Dan Gemeinhart Talks with Roger

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In the opening chapter of The Midnight Children, a lonely boy, Ravani, watches in wonder from his bedroom window as seven children move into the abandoned house across the street. There's a hook.

Roger Sutton: How did this story start?

Dan Gemeinhart: This story started as a bedtime story that I made up for my oldest daughter (at the time she was my only daughter). She was three or four years old, and getting her to go to sleep was always tricky. One day, as I was trying to get her to take a nap, I started telling this story.

RS: Let's talk about the scary children who move into the house across the street at midnight. Dan, you're a great father.

DG: Right, very soothing story. The strangers, I would say, aren't scary. They are the opposite of scary. I was looking for something to keep myself interested, and I didn't have a plan. I was making it up as I went. That story has changed in every possible way since then.

RS: And how long is that?

DG: She is now going into her junior year of high school, so it was a long time. The original version of this was just the first scene where a child wakes up in the middle of the night and hears a sound. He looks out his bedroom window, and he sees a moving truck in front of the abandoned house across the street. A group of children get out and move into the house. No furniture, no grownups, just seven kids alone together. That opening scene has stayed the same. And their backstory has stayed the same. But everything else about it has changed since then. I wrote — or I guess spoke — that story years before I wrote any of my published books. My first, The Honest Truth, came out in 2015, and I told this little story to my daughter before writing that. This one has the longest gestation period of any of my stories, for sure.

RS: I'm thinking about the sort of fabular tone of it. It's in the real world. There isn't necessarily any magic, but there might be magic. Maybe a little bit of magic. What do we call this kind of book? What do you call it?

DG: Labels can be funny. Genres, in general, where you talk about the intended target audience's age — who's to say? Readers of all ages can enjoy different stories. I never worry too much about genre. When I get the idea for a story, I try to figure out the best way to tell that story that will work best for that story. That's everything from the length, the pacing, is it first person or third person? Is it past tense? Is it present tense? What is the tone of the voice? This story does have, for me, a unique voice and tone, very different from all my other ones. I wouldn't be sure how to describe it, honestly. It feels a little old-timey, because it's got a third-person narrator who's a little voicey. The setting is undefined. There are no real place names, and there are no real dates. We don't know if this is happening in 1920 or 1940. We don't know if it's happening in New York or Washington or Oregon. I went with that on purpose, because it seemed to match the tone. That's how this story wanted to be told. It sat in my head for almost fifteen years. I played with a lot of different versions; some were realistic and some were not. Some were first person, and some were third person. As I was reworking the story, what felt the most right to me, was this tone and this kind of setting, to give it that kind of otherworldly feel. That was the lightning in the bottle for me.

RS: The maybe-otherworldliness also keeps the story's bedtime vibe. Scary things go on, but because of the presence of that narrator, the scariness is kind of ameliorated, if I'm using that word correctly.

DG: That was definitely intentional. That was partly my doing, and partly some feedback I got from my editor. When you're dealing with some of the issues in this book — child neglect, possibly even child abuse, none of which is on the page but is implied as the reason why these children are running — that can go in a couple different directions. One direction, which I tried, was realistic; that becomes harrowing, possibly traumatizing, and really scary. There are great stories that deal with very intense issues in a real way, but that is not what this story needed or wanted to be. Another approach is to back up. The darkness is going to be there, and we're not going to shy away from it, but we're not going to go in its direction. Tone and setting help establish this. To make it less specific, less specifically grounded in the real world, is a way to get to the magic of this story — the friendship parts and the family parts — in a way that's less scary.

RS: I was trying to work up a theory as to whether it was a guy thing. I thought about Holes. I thought about Maniac Magee. Three, right? That's a trend. Three books in which the real world is there, but maybe it's not quite the real world that we know.

DG: Exactly. And a little overdrawn, or sometimes a lot overdrawn. Camp Green Lake and the Warden — over the top, right? But not all the way over the top into fantasy. But over the top enough. It's ironic: If you push through the scary far enough, it actually becomes less scary and turns funny. Overdraw the villains, and we know that this is a little ridiculous, we can relax because this is clearly not based on a true story. Like the villains in Roald Dahl books. If you make them extra-scary, then they become less scary, and it becomes more fun.

RS: It seems that adults who get outraged at Dahl really don't understand the way children read. Adults talk about these horrible role models, etc., but kids feel and are completely safe.

DG: What's the scariest villain? The scariest villain is the realistic villain, like the cunning, creepy predator who lives next door. That's scary. That's really scary, because that could happen. If you've got a monster, it's scary in a fun way, but it's not scary in a truly menacing, it's-going-to-happen-to-you way.

RS: I think also the way that you structured each chapter helps. Do I see the school librarian in you coming out? Because it sure would be a great read-aloud.

