Author Interview with James Preller

BYGGet to know James…

James Preller is the author of many books for children, including A PIRATE’S GUIDE TO FIRST GRADE, the new “SCARY TALES” Series, BYSTANDER, SIX INNINGS, ALONG CAME SPIDER, the “JIGSAW JONES” Mystery Series, and more. He lives with his family in Delmar, NY. He enjoys visiting schools around the country and blogs here.

Quirky Questions 

If you were a cartoon, who would you be? 

I’d be hanging out in the alleys with Top Cat from the 1960’s Hanna-Barbera cartoons. To be clear, I wouldn’t be Top Cat himself, but I’d be digging that out-of-the-mainstream scene.

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

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

What’s your idea of a good time?

A fire, good music, and lively friends.

Have you been told you look like someone famous?

Used to get Jim Morrison a lot, then used to hear Pierce Brosnan (the Remington Steele period). Nowadays it’s Kirstie Alley. Oh well.

If you could eliminate one thing from your daily schedule, what would it be? 

Eating, so much fuss.

If you were to get a tattoo, what would it be? 

Yeah, no, not happening.

Name one thing that drives you crazy.

One thing? Today, it would be insurance companies, so I guess we could generalize that into mindless, faceless, bloodsucking bureaucracies. For more info, read: the collected works for Franz Kafka.

Name one thing you can’t live without.

Water.

As a child, what did you wish to become when you grew up?

I wanted to pitch for the New York Mets.

What’s your motto in life?

Follow your enthusiasms.

What’s your most embarrassing moment?

I think I’ve spent too much of my life trying to avoid embarrassing moments. I’ve mostly succeeded, but somehow, now, that feels like a failing.

What’s the naughtiest thing you did in school?

I punched a kid in an elevator. My reasons weren’t great, as I’m pretty sure my prefrontal cortex – the area of “sober second thought” — was not yet fully developed. That’s life as a teenager, the frontal lobes aren’t fused. We’re lucky to be alive, basically.

Who was your favorite teacher? 

I can think of a few, and it’s always the same thing – somehow you both break through the limited roles of “teacher” and “student.” They see something in you that maybe you didn’t see in yourself. They take the extra time; they care. You connect as people. It only means the world.

Describe your ideal day.

I’m with my family, my wife, my children. Outdoors, somewhere. Simple pleasures.

Do you believe in UFOs?

Sure.

If you were a road sign, what would you be?

Slippery when wet.

If you were to attend a costume party tonight, who would you be? 

My college-age son and his friends decided to be “Dads” for Halloween. He sent me some pretty hysterical photos. It gave me an idea for a costume. I’d wear a Darth Vader helmet, a cape, and pull on one of those cheesy mall t-shirts that reads: WORLD’S GREATEST DAD. Because, irony!

What is one quality that you really appreciate in a person?

An interior life.

What classifies as a boring conversation? What classifies as an interesting one?

I like all kinds of people. Authenticity trumps all. Keep it real and I’m glad to meet you.

What is your earliest childhood memory?

I’m the youngest of seven, so it was just that dinner table sense of being surrounded by voices, big bodies, family – of being born into something and kind of looking around, thinking, “Hmmm, so this is what it is.” That’s the writer’s disposition right there.

Bystander-Paperback-L9780312547967Writing Questions 

What initially inspired you to pursue a career in writing?

For starters, I suspect it began with my need to be alone at time, to get away, and find happiness with my own self. A by-product, perhaps, of growing up in a large, noisy household. Once you give yourself the opportunity to tune into that inner rumble, a lot of good things can happen. Even writing books.

What books are you reading right now?

Just read for the first time, THE LORD OF THE FLIES by William Golding. Pretty damn perfect book. I’m going to start Alice Munro’s DEAR LIFE next, but at the same time I’m picking my way through a collection of speculative fiction edited by Harlan Ellison, titled  DANGEROUS VISIONS. I got to talking to a cool, passionate reader in a book store about science fiction – a young guy, very smart – and I finally said to him, pick out a book for me and I’ll buy it. That’s the one he placed into my hands.

Name someone who supported your writing journey outside of family members.

When you read a book, you are alone and yet deeply connected at the same time. The best, most consistent encouragement has been through the communion (and community) of all the great writers ahead of and alongside me.

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

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

What’s your favorite writing quote?

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

Do you have any advice for other writers?

Keep writing. It’s the only way out.

What inspired you to write your first book?

Other books and blank pages and an inner confidence that said, “Me, too.” I was the Little Blue Engine that believed, almost unaccountably, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”

Do you have a specific writing style?

I guess I do, but I’d like to think it varies according to the demands of each story. You try not to fall back on the same, familiar bag of tricks every time.

What do you think you do best in your writing? Bragging is encouraged.

My mother learned from her mother that it was a sin to admire yourself in the mirror, and I guess I got a little of that from her. It’s unbecoming. I’ve done a lot of different books, some good, some less so. I try to write characters with depth, and usually story rises out of them like stems from seeds. Sometimes there’s an idea and character comes later (not less important, but later). For my most recent “Scary Tales” book, GOOD NIGHT, ZOMBIE, my notion was, to put it pithily: “Breakfast Club” meets “Night of the Living Dead” for elementary school readers. But even within that kind of setup, you are nowhere unless you’ve got characters that the reader will care about, or hate, or feel toward in some way. As a writer, in terms of craft, I’ve learned to respect subtle things like clarity and restraint, which are not flashy attributes. Sometimes the best sentence is, “He put the glass on the table.” It’s important for me to remember that.

