I was about 10 years old when my brother and I went to see the original Back to the Future. It may seem like a relatively harmless movie, but it warped our minds. Not due to all the Oedipality, mind you. No, it was because we returned home convinced we could build a time machine. Out of a model train. All we had to do was get it chugging, zap it with an electric current, and bingo, bango, next stop Mesozoic Era. Of course, a few hours later, tangled up in wires and scratching our heads, we learned that our goal was a bit too lofty. But it was a pleasure to have those warped minds, if only for a short while.
Young readers of Kurtis Scaletta’s latest novel, The Winter of the Robots, will find their minds similarly warped. It’s a book where kids build robots that battle each other, and it will surely inspire tinkerers and dreamers to build similar robots in their garages. And maybe a few industrious young folks will actually accomplish their goals, but I suspect most will simply muse over the possibilities. Sometimes that’s equally fun.
Kurtis Scaletta has a voice. In the marketplace of middle grade fiction where there are far too many coattail riders, it is refreshing to stumble upon an author crafting distinct stories that are personal and nostalgic, but also contemporary and slightly magical. Scaletta specializes (at least for now) in tales of boys who live in worlds that are almost like ours. But there’s always a slight bend in those worlds. A town where it always rains. A boy who is like catnip to deadly snakes. An invasion of glowing fungi. In the case of The Winter of the Robots, it’s those kids building those robots, obviously. These things aren’t walking, talking C-3POs. They’re more of the Battlebots variety, but they’re also more sophisticated than what most adults are capable of creating. They’re programmed to react in clever ways, and if the book is about anything, it’s about reactions.
There are any of number of things that inspire reactions in the main character, Jim. The attention of a smart and attractive girl. The emotions that arise when that girl starts dating the school tough. The exploits of a mischievous but loyal sister. The mysteries of a rough-and-tumble family. The yo-yo-ing friendship with a brilliant boy who has lost his father.
Jim is a good kid but, like any kid in the throes of puberty, some of his programming is a bit faulty. His reactions run the gamut from foolish to callous. At the same time, he’s trying to negotiate the reactions of others, most importantly those of his father. This relationship is a small part of the story, but an essential one. Jim’s father has a temper and the tiniest things can set him off. Since his father has been programmed to attack (verbally, at least), Jim has programmed himself to defend. It’s what Jim is best at, but it requires deception and flight more often than not. He needs to find an even better way to deal with this, his biggest of problems.
So while the tinkerers and dreamers will be drawn into the book by the robots, it’s the kids who are constantly on the defensive who will find the strongest emotional bond with it. And while it might warp some young minds into believing that garage robotics are as easy as Legos, it will also remind some young minds that relationships can be as hard as anything in life. There are no easy answers about how best to deal with human reactions, but Scaletta provides something as important: the hope that as we all grow and learn, our reactions will change. Unlike robots, we can reprogram ourselves.
It’s been almost two years in the making, but I can finally reveal more about my latest book, The Riverman. It won’t officially bust out into the world until March 2014, but a few advance reader copies have escaped their cage and if you find one, hogtie it and read it, then shout your opinions about it from the mountaintops (or from a blog or social media platform of your choice).
For the rest of you, here’s a teaser:
“To sell a book, you need a description on the back. So here’s mine: My name is Fiona Loomis. I was born on August 11, 1977. I am recording this message on the morning of October 13, 1989. Today I am thirteen years old. Not a day older. Not a day younger.”
Fiona Loomis is Alice, back from Wonderland. She is Lucy, returned from Narnia. She is Coraline, home from the Other World. She is the girl we read about in storybooks, but here’s the difference: She is real.
Twelve-year-old Alistair Cleary is her neighbor in a town where everyone knows each other. One afternoon, Fiona shows up at Alistair’s doorstep with a strange proposition. She wants him to write her biography. What begins as an odd vanity project gradually turns into a frightening glimpse into a clearly troubled mind. For Fiona tells Alistair a secret. In her basement there’s a gateway and it leads to the magical world of Aquavania, the place where stories are born. In Aquavania, there’s a creature called the Riverman and he’s stealing the souls of children. Fiona’s soul could be next.
Alistair has a choice. He can believe her, or he can believe something else…something even more terrifying.
And here’s a blurb from the inimitable, incredible, award-hoarding author of Dead End in Norvelt, Hole in My Life and the Joey Pigza series:
“Every culture has a magical river story. Some rivers promise the pleasures of eternal youth, while others promise the paradise of eternal salvation. The Riverman promises a more exhilarating alternative. Dive into this book and you may never resurface.” – Jack Gantos
And here are the cold hard facts:
The Riverman was edited by Joy Peskin. It is represented by Michael Bourret at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. It will be published on March 18, 2014 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux Books for Young Readers, a division of Macmillan. Without these dedicated and talented people, it would not be the book that it is. In fact, it would not be a book at all.
Finally, here’s the cover, designed by Beth Clark and illustrated by Yelena Bryksenkova:
What to read, what to read?
There are a ridiculous number of books out there. It’s beyond intimidating. It is to me, at least. I’m not a particularly fast reader. I linger. I soak in the language and the story. I give up on a lot of books, not because life is short but because some books are damn long. And boring. I read from the bestseller list occasionally, and I check off a few cultural touchstones. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn √ The Fault in Our Stars by John Green √ Life by Keith Richards √ Rin-Tin-Tin by Susan Orlean √ A Song of Fire and Ice Vol. 1-3 by George R.R. Martin √√√ But most of the time, I flounder. I hardly ever know what to read next.
Sometimes I force noble projects upon myself. Read some classic mysteries, try some Booker Prizer winners, delve into some epic poetry from East Timor–you know, that sort of thing. I don’t always enjoy it. So recently I tried a different tack. I decided to go local. By local I mean I focused on books by authors I personally know, have met in my online social media adventures, or have heard about through the gossipy cabals that secretly rule children’s book publishing. I was so glad that I did.
Below I will share some of the engrossing and oft-overlooked middle-grade and young-adult books that I have enjoyed during the last few months. You can find their plot summaries anywhere, so I’ll focus on a few thoughts and feelings these books stirred in me. Perhaps it’ll inspire you to buy one or two for your friends, family or self. I realize this humble post won’t generate tons of sales for the authors, but if I can help at least one of them become a rich and ruthless media mogul with the ability to make and break men with a snap and a whistle, then it’s all worth it. So, without further ado…
The Boneshaker by Kate Milford. I knew of Kate’s book before I knew of her. That cover! A man with fire for hair! Burning fairgrounds! Miscellaneous creepiness! When I met Kate, I had to apologize. “I’ve been meaning to read that book,” I told her. She was kind. She didn’t say, “Well then get to it, Champ! I need more money for bourbon.” (Or perhaps she did say that–details are hazy). In any case, when I did get around to reading the book, I was greeted with an elegant slice of Americana. A headstrong girl learns to ride a very difficult bike while finding time to challenge the devil himself. Automata, demon dolls, guitar pickin’ contests, what’s not to like? The book has received the inevitable comparisons to Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes but I like to look at it as historical fiction run through a hand-cranked nightmare projector. Yes, it’s world building, but it’s also world restoration–wiping the mud off the weird bric-a-brac and giving it new uses. Kate has two companion volumes currently out: the novella The Kairos Mechanism and the just-released The Broken Lands.
Trapped by Michael Northrop. I’ve tossed back a few beers with Michael in my day. A fine lad with a gregarious laugh. He’s also the creator of a remarkably taut and realistic thriller. Growing up in the snowbelt of upstate New York, I know a thing or three about blizzards and the existential yearnings of suburban youth from cloudy communities. I also know more than enough about survival–we did, after all, have a “Survival Unit” in my seventh grade science class. So I can tell you that when Michael traps a bunch of teenagers in a snowbound high school, his details are spot on (n.b. Michael only traps fictional teenagers in snowbound high schools…as far as I know). I was expecting melodrama. What I got was far more surprising. Michael’s latest, Rotten, will be out in the spring and stars a rottweiler named Johnny Rotten. I just hope there’s a “never mind the bullocks”/neutering joke in there.
Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma. Nova is truly a friend to all writers (as her never-ending and always-fascinating blog series attests) and one of the most dedicated authors of young adult fiction out there. Her lyrical, haunting tale of ghosts and sisterhood and the recklessness of rural youths is unlike anything on the market. In a way, you could call it a romance, but it’s not the girl-meets-swoonworthy-monster-man treacle we’ve all tired of. It’s about the romance of power, of being a big fish in a small pond (or reservoir, in this case). It’s about the twists of love and jealousy that bind together and choke families and small communities. It’s about 350 pages long. Nova’s new novel, 17 & Gone, is on the horizon. I’ve read the first chapter. Beautiful, scary stuff.
The Mostly True Story of Jack by Kelly Barnhill. I remember reading a fantastic early review of this book and since Kelly was someone I followed on Twitter, I thought I should check it out. I read the first chapter online and…gulp. This is the brand of middle-grade fiction that most people don’t know exists: dark, risky and intellectual. The set-up seems typical enough: new boy in town, mysteries to uncover. But when the perspectives start shifting and things get botanical and pagany, you realize you’re reading a story about the gnarly roots underneath, and not just the literal type. It’s a modern folk tale, but not in a jokey or revisionist way, which means it has guts to spare (as well as some tree sap). Kelly’s new fairy tale, Iron-Hearted Violet, is also getting great buzz.
The Dead Gentleman by Matthew Cody. Matt and I met when we were both debut authors, in the long ago year of MMIX (I’m pretty sure they only used Roman numerals back then). He told me that he was working on a book inspired by H.G. Wells and Jules Verne and featuring time travel, monsters in the closet and dinosaurs. I was obviously intrigued. When I finally had the chance to read the finished product, I was thrilled to find a yarn that was both pulpy and dripping with Victorian ambiance, a rip-roaring adventure of the old mold. If they make a movie of it, they should resurrect Ray Harryhausen to do the special effects. In case you haven’t heard, Matt’s Super is now out. It’s a sequel to his delightful anti-superhero tale Powerless.
The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith. I don’t know Andrew, but my agent recommended I check out one of his latest. The cover promises some sort of steampunky or sci-fi adventure, along the lines of this or this. But it’s not really like those other books at all (at least I don’t think it is). It’s a psychological horror tale, about how trauma lays waste to our worlds. People are undoubtedly calling it dystopian fiction, but that’s not accurate either. What’s disintegrating here is not society, but the mind. And the book has one of the most spectacularly tense openings of anything I’ve read in years. Andrew’s sequel, Passenger, just hit shelves. Not for the faint of heart or stomach I bet, but riveting I’m sure.
Bigger Than a Breadbox by Laurel Snyder. I’d been meaning to check this one out for a while, ever since I noticed it was being published around the same time as The Only Ones. But I lollygagged, and Laurel beat me to the punch by reading my book first and writing a lovely review of it. So I immediately went out and got a copy of hers. I fired through it in three evenings and found myself nostalgic for my early reading experiences. I was weened on the junior versions of magical realism like The Indian in the Cupboard and Laurel’s book certainly lives up to that tradition. But its real magic is its plainspoken and intimate portrayal of a family falling to pieces and it made me remember what I’ve always truly cared about in fiction: emotion, confusion, difficult questions that don’t always have answers. I’ve never met Laurel, but I’ve learned through her Twitter feed that she’s working on a prequel of sorts. If it’s as poised and well-crafted as this one, I can’t wait to read it. In the meantime, we can all pick up her picture book The Longest Night when it arrives in February, right before Passover.
Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea. I sat next to Rob at the Collingswood Book Festival in October. He was passing through, on his way north to join his wife for their wedding anniversary, and he only had a couple of hours to meet his fans. He was greeted by an enthusiastic class of local 5th-graders who were reading this debut novel and were desperate for the author’s autograph. He signed a few dozen copies and prepared to hit the road. I trusted the kids’ endorsement, so I also had Rob sign a copy for me as he left. I read the book a few weeks later, by candlelight during the Hurricane Sandy blackout. I understood immediately what made him such a rock-star to these kids (and to their teacher). Rob has written an ideal book for the classroom, a story about a variety of children with conflicting perspectives and motivations, about mistakes, about the importance of forgiveness and understanding. It’s a thoughtful tale and he continues it in his second book, Mr. Terupt Falls Again. Assign this one to your fourth or fifth grade class and you’re sure to have hours of discussions.
So there you have it, my admittedly biased holiday book-buying guide. Each of these novels is available in paperback, so they can be had for less than ten bucks. Stuff a stocking, why don’t you?
I’ve been holding my tongue for a few months now. Makes for awkward ice cream eating, but a man is supposed to suffer for his art, right? Thankfully, I’ve finally been given the greenlight to Paul Revere it through the cyber-streets hollering: New books are coming! New books are coming!
That’s right. My latest tales have found a home at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Here’s what Publisher’s Weekly’s Children’s Bookshelf said about the deal:
Joy Peskin of FSG Books for Young Readers has acquired world English rights to Aaron Starmer‘s Riverman trilogy, about a girl who claims she is visiting a parallel universe, where a nefarious being called the Riverman is stealing the souls of children. The first book in the trilogy, The Legend of Fiona Loomis, will be published in winter 2014, followed by The Quest of Alistair Cleary in winter 2015 and The Myth of Charlie Dwyer in winter 2016. Michael Bourret of Dystel & Goderich did the deal.
Of course, I’m ridiculously excited by these developments. And I hope (I’m pretty sure, actually) you will dig these books. I hesitate to tell you much about them right now, but I can say that the first one, titled The Legend of Fiona Loomis, is the most personal and realistic thing I have written, while also being the most fantastical. A contradiction? Maybe not as much as you would think.
Let the record show that a few incredible people are fully responsible for this happening:
- Nova Ren Suma, author of the luminous novel Imaginary Girls, was beyond kind when she vouched for me and my writing. As advocates for artists go, Nova is without peer. And good god can she write the breath out of a room.
- Michael Bourret of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management is more than an agent. Honest, impossibly well-informed, and unrelenting in his support of his clients, he’s one of the people who’s daring the book industry to live up to its potential. I’m not sure how he treats his mortal enemies, but he’s a great man to have on your side.
- And finally there’s Joy Peskin, editorial director of Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers. When I first spoke to her about the project, I was astounded by her contagious enthusiasm and by the way she understood my story better than I did. Her reputation for shepherding projects that are both daring and entertaining cannot be exaggerated, but it’s her uncanny insight into storytelling that will truly guide The Riverman Trilogy from scrappy beginnings to a shiny spot on the bookshelves. Do you have a better editor? I’m not sure that you do.
So there you go. A new day, some new books. I’ll be updating you about the writing and revision progress and with other news as it comes in. In the meantime, to give you an idea of the tone, plot and themes of the first book, The Legend of Fiona Loomis
, I ask to listen to Daniel Johnston’s Some Thi
The old refrain: we’ve seen this before and we’ll see it again.
Some disturbed individual buys a bunch of guns and murders a bunch of people. The media falls in love with the story. We endure some rounds of punditry. A few people change their minds on the issues of gun control and mental healthcare, but most of us stand firm in our opinions. Then, after a few days, we move on, until another wayward soul takes some shots at another awful legacy and we all say, “we’ve seen this before and we’ll see it again.”
I rarely address current events on this blog. I almost never mention my politics. But I feel the need to address the issue of guns and gun violence. Don’t worry, I’m not here with boatloads of links and statistics and I don’t think I’m qualified to offer viable solutions. I’m only going to talk about how this issue relates to my life and my writing.
I’ve never owned a real gun, or even fired one. Although I lived a free-range childhood that involved plenty of squirt, rubber dart, and cap guns, my parents didn’t allow firearms in the house. Even BB guns were off limits. If I wanted to shoot an air rifle, I had to arrange a clandestine meeting in the woods with a friend who owned a pump-action Daisy. During one such meeting, I ended up with a welt on my cheek, the result of poor safety precautions and an opportunistic ricochet. “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid,” indeed.
Six or seven years later, when I was studying in London, a lone Englishman at a party full of Americans approached me and asked how many of us were carrying guns. I laughed at the absurdity of his question, but he wasn’t joking. Not only did he believe that all Americans owned and carried guns, he also assumed that we did so when we traveled.
A year after that, on New Year’s Eve, I was in a nearly empty pizza parlor on Bleecker Street when a group of teens in puffy coats entered. They didn’t attempt to order. They just stood amid the tables, eyeing up the cashier. When one teen unzipped his coat, I saw a pistol tucked in his waistband. The cashier knew what was about to happen; he placed his hands flat on the counter and didn’t budge. After a tense minute or two, one of the teens finally said, “not worth it,” and they walked out.
A few years later, in rural upstate New York, I attended a 4th of July party. In lieu of fireworks, the host pulled an Uzi from his impressive gun cabinet and proceeded to shoot a few dozen rounds into the air. I don’t know if he was the legal owner of that Uzi, but I doubt it. I left the party shortly after the entertainment.
Guns haven’t played much of a role in my life of late, except when it comes to my writing. These days, I write books about kids. Because my books are about kids, they’re sold to kids. In my books, some of the characters wield and shoot guns. Those characters are all kids.
