Friday, November 09, 2007

Alan Gratz

So, since I already hit maximum levels of acclaim last week when I reviewed Something Rotten, I think I should probably just let that stand. It's Alan Gratz's second novel, after last year's Samurai Shortstop, a book I liked a great deal, and have given to more guys than I can count. Something Rotten is even better. He's one to watch, and I intend on paying attention.

Alan was the very first author I thought of when we starting pulling together the WBBT, and I think you can probably tell I had a ton of fun coming up with questions for him. Enjoy!

1. I'm not really a girl who throws people's words back at them... wait. Yeah, I am. "Personally, I'm a little tired of every author without a bright idea of his own putting a modern spin on a 'classic'..." p 134. Now, granted, that was Horatio speaking, but, care to comment?

Heh. Well, a little self-deprecation is good for the soul, and I’ve never had trouble laughing at myself. When I had the idea to rewrite Hamlet as a contemporary YA murder mystery I thought, “Oh jeez, am I going to get blasted for this? It seems like everybody’s rewriting classics these days.” So, partially to laugh at myself and partially to echo what I imagined some reader out there might be thinking, I put the words in Horatio’s mouth. He’s the kind of guy who would grouse about that kind of thing anyway. And you’d be surprised at how many people have already told me they thought that line was funny.

(Jac says: It IS funny. No surprise here. But it was an opportunity to good to, you know.)

2. Kirkus has criticized Horatio for being too self-assured to be convincing as a teen. I think that it's part of his charm, and entirely necessary for the tone of hardboiled fiction. Back me up, how does Horatio's attitude fit into the story?

Well, I’m happy to address this again, because I really do think the reviewer for Kirkus missed what I was trying to do. I should say at the outset that I generally don’t try to or like to respond to reviews. There’s just not much to gain by it, and you always come off looking defensive and whiny. That said, (ahem) the voice I developed for Horatio was a deliberate homage to noir fiction, particularly Raymond Chandler. I know teenagers don’t really talk like that and act like that. My intention was never to write an “authentic” teenage voice for Horatio. Horatio talks and acts like I wished I had when I was a teen. He always has the right snarky comment at the right time, and he always knows what to do when the blank verse hits the fan. In my defense I called Something Rotten “aspirational fiction,” because we all aspire to be that cool, even though we know it’s impossible. Horatio is as impossible as Philip Marlowe, or James Bond, or Veronica Mars. Could any teen ever be as cool and smart and confident as Veronica Mars? We only wish.

So, beyond the allusion to Chandler, how does that voice fit the story? Well, that line from question one is a great example. It’s snarky and critical, which is exactly the tone I wanted. I felt like Hamlet almost needed the MST3K treatment. Horatio is Joel and Crow and Tom Servo all rolled into one, cracking jokes and questioning every thing that happens. Hamlet is so big and ponderous and important that you can just feel teenagers rolling their eyes at it, and that’s exactly what Horatio does . . .

(Jac says: I got it, Alan. I totally did. Also, I [heart] VM. *sob*)

3. So... Shakespeare and classic noir... what made you think that those were a good
mashup? How'd you get there?

I created the character of Horatio Wilkes many moons ago for a class on writing mystery and detective fiction at the University of Tennessee. I’m a big fan of Hamlet, and have always been fond of the minor character of Horatio, Hamlet’s best bud from back at Wittenberg University. Unlike Hamlet, Horatio is practical and down-to-earth. He’s so down-to-earth that Hamlet even gives him crap for it: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Yeah, well, all that philosophizing Hamlet does doesn’t keep him and the rest of his family from biting it at the end. And who’s left standing? That’s right: our man Horatio. That’s the kind of philosophy I can get behind.

So I borrowed Horatio’s name (all great fictional detectives have to have weird names, don’t they? It’s a rule or something) and his practicality, and I started writing stories about him. Back then, he didn’t have that noir patter, didn’t use colorful metaphors, didn’t talk tough. The noir stuff came much later, when I discovered Raymond Chandler on my own and became a big fan. Then when I pulled Horatio out of mothballs and dusted him off and recast him as a teenager in Something Rotten, the wit and practicality of the character reminded me of Chandler’s detective, Philip Marlowe. It was like I had half a character, and the Chandler influence was what I needed to complete him.

