Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Alan Gratz Blog Book Tour - Day Two

Welcome to day two of the Alan Gratz Blog Book Tour. Soon after reading Something Wicked, I was able to interview Alan. Here is the interview.

1) How did you get interested in creating stories that are somewhat based on William Shakespeare’s plays?
To tell the truth, it began with Horatio almost seventeen years ago. One of our first assignments in a Mystery and Detective Fiction class I took at the University of Tennessee was to create a detective for our fiction. I was also taking a Shakespeare class at the time, and I liked the character of Horatio from Hamlet. Not only was he down to earth and rational in ways Hamlet wasn't, he was also one of the very few characters who didn't DIE at the end of the play. I figured that was the kind of guy I wanted to be my protagonist. So I called him Horatio and based his practicality on the character from the play. Wilkes was just an invention--no real significance there. In Horatio's original stories, he was a thirty-something forensic detective. I liked the character I had created, but I didn't like his job, so I next recast Horatio as a columnist for a newspaper. When that didn't work, I made him the owner of an independent theater. I kept changing his jobs, looking for the right fit, but nothing worked. Then, years later when I was writing YA fiction, I had the idea to take Horatio out of mothballs and make him into a teenager. He was already snarky and a bit lazy, so I figured it was a perfect fit! But what to do about the plot? Well, I figured Horatio was already in a good plot as it was, and struck on the idea of remaking Hamlet into a modern day murder mystery. I've had a blast taking that idea and running with it ever since.

2) Your first two books are based on Hamlet and Macbeth. Do you see yourself doing one that is based on one of Shakespeare’s lighter plays, "Midsummer Nights Dream" perhaps?
You have, in fact, guessed the next play I'll be doing! If the sales hold up for Something Wicked, I'll be turning in Something Foolish, based on A Midsummer Night's Dream. I figured after Macbeth I would need something a little lighter. It's more of a challenge, of course, because no one dies--but I've found a fun way to combine Midsummer and The Maltese Falcon, which are strange bedfellows indeed. :-) I also have ideas for Julius Caesar (Horatio on a college visit, at a toga party), and The Tempest (Horatio works as an intern at a Disney World-like theme park ruled by a "wizard" of animatronic creatures).
3) Something Wicked has a fair bit of explicit sex in the story. Did you at all worry that parents, teachers, and librarians might not like this?
Ack! Wait. There's no explicit sex in Something Wicked. Explicit sex, to me, is SEEING two people have sex, and I just don't go there. Yes, that the teens in Something Wicked have sex is explicitly STATED. I'll cop to that. And yes, I know that will keep some parents, teachers, and librarians from sharing my books with their kids, and I hate that. But I strive for verisimilitude in my YA novels, and in real life, many teenagers are sexually active. I think to pretend that all teenagers are chaste--or to imply that consensual, responsible sex is a bad--does a disservice to young adult readers. A book like that would run counter to what they're already experiencing in the real world. And I think we're not giving teenagers much credit when we assume that just reading about some behavior is going to make them go out and imitate it. Teens are curious about their bodies and the things they can do to feel good, and I would much rather a young adult satisfy that curiosity by READING about sex or drugs than go out and try to experience either one first hand.

4) Did you base the character of Horatio on someone you know?
As I said, he's partially based on Horatio from Hamlet. I also borrow liberally from Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, one of my favorite literary detectives. As for real life inspirations, no. I only wish I had been like Horatio in high school. He's smart, tough, a hit with the ladies, and he always knows the exact right thing to say. Reverse all that, and you have me as a teen. :-)

5) How do you get into the heads of teenagers so well?
First off, thanks for saying so! I'm never quite sure if I'm tapping into teens' heads perfectly, and I suppose until we all have chips in our brains like in M.T. Anderson's Feed we'll never know for sure how teenagers think. But I did teach eighth grade English for a time, and I got to know 12 and 13 year olds pretty well during that time. I could probably say too that I haven't grown up very much since high school, so maturity-wise, I'm pretty close to my audience. :-) There are some "adult" things I can't escape, like that pesky mortgage payment, but otherwise I like reading YA novels, watching programs aimed at teenagers, and hanging out with teen readers. I can't quite keep up with teen music though. That's beyond me.

