Interview for Class of 2k7
The following is a transcript of my answers to interview questions from readers of the Class of 2k7 blog. The questions cover a range of topics confronted by new writers and were answered over the course of many months in 2007. An archive of all the interviews can be found here.
A.C.E. Bauer on…Writing Process
What is your writing process?
Each novel I’ve written has been a different process. The first novel was like Paula’s: I sat at the computer and words flew onto the screen. The story unfolded for me as I wrote it. It was a fun middle grade fantasy adventure, with some interesting characters and a good plot. It needs some real work, however, and I plan to get back to it.
The next novel started the same way as the first—words flowing onto page. Then I realized my characters were cardboard cutouts and I spent some time interviewing them and tried to insert all this great information into the plot—the results were disasterous, and that novel will never see the light of day.
My third novel started with an interview with each of my characters. I knew I had a thirteen year-old girl with family secrets. I wrote about half of it, realized that first person present tense wasn’t working, but needed to keep it first person. A journal ensued. The family secrets related to the Holocaust, and I ended up doing a huge amount of research—resulting in stretches when I didn’t sleep nights. The writing was the best so far, although the plot wasn’t as strong as I had hoped. I had some serious nibbles at it, and I may look at it again, in a few years, and see if it can be salvaged.
For my fourth novel, I *knew* how to write novels, right? Wrong. I interviewed my characters. One was an 11 1/2 year old boy. Another was a mysterious bookstore owner. They had zilch in common. But then, as I kept pestering the boy, he told me he had stolen a book. Now I knew where my story had to begin. As for the bookstore owner, she lapsed into a fabulous fairy tale. And I knew I had to tell that story, too. So I followed Augie along, on the one hand, and kept writing fairy tales, on the other. I had no idea where I was going, but my writers’ group kept telling me that this would all hook up, don’t worry. And I did a whole lot of historical research. The result is a book that is neither fish nor fowl: a contemporary story of a boy in Camden, NJ insterlaced with fairy tales that span centuries. I call it magical realism—that’s ‘cause I’m not sure what genre it fits in. It’ll be published by Random House Children’s Books in autumn, 2007.
I started my fifth novel the same way I started my fourth: by interviewing some characters. I really liked a 13 year old girl with a huge family, but as I wrote chapter after chapter, I realized that I was getting nowhere. Then, that summer, I went to see a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, got a picture book version of the play, and read the original. Integral to the plot is the fight between the king and queen of fairies over a changeling that the queen was fond of. At the end of the play, she agrees to hand over the changeling to the king in exchange for peace between them. Yet the changeling never appears on stage. What happened to this boy? I decided to find out. The result was a book about 13 year old boy who is the foster child of two rather frightening characters. He ends up being friends with the 13 year old girl, and another boy who is severely socially inept. There are no fairies in the story. No magic, really. Except for a crow that befriends the foster boy—in a magical kind of way. I’m still shopping that one around.
As for the sixth novel? You’ll have to wait till I’m done before I can tell you how I wrote it.
A.C.E. Bauer on…Family Appreciation
Now that you’re under contract, does your family better appreciate your writing?
Although my family has always been supportive, my most validating moment came a few weeks ago when my youngest daughter told me: “I never realized how much work it takes to write a novel until I saw you do all those revisions!”
A.C.E. Bauer on…Completion
How did you know you were “done” with your book and ready to submit it?
Like everyone else, I think I’m done, and then there’s something else. “Done” for me usually means that I’ve reached the point that I’m satisfied with the structure; satisfied with my characters; satisfied with the language, the flow and the rhythm; and my tweaks consist of changing words and then changing them back. Wait a few months however, and all bets are off.
A.C.E. Bauer on…Critique Groups
Do you belong to a writing group?
I belong to a large group that has met monthly going on 20 years (though I haven’t been involved with it that long ). Its participants change, month to month, although there is a core group of writers that have been involved since the group’s inception and who keep on coming. I get feedback for individual chapters and short stories there, but mostly we give each other a lot of support and share information about the business. There was a smaller critique group I worked with that eventually drifted apart after a few years. Now I have a couple of trusted readers who are able to give feedback on entire pieces. My first reader is my spouse who has a critical eye and isn’t afraid to tell me the truth.
