I recently reviewed Dan Gemeinhart’s debut MG novel, THE HONEST TRUTH and was blown away by the pure emotion and courage of a boy on a life-or-death adventure. Since this is Dan’s first published novel, I was curious about his inspiration and his path to publication. He took time out from his teaching job and writing his next book to talk to us.
Middle Grade Mafia: Your portrayal of a child with cancer seems very realistic. Is your main character based on someone you knew personally?
Dan Gemeinhart: Yes, the character of Mark is based on someone, though he wasn’t a child. His name was also Mark, and he was a friend of mine (and was also my sister’s fiancee). He was a warm, wonderful, kind-hearted guy who loved books and climbing mountains. Unfortunately he got a very bad kind of cancer, and sadly he passed away. This book is not about him – he was a grown-up, and this book is about a 12-year-old boy – but it was written in his memory, and in his honor. I tried to make it a story about courage, and friendship, and loyalty – not really about death or dying – because that’s the kind of guy Mark was. He loved life and he loved adventure, and I wanted the story to be more about that. I hope that he would have liked it.
MGM: On your website, you have videos showing the actual places that became scenes in the book. To describe the wilderness scenes, did you actually climb Mt. Rainier as well?
DG: I did not actually climb Mt. Rainier, but I did travel all around the area a couple of times, scouting locations and getting a feel for the area. It’s a beautiful area and a truly stunning mountain, so it made a wonderful setting for the story. Its combination of beauty and danger was the perfect foil and backdrop for Mark’s life-and-death struggle. I knew that in a story like this, the setting is really almost like one of the characters, so it had to be a good one. Mt. Rainier certainly fit the bill.
MGM: Beau truly is the “best dog in the world.” Can we meet him?
DG: He is kind of great, isn’t he?! I don’t know if writers are supposed to keep some “artistic distance” from their characters, but I don’t care…I love that dog! He’s not based on any one dog…he’s more a composite of all the best parts of all the great dogs I’ve been lucky to know in my life. I think that at their best, dogs kind of represent the best parts of our character: loyalty, courage, devotion, faithfulness, steadfastness. I wanted Beau to live up to that…and I think he did!
MGM: You mention on your website that you’ve been writing for 10 years. What have you found to be the most difficult challenge on this path to publication? Juggling full-time work and family while finding time to write? Zeroing in on the right project? Other?
DG: Oh, it’s quite struggle, isn’t it? For me, the hardest parts were definitely the work/family/writing/life juggling (which I still struggle with), and just figuring out the crazy publishing industry. It seems like such an unassailable fortress and you get so many mixed messages on what/how/who to query, how to get past the gatekeepers, how to get your foot in the door, etc.. It can be so incredibly frustrating. But by just focusing on story, on the writing, and always getting better, and never giving up, I was lucky enough to finally break through. The Honest Truth is not the first book I wrote – it’s the fifth! The other four were garbage, but with each one I learned and got better and got closer. After eight years, and four failed books, and exactly 99 rejections on those four books (no joke! 99!), I finally busted through and got the “yes” I’d been waiting for on my fifth book and 100th try. Never give up!
MGM: You’re an elementary school teacher and librarian. Being that close to your target audience on a daily basis must help you as an author. Can you tell us a little about that?
DG: Absolutely! Besides being a fun, challenging, dynamic job, being an elementary teacher-librarian is the PERFECT career for an aspiring children’s writer. Everyday I get to work with awesome kids and awesome books. I get to see what they like and what they don’t, what they want to read and what they don’t, what catches their eye, what leaves them cold, what sets their hair on fire. I could call it “market research,” but really it’s just a great honor (and a lot of fun) to work with kids and kids’ books. And now, to actually see my own book on those shelves and in the hands of kids? Unbelievable. Honestly, sometimes I still can’t believe it.
MGM: On a similar note, as a school librarian, you are probably involved with your school’s Scholastic book fair. How does it feel to see your book on the case at your school’s book fair? Did your students buy your book?
DG: It is so amazing and so surreal! I mean, seriously, it felt just unreal to see my book in an actual Book Fair. Those Fairs were my favorite thing as a kid – who’d have thought there’d be a book with my name on it in there someday? And, yes, my students have been ridiculously, flatteringly supportive of my book. They are all so excited about it – right down to the kindergartners, who are years away from being able to read it! I’m a really, really, really lucky guy.
MGM: What is your next project? Another survival adventure or something completely different? Or is it a secret?
DG: Secret? No way! I’d love to tell you about it! My next project is another middle grade novel called Some Kind of Courage. It will come out next January from Scholastic. It’s historical fiction, set in Washington state in 1890. It’s about Joseph, a pioneer boy orphaned on the journey west, who will face any peril and brave any danger to get back the horse that he loves. So in some ways it’s very different from The Honest Truth, but in other ways it’s not: it’s a high-stakes adventure journey, with a strong emotional element. I think (and hope!) that readers who liked The Honest Truth will really like Some Kind of Courage, too.