Thursday, April 06, 2017

New Voice: Michael Merschel on Revenge of the Star Survivors

By Gayleen Rabakukk
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

Michael Merschel is the first-time author of Revenge of the Star Survivors (Holiday House, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Middle school meets the Dark Side in this painfully funny survival story of social misfit Clark Sherman. 

When Clark crash-lands on the inhospitable planet of Festus Middle School, he soon learns the natives don't take kindly to newcomers . . . particularly ones who practice Jedi mind tricks and follow nerdy TV shows like Star Survivors. 

As he faces a conspiring group of violent bullies, browbeaten teachers and a fiendish principal, Clark knows he'll be lucky just to survive eighth grade.

Then, hope appears on the horizon: there is Les, the enigmatic boy who seems to disappear at will; Ricki, a fellow Star Survivors fan; and the independent-minded librarian, Ms. Beacon. 

When Clark and his newfound allies are imperiled, he gathers his courage and the consequences of his actions ripple through the galaxy in life-altering ways.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

To be honest, when I started, I didn’t know that I was writing for young readers. I had an idea for a story, and I decided I would try telling it, and see what happened. It was only after I submitted to an agent, and she said she’d be happy to represent my middle-grade novel, that I realized, “Oh. I’m a middle-grade novelist.”

I was fine with that, for a couple of reasons.

One of my intellectual heroes is Chuck Jones, who directed many of the classic Warner Bros. cartoons. (This might give you an idea of exactly how much of an intellectual I am, but I digress.)

 I loved him as a kid -- it’s because of him that I learned to pay attention to the opening credits on Saturday morning cartoons, because I figured out that if his name was listed, it was going to be a good one. And I love him as an adult, because anybody who can create art that’s still beautiful and funny 60 or 70 years on apparently knew what he was doing.

Anyhow, I remember hearing an interview with him where he said that he never created for children. He just created work that he and his colleagues enjoyed. I just found this quote from him -- “You have no right to ‘write for children.’ You do the best thing that you can do. …. There’s only one test of a great children’s book, or a great children’s film, and that is this: if it can be read or viewed with pleasure by adults, then it has the chance to be a great children’s film, or a great children’s book. If it doesn’t, it has no chance.”

I feel the same way. A book is either good, or it’s not. Age doesn’t really enter into it.

Another intellectual godparent to this book would be Judy Blume. I loved her so much as a boy.

I heard her speak a few years ago, and I realized: People loved her because she told us the truth. I have done my best to emulate that spirit in my book.

One final thing that inspired me, once I realized what I was doing, is the memory of how I inhaled books when I was between third and eighth grades. I’d read my favorites eight, nine, ten times over a couple of years.

I think my nervous system was rewired around some of those books. It’s an honor, and a little scary, to realize than I’m now one of those authors. Though lightning may strike me if I dare compare myself to Judy Blume as anything more than a source of inspiration.

What was your initial inspiration for writing this book?

Mike in sixth grade,
wearing his favorite shirt 
Well, I suppose the initial inspiration was when my family moved when I was in seventh grade.

It was a real shock to me at the time, and I convinced myself, in the way that a lot of 13-year-olds do, that my experience had to have been the worst of all time. But as I grew up, I realized -- lots of people feel awkward, and alienated, in their junior high years. Whether they moved or didn’t. Whether they were popular or not.

It’s just sort of a universal experience. By comparison to a lot of people, I had it really easy.

So I convinced myself -- there’s nothing to write about there. It would be a terrible cliche.

But then, my oldest daughter entered seventh grade. I was up at her junior high for orientation. It looked about the same as my own junior high, which made me feel a little edgy.

I was probably extra edgy because we were standing by the gym, and to be honest, the main reason I have gone to church was so that I do not have to spend eternity in a place that looks like a junior high gym.

Anyhow, I’m standing there, and down the hall comes this gaggle of eighth-grade girls. They were dressed rather … aggressively, and they were headed straight toward me. And I literally jumped out of their way -- pressed my back against the wall, tried to become invisible -- because they scared me. Even though I was about 30 years older than they were.

I realized later that they had been part of some kind of skit intended to show how not to dress and behave, but the fearful feelings I had were so intense I decided, “Maybe there is something I could write about here.”

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

Finding the time. I have a full-time-plus job and had three kids and did not have an office with a door that could be closed.

I started off thinking, “I really need at least a few hours in a quiet room, with an inspirational view and the right mood music playing, to craft my art.”

By the end, I had learned that I could get a lot done at the kitchen table in the morning during the 25-minute gap between when the last kid left for school and before I had to race out the door for work. (I should note that I have an extremely supportive wife who did a lot of hard work on nights weekends when I was locked in my bedroom staring grumpily at the computer screen. Thanks, honey.)

