The spotlight’s fixed on R.A. Nelson’s writerly life in this second segment of our two-part interview. In the center ring: jumping on trampolines and sticking to deadlines, spacecraft landings and flying by the seat of your pants. For the grand finale, Russ encourages aspiring authors, and then answers a handful of off-the-wall questions before exiting the stage.
Don’t let the Southern charm fool you: this guy has a keyboard, and he’s not afraid to use it. Step right up, folks—I’ve reserved your front-row seat!
Name one stereotype about Young Adult writers that is absolutely wrong. And give me one stereotype that’s spot-on accurate.
That all of us are hip. Not true! Some writers are great at pulling that off, sure. They mostly live in places like California or New York. But I think most of us are simply writers, that’s all. Writers tend to be quiet folks. We like gardens. Little cottages with nice light and a desk. Fires in the fireplace and flowers. Peace. The stuff we think is right on the edge is almost certainly five or ten years dead.
But I think that’s great. I don’t worry about identifying with kids. I don’t think of “age” when I write, I just write. The kind of identification I care about is much deeper than bands or Blackberries. It’s beyond age or even gender. It’s timeless and wrapped around the core of who each one of us is. I have great respect for my readers. They teach me things.
That’s probably the only stereotype I know of with respect to YA writers. We’re a pretty unassuming bunch.
Imagine that you are the first YA writer to land a spacecraft on [insert celestial object of your choice]. As you’re planting your flag on its surface, what do you say to the folks back home?
Wow. This is kind of a lifelong dream, so I’m sure I would have something wonderful scripted and ready…or else, who knows what I might say? “Whoa. Look at that!” If you’re going to go down in history, the least you can do is be eloquent about it. Neil Armstrong set the bar very high.
If it were Mars I was landing on…I would almost certainly have to make reference to H.G. Wells and Ray Bradbury in some way…to pay homage to two of my favorite “Mars” writers when I was a kid. I might be too speechless to speak. Nah.
Are your work shirts covered with NASA patches? And a follow-up, if I may: What do you wear during your writing sessions?
Nope, no patches, though they give us stickers and things during every Shuttle mission. I take them home to my kids. My dad did the same thing for me. The headboard of my bed used to be covered with Apollo and Skylab stuff.
As to what to wear to write. I prefer shorts and t-shirts and basketball high-tops. That’s kind of my uniform at home. I wear shorts even in winter. Hey, comfort’s important! Besides, you never know when somebody might get up a game.
Thinking back to your childhood, who was a mentor for you in your reading and writing life?
Not sure, really. Just lots and lots of mostly dead writers. (Yes, dead white guys for the most part…I didn’t discover people like Emily Dickinson or Victoria Holt or Sharon Olds until at least college age). I didn’t know anyone who wrote. I was very isolated, both as a reader and a writer. I got into fights at school sometimes because I brought EXTRA books to school. (To read on my breaks, of course!) Some guys probably thought I was kind of dorky. Only I don’t think the word had been invented yet. Luckily I was good at sports and a pretty big kid, so nobody messed with me that much.
I subscribed to writer’s magazines all the way back in high school. I bought the Writer’s Market every year and never sent one thing out. I just wrote and wrote and wrote. New York seemed so remote and kind of untouchable. So I figured my best strategy was to keep writing until I knew I was good enough to be published no matter what it said on my return envelope (Alabama). My plan was to make myself rejection proof. Nearly pulled it off, too. I saw no virtue in wallpapering my bathroom with rejection slips.
I had a teacher who shared my love of great novels and really encouraged my writing way back in the 8th and 9th grade. Her name was Ms. Gonzalez. I’m still not sure of her first name. I’ve been trying to find her to thank her and give her some signed books, but, alas, no luck. Even google has failed me. Also, I really want to show that her faith in me was well-founded, because the last time we ever saw each other was in a Baskin-Robbins and I was cutting up with three girls. Imagine my horror when I looked up and saw my favorite teacher staring with disdain and disappointment at her prize pupil.
Moving on to the here and now, how are you influenced by your Teenagers in Residence?
Mostly by their energy and spirit. I don’t try so much to copy every little bit of slang or current trend – all that stuff will be stale by the time it gets between the covers of a book anyhow, and ultimately incomprehensible, should I ever write a novel that lives that long. But I love doing things with them and feeling that unbroken cord that runs all the way back to childhood. I’ve never really felt that my life has been divided into these various portions of experience. You know, kid, young adult, adult, etc. I feel exactly the same as I have always felt. I just know a lot more stuff than I used to know. I play ball with my sons, go on long walks with my oldest, jump on the trampoline, etc. They wouldn’t let me get old even if that were a possibility.
I love being around their friends, too. They’re incredible people. Probably more compassionate than we were as kids. More accepting. Amazingly intelligent.
Confession time: What are your writing quirks?
