Tuesday, September 27, 2011

James Riley, The Giant Killer

During the 2011 LA SCBWI event, several things happened that changed my life. The first one was that I finally got to meet Bat Girl Editor extraordinaire Liesa Abrams for Aladdin/Simon Schuster books. And let me tell you. She. Is. Amazing. She is also an uber cool nerdy gal that I am honored to call a friend. The second amazing thing to happen was that she introduced me to one of her authors, mister James Riley.

There are times in life when you meet someone and you know that they might be a long lost brother or we may have been fighting Spartan in a previous life. The dude is a riot. I seriously think he needs a stand up routine.

Anyway, when James handed me his book HALF UPON A TIME (edited by Liesa) I kinda wanted to take the rest of the day to go read it. Then some writer named Judy Blume took the stage and well, you know, she kinda deserves some attention, seeing how Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing was a game changer for me.

To celebrate the paperback release of this awesome book (September 13th, 2011), James and I drove around in a ice cream truck and flung bomb pops at people. This is how the conversation went down.

James, shall we start our conversation/interview for the blog to celebrate your fantastic book?

James Riley: Yes! Wow, these questions are really easy. Do you start off just lobbing them in, then ask me about the Battle of Hastings once I grow in confidence? 1066, if you do. In, um, Hastings.

The Battle of Hastings

Can you give us a bit of your background and what brought you to writing for children?

JR: I like my background to accent me, so I typically try to stay backlit, with soft colors, maybe blues or greens. Sometimes, when I'm feeling frisky, I go straight white, just to see if I pop.

Ha ha ha. I think you should avoid key lighting personally. The blues really make your hair shine.

JR: If you instead mean my background-background (which I'm sure you don't, because why would you say it twice?), then I can cover that too.

I grew up old, I think. Not an old soul, just one of those kids who took everything extremely seriously. I'm pretty sure the other kids found that charming, how extremely buttoned-up I was. But maybe I was just hiding an imagination capable of unleashing WORLDS! ...Ha, nope. I was just serious. Once I grew out of that phase and noticed that somewhere along the way, girls went from gross to awesome (I think I was 4?), I started telling people I was a writer, because even at that early age, I knew girls dug a creative guy. Again, no creativity, unless exaggeration and hyperbole count.

Eventually, I faked it til I whatevered it, and found myself writing about fairy tales. That comes from a lifelong love of Disney movies and an inability to draw, leaving me no choice but to write those same fairy tales. Just with less musical numbers. Not none, just less.

Why for kids, instead of going all Gregory Maguire? I wanted to deal with big, emotional ideas like heroism, true love, good and evil, and cake, but without the cynicism that adults tend to view those things with (except for cake). That opened up all my cynicism stores for use in the dialogue!

I feel like us MG writers have a different sensibility than YA writers (or we are just more immature) - why do you think that is? Why did you choose to write MG?

JR: Well, I'd like to think I'm immature enough to handle BOTH middle grade and young adult, but that's just me being arrogant about my immaturity. I do think MG readers are more willing to accept wild ideas, which makes it infinitely more fun to me than YA. Though if you subtract that one thing away from the infinite fun, you still have infinity, so based on that careful math, I'd say YA has plenty of charm left to it. I think it all just comes down to the tone of the project. And how much vampire canoodling there is. I really hope there's a YA series called Vampire Canoodling.

Half Upon A Time made it's paperback debut recently. What has changed for you since the release of the hard cover initial launch?

JR: Well, first of all, thank you for noticing that things HAVE changed. I've been growing my beard ever since the hardcover came out, and it's finally starting to show! Apart from that, I'm going to go with a contradictory answer and say everything and nothing have changed. Everything because there's nothing in the world like living out a lifelong dream, and that first time I saw my book in a bookstore, I almost fainted. In a very masculine way. But really, nothing has changed in that I'm still trying to think of new ideas for books, still trying my best to work on a work in progress, still writing every night just like I did when I was doing everything from finding an agent to waiting to see if it sold to doing final edits. I think the biggest thing that changes is that you add another check mark to your list, even as you look forward to what's next.

Can you tell me a bit about your upcoming release, and, was it easier writing the second book (or was the pressure on)?

JR: TWICE UPON A TIME (the second of four books in the series, collect them all!) comes out in April, and takes place three months after the surprise ending of the HALF UPON A TIME. In order not to spoil that ending, let me say that TWICE has my heroes going to the Land of Never, where kids never grow up (or so they think ...in reality they're middle-aged adults who believe they're still kids); helping a pirate captain fight against the king of the mermen; and trying to save a land full of fairy godmothers from the Sleeping Beauty curse, set off by an enterprising bad guy with access to a spindle.

The second book was actually MUCH more difficult, despite having all four books plotted out ahead of time. It wasn't so much about the plot, though, as finding what worked in the first book, and pushing harder on that in the second. Also, I really do love these characters, so putting them through the horrible things I do ... well, it's just cruel.

We hear a lot about boys being reluctant readers. You and I both love to read and we are boys (trapped in man frames). Do you think it is that they don't want to read or there are not enough stories being written for them? Or, maybe they are reading Twilight but they are not telling us?

JR: It's a good question, because it does go against my experience as a kid. I loved to read, and did so no matter how many video game systems I had (a lot, or not enough, depending on your perspective). I do think that boys (completely stereotyping here) like things with action, and action is usually just easier to accomplish visually, through movies, video games, comic books, and a million other things that use less words than we do. That's certainly not all boys like (I mean, destruction is cool too, amirite?), and we've all read enough books with plenty of action in them to disprove everything I just said. I think it's just a matter of gravitating to what's biggest and showiest. So we just need to out-big and out-show Hollywood and video games. Which is where my idea for a book that's shaped like an X-Box controller came from. Trick those kids, parents!

How do you think they put the creme filling inside Twinkies? What does this have to do with writing? Nothing, I've always been curious. Thought you might now.

Ok, I was always told it was just born there, from those who would know ... ie, TV.


But whether you take the "born there" theory over "the cake evolved around the creme" theory ... sometimes the mystery is what makes a Twinkie great. Like the mystery of how it's still fresh. After twenty years. Mmm.

I think I am going to go with the born there theory. It keeps the magic alive!

Okay, finally, Hollywood loves to remake movies (sigh). If you could rewrite any book in your own voice, what would it be and why?

JR: I've always thought someone should rewrite Ulysses and take out all the made-up words, run-on sentences and general Joyce-isms, and just make it about some guy going to a few pubs one day in June. But honestly, I can't think of a book that I'd rather read in my own voice. Though there are probably three or four books I'd like the actual author to rewrite, mostly because I loved the books so much except for one or two things. Oh hey, Mockingjay, what's up?

What IS up, Mockingjay? Well, James, I don't know about you but I had a blast hurling iced confections at people. James? James? I have no idea why he is running away. Oh look, some of our cities finest officers coming to get ice cream. I might give them a discount...

Side note: James can often be found doing public readings of his book (even if people ask him to stop). All joking aside (where does it go when it is a side?), do yourself a HUGE favor and get James book (if you haven't already) and you will enjoy it more than a truck load of Twinkies!! Make sure to pre-order the second book in the series as well (it's like two truckloads of Twinkies).