adam’s sequel to his first book is called Steward of Song and will be out in March. Brilliant. Patricia MacLachlan’s Edward’s Eyes is incredibly moving. I was fascinated by Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret though not entirely in love with it. And then I just read the latest Ian Rankin’s Rebus mystery novel because I am a big fan.

AS: Been very delinquent on my reading lately, though I can highly recommend Bobby Clark’s The Baffled Parent’s Guide to Coaching Youth Soccer, though probably only if you’re going to start coaching youth soccer. Saw Michael Clayton last night and recommend it highly.

Visit today’s other WBBT stops:

Loree Griffin Burns at Chasing Ray
Lily Archer at The Ya Ya Yas
Rick Riordan at Jen Robinson’s Book Page
Gabrielle Zevin at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
Dia Calhoun at lectitans
Shannon Hale at Miss Erin
Alan Gratz at Interactive Reader
Lisa Yee at Hip Writer Mama

WBBT Stop: Jane Yolen & Adam Stemple Read More »

WBBT Stop: Elizabeth Knox

ElizabethknoxElizabeth Knox is one of the best writers working today. She’s written several highly acclaimed adult novels, and in the past couple of years published her first work for younger readers with the Dreamhunter Duet, an instant fantasy classic. Her work is strange, exciting, masterful–I could say more, but it would just be pure fangirl squealing, so what say let’s get to the good part instead?

GB: At Shaken & Stirred, the first question is always process porn, because my dear readers love it so. Can you talk a bit about your (vomitous arty term alert) creative process? Your books tend to be incredibly rich with ideas–does it take them awhile to accrue or does that happen during the writing itself?

EK: My books usually start this way. I’ll notice that I’ve begun to think about some character’s possible predicament, a dramatic event, or a setting–place, period, atmosphere. Once I’ve noticed I’m musing I find myself coming up with various proposals, like a kid proposing a bit of action in a game. ‘Let’s say that,’ I think, or, ‘‘What if…’

I usually have a number of ideas for novels circling in a holding pattern. I’m never sure which idea is the first in the queue. And I don’t begin writing till I get what I call ‘a book-starting idea’, the idea that makes it possible for a cluster of notions for a novel to consolidate and start generating their own heat. The book-starting idea is like a starter motor in a car, it makes the big engine of a novel turn over.

Once I start writing the ideas accrue. This is what I think of as ‘consequential invention’. For example, in the Dreamhunter Duet, if there is no water in the Place, then it follows that exploration is limited by how much water explorers can carry. Or–another example–if each freshly caught dream fades as it is repeated then a dreamhunter would have stay awake till their audience has gathered, so therefore dreamhunters would probably take stimulants. I work out all my ‘if this then that’ stuff as I go, and, usually, the logic of the ifs and thens helps whatever odd or contingent idea I’ve started with begin to seem real and necessary.

GB: Your novels cover such a broad spectrum (and yet have an undeniable unity of voice)–did you  ntentionally set out to avoid repeating yourself? Has this presented any issues of readers getting upset when you don’t repeat yourself? It seems to me like readers often don’t appreciate the difficulty of trying new things.

EK: I’m easily bored and, as a consumer of fiction, I have broad tastes, so I guess I’ve just naturally wandered around in various genres. My wanderings aren’t a declaration of any kind, and I often try quite staunchly to avoid some of my own low interests. I say sheepishly to my husband–an editor and person of impeccable taste–that I have, for instance, a good idea for a horror novel. I make this admission as though I’m having an unworthy thought. I lament my lack of grown-up-ness, I look valiantly for other more respectable projects, meanwhile the horror novel proliferates, dark and glowing, till finally I give in and start writing.

I should say that while I’m wringing my hands about my planned horror novel or epic fantasy with zombies my tasteful husband is always encouraging me to write whatever I want to write.

I think all changeable and experimenting writers (in my case helplessly experimental) will at some time have problems with the desire of readers for more of what they’ve previously enjoyed. But there are plenty of readers who are happy to be surprised. I’m always tremendously excited to see what writers like Philip Roth or Hilary Mantel are going to do next. And I don’t think I’m unrepresentative as a reader.

GB: Did you know when you began the Dreamhunter books that they would be aimed at younger readers? I love the fact that they are so sophisticated and complex, and yet still entirely "kid-friendly"–did you approach writing them differently at all?

