Sunday, March 7, 2010

An Interview with Lewis Buzbee

Back in October I wrote about a fine book friends and I had read and discussed, Steinbeck’s Ghost, by Lewis Buzbee. Now it's going to be released in paper on March 30th. Grab a copy: Steinbeck’s Ghost was a Smithsonian Notable Book, the NCIBA Children’s Book of the Year, and it won the Beatty Award from the California Library Association.

Buzbee’s next novel, The Haunting of Charles Dickens will be published this fall, and will be followed by Mark Twain and the Mysterious Stranger in the fall of 2011. All are published by Feiwel and Friends (Macmillan). Buzbee was gracious enough to grant me an interview, which you can read below:

Q: Are you still writing on the series of chapter books, JoJo Pearlwhite's Mix and Match Adventures?
A: Alas, no. That was a planned series, of which I wrote one half of the first book. Nothing happened with them, but it got me into kids’ books, and found me an agent. Funny, though, I was thinking about them the other day, thinking I might want to go back to them next year. I really do have a “middle school” brain, but love chapter books, too.

Q: Do you think you will continue writing for children, and if so, solely for that readership? Or will you to continue writing for a variety of readers?
A: While I wrote for adults for many years, I didn’t stumble into kids’ writing. I have always wanted to write for kids. When I first worked in bookstores, some 30 plus years ago, I was trained in kids’ books by a group of very intelligent booksellers, all women, who made sure I knew the value and pleasure of kids’ books. It just took me a while to get here. I hope to keep writing books for kids, especially middle graders. That’s really all I want to do.

Q: How do ideas come to you? Do you get the story first or the character? Or even the setting? (I noticed that in Steinbeck's Ghost the setting was almost another character.)
A: With these books, the literary mysteries, it obviously starts with the writer. I’ve tried to choose those writers who are great writers, but writers that middle schoolers will soon be reading, if they haven’t already. And writers who are part of the culture, too, even if you haven’t read them.

But you’re right about landscape, the setting. I love building these worlds, creating, out of black on white, entire universes for the characters, and the readers, to roam around in. It’s my favorite part about reading, too, landscape.

Steinbeck’s country is well known to me. I grew up near there, and having read about it and visited it for years, found it a delight to re-create his universe. With Dickens, I had to really stretch myself. I’ve been to London, but not 1862 London, and so it was a ton of research to get all the little bits right so that the whole picture would feel true. I spend an awful lot of time simply pondering the universe and building it in my head.

With Twain, there was a double challenge. It’s a time-travel novel that’s set in both contemporary and 184 San Francisco. It was both
a world I knew and a world I would never know. I had to see both worlds in one place.

Q. What do you like best about writing for young people, compared to writing for adults? I know that some books can be read continually throughout life, but in general, is there a different way you approach the work for a younger reader? Different doors that open up in your mind?

A. With middle grade books, you can be as fantastic as you want, and as complex as you want, as emotionally difficult as you want, but you also have to be very clear, stay away from mere cleverness. Kids see through that in an instant. Kids this age are very smart, and very honest. And they’ll read for days at a stretch. It’s more fun than I’ve ever had writing, but also more challenging.

I think I’m drawn to this age group because, well, I’m kind of a big 13-year-old. I think all of us get stuck at some place in our development, and for me, that’s it. It’s a time when your awareness of the bigger world comes into focus. But also a time when, while you’re very smart, you’re still inexperienced. And craving experience. You’re ready to tackle some big ideas about life on the planet.

And this is my ideal reader. If I could write one book that would blow open the doors of a middle grade reader (or lots of them) the way my world was blown open by L’Engle and Bradbury and Steinbeck and all the rest, then I’d be very happy. Steinbeck once said that a good novel is a wedge in a reader’s brain. I’d like to be that wedge.

Q. Who's next after Mark Twain?
A. Right now I’m writing another nonfiction book for adults, Blackboard: The Life of the Classroom, which will be out next year. It’s part history, part memoir, all about what happens in classrooms, especially the teacher-student relationship. It’s not about pedagogy, or educational theory, it’s about what really happens there. The best part of research for this book has been revisiting all my old schools. Talk about time-travel.

Q. Are you "time traveling" as the student you once were while writing about teachers, or through teaching experience you had in the classroom?
A. It's about both, the memoir part, about being a student and having great teachers (I had so many great teachers, very lucky), and about being a teacher, too, how thrilling that is.

Soon, however, I’ll get back to middle grades. I’m still toying with what comes next, but I think it’s going to be Edgar Allan Poe, Lost in the Caverns of Wonder. Poe would be the main character, 13, just starting to write. 13 is such a gothic time to be alive, anyway, all those strong emotions, all those deep secrets, all that fevered imagination. I think it’d be a blast to write this one.

Q. Your wife is a poet, and your daughter inspires your writing. Have you written any poems for young children?
No, I haven’t written any poems for kids, except silly nonsense stuff that we say around the house. I did try to write a few picture book texts early on, but found them impossibly difficult to write. More and more I admire the writers of great picture books—how so much comes out of what seems so little. It’s an amazing feat.

Lewis Buzbee can be contacted at: for those who would like to know more about his writing. In addition to the above fiction for young people he has written an engrossing nonfiction book called The Yellow Lighted Bookshop, partly memoir, partly a history of books and libraries.

1 comment:

Rachel Dillon said...

What a great idea for a book series on for kids about great authors! It sounds like your next book about life in a classroom is going to be wonderful. You are lucky to have had great teachers. I hope my children are as lucky!