Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Guest in Progress: Dan Elish

I am off to the annual AWP Conference in New York City (7,500 writers in one place—angst and gossip galore) and should be back to blogging on Tuesday. In the mean time, I’m sure you’ll love the following piece.


My dear friend Dan Elish is a man of many talents: children’s author, literary author, fabulous piano player, Broadway musical expert, NYC subway system expert, and in general, an all-around great guy. I met him way back when at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and though we lost touch for a short time, once we were reunited, again at Bread Loaf (thank you, Bread Loaf!), we became immediately, and firmly, rebonded for life. We’ve shared literary woes and literary gossip and dating woes and dating gossip. Fortunately, our personal lives have come to rest in calmer waters and don't require quite as many intense, late-night phone calls. (In that wonderful, what-we’re-looking-for way, not that dull way!)

Professionally, though, Dan is having a rollicking, roller coaster of a banner year. Not only did his new children’s novel, The Attack of the Frozen Woodchucks, just come out to rave reviews (you can see for yourself here, from my hometown fave, the Washington Post), but his new adult novel, The Misadventures of Justin Hearnfeld, will be also published this year on April 15. (By adult novel, I mean novel for adults, not “adult novel”!) The book has already received some love here from Publisher’s Weekly.

So, how does one handle the varied demands of writing for those two very different audiences…I mean, without going totally crazy? Dan shares the scoop in this amusing essay:

When I started my career writing children's novels, I was perfectly happy to come up with stories that featured roller-skating apple pies and talking squirrels. But somewhere in my mid-thirties a friend suggested that I might be able to write a funny book about the New York single scene. That idea turned into Nine Wives, my first novel. Today, I'm doing both simultaneously. Sometimes it's strange to switch gears between the two genres. My latest children's novel, The Attack of the Frozen Woodchucks, stars a group of New York City kids who save the Universe from a horde of giant frozen woodchucks. My forthcoming novel, The Misadventures of Justin Hearnfeld, tells the story of a hapless young man who is lured back to teach at the private school he attended as a student and hated. Both were fun to write. Both posed different problems. Here are four differences between writing for adults and kids.

1. Cursing. There is nothing more frustrating when writing for children than getting to the point where a character is really, really pissed off. More than anything, I want to type, "Fuck off, asshole!" Unfortunately, that has to get toned down to things like, "Good Grief!" or "That's insanity!" Perhaps it's the sign of a writer's skill to be able to express emotion without relying on obvious epithets, but sometimes an author simply has to be able to type the word, "Shit!"

2. Setting. Along with putting together a fun story with good characters, a children's writer has to create and populate entire imaginary worlds. After years of writing for kids, Nine Wives was a welcome break. The story follows a thirty-two year old writer in New York City who is desperate to get married. Though I maintain that the details of the book are made up (and they are), the backdrop of the story – the setting – came directly out of my life. For instance, the protagonist was trying to write a musical version of The Great Gatsby (I used to write musicals).* He also worked as a proofreader (so did I). In other words, I didn't have to make believable a world where polar bears could talk or make the reader care about who won a dessert contest. I could simply do my best to write a funny novel using what I knew. After years of avoiding adult fiction, it was a relief to feel that at least one aspect of the task was easier.

3. The blurbs. When Nine Wives was accepted for publication my editor was thrilled to discover that I had spent many years working at The Bread Loaf Writer's Conference. "We need you to call your author friends and get blurbs," he said. "We need you to do it now." So began the embarrassing quest to badger people I knew before they became well-known. A flurry of emails went out that generally started. "Hey, remember me?" and quickly led to a request to read and endorse my book. Some agreed and I thank them profusely. But all in all, it was torture. The good news is that kids' books don't generally rely on blurbs to sell. I have never once had to bug a friend or acquaintance to put aside moments from their busy lives to read two hundred pages about frozen woodchucks. I guess that's good. Now that it's published I can bug them to buy it.

4. How People React To You. I'm sorry to say it but there are people on this planet who just don't understand the skill and yes, talent, it takes to write a good children's fiction. Mention, "I write children's novels" at a cocktail party and one out of five people will be unintentionally insulting. I remember a reading I gave at Bread Loaf of my novel The Great Squirrel Uprising. First, I gave a detailed plot summary. I then informed the audience that I would be reading from chapter fourteen. The next day a woman stopped me on the way to lunch and said, "Oh, I loved your little picture book." Picture book!?! With fourteen chapters!?! One might accuse me of being overly sensitive. But it's still depressing to work hard and be misunderstood or worse, condescended to. Of course, most people have been incredibly nice about my kids' books. But the simple truth is that adult writers get more respect. Upon the publication of Nine Wives, more than one friend who should've known better asked me, "So how does it feel to finally be a published author?"

At such moments, I take a deep breath and try not to scream. ~~Dan Elish

About: Dan Elish is the author of novels for both kids and adults, most recently of The Attack of the Frozen Woodchucks and the forthcoming The Misadventures of Justin Hearnfeld. He lives in New York City with his wife and two children.

*Editor’s Note: The book is incredibly funny, but this part is absolutely hilarious!


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.