I’m afraid there’s nothing more to it than that. It’s kind of like those old Reese’s Cups commercials, where a guy with peanut butter and a guy with chocolate just happen to be turning the same corner and run into each other. I think it was really just a happy coincidence.

4. Instead of being the King of Denmark, Hamilton's father was head of a paper company. A paper company? Much is made of the new Elsinore both as the symbol of power and as an environmental theme. What's your experience with paper plants, why bring in an environmental angle?

Well, I have to confess, the paper plant angle came about initially as a joke. “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” we are famously told in Hamlet, and I thought I would be very clever and take that line literally by setting the novel at a paper plant. If you’ve ever driven within fifty miles of a paper plant, you’ll get what I’m talking about. The smell is rancid and inescapable, and it travels for miles when the wind is right. So it was for the gag alone that I chose a paper plant. Then, later, when trying to find a way to parallel Ophelia’s drowning in the play, I came up with the idea for her to be an environmentalist who drinks poisoned river water as a form of protest. My way of making Ophelia a stronger, more proactive character. Then I needed a way to poison Hamlet’s dear old dad, and lo and behold, paper plants are good for creating dioxin, a highly carcinogenic substance. Once I had the paper plant idea I kept riffing on it, and it, like a paper plant’s smell, began to pervade the story.

I do have a history with paper plant controversy, if only tangentially. When I was a young lad growing up in Knoxville, Tennessee, the headlines of our local papers were filled with the Champion Paper/Little Pigeon River pollution controversy. Dioxin from the bleaching process the plant used was being dumped into a tiny river that ran through many East Tennessee communities, and the Environmental Protection Agency wasn’t doing anything to stop it. Community groups fought against it and eventually got the states of Tennessee and North Carolina suing each other—and suing the EPA, for good measure. I remembered those headlines, and I was able to go back and read those articles as research, all to lend authenticity to a major plot element that had begun as nothing more than a play on words.

The environmental angle ended up giving Something Rotten something I didn’t know it needed: a heart. The dioxin pollution produced by the plant became a central focus of the story and played itself out in many ways. It began the story, it ended the story, and it drove it along the way. It worked so well, in fact, that I’m now personally committed to highlighting other environmental and social issues in Rotten’s sequels. The next book, Something Wicked (based on Macbeth), has urban sprawl and commercialism as a leitmotif, and the third installment, Something Foolish (based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream) will examine date rape and abusive relationships.

(Jac says: That's really awesome. Now I want to read the sequels even more than I already did. And yeah, I've been around paper plants. They reek.)

5. "Who needs self-help books, anyway?" p 202. I once put my foot in my mouth with a similar statement. What do you generally think of self-help books?

Yeah, Horatio probably puts his foot in my mouth about twenty times in this book. But remembering that I’m not Horatio and he’s not me, I have to say that I agree with him here. I’m currently reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done, a business self-help book, of sorts, written to give people a handle on all the junk going on in their work and their lives, but there’s a part of me that cringes at the thought that I’m spending time to read a book that is supposed to help me save time. In general, I feel like self-help books are too touchy-feely, too idealistic, and far too general to be of use. How can the advice that works for one relationship work for all relationships? I think so much of what self-help books are written to address could be solved by a combination of honesty (with yourself, and with others) and better communication (with yourself, and with others.) Hmm. Perhaps I should write a self-help book about that. Then maybe I could get on Oprah.

(Jac says: Yeah. Sometime I should tell you all about how I gnawed on my foot. It involves a very nice author.)

6. How is the sequel coming? Will we be seeing Horatio's cleverly (and familiarly) named sisters later in the series?

Something Wicked is done, but for the editing. A second round of notes on my first major revision are pending, and the whole kit and caboodle will be wrapped up by the end of December 2007 for a Fall 2008 release. If you’ll forgive the hubris, I really do love this book. It takes place at a Scottish Highland Festival, and I had a lot of fun visiting one and taking notes through Horatio’s sarcastic eye. And yes, one of Horatio’s sisters plays a major part. This time it’s Desdemona, Horatio’s journalist sister, and she’s with us through the whole novel. Like her Shakespearean counterpart, Mona has no luck with men, and she gets off on the wrong foot right away by swapping phone numbers with a man who will be arrested later that day for murder. We’ll see or hear from all of Horatio’s heroine-inspired sisters at some point, if the series lasts long enough!

