Sunday, May 29, 2011

When Elvis Pops Into the Market

An Elvis impersonator works nights at Maynard’s Market.

He was one of those people who popped into Sammy Keyes’ world several books ago. I wasn’t expecting him, but suddenly there he was behind the counter. Often characters like this get deleted, but this one made me laugh, so I kept him.

After all, laughter is king.

At least in my book.

(Stop me already!)

Anyway, the thing with characters in a series is that you can’t have all of them in every book. And after fourteen books, Sammy’s dealt with a lot of people. So it’s inevitable that a character will appear in one book, and then never be seen again. Especially if they’ve had a fatal mishap. Like, say, being scared to death by a girl sneaking up the fire escape of a seniors building. Or croaking from a highball of bitterness and old age. Or being clonked on the head by a can of refried beans.

Oh, wait. I killed that guy off (in Snake Eyes) but then I changed my mind. Which was a tough decision because I really enjoyed clonking him on the head with a can of refried beans and I didn’t like him and I wanted very much for him to stay dead.

I remember exactly where I was when I killed him off: Chugging through New Jersey on the Amtrak while on book tour. I remember because there was a guy sitting next to me who, when he found out I was an author, kept trying to talk to me. But I was in the middle of hurling around cans of beans and, really, you don’t interrupt a writer when they’re in the midst of hurling around beans!

It can get messy.

When I just couldn’t take his interruptions anymore, I very politely said, I’m sorry, but I really need to concentrate.

Actually, in deference to the truth, it was more a high-pitched, Can’t you see I’m trying to kill someone off?

Whatever. At that point I became a weirdo and he escaped to another seat leaving Sammy free to hurl the can and kill the creep (the one in the book).

I must have been in one of those moods, because I thought killing a creep with a can of beans was the funniest thing ever. It tickled my funny bone for days. Maybe even weeks. But somewhere along the storyline I realized that killing the guy—with or without beans—wasn’t furthering the plot; that it was actually making it messy and complicated.

After all, there are consequences to killing someone, with or without a can of beans.

Anyway, the point is, (hm, let me check, what was the point?)… Oh, yeah! Some people appear in one book in a series and never show their bean-bonked face again. If they’re dead, there’s no bringing them back. (Not if you’re going to be fair to your readers—I hate books that do that ta-da thing where, ooooh, they weren’t really dead. Totally unfair. Cheater. Go write for a soap why don’t you?)

So if they’re dead, they’re dead and there’s no bringing them back. But usually characters make it through alive (and, presumably, remain alive in subsequent titles) only they can’t all be seen again because it’s just too much to carry along.

But then there are the characters that appear when you didn’t expect them (or invite them) and rather than fade away, they pop back in from time to time, going, Remember me?

And you go, Yeah, I remember you. What are you doing back here?

And then they start talking in Elvis songs.

And you go, Oh, that’s right. You work the night shift at Maynard’s and everything you say is (pretty much) the title of a song Elvis Presley sang.

I like you!

You crack me up!

And before you know it the Elvis impersonator has you doing things like researching Elvis, which, having parents from The Netherlands, was not someone played or embraced while you were growing up, and, in fact, was not someone whose songs you really know.

And you spend days learning about Elvis and his songs and soon the Elvis impersonator at Maynard’s Market has a huge vocabulary (of song titles, and song titles only) and he is totally making you bust up with the things he says. And after a long day of writing you discover that in two pages you managed to have your Elvis say the cleverest, funniest things and use dozens of titles.

And then you realize that Elvis didn’t pop in and say, “Hey, little mama,” just to make you laugh.

He’s there for a reason!

Which won’t show itself to anyone but you until the next book, but YOU know!

So you smile extra hard at your two pages and dozens of song titles and feel happy and clever and elevated from the darker things in life.

All because Elvis popped into the market.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Hazards of Cutting Out Early

I give pretty spastic presentations when I talk to kids.

Make that very.

I try to remember what it was like to be forced to sit on my bottom for an hour crammed between sharp elbows and suspicious odors. I try to remember what it was like to listen to some adult drone on about the importance of a subject like, say, reading. I try to remember what it was like to be a kid.

And then I force from my mind the fact that there are adults in the room and just go for it.

From pretty early on the kids all think I’m a little crazy.

Better than them thinking I’m boring.

Last week I visited six libraries (and a school) where kids were bussed in to see “the author of Shredderman.” The whole community read Shredderman: Secret Identity, and many of the kids were given free books. The mayor of one of the bigger towns hosts a golf tournament every year and for the past few years he’s been donating money to this program.

