An Interview with Lewis Buzbee
Lisa Harper: After publishing in the adult world, what made you want to write a middle reader?
Lewis Buzbee: I’ve actually been studying middle readers since I was 18, when I first started working in bookstores. I worked with a group of booksellers who were experts in kids’ literature, and so I’ve always known about this rich vein. After Maddy was born, my interest was reinvigorated. As I started to spend more time reading to, and then with her, my desire to get into kids’ books blossomed. I first wrote a text for an illustrated book, which I got some nice feedback on, but it didn’t go anywhere. Then I wrote the first half of a chapter book, for 7 to 10 year olds, which was meant to be part of a series, and it got some really good feedback, which led me to my agent. As Maddy grew through the various levels of reading, so did I and the next book idea that popped into my head was a middle reader novel.
What I enjoy so much about middle readers is not merely the complexity of vocabulary or complexity of ideas, but also the complexity of emotions. From the time your kids are really small, they understand the nuances of emotions and the complexities of them. They see all these nuances, feel them, and understand them, too.
LH: Steinbeck’s Ghost is deeply and smartly involved with John Steinbeck’s own literature and literary world. Could you talk a little bit about his importance for you as reader and writer? How did his writing become (in part) the occasion for this book?
LB: I first read Steinbeck when I was 15, and up to that point, I wasn’t really much of a reader; I was much more into music. Then I read The Grapes of Wrath, and by the time I’d finished it, I’d written my first story and knew that writing was what I wanted to do. I was lucky to find writing so early, before the world could tell me that it wasn’t a good idea. I grew up in San Jose, too, which is at the northern end of Steinbeck country, so suddenly I had the names for the things I saw in the world. It was a very powerful experience, to suddenly have words for the feelings that welled up in me. Within six months I had read everything he’d written, and I never turned back. Part of the joy in researching this novel was reading Steinbeck again through new eyes.
LH: Where did the idea for the trilogy come from? Did one book evolve from the other or were they conceived as a unit?
LB: The city of Salinas announced in 2004 that it was going to close its libraries, and the main library there is the John Steinbeck Library, which I’d known about forever because I used to stop by when I was a publisher’s [sales] rep. When I heard it was going to close, the first thing I thought was, yoiks, that’s horrible — a city without a library, and the Steinbeck library, to boot. Then, because writers are thieves, I thought, that would make a great middle reader novel: a kid gets involved with trying to save this library. Happily, it didn’t close, which I thought would make an even better book. So I proposed the idea for Steinbeck’s Ghost in 2006, but it wasn’t until I was writing it, in 2007, that I had any inkling that there were going to be similar books to follow.
Julie, Maddy, and I were in Salinas doing research together for Steinbeck’s Ghost — how far from here to there, what did it look like, how did people talk about the afternoon winds there — that sort of on-the-ground research. We were driving around looking at stuff and Maddy piped up from the back seat, “Dad, the next book has to be Dickens. It would be great.”
We had just gone to see the stage version of A Christmas Carol and had just read it together, and I said, “Oh my God.” I knew that would be the next one, and then they offered me the deal for two more.
The third one remained untitled, but about a month into researching Dickens, it hit me. I knew it would be Twain, and that’s when I knew it was going to be a trilogy. It’s not the same character or setting in the three books; it’s a thematic trilogy, built around the power of words and books. In my head, I’m calling it Great Writers of the World, and I can almost see the boxed-set: Indiana Jones Graphics with a Victorian print background, globes and such, and little spot paintings of the writers.
LH: How involved is Maddy in your writing?
LB: Well, she’s a great editor. When I’m finished with the first draft, I print it out, and Julie reads it all the way through, and then Julie and Maddy read it together, and Maddy makes her read it with a pencil. Maddy says, “No, no. He would never say that; no, no she would never say that; that word is confusing.” She’s really quite keen about it. On that level she’s very involved.
She goes to readings and such with me, and she takes me to her class and I talk to the kids about writing. She’s going to the American Library Association convention with me this summer, which is right at Disneyland. We’ll schmooze on the floor together, and she’ll be great there because she can talk to any adult.