What books have most influenced your life?

It feels like it’s all been one great, long book. Sometimes the ones you hate have the greatest impact, the books you throw against the wall in a rage. Some writers have that story – they can point to a single book, or author, as a game-changer – but that’s not been my experience.

If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?

That would be GOOD NIGHT, ZOMBIE. And today I’m very happy with it because I think it lives up to what I was attempting to deliver. It’s like, I don’t know, I built a birdhouse, nailed it to a tree, and now I can see there are actually birds living in it. In this case, I wanted to give a young person a certain kind of reading experience – fast-paced, exciting, scary, clever, smart. In general, once a book is out I’m pretty good at moving on. Not that I think what I’ve done is ever perfect, just that I accept the process. For example, there are 40 books in the “Jigsaw Jones” series. Not all of them are awesome. Sometimes the process of the mystery unfolding doesn’t satisfy, or the pace lags, or the humor doesn’t crackle. The funny scene falls flat, feels forced. With my YA novel, BEFORE YOU GO, I’ve had to accept that it’s not a book for everyone. I wish more people found it and loved it, but I wrote the story I needed to write at the time, in the best way I could. At the same time, I’ll read some wildly “It” book of the moment and find it abysmal. Just horrendous. Different strokes.

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

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

Who’s your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?

I learn something different from every author, I have debts all over this town. Lately I’ve been inspired by Stephen King’s work ethic, his free-wheeling imagination, the way his spigot is wide open. He understands artifice and creates situations for his characters. King is interested in watching the way people behave under dire circumstances. I admire Kurt Vonnegut’s righteous indignation, his sense of playfulness, the blending of genres to invent something new. I am moved by the profound dignity – the humanity – of a writer like John Steinbeck. The clear heart of Anna Quindlen, where “the writing” doesn’t get in the way. I admire the dark intelligence of Don Chaon, those troubled characters. When one of his characters first appears, you immediately sense they’ve already lived a life. They arrive complete, fully formed, carrying with them all the burdens of the past. It’s stunning how he achieves that. With someone like Joan Didion, it’s her honesty and that perfect punctuation of hers. Roger Angell’s calm and shapely sentences. The way Raymond Carver cuts it close to the bone. And on and on it goes. George Saunders, Richard Ford, Arnold Lobel, Maurice Sendak, Lois Lowry. The list is endless and full of pleasure.

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Author Interview with Holly Goldberg Sloan

photoGet to know Holly…

HOLLY GOLDBERG SLOAN was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan and spent a peripatetic childhood (following her Professor father and architect mother) living in California, The Netherlands, Istanbul, Turkey (where she went to high school), Washington D.C. and Oregon. 

She attended college at Wellesley in Massachusetts (with her junior year of study done at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire). After graduating, Holly went to New York City and took a job at Grey Advertising answering phones and writing at night and on weekends (and when no one was paying attention to what she was doing at work). 

A year later she had moved to Los Angeles where she sold her first screenplay at the age of twenty-four to Paramount Pictures. Holly continued to write, but supported herself for the next ten years by working in commercial advertising as a production assistant, then a script supervisor, a producer, and finally as a commercial director. 

The year 1982 was a big year for Holly, because that was also when she got married to Chuck Sloan. They were married for ten years, and had two sons. While their marriage didn’t work out, their friendship did. Holly is certain that none of the things that she has achieved would have been possible without his support.

Holly has written eight successful family feature films, three for the Walt Disney Company, including the baseball classic Angels in the Outfield, and the soccer movie, The Big Green, which she also directed (filmed in Austin, Texas). She also wrote the Universal Pictures comedy Made in America starring Whoopi Goldberg, Ted Danson and Will Smith, and the late Steve Irwin’s feature film for MGM: Collision Course: The Crocodile Hunter Movie.

Holly wrote and directed the children’s film Heidi 4 Paws where she put dogs in costumes in all of the roles of the famous children’s story. This film used the voice talent of Angela Lansbury, Stephen Rea, Richard Kind, Majandra Delfino, and Julian Sands and recently aired on Public Television in the United States and Canada. For more info on Holly, visit her website.

colorQuirky Questions 

What’s the funniest prank ever played on you?

I think I play pranks on others but I actually don’t remember the ones played on me.  In high school, I wrote a letter that was fake to Dear Abby.  I said I was a wife with a husband who had taught a bird to swear all day.  She printed it, with her solution.  I then wrote her and told her it was a fake.  She wrote me back.  She wasn’t very amused. 

What’s the naughtiest thing you did in school?

I don’t think I was very naughty in school.  I liked so many of my teachers.  And classmates.  I’m sure I had acts of rebellion, but I had a very rebellious brother, so that position was already taken in family. 

Do you believe in UFOs?

Well I certainly believe when I look up into the stars, that there are other forms of life out there.  I don’t have any idea what those may be, but as Buzz Lightyear says, “To Infinity and beyond!”

What song best describes your work ethic?

Like a Bridge Over Troubled Water. 

