Author Interview: Eric Luper on Big Slick

Eric Luper on Eric Luper: “Aside from being an avid poker player and author, Eric Luper, has had his share of interesting jobs, including: dry-cleaning store manager, medieval castle restorer, bartender, predatory bird cage cleaner, paperboy, and factory worker (at a factory that stamps out those shiny cellophane things that go around potted plants).

“Faced with the decision being a starving artist or a not-so-starving artist, Eric ran off to school to become a chiropractor. He spends the remainder of his time pursuing his writing. He currently resides in Albany, New York; with his wife and two young children. Big Slick (FSG, 2007) is his first novel.”

Read Eric’s LJ!

How would you describe yourself as a teenager?

As a teen, I was something of a searcher. I had a core group of friends, but I grazed in different social circles. I was a reasonably good student, but found that I thrived in extracurricular activities and my part-time job. I loved making money…and spending it.

As opposed to so many other authors, I was not an avid reader as a teen. Nor was I an avid writer. All that came later.

Could you tell us about your apprenticeship as a writer? What helped you the most? What might you do differently, given the opportunity?

I had no idea I was interested in writing until I got to college. I mean, I always loved storytelling vehicles such as film and television and role-playing games, but it wasn’t until my freshman composition class at Rutgers where I began to sense that writing was something I might like to do. It developed from there, and I ended up shifting from biology major to English major.

What has helped me most, I think, is that I’ve been too stupid to stop. Persistence goes a long way when you’re a writer. So does humility. When you’re starting out, it’s not easy to admit you suck, but it’s the only way a writer gets better.

Holding my work up to the standards of the publishing industry has helped, too. Self-publishing might work for some, but all those rejection slips forced me to raise my game.

What is it about young people as fictional heroes and/or as an audience that especially appeals to you?

This is an interesting question, Cynthia. So many important decisions, life-altering decisions, are made during adolescence. It’s a time when society expects us to learn and grow from our mistakes. Teens get do-overs and that makes for great fiction. Plus, emotions run so high during those teen years. Hormones pour through the wrinkles in our brains like gravy over mashed potatoes. I can’t imagine a better age to write about!

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

It took a long time for me to trust my own voice. Until Big Slick, I had been writing what I thought editors wanted to see. I was chasing trends and trying to fill voids in the publishing world. If I read an article that there was a scarcity of boy-protagonist chapter books, I’d run off and write a boy-protagonist chapter book. Although all this “chasing” never led to a contract, it helped me hone my craft and find my voice. It readied me.

This may sound odd, but when I sat down to write Big Slick I had to actively give myself permission to write the book that needed to be written. I shook out my arms and told myself to forget the trends and the expectations and to just write the book I’d have wanted to read over and over again when I was a teen. It was a very different writing experience for me–it was very liberating–and one I’m still getting acquainted with.

Congratulations on the success of Big Slick (FSG, 2007)! Could you tell us a bit about it?

Big Slick starts off with Andrew Lang already in a hole and spiraling downward. He’s stolen money from his family’s dry-cleaning business to enter a poker tournament in an illegal card room, essentially throwing good money after bad.

When he loses the tournament, Andrew gets desperate. He devises different ways to get the money back before his father notices it’s missing, but every attempt lands him in deeper trouble. Throw a geeky best friend, a hot co-worker and a kick-ass muscle car into the mix and, well, you get Big Slick.

A lot of people like to pigeonhole Big Slick as a “poker novel,” but to me it’s more than that. It would be like calling “The Breakfast Club” a “detention movie.” It would be like calling “Roadhouse” a “dopey movie about a saloon.” Okay, I’ll give you that last one. In any event, you don’t have to be a poker fan to enjoy Big Slick. At heart, it’s a story about a good kid’s struggle to figure out how to salvage, and ultimately strengthen, the relationships he’s damaged as a result of a string of bad decisions.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

A friend called me up and urged me to watch poker on television. I told him I couldn’t imagine anything more boring than watching other people play cards. He insisted and I relented.

After learning the rules and watching a few hands, I was hooked. It really is interesting to watch poker. There is a lot of deceit and trash-talking. There is pushing and pulling and huge swings of fortune. All things that make fiction so exciting.

It was then that I conceived the idea of a teen sitting at a poker table in a smoky, illegal card room filled with a bunch of less-than-savory adults. The image stuck with me and I wrote a short story, which turned out to be the first chapter of Big Slick.

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

I became acquainted with poker and wrote chapter one at the very end of 2003. It sat on my hard drive for months until the rest of the characters and some plot ideas had a chance to take shape in my head. I sat down to write in earnest in the spring of 2004. The first draft only took four or five months, but revisions took much longer. My contract offer with FSG came in the summer of 2005 and that put me on-track for a September 2007 release.

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

This novel was fraught with challenges, but the biggest challenge is one I’ve already touched upon–giving myself permission to write the book that needed to be written. This was a huge hurdle for me. Every time I sat down at that the computer, I had to remind myself to let go of all the voices in my head, those internal editors, who like to talk me out of writing from within myself.

There was also the matter of sounding smart about poker and figuring out what an illegal poker room is really like. Through the course of writing this book, I played online, in home games, huge casinos, and, yes, at seedy underground poker rooms. I tried my best to bring those colors to this novel. And fortunately I never lost my shirt!

Your bio indicates you’re an avid poker player (which also comes through in the novel). Tell us a bit about your poker life.

I don’t play nearly as much as I used to and, as such, my poker skills have waned. But I can still hold my own. The game of Texas Hold ’em is quite simple and quite complex at the same time. That is the beauty of it. There’s always something new to learn. And if you have a head for numbers, it can be really fascinating.

My biggest weakness in poker is that I’ve never been able to separate the chip from the dollar amount it represents. Good players (as well as addictive gamblers) don’t see $10 when they look at a poker chip. They just try to make the smart bet–the right bet for the situation. Me, I see a cheeseburger deluxe or ten downloads on iTunes.

Do you outline first? Do you just begin writing and see where it goes? Or, put another way, are you a plotter or a plunger and why?

I am a plunger who is completely envious of plotters. I wish I had some idea of where my characters were headed before I set out on the journey. It would save me tons of time and scores of pages that have ended up in the trash can. The trouble is that whenever I try to plot my story, I inevitably diverge from the plan within a chapter or two. So, I gave up on that.

Here is my current method: I create a few characters that intrigue me and then I put them in a terrible terrible situation. Just as soon as they start to get a handle on the situation, I throw some other terrible terrible obstacle in their way. I keep doing that until I get to the end of the story.

When I’m writing, I feel like a vengeful god. If my characters knew it was me pulling the strings, they’d just look up and say, “Dude, what the hell?”

What was it like being a debut novelist in 2007? What surprised you the most?

There were so many great books that came out in 2007, it was hard to keep up. The talent just keeps coming and the bar is getting higher and higher. The young adult shelves are populated with brilliant writers. But the world of children’s writing is also so welcoming. The listservs, the bloggers, all the great conferences. Children’s authors are so supportive of each other, and I value that community a great deal.

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

Great question! I’d tell myself to start writing in earnest sooner. I took a good decade off after college where I didn’t write a darned thing. I feel like I missed an opportunity, not only to get published earlier, but to grow as a writer. But, I’m only 38, so I suppose it’s not so bad! At the least, I should have taken my author photo back then so I would have more hair!

What advice do you have for YA novelists?

Write what is true to you. Forget what you hear about industry trends and gaps in the marketplace. Don’t write a vampire book just because there are a bunch of really popular vampire books out right now. Don’t write a picture book because you heard a librarian mention they are becoming more popular again. The best writing comes when you are tapping into a very uncomfortable place within you. Find out how to get at all that good stuff and let it come out through whatever story you’re telling.

Do you work within a community of writers (a critique or workshop group), with an editorial agent, or solo before submitting to a publisher? Why? What are the benefits to you?

I have various circles that see my work before it goes to my agent, and ultimately my editor. I participate in a live critique group and an online critique group. I also have a few renegade readers who read my stuff. They are all people I trust implicitly, and I take their comments very seriously. However, I am sensitive to the fact that decisions made by consensus are often not the best decisions.

The final changes on anything I do come from me, and every change I make must improve the work in some way. I find it extremely helpful, though, to have fresh eyes on my writing. I’ve read my own words so many times the sentences often stop making sense to me!

As a reader, so far what is your favorite YA novel of 2008?

I haven’t read a whole lot of 2008 releases yet, but my favorite novel I’ve read since January has got to be Spanking Shakespeare by Jake Wizner (Random House, 2007). I call it “Curb Your Enthusiasm procreates with teen fiction, and the resulting baby gets injected with massive amounts of steroids.” And no, the novel has nothing to do with William Shakespeare. But it’s fresh and funny, it’s filled with heart and situations that could make a sailor blush.

What do you do when you’re not in the book world?

Outside my writing life, my plate is pretty full. I’m an author by night, but by day I am a chiropractor. I own an office and work a full week there. I also have two young children and spend at ton of time with them.

It seems like a lot, but all the activity forces me to be regimented with my writing. I wonder how much time I would waste if I were a full-time author! As for hobbies, I suppose skiing is my favorite. I also enjoy weekending up in Lake George on the warmer weekends. Come find me on the boat in Log Bay if you’re ever up there!

What can your fans look forward to next?

My second novel is entitled Bug Boy (FSG, 2009). It is the story of a young apprentice jockey in 1934 Saratoga, who is pressured to tamper with a horse. It’s a gritty little book. I guess I love writing about the underbelly of society.

In many ways, this book was more challenging to write than Big Slick, and I’m proud of the results. Not only did I have to learn a ton about horse racing, but I had to learn about life in 1934. It’s a roller-coaster of a story and has a lot of contemporary parallels that sprang up as I was writing. I’m in the editing phase on this one and look forward to it hitting the shelves next summer.

I’m also around 2/3 of the way through my third novel. Think contemporary. Think edgy. Think ka-pow! Sorry, but I can’t say any more than that. It’s still like a little creature that scurries further into the darkness as soon as you shed any light on it. Give me a few months and maybe I’ll be ready to talk.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Get in touch! I love to hear from readers and librarians and teachers. I also love to get out (in my copious free time) so contact me via my website if you’re interested in a school or library visit or having me come and speak at a conference!