During the editorial stages, I have been asked to remove plenty of swearing and kissing from my books. It’s a business decision more than an artistic one. Certain libraries and book-buyers refuse to buy anything in the middle-grade market (i.e. fare for ages 9–12) that features a few hells and a little frenching. And yet, I have never been asked to edit out a gun or an incident of gun violence, even when a 12-year-old character is the perpetrator of that violence. The powers-that-be are okay with all that.
Should they be okay with all that, though? I don’t know. I hope they should be, as long as I’m doing my job as an author, which I believe is to provide an engrossing story with compelling characters whose motivations are relatable a
Oh, the mighty mighty Ohi’. It runs from the Alleghen’ to the Mississip’, skirting the edge of West Virginny and good ol’ Ketuck’ along the way. No, I’m not wanting for vowels. This is how I speak when I speak of rivers. Conversely, when I speak of canals, such as my beloved hometown’s Erie Canal, I add vowels (the correct pronunciation is thus ee-rye-ee, my friends). Things have gotten folksy here and you’re just going to have to get used to it.
Where was I? Oh yes, the Ohio River. About halfway along it lies the city of Huntington, West Virginia. Huntington is a special place for me because it’s where my sister and her family have lived for more than a decade. And over that last decade, I have visited for summer idylls and autumn holidays and winter spelunking adventures. This spring, I return for a book festival. The delightful organizers of the Ohio River Festival of Books have been kind enough to invite me to speak at a couple of local middle schools, and to meet readers and sign books. Here are the details:
- What: Book selling and signing
- Where: Big Sandy Conference Center. Huntington, West Virginia
- When: Friday, April 20, 6:30-9:00 PM
- How: Any which way you can
So if you live in tri-state region of West Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio, please stop by and say hello!
- Easy Reading Damn Hard Writing (vaguely spoilerish): “Starmer’s really accomplished something here, and this book is definitely one of my favorites that I’ve read so far in 2012.” “Such a lovely book.” “A+”
- The Allure of Books: “Seriously. The cleverness, originality and imagination of Aaron Starmer staggers me. The Only Ones might be odd. It might be hard to completely process it all. But it is an incredible story.”
- Reed Reads Book Reviews: “A book for readers that love the unpredictable. A book for readers that constantly ask themselves questions and make predictions as the story turns and twists in a non-linear way. A book for readers that appreciate beautifully written and lyrical story telling.” “4.5/5″
- Evanston Public Library Loft Blog: “Starmer bends convention to explore deeper questions about the nature of fate, time and belief.”
- Read Listen Love (includes giveaway!): “It intrigued me from the first page, constantly surprised me and had fantastic characters.”
- Mabel’s Fables Bookstore Raves and Faves: “This book is like a sci-fi take on Lord of the Flies — so basically, awesome.”
- Kiss the Book: “The story is unique and captivating and twists and turns in unexpected ways.” ”ESSENTIAL.”
- Crunchings and Munchings (spoilers): “Aaron Starmer, I admire your guts.” N.B.This isn’t the most positive review, but it’s an interesting one just the same.
- BPLD Teen Blog (spoilers): “And what happens next is simply amazing!”
- Northshire Bookstore Reviews: “Truly a gripping story with mysterious elements which are beyond earthly explanation.”
I also stumbled upon a couple of discussions
A couple of weeks ago I sat down and treated myself to an impromptu double-feature. I started with Take Shelter, the Jeff Nichol’s film starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain. It’s a brilliant little ode to paranoia. Not for everyone, but if you like your fare ambiguous, slow-burning and with a dash of doomsday prepping, then this one is for you. Since I figured my nightmares could benefit from a little more bleakness, I followed it up with John Hillcoat’s adaptation of The Road. Of course, the book is better. There’s no point in engaging in such arguments. But the film, I believe, was unjustly overlooked. Heartbreaking performances, impeccable art direction–a carefully realized and complete vision of Earth in its death throes. The pacing is a bit off. Some poetry is lost in the translation, but I can’t really complain. After all we live in a world where films starring Kevin James exist.
The double-feature was not really a calculated choice, but when it was over, it felt as though the two films belonged together. It was as if The Road was a spiritual sequel to Take Shelter. It didn’t follow connected characters necessarily, but it was a progression of the themes and time period. And it got me thinking…
What if I could create a grand list of movies that line up thematically and are arranged chronologically. When I say chronologically, I don’t mean by production date. I mean by the time in which they’re set. It is an ambitious task, I know, but I am a man of ambition. Need I remind you that I’ve read at least five Choose Your Own Adventure novels front to back?
I shall dub this fool’s errand The Great and Ridiculous Movie Timeline and I will make a pledge to revisit this project over the next few weeks or months until I have covered the entire scope of history, or until I have reached the limits of my interest. Let’s begin:
1,000,000 B.C. – Missing Link (1988)
Sure, I could start with some dinosaur fare, some Land Before Time perhaps. I could even climb Malick’s Tree of Life or throw Kubrick’s 2001 apes a bone. But I’d prefer to kick things off with the beginnings of man and I’d prefer not to take in the entire history of the cosmos while I’m at it. Which leads me to The Missing Link. I saw this strange little film sometime in the early 90s. It’s the story of a lone hominid wandering the deserts and savannas of Africa. He’s not quite a monkey, not quite a man. That ain’t the tagline, but might as well be. Or better yet, let’s pretend the tagline is: “The only thing that’s missing is the future of his species!”