If you were to attend a costume party tonight, who would you be? Why?

I’d be a ladybug because I have that costume in my closet. 

What classifies as a boring conversation? What classifies as an interesting one?

A boring conversation is endlessly talking about what’s wrong with other people.  An interesting one is about ideas.  Books.  Film.  Art.  Food.  Plants and gardening.  Medical conditions.  Animals.  Travel.  History.  Politics.  Public Policy.  

Are there any stores you refuse to shop in? 

I don’t go to really expensive stores.  I wouldn’t say I refuse, I’m just not  interested in Rodeo Drive (I live in Los Angeles).

What are some of the rules your parents had for you as a child?

My parents had very, very few rules.  That was one of the best parts of their parenting style.  We made a lot of our own decisions. 

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

I hit Johnny Larson with my blue ski jacket in kindergarten and the zipper hit his face and cut his forehead.  It sliced it open.  Johnny Larson had taken a nickel I had and I was very upset about this.  I had to go to the principal’s office and I had to apologize.  

When was the last time you cried? 

Thirty minutes ago.  I found out that Counting By 7s was Amazon’s #1 Book of 2013 for Middle Readers.  I tend to cry at good news and go very quiet at bad news. 

What is the most awkward date you have ever been on? 

Wow.  So many were awkward.  I can’t single out one for this distinction.

If you were a road sign, what would you be and why?

Yield.  When I decide something, I want to see it get done. 

What’s your favorite blog?

Andrew Sullivan’s political blog. 

Coffee or tea?

Tea.  I don’t drink coffee. 

After a day of writing, how do you recharge your creative batteries?

I cook.  I watch movies.  I hang out with my husband.  I walk down to the beach.  I go on eBay and look at vintage light fixtures. 

If you could be any superhero, who would it be? What would you do?

I have never wanted to be a superhero.  But flying would be nice.

If you could stay one age forever, what would it be?

Life is fundamentally about the understanding that nothing is forever. 

Favorite TV show?

Breaking Bad ties with The Sopranos

What’s your idea of an ideal day?

A productive day of writing.  A long walk.  Dinner with my family and friends. 

Have you been told you look like someone famous?

I was once told I looked like Olive Oil from Popeye.  I don’t think this is true. 

If you could eliminate one thing from your daily schedule, what would it be?

Getting stuck in traffic.  Driving in Los Angeles requires a lot of planning if you live on the Westside of the city.   

d41e8203cb45179d06f602aeff1ccf64Writing Questions 

What initially inspired you to pursue a career in writing?

I always wanted to be a writer.  My second grade report card says: “I hope Holly continues to tell stories.”  What kind of stories could I possibly have been telling?  I guess I was a chatterbox even then.

What books are you reading right now?

I just started The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.  I read one book at a time.  

Name someone who supported your writing journey outside of family members.

My teachers.  I had fantastic teachers.  Ray Scofield from Roosevelt Junior High school in Eugene, Oregon comes to mind as so important. 

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

No.  I sold my first screenplay (besides books I write film and television) when I was 24 years old and it gave me the confidence to believe I could make a living as a writer.

What’s your favorite writing quote?

I don’t have a favorite quote.  I do have a favorite flower, which is the sunflower. 

Do you have any advice for other writers?

Read.  Read.  Read.  And then write.  Write.  Write.

What inspired you to write your first book?

Life inspires me.  I write contemporary realistic fiction.  Every day incidents and people are my canvas and paint.

Do you have a specific writing style?

I think I like short sentences.  I like certain words.  I don’t like too much explaining.  What isn’t said can be as important as what is. 

What do you think you do best in your writing? Bragging is encouraged.

I think that I can be emotional, but I have a sense of humor. 

What books have most influenced your life?

Everything written by William Faulkner.

If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?

If I could have anyone, I would have hung out with Harper Lee.  Instead I just read her book over and over.

If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book? 

No. 

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

It’s all a challenge.  It’s all work.  It all takes muscle.  You have to care a lot.  

Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work? 

My favorite writers right now are Maria Semple.  Julie Berry.  John Corey Whaley.  My husband Gary Rosen.  George Saunders.  My sons Calvin Sloan and Max Sloan.  E. B. White.  And William Faulkner (always).   

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Interview with Award-Winning Author Sally Nicholls

Close Your Pretty EyesGet to know Sally…

Sally Nicholls was born in Stockton, just after midnight, in a thunderstorm. Her father died when she was two and she and her brother were brought up by her mother. She has always loved reading and spent most of her childhood trying to make life work like it did in books. After school, she worked in Japan for six months and travelled around Australia and New Zealand, then came back and did a degree in Philosophy and Literature at the University of Warwick. In her third year she enrolled in a Master in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University. It was here at the age of twenty-two that she wrote Ways to Live Forever, her first novel, which went on to win the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2008. She was also named Glen Dimplex New Writer of the Year in 2008. Sally’s later work includes Season of Secrets, All Fall Down and the really rather terrifying ghost story Close Your Pretty Eyes. For more info, visit her website.

Quirky Questions

If you had to be trapped in a TV show for a month, which show would you choose?

Doctor Who. As long as I got to travel in the TARDIS.

What’s your favorite zoo animal?

Elephants or monkeys. Aren’t they everyone’s favorite?

What dead person would you least want to be haunted by?

Well, Amelia Dyer is pretty terrifying in my book Close Your Pretty Eyes, so probably her. But anyone big and murderous.

Do you believe in UFOs?

I believe aliens probably exist somewhere. I’m going to believe UFO sightings are fake until I have some compelling evidence otherwise.

If you were a road sign, what would you be? 

Heavy Plant Crossing. Because I am all about the odd and the fantastical.

If you were to attend a costume party, who would you be?

Probably someone medieval, because I have a medieval dress sitting in my cupboard, so it would be easy. Possibly Queen Isabella. She was cool. Look her up. Or possibly Miss Havisham so I could wear my lovely wedding dress again.

What food item would you remove from the market altogether?

Fish farmed by unsustainable fishing.

Have you been told you look like someone famous?

When I was a teenager I was told I looked like Martine McCutcheon. I don’t think I did very much.

249833_10150292216514009_3300107_nWriting Questions

How do you deal with creativity blocks?

By sitting in front of a computer every day, writing and writing until I come up with something worth writing.

Can you visualize a finished product before you begin a book?

Yes. But the finished book doesn’t usually end up looking anything like it.

Do you feel that you chose your passion, or did it choose you?

My passion for stories chose me. My decision to turn that into a career in writing was my decision.

Is there a particular place where you feel most creative?

Somewhere different to where I usually write. I like variety.

Who or what has helped you to persevere and not quit?

My mortgage statements.

If you were no longer able to write, how else would you express your creativity?

Knitting. Cooking. Reading. Telling myself stories in my head.

What words of inspiration were given to you that you would like to pass along to others?

From my writing tutor at Bath, Julia Green – you’ll only ever be a second-rate J K Rowling, but you’re the best Sally Nicholls there’ll ever be.

When did you realize that you had a gift?

I didn’t see it as a gift. I saw it as a part of myself. I was probably about five.

How do you balance your personal life and your creative endeavors?

I’m ridiculously fortunate that I get to do this full-time. I prioritize work and friends and family, and everything else (housework, hobbies, accounts, tax return) comes second. I don’t yet have children, so I have more time than a lot of writers.

What is your typical day like?

This. Except my boyfriend is now my husband, and we’ve finished the West Wing. And I don’t have flatmates anymore.

Do you have family members who like to write too?

Cousins, no one closer.

Does your writing reflect your personality?

Yes and no. I’m generally hopeful. I think people are generally decent. Family and friends are important to me. I like making people laugh. Those things come through in my books. But my books also can be dark and sad, and that isn’t me at all. But I am interested in all the things I write about.

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Interview with Award-Winning Author Chris Grabenstein

i-funnier-pressGet to know Chris…

Random House publishes his critically acclaimed Haunted Mystery Series for Middle Grades readers:THE CROSSROADS, which won both the Anthony and Agatha awards for best Children’s/YA novel, THE HANGING HILL (which also won the Agatha), THE SMOKY CORRIDOR, and The BLACK HEART CRYPT (the third Agatha winner in the series). 

His new caper series for kids (an OCEAN’S ELEVEN starring eleven-year-olds), including RILEY MACK AND THE OTHER KNOWN TROUBLEMAKERS and RILEY MACK STIRS UP MORE TROUBLE, is published by Harper Collins.

He has also written the e-book exclusive THE EXPLORERS’ GATE, all about the magical happenings in Central Park after dark.

Chris is super excited about his new middle grades book for Random House: ESCAPE FROM MR. LEMONCELLO’S LIBRARY. Can twelve 12-year-olds find their way out of the most ridiculously brilliant library ever created by only using information they find inside the library? The book pubs in 2013.

Chris has written several books for younger readers with the best-selling author of all time James Patterson: DANIEL X: ARMAGEDDONI FUNNY, and TREASURE HUNTERS.

Chris is a past president of the New York Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America. He lives with his beautiful, beloved wife J.J., a voice-over actress (check out her narration on the Haunted Mystery and EXPLORERS’ GATE audio books), in Manhattan.

He often credits his furry friend FRED for giving him time to dream up story ideas because the dog takes Chris on four contemplative walks a day.

His cats Parker, Tiger Lilly and Phoebe Squeak also help out. Parker enjoys headbutting his computer-mouse hand. Phoebe Squeak purrs when she approves of the prose. Tiger Lilly enjoys traipsing across the keyboard and mmmmeeeoooowwww…

That was Tiger Lilly.

Quirky Questions

What’s the best restaurant you’ve ever been to?

Well, for food and hoity-toity-ness, that would have to be Le Bernardin here in New York City, which is consistently rated as one of the top spots in the city.  However, the absolute best is our neighborhood joint, Spring Natural Kitchen on Columbus Avenue — especially when my wife threw me a surprise party to celebrate I FUNNY becoming number one on the New York Times middle grades best seller list.  About eight of our friends were there, all of them wearing Groucho glasses and noses.

What’s your motto in life?  

It’s actually a John Wesley quote I recently discovered thanks to K. Karpen, our pastor at St. Paul and St. Andrew’s Methodist Church in New York:  “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”

Do you believe in UFOs? 

Oh, yes!  I used to write advertising for Kentucky Fried Chicken.  Unidentifiable Fried Objects definitely exist.  Especially in the larger buckets. 

What song best describes your work ethic?

Readers familiar with my John Ceepak mysteries for adults know that I am a Bruce Springsteen fanatic.  Lately, I have been motivating myself with his song WRECKING BALL.  For writers and anyone who deals with rejection on a daily basis, the lyrics can be quite inspirational: “Come on and take your best shot, let me see what you’ve got. Bring on your wrecking ball.”   I guess that’s my work ethic song.  Keep on trucking!  No, wait.  That’s a Grateful Dead song… 

What is your earliest childhood memory? 

A creepy one.  I am in my playpen or crib, so I have to be around one year old.  My grandmother, who is Greek and speaks a strange language, gives me a soft clown doll with a very scary face as hard as a dish.  To this day, clowns and china freak me out. 

What food item would you remove from the market altogether?

Oreos.  Then I would stop eating them.

Have you been told you look like someone famous?

I get Rick Moranis a lot.  And Fred Armisten, from SNL and Portlandia.

If you were to get a tattoo, what would it be?

A big heart with wings on it and the initials J.J. in the center.

lemoncellos-library-pressWriting Questions

Is there a particular place where you feel most creative?

Wherever I have my earbuds.   I write to music.  Every time I start a project the first step is to create an iTunes playlist that will be a soundtrack to that book.  Once I plug in my earbuds, I can (and have) written anywhere with enough elbow room.   For me, my happy creative place is in my head.

Who or what has helped you to persevere and not quit?

Between 2001 and 2004, I was writing full time.  No day job.  And all I had to show for my efforts were some very kind and encouraging rejection letters.   I also came upon a fortune cookie fortune that helped me persevere.  I pinned the tiny slip of paper to the cork board over my computer:  “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.”

How do you deal with creativity blocks?

I do what we used to do when I performed in an improvisational comedy troupe in New York City.  Put two characters in a scene and see what happens if I say “Yes, and…” and don’t question a single word that tumbles out of my brain through my fingers.

Can you visualize your finished product before you begin it?

I think I can but then I realize it looks very different when I finally reach the end.  In fact, for giggles, I keep a file of all the outlines, which I usually revise once a week.  It’s hysterical to go back and see where I thought I was headed when I end up at the end of a story. 

When did you realize that you had a gift for writing?

When girls in middle school thought what I wrote in the student paper was funny.   And the eighth grade teacher who wrote in the margins of one of my essays: “You will make your living as a writer some day.” 

Which of your books gives you the most pride or satisfaction?

I think the newest title, ESCAPE FROM MR. LEMONCELLO’S LIBRARY.  I am very proud that it became a New York Times best seller and that so many teachers and librarians have enthusiastically embraced it.   I am very satisfied by the “internal clockwork” of all the puzzles within the puzzle that make the book tick.   And, I am very proud that I was able to hide an extra puzzle inside the book — one that’s not even in the story.

When do you feel the most energized?

Early in the morning, after walking the dog and sipping a very strong cup of Starbucks Sumatra coffee! 

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Interview with Award-Winning Author Wendelin Van Draanen

SK-And-the-Cold-Hard-Cash-Cover-ImageGet to know Wendelin…

Books have always been a part of Wendelin Van Draanen’s life. Her mother taught her to read at an early age, and she has fond memories of story time with her father, when she and her brothers would cuddle up around him and listen to him read stories. 

Growing up, Van Draanen was a tomboy who loved to be outside chasing down adventure. She did not decide that she wanted to be an author until she was an adult. When she tried her hand at writing a screenplay about a family tragedy, she found the process quite cathartic and from that experience, turned to writing novels for adults. She soon stumbled upon the joys of writing for children. 

Feedback from her readers is Van Draanen’s greatest reward for writing. “One girl came up to me and told me I changed her life. It doesn’t get any better than that,” she said. Van Draanen hopes to leave her readers with a sense that they have the ability to steer their own destiny-that individuality is a strength, and that where there’s a will, there’s most certainly a way. 

Her first book was published in 1997, and since then her titles have been nominated for State Award Master Lists all over the country. The Sammy Keyes Mysteries have been nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Children’s Mystery four times, with Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief bringing home the statue. Additionally, she has won the Christopher medal for Shredderman: Secret Identity, and the California Young Reader Medal for Flipped. Her books have been translated into many foreign languages, and have been optioned for film and television projects. She lives in California with her husband and two sons. Her hobbies include the “Three R’s”: Reading, Running and Rock ‘n’ Roll. For more info, visit her website, or you can find her on Twitter too!

Let the conversation begin!

Do you begin with character or plot?

Maybe situation? The characters seem to evolve from their circumstances. Plot can be the driving force in a mystery, but the mysteries I enjoy most are made more complex by the main character’s situation outside of it. I’m most interested in the human condition, so most of my writing stems from that.

What was the weirdest food you’ve ever eaten?

Sammy’s crush (Casey) has her eat weird combinations of food. This is inspired by my husband who used to pack me odd things in my lunch when I was a teacher. I’d open my sack and go, Really? Some of his, uh, experiments were really tasty…like mac ‘n’ cheese ‘n’ salsa…others not so much…like tuna and peanut butter (bleeech). But to answer your question, probably rattlesnake.  Gutted, cooked and consumed in the name of research for Sammy Keyes and the Wild Things, it was a lot of work for not much meat. Good to know if you’re starving in the woods.

What’s the first item on your bucket list?

Finish the Sammy Keyes series! I can’t croak before my readers know who Sammy’s dad is!

flipped1What do you do to recharge your creative batteries?

Play distorted electric guitar, ride shopping carts through parking lots, go for long runs.

Do you let anyone read your work-in-progress? Or do you keep it a secret?

My husband is my first and only pre-reader. He’s enormously helpful. Then my editor and agent read it. I don’t circulate the story before it’s a book, but I do talk about it.

In grade school, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Anything but a writer! Being a writer seemed so…stationary. And I’m a little hyper.

Easier to write before or after you were published?

Before. No deadlines, no expectations. And when I got to the end of the manuscript I thought I was done! But being published is a whole lot more fun than being rejected.

What’s one rule you’re dying to break?

Just one? Please.

What initially drew you to writing?

Death! Destruction! Dispair! Writing started as a form of therapy during a struggle to cope with the curveballs of life. I could never have dreamed that it would become such a joyful career. 

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Interview with Award-Winning Author Phoebe Stone

11962848Get to know Phoebe…

Phoebe Stone is the author of six novels, some of them sleeper hit best sellers. The Boy on Cinnamon Street received four starred reviews and is currently on the Vermont Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book Award List and The Pennsylvania Keystone To Reading Book Award List. The Romeo and Juliet Code was a Boston Globe Top Ten Best Children’s Books of the Year 2011 and included in National Public Radio’s Best Books of the Year 2011. And in a starred review, Hornbook Magazine recently called her latest book, Romeo Blue, the best kind of sequel. Phoebe lives with her husband in Middlebury, Vermont where she paints in her spare time and when it’s warm out rides her bicycle everywhere, letting her hair fly around in the wind. For more info, visit her website

Quirky Questions

What’s your idea of an ideal day? 

When I was doing research for my newest book Romeo Blue. My husband and I went to Maine where the book takes place. We stayed in a remote rustic inn on the ocean and we played 1940s music in our car as we drove to various museums and historic houses and beaches and cliff walks. We spent days riding our bicycles around Portland and talking with people who had lived there during World War II. Then we would have dinner in a great place on the water that served local fish and local corn on the cob. Finally we drove back to the Inn and fell asleep listening to the ocean crashing right outside our window. Those are my favorite kinds of days. And those days inspired me and helped me absorb the flavor of Maine and the coast and I learned so much about how it felt to live there during World War II. 

Have you been told you look like someone famous? 

Yes, people used to say I looked like Cher. But then she got a nose job. So I look the way she looked before she got a nose job and she looks how I would look if I ever get a nose job, which I won’t.  I like my nose.

If you were to get a tattoo, what would it be?  

Oh I suppose I would get a lily. A lily might be really pretty in a tattoo.  I like to garden and I paint bouquets a lot. I like flowers and I use them in my novels in various ways, like the field of red tulips in the end of “Deep Down Popular,” or the wild roses on the coast in Romeo Blue

What has been one of your most interesting jobs?

I once owned a shop on Main Street. It carried vintage clothing and jewelry and also handmade clothing designed by me. I ran the shop for five or six years.  Everyone who came to town always stopped into my shop and bought clothing or gifts. Lots of people too would just pop in and talk so I always knew everything that was going on in town. When I finally closed the shop because I wanted to paint and write, I missed it terribly and I often dream at night that I am going to open a store again.   Having that store (called “Phoebe’s) was my first success in life and it changed me forever. It gave me a sense of self worth. 

If you could have any question answered, what would it be? 

Well, it’s the same question everyone wants answered, WHY? 

If you were to perform in the circus, what would you do? 

I’d have to be the clown because I don’t have trapeze skills and I can’t do tight rope. I can’t even think about heights!  Maybe I could ride an elephant and wear a sparkly dress. I do love elephants, but circuses often don’t treat elephants that well. It just kills me when animals are mistreated. One of my earlier novels deals with a mistreated circus elephant that some teenagers attempt to save…Come to think about it, I wouldn’t agree to be in the circus. I would be picketing for the elephants outside the grounds! 

What is one of the scariest things you’ve ever done? 

Once when I was ten-years-old, a friend of mine led me and my little sister up onto a huge ladder and crane that were set up over the ocean in a fishing harbor in England. Perhaps it was some kind of loading apparatus. We climbed way out over the deep water on this rickety thing. Suddenly I looked down at the churning green ocean far below and realized how dangerous it was. I wasn’t scared for myself but I had my five-year-old sister with me. I carefully helped her as she edged her way down the ladder. I can still remember watching her little blue sneakers as she stepped down each rung. Yikes! Let’s change the subject! 

If you could bring one character to life from your favorite book, who would it be? 

Well, I like Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte because he was so madly in love with Kathy but I don’t think I would want to meet him. He was quite wild and surly and unpredictable and racked with passion. So I am fine with the way he exists in the shadowy dream world. There are some writers from long ago I would love to meet in person.  I think I would like to have met the writer Gustave Flaubert, six feet tall, our first modern novelist, French. He wrote Madame Bovary. He seems to have been terribly brave and very brilliant, although somewhat reclusive. I have to admit to having a bit of a crush on him so maybe I couldn’t handle meeting him after all! 

romeo_cover2Writing Questions

What books are you reading right now?

