Friday, September 02, 2005

Author Interview: D. L. Garfinkle on Storky: How I Lost My Nickname and Won The Girl

Storky: How I Lost My Nickname and Won The Girl by D.L. Garfinkle (Putnam, 2005). Told in a diary format by high school freshman Michael "Storky" Pomerantz, this sparkling debut novel chronicles its hero (1) befriending a Scrabble geezer, (2) embracing a family that "includes" Mom's boyfriend "Dr. Vermin" and Dad's rotating bimbos delight, (3) landing a first girlfriend (which one?), and (4) finding self-acceptance. It's funny, real, and unapologetically boy-like with a solid heart. Great for avid readers and reluctant ones. Strongest on voice and humor, jam-packed with "life lessons," Storky is a must-read from a novelist to watch. Ages 12-up. Highly recommended. See more of my thoughts on Storky.

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

I’ve always been a bookworm. Three novels in particular inspired Storky: Catcher In The Rye, Bridget Jones' Diary, and Anne Tyler’s A Patchwork Planet. All three books have great humor and sweet but misguided characters, which is what I attempted. I tried to capture a strong voice like Salinger had done, the journal format of Bridget Jones' Diary, and A Patchwork Planet’s plot twist in which the main character fails at his goals but realizes they weren’t the right goals for him anyway. Of course, I don’t claim to have succeeded as well as Salinger, Fielding, or Tyler. But their novels inspired me.

Also, I wanted to do more than entertain readers. I didn’t want to write a preachy book, but I didn’t want to write pure fluff either. It took me into my mid-twenties to learn a very important truth: that if people treated me poorly, it was a reflection of their personalities rather than my shortcomings. Storky learns this at the end of the novel. With this lesson, I hope to shave a few years and maybe some therapy sessions off of my teen readers’ learning curve.

What was the timeline between spark and publication and what were the major events along the way?

Sigh. Would you believe 21 years? Okay, but from starting to write in a dedicated manner to getting an offer from Putnam was “only” four years, so I guess that’s not too bad.

The spark began in 1984. My creative writing teacher gave us seven words to use in a one-page short story. I wrote about Mike, a teenage boy who was spending his first Thanksgiving without his father. The teacher liked the story so much, she kept it as an example for future classes.

Years later, after concentrating on law school and beginning my legal career, I took another creative writing class and wrote a ten-page short story about Mike going out on his first date while grieving for his father.

A few years later, I decided to write a novel. I told it from the points of view of Mike and his sister, Amanda. Because I wanted my book to be humorous, I decided to make the father absent by divorce rather than by death. I wrote 40 pages, got frustrated, and stopped writing.

In 1997 I had a 3-year-old and an infant. I was working part-time as a lawyer. I had given away my maternity clothes, confident that I didn’t want a third child. Then I was diagnosed with cystosarcoma, a rare form of breast cancer. Typical symptoms are the discovery of a very large tumor while pregnant in the upper, outside quadrant of the breast. I had all the symptoms. Fortunately, cystosarcoma has a very low mortality rate. But I figured with my luck I was a goner.

I re-evaluated my life. I realized I was most proud of my children and a short story I’d gotten published in 1985. I decided to quit my job, have another baby, and finish writing my novel. The doctors removed the tumor and surrounding tissue, and then discovered the tumor was benign. Of course, I was thrilled. I still quit my job and started writing my novel. I got pregnant a few months later and borrowed a bunch of maternity clothes. My friends were so generous that my borrowed wardrobe was much bigger and better than the wardrobe I’d given away.

I wrote my novel in a weekly critique class, titling it “Michael A. Pomerantz’s Lame Journal.” I finished it fourteen months later and set out to get an agent. Instead of querying, I bound my 200-page manuscript at Kinko’s and sent it to agents listed in a directory. My agent signed me up in February 2001.

After revising my manuscript at her suggestion, she sent it to publishers and there was a bidding war. Just kidding. Actually, I got a bunch of rejections. Most said they liked the humor and the voice, but that the plot was weak or Mike’s problems were too “ordinary.”

Worried that my agent was going to drop me, I entered the manuscript in the San Diego Book Awards. It won for Best Unpublished Novel. Along with attaining confidence in my book again (one of the judges wrote “sure to be published”), I also got 100 dollars and critiques from the three judges. One of the judges said my manuscript needed a better narrative arc. My agent independently came to the same conclusion. I spent the summer of 2002 revising it solely to build an arc. My critique group jokingly called me "Noah" or "Joan of Arc."

My agent sent it out again, and an editor from a big publisher requested a rewrite, telling me she hadn’t been so excited about a manuscript in years. I don’t know if that’s her standard line, but it sure got me excited. I spent another few months revising to her specifications. I even changed the title, which she thought was too negative, and deleted my favorite scene, which she thought was too maudlin. She loved the revision. Unfortunately, the acquisitions committee did not.

My agent sent out the revised manuscript, and John Rudolph at Putnam made an offer in August 2003. After I had a contract, I did two revisions for John and one for the copyeditor. The title changed again. When I sneaked back my favorite scene into the first revision and John put exclamation points all over it, I knew that I’d found the right match.

Finally, my first novel, featuring Mike “Storky” Pomerantz, was published in April 2005, 21 years after I first created Mike for the one-page writing assignment.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

I didn’t have to do a lot of research. Because I was writing about someone of the opposite sex and decades younger than me, for my own sanity I decided to “write what you know.” I made Mike’s mother a law student, I made Mike and his family Jewish, and I made his hobbies Scrabble, bowling, and reading, just like mine. I even included a pregnancy in the book.

It was challenging to write in first person as a male. Luckily, I had two guys in my critique group. They kept telling me to add more sex. And my male editor wanted more added also. Reading aloud the scene in which Mike gets an erection at the whiteboard in Spanish class was really embarrassing. It was also embarrassing discussing it with my editor. It’s not the typical conversation one dreams about when one thinks about publishing a novel.

Writing humor is a lot of fun for me. Getting used to rejection and the slow pace of publishing was not. Seeing my book in stores and getting fan mail from readers makes all the challenges pay off. And it sure beats practicing law.

Cynsational News & Links

"The Child in the Attic" by Katherine Paterson from the National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance. Presented at the Ohio State University's Chldren's Literature Festival, February 2000. See also An Interview with Katherine Paterson by Mary Brigid Barrett from the NCBLA.

The Louisiana Library Association Disaster Relief Fund is now accepting monetary donations to assist school, public, and academic library restoration efforts in southeastern Louisiana. Please make checks payable to: LLA-Disaster Relief and mail to: LLA; 421 South 4th St.; Eunice, LA 70535.

The South Dakota State Library Staff Best Reads Book List for National Library Week 2005 includes Rain Is Not My Indian Name by Cynthia Leitich Smith (HarperCollins, 2001).

Lately on spookcyn, I'm blogging about the Buffy The Vampire Sing-A-Long, and on GLSBlog, Greg is blogging about his Round Rock book signing.

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