Monday, September 6, 2010

Mac Barnett: Pianos, Anvils, and Middle-Grade GENIUS

Remember those book recommendations I gave you yesterday? Well, I have a treat for you today. I asked Mac Barnett, picture book and middle-grade author extraordinaire, if I could interview him, and, being awesome, he said yes. I met Mac at the LA SCBWI conference and he was my favorite new discovery. He was hilarious and smart in his presentation with Jon Sciezska, and his books have not disappointed.

And besides writing books, he's also on the board of 826LA, a non-profit organization that provides writing centers for children. And no, girls, I didn't ask if he was single. Because that would have been creepy.

Onto the interview!

1) Your website lists you as Author and Strongman, which leads to some very important questions. Which is your favorite type of piano to lift? Do you prefer the traditional pointer-finger method, or risk appearing a show-off with the more daring pinkie-finger lift? And finally: anvils. Classic, or cliche?

Yes, these questions are very important, and thank you for asking them. They are in fact the most important questions. I like lifting toy pianos, because despite my site's sloganeering I am naturally lazy. I use my pointer finger because I am an American and that is how we do it. As for anvils, that depends on whether you're a blacksmith or a coyote.

Interesting! I had no idea there were regional variations in Strongman methods! The things you learn from authors.

2) Oh No!, one of your picture books, relies heavily on fabulous graphic-novel style illustrations to tell the story, with the text adding the perfect level of humor and momentum. How involved were you with the illustrator? Did you come up with the concept and then direct Dan Santat on what you wanted page-by-page, or was it more of a collaborative effort? It seemed to me an ideal pairing--was Santat always attached to the project, or did the publisher find him after you pitched the book?

Oh No! is the shortest book I've written--117 words--and there was probably more art direction in the manuscript than text. It really wouldn't have made much sense without those notes, especially since I did not sell the book with Dan attached. (Dan told me that when he saw the story he felt like he was born to illustrate it, which is pretty much a dream response.) Anyway, I wanted there to be a lot of space between the narrator's understated remorse and her titanic mistake, and her comments are carefully paired to images. But that's not to say that Dan was painting by numbers or just drawing what I told him. He painted things I never imagined--one of my favorites is a darkly funny billboard on the first spread, showing a red button and the tagline "INVEST IN YOUR FUTURE." My art notes, like the text, were spare. Dan's drawing's are anything but: they're lush and enormous and funny and terrifying and beautiful.

The interplay between author and illustrator in picture books is always amazing to me. It couldn't have been a more perfect pairing!

3) Have you noticed yet that I said I would ask five questions, but then inserted extra questions within each question to trick you into talking more? And, if so, what are you going to do about it?

I hadn't but now I see I've been tricked. To answer your second question, I guess from now on I'll answer only one question per number.

Well that didn't work.

For raving about the delightfully hilarious Brixton Brothers series, please see yesterday's post.

4) How did you find the right storytelling balance for Brixton Brothers, your middle-grade detective series? I think the MG balance of using accessible language without oversimplifying (and thereby losing voice and charm) is nearly impossible, but you nailed it. Any tips for MG writers?

First, thank you. That is very kind praise. Most of the narration in the Brixton Brothers is third person but very tight on the protagonist, Steve, a twelve-year-old boy detective. The narrator not only has a little pipeline into Steve's brain but also takes care of him, hiding his faults (which are many), sharing his opinions (which are often flawed), and very often using his language. So for the most part the book's idioverse is also Steve's (an idioverse which mercifully does not contain ridiculous words like idioverse, and if you've stuck with this answer this far, sorry). But the story has some tricky intertextual stuff that hopefully keeps the brain happy in between all the shipwrecks and explosions.

I think the best tip I've got is to spend a lot of time around your audience. Talk to children in your family, or volunteer at a nonprofit tutoring center, and get know middle-schoolers.

Idioverse is my new favorite word, actually. And guys, I can't tell you how well Mac pulled off the balance in this book.

5) Some of my favorite parts of Brixton Brothers: The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity were your fake passages from a mystery series very closely related to The Hardy Boys. (Hilariously spot-on and lovingly done parody.) Can we buy those books, too, please?

You know I sometimes dream about writing a whole Bailey Brothers book (the book's over-the-top teen sleuth series). By the time I've written the cliffhangers I'm always sad to abandon the plots.

6) I already cheated by sneaking dozens of questions into five, so what's one more? How is it writing a series with books scheduled to come out every six months, which is positively break-neck speed in publishing, and what can we look forward to from you in the future?

Well the Brixton Brothers actually comes out yearly, which is tough enough. In fact, I'm finishing up the third in the series right now, which means that I've basically become nocturnal and live on Sprinkles Cookie Crisp.

And this is me, hugely annoyed that the books are only coming out once a year. I want more of Steve's adventures with the Bailey-and-Brixton-Brothers. Please eat the Sprinkles Cookie Crisp faster.

I'm sure you'll all join me in thanking Mac for taking time out of his crazy, deadline-dealing-and-volunteering-and-laughing-and-being-awesome schedule to answer this interview. And after you've thanked him, go check out his books. You won't be sorry.


beth said...

Where have I been?! I've not heard of these books before...but will definitely nab some now!

Kiersten White said...

His picture books are wonderful--he works a lot with Adam Rex. I've also been reading a lot of middle grade lately, and Brixton Brothers is by far my favorite! Seriously funny and delightful. Makes me wish Dojo and Nayna were old enough to read it right now. Except then I would cry because my babies were getting too big.

C.E. said...

I agree with Beth, this is the first I'm hearing of these books but I'm already soo interested just from this post! I love the cover of Oh No! ^_^

Melissa said...

Havent heard of these books yet but now I am definitely interested. Thanks!

Kiersten White said...

Middle grade doesn't get vomited out all over the internet as much as YA does, so they aren't as visible. But I enjoyed The Brixton Brothers as much or more than most YA books I've read lately!

And Oh No! is so much fun.

Carrie Harris said...

SOLD. I will go buy these now. And some Sprinkles Cookie Crisp, because I am hungry. Although probably not at the same place.

There should be a store that sells both books and Cookie Crisp.

Marsha Sigman said...

He sounds great and so does his books. And doesn't he just look like someone who would be fun to hang with?

Kiersten White said...

Carrie--You will love it. And please open that store immediately.

Marsha--I wasn't around him too much at the conference, but he was so genuinely friendly and funny. Very cool guy.

Shannon Whitney Messenger said...

Yay for highlighting MG! Though I feel like a failure as a MG writer because I somehow missed these books and I don't see how that's possible when I read like, 200 books last year AND I was at SCBWI LA this year. Major #Shannonfail. *races off to the bookstore*

Oh, and fab interview btw. And I'm not usually the type who uses words like fab, but I thought I'd try it out and see if it looks as lame as I thought. Yup. Adding that to the list of phrases I cannot pull off. :)

Kiersten White said...

Yes, Shannon, but you can pull off red lipstick, which is an even bigger accomplishment than being able to pull off "fab." So there.

Sad that you missed Mac there, though. He was phenomenal.

Lisa Potts said...

Great interview, Kiersten. I am also lame and had never heard of these books before. I'm always looking for great MG stuff. Will definitely get my hands on them.

Shannon Whitney Messenger said...

Aw. *blush* Thanks for the compliment.

Confession: I think I tried on EVERY red lipstick in Sephora before I settled on one. There's a shade of red for everyone. You just have to find it.

And yes, I'm a tiny bit obsessed with make-up. I found one of my CPs through tweeting about our mutual obsession over eyeliner. #sadbuttrue

Amy Ellerman said...

I picked up Oh No this weekend to use with my second graders. Refraining from breaking it out first thing this morning was a challenge. (I am such a kid!) I can predict exactly which students are going to flip over this incredible book.

Kiersten White said...

And just when you think he can't get any cooler, you find this series of videos he did with Adam Rex (who illustrates most of Mac's books) as trailers for Rex's book Fat Vampire:

WARNING: Will make you wish really, really a lot that you could hang out with Adam and Mac.

Ishta Mercurio said...

I have to get OH, NO for my 7-year-old. HAVE TO. So I can read it, of course. ;-) And I think he'll love it, too.

Thank you for the interview!