Saturday, August 27, 2011

Interview with Dan Elish

I recently had the opportunity to interview Dan Elish, author of The Attack of the Frozen Woodchucks, Born too Short:  Confessions of an Eighth-Grade Basket Case, and, his most recent, The School for the Insanely Gifted.   The School for the Insanely Gifted concerns Daphna Whispers' search for her missing mother.  Daphna, a brilliant musician whose music lulls listeners into a trance, is aided by two friends, one a computer genius, the other a gifted actress.  Their search takes them from New York City to the snowy Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa.  You can read more about Dan and his books at

What was your favorite book as a kid?

I got hooked on reading in fourth grade.  And my favorite book, and the book that inspired my career more than anything, was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  After college, I came to New York to write shows and music.  When I was twenty-four, I came across Charlie on my bookshelf – it was the only kids’ books I still owned. I read it in a single sitting and immediately determined that I would write a book like that.  Of course, I ignorantly thought that it couldn’t be very hard and that I would write mine in about three months.  Suffice it to say, it took much longer.

What was your favorite subject in school?

This is a weird answer for someone who became a writer, but my favorite and best subject was always math.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Well, my first interest was to write shows, as in Broadway musicals.  I started playing piano in tenth grade.  My senior year in high school, I got listening to an old record my mom had:  Ella Fitzgerald Sings Rodgers and Hart.  I fell in love with the songs.  In college, I got into writing by writing two musicals.  The first was based on Paul Bunyan. I only got interested in writing books after college. 

What was your first publication?

My first book was The Worldwide Dessert Contest – it’s still one of my favorites.  The book tells the tale of John Applefeller and his epic quest to win the annual Worldwide Dessert Contest held every year in his hometown of Appleton.  Applefeller has a problem, though – every year his desserts change into something else at the last second.  (For instance, his apple French toast have previously changed into knee pads).  As a result, he is the laughing stock of the contest and has earned the special enmity of the head judge, Nathaniel Barkle, who has one of Applefeller’s changing desserts stuck to his face: a giant caramel apple where the caramel turned into a powerful glue.  Eventually, Applefeller travels to a tropical island, Iambia (where everyone speaks in rhymes), in search of a magical pie chef, Captain B. Rollie Ragoon, who can teach him who to make a non-changing dessert that will defeat the story’s villain, Sylvester S. Sweet, an evil man who wins every years with his double-chocolate-fudge-raspberry-coconut-lime-swirl.

The Worldwide Dessert Contest is still in print and available on Amazon.  Better yet, this fall, it will be released as an ebook – but with a twist.  Throughout the text there will be links to songs I wrote for the musical version of the book.  Should be fun.

How did it feel getting published?

It was a big thrill.  I was pretty obsessed with writing The Worldwide Dessert Contest.  I made all my friends read it.  I rewrote it a million times.  The plot changed a lot.  The first drafts had a mythical animal called a hoogar who had the body of a leopard and the face of a monkey and wings.  That got cut.  Finally, I got accepted to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont.  I can’t say enough about going to places like that.  Often, other writers are very generous if they think you’re ready.  It was through contacts that I made at Bread Loaf that I was introduced to my first editor, Richard Jackson.

Why do you write for teens?

Because teens are so passionate.  They are depressed or ecstatic.  In love or a seething mass of misery.  But more than teens, I really like writing for middle grade kids who are young enough to fully appreciate a zany story, but old enough to read about real characters.  In a book like The School for the Insanely Gifted I really enjoyed making up the weird stuff: Harkin’s flying Thunkmobile, the chewing gum computer – things like that.

In The School for the Insanely Gifted two of your characters are computer geniuses.  Are you a bit of a computer genius, too?

Uh, no.  Not even remotely.

Several of the characters are ambitious and competitive to the point of dishonesty, while one has dropped out of the human race and has absolutely no ambition.  Is that lack of ambition a virtue or a fault?

This is an interesting question.  I think a total lack of ambition could be considered a fault.  I do think that people are ultimately happier and more productive members of society when they desire something they are willing to work for.  On the other hand, unbridled ambition can be a disaster – that can lead to wanting something so badly that competitive feelings ruin the joy of doing whatever it is that you enjoy.  In the case of Ignatious Peabody Blatt it can also lead to a twisted life of crime.

