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 http://www.danelish.com/.
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.