February 15, 2012
You gotta be careful in here, kid. You may be wearin’ your stripes, but you ain’t earned your stripes. Go it alone and you’ll make mistakes. You’ll hitch yourself to the wrong post, get saddled up and sold to the highest bidder. Stick by me and you might stand half a chance, but you’re gonna hafta listen.
Oh, that’d be on Tuesdays. Not a bad spread. Pickles. Onions. Standard. You’ll learn the menu. More important is this here yard. How you carry yourself. Who you trust. Take that fella at the bench press for example, the one with the dark beard and forearms thick as your chest. Name’s Bluto. Doin’ a dime for kidnappin’ a woman. That’s right, a sailor man’s wife. Threw her over his shoulder and took her down to the docks. Oh, he’ll rough you up right, but keep a can of spinach in your hip pocket and he’ll think twice. I don’t understand the science, but that there is the formula. Spinach.
Agreed, kid. Coupla sizzlin’ patties will beat a can o’ the green any yesterday or tomorrow, but that’s not what we’re talkin’. We’re talkin’ today and today is about the disco and the disco is about stayin’ alive. Have a look here. Skinny character sporting the lime suit? Question mark on his chest? That don’t mean he’s the information booth. No sir. Say a word to that crafty SOB and he’ll come at you like the Sphinx, all riddles ‘n giggles. Next thing you know you’ll be chummin’ around with a psycho circus clown and runnin’ from some pointy-eared, gravelly voiced vigilante. No. Thank. You. Best to steer clear of that riddler entirely.
Beats me! I wouldn’t know if his riddles are about ground beef or ground cinnamon for that matter, because I don’t talk to the man! Aren’t you listenin’? Better be. Your eyes ain’t gonna tell you what my twenty-seven years behind this barbed wire knows to be true. Another example. You probably look over at that strung-out orange beaky guy and think, “well that’s just some ol’ cuckoo junkie.” You’d be right about that. But that ol’ cuckoo junkie goes by the name of Sonny, and Sonny knows where to score the sweet stuff, if you catch my meaning. Sonny is just cuckoo for it, smuggles it past the guards in cereal boxes. You want a taste, that’s your bird.
I guess he could get you some, but why not wait till Tuesday? Like I said, they fire up that flame-broiler on Tuesdays. Sonny’s got no time to bother with no fast-food. Wisen up, boy, or you’ll end up runnin’ with them Hanna Barberas and let me tell you, that gang’s no Laff-a-Lympics. Sure, some of them hustlas may talk a soft game, soundin’ like Casey Casem or Paul Lynde, but they will be quick to shank a new fish if they even suspect you’re conspirin’ with the ascotted and far-sighted and snack-gobblin’ brand o’ meddlin’ teenagers. Dig? Of course you don’t. I’m not spellin’ it out in ketchup. These are the type of gangstas that dress as ghosts and swamp thangs and go hauntin’ just so they can shut down orphanages! That enough to scare you? Oh and don’t get me started on the Orphans! That’s another gang. A more Dickensian band of bandits you have not seen. If it ain’t your porridge they’re after, it’s your inheritance. You work the chimney sweep detail and you’ll be pits-deep in those mangy lads, singing show-tunes while they pick your pocket. You’re better off bustin’ rocks with that crotchety old moneybags from Atlantic City. He’s in here for tax evasion, and on the outside he’s a genuine issue, bone-fide mogul, owns both Boardwalk and Park Place. If he rolls his dice right, he’ll be out soon. Maybe toss a pal a get-out-of-jail-free card. But only if you stick with me. Because he owes me a favor. I gave that man a railroad, son.
Again with quarter-pounders! What does that hafta do with the price of tea in China! What’s your story again, kid? What you in here for?
Whatburgling? That don’t make a licka sense. From who? Who fingered ya?
Who in the sam heck elected a fool named McCheese? And what in the what is a Grimace?
February 7, 2012
Josh Berk and I went to college together. Drew University, class of 1998. It’s a tiny liberal arts college in the monied wilds on New Jersey. We did not, however, know each other back then. Our ignorance is well documented.