A.C.E. Bauer on…The Call
What happened when you received ‘The Call’ that your book would be published?
I danced. Literally. For about a week. I had a lot of penned up energy to use.
I had sent my novel to Random House Children’s Books in 2002. Yes. That’s not a typo. This was at a time where more and more publishers were starting to use the “if you don’t hear from us, we didn’t want you” approach (which I can rant about another time). So when I didn’t hear from them within six months, I assumed they had passed on it. Then, in late August, 2005 (again, not a typo) I received a message from Random House to call. Puzzled, I phoned my (future) editor who was gracious and very apologetic: their offices had moved. The manuscript had been placed in a box with a whole bunch of other ones, and they hadn’t found the box until that summer. She wanted to submit the ms. to an editorial meeting and wondered, was it still on the market? Faking nonchalance (I think I did, anyway), I told her, no problem, the novel is still on the market. A month later she made me an offer. Pitter, patter. My floors haven’t been the same since.
A.C.E. Bauer on…Audience
Who is the target audience for your book?
Target audience? That’s a good question. Here are some of the kind of people who might like the book:
*boys and girls who like fantasy;
*boys and girls who don’t like fantasy;
*anyone who likes a fairy tale, once in a while;
*anyone who likes to sing or enjoys music;
*kids who live in cities;
*kids who wonder what living in a city might be like;
*kids who wonder what not living in a city might be like;
*anyone who likes happy endings;
*anyone who likes a bit of history (but not too much);
*kids who like animals—or don’t;
*kids who like to read—or don’t;
*kids who hate school;
*kids who like school;
*kids who worry about bullies;
*anyone who lives in the real world, and has to deal with real life, but thinks it’d be cool if magic really did exist.
A.C.E. Bauer on…Surprises
What has surprised you the most so far?
What surprised me were the details. I never quite realized how many steps it actually takes from that wonderful acceptance phone call to the final product (and I’m not even there yet). Some of the steps I knew were coming—contract negotiations, permissions, revisions, copyediting, the like. Some steps I knew must be dealt with along the way, but forgot about them until they needed to be done—photo, bio, dedication… And some I might have know I’d have to deal with but caught me unaware—finalizing a title, acknowledgments. Then there’s the cover art; the page design; the typesetting; the type of paper; the release date; and we haven’t even begun the discussion about promotion! Yikes! A large number of these details are out of my hands, but I follow them, every step of the way. It’s suprising but a whole lot of fun.
A.C.E. Bauer on…Writing Schedule
What is your writing schedule?
My schedule has changed from year to year, season to season. There was a six month period, about five years ago, when I did no writing at all. Generally, when the local school system is in session, I write after I’ve gotten the kids on the bus, I’ve walked the dog, and I’ve checked my e-mail and favorite blogs. I may write at home, or go to a local cafe, or to the library. I’ll write until hunger pains are distracting, eat lunch, walk the dog again, do another e-mail check, and then the kids are starting to come home from school. If I’m creating something new, then I’ll be done with fiction writing for the day. If I’m in the middle of edits, I might squeeze in another hour while the kids do homework—as long as I’m not chauffeuring one or the other around for an after-school activity. I often get online in the evenings—but I generally am too tired to get any creative writing done. The schedule gets knocked for a loop if I have an appointment during the day, or if one of my kids gets sick, of if we are having guests for dinner and the house is in shambles, or I get sick, or the schools have a snow day/half day/vacation day/etc. I rarely write fiction on weekends. This is the first year I’ve been able to get significant writing done over the summer without hiring a babysitter.
I do try to write something, if only a few lines, each day. But it won’t necessarily be fiction. And it doesn’t always happen every day.
A.C.E. Bauer on…Other Careers
What career would you pursue if you weren’t a writer?
I’d probably go back to being an attorney—although I’ve always thought I might be happier as a teacher. But I don’t really want to do either, at the moment. Writing is what I love the most.
