Saturday, May 31, 2014

My best friend, Andy -- aka Andrew Smith

In the summer of 1976, the bicentennial year, I graduated from Newbury Park High School in Newbury Park, California.  So did my best friend, Andy Smith -- Andrew Smith, the meteoric Young Adult author.  We went out that night.  We had dinner, we held hands and wandered the sidewalks of Westwood, shopped at Pier I, and we laughed.  We always laughed.

None of that was new.  He was the best friend I ever had.  We did a LOT of things together.  We ate lunch together -- remember your wheat jeans and the ketchup packet, Andy?  We had German class together and, eventually, journalism -- the academic pursuit that would become my life's work.  We babysat Troy together, a third grader with Cerebral Palsy.  We went to Disneyland and pretended to be Star Wars extras.  We went to Magic Mountain and rode the first loop coaster on earth backwards.  We bugged each other at work -- him at Carl's Junior, me at the Music Loft.  We went to see THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE at the drive in theater and we saw INDIANA JONES at Mann's Chinese.  Neither of us slept the night we saw the EXORCIST in the same theater.  We even bought his Toyota Celica together. 

Until I met Andy, my school life was bleak.  I was bright, but shy and maybe a little silly.  I'd endured four middle schools before landing at NPHS, and my emotional bruises were obvious.  My eyes were always on the ground.  Invisibility was my primary goal.  But Andy saw past it.  Andy saw me, and I loved him for it.

In time we drifted apart, but the truth is, I never stopped thinking about him.  I missed him just about every day of my life, and started looking for him when the Internet made that possible in the mid-1990s.  My detective work failed.

Then, out of the blue I got a phone call.  Andy had seen my author website and tracked down my phone number.  I don't remember the exact quote, but he said something like, "I'm glad at least one of us did it."  I told him I always thought it would be him.  But he was a high school teacher in California, not a writer.

"Where's the novel?" I asked.

"What makes you thing there's a novel?" he replied.

"Where's the novel," I repeated.  Fiction had always been his first love, and I couldn't believe that love had really ended, even after all those years.

"It's in the drawer," he said.

"Get it out," I said.  "We're going to get it published."

That was GHOST MEDICINE, and the rest -- IN THE PATH OF FALLING OBJECTS, STICK, THE MARBURY LENS, PASSENGER, WINGER, GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE and 100 SIDEWAYS MILES (so far) -- is literary history.  I may have given him a spark, but Andy fanned the flames.  He had the will, the determination and the sheer talent to catch fire.   

Today, the Boston Globe announced that his latest novel, GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE was this year's Horn Book Award winner for fiction, and I had to smile.  Even in high school, I knew Andy was destined to be a writer.  He made me laugh, sure, but he also had depth beyond his years or his peers, depth that drew me to him.  In fiction or nonfiction, he had something to say, and smart people listened.

So I want to congratulate him on this award and every marker of success he's enjoyed and will yet experience.  I am so glad you're a part of my life again.  And while I respect that you are Andrew Smith now, I'm glad you'll always be a little bit Andy, to me.

See you in November!



Sunday, May 25, 2014


I’ve done this once before, so forgive me if it seems silly.  But when Susan Goodman asked me to join her team for this round of THE WRITING PROCESS BLOG TOURS, I couldn’t resist.  Susan sent me to David Elliott’s blog to remind me of the four questions, and he reminded me that lots of other great authors, like Carmen Oliver, and Sara Zarr, are also taking part. 

So here’s my latest take on THE WRITING PROCESS, in four questions.  I hope you’ll also explore my friend’s Claire Rudolf Murphy and Kenn Nesbitt as they offer their points of view on the same four questions. 

Onward to excellence.  


What am I currently working on?

For a writer who has written more than 40 nonfiction books, it’s amazing for me to admit, I’m working on three 12,000 word novels – fiction inspired by true stories – for Andrew Karre at Darby Creek/Lerner for the first time in my life.  And while I’ve written several fictional YA short stories, this really is a first for me.  A challenging, exciting first.  So I’m pretty excited about it. 

How does my work differ from others in my genre?

On the fiction front, we’ll have to wait and see to answer that question.  On the nonfiction, it’s easier.  Most writers of young reader nonfiction search for “award winning” topics to document.  I wouldn’t mind winning awards, but that’s not my niche.  I look for topics that will draw kids into the books – especially kids that might not otherwise love to read.  I was a reluctant reader growing up, so I write for those kids now.  Topics like Bigfoot, aliens, sea monsters and ghosts carefully researched and presented set my work apart from other nonfiction writers.  When it comes to my animal stories, they are usually laced with human drama, which might set them apart, too.  I hope so. 

Why do I write what I write?

I write what I write because these are the books I would have wanted to find in the library as a kid – books I never did.  I write for the child in myself, and for children everywhere.  I write to my passions, hoping the work will shine with that enthusiasm. 

What is my writing process?

My process is unconventional.  The research isn’t.  Like all writers of nonfiction, I read a whole lot about my topic – articles, books, academic papers – and do interviews with prominent experts.  I do field trips to explore the places or subjects about which I’m writing.  All that is fairly typical.  But how I tackle the actual writing process might not be. 

I wake up in the morning, tackle my email, play a few video games, then write for as long as I feel excited about the topic.  Then I clean house, walk my dog, play more games to break the day up.  Once that’s done, I’m ready to write again.  I write as long as I feel the work is fresh, then break again.  All the while, I have the television in the background, usually MSNBC – I’m a liberal news junky.  I cannot write if it’s too quiet.  I think that started when I did magazine features as a single mom with two kids.  I had to learn to write amid happy chaos, and now I can’t seem to manage without it.  

So my process is a little scattered and seems random.  But it’s not.  It is a pattern that works FOR ME.  And if I can convey any one thing in this blog, it’s that there is no WRONG process, as long as it works, as long as it helps you produce your finished product.  

Don’t try to copy any other writer.  Try they’re styles on if you’re just beginning – if you like.  But feel sure the process you adopt, the one that fits your life and rhythm will be just as good as anything you read about anywhere else.  The main objective is to keep writing.  Do that, and it all falls naturally into place.