(Jac says: Buy the freakin' book people. I want more Horatio.)

7. "Heavens to Mergatroid" (p 99). Wha...? I mean, it's funny, but, what?

Snagglepuss? Hanna-Barbera Cartoons? Anyone? (Sigh.) You kids today, you’re always off reading books, not watching cartoons like we used to in the old days. Snagglepuss was a rather effete pink cat with a flair for the dramatic, saying things like, “Exit, stage left!” before running away, and declaring, “Heavens to Mergatroid!” when startled. I drop a lot of allusions in Something Rotten to things that have collected in my pop culture subconscious, even though I know a lot of people won’t get them. They sound funny, at least—those that made it through. My editor nixed “What a maroon,” (a Bugs Bunny phrase) for fear that people would think I just misspelled “moron,” and I also had to cut “BFE,” apparently because there are regional variants of “Bumble-F*%! Egypt” and it wasn’t going to be clear. There were more victims of the editor’s pen as well, although I did manage to slip “frodis”—a truly obscure allusion to a talking, hypnotic, football-headed plant in an old Monkees episode—by both my editor and copy-editor. (It shows up in the chapter where Horatio helps Mrs. Prince move some house plants into the community theater lobby.)

(Jac says: Yeah, I would have gotten "What a maroon" AND BFE. With Hanna-Barbara I merely know that once it existed. I'm just a little too young to have really watched most of those cartoon, unless they really got rerun love. Some of them have endured. My dad often calls me "Daughter Judy" from some latent desire to be George Jetson or something.)

8. It's quite a jump to go from 1890's Japan to Shakespeare inspired noir. How was Something Rotten different from Samurai Shortstop to write?

Well, I didn’t have to do all that damned research for one thing. Er, I mean, that darn fun research! I kid, but I put a ton of work into Samurai before I ever wrote the first word, researching, outlining, preparing to write. That strategy worked so well the first time that I used it again on Something Rotten, but of course that novel is contemporary not historical. I still had to reread Hamlet a couple of times and do a bit of research on the paper-bleaching process and dioxin poison for the mystery side of things, but that work didn’t take me nearly as long this time around.

The biggest difference though was one of expectations. When I was writing Samurai Shortstop, no one had ever bought anything from me. No magazine had ever given me a review. As far as I knew, I was writing that book for myself and my wife. I wanted to sell it of course, that was the goal, but there were zero external expectations on me. I wrote Something Rotten in its entirety before selling it too, but this time I felt the great pressure to follow up on the success of Samurai Shortstop with something equally compelling and award-winning. I actually wrote a book in between Samurai and Rotten, a book which shall remain nameless and descriptionless at this juncture, and it was forced and not very good. I think I needed to get a nervous, tentative book out of my system, and that freed me to just say “Frak it” on Rotten and write what I thought was a rip-roaring good book, everybody else be damned.

9. How did you end up in 1890's Japan for your first book?

By accident. I never intended to write historical fiction. I was far too lazy to do proper research. But the idea, once discovered, was too good to let go. It all started with a travel guide to Japan, where I saw a picture of a man in a kimono throwing out the first pitch at what the caption told me was the 1915 National High School Baseball Tournament. I knew the Japanese were mad for baseball, but I had always assumed they learned baseball during the Allied occupation following World War II. Turns out they had it much earlier—1872, to be exact—and that time period, the Meiji Restoration, proved to be a fantastic background for a story about the early days of baseball in Japan and a father and son trying to reconcile the past and the present. Samurai Shortstop was the third book I wrote in my efforts at becoming a career YA novelist and the first one I sold, but I hadn’t stumbled upon that photo and started down that path when I did, the next book would probably have been Something Rotten. That’s certainly the project I went to next after Samurai was done and before it sold—but then I set it aside for an attempt at another historical novel, the Book That Shall Not Be Named. I have other historicals in the works now, one I’m very excited about and almost finished with, in fact, so Samurai will probably not prove to be a complete aberration.