Because this guy is one of anthropology’s Last of the Mohicans. His species (paranthropus robustus) is being replaced by a smarter, more violent one. Namely our forefathers. And we are allowed to witness poor Link’s final days and homo-sapiens’ early ones. The film is done in a quasi-nature documentary style, much like the Walking With series that Discovery Channel cooked up over ten years after this film. The directors were a husband and wife team known for
By: Aaron Starmer
Blog: The Indubitable Dweeb
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You gotta be careful in here, kid. You may be wearin’ your stripes, but you ain’t earned your stripes. Go it alone and you’ll make mistakes. You’ll hitch yourself to the wrong post, get saddled up and sold to the highest bidder. Stick by me and you might stand half a chance, but you’re gonna hafta listen.
Oh, that’d be on Tuesdays. Not a bad spread. Pickles. Onions. Standard. You’ll learn the menu. More important is this here yard. How you carry yourself. Who you trust. Take that fella at the bench press for example, the one with the dark beard and forearms thick as your chest. Name’s Bluto. Doin’ a dime for kidnappin’ a woman. That’s right, a sailor man’s wife. Threw her over his shoulder and took her down to the docks. Oh, he’ll rough you up right, but keep a can of spinach in your hip pocket and he’ll think twice. I don’t understand the science, but that there is the formula. Spinach.
Agreed, kid. Coupla sizzlin’ patties will beat a can o’ the green any yesterday or tomorrow, but that’s not what we’re talkin’. We’re talkin’ today and today is about the disco and the disco is about stayin’ alive. Have a look here. Skinny character sporting the lime suit? Question mark on his chest? That don’t mean he’s the information booth. No sir. Say a word to that crafty SOB and he’ll come at you like the Sphinx, all riddles ‘n giggles. Next thing you know you’ll be chummin’ around with a psycho circus clown and runnin’ from some pointy-eared, gravelly voiced vigilante. No. Thank. You. Best to steer clear of that riddler entirely.
Beats me! I wouldn’t know if his riddles are about ground beef or ground cinnamon for that matter, because I don’t talk to the man! Aren’t you listenin’? Better be. Your eyes ain’t gonna tell you what my twenty-seven years behind this barbed wire knows to be true. Another example. You probably look over at that strung-out orange beaky guy and think, “well that’s just some ol’ cuckoo junkie.” You’d be right about that. But that ol’ cuckoo junkie goes by the name of Sonny, and Sonny knows where to score the sweet stuff, if you catch my meaning. Sonny is just cuckoo for it, smuggles it past the guards in cereal boxes. You want a taste, that’s your bird.
I guess he could get you some, but why not wait till Tuesday? Like I said, they fire up that flame-broiler on Tuesdays. Sonny’s got no time to bother with no fast-food. Wisen up, boy, or you’ll end up runnin’ with them Hanna Barberas and let me tell you, that gang’s no Laff-a-Lympics. Sure, some of them hustlas may talk a soft game, soundin’ like Casey Casem or Paul Lynde, but they will be quick to shank a new fish if they even suspect you’re conspirin’ with the ascotted and far-sighted and snack-gobblin’ brand o’ meddlin’ teenagers. Dig? Of course you don’t. I’m not spellin’ it out in ketchup. These are the type of gangstas that dress as ghosts and swamp thangs and go hauntin’ just so they can shut down orphanages! That enough to scare you? Oh and don’t get me started on the Orphans! That’s another gang. A more Dickensian band of bandits you have not seen. If it ain’t your porridge they’re after, it’s your inheritance. You work the chimney sweep detail and you’ll be pits-deep in those mangy lads, singing show-tunes while they pick your pocket. You’re better off
By: Aaron Starmer
Blog: The Indubitable Dweeb
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Josh Berk and I went to college together. Drew University, class of 1998. It’s a tiny liberal arts college in the monied wilds on New Jersey. We did not, however, know each other back then. Our ignorance is well documented.
The world spins as the world spins and it spun us both into the “billionaire’s game”–aka writing novels for young readers. And that’s how we finally met. It’s a good thing we did, at least for me. First off, Josh was kind enough to interview me when my latest book came out. Second off (is there a second off?), Josh is a master of teenage persiflage and tomfoolery, as well as murder mystery and general pathos. I have much to learn from this man. In pursuit of that knowledge, I turned the interview tables and we talked about his latest novel Guy Langman, Crime Scene Procrastinator (in stores on March 13!). It’s a rollicking tale of girls, grief and gold, and it stars a slacker, his thinly mustachioed best friend, a high school forensics squad, and a couple stiffs. The unedited, no-holds-barred chat about it is featured below.
But I issue this warning: Some of the content is a bit ribald. If you do not know what ribald means, please stop reading now. And if your parents do not know what ribald means, please turn off the internet now and take a family trip to the library. As for the rest of you? Enjoy!
AARON: Knock knock
JOSH: Who farted?
AARON: Cool it Berk! I’m the one asking the questions!
See what I did right there? That’s what detectives call the old Sandusky Switcheroo. Get a perp thinking he’s in charge of the situation, then BAM, turn the tables. Of course, you know that. Because when you wrote Guy Langman, Crime Scene Procrastinator, you must have studied a bit of police work, right? Tell me about some of the weird and amazing things you discovered regarding forensic science. What made it into the book? What didn’t?
JOSH: Well I did spend a few years on the force in Allentown, cracking skulls and chasing perps. OK really I watched a lot of CSI reruns. And Law & Order reruns. And I literally did read Forensics For Dummies, which I probably shouldn’t admit… I also did a lot of online research, including the scoping out of high school forensics clubs web pages to see the type of work actually being done by high school kids in their forensic science clubs these days. Lots of it is quite amazing! Most everyone in high school I knew was interested in committing crimes, not solving them, so I don’t know why people say they have no hope for this generation.
Amazing fact: If you lose your arms and have to learn to write with your mouth, eventually your mouth-writing will closely resemble your hand-writing. That’s a fact! It’s in the book. You can look it up. Also, try it at home. (Writing with your mouth I mean, not losing your arms.)
