Chris Grabenstein is the author of the New York Times bestseller ESCAPE FROM MR. LEMONCELLO’S LIBRARY and the co-author (with James Patterson) of the #1 Bestsellers I FUNNY, I EVEN FUNNIER, and TREASURE HUNTERS.
First off, thank you for being a part of our interview series. It is an honor to have you share your thoughts.
Now, the questions…
MGM: You have an incredible background – performing improv, writing for The Muppets, and as an advertising executive – do you think this has helped you when it comes to writing books?
Chris: Definitely. I always tell students at the schools I visit that one of the most valuable skills they can learn for writing is performing/acting in plays! Acting in a play or doing improv is all about characters and dialogue. Improv also teaches you to say, “Yes, and…” That’s a great skill for crafting first drafts without over thinking them.
When I wrote for the Muppets, Jim Henson once asked me, “What lesson is your script teaching, because kids will take a lesson out of whatever you write, so make sure you know what it is!” I hear him telling me that every time I start a project.
And working in advertising you learn “not to waste people’s time” as one of my publishers put it when he told me why he liked working with novelists who used to write ad copy. It’s true. You have very little time in an ad to hook the reader, listener, or viewer. It’s a good skill to have — especially when writing for kids who have attention spans even shorter than the average TV viewer’s!
MGM: You started off writing for adults (quite successfully, I do say!), what inspired you to start writing for kids?
Chris: It was somewhat accidental. An editor read a ghost story I wrote for adults (THE CROSSROADS) and said it would make a terrific middle grades novel if I cut out all the “adult language and situations” as HBO puts it…and cut 70,000 words from my 120,000 word manuscript. I did it. Had a blast. And discovered that I am eternally 12 years old in my brain. THE CROSSROADS was my first book for younger readers and won both the ANTHONY and AGATHA awards. Kids still love it today (I think the paperback is in its 10th printing). My first Random House editor told me I had a good middle grades voice and that those were “very hard to find.” I credit it all to my many years reading MAD magazine.
Chris: I usually start with a BIG “What if?” For instance, what if an eccentric billionaire donated a library to the town where he grew up? After that, I’m like a kindergartener telling a tale: “And then you know what? And then you know what?” I try to create vivid, memorable characters because, when all is said and done, we remember the characters from books long after we have forgotten most of the plot. For instance, kids could tell you a lot about Mr. Lemoncello and Dr. Zinchenko, even if they have forgotten half of the twists and turns in the plot line.
MGM: What are some of your favorite mid-grade novels?
Chris: One of my favorite classic middle grade novels is HALF MAGIC by Edward Eager. I also love BUD NOT BUDDY by Christopher Paul Curtis. I enjoy anything Jenni Holm writes (be sure you check out her The 14th Goldfish) and I just finished reading THE WITCH’S BOY by Kelly Barnhill, which was beautifully written and action-packed (I have the attention span of a 12-year-old, too). I also think Mark Goldblatt (TWERP) is a fantastic writer.
MGM: You have co-written a number of books with your old boss, some guy named James Patterson, how does the process work with two great story tellers collaborating?
Chris: Quite nicely, I think! Jim (that’s what we all called him back in the day at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency) is an amazing story teller. When we work together, he sends me an 80 page outline with all the characters, all the twists and turns blocked out. I then execute against that outline and send him about 10,000 new words a month. He reads and reacts (immediately, I might add!). I adjust and tweak. Then I do the next 10,000 words. We go back and forth like this for four or five months and then Jim does the final draft himself. He is intimately involved in all off his books and is, probably, the hardest working man in book business. But, it doesn’t surprise me. His work ethic has always been something of an inspiration. When we were in advertising, before he was the huge mega best seller he is now, he would come to the office at 5 or 6 in the morning and work on his novels for three or four fours before running the creative department for the next twelve hours every day. I hear he still starts work at 5 or 6 in the morning today.
MGM: You have had a lot of jobs in basements, where do you do most of your writing today?
Chris: Ha! It’s true. These days, I do most of my writing in what would be the second bedroom of our two bedroom apartment (800 square feet!) on the upper west side of Manhattan. My wife and I share the space with three cats and one 65-pound dog. The cats’ litter boxes are in the spare bedroom with me. It keeps one humble.
MGM: Which Muppet do you most relate to?
Chris: Fozzie Bear, I think. Wokka wokka.
Thanks for an awesome interview!
If you’d like to keep up with all things Chris Grabenstein, you’ll find him here: