Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Co-Authors Interview: Brad Barkley and Heather Hepler on Scrambled Eggs at Midnight

Scrambled Eggs at Midnight by Brad Barkley and Heather Hepler (Dutton, 2006). Calliope is tired of being dragged by her mother cross-country from Renaissance Faire (don't forget the "e") after Renaissance Faire. Eliot longs for the day when his father used to sell swimming pools--before he "found God," and subsequently founded the "Jesus fat camp" for Christian kids ("What would Jesus eat?"), thereby also discovering financial success. When Cal and Eliot meet, there's instantly chemistry--literally and figuratively. Do they have a future? Or will Eliot's father and Cal's mother (and her jouster boyfriend) tear them apart? A romantic comedy with an almost classic feel. Cal and Eliot feel like people you know even as they face unusual, even surreal, circumstances with humor and aplomb. Ages 12-up. Recommendation by Greg Leitich Smith.

Brad Barkley on Brad Barkley: "I grew up in North Carolina as, I guess, a somewhat odd kid, though the great thing about being odd at that age is you have no point of reference. You don't know you're odd. Odd how? Well, I divided my time btween playing in the woods behind my house, in the creek, catching salamanders. Normal enough, but the whole time I would be playing, I would do things like talk to myself in the voice of John Wayne or Elvis Presley. I wanted to be an impersonator, or some kind of entertainer. I’d never actually heard Elvis or the Duke, or even know who they were, so I was really impersonating the impersonators I heard on TV. The rest of the time I was in my room practicing magic tricks (I was paid to do birthday parties by the time I was 14), or juggling, or ventriloquism. Often I dressed up in costumes for no one's amusement other than my own, just to look in the mirror. I made mustaches out of black construction paper, and dressed up like the characters in the silent movies my Dad brought home from the library for me, films no one else wanted to watch, so I would watch them alone. One time I accidently dressed up as Hitler, but I didn’t know who he was either--I had just seen Charlie Chaplin dressed that way in a movie.

"Later, I managed to infuse a little more normalcy into my life. A little. I turned into a redneck and attended a fundamentalist high school. I drove an orange Camaro with mag wheels, listened to a lot of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and attended chapel three times a week to watch movies, we were told, that were actually filmed in hell. I captained the soccer team and hung out at the Dairy Queen and tried (sometimes successfully) to date cheerleaders. I didn’t really start writing until I got to college. Before that, my main creative outlets were photography and air guitar. I also read all the time, so much so that I used to get in trouble for it. Now I write books, and I get to do it all...imitate voices, juggle plots, snap my fingers and make characters come alive. Except once, during the Years of Oddness, I built a life-size Christmas tree entirely of abandoned pint milk cartons and duct tape. I haven't yet found a writing-related substitute for the pleasure that brought me, but I'm still looking." Learn more about Brad.

Heather Helper on Heather Helper: "Okay, imagine me staring fretfully at the computer screen, trying to think of what might be interesting about me. Okay...here goes.

1. I have 107 cookbooks. (More than half are on baking.)
2. I have a 17-year-old cat that is currently undergoing biofeedback treatments for digestive issues. (Don't ask).
3. I teach yoga three times a week, mostly to make myself do it. Without teaching I can always find something else to do instead.
4. Everyone in my life seems to know more than I do. It's really a trick. Surround yourself with smart people, and everyone will assume that you are smart, too.
5. On a recent trip to Florida, I was actually offered a high five by the rental car guy because I was getting a Chrysler 300. I put up a limp hand and accepted the smack. (Did I mention I don't know anything about cars?)
6. In addition to my cat, I also have two Madagasscar Hissing Cockroaches, a frog, and a fish. (We are thinking of getting a lizard.)
7. I always have at least ten books on my bedside table. Right now Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace and "Twilight" by Stephenie Meyer are on the top.
8. And because I think it's bad luck to finish a list on an odd number. My mother just visited this weekend and brought some of my old toys for my son. Along with some games and other items, there were trading cards. I know what you're thinking, but wait. These are much cooler. These are Charlie's Angels, Grease, Star Wars, and Battlestar Gallactica cards. (I know!)" Learn more about Heather.

Congratulations on the publication of Scrambled Eggs at Midnight (Dutton, 2006)! It's fun, fresh, romantic read. How do you two know each other? What inspired you to write a novel together?

Brad Barkley: We met when Heather took a workshop I taught, and right away we knew we had the same take on the world, laughed at the same things. For me, the inspiration for the collaboration was Heather phoning me up and saying "Why don't we write a book together?" Of course, I'm tempted to revise history here, because Heather never misses a chance to remind me that the book was her idea, but it's true. Mostly it started as a kind of game...novel ping-pong, I guess, just bouncing the chapters back and forth.

What was the initial inspiration for this story?

Heather Hepler: I always want this answer to be more literary, but here it is... I was driving on I20 toward Dallas and there were two billboards, one right after the next. The first was for the Four Winds Renaissance Faire and featured a stylized knight atop a horse, surrounded by lots of fancy purple script advertising the fair just south of Dallas. The second was for The Bible Outlet, one of the stores in the outlet mall. With these things swirling around in my head and the Eels blarring on the radio, I made the arc past Dallas on toward Austin where my sister lives. Right where you can either keep going straight or turn, there is a Cracker Barrel (one of my favorite places). My son states that he is hungry and asks if we can stop and have breakfast for lunch. After eggs and biscuits and some coffee, we hit the road again.

HH: This time we are driving south, through the middle of Texas, which feels like the middle of nowhere. About half an hour past Waco is the Garden Warehouse, a huge garden center with literally hundreds of concrete scupltures of everything from giant palm trees to gorillas to huge urns, large enough for small children to crawl into. So, I hit Austin and stay up most of the night thinking about it all. Three days later, I started writing chapter one.

BB: For my half, I saw a poster that depicted Jesus wearing Everlast boxing trunks and boxing gloves. And I spent my high school years in a fundamentalist school. But that was more idea than inspiration. The real inspiration was in getting the next chapter back, seeing what Heather had done with the story, thinking how I could surprise her or take her breath away when I sent it back. There's this scene in "X-Men" when two guys are walking across this chasm, and every time they take a step, a piece of metallic sidewalk appears under their feet. That's what it felt like, just taking steps, trusting the story to emerge. Now all I need are some superpowers.

What was the timeline from spark to publication, and what were the major events along the way?

HH: I actually had a girl in one of my wokshops mouth "I hate you" to me when I told this story, so I am reluctant to tell it again. But, here goes. After writing about half of the first chapter of what I thought was going to be my novel, I called Brad and asked if he would help me a bit. I mean, a novel is a lot to take in. We started talking, and somehow the idea of co-writing was brought up. It started out as an experiment of sorts...just a game to keep both of us writing. It wasn't until we got about halfway in that we realized that we might just have a book. We actually finished writing it in six weeks. We ended up selling it to Dutton about a month after that.

BB: It was blisteringly fast. We even hesitate to say this, because it's the kind of thing that might make other writers hate us. Honestly, we wrote the book in six weeks, sold it in maybe three weeks. At this point we've been writing together for a year, and we are working on our fouth novel. Major events? Mostly it was about staying on that pace, keeping the story going. At one point, the plot stalled out a little bit, and I suggested an Act of God, which made its way into the book. Acts of God are always good, if your characters need a little shaking up. Once or twice we had to say something like "I don't think my character would say that," but that's about as eventful as it got. We should probably invent some stories about all the epic arguments we had, but it just didn't happen that way.

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

HH: I had to do quite a bit as far as researching Renaissance fairs. I still have yet to go to one, although I plan to this year. I had no idea about the various characters or the simple day to day life of fair performers.

HH: Logistically it was only challenging in the editing phase. After trying a couple of times to go page by page through the editing remarks, we decided that since Brad loves revision, he could just take care of that. We each revised our own chapters, but the smaller details, Brad took care of. I guess other than those couple of things, the whole process just felt fun.

HH: Each package from the publisher was exciting. I still get excited when I see an email from my editor (Stephanie Lurie--who is AMAZING) or my agent. It feels like my birthday and Christmas and Halloween all at the same time.

BB: For me the things I thought were challenges weren't. After having written some books solo, I worried whether I could collaborate and do it right, but that turned out to be even better than easy. It was, and is, the most fun I've ever had writing. The challange of any novel, for me, is psychological...finding and understanding the character's center, his emotions and motivations, who he really is. I always do reasearch eventually, but I'm also pretty lazy about it. My first impulse is just to guess, then reserch it later if I have to. It's amazing how often the guess turns out to be right.

Your novel is in alternating points of view. Did this decision evolve from the co-author approach or did it grow from the story, and in either case, why?

HH: The decision for alternating points of view originated in the co-authoring. We knew that it would be easier to write if we each had our own sections to take care of. We briefly discussed a letter or email format, but we decided that using that might become the focus of the book and might actually detract from the story. It also made sense to have alternating points of view in a love story. I mean, who hasn't wondered in the midst of falling in love what the other person is really thinking?

BB: For a first novel, written in collaboration, it just made sense, and it was also just a really interesting way to do things...something new. I think by chapter three or so, it felt totally organic to the story, a way of telling the story that couldn't be done with a single POV. We've worked that way since, too, though I think the next one we start will be from a single POV, just to shake ourselves up a little bit.

What are the advantages and challenges of alternating point of view novels?

HH: [With a co-author,] [t]he advantage of this type of novel is that it goes fast. Each chapter sparks the next one, as ideas that never would have occured to you ping-pong back and forth. It is also great to have a built in second reader. Brad isn't afraid to tell me if something I have written is bad or doesn't work.

HH: It is also nice because as writers we all have things that we aren't very good at. For instance, I am great at beginnings, but awful at endings. Luckily, for Brad it is the reverse.

HH: The challenge of writing in alternating points of view is that you have to think if a particular event is going to fall in one chapter or the other. If my character isn't present for something, it obviously can't happen in my chapter. It is sometimes also challenging to make the voice similar enough so that it isn't jarring when the chapters change, but also different enough so as to not feel completely alike.

BB: Advantage is easy. You have the pressure to write, because someone is always waiting for your chapter, and while it's gone you have time to just think about your character and the plot and what it all means. Usually, by the time I got a chapter back, I was ready to go, knew where I was headed, and it felt more like typing than writing. Something weird happened with book two, though. We started out with Heather doing the even chapters this time, and me doing the odds, and it never felt right. I told Heather, it's like when you start off on the "wrong" foot on the treadmill, and your whole run feels off. So, we figured out that Heather is a better opener and I'm a better closer, that she's a puncher, and I'm a counterpuncher. It that enough sports metaphor for now?

BB: For the reader, it's just a different way of getting the story, and I think in ways a richer one. We are used to kind of pulling for the main character, but here you get to pull for Cal, pull for Eliot, and also pull for Cal and Eliot, together. So in that sense, there is a deeper emotional connection to the goings on of the book. I'm a total writing nerd, so I love talking about this stuff, more than I should.

Your book includes Eliot's John the Baptist Barbecue Sauce and Cal's Cherry Chocolate-Chip Cookies. Now, this literary stuff is all well and good, but let's talk food for a moment. Are these recipes tried and true? What's the scoop?

HH: Yes, both are my recipes. The barbeque sauce is one that my mother always used when we had neighborhood picnics and she made big pans of brisket. The cookies are (I swear) the best cookies ever. They have accompanied my cousin to the hospital to give birth to her second baby. They have fed the audience at my friend's dissertation defense. To this day she can't say whether it was the cookies or her flawless research that got her the PhD. Everyone who eats them--even people who say they don't like cookies much--loves them.

BB: Heather tells me that people will kill or die for these cookies, but I have yet to taste one, so I'm thinking they exist only in myth. Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and Heather's Cookies. I'll believe it when I eat them.

Brad, you're also published in adult literature. Could you tell us a bit about that body of your work?

BB: I have published two adult novels, Money, Love (Norton, 2000) and Alison's Automotive Repair Manual (St. Martins, 2003) and two collections of short stories, Circle View (SMU, 1997) and Another Perfect Catastrophe (St. Martins, 2004). I thought for a long time I would be a short story writer, like all my literary heroes, and I still love the form, but I love novels more. I like having the elbow room, the deeper connection to character. It's funny, my first novel was rejected by several editors on the grounds that it was a YA novel. It is, in ways, and not. So much of that, it seems, is marketing, and I think adult readers miss out on some great novels.

Also to Brad, what inspired you to try writing for a younger audience?

BB: As I said, I had, in ways, already. One novel and many short stories had teenaged protagonists. Also, some of the books I most love are young adult titles. I don't care that they're YA, I just care that they're great novels. Heather will roll her eyes and start coughing if I mention A Separate Peace one more time, so I won't. I do think that the audience at that age has the potential to be profoundly affected by a book, to read something that changes the way they view the world, forever. I think that's much less likely to happen with an adult audience.

Heather, you've been a reviewer, contributor to many of the children's/YA book professional journals, and you've taught youth literature at the college level. How does this background inform your fiction?

HH: I think the main thing that my teaching and reviewing has done is make me really aware of young adult literature. Just the act of reading many books has given me a sense of what works and what doesn't. I feel like an evangelist in ways, trying to teach people that young adult literature is every bit as good as adult literature. This also keeps me accountable to my own writing. At times, it might be tempting to think--well, I can use this obvious metaphor because young adult readers won't notice it as old and tired--but I don't. I think teaching, reviewing and writing have given me a huge appreciation for young adults and the complicated, scary, frustrating, exciting lives they lead.

Also to Heather, from your bio, this looks like your debut novel. Is that right? If so, what is it like being a debut novelist in 2006? Could you describe your path to publication--any memorable leaps and/or stumbles along the way?

HH: Yes, this is my first novel. Well, to say it is exciting is hardly enough. I'm afraid again I don't have anything too exciting to offer. It has been a steep learning curve for me. The sale of the book, the contracts, the publication process, the publicity and marketing. It's all so overwhelming at times. I think having a trustworthy agent, a dedicated and brilliant editor, and an amazing co-author has saved me from a lot of stumbles. I guess, like I said in my bio, surround yourself with smart people....

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

HH: I think the biggest mistake that beginning writers make is focusing too much on publication. I can say this because I know I did. Writers should focus on writing and getting their writing to the next level first. This takes giving time to your writing, finding other writers you can trust, and honing your craft. Once the good stories start coming, then worry about publishing. It may sound optimistic, but Brad always tells me that good stories will find their own way.

BB: Write about your obsesions. Heather and I recently tried to write a book set in a northwestern rain forest, full of Deep Meaning and lyrical passages about nature. We lasted two chapters, before admitting that we aren't that noble, and going back to writing about old movies and beauty pageants and corndogs. Write quickly, write as often as you can, write the kinds of books you love to read, or would love to read.

As a reader, what are your favorite recent children's/YA books and why?

HH:

Twilight by Stephanie Meyer (Little Brown/Megan Tingley, 2005)(author interview)
Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005)(excerpt)
Looking for Alaska by John Green (Dutton, 2005)(excerpt)

HH: All of these I love for the same reason. They are smart, well-written and unique. All three offer something new to the world through their stories, whether it's a new look at the sensitivity of vampires, a glimpse into the afterlife, or a funny/touching/heartbreaking story about young love.

BB: Heather turned me onto What My Mother Doesn't Know [by Sonya Sones (Simon & Schuster, 2001)(excerpt)], which I think is really amazing. It packs a novel's worth of plot and emotion into a story told through tiny poetic vignettes. Really smart and different. I recently re-read The Catcher In the Rye [by J.D. Salinger], and remembered why I loved it to begin with.

What do you do when you're not reading or writing?

HH: Build huge K'Nex structures with my son, practice yoga, teach, agonize over why my lawn seems to be dying, and spend time with my family.

BB: I spend time with my two kids. They are teens, so Im spending as much time as is left with them, before they move off into their own lives. I work out, watch a lot of bad TV (infomercials and reality shows, mostly), teach my students.

What can your fans look forward to next?

HH: Our next novel, Dream Factory (Dutton, 2007), is set in Disney World and features an unlikely friendship between Cinderella and Dale (as in Chip 'n ______).

BB: In 2007 we will publish Dream Factory, a comic YA novel about teeneagers who work as replacement cast members during a strike at Disney World. We have finished a third novel and are working on a fourth. We'll keep people updated through our website, www.bradheather.com. [See also Brad and Heather's blog.]

Cynsational Notes

Don't miss another interview with Brad and Heather from Penguin Group.

An interview with editor Stephanie Lurie is featured in Book Editors Talk to Writers by Judy Mandell (John Wiley & Sons, 1995).

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