Lewis Buzbee is the author of Fliegelman’s Desire, After the Gold Rush, First to Leave Before the Sun, and The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop. Steinbeck’s Ghost, his first novel for younger readers, was selected for the California Library Association’s John and Patricia Beatty Award, and was a Smithsonian Notable Book. His second middle grade novel, The Haunting of Charles Dickens, won the Northern California Book Award and was nominated for an Edgar Award. Bridge of Time, was published this May. A bookseller and publisher for over 20 years, he has taught for the last 12 years in the MFA program at University of San Francisco. For more info, visit his website.
Let the conversation begin!
Can you share a nugget of writing wisdom?
“No more doughnuts.” This was said to me, with great force, by Stephen Dobyns, a teacher of mine, while I was studying for my MFA. What he meant was simple: no more screwing around. If you want to do it, do it. And that means writing. No amount of extra-literary stuff is going to help you. It’s all about the will do sit at the desk and write. Nothing else counts.
Tell us about the book you’re working on.
I’m just finishing the last draft of a new nonfiction book for adults, Blackboard: The Life of the Classroom, but have just started taking notes for a new novel, my first YA. Garbage Hill follows five characters during a day-long music festival, five stages, forty bands, from early morning ’til past midnight, “a day of sun, fun, music, and madness.” Every character has a dream; every character has a secret; everything will change on this one day. This is a fun time to be working on a new book, it’s all fresh ideas and the world and the characters banging around in my head.
What book are you reading right now?
Beverly Cleary’s memoir, A Girl from Yamhill. I’ve been re-reading her a lot lately, and can’t get enough of her prose. It’s so pure, so clean, so American, and she’s just about one of the funniest writers ever, such great timing. Reading her prose is such a pleasure, a luxury.
Do you keep a writing journal?
No. I take a lot of notes, write down ideas, etc. But when I’m writing I’m writing.
Coffee or Tea?
Why do you write?
Because I have to. Because stories and books assault me and if I don’t write them down, I’m afraid I’ll go a little mad. I like to think of it as a public service, to those around me. When I’m writing, I’m a better person, more civilized.
When are you the most productive?
Mornings. I drive my daughter to school–while still in my pajamas–and when I get back I go to my desk. I have to write before the noise of the world gets too loud.
As a teenager, what was your favorite musical group?
I’m old, so it was The Beatles, hands-down. And they really helped me as a writer, I believe. How to craft a shapely song, something with drive and momentum and surprise; how to write songs that are both sophisticated and simple at the same time; how to put those songs together on an album for a narrative arc.
Who is your best friend?
Ken Taylor, who I’ve known for over 35 years now. We know each other’s deepest and darkest secrets, but more importantly, we put up with each other’s stupidities and madnesses. When he’s acting all wonky, I can say, that’s just Kenny; when I’m spazzing out, he can say the same thing about me. We’re not expecting each other to change too much.
Who was your first date?
My high school girlfriend, Selinda. It was the Sadie Hawkins dance, where the girl’s supposed to ask the boy. But I spent several days trying to hint–rather baldly, I fear–so that she would ask me out. And she did, rather out of exasperation. I got a speeding ticket on the way home from the dance, and her dad was outside waiting for us. I was sure the cops had called him, but he was just watching a house down the street that was on fire.
If you could live anywhere for one year, all expenses paid, where would you live?
I’m fascinated with Taiwan. I watch a lot of Taiwanese game shows and soap operas, and it always feels like the future to me–bold and bright and very weird. I’d love to just hang out there.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
In this order: a Marine sergeant, an astronaut, a football player, a stand-up comic, a rock star, a writer.
If you could have one super human power, what would it be?
Creepy as it sounds, Invisibility. To see what people do when no one’s watching. Which is a great metaphor for what writers do, seeing into the secret heart of their characters. Writers are basically nosy people.
What is your favorite season?
I love autumn, and I think it has something to do with the approach of school, a sort of excitement around that. I love the smell of it, and the colors of light, the shortening days and how that compresses all the color into some lovely evenings. And the sense that Halloween is just about here.
Which of the seven dwarfs describes you best?
Grumpy, with a touch of Sneezy.
If you were attending a Halloween party, what would your costume be and why?
I would love to go as a Day of the Dead skeleton-figure. Halloween has become such a masquerade ball, but I’m old school on this. Spirits of the dead, of the other world, that’s what it’s about for me.
What was the first live concert you ever attended?
Again, I’m very old, so it was Ten Years After, a band that had recently played Woodstock. I was 13, and my brother, who’s much older, took me. It was great, and terrifying.
Is the glass half empty or half full? What is in the glass?
It’s both, isn’t it? We have to honor what we have as much as honor what we’ve lost. I want the whole picture, the real picture–life is never totally perfect nor totally bereft.
What is the worst possible name to call a child?
Richard. It just can’t end well.
What do you miss about being a child?
How long a day can be.
What is the best part of writing? Worst part?
Frankly, I like all of it. Even the hard parts. I love first drafts, which I write really quickly, and revision has its own rewards, the shaping of it. I think writers need to be two-faced in a way–the one who composes, the one who cuts. And back and forth. I just feel so lucky to be able to write, and then to have some readers, oh, that’s grand.
If you could only write one more book, what would it be about?
The early years of The Beatles, told from George’s point of view. I’m talking about before they were The Beatles, before Ringo, even before Hamburg, that first year or two when they were in Liverpool, just some teenagers trying to start a band.
How long have you been writing? Does it feel like yesterday?
I started when I was 15 and haven’t stopped since. That’s 40 years. Oddly, it kind of feels like yesterday, because I still have that sense of amazement when I’m working–that these squiggles on paper will create an entire world–along with the sense that, after all these years, I still feel like I don’t know what I’m doing, that every story or book is a brand new puzzle to be solved.
What specific thing have you done that impressed yourself?
When my daughter was very young, we were very poor, and I was teaching part-time and trying to write, and I needed to go back to bartending three nights a week, just to pay the bills. It was grueling work, and yet I managed to do that, teach, and write two books at the same time over three years. And those books made it possible, financially, for me to stop bartending.
What cartoon character best represents your personal philosophy?
Bugs Bunny, no doubt. He’s smart and funny, and basically a nice fellow. But he also won’t suffer fools gladly. He uses his wits, instead of his might, to win his battles.
What’s your passion?
Reading. Oh, I love to read, still and always will. That’s one. Another, right now, is going to live music shows with my daughter, who’s 14, and has great taste in new bands, and introduces me to all this great music. I’m often the oldest person at the club, but I don’t feel old. It’s great.