DG: Oh, thank you. My background as a school librarian absolutely informs pretty much everything I do as a writer. It was incredible training and experience for becoming an author. The school that I worked in was a wonderful school, but people would label it "challenging," with a lot of students for whom English was a second language. I had a lot of students who were really reluctant readers. As the librarian, my job was to try to get them excited about reading books. So I spent years seeing what they liked and didn't like, seeing what hooked them and didn't hook them. With any kid, but especially a reluctant-reader kid — especially in this age where they've got tablets and phones and TikTok and everything — you can't waste a reader's time. You need to deliver constantly. I always try to have a great first chapter with a strong hook. I couldn't tell my students, "Hey, keep reading; this story gets really good in about six chapters." No way would they stay with it for six chapters. You've got to start with that hook. I tend to do lots of cliffhangers and generally short chapters. Hopefully, every chapter leaves you with some momentum to start the next one, because, again, working for thirteen years with those reluctant readers, that's the lesson that I learned. You want these kids to keep reading, so you have to give them a reason to keep reading. That definitely informs my writing, every day, every page, every chapter.

RS: How much time do you give a book, when you're reading something for fun?

DG: For years, through college to after college, if I started a book, I finished that book. I was very, very stubborn about that. But then I realized, life is short and there are so many great books. Right now, if no one else ever wrote another book, there are more books that I want to read than I will be able to before I die, even if I live to one hundred. For a while I was giving a book a hundred pages. Now it's more like fifty. If I am fifty pages in and I don't really care, then I gently put that book down. I say, "Yup, this is not the book for me right now." I've got shelves of books waiting for me to read.

RS: "Right now" is an operative phrase, I think. I have started a book and thought, oh, no, I can't do this. Forget it. But then I'll learn something, maybe years later, hear something, or someone else tells me something about that book, and I'll go back to it, and sometimes the planets align, and boom, it's the right time for me to read that book.

DG: Totally.

RS: You seem to like big themes. The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise was a quest story; The Midnight Children gives us a stranger coming to town.

DG: My stories come to me as stories. Sometimes people ask, what was your theme — especially kids, because often they have a question for their homework. What are the themes? What were you trying to say with this? What's the message? Why did you write in this genre? I've never reverse-engineered a story that way: This time I want to write a story with this tone or with this theme. For me, I get a story, and then all that other stuff, the metaphors, the similes, the parables, the themes, comes from the story. This one, as I said, was a story I told to my daughter, and I thought it was an intriguing premise. I started with a kid in bed because she was a kid in bed, and I was trying to ground it in a sleepy place. I just had the idea for a story, a main character and the kids, and the friendship. Then I sit down and try to tell that story.

RS: How far did you get with the story when you were telling it to your daughter?

DG: I don't think I got much past what would have been chapter two. But if you're doing your job, and your kid falls asleep, bedtime reading is something less than fifteen minutes, which is about how long it would take to read that first chapter. I wanted to see what happens next. What's going on with these kids? Where did they come from?

RS: Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird, quotes E. L. Doctorow saying, "writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." How long can that go on? Do you wander down a lot of false paths when you write?

DG: Writers are in two camps. You've got your outliners and you've got your pantsers, people who go by the seat of their pants. There are great writers in both camps: award-winning, bestselling authors who have a complete plan and know everything that's going to happen before they start, and writers who have no idea, not even the headlights. I think Stephen King says sometimes all he knows is the first sentence, and he just starts writing. I'm somewhere on the pantser side of the equation. I cannot make an outline. I try every time, but I sit there and I look at my piece of paper and my brain says, "I don't know what happens next. You're going to have to tell the story to find out." So I definitely make it up as I go, although generally I have some ideas of some things that might happen, and even those get changed a lot. I usually have the start of the story, and maybe an idea of how it might end, although that almost always changes, and then I start telling the story. That's a great metaphor, the headlights. I start driving down the road, to see what I will see. It is a really inefficient way to write, which is why I always try to do an outline and fail. I write myself into dead ends, or I realize I went left three chapters ago when I should have gone right, so I have to throw away those three chapters. There goes three weeks of work or whatever. But that just seems to be the process. I keep to that process by realizing that's not really a wrong turn. If I write a scene, or two or three or four, then realize I went in the wrong direction, that's still a good thing to know. Now I know one way I don't want the story to go, and I probably realized it was the wrong direction for a reason. This is not what my character needs. Not only did I learn a way the story shouldn't go, I learn something about my character. Discovering a character and discovering a story, that messy process of backing up and going the wrong way and trying something and throwing it away, is a useful, important part of the process.

RS: What part of the process, from conceiving to writing to rewriting, do you enjoy the most? Judy Blume once said she hated to write first drafts, but she loved to revise.

DG: I've kind of switched. There are three parts that I like the best. I love starting a story. Starting the story is great. Second place is finishing a story. After working on something, especially the way that I write, where I'm pulling my hair out and throwing things away and backing up and getting lost in the woods, when I finally type "The End," even if I know it's a mess of a rough draft I'm going to tear apart, it's still amazing. Holy cow, I got to the end. I wrote a book. And now I've got to roll up my sleeves and make it worth reading, but I wrote a whole story. So that's a great phase of the process.

I've come around on revising. When I first started writing, I hated revising — all the fun, I thought, was making up a story. Revising is like homework. But I've really come around; if you love your story, love the idea of your story, which hopefully you do, you know your rough draft isn't very good. You think your idea could be a ten, and that rough draft is a five. If I make these changes, now it's a six. If I switch this around, now it's a seven. You love making your story become as good as you thought it could be.

 

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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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