Something that didn’t make it into the book was a w
I have a folder in a box under my bed. It’s bursting with rejection letters from publishers, agents, movie studios, theaters, colleges, literary magazines, employers, societies and probably even the Columbia House Record Club (trust me, children, this is funny). I started the folder in my ambitious teenage days, and I guess at first it was an enemies list, or a “big mistake, pal, you haven’t heard the last from this kid, no sir, not the last by a long shot, and you can be sure I’ll bring your name up at Nobel Prize ceremonies and in a chapter titled The Clueless Ones in my five volume autobiography” list.
Now the folder is just something I bring on school visits, to show kids that the world is full of rejection, but that doesn’t mean they should give up on their dreams. Unless they have a folder thicker than mine (Pynchon-thick at this point), they’d be fools to throw in the towel. It’s hokey, of course, but it’s effective in sobering up a world drunk on overnight sensation (note to self: if I ever create my own brand of malt liquor, call it Overnight Sensation).
A rejection letter (or these days, an email) always beats a good old-fashioned lack of response, and a good rejection letter is something to savor. I’ve received a few good ones, including a gem from a university that basically said, “if you do well in life, please let us know we made a mistake.” So lovely in its smug passive aggressiveness, that letter. And no, I haven’t yet informed aforementioned university of the number of heart pieces I’ve found in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. A man must be bigger than these things.
So while you can stuff most sorries in a sack, there are a few you might want to frame. If only, if only, if only, my book The Only Ones had received this one that my old pal Gertrude got:
By: Aaron Starmer
Blog: The Indubitable Dweeb
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The world of children’s literature is full of generous and supportive people. First and foremost among these are the authors. If they’re competing for shelf space and bestseller lists, they certainly don’t act like it. I’m new to this world, but have been lucky enough to meet and learn from dozens of authors. Kurtis Scaletta has been at this about as long as I have, but it would seem as though he’s been doing it forever. He’s already a seasoned pro. His newest book is The Tanglewood Terror, a beautiful mash-up of classic science fiction, football, bicycle-back adventure, and bittersweet family drama, with a healthy dose of adolescent awkwardness mixed in. It will be released on the same date as The Only Ones: tomorrow! To celebrate the occasion, we decided to interview each other. I’m answering questions on his blog. He’s answering questions here. If you can find a better deal than that, then pin a tail on me and call me a donkey. Because it don’t exist.
Aaron: First off, congratulations on crafting an utterly unique story, a gentle but ominous tale about a plague of mushrooms and a family struggling to hold itself together. And congratulations on your third book in three years (after Mudville and Mamba Point). It’s an astounding accomplishment, especially considering they’re each stand-alone novels set in vastly different times and places.
Kurtis: Thanks. I published my first book at age 40 and I think I was trying to make up for lost time by putting out a book a year.
Aaron: I guess that leads to my first question. In a children’s book industry dominated by trilogies and series, what is it about the stand-alone novel that appeals to you?
Kurtis: Kids love series, no doubt about it. They ask about sequels a lot. I think it’s because they feel really connected to the characters, they make these temporary friends and want to keep seeing them. But I’m usually focused on a kid in a time of upheaval and transformation. By the end of the book, that kid and the world around him have changed too much to go back and do it again. But I did love series as a kid, too, and I have one in the works… it’s for younger readers than my first three novels so it can be a little more static.
Aaron: The Tanglewood Terror is set in present day Maine, in a world of cell phones and the internet. Yet it also seems to exist in a time when kids were granted more freedom. The characters roam the woods for hours on end. There are none of the “helicopter parents” we hear about. The wonderful title and cover art communicate the retro aspect of the story, but I’m curious how this notion of freedom and autonomy informed your writing. Was it something other than nostalgia for you? It reminds me of the
Today The Only Ones is released. I’ll be running around reminding everyone of this fact because I want you to read the darn thing. Forgive me if I even show up at your house with a sandwich board and a blow horn. A man must do what a man must do. Now there’s plenty of information about The Only Ones on this web site, and I encourage you to read and watch and listen to it all. But today, the blog will be dedicated to the people who made this book happen and continue to make it “happenin’!”
Most authors include acknowledgements, and it’s always nice to read about the people who helped turn one person’s words into something lovely and tangible and available at your local bookstore. But as an author, choosing acknowledgements can be a bit of a nerve-racking experience. Part of you wants to thank everyone, from the friendly UPS guy who delivered all the marked-up manuscripts to the friendly obstetrician who delivered you into this world. Another part of you wants to cast a light upon the select handful of people who spent hours with the book, giving their best to make it better. It’s the big vs. small wedding debate. Neither is right. The guest list is always hard.
In my book, I went with the “small wedding,” but that doesn’t mean these were the only people who had a hand in the creation of The Only Ones. I’d like to expand the list here:
In July 2009, a painting called The Mainland by Jamie Wyeth sparked my first ideas for the book. In the year and a half of writing and editing that followed, there were countless other inspirations, 99 of which I’ve cataloged on Twitter via a #99inspirations hashtag. You can see them all here.
Cate Starmer, my astoundingly wonderful wife and greatest friend, is also my #1 fan and she’s always the first to read my work. In September 2009, I showed her the opening chapters to what was then called The Lonely Ones and she offered ideas and encouragement and the assurance that she believed in this book, and in me, and in us. She is, as I like to say, a wonder.
Stephanie Sun, then an assistant at Weed Literary and now an agent to be reckoned with, was the next person to read the beginnings of the book. She astounded me when she called it “beautiful” and confirmed that perhaps we had something here.
Elisabeth Weed, the super agent who so valiantly plucked me from obscurity, added to Stephanie’s praise and provided some invaluable suggestions regarding pacing and characterization. Then she boldly took the book to the streets.