Do you think that everybody has an insane gift—even if they have yet to discover it?

I’m not sure if everyone has an insane gift.  Then again, what really is an “insane” gift? Mozart?  Van Gogh?  If that’s the standard, then no – barely anyone has that kind of gift.  But I do think that absolutely everyone has certain real gifts.  Part of life is about finding the time to cultivate whatever they are.

What would you do if you weren’t a writer?

Actually, I would do what I already do: teach piano.  If anyone out there is looking for lessons in New York City, I’m your man.

What’s the weirdest job you’ve ever had?

The summer between freshman and sophomore year in college I had a job photographing garbage on the streets of New York.  The goal was to use the photos to get store owners to clean up.  I don’t think it worked.

Tell us a little about your family.

My immediate family includes my wife, Andrea, my daughter, Cassie (third grade) and my son, John (kindergarten).  Both kids go to public school in the city and are in a dual language French class – that means half the day is in French and half in English.  It’s fantastic, except my wife speaks French and I don’t.  Which means that in a few years my entire family will be able to talk about me in front of me.  Not looking forward to that.

What’s your favorite food?

My favorite food is mocha chip ice cream. Otherwise known as java chip ice cream. As a kid my brand of choice was Howard Johnson’s. Now it’s Starbucks. I’m obsessed with it. It is a daily struggle not to eat an entire gallon.

Who is your favorite Beatle?

This is the greatest question I’ve ever gotten.  I was born in 1960 and grew up with the Beatles.  The first movie I ever saw was A Hard Days Night.  I love them.  I remember the moment when my brother told me that Paul was dead.  I cried when they broke up.  So I can’t pick just one.  I will say this:  There is no greater joy in life than reading a chapter of The School for the Insanely Gifted while listening to I Am the Walrus.  Try it sometime.

Do you have any favorite television programs or movies?

Favorite all time movie: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.   Favorite TV show: ALIAS.

What are you working on now?

Right now, I’m trying to get another idea for a book.  I’m also working on a musical that is based on one of my other books Nine Wives, a novel for grown-ups, published in 2005).  I’m also working on a play.

Do you have any advice for people who want to write?

Just do it.  Carve out some time every day, or five days a week, and work a little bit.  Even if you can only devote an hour a day to it, little by little, you’ll churn out a draft.  It sounds obvious, but the key to getting started is to do it consistently.  Don’t be scared.  Produce something.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

I Am Alex!

by Martyn Bedford
Wendy Lamb Books
April 5, 2011
272 pages
ISBN:  0385739907

Adolescence is a scary time of seeking one's identity.  Imagine, on top of all that, that one morning you wake up in somebody else's body.  That's exactly what happens to 14-year-old Alex.  One early summer morning, he wakes up in a strange body in a strange bed in a strange room in a strange house.  And he has absolutely no recollection of anything that has happened since the previous December.  The mother, father, sister, and dog who inhabit this strange house are all strangers to him.  But they seem to know Alex, though they call him Philip--Flip for short.  Only the dog, who always greets Alex with a growl, realizes that Flip is no longer Flip.

How did Alex get into Flip's body?  Where has he been for the past six months?  What has become of the real Flip?  And how is Alex ever going to get back to Alex's body?  Does Alex have a strong enough ego and the will to survive the extraordinary situation he finds himself in?  You will not be able to put this book down, as you discover the answers to these questions right along with Alex in this delicious mystery.  Flip  is Martyn Bedford's debut novel for teen readers.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Objectives on Target

This is the last time I'm going to revisit my 2011 New Year's objectives; after all I'll be making new ones for 2012 before too much longer.  Probably the same ones, but that's beside the point.  Needless to say all my goals were not met, though most were to a certain degree.

I continue to eat 5 fruits and vegetables daily.  Great time of year for it, too:  I've been frequenting farmer's markets for tomatoes, beans, corn, and peaches.  Plus, I still drink V-8 several times a week.   And, while I haven't given them up entirely, I am limiting my sweets to a few a week.

About two months ago, I took on a part-time job, which has cut into my writing time.  I do try to post on my blog at least once a week, but I have not worked on my play since.  On the flip side, though I have less time for my own writing, there is some writing involved on the job, which does keep my skills honed.  I'm also learning some things about graphics art, all tricks that I can use--and have--for my blog.

There are other benefits to the new job.  More money obviously.  The plan is to save all of my salary and live off of my husband's.  And we are still trying to curb the spending, though I must confess my Diet Pepsi addiction has not abated.  One of the best benefits of the job is that it forces me to exercise every day.  Rather than drive, I ride my bike to and from work, about four miles round trip, which takes me about forty minutes a day.  Once winter comes, I'll have to switch to commuting by automobile, but at that point I'll exercise on the stationary bike after work.

Clearly, the objective I need to work on most is carving time out of my schedule to do some creative writing.  I expect that when my son goes back to school next week, I'll be able to write in the morning after he leaves or in the afternoon before he comes home.  Additionally, we'll institute a quiet period after dinner--meaning no t.v., no video games, no web surfing--when all three of us can read, write, or study.  Then maybe I can finally finish the play I've been working on or start a completely new project.  Wish me luck on that front!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Revolutionary Librarian

The Borrower
by Rebecca Makkai
Viking Adult
June 9, 2011
ISBN:  0670022810

The Borroweris a road book, whose heroine, Lucy Hull, is a revolutionary in librarian's clothing.  Says Lucy, "I come from a long line of revolutionaries."  Lucy's father, an √©migr√© from the old Soviet Union, is a member of the Russian mafia, who taught her early on to steal dry cleaning, UPS packages, and milk from other people's doorsteps.  Her descent into crime seems inevitable.

Lucy's job as a children's librarian in Missouri hasn't much to recommend it save a ten-year-old patron, Ian Drake, whose overbearing mother censors his library books and forces him to attend anti-gay classes with Pastor Bob.  Ian's mother gives Lucy a list of things Ian must not read; Lucy ignores the list and takes it upon herself to guide Ian's reading, even checking out the books on her own card in order to deceive Ian's mother.

When Ian runs away from home, he runs to the library, and Lucy inadvertently kidnaps him.  The pair embark on a journey from Missouri to Chicago to Pittsburgh to Vermont.  Though the novel is marketed for adults, high school students and precocious middle schoolers will also enjoy the travels of Lucy, the revolutionary librarian, and Ian, her reader apprentice.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

I Love Lucy and Ethel

When asked their favorite episode of I Love Lucy, most people cite the candy-making episode or the grape-stomping one or Vitameatavegamin, but for me it's "Ethel's Birthday."  I've probably seen it a hundred or a thousand times, but it still makes me laugh out loud.  Today is Lucille Ball's 100th birthday, and Vivian Vance's 102nd birthday was last week on the 26th of July:  To celebrate the births of my two favorite gal pals, here's a clip from I Love Lucy.

Friday, August 5, 2011


by Michael Northrop
Scholastic Press
240 pages
ISBN:  0545210127

A nor'easter, a blizzard that can last days, is like a hurricane with snow.  Seven teenagers are Trapped in their rural New England high school by the worst nor'easter on record.  The snowstorm closes the school early, but Scotty and his friends Pete and Jason decide to skip the buses and work on a project in shop while they wait for Jason's father to pick them up.  Jason's father never arrives; the three discover that four other students and one teacher are stranded in the building with them.

When they see the lights of a truck out in the snow-covered parking lot, the teacher ventures out into the blizzard...never to return.  It is apparent no one is coming for them, and the night turns into days.  None of their cell phones are picking up signals, and the school's phones aren't working.  The power goes off and with it the heat.  The water pipes freeze.  Part of the roof collapses.  How are they going to survive the deadliest nor'easter their corner of the world has ever seen?

Trapped is a chilling page turner, but you never forget you're dealing with high school students.  Jason, the basketball player, is bummed that his game has been cancelled, and he's sweating talking to the beautiful Krista.  Pete is making "moonie faces" at Julie.  Jason is hellbent on finishing his go cart in shop before they are rescued.  Les, the bad boy, is terrifying Pete, and Elijah, the weird kid, is, well, weird and strangely prophetic.  Elijah knows--and so does the reader--that they all aren't going to make it; you're sure hoping that somebody does.