Nov 8, 2010

Interview with Scrawl Author Mark Shulman

I don't know about you but the very coolest thing for me about having a book blog is seeing comments from authors on the posts about their books. When Jonathan Maberry posted a comment after my review of Rot & Ruin it made my whole week!!

So imagine my extreme excitement when Mark Shulman emailed me after I commented about Scrawl on the Macmillian Kids blog. We emailed back & forth a few times talking about some coincidences (like the fact that Greg Call did his cover and he lives in my town). When I posted my review of Scrawl I also sent Mark some questions to answer which he very graciously did!

1. I see you've written a lot of books but it looks like Scrawl is your first YA book. Is this right?
Scrawl is my first novel, although I’ve been writing my whole life. After a long spell writing for every kind of advertising, in 1999 I switched to love letters when I met and married a grade school teacher. Thanks to her, I started writing children’s books. I’m not a writer who likes to do the same thing again and again, and you can see it in my work. I’ve written picture books, nonfiction of all sorts, preschool, humor, trivia, and books with glow-in-the-dark monster and dinosaur heads. (Man, those were fun!) One day when I was talking to an editor, Neal Porter, about picture books, somehow he convinced me to write a novel. I didn’t know what I was doing, but that’s never stopped me before.

2. How long did it take you to write Scrawl? Was it a book you've had in progress for awhile?
The good news is that it took about ten months of writing for the book to come together. The bad news is that those ten months were spread over two years. I wrote the beginning of the book, where we meet Tod and the other quirky characters, in a quick few months. Then a number of shorter books with shorter deadlines got in the way, and it wasn’t easy to get started again. I started and stopped quite a few times. Finally I enlisted the help of a few talented people to un-stuck me, and they were invaluable in getting me rolling again. The last final push, where writing became fun and automatic, happened in another handful of months.

3.I read your post on Macmillian Kids blog--your high school had a special teen smoking area? Mind if I ask you what years you were in high school (since the drinking age was 18 I am assuming it was early 80's)? Do they still have that smoking area now?
I’m going back to my high school, up in Rochester, NY, in a month, as a visiting author. So I’ll be able to answer you then. I bet not. I graduated in 1980 – it was a six-year school back then, so I started in 1974 in seventh grade. I guess that makes me 179 years old.

4. You do a good job nailing Tod's voice, how much of a bully were you in high school?
I guess I did do a good job, because whenever I had any interactions with bullies, I was the guy getting pummeled, shoved, teased, and, worst of all, ignored. It was a tough school, though not as tough as I depicted it through Tod’s eyes. I could be accused of a lot of bull, but no bullying.

5. The cover art is pretty simple, what were your thoughts when you first saw it?

The first bit of art I saw wasn’t the cover. The designer scribbled a kid’s head on a small rip of paper and handed it to me. I knew right away that this was the perfect cover. Clean! Noticeable! Timeless! And best of all, it didn’t try to convince you what Tod looks like. I don’t like over-describing my characters, so this was ideal. I was wild about the cover idea from the second I saw it.

6. I like it because the book has a male protagonist and the cover will appeal to boys. Did you have a specific audience in mind when you wrote it?

Absolutely. I was writing to any boy, from about 10 up, who has to go through the ordeal of finding his place in the pecking order. Your social position seems to get firmed up around middle school, and my different characters react in different ways to the lot they’re assigned: some by accepting it, some by fighting it, some by lording their luck over the others. Tod has learned a lot about how the system works. He compares himself and the other poor kids to rats in a maze, and “the maze is rigged.” Tod has drawn a bad hand in life, and he pretends he doesn’t care, but the heart of the story is that he really does, and he ends up struggling to find a way out.

I should add that Scrawl in no way excludes girls. The strongest characters are the females – they hold their ground at every turn. And the boys had better learn to deal.

7. Do you read YA books? What are a few you've liked over the last few years?

I do read YA, at this point more than adult literature. I really believe the Middle Grade and YA books are more brave in many ways than adult writing, because younger readers allow more fantastical things to happen. YA literature can’t hide behind fancy vocabulary and vague intellectual references and complex thematic trickery. It’s got to be straight up and up close, like a chess game. I also read it for the story lines, which are likelier to pulse with action because kids are supposed to have limited attention spans. Well, I do, too. My wife is the literacy specialist in her school, so she’s always bringing home great books for me to look at. And finally, it’s my job!

Books I’ve really liked, and tried to learn a bit from, include Holes, by Louis Sachar; The View from Saturday, by E.L. Konigsburg; Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt, and Hoot, by Carl Hiaasen. When I was a teenager I read a lot of James Thurber, as well as adult detective fiction, from Dashiell Hammett to Sherlock Holmes, and there’s no reason not to include those books in my list of YA favorites.

8. Are you working on anything new?

Yes, a couple of books are trying to be the one I finish next. One is more steeped in action and gizmos. The other is more about all the conflicts that come with suddenly noticing that boys and girls are attracted to each other… or not. Maybe the two books will even come together.

9. What is your favorite TV show?

Right now, my two shows are Mad Men and Bored to Death. They’re entirely geared toward me: I am a writer, I worked in advertising, I live in New York, and I like to be entertained. Their titles imply insanity and boredom and death – a bittersweet confirmation of the three main hazards of being a writer. Or, of living in New York. Either one.

Thanks so much Mark! I loved you answer about YA literature and actually posted that on my library website as well. Nothing irritates me more when people look down on me because I read YA and middle grade books. If they'd just open their minds more they would see how much it has changed since they were young!

Good luck with Scrawl! I loved this book and I hope it does really well for you!

1 comment:

  1. Wow. How fun, Jana! Great interview.

    P.S. I stole your widget! :-)