Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Interview with Alan Gratz

My son at age twelve was a huge reader, devouring non-fiction books on history, science and engineering. He didn't read much fiction, but when he did, it was for adults, something that disturbed me as a writer for children. Basically he skipped right over the entire Young Adult genre to read stuff instead by Michael Crichton, Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury. Nothing wrong about that (he was reading!) and I'd heard that a lot of strong-reader boys do this, but I did wish that he'd read a few books now and then that were meant to be read by kids.

Enter: Alan Gratz.

I met Alan at a book fair shortly after his first novel Samurai Shortstop came out and we got to talking about his book and writing in general (I was just starting the long journey toward publication then and had a ton of questions), but eventually the discussion turned to boys and reading, and Alan, wise promotional guy that he is, said the obvious: "Why don't you have him read my book?"

That night I pitched Samurai Shortstop to my son. It's about a kid in early 1900's Japan torn between the traditional ways of his family and the more modern world as represented by baseball. The first chapter, where the boy watches his uncle, a samurai warrior, commit suicide, is an attention grabber, to put it mildly, and I knew it would draw my son in. It did. When he finished reading it, he said: "I had no idea there were books like this, books for me."

I told Alan my son's response and we've been writer friends ever since, meeting up at SCBWI conferences, and last year, when Alan was the resident children's writer at the Thurber House in Columbus, he was gracious enough to have dinner with my family. (My son, now in college, was particularly thrilled to meet Alan at last.) I've been itching to interview him for a while, and today I'm so pleased to be able to share Alan with my faithful blog readers:

Jody: Alan, I have to start with the question I ask every writer: Where do you get your ideas?

Alan: All over the place, really. I think the key is to be interested in lots of stuff. I have varied interests, and do a lot of reading about them. I get most of my ideas from those places. I'll read about corruption in the soccer world, or the possible murder of King Tut, or "Lost Cosmonauts" who may or may not have died in space, and I'll see story ideas in all of them.

Jody: And I bet you do what a lot of us do, which is take ideas that seem to have nothing to do with each other on the surface and find a way to connect them. I should mention here your novels Something Rotten and Something Wicked, modernized versions of Shakespeare plays crossed with hard-boiled detective stories. (English teachers take note: these are the perfect books to suggest to your classes after they've made it through Hamlet and Macbeth.) Very cool idea for a series, but you and I both know that the initial idea is only the beginning. How do you go from intriguing idea to full-blown novel?

Alan: I'm definitely a plan ahead/outline kind of person. It all started for me on Samurai Shortstop. Before that book, I was a seat-of-the-pants guy. But then I had lots of research to keep track of, so I developed an outlining system I still use to this day. I plan out each chapter in advance, and then move the specific research notes I need to tell just that part of the story beneath my brief summary. Then, when I'm ready to sit down and actually write, I have what happens at the top of the page, and underneath it, all the details I need to write it. I use that method now for everything, even for things that don't require research. I'm quite an outlining zealot now--but what works for one writer won't work for everyone. It's a matter of finding what system works best for you.

Jody: That's key here, I've learned over the years--finding what works best for you, and I can see how writing historical novels or stories based on well-known plots, such as Shakespearean plays would require up-front, logical drafting. My blog readers know that I fall on the opposite end of the spectrum--free writing first and worrying about logic later. The funny thing is that I am rigid when it comes to my writing schedule. I set a word count goal every day and have a hard time stopping until I meet it. What about you?

Alan: I don't have a set number of hours or pages to try and finish each day. Instead, I set weekly goals--I want to have this proposal to my agent, or get this book read and take notes on it, things like that. I work from around 9 or 10 in the morning until around 4 or 5 pm every day, usually not taking much time for lunch. (Maybe a bowl of chips and a quick check of the e-mail.) The greatest challenge in working for myself at home is eliminating the distractions of the Internet and family, all of whom are home with me.

Jody: I hear you about the distractions. How do you balance your writing time with your other obligations?

Alan: I try to think about my days as belonging to my job, and my evenings and weekends as belonging to my family. It doesn't always work that way, but I do try to think about it in terms of punching a clock. Lately, I've even tried to keep track of what I'm doing with my time all day, to better reveal where my time goes. It's illuminating--and kind of depressing. (Curse you, e-mail!)

Jody: Yeah, I hear that too, but it's so hard to turn it off. Email, Facebook, Twitter, etc., are such a big part of marketing and promotion for writers these days. What's your take on best practices for using social media?

Alan: I have a web site, and I'm active on Twitter. I have a personal Facebook page, which I should probably separate out and create a Fan Page, but I loathe Facebook, so I spend as little time on there as possible. :-) My wife and I have a family blog, but we've even stopped posting there so often. My attitude toward social media is that it's a great way to let people get to know you personally, and for you to get to know other people. I think social media is best used to gain personal fans and friends. If those people buy my books, all the better. But I dislike when people use social media solely to pimp their work, and I don't want to use it that way.

Jody: I totally agree. I hate the whole hawking a product angle some people take. I'd much rather use social media to build relationships with readers and other writers. This blog has helped me reach out too. All of us in this business are muddling along trying to navigate through the creative process as well as the publication end. It's nice to know how other writers manage it.

Something I was always interested in knowing when I was first starting out was how much work it actually took to get that first book published. At the beginning it seems so daunting, more of a pipe dream. How many books did you write before you got your first book deal? And as a corollary to that, how many rejections did you have along the way?

Alan: Samurai Shortstop was the third novel I wrote, and the first one I sold. I had finished the other two and was sending them out, along with Samurai Shortstop, when I sold SS through the slush pile. I still haven't sold the other two, but I recently took the first one out of the filing cabinet and am looking at revising it and giving it another go, thirteen years later!

I was just looking at my submission log for the first book. I sent it to eleven editors, and got eight requests for the full manuscript! I had no idea at the time what a great success rate that was. Maybe if I had realized it, I wouldn't have been so quick to put it away when Samurai sold. Samurai itself had something like 16 rejections before it sold. I had no agent at the time.

Jody: Eight requests is something else! And sixteen rejections isn't too bad either. But probably something new writers don't want to hear. I remember getting my first rejection and being devastated, but beyond that I was incredulous, like, how could they reject ME? You've got to get over that attitude pretty fast if you want to succeed.

Last thing before I let you go--I realized that I didn't ask you about your new projects.

Alan: Well, I did have a YA Star Trek novel come out this year: Starfleet Academy: The Assassination Game. It kind of was a dream come true thing for me. I've been a Trekkie for as long as I can remember, and always wanted to write a Trek novel. I had a lot of fun writing it. It's set in the world of the 2009 movie reboot, with Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Bones, and the rest at Starfleet Academy in that three year period that's glossed over in the film. I put in a lot of references to the old show, which I hope fans of the original will enjoy.

My next book is Prisoner B-3087, a fictional account of the Holocaust based on the true-life story of Jack Gruener, who survived ten different concentration camps as a boy. His story is amazing, and I was honored to be able to tell it. It's heavy stuff, but I didn't pull any punches, even though the book is squarely middle grade. Glossing over the pain and suffering diminishes what these incredible people went through. As we become farther and farther removed from it in time, it becomes even more important to continue to tell stories like this, so we never forget.

Jody: Wow, Alan, I'm eager to take a look at those. I can't get over how versatile you are as a writer--with YA and middle grade, in all different genres from fantasy to sci-fi to historical. You've got the boy book market cornered, but I know from my own reading experience that your books appeal to girls, as well as to adults. Best of luck with your new projects and thanks so much for talking with me today.


  1. Can you get me the Starfleet Academy book? I would totally read that.


  2. I have all your books, Alan. Can't wait for Prisoner!