Now, maybe I should have realized that the man in the sharp green suit at the back of the room during one of my presentations was this mayor, but I was trying to block adults from my mind.

Especially sharp-dressed ones who may very well not remember what it was like to have to sit on the floor for an hour next to sharp elbows and questionable odors.

Besides, I have experience with mayors and I know—they never stick around. They read their proclamation or dedication or whatever, then flash their toothy smiles and make a practiced exit as soon as politically possible.

I recently had that experience in the town of “Santa Martina.” I was the keynote speaker at a breakfast and the mayor was also at the head table, there to read a proclamation and be an official presence. And actually, I was kinda sweating it out, wondering, Does he know? Does he know that I totally make fun of “the mayor of Santa Martina” in the Sammy Keyes books? Does he know that Sammy describes him as a softball fanatic who dips to one knee as he passes by the softball statue in the foyer of City Hall? Does he know his mayor-ness is translated into 20 different languages and that kids around the globe have a definite (and quite comedic) impression of “the mayor of Santa Martina”?

As it turns out, almost certainly not. And that is almost certainly because he doesn’t stick around after reading his proclamation to hear the keynote and learn that his town is (barely) fictionalized and enjoyed by kids around the world.

After all, they’re just “kid books” and he also almost certainly doesn’t remember being one or anything remotely associated with sharp elbows or questionable odors.

Well, unless you count his cologne as questionable.

Which you very well could.

Actually, he may know now, because after he made his speedy exit I got up and told the entire audience about it and our chorus became “That’s what he gets for cutting out early!”

It was glorious fun.

And surely a guarantee that he will never offer me keys to the city.

But hey, that’s okay.

I’ve got the Keyes.

But the point here is that, having experience with mayors, I was not expecting any mayor to hang out for a whole hour watching me spazz out and tell wild stories.

Surely there were ribbons to cut somewhere.

But the mayor who provided funding for this literacy event did stick around. He didn’t even have a proclamation to read. He just came. And when it was over he shook my hand and from his comments he clearly understood that what I do is just a backdoor approach to getting kids interested in reading and writing…while also giving adults the courage to not give up on their own dreams.

Not something you’d ever understand if you cut out early.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Fake It 'Til I Fly!

I’ve promised a Sammy update, so here we go!

First off, to the recurring question of publishing dates: I actually have a schedule, but please keep in mind that this is the schedule that will be kept if I prove to be superhuman, which I don’t claim to be.

But I will continue to try.

Or fake it ‘til I fly!

Or whatever.

Second off, let me state that I’ve entered a tough stretch of life. Not getting into details or trying to drum up sympathy or anything (I am fine), I just share this with you because I discovered unexpected refuge in returning to Sammy’s world and following her headlong through another wacky adventure. When I’m with Sammy I actually do forget other pressures, think outside my situation, and laugh.

And what a relief it is to laugh.

I was on book tour years ago, sitting on the floor at the United gate so I could plug my computer into an outlet and work on a Shredderman book that was under deadline, when my editor happened to call to see how I was doing. I gave her an update, then shared that I was working hard to meet my deadline. When she found out that I was on the floor writing she said, “I can’t imagine that it’s going to be any good!”

Now, she didn’t mean it like that. It just sort of slipped out. And I completely understood what she did mean. Piecing together a story by stealing time when you can find it, either on the floor at a gate or crammed into sardine class, or before bed after a day of presentations and signings, you wouldn’t think that it could possibly come out well.

But somehow it came out great!

And surprisingly funny.

And now I’m in a place where there is so much going on in my life that I feel like any moment I’ll short circuit. But I have a deadline (2 weeks ago!) and a schedule to keep so I do what I can when I can. I take my laptop with me and write six lines of dialog at the doctor’s office. Six more with a cat in my lap and my computer teetering on the edge of the arm of a chair while my mother dozes on the couch.

If Nancy saw me I’m sure she’d think, “I can’t imagine it’s going to be any good!”

But that’s the incredible thing about this book.

It’s hilarious!

So maybe this is just the way I balance my life. Maybe I create the humor that’s missing to help me carry on in the real world. Whatever the reason, Sammy Keyes and the Lure of Justice Jack is going to be the funniest Sammy yet.

How lucky I am to have that girl in my life.

And now, the (hardcover) release schedule!
  • Sammy Keyes and the Night of Skulls: September 2011
  • Sammy Keyes and the Lure of Justice Jack (still the working title btw): May 2012
  • Sammy Keyes #16: January 2013
  • Sammy Keyes #17: September 2013
  • Sammy Keyes # 18 (the last one!) : Fall 2014
Thanks for checking in. See you here next week (when I think it will be time to tell you what I’ve been up to with the Elvis Impersonator).

