James Preller is the author of the wildly popular Jigsaw Jones series, and a book we recently reviewed, Along Came Spider, among others. We’re really excited to present this interview.
Have you always wanted to be a writer? When did you start writing?
As a boy, I wanted to become a pitcher for the New York Mets. I didn’t really think much about writing. But I used to make and sell little books, oddly enough, from an early age. It was just something to do, not part of a master plan. I’d draw pictures, get help from my brothers writing in the words, and sell them to kids on my street. I remember one called, “Hercules Kills Danger.” A classic, lost forever. My mother did save a copy of “Tarzan’s Adventures,” which I sold to her for 12 cents. Long spent, I’m afraid. It sort of amazes me that I used to do that, since I was much more into imaginary wrestling matches with Batman’s enemies and whiffle ball games in my backyard.
If you weren’t a writer, what your job be?
I’d work with books in some capacity, probably as an editor. I love the creative process, making things. There are so many creative people who contribute to a book, it often seems unfair when the author gets all the credit. This assumes, of course, that the New York Mets would have no use for you. It’s hard to think that I wouldn’t be a writer, in some way, shape, or form. It doesn’t have to be books. I’m one of those people who is much better, more comfortable, writing than talking. I’m awed by smooth talkers who speak in full sentences and shapely paragraphs. I’m all, “um,” and “er,” and “I forgot what I wanted to say.”
How long did it take from starting to write to having the book published? Did you get many rejections?
I published my first book in 1986, an out-of-print title called, “Maxx Trax: Avalanche Rescue!” That one came pretty easily for me, and it sold more than a million copies on Scholastic book clubs. Then they changed the illustrator, the follow-up title bombed, and that was the end of that. I’ve gotten many rejections of the years, each one a little dagger to the heart. Failed picture books, mostly. The way I see it, people will say “no” to you many times in life; the important thing is to never say “no” to yourself. You have to keep on keeping on. You have to believe in yourself, even when, or especially when, those around you have their doubts.
Do you find it hard to stop editing/revising, or do you have a definite ending point?
Well, deadlines help, because they force you to knuckle down. I generally know when a book is finished, and I’m all too happy to push myself away from the desk and say, “Done.” But when I read my so-called “finished” books — published books that have sat on my shelves for years — I still come across things I’d like to change, do differently. It’s never perfect, far from it. I forget who said it, but somebody once observed, “Books are never finished, they are abandoned.” That kind of makes sense to me.
Do you have any subjects that you’ve always wanted to write about, but haven’t?
Oh, yes, there are so many things to write about. As a writer, I enjoy different types of books — easy readers, picture books, nonfiction, mysteries, thrillers, historical fiction, magic realism. I want to try them all. After Jigsaw Jones, I kept getting asked to write more mysteries. And after Six Innings, I guess that some people expected me to immediately write more sports stories. For better and for worse, I’ve resisted getting stuffed into those little boxes. I do find that certain themes recur, friendship under duress, belonging and not belonging, and there are thousands of ways to explore those issues. When I did my research on bullying for Bystander (Feiwel and Friends, September, 2009), I came away with the feeling that I could write a hundred different stories on the subject, each one different, each one never quite saying everything that needed to be said.
In Along Came Spider, Trey appears to be on the Autism spectrum; what got you interested in Autism? What made you decide to incorporate such a character into one of your books?
I began that book by sitting in on a 5th grade classroom over the course of a school year. I didn’t even have an idea for the book, just a sense that I wanted to write for that age group. One of the themes that I’m drawn to is, put simply, friendship. Fitting in, belonging — and not belonging. I started thinking about certain kids who clearly did not fit in with the rest of the group, the hardships they endured and will continue to endure, and how that effected everyone else in their world. In a meeting with a school principal, we talked about kids “on the spectrum,” and that’s when I began to get a handle on the character who would eventually become Trey Cooper. I read up on it and thought, “Yes, I can write about this.” For some reason, I’ve always been vaguely interested in autism. Though I am not autistic, I do feel connected to it, I can relate to those “shadow traits.” Who doesn’t obsess over things, or have difficulty in loud chaotic rooms? Who doesn’t have difficulty making eye contact, or have OCD tendencies? Perhaps it resonates especially with the writer in me, the outsider, the observer. In general, writers tend to stay out of the thick of things, preferring to inhabit the fringes, watching, listening, not always fitting in. For some reason, I get that emotional core.
Your Jigsaw Jones books are so popular: did you enjoy reading mysteries when you were a kid? If not, what did you enjoy reading?
I read according to my interests, which were sports, and sports, and sports. So I read the newspaper, and those were my favorite writers growing up, the sports columnists. I think I owe a lot to that style — punchy, clear, direct, funny, fast. I’m not one to give a detailed description of the furniture in the room. I’ve never read a lot of mysteries, though of course I read my share of The Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown. Of the adults in that genre, I love Raymond Chandler, Dashell Hammit, and more recently, Richard Price and Michael Connelly.
For you, what is the hardest part of writing a book?
Getting started, the plot, finding the right voice for that particular story. It’s like a house when all the doors are locked. You want to enter, but you have to find the key. Somehow banging my head against the walls doesn’t seem to work.
What advice would you give to young writers?
Ah, advice. I’m never much good at that. Read a lot. And write from the heart. I personally need to care emotionally about what I’m writing, so the search is always for that ground where I can bring real feeling to the work. I think I read as a writer, in the sense that I’m always aware of the writer behind the story, what he or she is doing, how they are achieving certain effects. Unlike many passionate book-lovers, who consume books, I almost never read simply for “what happens next.” All of which means: I’m a very, very slow reader.
Are you working on a new book right now?
Yes, or, that is, I should be! I think it’s best when I don’t talk about what I’m writing. I have this notion that when you talk it, then all that creative energy escapes out your mouth, rather than the pen or fingertips on the keyboard. The book will be along the lines of Along Came Spider, and will involve a talent show. Hopefully funny, lighthearted, entertaining. A change from my more recent book, Bystander, which is about bullying issues in a middle school setting. That’s darker, has more of a thriller-type feeling to it, with tension and some drama, a serious book about serious things. As I said before, I like to change things up — just to confuse whatever small audience I might enjoy. It must be the failed baseball pitcher in me, trying to keep the batter off-balance with two hard ones and a hook.
Who is YOUR favorite author or book?
I love so many different writers and books, it’s sort of an impossible question for me. I learn something different from them all. But in terms of a single book, it’s hard to beat To Kill a Mockingbird. I also like Richard Ford very much. He can write about nothing — and often seemingly does — and yet I’m riveted. As a pure writer, Roger Angell is another hero, again for his grace, his clarity, his simplicity and directness, and above all the humanity that shines through each page.
What are your hobbies when you aren’t writing?
I’m very involved with my children, and these days that means spending a lot of time on various playing fields. I try to help out where I can. I love music, listen to it passionately and often, and still enjoy seeing live shows. I am deeply into Bob Dylan, to the point where I’ve probably read 7-8 books about him and his work, besides owning just about everything he’s ever done.