A.C.E. Bauer on…After-Sale Revisions
How much revision did you do AFTER you sold your book to your publisher?
I did a lot of revision. The first set of revisions was structural: I had three story lines that had to mesh just right. My editor asked me to reshuffle the structure to make all three lines move together more evenly. I felt like I was handling a deck of cards: each chapter was a card, and I had to get all of them in the proper order. I mapped out the entire novel, re-ordered the chapters, removed some, rewrote others, and added one. I took out entire scenes and created new ones. It took me two and a half months to complete. It was a challenge, but one I really enjoyed.
The second set of revisions dealt with characters. In addition to some minor issues, my editor picked out the one plot point that didn’t work because it wasn’t true to my character. As it turned out, this was the hardest revision for me to make—so far. I completed it in a month, but I angsted over it the whole way through.
The third edit was a line edit—language, flow, and details. Not hard, and kinda fun.
Next came the copyedit… Not too difficult.
Throughout, the story hasn’t changed. The characters have remained true to who they were, from the beginning. The revisions made the same story better.
A.C.E. Bauer on…Agents
Is an agent useful or necessary for a first-time author?
I sold my novel without an agent—it came out the slush pile. I hired a literary attorney to negotiate my contract, which was money extremely well spent. Would I want an agent for future books? You bet. I’m slow with the submission process, and research about publishers takes time away from writing. But to answer the question: Is an agent useful for a first-time author? Yes. Is one necessary? No.
A.C.E. Bauer on…Prior Research
How much research and/or meditation about your subject did you do before you began your first draft?
It takes me a long time to get to the story I want to tell. For NO CASTLES HERE, I interviewed a bunch of characters (I asked them nosy questions about themselves), I created three different story lines, and I wrote fairy tales. Truly, it was a mess.
So I stepped back, jettisoned an entire set of characters (which I ended up using in a different novel), and tried telling the story from three different points of view, while still including the fairy tales. More mess
Then I focused on one character, Augie, an eleven-and-a-half-year old boy in Camden, NJ, and made everything relate to him. I was able to keep the fairy tales, tell the story of other characters, and make the whole cohesive. It took over a year to get to my first draft, but I finally came up with a story that worked.
As for the research part, I generally write first and research later—I rely on what I know to create my story. As I write, I keep a running list of things I have to check (horticulture on horse farms, names for Philadelphia train stations, plausible town names in France, lyrics for a particular song, etc.). The research can be substantial (for example, I read a comprehensive general history of antibellum America, a whole series of runaway slave accounts, and as much as I could about the Underground Railroad, for a two-page scene), but it always comes after I have decided which way I want the story to go.
A.C.E. Bauer on…Ideas
Where did you get the idea for your book?
The idea for NO CASTLES HERE came from reading HOLES and THE VIEW FROM SATURDAY, and deciding that I, too, wanted to build a novel with intertwining stories, each with its own voice and point of view. Starting from this premise, I created a bunch of characters with very different backgrounds and explored how their lives connected. This led to two intertwined story lines: one set in contemporary Camden/Philadelphia metro area, and the other told in a series of fairy tales that span 500 years. The novel is a combination of realistic fiction with a hint of magic, fairy tales, and even a little historical fiction that work together to create one story.
A.C.E. Bauer on…Training
What writing training have you had?
I didn’t think of myself as a writer, not for a very long time. If you asked me in high school and college, I’d have told you I was a mathematician—because that’s what I was really good at, and that is what I loved. I loved other things, too—reading books, swimming, cooking, fine arts, working with people—and I wasn’t too bad at them. I also told stories, lots of them, mostly to my younger siblings and cousins. I wrote stories, too, as birthday presents and holiday gifts. And I wrote some truly atrocious poetry.
I decided that although I loved math, I wanted to be a lawyer. When I got to law school, all creativity seemed to be sucked out of me. I still read, but now I wrote law-related stuff. I did that for years. I wrote a heck of a lot—it was my favorite part about being a lawyer, all that writing. And I was good at it.
Then I had kids and started telling stories again. Lots of stories. And I began writing them down. That’s when the writer’s training started: by writing the stories down. I had years and years of writing experience, but writing a piece of fiction for a kid was something entirely different. I joined a critique group, attended conferences, went to the Highlights Foundation’s week-long Chautauqua workshop, and I learned a great deal from editors and other writers. I never got any formal training, though I have considered it. Ultimately, I learned to write by writing.
A.C.E. Bauer on…Why Kids?
Why write for children and teens?
One of the reasons I write for kids and teens is because of the audience. Kids and teenagers are honest. They’ll zone out if they’re bored—and won’t hide it. They won’t finish a book if it doesn’t interest them. I have to make a story the very best it can be if I want to entertain them. It’s a challenge I love.
One of my greatest highs came the day an 11-year old asked me if I had any other books out, because he wanted to go out and read them. I can’t disappoint him now, can I?
A.C.E. Bauer on…Setting
Where is your novel set, and why there?
My novel, is set in Camden, New Jersey, one of the most dangerous cities in the United States. There are some bright spots, like a beautiful aquarium and the campus of Rutgers University at Camden, but most people, when asked about places to visit in the area point to Camden’s neighbor to the west: Philadelphia, which is a few minutes car or train ride across the Delaware River.
My reasons for chosing Camden, date back about twenty years ago, when I was fresh out of law school. I spent four months working in a law office for poor people and I met some extraordinary people. I learned that though Camden had problems, it also had people I liked and who were worth knowing. And my main character, Augie, poor, outcast, would fit in, eventually, and find the safe places in his neighborhood.
I confess, I couldn’t resist spending time in Philadelphia. I set the bookstore where Augie’s adventures begin, in Philly. The city also has a rich history which I was able to exploit for some of the fairy tales that we read with him. I treated Philadelphia as a city across the water—a place where magic might exist—while Camden was where the everyday occurred and where Augie lived.
A.C.E. Bauer on…Celebrations
How did you celebrate your book sale?
I danced, for about a week. And I’m not a particularly good dancer.
A.C.E. Bauer on…Query Letters
Describe the query letter that got you published.
It’s not the query letter that got me published. It was the novel.
I don’t believe in the magic of query letters. Mine are fairly standard: a one-line introduction, a paragraph that describes the plot in 25 words or so, a paragraph that describes my writing experience, and a thank you line. I get pretty consistent requests to see my writing. However, on about 100 tries, I only got 2 acceptances. It wasn’t that my work wasn’t being read, it was that the work I was submitting wasn’t what the editors wanted. When what I submitted matched the editor’s interest, then I had a sale.
A.C.E. Bauer on…Influential Books
What books had an impact on you when you were growing up?
I read comic books—lots and lots and lots of them. All of my allowance went into them. I started with Gold Key comics, Casper, Wendy, Hot Stuff, Baby Huey, Richie Rich, Little Dot, and more. I moved to DC comics, Superman, Batman, Legion of Superheroes, Wonder Woman, etc., and even read Archie comics, although the hero comics were my favorite. By the time I was in my tweens, I read MAD Magazine, Spy vs. Spy compilations, and any other MAD-related thing I could find, though I never gave up comics.
When I was 7 or 8, my parents worried about my reading habits and started buying me Enyd Blyton books, The Secret Seven, The Famous Five, and many more. I did turn into a voracious reader of novels after that. But my first love was, and continues to be, comics—although they’re now called graphic novels, and I don’t spend all of my allowance on them anymore.
A.C.E. Bauer on…Character and Self
Is your main character like yourself?
If I were a bullied, shy, awkward, 11 1/2 year old boy, who liked to sing, then Augie would be like me—or, more accurately, I would be like him. I wrote his character as if I were him, and so he is me, in many ways. His circumstances are not mine, but what makes him human came from me. Every character I create, on some basic level, is me: I work from the model I know best.
A.C.E. Bauer on…Outlines
Do you outline before writing?