Oh, I am reading Daphne Du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek.  She’s a good writer actually, undervalued, I think. Her writing is poetic and her stories are riveting. Her sense of place is thrilling. Her main flaw was that she was popular, a best seller.  In literary terms, it may take a few years to wear away that stigma!  

Name someone who supported your writing journey outside of family members.

Oh, I had several wonderful teachers in high school who praised my work and empowered me. That’s what praise does; it is a direct line to power and inspiration.  If it’s real and heartfelt, it works like magic. I had a teacher named George Bower in high school who was a poet and writer himself. In fact, he had been an editor at The Atlantic Monthly and for some reason ended up teaching high school English. He liked my poetry and read one of my poems aloud to the class. I will never forget that. He also introduced me to the poetry of Dylan Thomas. And read it aloud, stressing the sound and music of the words.  

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

Oh, it happens all the time. When someone doesn’t like one of my books and says so prominently online, I just want to quit. I get so upset!! Then somebody else sends me an email and tells me how much a book of mine means to them and I get really happy. I just dance around the house. Then I go back to work. It means so much to me when my world of words reaches someone in a good way. That’s really all I am about. That’s what I live for. And I rise and fall with my readers. 

What’s your favorite writing quote? 

Well, someone said something about writing a little every day…a few words or a page perhaps. Wasn’t it Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird? And it’s wonderfully true…just a little bit every day and then after a few months, you have something. 

Do you have any advice for other writers? 

Keep a journal. Listen to good literature read aloud on CDs. It helps strengthen your auditory understanding of writing. For me, the sound of prose is crucial and the rhythm and lilt of the words play a very important part. Write all the time (that’s why I suggest keeping a journal.)  And read, of course. And don’t give up. Don’t criticize your work until the first draft is done…Let yourself go where ever you wish and don’t step in with harsh eyes until it’s all done and needs to be reworked.  Then be the critic and editor…but for the first round, let the creator be free and unfettered. Even over the top!  

What inspired you to write your first book? 

I am always trying to capture the essence of my childhood. It was such an intense and magical time for me. It wasn’t always positive but it was always powerful. And I long in some ways to have that intensity back. I long to experience all the mystery and confusion and joy of life as a child again.  How crisp and bright the light was and how dark were the shadows. My first novel All the Blue Moons at The Wallace Hotel was about my childhood. But then in a way all my books are about that, veiled in one form or another.  

What do you think you do best in your writing? Bragging is encouraged.

Forgive me if I tell you that I like my characters. They seem to happen on their own and I can’t really take credit for them. When I am on a roll, I feel like I must just be the typist! 

What books have most influenced your life? 

The Bronte family and their books have had a huge impact on me. They were some writer sisters and a brother in 1800s England.  They were cut off from the world, living in a house together on the moors and they had to turn inward to their imaginations and their creativity for entertainment.  They remind me of my family…my mother and sisters after my father died.  All of us wrote and we lived on a mountain in Vermont and were very lonely much of the time. 

If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book? 

Actually my latest book Romeo Blue is my favorite of all my books. I always wanted to write a book about love and war and families (fathers in particular) with a sweeping scope. And I think I managed to do it with Romeo Blue. Writing that book really quelled a great longing. I got what I wanted on paper. Some of my other books I want to change lots of things. But of course you can’t. Once it’s printed, that’s it. 

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

It’s always a little scary and tense writing the first draft of a novel because I don’t have a clue at first where the book is going to go. Then suddenly an ending will come to me and I’ll write it and that helps a little. But at first it’s always like walking through an unknown forest, hoping the path you took will get you home.

Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?

There are so many wonderful writers around these days. I dare not pick a favorite because it changes weekly! When I finish reading a book I usually become that writer’s biggest fan…until I read another one. I like the quote “A book is only as good as its reader,” meaning that how much you get out of a book depends on how deeply and openly you read that book and how much of yourself you put into it as you read. Not long ago I was a judge for a children’s book prize and I had to read hundreds of books one summer. The thing that struck me was that they were all good. Or at least most of them. Yes, this is certainly the golden age of middle grade and YA literature!  

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Interview with Newbery Honor Winner Margi Preus

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Introducing Margi…

Margi Preus writes children’s books, plays, comic operas and a variety of nonsense in Duluth, Minnesota. Her short fiction for adults and children has appeared in magazines, journals and anthologies. She teaches children’s literature at The College of St. Scholastica and an occasional course at University of Minnesota-Duluth. When not doing any of those things, she hikes, skis and paddles her way around the north country and anywhere else she might find herself in the world. For more info, visit her website.

Let the conversation begin!

What prompted you to pursue a career in writing?

Reading. Isn’t that the way it works? Eudora Welty said that perhaps “writing comes out of a superior devotion to reading.” That sounds right to me.

What was your favorite book to write?

The one I’m working on right now.

Who is your favorite author?

At the moment I am worshiping at the feet of David Mitchell.

Where do you get your ideas?

Ideas breed ideas. They’re like mice. If you have two, pretty soon you’ll have a litter of them, all gnawing holes in your cerebral cortex.

Advice for young writers?

Read.

Most valuable advice I’ve received?

Read.

When are you the most productive?

I try to write in the morning, but if I open my email first, which I invariably do, it can be afternoon before I start, and then it’s time to walk the dog.

What book was easiest?

There’s no such thing as an easy book to write. For me, anyway.

Best writing advice?

I was a student of John Gardner’s at SUNY-Binghamton (quite a while ago) and when I went to his office for the first time he said, “I hope you’re not going to any of your other classes.” It’s stuck with me. I’ve learned that it’s true: one’s writing life can be devoured by going to one’s other “classes,” by which I mean Facebook.

Dream Vacation?

Canoe trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, fortunately nearby.   

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Author Interview with Jennifer Anne Davis

91S+enCcA+L._SL1500_Get to know Jennifer…

Jennifer graduated from the University of San Diego with a degree in English and a teaching credential. Afterwards, she finally married her best friend and high school sweetheart. Jennifer is currently a full-time writer and mother of three young children. Her days are spent living in imaginary worlds and fueling her own kids’ creativity. For more info, visit her website

Quirky Questions 

If you could only wear one color for the rest of your life, what would it be? 

Black. I don’t think I’d ever tire of it! Simple, plain, and goes with everything.         

Describe your ideal romantic date.

An evening where my husband plans the date, and I don’t have to do a single thing! He takes care of all the details and I simply relax and enjoy! 

As a teenager, what was your favorite musical group?

Oh my! I need to remember—that was a long time ago. Oh, New Kids on the Block! Ha ha, that brings back memories!! 

If you had to lose one of your five senses, which one of them would you prefer to lose?

The sense of taste. It seems to be the least necessary. And then I wouldn’t crave chocolate, ice cream, nachos, Heath Bars . . . 

What was the worst smell you have ever smelled?

I have three children. I don’t think we need to go there. I’ve seen things and smelled things that should never be talked about or remembered. 

If you could have one super human power, what would it be?

This isn’t really a super human power, but I wish I was a ninja. I wish I could fight and kick butt like a real ninja. I thought about signing up for a martial arts class, but I’m pretty sure I’d break something. I’m just not that flexible. 

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

Wow, in ten years from now? I really hope that by then I’ve had a book reach the New York Times Bestsellers list. That would be amazing! On the personal side, my kids will be in high school so I hope to be sane and surviving three teenagers!!! 

If you could snap your fingers and appear somewhere else right now, where would you be?

I wouldn’t mind being on a warm beach right now! I live in San Diego so maybe someplace like Hawaii? Or an island somewhere with crystal, clear water. You know those pictures you see where there’s a hut sitting over the water at the end of a pier? Yes, that’s where I want to be! 

Jennifer-Anne-Davis6aPREVIEW1Writing Questions 

What initially inspired you to pursue a career in writing?

I’ve always loved reading and writing. However, I never had the time to sit down and write a book. I tried many times, but I never got very far. Then I had my first baby and became a stay-at-home mom. I realized I needed an outlet, otherwise I’d go insane. I started writing every single night. Once I had my second child, I entered a writing contest and won! This inspired me to keep at it. By the time my third baby came along, I was on book number two! 

What books are you reading right now?

I just finished Rae Carson’s Bitter Kingdom. She is an amazing writer and story-teller. I simply adore her books. I’m also rereading Grave Mercy and Throne of Glass in anticipation of reading Dark Triumph and Crown of Midnight, which I expect to be delivered any day now!! Too many books, so little time.

Name someone who supported your writing journey outside of family members.

I was lucky enough to stumble upon the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). Through the SCBWI, I met two amazing fellow writers—N.W. Harris and Karri Thompson. We’ve all managed to get picked up by publishers and have been on this journey together from the start. We work together, critiquing each other’s work. I know I’m where I am today because of these two amazing people! 

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

Yes! Sometimes I wonder why I’m killing myself, staying up late at night to write. The amount of time and energy I put into my writing can be overwhelming. It would be so easy to quit and just focus on my family. But then I read a review where I’ve touched someone’s life with my story, and I realize it’s all worth it!! 

Do you have any advice for other writers?

Read. If you want to be a good writer, you have to read A LOT! You need to know what other books are in your genre, you need to study what other authors do well, and you need to learn the craft. I learn so much from reading the same book multiple times. It really teaches me a lot about structure, plotting, and character development. 

What do you think you do best in your writing? Bragging is encouraged.

It’s hard to brag. When I look at my own work, I’m always searching for problems! I tend to see what needs improvement, not what I do well. However, I’ve been told from my writing partners that they love my dialogue.

What books have most influenced your life? 

There are so many that have touched me, it’s hard to say. Definitely The Hunger Games Trilogy, Twilight, Fire, Graceling, The Mortal Instruments, Magic Study, and The Girl of Fire and Thorns.

If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor? 

Kristen Cashore, Rae Carson, and Maria V. Snyder. Sorry, I can’t pick just one! Each of these gals is simply amazing!! 

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

The hardest thing for me is to write descriptions. I tend to be a rather blunt person. So when I write, I’m the same way: short and to the point. I have to force myself to slow down. I like to write all my dialogue and what’s going on first, then I go back in and fill in all the details. 

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