10. Which authors do you get overly excited for their new books?

Oh, I’m a big fan of Michael Chabon, and any new work by him gets me all atwitter. Ditto that for Neil Gaiman. Who else do I buy in hardback? That’s the real test. Garth Nix. Philip Reeve. I buy everything from comic book writers Mike Mignola and Alan Moore. Wow, that’s a lot of sci-fi and fantasy, isn’t it? Perhaps I should write some. Or perhaps I already am . . . mwahahahaha.

(Jac says: Dude. Awesome.)

11. What book have you read more times than any other?

This is an easy question for me, because I almost NEVER reread books. I’m far too eager to get on to a new book to read one again. I often don’t even read sequels—even in trilogies! So I know for a fact the book I’ve reread the most is Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, probably my favorite novel of all time. Harlan Ellison’s The Deathbird Stories comes in second.

12. What are you watching on TV these days?

Not a lot. We’ve gone almost completely over to Netflix for our television. It’s just so hard to plan our lives around someone else’s schedule anymore. That said, when the new season of Project Runway comes on, Wendi and I will both be glued to the set at whatever time Bravo tells us to watch. I am completely smitten with that show, and was once overheard to contemplate giving up a writer to enroll in Parsons to become a fashion designer. This from a man who has done nothing more before than sew a missing button back on a jacket. I cannot explain this infatuation I have. Perhaps it’s Heidi Klum. Or Tim Gunn. I’m excited by the new Doctor Who series, and I watch those first-run now. And Wendi and I also enjoyed Top Chef Season 3, but it pales in comparison to Project Runway. Have I told you how great that show is?

As for our Netflix selections, we just finished the latest season of Entourage—holy crap what a fun show that is—and we’re working our way through the first season of Heroes. (Do NOT tell me if they save the cheerleader!) Like a maroon (get that ref now?) I skipped Heroes when it first came on, and then when it became this phenomenon, I knew I was going to have to wait for the DVDs. I know, I know, I’m part of the reason shows get canceled—lack of viewers—but my loyalties have never seemed to matter before. It’s so painful when a fantastic show comes on—let’s say, oh, a show called FIREFLY or something like that—and I start watching it and worshiping it and then the network wankers ax it after oh, say, eleven episodes or so, and I’m left broken hearted. It’s so much gentler to wait for a show to fail or succeed (or be arbitrarily canceled) and then pick it up on DVD. You have to wait a year or so, but there’s so much good stuff coming out all the time on DVD you never lack for something to watch, and you never fall too far behind. With Heroes I wanted it to be good—I love superhero stuff—but was too afraid to give it a piece of my heart. Now I love that show with a passion. It had me at “Hiro.”

Next up in the queue after Heroes: The Flight of the Conchords. I have worn out YouTube watching the song clips from that show.

(Jac says: BSG! BSG! No seriously, BSG. I have no idea what you are talking about with The Flight of the Conchords.)

Thanks, Jackie! Keep on rocking in the read world.

No Alan, thank YOU.


Friday's WBBT schedule:

Loree Griffin Burns at Chasing Ray
Lily Archer at The Ya Ya Yas
Rick Riordan at Jen Robinson's Book Page
Gabrielle Zevin at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
Dia Calhoun at lectitans
Shannon Hale at Miss Erin
Jane Yolen & Adam Stemple at Shaken & Stirred
Lisa Yee at Hip Writer Mama


Blake Nelson at The Ya Ya Yas


tanita✿davis said...

Oh, my GOSH a man after my own heart -- MST3K AND Veronica Mars!?!?

I love your interviews -- I'm going to steal your way of answering back, and making things into a conversation. It makes for such fun reading.

And I am ENTIRELY ready to read Something Rotten now. Granted, I was NOT charmed by the rewriting of my man Will, now. The Bard MUST remain pure, and that Leonardo DiCrappo movie thing -- um, no. So you had to talk me into it, and now, I am IN.


Anonymous said...

Excellent interview! Excellent books! Excellent author!

erith1 said...

For the record, MST3K has already given Hamlet the...well the MST3K treatment!

Anonymous said...

Interesting that you linked to Powell's Books (also featured in Chasing Vermeer)--they are just a few blocks from us. Did you know there are more bookstores in Hyde Park than bars? The basement of Powell's is SCARY!