Thursday, October 9, 2008

Author Interview: Alan Gratz

Are you all enjoying Alan Gratz week? :) I had the pleasure of meeting Alan at the SCBWI-C Fall Conference, but for those of you who couldn't be there, here's a little more about the author behind the books (Samurai Shortstop, Something Rotten, Something Wicked, and more to be released soon), and the man behind the workshop.

YOU
We can all read about your bio from the back of your book or your FAQ online or Amazon profile. So, what's a completely random fact about you that most people don't know?

When people meet me for the first time, they often say I don’t look anything like what they were expecting. Perhaps they think I’m going to show up looking like Woody Allen, or like Michael Chabon. (I wish!) But I’m a big guy—over six feet tall and around 200 pounds. I come from a family of football players. My dad played for the Air Force when he was stationed in Germany, and my uncle played lineman for the University of Tennessee—back in the days when a guy my size could actually be a lineman.

As a child, what was your favorite book? Has your tastes changed since growing up?

I wasn’t a great reader when I was a kid. I read a lot of classics—Robinson Crusoe, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Treasure Island—but I was more likely to be outside making up new adventures for my favorite movie characters, or inventing fake countries (and writing their constitutions). If any one book had a real impact on me though, I’d say it had to be Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth. I loved the puns and the wordplay.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

First it was a train engineer. Then, oh, sometime around 1977, it became a Jedi knight. But by second grade, I was already pretty sure I wanted to be a writer. I wrote my first book when I was in fifth grade—Real Kids Don’t Eat Spinach. It was a pastiche of a bestselling humor book of the day, Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche. My mom still has the book on a clipboard in a box under her bed.

YOUR BOOK(S)
How much of you is in your book? Is there a character like you? Is a situation in the book derived from real life?

The Horatio character in the murder mysteries dresses like me, and he goes to a private school like the one I went to for high school—but that’s about it. Horatio is sure of himself and always knows the right thing to say, but I wasn’t like that in high school. He’s what I wish I had been in high school. Cool, confident, in control. In that sense, he’s probably a total fantasy—there probably aren’t any kids who are really like that—but I wanted him to be sort of like Archie Goodwin from the Rex Stout novels, or Philip Marlowe from the Raymond Chandler novels. I wanted him to be the guy that all the women love and all the men want to be.

As to the setting, I put the books in my backyard—East Tennessee—both because it was familiar and because I wanted to highlight the place where I grew up. The pollution angle of the first book, Something Rotten, is based loosely on the Champion Paper / Little Pigeon River controversy that made headlines when I was a kid. The urban sprawl issue in the new book, Something Wicked, is something that I was acutely aware of even in high school as I made frequent trips to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. In that sense, both of these books are very personal to me. They’re about the geography of my youth.

What was your timeline for the book? How long did it take to write, revise, submit, and finally, get published? How did you feel at these stages?

The research phase on a book is always the part that is different. For a book like Samurai Shortstop, I took about six months to just read books about Japan, Japanese baseball, etc. After that I construct a detailed, chapter-by-chapter outline, in which I include all the notes from my research that I’ll need to tell each individual scene. That usually takes me about a month, including time to hammer out the rough spots in the story. Then I usually spend another month on the first draft. The revision process takes me another two or three months, and then I’m ready to turn in the first draft. After that, a book may take as long as six months to a year to revise with my editor’s continuing input. For Samurai, it was about nine months for a first draft, and another year with my editor. For a book like Something Rotten, which had far less research, I think the overall time for the first draft was more like six months, with another half a year spent editing it the publisher.

Submission is a different thing altogether. I sold Samurai without an agent, so it was tedious. It took me about a year to find a publisher for it, submitting it through editors’ slush piles. I usually got responses on my query and first thirty pages around 3-6 months after I’d sent in my submission—although some took much longer, and others never responded at all. This was a trying time, and the rejections feel like punches to the gut, but at least the system still allows unagented authors to submit their manuscripts. No matter how frustrating the process is, I’m forever grateful that it exists at all.

If your reader could only take away one emotion, theme, or idea from the book, what would you want that to be?

From Samurai Shortstop, I think it would be that you have to honor your family, your country, and your past, but stay true to yourself in the present. Something Rotten, to me, is about taking action—bucking Hamlet’s indecision by making take-charge Horatio the main character. For Something Wicked, I think it’s that we always have to take personal responsibility for the mistakes we make and the evil that we do.


YOUR WRITING
What are your goals as an author? Where do you want to see yourself as a writer in 5, 10, 15 years?

In five years, I’d like to have another five books out. In ten I’d like to have five more, and to have won an award or had a bestseller. In fifteen years I’d like to another five books out, and be able to spend more time at home and less time on the road promoting my books.

What's the most surprising thing you've learned since becoming a writer?

How difficult it is to get a book noticed. When you finish writing a book, you have to take off your writer’s hat and put on your publicist’s hat. At least that’s the way I feel. To me it’s not enough to write the best book I can. I want to get out and tell the world about it, make sure people know it’s on the shelves. That in itself can be a full-time job.

Beyond the typical—never give up, believe in yourself—what would be the single best advice you'd like to give to an aspiring author?

Never give up, believe in yourself, and—oh, wait. Seriously, best advice: What’s the hook to your story? What’s the one thing that makes your story stand out from the rest? Or, as my wife and I like to say when assessing any of our various creative ideas, “Where’s the wow?” That doesn’t mean your book has to have some Hollywood gimmick like, “It’s Aliens meets Titanic!” It just means that if your story is essentially Boy Meets Girl, what sets it apart from all the other Boy Meets Girl stories out there? It takes place on the moon? In an online game world? The boy is a geek and the girl is a rock star? Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is Boy Meets Girl—but his hook was that they are from different families with a blood feud between them. That’s gold. Look at your story with a critical eye and ask, “What makes my story special?” If you don’t have an answer—or your answer isn’t compelling enough—you’re going to have a very tough sell.

What do you consider to be your strongest talent in writing? Your weakest?

It’s funny. I always thought that plot was the weakest area of my work, until I gave myself a mandate that something had to happen to drive the plot forward in every scene in my books. As obvious as that sounds, it was a revelation. I didn’t always do that. I would sit down and write, but not every scene I wrote pushed my narrative. That’s essential. Once I began to see that in my own writing, my plots got tighter and more interesting. That was also when I sold my first book. I also like to think I’m good at dialogue, and the trick there, of course, is just to write like people really speak. I think the tendency when we write is to try to elevate our language, but when we talk we don’t worry about that so much.

My greatest weakness, by far, is setting and description. I can’t stand slowing down to talk about what the room looks like or what a person looks like. I sometimes ask kids at my school events to describe for me what Toyo, the main character of Samurai Shortstop, looks like. They sit there dumbfounded for a few seconds until I let them off the hook. I never say what he looks like. I don’t think I ever tell you how tall he is, or what color hair or eyes he has, or how thick or thin he is. I’m terrible! In later books, I’ve made deliberate attempts to stop and set the scene, and I think I’ve had success with those passages, but it’s something I have to consciously do. I never start with “It was a dark and stormy night.”

What's a writing pet peeve that you have?

My greatest writing pet peeve is the plot device where all the tension and conflict is predicated on one missing piece of information, and the character who has that piece of information withholds it for no good reason. I’m not explaining this well, and now, of course, I can’t think of a good specific example for you. Let me see if I can make one up: Monica notices Chandler keeps buying flowers on his credit card, but he never brings any to her. (I just made those names up.) She suspects he’s having an affair! Monica never just comes out and asks Chandler if he’s having an affair though. Instead, she does all kinds of sneaky detective work, and hilarity ensues. But Chandler, it turns out, is just designing a float for the Rose Bowl Parade. D’oh! If only Monica had just asked him straight up, or if Chandler had just told her about his project, we wouldn’t have spent thirty minutes in all this mess! Okay, that’s a really lame example, but you’d be surprised how often this plot device is used. It’s really weak—it’s the kind of conflict that can be evaporated by a simple question or a simple answer. That kind of conflict is never real enough to warrant our attention.


Thank you for the great interview, Alan! It's so wonderful to see where books come from...especially since we share the same backyard (Ten degrees of connection: my father's first job was at Champion Paper Mills).
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