On a much deeper level, as Maddy turns 10, I find myself writing imaginatively into her life. These books are about 12- and 13-year-old kids, so I don’t think of these characters at all as Maddy, even the girl in Dickens. But Maddy’s involved in the deeply imaginative aspect of my writing. She sits on my shoulder. Not: would she like this? But: who is Maddy going to be in the next couple of years? That takes me back to my own life at that age.
Then, of course, we’re reading the same books. We go to the bookstore and buy three or four middle readers and then argue over who gets to read them first.
LH: Who are your three favorite middle reader writers?
LB: E.L. Konigsberg, Virginia Hamilton and Madeleine L’Engle
LH: Who are Maddy’s favorites?
LB: Gennifer Choldenko, Al Capone Does My Shirts. It’s about a kid growing up on Alcatraz, and it’s just wonderful, smart and sassy and heartbreaking.
She also likes Blue Balliett, who wrote Chasing Vermeer. Besides being a great book, it’s all about codes, and of course, de-coding, and kids this age love all that.
Another favorite is Ann Martin. She wrote The Babysitters Club series and they sold like 186 million copies, but then she started writing these beautiful stand-alone books. Now she has this new series, Main Street, and they’re deep and complex and terrific.
LH: How is writing for a middle reader different from or similar to writing for an adult reader?
LB: The thing that I love about middle readers is that you’re getting them at a time, between 10 and 14, when they’re very, very smart, and they’re not yet befuddled by the hormone thing. You can actually write a much longer, more complicated book than you can for a young adult reader (approximately age 15 to 18). Their attention span drops severely, and you have to write shorter books that are much more pointed and much more streamlined. There’s this whole wonderful arena for middle readers, who are incredibly smart and yet not too confused.
It’s also more demanding. You really aren’t allowed to be sloppy or get away with anything. Kids will call you on it. It’s challenging in that way because your issues — is this literary, is this sophisticated? — they don’t matter whatsoever. It’s always about what’s on the page. You can’t bullshit them at all. You have to achieve the same amount of complexity as in an adult novel, but you have to do it without all the fluff. What would be a 600-page novel for an adult might be 300 pages for a middle reader. When I sit down to write my kids’ books I never think, “Oh, now I’m going to write for children.”
There’s a difference between writing for children, which I would call pandering, and writing from children, from within that world. I think people who sit down to write a book for kids make a serious mistake. I try to write the book as best I can, as seriously as the story warrants, and then it falls into place.
LH: What’s it like having two writers in the house, for you as a writer, and for Maddy as a child?
LB: Her teacher recently said, “It must be kind of daunting for Maddy,” and that had never really occurred to me before. She enjoys it, I think. It’s part of who we are as a family, but she also has moments where she says, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, fine, fine, fine, let’s talk about something else.”
I think the big difference for us is that I get to be home with her a lot. Since I’m writing for kids, we get to talk about the same books as co-readers, instead of me trying to teach her about them.
I don’t really know what it’s like for her. It’s just always been part of her life. I only hope she rebels against it at some point.
LH: Meaning you hope she says, “I don’t want to be writer?”
LB: Oh yeah. Absolutely. You know, I want to support Maddy in whatever she chooses to be. I just hope she chooses something else.
I actually said that to her teacher recently and she looked at me very seriously, and she said, “Why don’t you want her to be a writer?” It’s not that I don’t want her to be a writer, if that’s what she chooses. I want her to do whatever she does because she has a passion for it and because she has a compulsion to do it. I don’t want her to do it because it’s what we do in the family. I don’t want her to suffer under that burden.
LH: Have you and your wife, Julie, passed on your love of books to her?
LB: You know, Maddy is, right now, not one of those kids who’s always reading. I see them on the playground, that one kid reading a book while everyone else is throwing a ball. It’s a huge relief, actually. She’ll probably find it at some point and that’s all I care about.
However, she does love books. She loves to buy books and get books. She understands books and book covers and different publishers, and she knows what the Newbery medal is. She loves books as things, and she loves to read and be read to. But it’s not my job to force her into becoming a reader. That’s up to her. Parents need to provide households where they read to themselves for pleasure, and have books around, and then kids will come to it when they come to it, in whatever way they come to it.