The world spins as the world spins and it spun us both into the “billionaire’s game”–aka writing novels for young readers. And that’s how we finally met. It’s a good thing we did, at least for me. First off, Josh was kind enough to interview me when my latest book came out. Second off (is there a second off?), Josh is a master of teenage persiflage and tomfoolery, as well as murder mystery and general pathos. I have much to learn from this man. In pursuit of that knowledge, I turned the interview tables and we talked about his latest novel Guy Langman: Crime Scene Procrastinator (in stores on March 13!). It’s a rollicking tale of girls, grief and gold, and it stars a slacker, his thinly mustachioed best friend, a high school forensics squad, and a couple stiffs. The unedited, no-holds-barred chat about it is featured below.
But I issue this warning: Some of the content is a bit ribald. If you do not know what ribald means, please stop reading now. And if your parents do not know what ribald means, please turn off the internet now and take a family trip to the library. As for the rest of you? Enjoy!
AARON: Knock knock
JOSH: Who farted?
AARON: Cool it Berk! I’m the one asking the questions!
See what I did right there? That’s what detectives call the old Sandusky Switcheroo. Get a perp thinking he’s in charge of the situation, then BAM, turn the tables. Of course, you know that. Because when you wrote Guy Langman: Crime Scene Procrastinator, you must have studied a bit of police work, right? Tell me about some of the weird and amazing things you discovered regarding forensic science. What made it into the book? What didn’t?
JOSH: Well I did spend a few years on the force in Allentown, cracking skulls and chasing perps. OK really I watched a lot of CSI reruns. And Law & Order reruns. And I literally did read Forensics For Dummies, which I probably shouldn’t admit… I also did a lot of online research, including the scoping out of high school forensics clubs web pages to see the type of work actually being done by high school kids in their forensic science clubs these days. Lots of it is quite amazing! Most everyone in high school I knew was interested in committing crimes, not solving them, so I don’t know why people say they have no hope for this generation.
Amazing fact: If you lose your arms and have to learn to write with your mouth, eventually your mouth-writing will closely resemble your hand-writing. That’s a fact! It’s in the book. You can look it up. Also, try it at home. (Writing with your mouth I mean, not losing your arms.)
Something that didn’t make it into the book was a whole scene dealing with audio forensics. Somebody was taking clips of a teacher’s voicemails and editing them together to make it seem like he was saying some crazy shiz! The nerds in Forensics Squad were able to isolate the background noise and find out that it the recordings were pieced together from separate messages. It was a high-tech twist of an old-fashioned frame-job! That’s still a good idea… I might use that in a later book. Don’t use that, anyone. That shiz is trademarked, Berk Industries, 2012. As is the word “shiz.”
AARON: Berk Industries seems to invest a lot in language. Your first book, The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin, was about a deaf boy who is sarcastic and self-deprecating. Your latest features Guy Langman, who shares these qualities, but is more, shall I say, unrelenting in his banter. His exchanges with his best friend Anoop are dominated by mildly vulgar double entendres and ruthless put-downs that reminded me of the language my friends and I used to peddle. We, like Guy and Anoop, were mostly goofy and good-natured, but when you use language that’s sexually and racially charged, you walk a fine line. Did you ever worry about crossing it? And I don’t mean whether you were worried about offending people (someone will always be offended), but whether you worried about how it would shape the perception of certain characters.
JOSH: No, I can honestly say I never worried about it… I mean, I think the book does have a lot of honest emotion and these characters really are good kids. So it’s kind of a bummer to consider that some readers might never get past the language to a point where they can appreciate those things. But I decided to be honest about the teen-guy experience as I remember it and yeah, it’s pretty vulgar and not very nice sometimes. I knew what I was writing was as close to the truth as I could get, so it never even occurred to me to stop and think that I might be creating a situation where readers might be negatively perceiving my characters based on language alone.
And this might sound like a cop-out, but for me one of the greatest feelings for me as an author is when the characters take shape and spring to life. Pretty quickly in the drafting stage, these characters started speaking to me. And speaking in their own ways. What I mean is: Guy is Guy, Anoop is Anoop, and they talk how Guy and Anoop talk. I can’t claim it’s not me putting those words down, but their dynamic and the resulting banter seemed outside of me. It became an integral part of the story and of themselves. If I worried about anything other than “what would Guy say next?” and “How would Anoop respond?” (Probably with a “your mom” joke) I think the flow might have been broken.
AARON: I agree. You can’t overthink what the characters say or they don’t seem natural. And I certainly don’t have a problem with anything they say. But give yourself more credit, Berkster. Because all their banter contributes to the main theme of the book: Manhood and what it means. There are puns and poems and plot twists that also focus on this. I have my ideas about what manhood ultimately means to Guy, but I’m curious about what it meant to you when you were Guy’s age. How has that changed as you’ve grown older and started writing novels for teenagers?
JOSH: I’m not a writer who thinks a lot about themes. I forget where I read it, but I know I once read a description of approaching theme that really appealed to me. It was like “Don’t stick a note over your screen that says ‘THIS BOOK IS ABOUT THE STRUGGLE OF MAN VERSUS HIMSELF.’” Just write from deep within yourself and the themes will be the themes of your life. The things you care about deeply will become the themes of the work. And that is pretty much how I work. I honestly don’t think I realized that manhood and what it means was the theme of the book until my editor pointed it out. (Actually she said something like “I love this line because it sums up everything the book is about: manhood, truth, wangs.”) That’s when I realized I needed to go back and tighten this theme up and yes, tie it in to all the parts of the book. (That was also when I realized that my editor was awesome.) Thank you for noticing!
When I was a teenager I was baffled by the concept of “being a man” as I think many boys are. It might have been worse for me because many typically manly pursuits (cars, guns, football) didn’t really ever appeal to me. I kept waiting for that moment when it would click and all make sense. It never did, of course, and that’s the main thing I realized as I have gotten older. Even the dudeliest dudes who ever duded don’t really know what the hell they’re doing. And “being a man” can mean a huge range of things. I still don’t understand most stereotypically manly pursuits but that doesn’t make me feel like less of a man. Most days.
AARON: Just like reading most of your book while I was lounging in a robe at a Korean day spa doesn’t make me feel like less of a man! In fact, as a fan of bubble baths and relaxation, Guy would be jealous of such behavior. However, he or Anoop would still find a way to tease me about it. They always do. Now I have a challenge for you. I am going to make a statement and you are going to channel Guy or Anoop and take me down a notch or two. Give me your best comeback to:
“In my spare time, I like to volunteer at a soup kitchen, raise money for malaria prevention initiatives, and train puppies that will ease the loneliness of war orphans.”
JOSH: Guy would say: Too bad you don’t have any spare time, due to your rigorous and all-consuming masturbation schedule.
Then Anoop would say: “Yeah, I was going to also sign up for that soup kitchen thing but every time I tried to get out of bed your mother pulled me back down for another round.”
AARON: Well and filthily played, my liege. I had no idea where you would go with that. But then, you are a man of mystery…who writes mysteries. Both your books include a murder investigation, but the murders almost seem like secondary mysteries to ones that concern ancestry and family history. As a reader, what sort of mysteries draw you in?
JOSH: Your mother knew where I would go with that. (Sorry, Aaron’s mom, if you are reading this…)
Yes, I often say that my mysteries are really coming-of-age stories disguised as mysteries. They’re really about “who am I?” more than “who done it?” As a reader I think these are the types of stories that appeal to me most too. A mystery doesn’t have to have Big Questions About Stuff And Stuff (tm, Berk Industries) for me to enjoy it, but the ones I love the most usually do offer something in addition to a compelling puzzle. I like mysteries with interesting characters, beautiful writing, stellar dialogue, and yes, some comedy. Kinky Friedman is my favorite mystery author ever just because his books are so funny and weird. And I think part of the reason Sherlock Holmes is still read is that the characters are just as fascinating as the puzzles. I don’t even care if the mystery is good if the character is compelling and I’ll get bored with a book that’s all puzzle and no heart. I also like Robert B. Parker’s books just because guys like Spenser and Jesse Stone are so darn manly.