Michelle Poploff, a legendary editor who has worked on bestsellers and Newbery winners (and who has written her own books), took a chance
It’s true, I haven’t been hanging ’round here much of late. And though I’ve been busy, it’s not because I’ve been busy. Being busy is never an excuse. That’s something you tell your dentist or your parole officer: “Sorry pal, couldn’t make it in, been busy, but you can dig how that is, right poncho?” Fine for that scene, but it don’t cut it in the blogging biz.
The reason I haven’t been here is because I’ve been elsewhere, peddling my wares to other web sites. Yes, the stain of digital lipstick is all over my collar, but I assure you everything is on the up-and-up. If you don’t believe me, I present the following as evidence:
- Here I am over at Figment.com, where I’m sharing the opening chapter of The Only Ones, as well as a short story I wrote at the ripe old age of 16. Read both and see how my writing has evolved (devolved?) over the last 18 years. For those who don’t know, Figment is a site where teenagers can go and share their writing. It’s an amazing and inspiring place and I only wish it had existed 20 years ago.
- Shoot over to Kidsmomo.com and check out their interview of me. They asked me to film a video to introduce myself and I decided to go all out. Keep in mind, there isn’t a single special effect in theentire thing. Amazing, I know. And there’s still time to enter their sweepstakes where you can score a couple signed books,
- That spooky time of year is once again upon us. The…World…Series! Oh yes, and Halloween is also coming up. In the spirit of the season, I contributed to something called “What Scares You” at the blog “Distraction No. 99.” This is a fantastic collection of tales and inspiration from writers of youth fiction. It was put together by Nova Ren Suma, author of the supremely spooky and lyrical Imaginary Girls. I’m honored to be a contributor. I won’t tell you much about the story, except that it’s designed to paralyze you with fear…and hopefully stunt your growth. Enjoy!
- Finally, I’ve been spending many hours and thousands of dollars on the latest trailer for The Only Ones. I probably spent more time on it than I did writing the book. I certainly spent all my advance money. Have a look, but be warned. Your life may never be the same again:
From: Darius Pogue
To: ”Office List”
Sent: Monday, December 12, 2011 8:39 AM
Subject: Who here at the Yorktown Pennysaver is up for a little Gwar?
Sigh in relief. This isn’t another email about security software updates. Trust your humble one-man IT department when I assure you that the Yorktown Pennysaver is now a veritable Fortress of Solitude, and that this email blast is of a decidedly more personal nature. It’s sure to be the talk of the office until the steam whistle blows.
“Out with it!” you say? Fair enough. Guess who’s going to see Gwar this Saturday at Hogan’s Hideaway? That’s right. The very same fella who tells you, “don’t panic!” when you’ve got a kernel panic, who converts your JPEGs to PDFs and is a BMF besides. Me! And I’ve got an extra ticket.
So who wants in?
Now I realize some of you will probably have questions before committing. It’s natural. Seeing Gwar ain’t exactly like popping by the Cineplex for some Pixar. It’s an event, one that will quite possibly define your life. So I’ll try to walk any Gwar-dolescents (as I like to call the newbies) through the basics.
First question is obvious: What time? Well, doors are at 8 PM, but you should probably stop by my place around 11 AM so we can prep.
I can hear our favorite Mary Kay spokesperson/administrative assistant Deidre right now. “Prep? Like makeup and stuff?” Little different than that, D. But it’s all par for the Gwar course. We’ll be pouring latex molds for our festering neck boils. Doing a little mace polishing. The requisite codpiece fitting.
I know. I know. The boys in sales love a good codpiece joke, but I assure you, the codpieces are an absolute necessity. You gotta be prepared should you find yourself on the business end of a flail some goblined-up tweaker is swinging willy-nilly. Learned that the hard way during the Scumdogs of the Universe Tour.
Haley, I know you’re hip to all the new bands (I’m gonna get that Atari Fire album you keep raving about), but do you have “Scumdogs of the Universe” on vinyl? I’m betting you don’t. Let me tell you, “Sexecutioner” sounds so much warmer, and with all the lovely crackles and pops laying some ambiance down on “Slaughterama,” you can practically feel the Nazi decapitation.
But as great as those songs sound from the turntable, they sound infinitely better live, when your ears are soaked with blood. Judging from Mike’s fainting spell at last year’s blood drive, I’m guessing I lost him right there. But hold on, Mike. Weren’t you the one who told me The Blue Man Group was “the best show in Vegas?” Didn’t you forward that Gallagher video around? Gwar’s a lot like Gallagher, but instead of washing watermelon juice out of your hair the next morning, it’ll be blood…possibly pus.
Notice I said possibly pus. I stress the possibly. Gwar makes no guarantees in the pus department. They are very clear about this. My apologies if the inclusion of pus, or lack there-of, is a deal-breaker for some. Not much I can do about that.
Now I don’t doubt that Carmen, the consummate copy
INT. FACEBOOK CONFERENCE ROOM – DAY
Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes sit at a conference table, surrounded by piles of file folders, binders, etc. Mark Zuckerberg paces around the room.
Moving on. Who do we have next?
Moskovitz opens a file folder.
We have a…Jenny Richardson.
What do we know about Jenny?
Let’s see. Says here she’s from Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
That’s Pennsylvania Dutch Country, Zuck.
Nice catch, Hughesy. Okay, so she’s an Amish then, right? Good. Somewhere to start. We wanna get those Amish fingers a-clickin’. So tell me, boys. What’s ad-sales pulling in on the horse-and-buggy front?
Moskovitz checks the ledger.
Damn. Strike one. No big whoop. Homerun idea is…oats! Pretty sure these people love the oats.
That’s the Quakers, Zuck.
Is it? What’s the difference?
I think…the hats?
Zippers? Fascinating. How so?
Don’t like ‘em. Don’t want ‘em. Got no need for ‘em.