6) When you wrote "Something Rotten" did you know that you would be writing a second book?
I knew I wanted to put Horatio into Macbeth, but I didn't know if I would have the chance. I sold Something Rotten as a stand-alone book, a one novel deal, but I deliberately called it "Something Rotten: A Horatio Wilkes Mystery," as a sort of wink-wink, nudge-nudge that I would like to write MORE Horatio Wilkes mysteries. When the editing on Rotten was finished, I approached my editor with a pitch for Something Wicked, and she eagerly bought it up. When I told her how relieved I was, she was surprised. "Oh, we always imagined this as a series!" she said. Ha. Well, they could have told ME! It would have saved me quite a lot of anxiety.

7) Your two other books are about baseball. Have you always had an interest in this sport?
I've been an avid baseball fan since high school, but before that I wasn't into much of any sport. I tried playing baseball in high school too--and I was a pretty good hitter--but I hadn't played youth sports consistently as a young kid, so I didn't have the skills in the field that so many others with years of Little League and travel teams had. So I guess I've been a much better fan than player over the years. I was also really into fantasy baseball for a long time, where you draft players based on how you think they'll perform, and then collate stats through the season and make trades with other owners. I was playing fantasy baseball so long ago that we had to send off our rosters each week to have a stat company crunch the numbers on a computer. These days, you can play fantasy baseball online with daily transactions for free. I have a few other baseball novel ideas, but I don't want to do them all at once. I have lots of other non-baseball ideas, and I don't want to get locked into being the guy who only writes about baseball...

8) You clearly have a decidedly unique sense of humor which allows you to laugh at yourself. Do you find that this helps you with your writing?
I do like to make fun of myself, and it helps that I'm such an easy target. :-) I figure if you can't laugh at yourself, you're not trying very hard. And I suppose it helps with my writing too, in that I don't take myself so seriously. I think if I did I wouldn't have been able to take two of the darkest, heaviest plays in the Western canon and have fun with them. Just the weight of taking on a master would have been too much for me. In Something Rotten, I have Horatio make a comment like, "I was a little tired of every no-talent hack without an original idea taking classics and 'updating' them," and that line has gotten me a lot of attention. People ask me, "did you write that to make fun of yourself?" and the answer is, "Of course I did!" I can't take myself too seriously. I'm not writing Deep, Meaningful Books here. If you want deep and meaningful, I can recommend a couple of good Shakespeare plays!

9) What kinds of books did you like when you were a teenager?
I didn't read much outside of school as a teenager, an oversight I'm playing catch up for now. What I did read in school that I liked were things from the canon, like the short stories of Ernest Hemingway and J.D. Salinger, Crime and Punishment, Lord of the Flies, The Great Gatsby (maybe my favorite book ever!), Leaves of Grass, Huck Finn, and of course Julius Caesar and Henry IV. I had a healthy appreciation for the things we read in English--except, oddly, a lot of older British lit. I was never happier than to be done with The Canterbury Tales, and I never had much patience for the Romantic poets. Ha.

10) Are you at all interested in writing books for younger children?
I do have a squarely middle grade novel (ages 8-12) coming out next spring just in time for baseball season: The Brooklyn Nine. It's the story of nine "innings"--nine generations--of an American family from the 1840's to the present, and their connections to baseball. We focus on a kid in each story, and that kid grows up to be a parent in the next story, and a grandparent in the next. It was a pretty exciting and exhausting project, as I had the thrill and the challenge of researching nine different eras of American history and baseball development. I'm eager to see how it will be received. I also have an idea or two for picture books, but those are so tough to write well, and so tough to sell once you have something good. We'll see. I've always said, it gets more difficult to write the younger your audience is. With Ya, anything goes. With middle grade, it has to be clean, AND you have to worry about how to write something heavy enough to warrant a novel but light enough to have a middle grade protagonist be the hero. With picture books you're really in trouble, because not only does the content have to be exceptional, the words have to be PERFECT--and short. A lot of editors today want to see picture books with texts of less than 100 words!
That's like writing poetry, and as my college poetry professor can tell you, I'm no poet. :-)

Thanks for the interview, Marya! Oh, and if I can jump in with one more thing here at the end: To celebrate the debut of Something Wicked, my publisher is putting Something Rotten online for FREE until the end of November. Not just a chapter, not just an excerpt, but the WHOLE BOOK. I'm really excited about this offer, and I hope a lot of people take advantage of it. To read Something Rotten for FREE, go to http://www.blogger.com/www.alangratz.com and click on the link to the free book.

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