Author Interview: Greg Leitich Smith on Tofu and T. rex

Tofu and T. rex by Greg Leitich Smith (Little Brown, 2005). From the catalog copy: “Militant vegan Frederika Murchison-Kowalski is back at the Peshtigo School after a brief stint in Texas (where she torched an artificial turf field to save Angus the Fighting Angus from the “rabid and inhumane cult” of football). The bad news is that now Freddie has to live with her cousin, Hans-Peter, a diehard carnivore, and grandfather, who happens to own a butcher shop and sausage deli. Having never had a sibling, Freddie and Hans-Peter are soon at odds with each other over bathroom sharing, dinner menus, and more. To complicate matters, Hans-Peter needs Freddie’s insider knowledge to get accepted into the Peshtigo School himself.” Ages 10-14. This novel is a companion book to Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo (Little Brown, 2003, 2005).

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

I had finished up Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo (Little Brown, 2003, 2005), and I was going through old notes and jotting new ideas, but nothing was really exciting enough to spend the time to write a novel about.

Somewhere along the line, though, I began playing around with comic opposites (e.g., “The Odd Couple”) and decided you could not get more opposite than a sausage maker and a vegan. The idea was intrinsically funny, had a built-in conflict, and a lot of possibilities.

Another idea I had been playing with involved applications to “elite” schools – having applied to and attended several universities in that category, believe me, the comic possibilities there are endless.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

Tofu and T. rex was the second book in a two-book deal I had signed with Little Brown when I sold Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo. I hadn’t initially intended to write a companion to Ninjas, but as I was trying to develop my vegan character, I realized I already had one, in Freddie, who has a minor role in Ninjas. Once I had Freddie as a character, it was inevitable that the school which would be the subject of application horror would be the Peshtigo School, and that the person applying would be Freddie’s cousin, Hans-Peter.

So now I had a couple of premises, a couple of characters, and a deadline. I didn’t really have a plot, though, but this didn’t stop me. I began writing and eventually had something novel length, with an acceptable arc, but there was something wrong — it seemed a bit passionless and unremarkable and not hugely funny. I really needed to do something radical, so I packed it off to my editor, Amy Hsu (who, sadly is no longer in publishing).

Several weeks later, I received a three page letter from Amy. In addition to several things I already knew but didn’t want to face the consequences of, she asked two extremely important questions.

First, perhaps the most profound question of all: Where was T. rex?

The manuscript had gone to her under the title “Tofu and Tyrannosaurus Rex,” which had always been the title – and Amy was right – there was no T.Rex in the actual story. I had always sort of figured that T.Rex was just a metaphor for carnivore, thought that the title was clever, but hadn’t ever presented an actual sauropod.

So, I get this letter, with this question, and I knew I had to answer it.

And for some reason, the first thing that came to me was “Well, obviously, it’s in the basement. Life-sized.”

Which is why Hans-Peter has a life-sized tyrannosaurus rex head in the basement of the family bungalow. This was sort of the key to making the novel work — the presence of the T.Rex head led to other changes in the plot – it inspired, for example, the entire storyline of the homecoming parade.

The second question from Amy was a little more problematic. Basically, it was “What happened to Freddie?” Amy’s concern was well-founded. In Ninjas, Freddie appears as a minor character was is, shall we say, a bit strident with regard to her animal rights activism, kind of comic relief, but definitely strong-willed. She wasn’t however, necessarily the most likeable character, particularly to have as a protagonist.

So in the draft I’d sent Amy, I’d toned Freddie down a bit, figuring that her point of view was different from that of the characters in Ninjas. The problem was, she came out being an entirely different person.

So I went back to my computer, with my T. rex head, my recidivist Freddie, and started re-writing. The re-write was so comprehensive that I think the only scene in the published book that was in the draft I’d originally sent Amy was the scene with the bees at Castle Brandenburg.

After another few months, I sent this draft off, Amy liked it a lot better. And so did I.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

The biggest challenge was self-imposed: I wanted Freddie to remain a vegan at the end of the novel and I also wanted Hans-Peter to remain a committed carnivore at the end of the novel. (I really, really, hate novels where the character’s epiphany is along the lines of “Why, yes, [insert: cousin, friend, Mom], you were right all along. I am so much more enlightened now that I’ve learned the lesson you’ve been trying to teach me.”) Both characters were so strong, no one would have believed it anyway. This meant, though, that I had to find a way for them to both change and grow while being true to themselves. Consequently, the novel became more a story of family conflict than “political” conflict, and the extent to which family matters.

Beyond that, the characters’ voices were hard to get right. This was especially important because the novel is told in alternating point of view between Freddie and Hans-Peter.

Freddie was hard to write, for reasons noted above, but also because I wanted to make her a fully rounded person, one you could respect, even if you didn’t agree with her. I also wanted to make her the sort of person who chose veganism because of its inherent logic, not simply for feel-good reasons. I think it makes her a stronger character, although perhaps, in some ways, more frightening.

With Hans-Peter, the voice issues were more subtle. Basically, he started out as more of a “straight” man, but as Freddie became more Freddie, he had to become a stronger character as well. So, he became more “into” the deli and dinosaurs and more intensely interested in getting admitted to the school. In some ways, too, Hans-Peter is a lot like Elias, one of the PoV characters from Ninjas. Giving Hans-Peter a voice distinctive from Elias’s was hard, especially in the scene where they’re together.

Finally, the research was fairly intense. I spent a lot of time researching both veganism and sausage-making (and believe me, sausage makers are just as passionate about wurst as vegans are about their cause). I sampled a certain amount of sausage made by different techniques and I also spent a week on a vegan diet, which was kind of hard, but I suspect easier in Austin than other places. By the way, while I found some sausage disagreeable, I discovered that vegan mayonnaise substitute is possibly the most revolting substance known to humankind.

Cynsational Notes

Tofu and T. rex was a finalist for the TSRA Golden Spur Award.

Greg is my husband. I read his manuscript several times while it was in progress, and I adored Freddie. In fact, she and her conviction to veganism were sufficiently persuasive to me that I’ve stopped eating mammals altogether. I know Freddie would say I’ve still got a long way to go, but I also suspect she’d count me as at least a partial victory. In any case, my die-hard beef-eating husband is respectfully, if grudgingly, adjusting to the shift in the family diet, and in any case, he really has no choice but to take it as a compliment to his writing.

Surf by GregLS Blog.

Author Interview: Greg Leitich Smith on Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo from cynsations.

Interview with Debut Children’s Book Author Greg Leitich Smith from Debbi Michiko Florence. Fall 2003.

Greg Leitich Smith Interview from Fall 2003.

Greg Leitich Smith Interview at YA Books Central.

Spotlight on Greg Leitich Smith by Cynthia Leitich Smith from Smart Writers. July 2005.

“Of Tofu and T. Rex” by Greg Leitich Smith from Time Warner Bookmark.

Cynsational News & Links

Congratulations to Liz Gallagher for signing with agent Rosemary Stimola. And congratulations to Rosemary Stimola for signing writer Liz Gallagher! Liz is a fourth semester student at the Vermont College/Union Institute & University MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

Congratulations to Austin author Jerry Wermund, whose picture books, The World According To Rock (Rockon Publishing, 2004) and Earthscapes: Landforms Sculpted by Water, Wind, and Ice (Rockon Publishing, 2003), were recommended by the National Science Teachers Assocation!

How To Write a Picture Book with Fabulous R&M by Margot Finke from The Purple Crayon. note: R & M = rhyme & meter.