|D.J. with Casey; follow @DJMacHale|
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations
Librarian Laini Bostian blogs at The Made Up Librarian.
This winter, Omar Elbulok, one of my library’s teen advisors, and I had the pleasure of talking with author D.J. MacHale. He challenged us to ask him something he had never been asked.
We enjoyed our Skype/telephone visit, and we definitely learned more about him.
On Teen Voice
D.J. said he didn't try too hard to make his characters sound young by using current slang or pop culture references. It is “all about attitude,” he explained.
D.J. noted that he had an “uncanny ability to remember what things were like back at that age [in his teens]” and that he had in fact recently penned a 12-page letter to a friend about events that had happened 40 years prior.
D.J. emphasized that teens are confident and arrogant about what they know, that they maintain an attitude of “the older I get, the less I know.” Then he admitted that not all teens are arrogant, but they try to hide their uncertainty, and he writes his characters from that perspective.
D.J. considered himself “painfully mediocre” in his teens, but was also “comfortable" in his own skin. This is how the main protagonist, Tucker Pierce, from D.J.’s book, SYLO, comes across.
D.J. said that he tries to write about all of the types of relationships characters “old enough to get around on their own” have and that he would be remiss not to mention the boy-girl stuff happening at that age.
He did note that he “almost shot himself in the foot” when he started out the book Merchant of Death, first in the Pendragon series, with Bobby, the main protagonist, kissing a girl.
He risked boys “putting the book down, thinking it was going to be a mushy girl book.”
D.J. wants girls to read and relate to his stories as well..and he has gotten lots of fan mail from girls who loved the sixth Pendragon book, Rivers of Zadaa, most. D.J. also noted that once a boy gets to eighth or ninth grade, he is generally not put off by romance in a book.
On Fan Mail
D.J. said that he was consistently surprised at how many teens wrote to him with heart-wrenching stories about what was going on in their lives and let him know that his books got them through those rough times.
He also recalled a piece of hate mail, an e-mail he got from a woman questioning his use of “foul” language in his stories. This particular woman was upset that he'd written “fell on my ass.”
D.J. wrote back, letting the woman know that he respected her views, and that what was right for one person to say was not right for everyone. However, he did want the voice of the character to sound real, and this language was part of an internal thought train the protagonist had. It was not something he said out loud.
C.S. Lewis did not need to use this type of language in his Chronicles of Narnia books.
D.J. tells his 10-year-old daughter that using curse words makes one look stupid. However, he doesn’t believe you can have “bad words” in books, and there are times where situations are extremely unpleasant in a story and it feels appropriate for characters to respond with more extreme language.
What was most interesting to D.J. was that the woman was not bothered by the fact that, in the same book the woman was writing to him about, a homeless man flung himself in front of a speeding subway. She just seemed so intensely focused on a few words.
D.J. has difficulty watching or reading things that are similar to what he likes to write. He finds it particularly challenging to watch without thinking about things like why a writer was making certain decisions from a plotting point of view.
He called this “writer brain,” and went on to say that he did not read Harry Potter, for instance, because then, if he came up with an idea similar to one he had read about in that book, he would not use it. By steering clear, he could use all of his ideas.
D.J. loves coming up with a new idea and typing up the end of a first draft after “pulling teeth” at times to get it all down on paper. He loves when someone comes up to him and simply says “I loved your book."
He loves it even more when someone gives him a specific about what they enjoyed in a story, such as a line of dialogue. He works hard on every word of it, and said, “it is nice to know you are not the only one amused by it.”