QUESTIONS FROM READERS
Dude, are you gay?
Some readers phrase this question delicately: “I notice how you mention your partner and stuff. Are you lesbian? It won’t affect anything. I’m just curious.” Yes, I am gay and/or lesbian. (Does that make me twice as queer?) “When did I know?” you ask. The moment I fell in love with a girl. I think I always knew; just never acknowledged it. It’s been a journey. You know how arduous the journey is if you’re going through your own coming out process. Today, I’m out and proud and I still love that girl. (We’ve been together thirty + years. I wish I could say we met in kindergarten J.)
When are you going to write a sequel to Keeping You a Secret, Luna, Define “Normal”…?
Rashelle wrote: “I love this book [Define “Normal”], it is so interesting, even if there were 30 sequels which would take me about a couple of years to read, I would eventually get them done even though I really do not like to read.” Not to worry, Rashelle. No sequels are in the works for any of my books. I’m not a huge fan of sequels. They rarely stack up to the original, IMO. The magic of that first read is never quite recaptured in the sequel/prequel/trilogy, and as a writer, I can never be sure what it was about my book that captivated a reader in the first place. Was it the characters? The story? Some small detail that held personal significance? And I worry, if that element isn’t present in the sequel, will the reader be disappointed? I never want to disappoint readers. I’m flattered by the number of people who ask for sequels to my books because I think it means the characters I created came to life for them, and they care about what happens to these people after the end of ttory.
Readers, I’ll leave that to your imaginations. Wait for my next book. I promise it’ll be exciting, surprising, original, gritty, and stylistically familiar. There are so many incredible, wonderful, extraordinary books out there to read, I hope your enthusiasm for my work will encourage you to search out great books by other authors.
When are your books going to be made into movies?
It’s not up to me whether my books make it to the big screen. A producer has to option the film rights through my literary agent, and then it takes gobs of money and time. I’m not particularly eager for my books to become movies because seriously, have you seen some of the movies that are produced from books? Ugh. It scares me that my hard work might end up in someone’s garage sale as a “box of b-rated Blue Rays for a buck.”
Where do you get your ideas for books?
I wish I had a supplier. Some shady character I’d hook up with in the dead of night. Slick, that’d be his name. Or Jimmy. His beady eyes would dart around as he slipped an envelope out of his trenchcoat and snuck it to me in exchange for… what? Not money. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Where would I find time to work on a dozen ideas?
The mystery surrounding ideas is, I think, how they’re turned into stories. Good question. The answer is, I have no idea.
Ideas come from everywhere. They come out of nowhere. They arrive — thud — in your brain. All of a sudden you wonder why you’re obsessing about those smelly old sneakers you wore to death when you were nine. How, despite your mother’s advice, you insisted on wearing shoes without socks. You wore them until they were holey and shredded and dirt-streaked and grass-stained and SMELLY. The reek of stinky feet is one memorable odor.
You remember you’ve been wanting to write a story about cheating. You know that cheating is a moral issue kids have to deal with almost daily. Not only kids. Are there enough crooks in accounting firms and on congressional committees? Geesh. Cheating is an issue. Everybody cheats, don’t they? There’s a fine line between cheating and recognizing opportunities when they present themselves. Isn’t there? I mean, how often have we justified cheating by calling it “creative interpretation of the rules?” Or the law.
Out of nowhere this kid appears in your head. Earl. He’s not a cheater; he always plays by the rules. He’ll grow up to be the most honest CEO this country’s ever seen. Earl’s a hero. His best friend, Damian, he’s another story. Damian doesn’t have a problem with cheating. As long as it doesn’t hurt anybody, why not play to your advantage? That’s Damian’s philosophy. There’s this contest. Yeah, a stinky sneakers contest.
Would it be worth cheating in a contest if it cost you your best friend? Or your self-respect?
The genesis of a story about cheating and its consequences. My first book, The Stinky Sneakers Contest, derived from memories, moments, and disconnected thoughts. So many books do. Ideas collide in my brain and characters appear. They shout, “Write about me!” Luna. She showed up one night in a visitation. She said, “Write about me.”
Everyone seems to think you have to be a genius to come up with the stories that make it into books. A genius would figure out that her feet wouldn’t stink so bad if she wore socks. Your lives are rich with story ideas. You have to be open to them, go with them, recognize and acknowledge them when they appear. No one has a corner on imagination. Ordinary lives yield extraordinary stories. Your life is worthy of being recorded and shared. Live it. Remember it. Write it down. Develop the skills to become a good storyteller. You may never get a book published, but amazing and astounding discoveries about yourself and others are made when you write.
How long have you been writing?
Since September 30, 1989. Does that sound like a joke? I quit my job the day I decided to be a writer. Yes, I was insane. I’d never written a word of anything in my life. Even worse, as a child I was your classic reluctant reader. I hated reading; it was boring and lame and meant for nerds like my brother. I didn’t get turned onto reading until I was in junior high, and then only by accident. I stumbled onto a book that opened my eyes, and my heart, to what reading could be about: Self-affirmation, validation, adventures of the mind. Books were thought-provoking, intellectually stimulating, emotionally wrenching, laugh-out-loud funny, life changing, painful. (I love it when a book hurts.) I’m not so crazy about how much life has to hurt, or how we deliberately hurt each other. But that’s something to write about.
How did you get started?
Maybe this question should be, Why did I ever start? Didn’t I recognize I was (1) inherently unqualified to be a writer, and (2) a hopeless case? Well, no. That’s why ignorance is bliss. Two things propelled me toward writing: (1) the desire to never work again, and (2) the voices in my head. One voice in particular – the voice of a 13-year-old girl named Casey Shannon. I didn’t know anyone named Casey Shannon. But she was talking to me, telling me about her life. Casey was having problems with her best friend, Vickie Anselli. Who? And this other girl, Skye Cunningham. Who were these people? Casey was agonizing over her friends, her family, her sense of who she was, and where she was headed in life. That last part I could relate to. My head began to fill with Casey’s voice. I figured I had two choices: (1) commit myself to a mental institution for some serious shock therapy, or (2) figure out a way to help Casey, to free her, release her. Release me. Maybe if I wrote it down…? Transferred the voices onto paper? Was that possible?
I searched around the house for writing paper and the only thing I could find was a Big Chief tablet. It was yellowed and wilted, curling at the ends. I scared up a crusty old Bic. Then I wrote down what Casey was telling me. Day after day, she’d lay out her life. Geesh, this girl was a blabber. I was writing, sure, but I wasn’t a writer. I had no writing skills. I began my real journey to becoming a writer by reading. Over the next several months, I checked out most of the young adult and children’s collection at my local library. The periodicals, too. I read as a writer, analyzing structure, language, style. I studied how authors breathed life into their characters and stories, how plots were built, how pacing and timing were incorporated, how the author’s voice spoke through their characters, and how it connected the writer with the reader. I identified authors whose writing I most admired, whose voices I loved, and read their entire bodies of work. Barbara Park, Chris Crutcher, Betsy Byars. Sarah Dessen, M.E. Kerr, Richard Peck. Paul Zindel, James Marshall, Harry Allard, Ellen Conford, Cynthia Rylant — too many great writers to name. I practiced and practiced and wrote and wrote and cringed and winced and wondered why I ever thought I could do this. I was horrible. What a hack.
After stumbling around on my own for a while, I discovered there were books written by authors on how to write books — duh. Also how to submit work for publication. Since I didn’t know what I was doing or where this so-called writing would lead me, I wrote all kinds of things: Casey’s story, yes, but also short stories, articles, essays, educational activities, long novels, short novels, picture books, emergent readers. I submitted all the stuff that didn’t make me gag, and after about six months my work began to sell, first to children’s and YA magazines, then happily to Little, Brown Books for Children.
Little, Brown never did publish Casey’s story. But Willowisp Press did. Casey became Kacie. Vickie stayed Vickie, and Skye was trouble. Risky Friends was released in 1993.
I still write on Big Chief paper. I go through about a hundred Bics a year. Every time I silence one voice in my head, another screams out, “Write about me!”
What is your favorite book that you wrote?
