Thursday, November 6, 2014

7 Questions For: Author Robert Kent

Robert Kent is the author of the middle grade novel Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees, the young adult novel, All Together Now: A Zombie Story, the novella for slightly older readers, All Right Now: A Short Zombie Story, and novelette for adults, Pizza Delivery. He lives in Indianapolis, Indiana and runs the popular blog for writers, Middle Grade Nina. This blog. He's also writing this bio and wrote the interview questions he's about to ask himself, so he's now going to switch to the first person.

Esteemed Reader, I've always wanted to answer these questions, but I've made myself wait until I'm an honest-to-God middle grade author. Now that I am, I'm going to face my own 7 Questions, but rather than just giving my answers, I'll also share some commentary on why I chose each question. If that sounds good to you, we'll have some fun. If not, here's a whole page of interviews with authors more interesting than me.

And now Robert Kent faces the 7 Questions:


Question Seven: What are your top three favorite books?

This first question is kinda brutal and now that I'm facing it, I understand why so many writers have complained about it over the years:) My intention in asking for three favorite books is to get an idea of what authors and publishing professionals like to read that I wouldn't get if I only asked them about their favorite book.

Still, after years of interviewee complaints, I now flat out encourage people to cheat on this question. In a world of so many wonderful books to read, we don't actually have to limit ourselves to just three. We can love them all and I do. But, as I know plenty of writers have tortured themselves picking only three books, I can't cheat on this question.

So I'm not going to pick the books I've read that make me sound smartest (is James Joyce's Ulysses ever really anyone's favorite book? I mean, really, that's the one you'd read if you couldn't read any other book?). I'm not going to pick the books that necessarily made the biggest impact on me. I'm not going to pick books by my friends, as much as I love them, and I'm not even going to pick one of Richard Adams's books, despite his amazing blurb for my book.

Rest assured, if I ever listed all my favorite books, they would fill fill this blog. And there are favorite books of mine out there I haven't read yet, which is why I keep reading. But these three books are the reading experiences I most remember and if I read just a few pages of any of them, I'm going to reread the whole thing. These books are the great loves of my reading life:

1. The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller
Would you look at that? My first choice and I haven't even picked a book book, I picked a graphic novel. I don't care. I love this book with every fiber of my being and years later emotion swells up in me at just the thought of reading that final confrontation between Batman and Superman ("I want you to remember, Clark, in all the years to come, in your most private moments, I want you to remember my hand at your throat... I want you to remember the one man who beat you." (yesyesyesYES! That's the poetry of my soul!) . If you never read any other comic or graphic novel in your life, read this one. For more, check out this ridiculous fanboy review I wrote a while back.

2. The Witches by Roald Dahl
This is the first book that ever had the courage to hurt me and began my love of scary stories. If I had a hundred years of writing time, I could never write a story as scary as this story was for me as a child. Of all the middle grade books I read back when I was a kid looking for a story rather than an adult author looking for tips, this is the only one I remember telling me the truth: some adults are out to hurt you and it might not end well. All these years later, I'm still searching for a story as dark as this one or a situation as terrifying as finding oneself at the back of a conference room full of witches. Lots of middle grade stories promise to be scary, but The Witches truly is. For more, check out my review.

3. It by Stephen King
If Roald Dahl started me on the path to being an author of horror, Stephen King finished me off. This is the book that almost didn't make the list because the other two are flawless and this one isn't, even if I myself am incapable of writing a book containing even a fraction of It's best qualities. But we're talking about love, and I love this book even with its flaws, such as silly sequences of talking sanitary napkins (seriously, how high was King that day!?!), a bit too much meandering nostalgia, and a sex scene at the story's climax which makes perfect metaphorical sense in context and is still really, really icky. It is not Stephen King's best book (I'd list his best ones, except that would be cheating). But It is the first book for adults I ever read, and it warped my mind forever. I had to get it from the library and read it in secret so my parents wouldn't find out and I lugged that stupid brick of paper around in the bottom of my backpack for a month. I can still remember the first time I had the thought "this book sure contains a lot of racism. Could it be there's a deeper meaning to the proceedings than just the good old fashioned fun of being petrified?" I've reread It every couple years since because I love it so, so much. I yearn to fashion characters as fully flushed out as the members of The Loser's Club, who I feel closer to than some family members. And if there's a character in all of literature scarier than Pennywise the clown, I don't want to know about it. I have enough trouble sleeping as is.