Monday, May 9, 2011

Bug's Life

Down and out with a bug!

See you next week!

Stay healthy!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

A Rusty, Broken, Stinky Tricycle

When an LMS at a middle school in Oklahoma sent e-mails regarding a package she’d shipped, I knew I was in for a treat. Something about the package was very special, I could tell. Plus she’d hinted that the students at her school were super excited for me to receive it.

So I checked my porch for it daily, assuring her that it takes a little time to get here from Oklahoma. But after ten days of checking, I was starting to get a little concerned too.

“Something happened to it,” she fretted. “I can just tell.” She was kicking herself for not insuring it. Or getting a tracking number. Or, you know, shepherding it to my door.

“Don’t worry,” I told her, “it’ll show up.”

And it did!

There was a big square of cardboard affixed to the box with her name in the return address spot, so I knew this was The Box. So before I even opened it, I zipped upstairs and wrote her an e-mail letting her know it had arrived.

Then I opened it, and what I found was a tricycle.

An old, rusty, bent, broken tricycle.

And it smelled bad, too.

I pondered for a moment the significance of the tricycle and the possible reason this school would be so excited to send me a smelly bucket of rusty trike parts.

A skateboard would have made sense. But I have no book with a tricycle in it. Rusty or otherwise. And although our house is furnished with refurbished antiques, this trike was not the look we’re going for, either inside or outside.

So…what the heck?

Then I saw a letter inside the box from the United States Postal Service.

It was a poorly zeroxed form letter that reminds me very much of the over-copied rejection letters I received from publishers when I was starting out as a writer.

It reads:

Date: (blank)

Dear Postal Customer:

During the processing of your package the contents became unsecured and required rewrapping. We realize your mail is important to you (yada yada…) If the contents of your parcel is [sic] not satisfactorily accounted for (send us a detailed description yada yada to): PO Box 44161 Atlanta, GA We sincerely regret any inconvenience to you. (No signature, contact name or number of any kind.)

So great. Somehow whatever this school sent me got turned into a rusty tricycle.

I took a picture of the trike and e-mailed it to the LMS (since all the world except the USPS has such communication avenues) and, just in case, I asked if this is what was supposed to arrive.

She wrote back immediately and her answer was the one I was expecting:


The kids at the school had made a “quillow”—a blanket that folds into itself and can also be used as a pillow (or stadium seat, or back prop, etc.)—that had a RUNAWAY graphic in the center of it to celebrate my book and the units they’ve done around it. There was also supposed to be a “The Running Dream” backpack that the students had sewn, plus some peanut brittle.

Someone somewhere received a quillow, a backpack, and some homemade peanut brittle, and I got their nasty, rusty tricycle.

The LMS tried to find a way other than the PO Box to contact the Atlanta Recovery Center, and there is none. And of course writing a non-person at a government agency is going to result in nothing but wasted postage. (I am in awe of how they cover all their bases here.) Still, rather than give in to the frustration of this, the kids at the school decided they wanted to redo the gifts.

So they sewed me another quillow, another backpack, and baked me some more peanut brittle.

And this time they sent it UPS, and it got here without any hocus-pocus.

Issues with government agencies aside, the real nugget in this experience is that the school didn’t give up. The kids dived back in and did the whole thing again. And the teachers made time for them to come in and use the equipment to do so. The LMS sent me pictures of boys and girls working at the machines, fabricating these gifts for me. And what’s ironic about all of this is that this school is in a “lower socio-economic” segment of their region and with redistricting going on right now parents of kids who will be newly assigned to this school next year are protesting mightily. They are concerned about the school-wide Title I program, about having their kids in the oldest building in the district, and about subjecting them to a very diverse student population.

It reminds me of Jessica’s school in The Running Dream—it may not have had the greatest equipment, and the parents might have wished for their students to be in a more affluent district or a school with flashier credentials, but in the end it was the actions inside the school—the pulling together as a family against all odds--that made the school one where students truly triumphed. Sometimes it’s the creative ways around what you don’t have that illuminates what you do, and it’s usually through struggle that kids grow into compassionate, contributing adults.

Unpacking the beautiful quillow and backpack was also a good reminder that if at first you don’t succeed (or if your hard work gets transformed into a rusty tricycle), don’t give up. Try again.

All kids should be so lucky to attend a school that models and supports this.