Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Serving up the CHEESIE MACK with Steve Cotler

For many of us summer break no longer exists. These days we work through the week to get to the weekend to have mini summer breaks. But there was a time when summer break meant a world of possibilities. A time to reinvent yourself before the new school year. A time to explore the outer fringes of the neighborhood and stay up late at night reading monster books or watching monster movies (okay that is what I did - you fill in your summer event here). I say embrace those memories and grab yourself a heaping of STEVE COTLER'S debut book CHEESIE MACK Is Not A Genius or Anything (Random House Books for Young Readers, 2011). It's here just in time for your summer reading. Ahh, summer. Well, I could go on for days about the crazy things I did in the summer but let's talk to the author of this awesome middle grade book that will leaving you craving for more.

Mr. Cotler, you have a very interesting background from Apollo to Harvard Business School to Hollywood. What brought you to writing for children?

Steve Cotler: First, I’m a father and grandfather who purposely engages his progeny in conversation. I like to hear what they have to say, so even small events in small lives get me thinking. For children, there’s an adventure in every hour. Second, I’m a natural storyteller. Ask me a question (“Where could I go to dig up my own fossils?”) and be prepared for a very long, but very intriguing answer. (“There’s a little-used highway heading east out of Madras, Oregon. I was driving Winkie—remember that periwinkle-colored van?—past hawks, rock slides of every hue from red to redder and from gray to green, and one horse with a man and a sheep dog.”) And third, I no longer feel I have to prove anything or win a ribbon. Now, I just want to do good deeds. The grin on a kid’s face when imagination leads to cognition or discovery is evidence of one of those good deeds.

Currently working in Hollywood myself, I find that a lot more screenwriters are turning to writing books. Why do you think that is? What do you think is the biggest challenge in doing so?

SC: I left TV and screenwriting in 2001. And I was never really part of the Hollywood scene, so I can’t generalize about others making the switch to books. For me, novel-writing offered the privilege of writing alone, without producers and studios sitting on my shoulder as I stared at the keyboard.

Your debut book, Cheesie Mack is a lot of fun! What made you decide to have this be your first book and can you spill any beans on some of the upcoming books in the series?

SC: The summer I was 19, I was a counselor at a boys camp in Maine. I made up and told my charges a lights-out story that was so sensationally and happily terrifying, it became a staple in my storytelling repertoire. I retold it many times over the succeeding decades. A few years ago I resolved to turn it into a middle-grades novel, but it needed to have a kid as the protagonist, not a 19-year-old. That’s how Cheesie was born. His last few days of school leading up to summer camp became Cheesie Mack Is Not a Genius or Anything. The second book takes place at camp. By book three, Cheesie’s in middle school…and that’s where he’ll stay for the rest of the series.

You state that you are an "11-year-old author" who has basically never grown up. (My wife will agree with that thought about me). How much of Ronald Mack is within you?

SC: A lot. I was a small, smart kid, like Cheesie. But I never had a sister, nor any sibling as mean as Goon. I wish I’d had a friend like Georgie…I guess that’s why he’s so important to the series. And I never had a grandfather. But Cheesie’s not really me. I grew up in a small, non-descript farming town in California; he lives on the Atlantic coast surrounded by classic New England history, some of which will make it into succeeding books, I hope. You can’t go back…but as a writer, I have the chance to fill in some missing pieces and experience a second childhood in 21st century Gloucester.

What do you love most about writing and what drives you bananas about the process? Why?

SC: What I love most is what I call the writerly unexpected. When Georgie found the envelope in his basement, I had no idea what was in it. I didn’t even know there was an envelope until Georgie popped out from under the stairs and held it out. And when he showed Cheesie (and me) the coin and the necklace, thin tendrils of story, previously invisible, showed themselves…and the thlot plickened.

Steve didn't like the word bananas so he took the 5th on that. I don't blame him. Sometimes bananas can get over ripe and gross. Okay, let's carry on...

What authors are you reading today and who are the most influential to you? Why?

SC: I have always liked Kurt Vonnegut, Barbara Kingsolver, and James Salter. And no one writes better children’s books than Sharon Creech. But I don’t read many children’s books these days. Perhaps it's because I never follow recipes when I cook, and I never make the same dish twice. These days I am reading non-fiction almost exclusively. I am deeply interested in American history, politics, and society, especially racism. The Civil War began 150 years ago this past April, we have an African-American president, yet racism continues. Two excellent books I read recently were James Bradley's The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War and Honor Killing: Race, Rape, and Clarence Darrow's Spectacular Last Case by David E. Stannard. The former makes clear how racism determined America’s foreign policy 100 years ago (and still today?). The latter book shows how a single incident can illuminate the prejudices of the times (the 1930’s).

Let's say you were stuck on the moon with only one book to read. What would it be and why?

SC: Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds by Harold Bloom. Although I don’t agree with every Bloomish observation, his brilliantly challenging insights would keep me reading forever. I’d never finish the book. (It’s on my nightstand. I haven’t finished it!)

And because I am a big space geek. How cool was it to work on Apollo? Did you ever just want to take it out for a joy ride or anything? At least eat lunch in the thing!?

SC: I was 22, working for IBM as a systems engineer in Cambridge, MA. My job was to code a couple of subroutines for the onboard computer simulator. Everything I did was virtual. I never left the office and never saw a single hunk of hardware. But this was 1966, the early days of computers. I was riding the frontier, trapping muskrat, and trading with the natives. I loved the nerdy challenge. I am still very connected to science. I am a trustee of the Summer Science Program (, the most challenging enrichment program for super-bright high school science students. SSP is now in its 53rd year. I attended in 1960 (year 2), and it changed my life.

That's not Steve, but it is an IBM

A huge thank you to Steve for stopping by the Asylum and hanging out with us during his very busy schedule. I also want to thank Casey at Random House for being super awesome! Keep those books coming!

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