This is something I learned as a bookseller. I used to have parents come in and say, I want you to pick out three or four classics for my daughter because all she reads are those horrible babysitter books, or all he reads are comic books or books about lizards, and I want them to have literature. I feel like that’s a great way to kill books for children. On one occasion I was standing there, picking out Dickens and Kidnapped and Louisa May Alcott for the parents, and the girl was sitting on the floor reading the newest The Babysitters Club book as fast as she could because she knew she wasn’t going to get it. For me it’s a rule: if a kid wants a book, you buy them the book.
LH: So I really should be buying those Disney Princess and Strawberry Shortcake books? The ones with the jewels?
LB: I know it’s horrible. What we would do when Maddy was really small was let her pick out the pinkest books imaginable, and I would say “Great, and I’m going to pick up this one too,” and then I would pick out something I wanted to read. I would never force it upon her.
As long as they’re reading and they want to read and they want to have a new book, I think it’s your job to feed that. You don’t make literary kids by making them read Proust at the age of 8. You make literary kids by giving them books and showing them that this is what adults do as well. You make them into readers by offering them the pleasure of reading. Otherwise, it’s one more thing, like having to clean your room.
LH: How often do you go to the bookstore as a family?
LB: As often as we can. We go to the library together, too. At least six nights a month we’re in some bookstore or library. Sometimes we just go to look, just for the fun of it. That’s how bad it is in our house. Poor Maddy has the wrong version of what people do for fun!
LH: How do you balance writing, with teaching, with parenting?
LB: When Maddy was born, Julie and I looked at each other and said, “Look, this is probably going to be our only child, and neither of us are on the fast track to corporate success; let’s just be poor for a while, so we can both be home with Maddy.” I was teaching nights and bartending and did what I had to do during her first seven or eight years, and it was all strictly out of selfish motives. It was so much fun. I would much rather have those moments I had with Maddy than be on the plane to Houston or sitting in a corporate meeting. I used to have a life like that.
For the first year and a half of Maddy’s life I didn’t do a whole lot of writing. I would go off and write for a couple of hours when I could find the time. I did it piecemeal. Even when I wasn’t writing much, there were other big changes sweeping through me, the kind of big changes that come with having a kid. When I started writing again, I found my writing energized by the wonderful heaviness of having a child in my life.
For me it has never been a question of “Is this [parenting] taking away from my writing?” I never had the feeling that having a child was a distraction from writing. I always knew that I wanted to write, but finally when Maddy came along, I knew why. I can’t explain it any more than that. It’s something about the urgency that a child brings to your life. That was a huge bonus to get at the age of 40, to know why I was doing this. I threw myself into it in a way I hadn’t before then, even though I had already published and written a lot. Urgency, that’s the word.
LH: When Maddy was really little what were you writing?
LB: That’s where all the short stories in Gold Rush came from. I was in the middle of writing a 600-page novel about silly people in San Francisco when Maddy was born, and when I came out of that first coma, about six months after she was born, I went back to look at it and thought, who gives a rat’s ass? I started writing the stories, which are all about the joy and despair of family life. I felt as if I were writing about essential matters.
LH: Do you subscribe to the conventional feminist wisdom that women write short stories and lyric poems because that’s the form they have time to think about in the space of their day, in between their domestic, child-rearing duties?
LB: It wasn’t even a matter of thinking, it was just a matter of logistics. We had a babysitter two days a week, for two hours each day. And then Julie would take Maddy for half a day and I’d take Maddy for half a day, and I had my schoolwork to do, so once or twice a week I’d get an hour here or an hour there. I started going to the café again, and writing longhand, which was beautiful, and all the stories in After the Gold Rush started to come out.
Raymond Carver said he started writing short stories because he was working as a janitor and had two kids. He would go out to the car at night and write stories there. It was the only place he could find the quiet. All I need is a room of my own, Virginia Woolf said, and I don’t even have that yet. My study is in the corner of the living room, and I hang up a curtain for a pretend wall. When the stories are urgent, you do what you have to do: you write.
LH: For Father’s Day, could you suggest three great books about fathers?
LB: The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It’s an intense book but it’s a great book about the primacy of that relationship — you and this person that you have to take care of. It’s quite amazing.
East of Eden by John Steinbeck is another great book about fathers. You get a great range of fathers in there — good fathers and bad fathers. It’s quite stunning on that level.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. The ultimate dad book.
LH: What about three books for kids with interesting dads in them?
LB: Inkheart by Cornelia Funke, Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo and Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko.