Thursday, August 11, 2011

Attack of the crazy-awesome BILL DOYLE!

I'm just going to say it right now. Bill Doyle is my new hero. There, I said it. If they made a Bill costume for Halloween, I would wear it. If there was a Doyle Lucha Libre mask, I would buy it and wear it. The reason I'm so ga-ga over Mr. Doyle has to do with his awesome chapter books that are chock full of the spooky fun. And to top it with the cherry, Mr. Doyle is an awesomely nice guy. That's a double threat in any book. When I came across a book with the words Shark and Zombie in it I gobbled it up. And after reading it I was all "Who is this author and why have I not spoken with him yet?!" That's how I started my stalking career (I kid. Such a kidder...)

Now, as Nacho says, "Let's get down to the neeeetty greeeetty."

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and what brought you to writing for children?

Bill Doyle - While I’ve wanted to write since I was a kid, I didn’t always want to write for kids. At eight, I was reading Lovecraft and King, which my mom and brothers gave me. And I was really into clacking out scary stuff that bordered on horror on my plastic toy typewriter. What really got me excited about writing was when my grade school teacher, Mrs. Fenster, let me stage a “slasher” mystery play I wrote. Seeing the kids in my class watch my play and ooh and ahh at the nutty plot twists and the big revelation of whodunit was incredible—something I’ll never forget—and something I wanted to experience more.

Years later, I went to NYU’s Film School for graduate dramatic writing…and thought I’d be creating scripts for grown-ups. After working in development for a nano-moment, I applied for a magazine editor job posted in the New York Times. What it didn’t say in the ad was that the job was at Sesame Workshop, home of Sesame Street. I got hired, and thought, “Oh, my voice is meant for more sophisticated ears. I’ll stay here for a month or two.” But within a week, I was hooked on writing for kids.   

During the couple years I was editor of Kid City, also known as Electric Company Magazine, I realized that I had a love of and knack for writing for kids—and it didn’t have to be in script form. One of the first things I learned was not to talk down to kids. I know everyone says this, but kids’ll pick up on it right away if you start freaking out with the exclamation points and try to lure them in with too many repetitions of “cool!” and “awesome!”

I also learned there should be clear, sizable stakes in kids’ stories. Someone should be in danger (of course, not overly violent or terrifying) of losing something important to them. And there should be a bit of edge. I mean, let’s face it, the Muppets are successful because they’re on the edge of madness. And other kids stories that have stood the test of time are always a little scary—check out the old school fairy tales for examples.

And, when writing for kids, I’ve always carried along something Milan Stitt, who wrote the play The Runner Stumbles, taught us at NYU. He called it the Major Dramatic Question. And every successful story needs a powerful one. You know, like “Will the Gilligan castaways get rescued?” or “Will Hamlet avenge his father?” or “Will the alien eat everyone?”

One of your latest books Attack of the Shark-Headed Zombie was hilarious, can you tell us (those who haven't read it yet) a bit about it and what is the next book planned for Keats and Henry?

BD - Chances are the major dramatic question of this book probably won’t get mixed up with Hamlet’s! I guess here with my book it would be, “Will two nine-year-old cousins escape a kooky magician’s house before a shark-headed zombie catches them?” Henry and Keats are in the house because they’ve agreed to do odd jobs for a magician, Mr. Cigam, including “weed the garden” and “battle and defeat the shark-headed zombie.” The boys think it’s a joke until they’re pursued through Hallway House—and all its mixed-up magical rooms.  

“Shark-Headed Zombie” is a Stepping Stones “humor” chapter book with Random House, and it’s illustrated by the talented Scott Altmann—his art’s perfect for the story and he really nailed the cover. The next book with Henry and Keats is “Stampede of the Supermarket Slugs” and it will be out in Spring 2012. Hopefully the title gives you a clue as to what it’s about!

Many of us are on the cusp of publication. Can you talk to us about what you have learned as an author about the process of what happens once you get the offer of publication?

BD - Writers spend a lot of time pushing ahead alone when it seems like no one else believes that publication will actually happen. For instance, I don’t think Con Ed had confidence in my writing in my 20s when it turned off my power. When that publication offer comes in, I’d say first enjoy the moment. Don’t think about the next step right that very second. Sit down, jump up, pop the champagne, whatever…just relish it.

Now get ready to go from the lone wolf mentality to more of pack thinking. People you don’t even know are going to have something to say about how your book should shape up. I love the whole “let’s put on a show!” collaboration, but it still took me a second to adjust.

Talk about a lone wolf
Expect to get to know your editor, and keep your fingers crossed that they are as amazing as the ones I’ve worked with. The editor of “Shark-Headed Zombie” at Random House is Jennifer Arena, and she is a creative force. She gives wonderful praise…and zeroes in on problems. But there’s never any panic about issues she finds. Jennifer offers solutions and part of her philosophy is: don’t rush—take your time and figure things out.

And that’s great advice, especially for me. I still find myself tempted to rush things, you know trying to impress people with how fast I am. But zipping through revisions ends up serving no one. If you’ve got the time, use it.

Oh, and expect to make changes. Just because you’ve sold the book, remember some of the toughest writing might still be ahead of you. It’s true what they say about the rewriting process. It can be the trickiest part of the whole deal. Even if you don’t go exactly with your editor’s suggestion for a change, make a change of some kind. There’s something not working and your editor won’t be the only one to pick up on it.

Use the offer to your advantage. I actually didn’t have an agent when a six-book deal with Little Brown came through. The deal was a great calling card. Now, after a couple trial runs elsewhere, I work with the fantastic Susan Cohen at Writers House.

Can you talk to me about your writing habits (what your routine is), and if you have any rituals when writing (like keeping a rubber chicken in the 3rd drawer of the desk)?

BD - Um, third drawer? I keep mine in the top drawer. Where. It. Belongs.

This chicken was not harmed during this interview.

That's exactly the kind of response I would expect from your fortress-of-awesome-wit, Mr. Doyle. Please, carry on..

BD - The past year or so I wrote seven print books and started an app company called Crab Hill Press—we put out the kids books “My Dad Drives a Roller Coaster Car” and “Nash Smasher!” (named one of the 10 Best Books for iPad by The New York Times…can you tell I’m proud?).

BD - During much of that year, Armageddon was going on inches outside my window as workers blew up the neighboring building and hammered up a new one—so ritual and focus became very important to me. And noise-canceling headphones became my best friend.

I work at home in New York City, and I’m at my desk every morning at 7:15 AM. Then I’ll stay there for much of the day. Best “ritual” I ever heard about: sitting butt in the chair equals writing on paper. Just staying in the chair is sometimes the hardest thing to do—especially with so many distractions out there—but it’s the only way anything will get done.

Along those lines, I’ve worked with this organization called Learning Leaders where authors and illustrators go into schools, and one of the  things I’ll talk with the kids about: Don’t wait for the perfect time to write. There is no such thing. And if people waited for the perfect time, nothing would ever be written.

Another kind of ritual: keeping the TV off. TV transforms into poison for writers in the daylight hours, and it should be avoided when the sun’s up. I give myself a treat of listening to a radio drama like “Suspense!” or “The Whistler” on satellite radio in the late afternoon, but I still write while it plays in the background.

Good snacks are key…and, on the flip side, so is the gym. Not necessarily so you can get all buff—but so you can take get away from your computer and “work out” any plot problems.

What do you love about writing? What do you hate about it?

BD - It’s kind of amazing how selfish you have to be as a writer with time, isn’t it? That’s something I definitely could do without. It can be hard when you have to disappear for an hour or two on Christmas Day to work on a chapter or because you’re worried about a deadline.

I love the finite length of writing for kids. When I wrote for grown-ups, I found the unlimited structure a little dazzling and baffling. Sometimes, with the book for younger kids I feel like I’m writing haiku, where every single word and syllable is important. I’m a huge fan of word puzzles, so this is something I really enjoy solving.

Allow me to be greedy and ask a three parter - Can you tell me more about your series writing? Do you have a plan to make a story a series or does it happen after you turn in the book? What is the best part about writing a series?

BD - I got some of the best advice from the book producer Nancy Hall when we worked together on the mystery series Crime Through Time, and then it was reinforced later by Jennifer Arena: Don’t worry about the book being a series. Just make the strongest story you can with the first book, and the rest will follow.

If you worry too much about saving key story points for the future, you can find yourself stretching events in the first couple books and the stories can feel weaker. Of course, you should have a little bit of a plan—like maybe I won’t have everyone in the cast go down with the Titanic. But keep that plan tucked in the back of your mind.

One fun thing about a series is that you can say thanks to readers who’ve read all the books with unexpected plot payoffs and interesting character journeys. Or in the case of the “Behind Enemy Lines” books I’m writing for editor Jenne Abramowitz over at Scholastic, I’m able to include non-fiction stories of heroic soldiers who might not have been able to fit in the first book.

Oh, and on this blog, I definitely have to mention a new series I’m working on with editor Matt Ringler and the astoundingly-talented illustrator Jared Lee. The series is “Scream Team” and they’re funny chapter books about misfit monsters who start their own sports team. The first book is called “The Werewolf at Home Plate” and the second is “The Vampire at Half Court” and they’re out this year with Scholastic. 

If you were stranded on an island with only on book to read, what would it be and why?

BD - Wouldn’t it be great if I said “Attack of the Shark-Headed Zombie”? Or, “Any book by the amazing Bill Doyle”? But then I guess I’d also need the book “Managing Your Enormous Ego”…and I’m only allowed to bring one.

Hmmm…the dictionary? Plenty of types of food in there and lots of words about rescue. “The Stand”? Wow, I fell in love with that book as a kid. Here’s one that I might bring, but only because if I have to read it over and over and over I’d want something pretty challenging: Ann Radcliffe’s “The Mysteries of Udolpho” which a professor had us read at Georgetown. Not trying to sound all important and pompous, but it’s the first gothic novel, it’s wonderfully spooky at points, and there’s so much going on in the book—maybe too much at times and it can get a little bogged down. But if you’re going to be stranded on an island or stuck in a space capsule for a few decades you’re going to want something with a ton of levels.

Thanks, Matt! I’m a big fan of your site and I’ve really enjoyed chatting with you. I’d love for people to visit me at or follow me @bdwrites on twitter. 

I'm visiting Bill's website now, as I write this, and it's awesome. I'm sure everyone can tell how much I enjoyed this interview. I'm still geeking out. I can't THANK the super cool Mr. Doyle enough for coming to the Asylum and giving one stupendous interview. It was all in the answers. Kids, go read some Doyle books. You will inhale them. Trust me. 


  1. I love the stepping stone books and so do my kids. I always seem to pick them up first when we are at the library. I will look for the one you posted. It looks really interesting. I bet my son would love it.
    Thanks for your time and good luck.

  2. I think I've just become a Bill Doyle fan from this interview! Thanks for the intro.