David Lubar’s books include: HIDDEN TALENTS (Tor, 1999); DUNK (Clarion, 2002); and WIZARDS OF THE GAME (Philomel, 2003). This interview was conducted via email in July-August 2002. Visit: David Lubar.
Humor writing is obviously important to you. Could you tell us about writing humor, perhaps offering some advice to beginning writers? Why do you think humor appeals so much to young readers?
Funny you should ask. The world is far too serious a place, especially for kids. Some people act as if laughter doesn’t belong in education. That’s dead wrong. Kids need to explore, experiment, create, and have fun. Humor is one of the extreme edges of creativity. You’re putting together connections that, at first, don’t seem to belong. Then, click, the mind sees the leap, and you laugh. A joke is a miniature invention. A funny scene is as valid a work of art, and as breathtaking, as a sonata. Humor is an aerobic workout for the mind. The best advice I can give beginning writers is, don’t try too hard. Let it flow. Forced humor isn’t funny. Let the humor arise from the situation. Relax, have fun, and send your inner critic off on an errand. One caution: if you’re writing for young readers, remember that they don’t share many of our cultural references. Most teens aren’t going laugh at humor that requires an intimate familiarity with pet rocks, obscure bands of the 1980’s, cheap transistor radios, or other relics of the past.
You’ve written a series, THE ACCIDENTAL MONSTERS. What are the special challenges in writing for a series? How is it different than single-title work?
There were two challenges. I tried to make sure that each book could stand on its own. There’s no guarantee that a reader will start with the first book. On the other hand, you don’t want to bore readers of the fourth with too much back story from the previous three. I dealt with this by treating each book as an individual work that happened to share characters and concept. The second challenge was that I’d sold the series on the basis of one complete book, along with the first chapter of each of the other three books. So I’d sold something I hadn’t written yet. I’m much more comfortable writing a book and then selling it. (Thus the large stack of unsold manuscripts in my closet.) I’m never quite sure I can pull off a specific project until I’m well under way. (Thus the even larger stack of unfinished manuscripts in the other closet.) In the case of this series, it was a relief when I got the second book finished. And the third. And the fourth. The main difference with a series is continuity. Whatever you establish in any book, you have to live with it for all books that come later. If a character is afraid of spiders at the start, he can’t suddenly have a spider collection in the third book.
According to your Web site, “I’d much rather write about aliens, werewolves, or hungry carnival monsters than about myself.” Why? What in particular appeals to you about characters such as these?
I grew up reading monster magazines, horror comics like CREEPY and EERIE, and lots of fantasy novels. There’s been a ton of literature written about the appeal of monsters, from dry scholarly analyses all the way to Stephen King’s wonderful DANSE MACABRE. But the bottom line is that monsters are fascinating. They have supernatural powers. They’re dangerous and unpredictable. Monsters give us that tingle that comes from standing on the edge of a cliff. Best of all, they aren’t real. They can scare us, but they can’t hurt us. I especially like the classic monsters from the Universal films. I went a little crazy when the post office issued monster stamps and merchandise a while back. I actually bought a set of monster tie pins. I now own more tie pins than ties. Carnivals also attract writers. Beneath the tackiness lurks that sense of danger. It’s not our world. We’re just allowed to visit there. Bradbury, Koontz, and lots of others have waded through that pool. I was just at one of the Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museums last month. It was like visiting brainstorm central. There were story ideas everywhere I looked. I could feel them leaping at me from all over. But as much as I love dark and weird stories, that’s just one aspect of my work. (I’ve started referring to horror as “magical scariness” to throw off those folks who are prejudiced against the genre.) Most of my recent anthology sales have been mainstream, as well as my latest novel. Which doesn’t mean that unusual things don’t happen in them.
Your short story in the anthology SHATTERED: STORIES OF WAR edited by Jennifer Armstrong was a bit of a departure. Could you tell us about what inspired your contribution to the book? What are the challenges of writing a short story?