Who? Amish or Quakers? Know what? Doesn’t matter. Skip any zipper ads for Jenny. That includes Ziploc and all subsidiaries. Don’t want to take chances. Focus on oats. I know it’s a Quaker thing, but I’m betting every horse-loving Pennsylvanian needs quality oats. Now make me a happy man, Mister M. Tell me we got some badass oats accounts on the books?
Moskovitz checks the ledger.
Best I can do is Hall & Oates. Reunion tour at the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, New…
Good. We can work with that. How far is Sayreville from Lancaster? Is it doable for Jenny?
Hughes pulls out an atlas, flips through the pages until he finds an overview map of the Northeast. He measures the distance with his fingers, checks the scale on the key.
Looks doable, Zuck.
I was going to try to write this post without using the word blogosphere. But see, I can’t make it even 15 words without resorting to such vocabulary. Oh, the blogosphere is a powerful sphere these days, right up there with the Southern Hemisphere, the troposphere, and Sphere by Michael Cricthon. And I have to acknowledge that power, or else they’ll hunt me down and take me out like this was a Dan Brown book and they were renegade nuns and I was a dashing Sanskrit expert (that’s the sort of thing that happens in Dan Brown books, right?).
What I’m getting at is this: in a market flooded with books, not every author can expect a Charlie Rose interview, a Today Show spot and a New Yorker feature to help get the word out about his/her hardback baby. Thankfully there is a passionate community of fans and critics who are doing the heavy lifting for free. There’s nothing like coming across a review online and knowing that someone out there not only read and thought about your story, but is now expanding on it. Because that’s what good criticism is: a continuation of the story, even when it’s negative criticism. I tend to read criticism after I read a book, or watch a movie, or listen to an album. I want to see if others shared in my experience or had a wildly different point of view. It helps me see more of the story. It gives it a fuller shape. Sure, it sometimes leads to me shaking my fist and screaming “Moron!” or “Philistine!” but most things in life do.
So blogosophere, I salute you. Amazon is okay (with its “best book eva!” and “this book is the root of all evil!” reviews) and Goodreads can be endlessly fascinating and frustrating (I’m fine with one star, just tell me why!). But give me a blog review any day of the week. I’m serious. If you have a blog…give me a review! Even on a Tuesday! Follow the lead of these 10 trailblazers who–despite a dabbling in SPOILERS!–have not only shared my book with the world, but have given me new insights into what I wrote. They have made my story even longer:
- Mother Reader: “One, I’m calling this as a movie waiting to be made. Two, this book would make a perfect gift…”
- Charlotte’s Library (spoiler at end): “It’s the best sort of upper middle grade book–ie, great for an eleven year old child, and for the mg reading grown-up.”
- Parenthetical (mild spoilers): “This is a weird, amazing, amazingly weird book.”
- Librarian in the Middle: “Part science fiction, part mystery, this well-crafted story was moving in ways I didn’t see coming. This is one that will stick with me for a long time.”
- Snarky and Sweet: “I can only talk in the vaguest terms about the plot because one of th
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People often ask me a question that many authors dread.
“So how’s the book doing?”
They’re well intentioned, these askers. They’re taking an interest in my life and work and that’s beyond flattering. But there’s rarely an honest answer an author can give to such a query or, to be more specific, an honest answer that will evoke a wink and a thumbs-up. The book can always be doing better, at least in terms of sales, and that’s really what they’re asking about. For most of us, it would be hard for the book to be doing a heck of a lot worse.
So I usually respond by saying, “people are really enjoying it.” This is an effective, it’s beautiful on the inside deflection that knocks the conversation out-of-bounds and it causes the asker to respond, “well I really enjoyed it!” and we get on with life.
But for this one time, I’m not going to deflect. I’m going to keep the conversation going, in hopes that someday I might have a more satisfying answer to that question.
So why isn’t the book doing better? Is it a lousy book?
Maybe. Yet we all know that plenty of lousy things take the world by storm, while plenty of amazing things remain largely undiscovered. I honestly believe that my book The Only Ones is an undiscovered gem, which is endlessly frustrating. Sure, there’s something romantic about being a long-suffering writer who’s penned an undiscovered gem, but there’s a little more romance in penning a discovered gem. There’s also a royalty check or two.
The market is overcrowded with books and the sad fact is that only a fraction of them will get the attention required to earn back their advances. Don’t ask me to explain the economics behind why a publisher would dump buckets of gold on one book while barely tossing bus fare to another, because I’ll come off sounding bitter and uninformed. But I can tell you that if a few things don’t go your book’s way—at a marketing meeting, during a sales call, in a trade review—then it might mean a loss of the support needed for that book to get discovered. Then it’s all up to you, the author, the confused neophyte who stands to collect a sobering 10-15% (before the agent’s cut) of the sales.
A lot of authors aren’t very good at promoting themselves. No surprise there. Bookish and introverted is no way to go through life, son, and it’s certainly no way to make a splash at a MediaBistro mixer. I’m no P.T. Barnum. I don’t have the ego for it. I embarrass too easily. Perhaps sales of my book have suffered because of that, but rather than beat myself up, or try to change my personality, I’ve decided to play to strengths.
The strength of The Only Ones is The Only Ones. If people aren’t buying the book, then dagnammit, I should be giving them the book. It’s been on the market for only four months, but with shiny new titles released every week, that’s a lifetime in terms of visibility. If the book is not in people’s hands soon, it will soon find its way into the bargain bin. Or so my logic goes.
Here is what I propose. If you’re a blogger, or a newspaper reviewer, or a Today Show anchor, and you read The Only Ones and review it, then I will do the following:
- I will sign a hardcover copy of the book.
- I will send aforementioned book to a person of your choosing. That person could be a nephew, a stepsister, a parcheesi partner, a cellmate or a Unitarian. It doesn’t matter. Just as long as that person is in the United States and has an address that can receive United States Postal Service deliveries.
“Hey now, Charlie!” you’re probably saying. “You’re just buying reviews!”