EK: I’ve been an almost life-long reader of young adult fiction. I had a break between fifteen and twenty-four. After I finished Mary O’Hara’s The Green Grass of Wyoming I couldn’t find another book grown-up enough for me without totally switching over to adult books–which I’d been reading anyway since I was eleven. I came back to young adult fiction when I picked up Diana Wynne Jones’s The Lives of Christopher Chant. Only weeks later I discovered Margaret Mahy–her books were for me like finding something I didn’t know I already owned.

I always knew I’d have a go at writing a book for young adults. I was only waiting for the right idea. I probably came up with Dreamhunter when I did because I’d been having intense discussions about young adult books with my then eleven-year-old son. Though, how I came to the idea itself is more biographical and to do with a back injury, pain, sleeplessness and the desire for sleep, and many long walks I took through drenched bush with a wonderfully civilised elderly dog–not my own.

While I set out to write a book for younger readers (and hopefully for the readers I already had), when I finished I wasn’t sure that I’d managed to do it. My first editor, Julia Wells at Faber, pointed me in the right direction.

GB: One of the things I admire most about your work is the way you use point of view–especially the omniscient POV in the Dreamhunter Duet. You bold as brass jump between the perspectives of many, many characters, with the effect of creating a larger world that matters, rather than fragmenting the narrative. Please tell me this was as hard to accomplish as it seems like it would be.

EK: I’m glad you like it. It’s a kind of limited eye-of-God, I guess. I usually write in the limited third person. Dreamhunter jumps between people only section by section, but never within sections, between one sentence and the next. The tricky thing about this method is that you have to make it clear to the readers whose point of view you are going to continue to visit–who the main protagonists are. That’s why, in Dreamhunter, the early departures from the points of view of the principals are into the heads of a group of people–like the people watching Laura saying goodbye to her father on the platform of Sisters Beach station–or into the head of a casualty, the ranger who gets run down by the stagecoach.


GB: Did you know what the end of the Duet would be all along? Did it ever give you a moment’s pause, destroying The Place? The series feels self-contained and perfect as is, but is there any possibility of other books set in the same world? Or of more work for younger readers?

When I finished writing Dreamhunter I didn’t know how the story would eventually end, or even how many more books there would be. But by the time I had an editor, I’d begun to work out that the story would take only two books. I called it a ‘duet’ because of the Place’s two voices–Lazarus Hame’s voice, and the Tenth Nown’s, a desperate vengeful voice and a rapt, loving one.

As for how the story ends: when I was editing the first book it began to annoy me that there were two magical things in the story, the Place, and Laura’s sandman Nown. I realised that the story had to answer the basic questions it had raised about how its world worked: "What is the Place?  Where did it come from?  And why?" I decided to answer the questions by being economical with the magic, i.e.: The Place is a Nown

The ending I came up with owed a great deal to the fact I was working on a collaboration between writers and physicists–Are Angels OK, edited by Bill Manhire and Paul Callaghan and published by The Royal Society and Victoria University Press. For AAOK I wrote a time travel story called ‘Unobtainium’. I did some reading about time travel and causality and so was able to work out that the time travel stories I’d always loved had a ‘self-consistent universe’ view of time travel, in which what happens is what was always going to happen. The Duet looks like a self-consistent universe time travel story up till the moment that Sandy walks back into Summerfort a few pages from the end of the book. Dreamquake turns out to have the ‘many timelines’ view of causality–and a happy ending.

GB: The second Dreamhunter book is dedicated to the legendary Margaret Mahy and I hear that you’ve actually shot a documentary about her. Can you tell us a little about that and how it came to be? (I can dream that it’ll someday be available on DVD here, right? Or at least pirated!)

EK: The Documentary is called ‘A Tall, Long-Faced Tale’ and was made for TVNZ. I was the writer and interviewer. The interviews were filmed in and around Margaret’s home in Governor’s Bay. The documentary also has interviews with Margaret’s current YA editor, and illustrators Jenny Williams, Quentin Blake, and Steven Kellogg, and others. It has dramatisations of scenes from some of the YA books, and picture book characters popping up and asking questions. The documentary was made for a general audience, but we did manage to get a few knotty questions through to the final cut.

Now I’m waiting for Television New Zealand to tell us when they’re going to screen it, hopefully in the Christmas season.

GB: Recommendations–anything you’ve seen/read/listened to lately that you recommend?

EK: Lately I’ve been reading my way through all Elizabeth Taylor’s novels. Elizabeth Taylor is a mid-twentieth century English novelist. She’s more like Jane Austen than any other writer; only bleaker.  I recommend Angel and At Mrs Lippencote’s.

Right now I’m reading Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate, an 800 page novel set in Russia during WW2. Grossman was a war correspondent. Life and Fate is his great novel. Only one manuscript survived and was smuggled out of Russiain 1980. It is very real, beautiful, wise, and killingly sad.

I recently saw Michael Clayton. I liked the fact the film trusted and revelled in dramatic dialogue. And ah! that George Clooney!

Then there’s TV: The Sopranos, Deadwood, Battlestar Galactica, Dexter, Ugly Betty…

Visit today’s other WBBT stops:

David Mack at Chasing Ray
Paul Volponi at The Ya Ya Yas
Ellen Emerson White at A Chair, A Fireplace and A Tea Cozy
Jack Gantos at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
David Levithan at Not Your Mother’s Book Club
Micol Ostow at Bildungsroman (who was here yesterday)
Laura Amy Schlitz at Miss Erin
Kerry Madden at Hip Writer Mama
Sherman Alexie at Interactive Reader

WBBT Stop: Elizabeth Knox Read More »

WBBT Stop: Micol Ostow

MicolMicol Ostow has written a whole bunch of things–short stories, media tie-ins, romantic comedies, and more. Her novel Emily Goldberg Learns to Salsa releases this week in paperback from Razorbill. She left an editing position at a major New York house to write full time and pursue an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College (which is where we met, over many, many glasses of vino, hiding from the cold). She has an adorable dog. More on all that–except Bridget Jones–from the lady’s lips. Or, more precisely, fingertips.

GB: Your wonderful book Emily Goldberg Learns to Salsa is being released in paperback, oh, any day now. Tell us about Emily and how you came to write this book. Also, can you clarify that the main character is not you and the book’s Noah isn’t your Noah?

MO: Of course, when you write something so personal, people want to assume that it’s wildly autobiographical. Emily and I share the same cultural background, but actually, we had very opposite experiences with our Puerto Rican families. My mother took us to spend Christmas with her parents every year, so we grew up in much closer contact with our family than Emily ever did.

The one thing that I will say is that when I was 14 and fortunate enough to spend the summer with my uncle and his family in San Juan, I was shocked at how much responsibility fell to my cousin Angela. She and I are the same age, and she oversaw a lot of the housework, in addition to babysitting her three younger sisters. Meanwhile, her older brother Mario was generally free to come and go as he pleased. I don’t know that that sort of gender divide is Puerto Rican, per se, or particular to my family, but it was quite an eye-opening experiencing. I never again took my own chores for granted!

And no, Noah in the book is most emphatically not Noah in real life. What people don’t realize is that EMILY was written a good year before I even met real-life Noah. It just happens to be one of my favorite names for a boy. So maybe that’s part of why I was drawn to the real one. But yeah, it’s something that people take note of, and it usually makes them laugh.

GB:  I once heard Sharyn November say that when she was growing up–and still–she found it extremely difficult to find books for kids and teens that had Jewish characters in them, which were not necessarily about being Jewish. I also don’t see that many books for teens with Latino characters. You’ve written about the challenge of capturing true multiculturalism before. I still see a lot of room for more diversity in books for younger readers. (Though, that said, if you take translations out of the mix, the field probably bats higher than books for adult readers.) What do you think about this?

MO: I agree, I think the challenge with any sort of "multi-culti" lit is to figure out a way to integrate the cultural authenticity without necessarily creating a didactic body of work. Of course, when one sets out to write the first of a book about a particular cultural minority, there’s a lot of establishing and background that needs to be laid out. So it’s hard not to find ourselves reading books like ESTRELLA’S QUINCEANERA (which is a great book, by the way), where the focus of the book is drawing a picture of the cultural rite in a way that the reader can identify with.

One of my favorite books that I’ve read in the last few months is HATERS by Alicia Valdes-Rodriguez, wherein the characters are all multi-ethnic. And yet, it’s all incidental to the storyline, which, in my opinion, is much more honest.

GB: You have also written several romantic comedies for Simon and Schuster and much work-for-hire. Is your process different at all in the different kinds of work? Do you juggle projects at the same time and how, without going completely stark raving mad?

MO: Oh, I’m stark raving mad, all right!

EMILY was a more thoughful book to write than the romantic comedies are, and it took me a lot longer to find her voice. I read a lot of Sweet Valley High growing up, so that very commercial sensibility comes to me pretty naturally.

That being said, the ro coms need to be plotted much more tightly than something that can be more literary and meandering, so it’s an entirely different set of skills that you have to bring to the table as a writer for that sort of project. Not to mention the turnaround times are insane!

Work-for-hire can be particularly challenging because the author’s voice is actually a liability in that situation. It is much harder than you might think to have to adjust to a "series style" or voice.

But I love being able to balance out all three because they really speak to the different sides of my personality: analytical and introspective, chatty and (I hope) snarky, and obsessively detail-oriented. So I wouldn’t ever limit myself by committing to one form of writing over any other.

GB: Tell me about the project you and your brother are working on for Flux–it’s pretty exciting. Your brother put together an amazing box set of CDs themed to each character, and I can’t wait until you post the playlists online. This seemed like such a great tool–particularly in a collaboration–for knowing who the characters are. After all, what defines teenagers more than the music they like? When will the book be out?

MO: Our book is tentatively titled I’M WITH THE TRIBE: A Guy, A Guitar, and a Date with (Non-Denominational) Destiny, and I’m super-excited for it! We’re publishing with the uber-indie imprint Flux, and the book will be out in Spring ’09 (actual pub month to be determined).

It’s a hybrid graphic novel, meaning that it’s a traditional novel with graphic panels and spot art interspersed throughout. My brother David is handling the illustrations (and all of the musical references, since that’s much more his thing than mine. If it were up to me, the playlists would be largely composed of Madonna remixes).

TRIBE is the story of a yeshiva (Jewish day school) boy who starts up a garage band in the hopes of raising his "cool quotient." The story follows the band’s progress, but the protagonist, Ari, slowly learns that he may in fact have other talents that set him apart from the crowd.

It’s a story that’s really close to both of our hearts after having attended Jewish day school from kindergarten straight through to senior year. And as much as I don’t practice very much in my daily life, I’m constantly amazed to see how pervasive Jewish themes are in my work. I guess you can take the girl out of yeshiva…

GB: So, you and I are in the same MFA program–Vermont College, represent! What made you decide to do a program like this even though you were already publishing? Do you think it’s been worth it?

MO: I’d always wanted to go back and get an MFA in creative writing, just for my own personal growth, even though, as you mention, I was already publishing, and it wasn’t necessarily something that was going to "further" my career. Vermont College especially intrigued me because of the caliber of its alumni (um, MT Anderson?!). So when I decided to leave my job to work full-time as a writer (last winter), it seemed like the logical time to enter into a writing program. It’s been a great mix of discipline and interactivity as I adjust to a life of pj’s and my laptop.

Vermont has been great. I love the dialogue I have with my adviser, and I especially love having the opportunity to look critically at the work that’s already out there in the world. As an editor, you’re usually so buried in manuscripts that reading gets pushed to the back burner. Now I have to read! Life could be a lot worse.

GB: Okay, so the Shaken & Stirred people, we love Buffy, and you’ve done some work on a couple of Buffy projects in the past, when you were an editor at Simon and Schuster. What’s your favorite episode of Buffy and why?

MO: Yeah, I could go on forever about "Buffy." But I’ll just give you my greatest hits:

"Becoming, Parts I and II"–so poignant and gorgeous. Just the most bittersweet ending to the most achingly emotional season. And what a cliffhanger! I remember watching part I and literally wanting to stay, rooted to my seat on the couch, until the premiere of season three.

"Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered"–well, I love the Xan-Man, and this episode was hilarious and goofy.

"Tabula Rasa"–Spike in the three piece suit? The hat with the ear flaps? Joan the Vampire Slayer? Hysterically funny, but also devastating. That Willow sure can do a weepy scene. "Stay away from Randy!"

"Once More, With Feeling"–that musical was just perfect in every way. I just watched it the other night with a girlfriend, during some pre-Halloween (my favorite holiday) festivities.

Visit today’s other WBBT sites:

Lisa Ann Sandell at Interactive Reader
Christopher Barzak at Chasing Ray (he was here yesterday)
Julie Halpern at The Ya Ya Yas 
Rick Yancey at Hip Writer Mama
Jane Yolen at Fuse Number 8
Shannon Hale at Bookshelves of Doom
Maureen Johnson at Bildungsroman
David Lubar at Writing & Ruminating
Sherman Alexie at Finding Wonderland

WBBT Stop: Micol Ostow Read More »

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