Friday, April 8, 2011

Blog Stop Tour Guest Post: Editor Jordan Brown Interviews Author Chris Rylander

Author Chris Rylander
Today I turn my blog over to HarperCollins/Walden Pond Press editor Jordan Brown as he interviews author Chris Rylander about his THE FOURTH STALL, a Diary-of-a-Whimpy-Kid-meets-The-Sopranos debut middle-grade novel about friends Mac and Vince who run an advice and assistance service for fellow students out of their office in the boy's bathroom.

Here Jordan and Chris talk voice, humor, character and a little baseball.

Jordan: When I talk to people about the book, I will invariably mention that Mac’s is perhaps the most authentic middle grade voice I’ve ever read. Where did it come from? What were the most important parts of your process in crafting the narrative voice in THE FOURTH STALL?

Chris: Well, when I hear people use words like “crafting” or “creating” in relation to Mac’s or any of the characters’ “voices,” it kind of makes me laugh, or at least grin a little bit. Because there really was no definite process or conscious effort to create an authentic or real middle grade voice. At risk of sounding smug or something, I have to admit that it really just came totally naturally and kind of easily for me. And that’s probably why it seems so authentic--because it kind of is. I don’t think you can manufacture something that feels completely authentic to the experts (who in this case are the kids), or at the very least it would be extremely hard to do.

I think it all comes down to the fact that my mindset is still back there in 6th grade in a lot of ways, and it always will be. I still love toys, Lego’s, Nerf guns, video games, and being immature in general, such as, you know, giggling when some says the word “duty” or something; and it’s hard to imagine myself ever really outgrowing any of that stuff. So when I started writing this book about sixth graders, it was very easy to put myself back into a sixth grader’s shoes. It was the sort of thing I should have been writing all along because it’s where I’ve felt the most at home as a writer. I really wish I could give a more visceral answer other than me basically saying, “well, it just sort of happened on its own,” but, essentially, that’s exactly how it happened.

Jordan: I love that this book walks line--presenting a true middle grade crime/noir story without slipping into parody or being overly stylized. Was this a conscious decision? What kinds of choices did you find yourself making along the way to keep things on this side of realistic?

Chris: Yeah, it kind of was. But, also, not really. I mean, on the surface I actually don’t think a whole lot about what I’m writing when I’m getting started. I know that sounds like a stupid thing to admit (especially to your editor, ha-ha), but I really write more by feel than in a cerebral way. So I never came to a point where I made these definite decisions about how my story was going to be or what it would be about. I just like to feel my way through it, and decisions like this just kind of happen as a byproduct of the story itself.

So, essentially, I let the natural flow of the story make such decisions. Which is cool because any amount of the work that I can shuck off onto the story is great because it leaves me more time for video games. In writing THE FOURTH STALL, I realized about 40 pages in that making it too spoofy would make it cheesy and maybe un-relatable to kids because most them probably aren’t crime/noir aficionados. But also that it still had to have some elements from the traditional crime/noir genre to help create some action and mystery and tension so that it would hopefully appeal to kids in the same way that movies like "Chinatown' and "The Godfather" appeal to adults. I think there was definitely a fine line there, and I’m just really, really lucky that I happened to somehow stay on or near it without really ever looking down.

Jordan: A lot of reviews point to Mac and Vince’s relationship as a strong point of the book. I feel like you did some great work on it during the editorial process, really digging into their friendship, testing it, bringing it a bit more front and center in the story.

Chris: This is the prime example of why writers have editors. And great editors (I’m looking your way) can have that kind of impact. I mean, as you said, their friendship is often cited by reviewers as one of the best elements of the book, and I would say that it’s the part that you influenced the most during the editorial process. It's where I can see your work on THE FOURTH STALL the most. Which is a huge tribute to your editorial skills. And also to my agent before you, as their friendship was a big part of the revision work I did for him as well. I guess the other area where I really notice your influence was how you kept trying to get me to have Mac and Vince rant and rave about how awesome the Yankees are. I mean, some lines I remember you tried to get me to include:
“Yeah, Mac, I’m telling you, that Derek Jeter is the greatest thing that has ever happened to the Yankees,” Vince said.

I shook my head, “No way, Vince! Not just to the Yankees, but to baseball as a sport! Without Jeter, baseball would be like hockey: no one watches and no one cares.”

“You know, we’re not even doing Jeter justice. He’s by far the best thing that has ever happened to the world of sports as a whole! I mean, I heard that he’s actually Lebron James’ and Bret Favre’s real dad!”

I nodded. “Why stop there, he’s probably the best human being that has ever walked the planet!”

“He probably doesn’t even walk, I heard he hovers slightly off the ground but stays just low enough to only make us think he’s walking!”

With that, we both looked at each other and nodded solemnly in awe of Derek Jeter’s sheer greatness.
Finally, I just had to be like, “give it up, Jordan, Jeter is completely overrated and overpaid and we all know it.” And then you finally agreed with me, which was awesome.

Jordan: One of the things we talk about a lot on the publishing side is finding books that include characters from different backgrounds, but that the book isn’t an “issue book” about that difference. To that point, I love the way you deal with Mac and Vince’s background, growing up in the trailer park, class differences, all that, without letting it slip into After School Special territory.

Chris: Yeah, I’m always paranoid about that, and am aware enough to try my best to keep things from getting too sappy or corny. Nothing takes me out of a story more as a reader than when I have to stop and groan or roll my eyes at something. So I’m always very critical of my writing to try and keep it as sincere as possible. And I try to write carefully around the emotion. I feel like just being straightforward and simple in regard to character emotions and touchy parts can help avoid the icky after school special sort of thing from happening.

That, and keeping everything reasonable... I never want to have a character with a dad who left him, a mom who is a drunk, a teacher who is mean to him, a brother who beats him up, he’s missing a leg from a shark attack and also wears a hand-me-down jewel-bedazzled eye patch, and also has a disease which causes him to sporadically vomit on people while shouting obscenities about undercooked food. You have to keep characters’ "issues" realistic and grounded. And beyond all of that, I never wanted to write an issue book. I mean, my singular goal when writing this book was to entertain people. I just wanted people, kids especially, to have fun reading it. So that also probably helped me steer clear of this becoming a Lifetime Channel Original Movie.

Jordan: THE FOURTH STALL is funny. How come?

Chris: Honestly, it just came out that way. One time I tried to write a serious adult thriller about a guy who sets out to kill a bunch of dudes in a graphic, gritty, and horrific fashion. It was supposed to be like the ultimate revenge story. And then before I knew it, jokes were creeping in. A lot of them. There was one scene where he was basically torturing some guy, but they were both making jokes about giraffes and hula hoops and then Captain Crunch showed up and one of the characters mustaches started talking. I mean, I really just couldn’t help myself... humor is sort of my crutch when the going gets tough in writing. Most of the time, I’m not even trying to be funny... I’m just being me. Which now explains why everyone was always laughing at me before I became a writer--I always thought I just had a really weird looking face or something. Or maybe I always had food stuck in my beard and I just didn’t notice.

But, another reason I think humor shows up a lot in THE FOURTH STALL is that I realized it needed to be that way to help offset the violence and realistic nature of the crime world I’d created. Stories that have any amount of gritty realism or tragedy, I think need at least a little humor to offset that. Otherwise, the book or movie or TV show will just be depressing and/or leave you feeling sick inside. But this topic also hints at how I knew I found my niche as a writer when I first started writing kids books… so many kids books are funny. Kids like to be amused and laugh (and adults do to, but sometimes forget that), and so writing a kids book just felt so natural, so right.

Jordan: Kitten’s got to be one of my favorite characters in the book – small, quiet, smartly dressed, but underneath it all is a complete psychopath. You gotta tell the readers where he came from.

Chris: He definitely seems to be everyone’s favorite! He is actually the one character in the book who is based totally and completely on a kid I really went to school with. He was in my sixth grade class and he did some insane things. He was actually probably even crazier than the character Kitten. One day he assaulted the principal and never came back to school. I did run into him at a party once years later when we were both 19 or 20 and he was way different. But he also seemed much less tightly wound, he seemed to have found himself… I guess I say that at the risk of sounding like a completely sappy nerd, but it’s true.

Jordan: When are the Cubs finally going to make it to the World Series?

Chris: Well, the Cubs fan in me has to say: maybe this year? (And I really mean that every year even though I know better deep down.) The real answer is for me to ask back: When will the Yankees ever have the lowest payroll in baseball? Some things just run too deep and have too much tradition to explain or ever change. It’s a hard truth to come to terms with...

(See, now here’s where I peek in the Cubs direction with one eye to see if they picked up on my reverse psychology maneuver and finally start winning… it could happen, right?)

If you'd like to check out more of Chris Rylander's blog tour, here is the week one shedule:


Anonymous said...

Funny how many men admit they still connect with a 6th grade personality. Sounds like my husband... But seriously, this book sounds wonderful. I know me 9yr old will gobble it up. My husband will too!

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great interview. Chris, I'm jealous that the voice comes so easily to you. I guess I need to get more into my middle grade self. Good luck with your book.

Anonymous said...

Great interview! I know a few people in our family that will enjoy your book.

Pam Harris said...

Great interview! This book is on my Must Read list. :)

Darby Karchut said...

Oh, I've been hearing awesome things about this book. Cool beans interview, too!