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.
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.
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?
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.
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.