SFC – November Interview
Author: Alan Silberberg
Interviewer: D.M. Cunningham
Can you give us a little bit of your background and how you came to writing for children?
AS: I was one of those kids who grew up watching a ton of TV. Back then I was called "the walking, talking TV guide" in my house. I can see now that not only was it fun, but getting totally absorbed in the TV was probably a safe place for me to hide from the pain after my mother died. I always knew I wanted to work in media and it wasn't until college that I discovered the fun of writing. I created my own major at the University of Massachusetts combining Communication Studies, Education and Cartooning with the hopes of working in educational TV. After college, I pounded persistently on the doors of children's TV broadcasters and finally got my foot in the door with Nickelodeon. I started off as the head writer for a game show, which led to writing animation scripts and then other jobs in children's programming for Disney, FOX and others. I loved it because I was writing for the kid inside me, which is the best place to start.
Can you tell us about your recent release Milo, which received a Cybil nomination (well deserved)?
AS: MILO: STICKY NOTES & BRAIN FREEZE is my second book. What happened was I started writing a silly middle grade novel that was going to combine text with cartoons. Jeff Kinney has really had such a wonderful impact on the hybrid book and MILO was going to be my entry into the "funny/cartoon/text" market. But as I started to write about the boy who was trying to figure out his new school after moving again, I was remembering my own past. And I slowly started to realize that I was telling my own story, which is a story about the pain of losing someone you love and figuring out how to move forward with such a huge loss inside. I stayed true to my own voice in that MILO was still a funny book, but I also saw that I had the opportunity to let go of some feelings that I'd had for a very long time. I was excited that this could be a book that helped other kids cope with loss. It was a very healing process and I'm so proud of the result.
I read that you taught writing to children at the James Thurber House. What was that experience like for you?
AS: In 2008 I was the recipient of the Thurber House Children's Author in Residence. I spent 4 weeks living in James Thurber's boyhood home, in the attic made famous in his short stories. The residency is set up so that most of your time is devoted to writing, which was great for me. That's where I finished MILO and did a bulk of the cartoons for the book! But part of the residency is also spent giving workshops to kids at local Columbus, Ohio libraries, a homeless shelter and teaching kids who are attending the Thurber House Writing Camp. I had lots of fun getting to spend part of each week with kids at these different locations. There is a lot of great young talent in Columbus!
You have a lot of experience in writing for television. How much of a change is it for you when writing books? Do you prefer one over the other?
AS: Because I have written many episodes of animation where the action is very descriptive so the animators know what to make happen - I became used to writing lots of descriptions that accompany the actual dialogue. In some ways it was a natural progression to transition from TV to books because I was already writing narrative prose - but in script form. Each has its pros and cons and I tend to think warmly about whatever format that I'm not working with! "Oh, I hate TV writing because it can only be 18 pages long...Books can be any length!" vs. "Man, I wish I was writing TV because it's only 18 pages long...and books are soooo long!"
I love to speak with writers about the process of writing the first draft. How does Alan get through the first draft?
AS: Ah...Alan gets through the first draft painfully. I forget how hard it is to sit and concentrate and pick through all the ideas shouting for attention. I guess I get through the first draft by constantly reminding myself that this free-falling anxiety is an old friend and that this is the process I go through each time I set out at the starting line. I try and create a loose outline, nothing too precise. I start with a partial overview of the story. I like to keep myself surprised and at the same time like to be able too see where I'm going, even if it's just a glimpse into the next few chapters. First drafts are slow going for me...but I've been here before and there are always snacks in the kitchen!
What is the most painful aspect of writing for you?
Everyone likes to know what advice other writers can dish out to fellow writers. Let's mix it up a bit and tell me what first time writers should avoid doing? What mistakes do you see a lot of them making?
AS: That's a good question. I think too many new writers will forget how important good dialogue is. Nothing will stop a read faster than bad dialogue, especially among kids, that comes off flat or false. I think it's so hard to quilt together a book and I want to encourage all writers to always be reading something while writing their own work. I subscribe to the "data in - data out" school of thought and it's easy for new writers (and old ones) to forget to keep those wheels greased. I like to keep all sorts of books by my side while writing; kids' books, adult books, graphic novels. I think it's essential.
What is next for you? Can you give a little peak at the new story?
AS: I can't really talk about the specifics of what's next - but I am hard at work on the new book, which like MILO, will combine text with cartoons. I can say that since MILO was such a personal story for me, this new book is a total fantasy romp about two best friends and the magical thing they find. It's going to be a lot of fun.