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Q&A with Kurtis Scaletta

28 Feb

Kurtis Scaletta is the author of Mudville, Mamba Point, and Wake, Me.  He has agreed to subject himself to my rudimentary interviewing skills for the sake of the cause.  Visit his website at http://kurtisscaletta.com

Mudville, by Kurtis Scaletta
Mudville, by Kurtis Scaletta

1. Your book Mudville is already available for purchase and you have two more novels coming out.   Mamba Point will be out in July and Wake Me is scheduled to come out in 2011.  Each of them is completely different from the others.  Can you give us a brief description of them?

Here are the Twitter-length synopses of all three books.

MUDVILLE is about a baseball game that’s been in a rain delay for 22 years, and the kids who make up the game when the rain finally stops.

MAMBA POINT is about a kid who moves to Liberia & discovers he has a magical connection to mambas, one of the deadliest snakes in the world.

WAKE, ME is about a town overrun by a giant luminous fungus and two teens who believe that the fungus portends the town’s doom.

2.  Do the novels have a common element despite their apparent dissimilarity?

One thread that runs through all my books is a sense of magic about nature that is blurred with science. I like to tread a line between improbable and impossible. Another thread is family. Brothers and parents figure into all three books. So even though these three books seem to fall into different genres — sports, animals, scary stories — they’re pretty similar in some ways.

3.  Where did the inspiration come from for each novel?

Mudville and Wake, ME are both driven by a premise.  A town where it’s always raining, or a massive fungus taking over a town. Mamba Point really began with a setting. I wanted to write about my time in Africa and didn’t know what story to tell. I had a pretty sketchy idea of it going in, but really found my inspiration in a book about African folklore. The magical connection to wild animals really resonated to me. I already had the title, so it was easy to think, OK, this can be a boy and his snake story.

4.  How would you describe your literary style?

I guess it’s matter of fact and lightly humorous. I write in the first person. I have to stay in a kid’s head to keep my prose kid friendly instead of getting pedantic, which is my true nature.

5.  Mudville, Mamba Point, and Wake, Me each have young male protagonists.  Did you set out to write books for boys?

I try to write the kinds of books I liked as a boy, so I guess it follows that I am writing for boys. I don’t strategize that way, though. I don’t think, “here’s a market I’m writing for,” I’m just writing books that feel right to me and sometimes they turn out to be boyish books. In some ways I’m against the grain of what people call boy books — no breathless action, no gross-out humor. But boys are a varied lot and so are their books.

6.  Did you give any thought to the prospective audiences for these books when you were writing or editing them?

I know where the boundaries are for middle grade and sometimes have to pull back from darker material. And sometimes I remove words and phrases that a kid wouldn’t use — my editor helps me spot these. But for the content, I let my gut tell me what to write about.

7.  Have you written any other novels?  If so, do any of them have girl protagonists?

Yes, I have three manuscripts in a drawer that have girl protagonists. Two of the three have strong supporting boy characters, though. I haven’t given up completely on any of them, and there’s one in particular I would like to revive about a girl who wants a pet rabbit and a neighbor boy who goes through a ridiculous series of steps to get her one.

8.  What are you working on now?

I’m still working on the first draft of WAKE, ME — I have a whole complete manuscript, but it’s not in good enough shape to share with my editor. So I’m working on that, and I have some other logs on the fire. I’m far enough along in WAKE, ME to wonder, OK, what’s next?

9. Which authors have inspired you as a writer?

Probably my two biggest inspirations are Daniel Pinkwater and Betsy Byars. I read everything by both of them when I was a kid. I can still be inspired by a great book. M.T. Anderson’s Octavian Nothing books and Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me both inspired me in a different ways — to set high expectations for young readers, to take chances on weird narratives. Or James Preller’s Six Innings, which had a neat but simple concept. As writers we’re so worried about elevator speeches and the wow factor, but a book like that reminds you that not every book needs an outlandish premise. “These kids play a baseball game” is enough if you can create believable characters and make the reader care about them.

10.  Are there any sequels in the works for Mudville, Mambo Point, or Wake, Me?

Nope, I don’t think any of those books need a sequel. I did cut out a back story in Mudville during editing that I’d like to revisit, but it would be a prequel.

11.  If you had to compare your novels to other books, which would you choose?

It’s easiest with Mudville because there’s a guy named John H. Ritter who’s mixed that magical realism with baseball and done a bang-up job of it. But my next two books are tougher to compare to anything else that’s out there. I hope that means I’m moving in a good direction.

12.  Please tell us about your infatuation with puppets and, if you have a “day job” and it’s not being a puppeteer, what is it?

Yes, I love puppets, and I actually was a professional puppeteer, for a short time and long ago. It all goes back to loving the Muppets as a kid. I still like them and never outgrew them. I think every writer should pick up a puppet once in a while. It’s a fun way to experiment with characters and voices. But my day job is in instructional technology. I almost never get to use puppets.

13.  What do you think our schools can do to improve literacy in young boys?

Schools can only do so much. I think men have to read and share books with boys, and Scieszka’s Guys Read is a great program for that. At a bigger level, guys have to take an interest in kids books and kids reading. They have to become teachers and librarians and editors and agents. There’s great guys in all those fields, but they’re a small percentage. I like what Shaun Hutchinson said on his blog about just giving a boy a book, too. It’s a small thing, but just hand a boy a book and say here, I thought you’d like this.

14.  How can authors make their books more interesting to boys?  Are there specific characteristics of a novel that appeals to boys?

I  think boys are too diverse a group to say anything generic about their tastes. Sure, there’s a lot of love for adventure stories and humor. Those have always been popular with kids and always will be. But it bothers me a bit that boy books are presumed to be either a breathless all-action story or a zany comic novel. I think that communicates something to boys about how we see them — it’s like giving barbie dolls to girls. We aim to give them what they want, but we inadvertently tell them what they want, if that makes sense. We tell them what they should want. I’d like to see a broader idea of what makes a boy book. Rick Riordian and Jeff Kinney are terrific, no doubt about it, but there’s lots of other stuff boys might like and read.

As for writers — Carl, you know me from the Verla Kay boards so you know how I hate rules and dictums. I would just say to follow your nose. If you think you have a good story, you probably do. And if you read a lot in English you can probably write in English. But if I had to make a rule, I’d say to take boys seriously. They aren’t to be trifled with.  I’ve read some manuscripts that were poorly researched, or kind of patronizing — boys aren’t dumb. They’ll see right through that, and so will agents and editors.

Thanks a lot for these questions, they’ve made me think a lot about things…

Best,

– Kurtis

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Written by Carl

 
  1. James Preller

    March 9, 2010 at 2:36 pm

    I always enjoy reading Kurtis Scaletta’s comments about children’s literature — he’s a smart guy who cares deeply.

    And I’m not just saying that because he said something nice about my book!

    Okay, for real?

    Yeah, I’m just saying that because he said something nice about my book.

    But, but, but. To his point: I think we’re at some kind of peak for high concept books, with big hooks to ensnare readers in our tangled web of mixed metaphors. It is nice to think that we might one day enjoy a boy meets girl story where the boy is — get this, are you ready? — just a boy (not a vampire, wolfling, demi-god or wizard) and the girl is, well, okay, actually she’s a dust fairy who’s been banished from The Land Beyond the Rainbows. After all, this thing’s got to sell.

    Cheers.

    JP

     
  2. Zainab

    February 13, 2012 at 8:19 pm

    In the book Mudville where does the setting takes place?