That story was one of those gifts that the mind hands out on rare occasions. Jennifer took a real chance inviting me to contribute to a serious work. As I was thinking about war and searching for a plot, the General Sherman quote, “War is Hell,” ran through my mind. There’s a part of my brain that seems to turn just about everything I hear into a pun (reason number one why my wife is a candidate for sainthood). In this case, the phrase that rose from the goo was, “War Is Swell.” An intriguing title is a great springboard from which to launch a story. I started thinking about how war could be good. I usually ask myself a lot of questions when looking for a story idea. What if? Why? Where did I leave my car keys? Is the check really in the mail? In this case, the obvious question was, What if there were some kids whose life was so miserable that war improved things? Next question — why is their life miserable? At that point, the orphans were born and the story just flowed. It had a mystical, magic feel. I tried to enhance that by avoiding a specific setting, though the echoes of Bosnia are there. Jennifer gets a lot of credit. She pushed me to work hard on areas where I’d gotten lazy. This sort of story is a mixed blessing. I love it when something shines, but I also wonder whether I can rise to that level again. As for challenges, I think the greatest task for the story writer is to stay focused. It’s so easy to add elements that are about the writer as opposed to the story. That can happen in a novel, too, but in long works there’s room for slack. The more each piece of the story is tied to every other piece, the stronger the result. The other challenge, for me, is to provide a satisfying ending. I don’t like fuzzy endings that force the reader to say, “Huh? It’s finished?” Perplexity is overrated. On the other hand, the time required to write a story is short enough, compared to a novel, that there’s a lot more freedom to experiment. If I write an unmarketable story, I haven’t lost much time. And I’ve probably learned something from the failure. If I write an unmarketable novel, I move that much closer to a career as a professional blood donor.
Can you tell us a little bit about your path to publication?
I started sending stories out when I was in high school. They came back. After college, I attacked the market with a shotgun, spraying all sorts of submissions at all sorts of places. The NY Times has a section called Metropolitan Diary, where they publish light verse. That was my first acceptance. My first cash sale was a one-liner to a humor service. That brought in 75 cents. I sold limericks to a science-products catalog (I think I’ve written the only published limerick on the conversion of carbonic acid to carbon dioxide and water), and some other fillers. During this whole time, I wrote short stories. Most were science fiction or kid’s stories. After about 100 rejections, I sold a story to Highlights for Children. I sold more stories, and started writing articles for computer magazines. Then I got lured into the game field. In 1994, I realized I really needed to get back to writing. I sold some stories, then hit a hot streak and sold six books in 1995. (Special note to aspiring authors. The sales were a four-book series, and two story collections. Everyone will tell you that these are very difficult to sell, especially if you don’t have any other books out. Obviously, it can be done. So don’t hesitate to write the books you want to write, even if people say there isn’t a market. It’s extremely tough to sell story collections, but I plan to keep writing short stories.) Things went a bit slower after that. I got sidetracked for a while by some game work, but have managed to stay focused on writing for the last couple years. Right now, I have one book coming out, one in galleys, one about to go to copy editing, and three more under serious consideration. The exciting thing for me is that each of these books is different in some fashion from past works. I’ve been doing a lot of exploring.
What were the earliest inklings that you would someday become a writer? What role did your school-librarian mother play?
The Dick Van Dyke show definitely influenced me during my formative years. I wanted to be a comedy writer, like Rob Petrie. In junior high school, I wrote a vast quantities of poems and songs. I dread the thought that I’ll ever stumble across any of them tucked away in a box somewhere. I also painted a lot. Quite badly. (I still have enough old art work around to keep me from ever considering a career move in that field.) I remember, back in college, sitting on the beach at Sandy Hook in New Jersey, staring off into the distance, and thinking, “If I’m a writer, this is what my work day will be like.” Shows how little I knew about the process. I thought writers gazed at the landscape, thought dreamy thoughts as the breeze tousled their hair, and then penned a few lines about the existential nature of life or the heartbreak of being misunderstood. My mom loved reading, and she loved research. She introduced me to scads of wonderful books. And she encouraged education. She was a registered nurse who served in the army during World War II. After the war, she went back to school and got an MA. Later, after volunteering at the library in my elementary school, she got her library degree. But she had a practical side, too. After college, when I showed no signs of ever earning a living or acquiring useful skills, she did mention to me that I could think about taking the civil service exam. She did live to see me publish my first story, but not my first book. I think she would have been really proud to know I’ve spoken at the American Library Association’s conference.