AARON: Guy is certainly no Spenser or Jesse Stone (but maybe Tom Selleck could play Guy’s father in the movie adaptation!). I saw Guy as the sort of fellow who would normally be a sidekick or comic relief in a book, a tertiary character who has suddenly been given the keys to the kingdom and is going to wisecrack his way to the throne. Meanwhile, the tertiary characters in his tale are a different sort of rag-tag bunch. There’s goth-girl Maureen, the reviled rich kid Hairston, and the sure-to-be-favorite and excellently named TK. Ever thought about a TK spinoff called Title TK? Well think about it now! Give me your elevator pitch for a TK novel. Go!
JOSH: Ha! I never thought of Guy quite that way, but you have a point! He’s like the wisecracking sidekick forced to become a leading man … Actually I was inspired by an interview I heard with the Cohen brothers about how part of the idea for The Big Lebowski was just the thought that “what if we took a classic sort of noir/detective plot and put the least-equipped-to-deal-with-it guy we know in the Humphrey Bogart role?” So that was sort of a thought — imagining a very lazy goofy dude in high school having to do all this intense forensics and detective work made me laugh.
TITLE TK is the heart-warming tale of an eccentric and brilliant high school junior (named TK) who shocks the world by inventing a sentient robot using an old vacuum cleaner and some hard drives he ordered from Craigslist. He names the robot “Stet” and everything is cool until Stet malfunctions, resulting in an epic battle between TK and Stet that could quite possible DESTROY US ALL … Starring Tom Selleck as TK’s wacky neighbor M. Dash. (Wait, this is a book, why does it have a cast? Oh well, always room for Selleck, I always say!)
AARON: M. Dash. Heh. Perfect. And it’s always nice to wrap things up with a dash of Selleck. Do you have anything else you’d like to add before we call it a day and demand that everybody go order a copy of Guy Langman: Crime Scene Procrastinator?
JOSH: Just thanks to you, A-Starms. Both for having me here & letting me talk about GUY and also for being a careful reader and excellent questioner. I’m really flattered by the questions and the depth of thought you put into them. It’s especially impressive because I know how you usually don’t read books, what with spending most every waking moment with both of your thumbs up your butt. (Sorry, Guy made me say that.)
February 6, 2012
I have a folder in a box under my bed. It’s bursting with rejection letters from publishers, agents, movie studios, theaters, colleges, literary magazines, employers, societies and probably even the Columbia House Record Club (trust me, children, this is funny). I started the folder in my ambitious teenage days, and I guess at first it was an enemies list, or a “big mistake, pal, you haven’t heard the last from this kid, no sir, not the last by a long shot, and you can be sure I’ll bring your name up at Nobel Prize ceremonies and in a chapter titled The Clueless Ones in my five volume autobiography” list.
Now the folder is just something I bring on school visits, to show kids that the world is full of rejection, but that doesn’t mean they should give up on their dreams. Unless they have a folder thicker than mine (Pynchon-thick at this point), they’d be fools to throw in the towel. It’s hokey, of course, but it’s effective in sobering up a world drunk on overnight sensation (note to self: if I ever create my own brand of malt liquor, call it Overnight Sensation).
A rejection letter (or these days, an email) always beats a good old-fashioned lack of response, and a good rejection letter is something to savor. I’ve received a few good ones, including a gem from a university that basically said, “if you do well in life, please let us know we made a mistake.” So lovely in its smug passive aggressiveness, that letter. And no, I haven’t yet informed aforementioned university of the number of heart pieces I’ve found in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. A man must be bigger than these things.
So while you can stuff most sorries in a sack, there are a few you might want to frame. If only, if only, if only, my book The Only Ones had received this one that my old pal Gertrude got: