Author Interview: David Gifaldi on Listening for Crickets

David Gifaldi to David Gifaldi: “I grew up in the snow country of Western New York, in a village near Lake Ontario between Buffalo and Rochester. Even though I now live in a big city (Portland, Oregon), I’m happy to return to the small-town pace and country spareness of the old hometown when I visit my family every year.

“After college (the first time), I worked for a year in an automotive plant to earn enough money for a sixth-month trip to Europe. I studied Italian in Florence, then paid a visit to my grandfather’s family in the mountainous Abruzzo region of central Italy. I had a letter from Grandpa Vanzie in my pocket and was treated by the Italian relatives like a long-absent king…being the first to come back from the America that had drawn my grandfather to its shores when he was just sixteen.

“Upon my return, I took a job tutoring elementary-school kids in reading. That’s when I fell in love with teaching. And teaching has been part of my life ever since, twenty years in the elementary school and, more recently, at the university level.”

What first inspired you to write for kids?

It’s a little strange, really. I believe it was in the cards all along. There’s a kid in me that somewhere along the line decided to use writing to make sense of the world as he experienced it…and seemed, eerily, to know that writing stories was the key to helping my adult self find his way on this particular life journey.

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

I started by taking a course from the Institute of Children’s Literature in Connecticut. One of my assignments became my first published picture book, though not before being turned down by thirty publishers…so there’s a sprint and a stumble all in one!

After seeing my first story in Children’s Digest magazine, I thought, “Well, I can die now and everything will have been worthwhile.”

Sounds silly, but I felt I had finally communicated something of myself to the world, however small that “world” may have been. Someone, somewhere, would read what this person, David Gifaldi, really thought and felt.

I collected rejections in a special box set on a shelf in my closet, and waited for the mail every day, hoping for good news. Mostly what I received were rejections. Yet I was proud of that bulging box. Within the stack of form letters were just enough hand-written notes from editors to let me know that I wasn’t completely deluding myself in thinking of myself as a writer.

What was the best decision you made related to developing craft during your apprenticeship and why?

The best decision was allowing myself to be a substitute teacher for nearly five years. This became my writing apprenticeship. I was working with kids nearly every day, observing, listening, journaling. Kids of all ages.

Yet there was time to write because I didn’t have the pressure of being a regular full-time classroom teacher. I barely survived financially, but wrote two novels and a slew of short stories. One of the novels–the second of course–became my first published book.

Could you catch us up on your back list, highlighting as you see fit?

My back list includes two realistic middle-grade novels (One Thing For Sure and Toby Scudder, King of the School…the latter first published as Toby Scudder, Ultimate Warrior.

I have a crazy tall tale titled Gregory, Maw, and the Mean One, which features an orphan boy, a talking crow, and a very odious adult villain who needs to find out what happened to his “heart” when he was a boy.

Two picture books: The Boy Who Spoke Colors and Ben, King of the River.

I also have published a YA novel (Yours Till Forever), which deals with the question of reincarnation, and a collection of contemporary YA short stories entitled Rearranging and Other Stories.

I’ve managed to keep One Thing for Sure and Gregory in print through the Authors Guild’s Back-in-Print program. Toby Scudder, King of the School is available in paperback from Clarion. And Ben is available from Albert Whitman.

But thank goodness for the Internet because any out-of-print book can now be tracked down and purchased.

A couple of years ago I was ecstatic to find the first chapter book I read as a child available at an independent bookstore in Missouri. There it was, a mystery called Three-Part Island by Anne Molloy. I couldn’t write the check and send the envelope fast enough.

When the book arrived, I handled it with reverence, taking in the smell of old paper and ink as I recalled feeling so “big” and satisfied after finishing the story on my uncle’s porch one warm summer afternoon when I was nine.

Over the course of your career, how have you grown as a writer? In what areas are you still striving to improve?

I’m still trying to improve everything! Still trying to make my characters and their lives as real as if they walked whole from the street into my story, with no false writerly accoutrements. Still trying to make my work give me gooseflesh, the same gooseflesh I’ve experienced reading others’ books.

But every new book is like stepping into uncharted territory. There are sure to be unseen dangers lurking about as I try to do something for the first time, such as telling a story through multiple viewpoints or trying my hand at a traditional fantasy.

Confidence is huge. I can’t tell you how many promising characters have been aborted simply because I didn’t have the courage to begin or stay with their stories for fear of failing.

In terms of my growth as a writer…well, the only thing I know for sure is that with experience comes the knowledge and sensibility to know what isn’t working, what doesn’t work, and to know down to your toes when the gears actually mesh and the passage you’ve just written does work.

I’ve also learned that good writing is all about revising, rewriting, and fine-tuning. There are no shortcuts. Every sentence, every word has to be considered over and over again.

Is there a better way to say this? Would this person really say or think or feel this? This is about as subtle as a brick through a window. Please…I’m your reader…why do you insist on insulting me like this?

Congratulations on the release of Listening for Crickets (Henry Holt, 2008)! What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?

Jake’s voice came to me one day when I was rapid-writing, trying to come up with a story idea…seeing what was inside and in need of coming out. Not totally out of the blue, though, because I quickly realized that he was based on a boy who lived across the street from me for a time. Sometimes I’d observe the boy and his father outside, working or playing, and I couldn’t help but sense that there was an emotional void between them. From that germ came the fictional family and occurrences of Crickets.

Publication was a long time in coming. The book was accepted right away, but it wasn’t until two summers ago that I received my first editorial notes from my editor, Christy Ottaviano, at Holt. Christy saw things I couldn’t/didn’t see, and two major revisions later, the book was placed in production.

One of the biggest challenges in writing Jake’s story was that it didn’t seem to follow the traditional arc of a story as I knew it. Jake thinks he can handle what’s happening around him. He gives his father the benefit of the doubt time and again, wanting so much to keep the family together. So his story “problem” doesn’t rise in a single line toward a climax. It rises and falls as he continues to believe that everything will work out, that all is fine. He has an array of coping mechanisms that prevent him from seeing what’s really happening. His optimism and strong desire to make things right take him on a roller-coaster ride emotionally. So there are several mini rising actions and climaxes along the way, instead of the traditional build-up to a single one. At least that’s the way I see it.

You’re a writer who’s also a writing teacher! Could you tell us how teaching fits into your writing life?

As I mentioned, I discovered early on that teaching was in my blood. It was just something I knew I could do well. Maybe it’s because, to some extent, all students doubt their own abilities. Well, I know where they’re coming from. I’ve experienced the same doubts. So I seem to speak their language, be they little kids or big adult kids. I constantly feel as if my students and I are in the same boat together: trying to keep alive our imaginations, in need of encouragement, being given the time to discover who we are and what we want and need to say.

How do you balance being a writer with the responsibilities of being a published author (contracts and other business, promotion, etc.)?

For the bulk of my career I didn’t have an agent. And I don’t believe an agent is necessary for getting published, even though I have one now, which cuts down on the record-keeping and market research that goes along with submitting manuscripts.

My “time” problem has more to do with meshing my two loves of teaching and writing. Whether working with kids in the public school, or with adults in a college setting such as at the Vermont College of Fine Arts [right], I tend to take my teaching responsibilities to the enth degree. And more often than not, writing takes a back seat to teaching.

I could use that as an excuse for why I’m not as prolific a writer as I’d like to be. But I won’t because the fact is I’m a slow writer, always have been, and I need a lot of mulling time before jumping into a project that will take up one or two years of my life.

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

This aligns perfectly to what’s above. I’d say, “Listen, you need to jump in earlier…you need to take a few more chances…and stop being such a perfectionist!”

I’ve only recently come to the realization that perfectionism is all about ego. It’s a fact we carefully hide from ourselves. So I’d offer the same advice I give to my students: “Swallow your ego and your need to please everyone, and write!”

What can your fans look forward to next?

I’ve completed a YA novel set in a small town in Washington state from the viewpoint of two main characters, a girl who is grieving a friend lost to the war in Iraq and a boy who is confused about his sexuality and who questions his stable of friends.

I’m currently working on a middle-grade fantasy. But the short story is a favorite genre of mine, and I’d love to get another collection in the works.

What do you do when you’re not writing?

You mean other than secretly watching episodes of “SpongeBob SquarePants” when no one’s home? (I have a thing for irrepressible sponges who see their fry-cook job as a gift from God.)

Swimming is my chosen physical exercise. I can’t get enough of it. It’s great for thinking or trying to solve a story problem. I also have a favorite coffee shop for every mood, one for every type of reading or journaling I need to do on a certain day. I weigh my options and choose the best one for the situation.

Having so many different venues keeps the regulars in any one shop from wondering too deeply about the guy in the corner who stares a lot, seems to be eavesdropping, and is probably planning something.