I do not outline before I have a story written. I may have a vague idea of the arc of the story at the beginning, but no more. I usually start with a clear character.
I’ll outline if I need to fix a story’s structure, or if I’m not happy with the pacing of the action, or if I’m telling several stories and I want to make sure there’s balance in the way the stories are told. But this is at the revision stage, not the initial writing stage.
A.C.E. Bauer on…Impact on Readers
What should readers get from your book?
I hope my readers get a good story.
Sure there are themes in the book—friendship, self-confidence, overcoming prejudice, the joy of a little magic. But those are just themes. What I really want kids to get from my book is the sense that reading the book was worth their time. Anything else is gravy.
A.C.E. Bauer on…Why Write?
Why do you write?
I like playing with language and telling stories. Writing lets me do both.
A.C.E. Bauer on…Favorite Teacher
Describe your favorite teacher when you were your protagonist’s age.
When I was Augie’s age, I went to Collège Marie de France. It was part of a worldwide system of schools which follow France’s primary and secondary curriculum, and which allow students to take the French baccalaureate. There were two such schools in Montreal.
I was an average student, except for math, in which I excelled, and French (the equivalent of what is now called “Language Arts” in the U.S.), in which I did terribly. I was fluent in French and I read a lot, but I failed every single spelling test I ever took. I’m not kidding. Once a week, from first grade on, we had “dictée”: the teacher either read a list of words or a passage, and we’d have to copy it down. In the younger grades, the tests were graded on a scale of 1 to 10. In the later grades, 1 to 20. You lost one point for each spelling mistake. I averaged zero. Every year. Until I was about eleven and a half.
That was when my French teacher, Monsieur Bernard, became my tutor. During regular classroom hours, the class learned about Molière, Corneille, Racine, and how to write essays. Once a week after school, I met with M. Bernard for an hour. He taught me how to spell. We went over each spelling rule, one at a time, writing down examples, going over exceptions. We started with the basics and worked our way through each problem area, patiently, systematically. I never felt judged. M. Bernard made connections for me that I had somehow missed in the primary grades. I did not become a fabulous speller but I no longer failed French.
Four years later, I took the French portion of the baccalaureate. A few weeks after the exams, M. Bernard telephoned me.
“I just received the results for the essay portion,” he said. “Congratulations! You got the highest score in Montreal.”
I didn’t believe it. I couldn’t. I told him so.
“Believe it. I always knew you were smart. It was just the mechanics that got in the way. Once you understood those, everything else fell into place”
I don’t think that M. Bernard was my favorite teacher when I was Augie’s age. But, in retrospect, he was the best.
A.C.E. Bauer on…Book Memory
What is your earliest book memory?
My earliest book memory is sitting with my father and my older brother on one of our beds at bedtime, and my father reading either A FLY WENT BY by Mike McClintock or THE BIKE LESSON by Stan and Jan Berenstain. He read those books to us so often that I cannot remember which I heard first. When my oldest daughter was two, I picked up the very battered A FLY WENT BY in my parents’ home, and as I turned to the first page, my father began to recite the words from across the room: “I sat by the lake. I looked at the sky, And as I looked, A fly went by.” He had the broadest smile…
A.C.E. Bauer on…Self-Help Books
What are some of your current favorite writing or author-help books?
Like Julie, I’m a big fan of BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott.
But my favorite pieces about writing are on John Scalzi’s blog, WHATEVER. Here’s a link to one of his columns, “10 Things Teenage Writers Should Know About Writing.” Priceless advice.
A.C.E. Bauer on…Favorite Library
Describe your favorite library.
My favorite library is one I have spent only a little time in: the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale. On the outside, the place looks like a white Rubik’s Cube. The walls are made of panels of thin marble, so thin they let light through. When you walk in on a sunny day, you enter an open area lit by warm, translucent walls, you see displays of beautiful, ancient manuscripts, and you know that you are in the presence of some of the rarest books in the world. It takes my breath away.
A.C.E. Bauer on…Cover Art
Did the art director read your entire book to get inspiration for the cover?
