Author Interview: Alan Gratz on Something Rotten: A Horatio Wilkes Mystery

Could you tell us about your path to publication? Any sprints or stumbles along the way?

It was definitely not a sprint. I began writing for young readers in earnest in 1998 while I was working in the Joseph-Beth Booksellers art department as an ad copy writer and designer.

The first kids’ manuscript I wrote was called “After School Heroes.” It was a middle grade novel about a group of teenage superheroes who save their city after all the adult superheroes are taken down by a super-villain.

While that one was collecting rejection letters, I wrote my second manuscript a romantic YA comedy called “Inventing Julia,” about a high schooler who invents a fake “long distance girlfriend” for himself so real girls will find him more attractive.

Neither of those book have ever sold, despite serious bites along the way from editors. I’ve pretty much given up on “After School Heroes,” but I took “Inventing Julia” to a novel revision workshop with Darcy Pattison (author interview) last summer and I plan to rework it and send it into the ring one more time.

Samurai Shortstop (Dial, 2006) was the third book I wrote for young readers, and the first one I sold. That acceptance came in 2004, so it took me six years of writing and submitting to finally make a sale.

Your first novel was Samurai Shortstop (Dial, 2006)(excerpt). Could you tell us about the book?

Here’s the quickie blurb I give at parties and book festivals: Samurai Shortstop is the story of a sixteen-year-old boy in 1890s Tokyo who learns to blend baseball with bushido–the samurai way of the warrior–to prove to his father there is still room for ancient samurai traditions in a new and changing Japan. That’s it in a nutshell.

If I need a quicker description, like when I’m talking to teenage boys, I usually say, “It’s about baseball and samurai swords.” That usually does the trick.

What was it like for you, being a first-time author?

It was fantastic of course, but this was something I’d been working for, and, if you’ll forgive the hubris, planning for.

I don’t think it’s a bad thing to anticipate success. In fact, I think that’s one of the ways to become truly successful. Even before I got the phone call from Dial to say they wanted Samurai Shortstop, I was reading books about marketing and contract negotiation.

It may sound like I was putting the cart before the horse, but during those six years before Samurai sold I had been going to writing workshops, getting professional critiques, reading books about writing–in short, doing everything I could do to become a better writer.

I had faith in my growth as a writer and believed (as I still do) that persistence and hard work was all that stood between me and being published.

That’s not to say I didn’t have a lot to learn as a first-time author. I made missteps with agents and with contracts, and I had the bad idea to try and follow Samurai Shortstop with another historical novel that ended up being banished to the bottom of my filing cabinet, never to see the light of day.

But my preparation allowed me and my wife to sit down the day I sold Samurai and write out a marketing plan that we began implementing a whole year before Samurai was even published, and my aggressive writing schedule meant I had already started writing the book that would eventually be my second sale–Something Rotten (Dial, 2007).

Do I sound like an arrogant jerk with all my talk of anticipating success? Jeez, I hope not. Trust me, I was horrified the entire time that I was writing books no one but my wife would ever read. I had to keep telling myself I was eventually going to sell one or else the horrible self-doubt I felt on a daily (hourly!) basis would have consumed me.

Congratulations on the publication of Something Rotten: A Horatio Wilkes Mystery (Dial, 2007)! Could you fill us in on the story?

Thanks! I’m still working on a Samurai-like blurb, but here’s what I’ve got so far: Something Rotten is Shakespeare‘s “Hamlet” rewritten as a contemporary young adult murder mystery set in fictional Denmark, Tennessee, with the minor character of Horatio recast as a wry, sarcastic, seventeen-year-old detective.

I should add that Something Rotten is now officially the first book in a series, to be followed next fall by Something Wicked, based on “Macbeth,” and in the fall of 2009 by Something Foolish, based on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and all starring teenage detective Horatio Wilkes.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book? Were there any literary influences?

I created the character of Horatio Wilkes almost seventeen years ago to the day he’ll first see print, which is cool because he’s seventeen years old in the book, too.

Horatio was created for a Mystery and Detective Fiction class I took as an undergrad at the University of Tennessee. It was easily one of the best and most influential writing courses I ever had. When developing my detective, which was one of our assignments, I looked to the character of Horatio from Hamlet for inspiration. I like that Horatio is grounded where Hamlet always has his head in lofty philosophical inner debate.

That famous line from Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” is supposed to come off as a condescending remark, pegging Horatio as unimaginative, but I’ve always liked that it points to Horatio’s pragmatism.

For all Hamlet’s philosophizing and dreaming, who is it who’s left standing at the end of the play? Horatio, that’s who. I’ll take that kind of philosophy any day.

So my Horatio had his namesake’s practical world view and healthy skepticism, but I never could find the right story for him. He began as a forensic anthropologist at a southern university, then morphed into a newspaper columnist, then a movie theater owner. All adult characters, and all failures fictionally.

Then years later when I was focused on writing for young readers, it dawned on me that the snarky, sarcastic Horatio I knew so well would make a perfect teenager. But what about a story?

For that, I again turned to Shakespeare since he’d already written the perfect story for Horatio, although halfway through my version Horatio takes the reins from Hamlet and steers the plot toward a different conclusion. (Still mirroring the play as much as possible along the way of course.)

My other major influence was someone with as much of a gift for the English language of his day as Shakespeare had in his–Raymond Chandler. I am a huge fan of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, and I channeled him when writing for Horatio. It’s not a pastiche really, more of an homage. I like to call Something Rotten “Hardboiled Hamlet,” or perhaps “Pulp Shakespeare.”

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

Wow–for Something Rotten, I can actually trace the spark for the protagonist back to 1990-1991, and I’m quite positive I have a writing journal where I explore the idea of rewriting Hamlet as a contemporary murder mystery as far back as 1996. That’s a long time to be working on a story!

But of course I wasn’t working on it the whole time–just letting it percolate. Once or twice I set out to write it–before I had even made Horatio a young adult–and I even flirted with the idea of writing a Macbeth novel first. (The notes for which of course went toward the writing of Something Rotten’s sequel.)

The real planning and outlining of Something Rotten didn’t begin until after I finished Samurai Shortstop in 2002. I had all of Something Rotten outlined and the first chapter written when I sold Samurai Shortstop, and then, as I mentioned before, I got the not-so-bright-in-retrospect idea to set Something Rotten aside and write a historical novel set in ancient Egypt.

Maybe it was better in the long run that I got my forced, panicked second effort out of the way on something besides Rotten; that way I was able to return to it without the stress and pressure that so often haunts writers on their second novels.

Once I committed to writing Something Rotten, it took me almost no time at all, relatively speaking. The first draft was done in a matter of three months, the editing process lasted only a month more, and my fantastic editor Liz at Dial snapped it up. That was 2006, and here it is coming out in fall of 2007.

Between that time, though, we went through, by my count, seven rounds of revision to make sure my mystery actually worked and that the book was my own and not Shakespeare’s–or Chandler’s, for that matter.

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

Well, turning Shakespeare’s six-hour philosophical opus into a young adult page turner was a challenge, but I overcame that by focusing on the really pulpy parts of the story–some of which, like Ophelia‘s drowning–originally happen off stage.

I also had to be fairly intimate with the play as a whole, which meant multiple re-readings and deconstructions, all of which was fun for me because I really do enjoy Shakespeare. Perhaps not surprisingly then, my greatest challenge was learning not to be a complete slave to the play. “The play’s the thing” gambit was a particular bugaboo.

To mirror Hamlet (with a modern twist, of course), I originally had Hamilton Prince show his Uncle Claude a DVD of “The Lion King” (which itself has Shakespearean undertones) to goad him into revealing his guilty nature, as Hamlet does with the Murder of Gonzago in Shakespeare’s play. The scene never worked.

Seriously, even in Shakespeare’s day, what kind of killer is going to get scared of watching a fictional parallel to his own crime and reveal his guilt by turning white and stumbling from the room? And what kind of proof is that, anyway? Maybe he just had some bad fish for dinner.

But I digress. Ultimately, I found a different way to use a play to reveal Claude’s guilt (after a few attempts) that is far more realistic and dramatically satisfying. I also had to add a few things that were not in the play to make my story work, and what turned out to be my favorite scene in the book–a snappy conversation between Horatio and a colorful flunky–has no parallel whatsoever to Hamlet, although it owes a great deal to the spirit of Raymond Chandler.

What about the young adult audience appeals to you?

I love that everything for teenagers is so immediate and monumental. “This is the best day of my entire life.” “I wish I’d never been born.” “I will love this girl forever.” “I will never love anyone ever again.”

It’s a bizarre time in our lives, when the future is wide open and unwritten and yet the present feels so consuming and indelible. It’s a fun time to write about and to write for because the emotions and passions run so high.

I also feel very strongly that we need young adult fiction. We need books that give teenagers something to read in that ever-shrinking period between childhood and adulthood, something that is intelligent and mature enough to appeal to the “adult” in young adults, and yet still entertaining and riveting enough to keep the “young” part of them engaged as well.

What should mystery writers keep in mind about this audience?

The most difficult thing about writing a YA murder mystery is developing teenage villains who actually kill. As you might guess, this is a pretty tricky business.

In Something Rotten, the killer is an adult so I avoid that issue, but in the sequel, Something Wicked, the killer is a teenager Horatio’s age. Teens certainly kill people in real life, but any time you write about teenagers killing anyone, everybody sits up a little straighter and pays attention. Teen violence is a hot-button issue, and there are many people who believe exposing teens to violence in movies and video games and books makes them into violent people.

I disagree with that–I believe that violent people are violent people, and don’t need any prompting from media to be so–but many of the people who do believe that are the gatekeepers of the world, the teachers and librarians and parents who put books in kids’ hands–or take them away.

At some point of course you want to stay true to your own story and say “gatekeepers be damned,” but realistically, it’s something you have to think about.

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were beginning writer, what advice would you offer?

I’m not sure it would have mattered, because I’m sure I wouldn’t have listened!

I know I wasn’t listening in college when I got what would turn out to be the best writing advice of my career. My favorite creative writing professor turned a story back to me with a comment I remember to this day. He wrote, “Alan, you are a terrific writer but you lack discipline.” The only part of that I heard then was “Alan, you’re a terrific writer,” and I frittered away the next ten years playing at writing.

It wasn’t until I knuckled down and treated writing not like an art but a craft that I was finally able to succeed. Still, as I said, you couldn’t have told me that fifteen, twenty years ago.

So if I could go back in a time machine, pop out, and say one thing to my younger self before having to leave, it would probably be, “Outline everything before you start to write!” Either that or, “Bet everything you own on the Tennessee Volunteers to win the 1998 college football championship!”

What do you do when you’re not writing?

What do I do when I’m not writing? Beat myself up for not writing!

Seriously, it’s very hard for me to relax and enjoy myself when I’m not writing, because I always feel like I’m wasting my time if I’m not.

My favorite “wastes of time” are watching shows like “Project Runway” and “Firefly” with my wife and “Batman” and “Justice League” with my daughter, eating Mellow Mushroom pizza, reading anything and everything, watching baseball, and playing computer, video, and board games. But being able to separate my work time from my free time has always been difficult for me.

How do you balance your life as a writer with the responsibilities (speaking, promotion, etc.) of being an author?

This is becoming increasingly difficult as I’m being invited to more and more schools and libraries. That’s a great thing, and I love doing them, but school visits can take two-to-three days away from my writing schedule.

Since I’m a full-time writer we’re talking about twelve-to-eighteen hours of writing time I’m missing, and those hours add up as deadlines loom.

The only real answer is making the most of the time I do have in my office. I cannot afford to take a day off waiting for inspiration to strike. Instead, I now create very detailed outlines for my books before I ever get going (remember my advice to my younger self?) so that when I am finally ready to write I can sit down, open my notebook to the next chapter, and get going.

Working from a detailed outline, I can often finish a 7-10 page chapter a day. That’s the discipline my college professor was talking about oh-so long ago–the discipline it took me a decade to understand and develop.

At some point, I suppose, I’ll have to turn down some school visits or ask for a larger honorarium to make the interruptions more affordable, but I hate the thought of doing fewer events.

As for promotion, I could use a full-time assistant for that but I can’t afford one, so I have to spend my evenings on the computer creating press kits and web sites and postcard mailings. At least that’s work I can do with a baseball game or a “Columbo” rerun on the television!

What can your fans look forward to next?

I have fans!? Well, regardless, next up is the paperback of Samurai Shortstop in February 2008, then Something Wicked, the sequel to Something Rotten, next fall. After that, 2009 will be a busy year for me–I’ve got a middle grade historical baseball novel called The Brooklyn Nine due out in the spring, a story in an anthology of “Locker Room Tales” in the summer, and the third Horatio novel, Something Foolish, due fall of 2009. And somewhere in all this I also have a young adult novel coming out from Knopf that tells the story of Nemo before he became the infamous captain of the Nautilus!

Cynsational Notes

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