Did you face any early challenges to finding success on this path?
I made some stupid mistakes. Early on, I fell for one of those literary agent scams where they tell you your story is almost publishable and suggest they can make it better for a price. One of the first things I always tell kids is that writers don’t pay — writers get paid. Another early challenge was that I didn’t know enough to look for writing groups, trade organizations, or conferences. I pretty much went it alone the first time out, back in the seventies. I didn’t even know any other writers for the first couple years. I wish I’d known about SCBWI back then, or the great One on One conference that have at Rutgers.
What encouragement helped you along your way?
Scads. My wife has been very supportive. Literally. When we were first married, I was trying to earn a living as a writer. She kept food on the table for a couple years. (Reason number two for sainthood.) Friends and relatives also encourage me. I managed to do a better job of networking on my second try. The writers I’ve met since the mid 90’s have been great. Dian Curtis Regan and Marilyn Singer both gave me a lot of good advice and some critical hand holding. Bruce Coville has been so supportive, I think I might, at the very least, have to give him one of my kidneys as a token of my appreciation. The whole SCBWI group in Eastern PA is wonderful. A lot of local writers have helped smooth the path, including Elvira Woodruff, Pat Brisson, and Sally Keehn. They’re good people. Walter Mayes and Kelly Milner Halls were among the first people in the industry to show enthusiasm for my books. Jonathan Schmidt at Tor has been solidly behind me from the start. I could thank dozens of other folks, but I don’t want to turn this into an Oscar speech. But I have to say that I’ve never met a kid’s writer who wasn’t nice. We all help each other any way we can. It’s not a competition. Each good book helps all of us by capturing more readers.
What books were among your childhood favorites and why?
I remember loving the FREDDY THE PIG series by Walter Brooks. Freddy wrote poetry and solved mysteries. The series was recently reissued. My mom got me started on science fiction with Heinlein and Asimov. I took off from there, reading tons of it. I also ran through the science shelves at the library, reading Martin Gardner’s books and Asimov’s nonfiction. I remember enjoying Berton Rouche’s medical detective books, and Bennet Cerf’s joke collections. I also dabble with Robert Benchly. For a while, in third or fourth grade, I lugged around Plutarch’s LIVES, but I never read it. I just liked the size of the book. That sucker was huge. I’d like to think my desperate attempts to impress people have grown a bit subtler over the years. It’s much easier to mention Plutarch than carry him.
What are your favorite titles today and why?
Where to start? I read BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA (by Katherine Paterson) at least once a year. It’s the perfect example about how to write about tragedy while affirming life. (In a similar vein, Lois Lowry’s A SUMMER TO DIE is on my favorites list.) ENDER’S GAME is magnificent. As is ENDER’S SHADOW. Orson Scott Card also has some great writing books (see below). Nancy Springer’s books always amaze me. She’s a brilliant writer. My favorite of hers is A BOY ON A BLACK HORSE. Roald Dahl’s MATILDA shows us how to make the absurd believable. My favorite picture book is CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS. It’s silly. It’s imaginative. It’s fun. I love short stories. Chris Crutcher’s ATHLETIC SHORTS and Bruce Coville’s ODDLY ENOUGH are on my keeper shelf, along with Stephen King’s collections. When I read books for grown up kids, I like Donald Westlake because he’s funny, and Robert Parker because Spenser is so cool. Robert McCammon’s THE WOLF’S HOUR and A BOY’S LIFE are very good.John D. MacDonald never lets me down. CANNERY ROW blew me away. The tone is brilliant. The way the whole loose thing meshes just takes my breath away. (I wish that schools would use this, rather than extraordinarily depressing works like THE PEARL. Steinbeck can be so much fun.) I have a book on the back burner that’s inspired by Steinbeck’s voice in CANNERY ROW. I’m not sure if I can pull it off. On the other hand, there’s no harm adding another couple hundred pages to the piles in the closet. You can’t beat Calvin Trillin for enjoyable nonfiction. Especially when he writes about food. And you can’t beat William Goldman for Fiction, Nonfiction, or Screenplays. I’d bet even his grocery lists are remarkable. I have tons of writing books. I’d advise anyone interested in the craft to read all they can find of Orson Scott Card. Even now, after all these years of writing, I learn things from books like his. Robert McKee’s STORY is great. I usually read right through writing books, but I treated that one like a text book, absorbing a bit at a time. I missed several hundred great titles, but everyone has already skipped ahead to the next question, so it’s okay.