The art director, Nicole de las Heras definitely read the book. The art for my book was created by Danny “casroc” Casu, a Belgian graffiti artist who does remarkable work. (His website is here: www.casroc.com.) He also did the interior art and, early on, sent Nicole a drawing of a monkey’s head. Having read the book, Nicole was puzzled. She went back to the book: had she misremembered? No, she was sure, there was no monkey anywhere in the story—but there was a magical donkey. Although Danny Casu speaks and reads English, it isn’t his first language, and monkeys and donkeys do share all but the first letter… The result of this happy mistake is a wonderful donkey’s head that appears strategically throughout the book!
A.C.E. Bauer on…Character’s Conflict
What drew you to the conflict you created for your main character?
The conflict came out of my character and the setting. I decided early on that I didn’t want Augie to be particularly smart, nor particularly stupid. On the surface, I wanted him to have a significant weakness (he’s scrawny and the target of bullies) and at least one obvious strength (the ability to sing well). I placed him in a tough neighborhood in Camden, NJ, made him attend an inner-city school, and gave him a mother but no father. Then I had him steal a magical book of fairy tales, and conflict seemed to come to him pretty quick.
A.C.E. Bauer on…Taste in Books
Do you have different taste in kids’ books as an adult writer than as a kid?
I have changed since I was a kid, and so has my taste in books. When I read a children’s book now, my opinion is colored by years of reading. I read on more levels—for personal entertainment, from the point of view of a parent, as a professional writer. The quality of the a writer’s craft matters more to me than it would have as a kid. And some subjects no longer entertain me in the way they use to.
Which means there are books that I have outgrown and wouldn’t pick up anymore, such as the Brigitte series by Berthe Bernage (which followed a young French woman’s entire life over about thirty books). But there is also a great deal of overlap between what I liked then and what I like now. I continue to love The Phantom Tollbooth and Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books as much as when I first read them. I still enjoy Dr. Seuss and Anne of Green Gables, though perhaps not as much as I did as a kid. And I’m fond of comic books, although I now gravitate toward adult titles.
Then there are the children’s books which I discovered as an adult because I didn’t see them when I was a kid, or they hadn’t been written yet. Some that I have enjoyed, such as the Harry Potter series and Kevin Henkes’ books, I probably would have loved as a kid. Others, like The Secrets of Droon series, I might have liked as a kid but don’t interest me now. And then there are books like Hesse’s Out of the Dust and Paterson’s Jacob I Have Loved which riveted me as an adult but wouldn’t have interested me when I was younger.
Although my tastes have changed since I was a child, they haven’t been forgotten. I can still remember curling up on our sofa, lost in a novel, oblivious to time. I still search for that in the books I read.
A.C.E. Bauer on…Actor for Character
Who would play your book character in a movie?
My choice would be someone who is unknown but who can sing: part of the story is that my character is a kid who isn’t noticed and doesn’t want to be since, from his point of view, being noticed only leads to trouble. I do have a visual image of Augie—a shy, short, scrawny boy with narrow features, stringy brown hair and brown eyes hidden behind clunky glasses. But once you translate a book into a movie, different factors come into play, so I’d leave casting to someone who actually knows the business.
A.C.E. Bauer on…Favorite Bookstore
Do you have a favorite bookstore?
I have many favorites—I like different stores for different reasons. There’s the bookstore restaurant I like going to with my children, because after eating a hearty meal, we can spend time exploring the stacks. When I feel like thinking, quietly, there’s the store with the tall wooden shelves lined up in narrow aisles that has a few tables in front crowded with unexpected selections. In the summer, there’s a second-hand store I like to frequent, airy and cheerful, that serves cold drinks and carries the oddest cards I’ve ever seen. When I’m looking for a present for a child, there’s the children’s bookstore in my town with a warm and friendly owner, and a remarkable selection for such a tiny space. And when I have time to spare, nowhere to rush to, and it’s on the way, there’s a two-story store filled with nooks and crannies, that has a beautiful selection for all ages, intelligent shelf talkers, helpful staff, and even a café in the back, if you need a snack.