It’s not Risky Friends. I read that book now and hurl. I wasn’t a very good writer yet. I always hesitate to answer this question honestly because, well, the truth is by the time a book is published I will have been working on it for up to five years. I will have read it at least a hundred times, gone over every word, sentence, paragraph, and scene dozens and dozens of times. I’ll have savaged and brutalized the manuscript for character consistency, authenticity, story believability, truth. I will have read it aloud for cadence and pacing, played the dialogue out in my mind over and over, usually at three in the morning. Each and every page will have been tweaked and honed and spit and polished. Spit again. Spit upon. The manuscript will have undergone critique by my critique group, been revised, revamped, read by my agent, my editor, yeahed or nayed, FedExed or e-mailed back and forth for months and months. Even up to the last proof, the final galley, I’m substituting more current cultural references and fixing, fixing, fixing. By the time a book is published, I’m so sick of it I just want to bury it with military honors. Forget the honors. Pitch it in a sinkhole.
The book I’m most interested in is always the one I’m writing at the moment. I’m so into that book, I never want it to end. For a year I’m living and breathing those characters, that story. Of course, this is the book I’m least willing to talk about. It’s too new, too private, too close to me. Plus, it might suck.
Every book I write has a personal connection. I’m a lesbian, living a love story (Keeping You a Secret); I’m a vegetarian (Love Me, Love My Broccoli); I competed in spelling bees as a kid (How Do You Spell G-e-e-k?). I had guinea pigs for pets, and my sister was a compulsive gambler (B.J.’s Billion-Dollar Bet. Talk about unrelated events.). I was overweight at one time, and I’ve always had strange and wonderful friends (The Snob Squad). I’ve felt alone, alienated, judged, judgmental of others; I’ve always harbored a secret desire to dye my hair pink (Define “Normal”). At the core of every story there is a part of me or my life reflected. I’d like to believe that the passion and love I put into my books is what will ultimately resonate with readers. I’d like to think, too, that my work creates a deep, emotional bond between us.
Why do you use bad words in your books? Why do you write about controversial topics?
The first time I got the question about language it threw me because I didn’t remember using objectionable language. I’ve since come to realize that “objectionable” carries a wide range of definitions. Bad words, hmm. Would those be crap and butt (in the Snob Squad series)? Or bitch and slut (in Define “Normal”)? The sh word or the F word or the offending word of the day in my older YA books? I don’t use these words myself (much). The people in my books do. They’re real to me. They speak their minds, and I never censor them. I think it’s important if you’re writing realistic fiction to be RE-AL-IS-TIC, to represent the society we live in. I’m not the thought police. I’m the reason thought police exist. I suppose if I lived in a monastery, my characters would speak more softly. Wait. Would they speak at all? I don’t appreciate books that water down language, or tiptoe around the truth, or refuse to speak to us at a human level. They bore me. As authors we must be brave and bold and true. Incensed parents, stop writing to me.
How much money do you make?
You can figure it out. An author makes ten percent of the retail price on every book sold. So, if one of my books sells for $16.00, I make ______ (fill in the blank). Correct, $1.60. My agent gets fifteen percent of that, which is about a quarter. Take out taxes of say, another twenty, twenty-five percent (I’m not even in the thirty percent bracket), and I get approximately a buck a book. Math test: How many books would Julie have to sell to make enough money to pay her share of the mortgage and heat and phone and Internet provider and still have enough left over to eat?
People who write for young readers do it out of love. Period. We’re hungry a lot of the time.
How long does it take to get a book published?
From the idea stage to the arrival of that first hardcover copy, which my editor ties in a ribbon with a congratulatory note (because she’s as glad to get it off her desk as I am), anywhere from two to five years. I think my fastest book, Luna, took the typical year or more to research and write, six to eight months to anguish over and ditz around with details, and another two years to publish. What is that? Four years? You get really old, really fast in this business.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
My advice to young writers, to writers of all ages, is to dig deep within yourselves and reveal your truths. Have the faith to believe that your voice speaks for many; that what you say out loud, in writing, may resound in a silent, or silenced, person’s heart. Write honestly and fearlessly, even when your words invite censorship or controversy. Respect and honor your readers. Your advocates, too: the librarians, teachers, publishing professionals, friends, family, and fellow writers who have helped you to learn and grow and fly. Whatever you do, whether you write or draw or sing or simply work hard at a job you love, make your life count for something.
I FORGOT. READ. Readreadreadreadread. If you want to be a writer, you have to read. You have to love to read. You have to familiarize yourself with the genre of literature you want to write. And READ.