For you, what is the hardest part of being an author?
The financial roller coaster can get pretty brutal. Sometimes, there’s money. Sometimes, there isn’t. (Reason number three for spousal sainthood. But who’s counting?) I also tend to run my career in a very disorganized fashion. I’ll write a book that interests me, and then worry when I’m done whether it will interest anyone else. This, once again, is the shotgun versus the rifle, and the reason I have no room in my closets but plenty of room in my wallet. Should we enter an atomic winter, I’ve got a couple years worth of heat stored up in the form of manuscripts. I envy illustrators. You only need a moment of someone’s time show your painting. When I write something new, and I’m excited about its potential, I want instant feedback. (Okay, that’s a lie. I want instant applause and admiration, but if I ask for feedback, I at least have a shot at getting the craved ego boost.) It’s tough waiting for reactions. Honestly, when you consider that so much of the world lives in poverty and hardship, there is nothing hard about being an author. It’s a cushy existence. Even if one has to sell the occasional pint of blood or surperfluous internal organ. The world doesn’t need my books. I’m not doing the universe a favor. I’m indulging a talent. Happily, the result is books that kids like to read. But if I wasn’t giving them something to read, someone else would. (To put it pithily, most writers are unique, few are irreplacable.) Wait — I thought of the true hardest part. It’s when, after I’ve spent half an hour trying to find the right word to fix one sentence, or two months polishing the seventh revision of a 60,000 word novel, I bump into someone who says, “Gee, I’d sure like to write me a book one of these days.” Yup. Be my guest. But tell me about it after you’ve at least purchased a pen and some paper.
What do you love about it?
I love creating a universe from nothing. Even more, I love revising. That’s where the real magic happens for me. Once the story is on paper, you can go back and find those connections that tie everything together. And I love that zone you can enter when the writing expands to fill all of reality and time ceases to exist. My story, “Words of Faith,” in Lisa Fraustino’s new anthology SOUL SEARCHING, touches on that, and on the link between writing and faith. The perks are nice at times. Tor has been very generous about sending me places. Last year, they sent me to ALA and IRA. This year, they sent me to Texas. They’ve spent so much money promoting me, I think I need to write about thirty books for them. Or give them the other kidney. I’ve had some absolutely euphoric weeks spent doing school visits. Imagine a whole week sharing meals and conversation with librarians. Nothing beats the company of people who know and love books. I love it. I’m still sort of stunned when a kids tells me one of my books is her favorite. That’s such gratifying praise. I still get a huge rush of pride every time I see HIDDEN TALENTS on a summer reading list. All of this feels unreal in a way. I mean, I write a book, and I think it’s good, but once it’s published it gets a life of its own. The whole area of award nominations, good reviews, and all that is dangerously enjoyable. It’s easy to sit back and bask, when the real job at hand is to lean forward and write. Fortunately, my wife and daughter are well versed in keeping my head out of the clouds.
Do you have a job outside of writing, or did you have a job before you became a writer? What effect, if any, did these have on you as a writer?
From the early eighties through the mid nineties, I designed and programmed video games. The main effect was that I was so busy I didn’t spend much time writing. There’s a fair chance one of my games is in your attic or garage, sitting in a box with the broken Atari 2600 that you meant to throw out a decade ago.
How would you describe the person you are today?
Hang on. There’s a mirror in the other room. Ick. I have my uncle’s hairline. Or lack thereof. (So much for letting the sea breeze tousle my hair.) I obviously like food. My taste in clothes in questionable, running mostly to T-shirts. Okay — so much for reflection. Looking deeper, I’d describe myself as creative, funny, insecure, and perhaps a wee tad neurotic. I think the ability to invent plots and search for the best resolution for stories also generates the ability to see every outcome for real life events, including every possible bad or disastrous outcome. This tends to make me a bit of a worrier. (Yup — reason number four for spousal sainthood. And that ends the hagiographic portion of this interview.) As far as writing, I see myself as a dedicated craftsman, trying to learn and grow. I think I’m getting pretty good, but I know I can get better. I have a lot more to learn. But I truly love writing, and I think that every step in the journey will be well worth the effort.
What’s up next for your fans? What can you tell us about your fall release, DUNK?
I love DUNK. It’s a very different book for me. I took a lot of risks and gave it a leisurely pace. Things take time to develop. I go a lot deeper into my characters than I’ve ever done before. The whole writing process felt different for that one. I usually work pretty quickly. I slowed myself down with DUNK, especially during the first major revision, doing only four or five pages a day. If I talk about the book at all, I’m in danger of babbling for hours. There are so many aspects of it that get me excited. On the surface, it’s about a boy who lives at the Jersey shore. He want’s to work in a dunk tank so he can shout at the world from the safety of a cage. In its heart, it’s about the healing power of laughter. And young love. And sand. Games of chance. Sticky foods. Roller coasters, too. I’m thrilled by the cover. Clarion did an amazing job. They’re good people. Michele Coppola really did a wonderful job editing the book. She helped bring out some important scenes that really tied things together. There’s always this fear that nobody else will like the book. I held my breath for months while I waited for the initial reactions. The first review that came out was fabulous. School Library Journal gave it a star and featured it on their web site as the Book of the Week. Full Cast Audio is putting it on tape. Walter Mayes (aka Walter the Giant Story Teller), who is brutally honest and who knows as much about books as anyone, said nice things about it. So did Kelly Milner Halls. I’m slowly getting oxygen back into my lungs. I think it’s going to turn out okay. Did I mention that I love this book?
How about next spring’s release, WIZARDS OF THE GAME?
That book was a lot of fun. Michael Green at Philomel suggested the idea. I’d done a short story for a collection he edited, and he thought I had the right sort of voice to handle it. I had a ball with the dialogue because the wizards aren’t from around here. Not by a long shot. And their powers are a bit under whelming. The books is about a group of kids who get in trouble for playing a fantasy game in school. While my goal was to tell a fun story, I couldn’t avoid tackling some of the issues that rise up when people protest things for religious reasons.
What’s in the works at Tor?
All sorts of good stuff. I’m doing the final revision for a book that’s gone through a huge number of changes. It started out as a 20,000 words novel, and is now 60,000 words, told from five different viewpoints. (My editor, Jonathan Schmidt, has been extraordinarily patient and supportive. I think he earned combat pay for this one.) The working title is THE TROUBLE WITH HEROES, but I don’t know the final title yet. I’m leaning toward something like MINDS APART, MIND FLIPPERS, WHEN LEGENDS COME TO MIND, or THE GREAT GATSBY. Tor is also combining my two story collections as a single volume for their Starscape line, under the title IN THE LAND OF THE LAWN WEENIES AND OTHER MISADVENTURES. And they’re putting out a Starscape edition of HIDDEN TALENTS in January. I’ll know pretty soon whether they’re taking another science fiction novel of mine.
Are you interested in speaking to groups? If so, how can interested parties contact you?
I speak at a lot of schools. I really enjoy working with kids, from third grade up through high school. My web site at www.davidlubar.com has all the information.