Hmmmm…not sure I have any. Let’s see. I don’t like listening to music while I write. Why? Music brings with it so many emotions, just like a good story. Songs tell a story. I’m telling my own story, not somebody else’s. I love music too much. It’s too powerful and would tend to take over. Having a family and working fulltime, etc., I don’t pamper myself much when it comes to writing. I can’t. I just find a way to get it done. A certain amount each day. I don’t need a room with a view. Flowered cottage. Latte from Starbucks. Just a flat surface, a chair, a key board, and my head, basically. I’m always fascinated when I hear writers say they have this routine they absolutely must follow – using involving stuff like strolling to a certain bakery for a very particular kind of pastry. They know all the varieties of Snapple on earth and are as particular about their coffee as a NASA engineer is about propulsion systems. They need a certain paper or can only write in long hand. The lighting has to be just so. They have to have their iPods screwed into their ears, need a certain “playlist” for each new chapter, etc. etc. Now, if that works for them, great. But I don’t believe conditions have to be perfect. Writers write. That’s it.
Wondering…how do you develop your plotlines and characters? Do you
a) create an organizational structure beforehand
b) dance with your muse
c) pray for a miracle
d) fly by the seat of your pants
I used to always do “d” – fly by the seat of your pants. I always felt the so-called “narrative push” method was best, just fumble along and find your way. I didn’t want to be constrained by an outline, maybe a one or two page synopsis at most. I now feel better using an outline. Why? I feel an outline still leaves plenty of room for freelancing and creativity. I’m talking about maybe a paragraph or two or a little more for each chapter. I think, paradoxically, that it almost provides more room for creativity and organic thinking – how? Because you don’t have to worry so much about “telling a great story” – in a sense, the great story is already there. Like a sculpture, you can see it, and you are bringing it to light but cutting everything else away from it. No matter what anyone says about plot or storyline, whether you come up with them early on or later, after the first draft is finished – you have to address it sooner or later. And plots will always be “artificial” when compared to life. That’s the bane of the novelist’s existence, the slavish need for a beginning, middle, and end. But it’s also why we read. Once you have that in place, you are more free to spend you creative energies on the characters and the depth of your story, which of course always turns out to feel so “different” from what you expected in outline. Hey, if outlining is good enough for writers like Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Steinbeck, it’s good enough for me. But again, that’s me. Whatever gets the book done.
I’ve kind of flip-flopped on characters, too. I used to plunge right into the story and then feel my way into the characters as I go. Now I feel like I have to kind of know the main character before everything begins. I’m not talking about making up a huge dossier of character details, but …I need to know the voice and what it feels like to walk around in his or her skin before I start. I love to inhabit my characters. I really can’t imagine working any other way. The story is more exciting when it’s happening to “me” – I want to be as surprised as the reader, and much of that surprise comes out of feeling the character deeply as she grows and changes.
What are the best and worst parts of writing a novel?
The best is being inside the writing itself, really rolling, feeling all that emotion and effort becoming a book. That sense that you are tapping into something that tends to make you almost cock your head to one side with a kind of sloppy drool-at-the-corner-of-your-mouth joy. When you see things taking shape. When you write so quickly and "out of your head," you don’t even know what you wrote.
The worst part? Those bad days where it feels like there is nothing in the entire world that has ever been creative. This can come after seeing a particularly bad movie or hearing junk music…that sense that all art is junk, hack work, crap. And so that’s what you are in danger of producing unless you find that “hum” again. Which can usually be done by reading something amazing. A few paragraphs. Or getting better sleep. Eating. Who knows.
Advice for aspiring authors, in 5 words or less!
Surround yourself with passionate people.
Why? Writing is tough. Too difficult to do if everybody around you is sniping at you or telling you you can’t pull it off. Get away from people like that. Any way that you can. If you have to be around someone, do your best to make sure they are good to you. If you can’t even do that, then close your ears and march forward. The flak will clear and you will feel heroic.
You have a brand new website and blog! (http://www.ranelsonbooks.com/) What kinds of things can readers expect to find when they visit?
Wow! Not much, actually. Well, if you want to know about the books, there is plenty there. But my blog is kind of a casualty of war. I will resuscitate it as I can. I don’t know if I will ever be a good blogger. I want to dig up jewels and sprout flowers and I would rather do that in books. But who knows. Please check back from time to time. At the very least I will dp my best to post news about signings, conferences, movie stuff, etc. And at the website. (Note: You can also follow him on Twitter and Facebook.)
Time now for the Lightning Round! Please answer without thinking:
1. Iced latte or Coke?
2. The Big Lebowski or The Dark Knight?
3. Pen-and-paper or pixels?
4. Moon Pies or Doritos?
5. Kudzu or graffiti?
Thanks for a great interview, Russ! Now, about that dinner party…are your readers invited?