Mike with C3PO and Anthony Daniels (photo by David Woo)
That has a direct connection to my subject matter, though. When I was searching for ideas for a
novel, I knew that I needed to choose a topic that would not need a lot of in-depth reporting. And nerdy, science-fiction-obsessed outcasts? I did not need to research that.

I did end up doing research to understand the characters, though. I read a bit about the psychology of bullying. I tried to absorb a lot of material on racism and microaggressions. And electronics.

I’m not an expert on any of those things. But I hope I learned enough to get it right.

In terms of publishing, how did you navigate the process of finding an agent and, with her representation, connecting your manuscript to a publisher?

I had a very clever plan for finding an agent. I’m fortunate that in my day job, editing book reviews for The Dallas Morning News, I get to work with a lot of people in the publishing world, and I asked a couple of them for advice. One was a client of Sarah Burnes’.

I spent a few days Google-stalking her, saw that we had some common nerdy interests -- I knew I would need an agent who spoke fluent nerd -- and our mutual friend agreed to forward my material along. And Sarah agreed to look it over.

Now, I honestly had no expectation that she would take me on as a client. She has some really amazing clients, and I knew my work was not yet at their level. But I thought -- if a rock star agent like her can give me feedback as she rejects me, I can just use her advice, make revisions, and then find someone else willing to take me on.

Several months went by, and the long wait made me think -- obviously, she’s got zero interest.

To compress the story, after about six months, I finally got her evaluation. It began with a critique of all the things that were wrong with my manuscript, and I thought, “Yep, just as I suspected -- she’s rejecting me.” But she ended by saying that if I was willing to make changes, she'd be happy to take me on.

I told her -- in my business, that’s what we call “Burying the lead.”

I would not be here right now without her. She’s a brilliant editor, a font of optimism and a clever guide who led me through two rounds of submissions and eventually connected me with an editor and publisher who have been very good to me, Kelly Loughman of Holiday House.

What model books were most useful to you and how?

I’m going to answer that by talking about two sets of writers who taught me much of what I know about writing.

The first was the set of features writers and editors I worked with when I edited the Sunday Living section of The Dallas Morning News.

They were gifted wordsmiths, and we had the luxury of talking about what makes a piece of writing work. And we had the time to go back and rework pieces until we got it right. Before I worked with those people, I thought that good writing was something that came off the top of your head. They taught me that it’s actually something that usually doesn’t show up until the fifth draft, if you are lucky.

In 2006, I started editing books coverage at the paper. Which meant I got to interview a lot of writers, and listen to even more at places such as the Texas Book Festival and the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference.

I probably stole some nugget of advice from every person I listened to. It was a real gift, something I highly recommend to any aspiring writer. Or accomplished one, for that matter.

What were the best and worst moments of your publishing journey?

There was a point, after the manuscript had been revised, submitted, rejected, re-revised, re-submitted and re-rejected that I had given up hope.

And while I prayed that I was wrong, I felt particularly awful not for me, but for my characters. I had put them through a lot. I didn’t want them to have suffered so much and consigned to being stuck in my brain.

Much later, late in the editing process, my editor started giving me enthusiastic feedback from other people who had read it.

I was confused -- “How did this total stranger know anything about my story, which has been living in my head and shared with only a few people?” That’s when I started to realize -- “Oh. This really is going to be a book.” It was a good feeling.

Young fans at the launch party, including Mike's son on the left (photo by Amy Gutierrez)

Guests give the Star Survivor salute at the launch party
What would you have done differently?

Started sooner. I always had an excuse to not write. In retrospect, they were all terrible excuses. That’s not to say I was ready to start a novel when I was, say, 22. But I wasn’t ready at 42, either.

You learn by doing. I hope people have fun with what I came up with.

Cynsational Notes

(Photo by Christopher Wynn)
Michael Merschel is the books editor and assistant arts editor at the Dallas Morning News where he's interviewed Norton Juster and William Shatner, just to name a few.

He lives in Texas with his wife and three kids, who tell him he is not all that funny, usually.

Publishers Weekly said, "Merschel uses Clark’s SF passions—from everything from 'Star Wars' to his favorite (fictional) show, 'Star Survivors'—as a smart metaphor for coping with change, but the real heart of the story is in its complex characters, tongue-in-cheek tone, and emotional honesty."

See also his recent essay from The Dallas Morning News on what he learned about writing fiction. 

1 comment:

"Dr. Fred" Bortz said...

As an author of nonfiction for young readers and a regular contributor of reviews to the Dallas Morning News, I can confirm that Mike Merschel is the real deal.

Delighted that Cynsations decided to interview him.

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