Three books all containing strong elements of horror and written by white dudes mostly about white dudes? For shame, Ninja! I greatly admire Tony Morrison and Alice Walker, honest, but again, we're discussing my top three true loves. As a white dude, these other white dudes really spoke to me about issues concerning white dudes:)

Rest assured, if I were picking the best description ever written that makes me pull my hair out knowing I'll never write a passage so moving, rather than the books that switched me all the way on, I would've chosen this sentence from Sula:

“It was a fine cry - loud and long - but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.”  (Curse you, Toni Morison, what god inspired your pen and left me unable to craft a single sentence good enough to gain admission to your league!?!?)

Since I bug the publishing professionals for their three favorite movies and TV shows, I'll tell you mine as well. The reason I ask literary agents and editors this question is because I want a sense of the stories they like and the way the story is presented, which could be useful information if you're considering submitting a manuscript to them. I'm not accepting manuscripts, but here's what I like:

Movies: The Dark Knight (I should list Batman '89 since that's the version I grew up with, but Nolan's version is better), Unbreakable (M. Night Shyamalan has made some real stinkers, but I've never seen a more emotional moment on film than when David Dunn discreetly shows his son the newspaper headline confirming his father knows who he is now and their family is going to be okay), and since I can't list the collected works of Quentin Tarantino as a choice, we'll go with Jesus Christ Superstar (it was made before I was born, but I've paid to see Carl Anderson and Ted Neely perform live and the film's symbolism and thematic overtones are mind-blowing to a boy who grew up in Sunday school).

TV Shows: The Simpsons, Breaking Bad, and Quantum Leap (yea growing up in the 80s!)

Whew. If all my answers are as long as this first one, we'll be here all day. Time to speed it up:)


Question Six: How much time do you spend each week writing? Reading?

Tragically, this varies from week to week. The reason I've asked this question is because I want to know how I measure up to writers I admire (not favorably). In an ideal world, I read for 2-4 hours an evening and write 4-8 hours during the day and some days that ideal actually occurs:) I do make time to sit down and read something everyday and I always write, though sometimes I write blog posts and emails instead of fiction, and other times I have author duties to attend to such as answering these questions. I also have a day job and a baby, so I don't beat myself up if I miss an hour here and there. Instead, I listen to plenty of audiobooks while doing anything that doesn't require my full mental attention (housework, exercise, video games, etc) and I take my Kindle everywhere to sneak in extra reading.

When I'm working on a rough draft for fiction, I aim for the embarrassingly slow pace of 500-1000 words a day. I've written at a faster pace (after fiction, I often crank out blog posts at 1000-3000 words a day), but I used to write much longer books than the ones I'm publishing. I'm a big believer in quality over quantity and far too mannered about my rough drafts, which will go through a minimum of 15 revisions anyway (I didn't say it was smart, it's just the way I know to do it). But if I ever finish a rough draft and die before I can do the revisions, that book will be publishable and pretty close to what the final version would've been, provided someone corrects my grammar:)


Question Five: What was the path that led you to publication?

If there's one question I might change at some point, it's this one. Increasingly, this question is of less interest to me as I interview a lot of indie authors and the path to publication is far clearer now than it ever has been. I may as well be asking people how they start a blog or send an email. In my case, I've kept this blog to record my author's journey. So you can read about my hard work revising Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees here, you can read about how I got my literary agent here, and you can read about how I got sick of waiting my life away for someone else to green light my dream here. As my path to future publications continues, you can bet you'll be able to read all about it at this blog:)

As of this posting, 85 writers have answered this question and none of them have given the same answer. Most author's paths to publication involve luck and a whole lot of work to get lucky. If I had found twenty or even ten authors with the exact same path to publication, I would've done likewise. Instead, what asking this question over and over again has taught me is that there is no one way to do this and your publication path will be unique to you.


Question Four: Do you believe writers are born, taught or both? Which was true for you?

I think the wording of this question betrays my answer:) I believe writers are both born and taught, but I'm always curious to hear different opinions. I think most writers can be identified at a young age due to natural aptitude, but talent is cheap and plentiful and useless without a lot of hard work and instruction.

The circumstances of my own birth were curious. Due to complications in delivery, blood was shut down to my brain for a time. Afterward, doctors grimly informed my mother I'd lost the portion of my brain responsible for creativity and advanced motor function. I would never walk and I would likely be an unimaginative, literal thinker who had trouble with metaphor and humor. Well, since when do doctors know everything:)

I did walk finally at age three, but it took a lot of physical therapy and effort. It makes my heart swell to watch Little Ninja crawl with strength and ease and way too much speed:)  I've always been clumsy and I was always the last kid picked for sports teams, but I can walk and run and skip and I'm very grateful. Still, when it comes to athletic pursuits, I've always felt like the only normal in a class of superheros. As a result, sports have never interested me and I was more inclined to read at recess than to lose at basketball, again. Being shunned from most things physical developed in me an outsider's perspective from an early age.

My creativity, however, has always been in overdrive, which at times has made for its own disability (hard to buckle down and learn math when you can't shut your imagination off). My mother often tells me how teachers always remarked on my creativity (mostly as a polite way of saying I was a troublemaker). My grandfather owned a small town newspaper, my father worked for a city newspaper, and my other grandfather was a farmer with a dream to publish a book. I told my stories to a tape recorder in the first grade and was able to write "books" by the second grade. I've always had an aptitude for writing and literature and I was annoyed when reading appeared so difficult for my classmates the way they were annoyed sports were so difficult for me.

I've also worked long and hard and I don't want to short change any of that effort. I'm up every morning while the rest of the house sleeps to write and I've logged more hours writing than just about any other activity in my life save for maybe sleeping. I'm not anointed (sigh). I've taken every writing course available to me, attended conferences, maintained this blog, read every writing manual I could get my hands on, and had a lot of wonderful writing teachers who've made a clear impact on me. I can't speak for other writers, but I believe I was both born a writer and taught to be one.


Question Three: What is your favorite thing about writing? What is your least favorite thing?

What kind of lazy question is this:) Actually, this question usually leads to my favorite answers in each interview.

My favorite thing about writing is the magic. Every time I stumble upon a story idea that makes perfect sense, it feels less as though I'm solving a problem and more like I'm discovering a truth from another dimension and simply transferring it to ours to place it where it was always meant to be. When my characters begin to act and speak on their own and the plot feels not like something I'm constructing, but an experience I'm living through, that's as close to real magic as I've ever been. If the magic is all in my head and a necessary trick my subconscious plays in order to get the books done, I'm okay with that, but I don't think it is. I feel less like an originator and more like a conduit through which stories pass.

My least favorite thing about writing is my own insecurity as an author. I hate that fear of starting a new story because I know there's always a chance readers won't care for it, it will get all 1-star reviews, I'll lose money on the publication, and it will be so roundly rejected that no one will bother to read my other stories. The trick is to use this fear as motivation to work harder and do just one more revision to at least avoid giving haters an easy target. I also find it useful to accept that much of a book's success or failure is out of my hands. Book sales depend on word of mouth and luck, neither of which I can greatly influence. I control what I can control by ensuring the book is as good as I can make it and to promote it as much as I can without taking too much time away from writing my next book. Fortunately, I've also got a bit of Banneker's ego and a part of me always believes the next book is the best thing I've ever written... until the second draft:)


Question Two: What one bit of wisdom would you impart to an aspiring writer? (feel free to include as many other bits of wisdom as you like)

If there are two bits of advice that show up in the answer to this question over and over and over again, it's read a lot and write a lot. There's nothing else for it and if you want to be a writer, you should do both these things. You should also get as much advice from other writers as you can collect, especially bad writers, who will show you what not to do.

Fortunately, I don't have to choose just one bit of "wisdom" as I run this blog and I offer advice pretty regularly. My biggest piece of advice for writers is to do things your way. As I've said, what I've learned running this blog is that no two authors do things exactly the same way and there is no one way to be an author. That being said, there are similar things that many authors do and they must have a reason for doing them, which is worth investigating. Gather as much information as you can, then figure out the way to write and publish that works best for you.

A lot of authors plot their books from start to finish and I'm sure that makes writing them easier. Other authors pick a place to start and write until they reach the end. Neither of these methods works for me. I keep a loose plot outline of only general events and update it as I go so that I can mostly experience the story as the characters and the readers experience it, but plan enough moves ahead to keep the narrative coherent and avoid writing myself into a corner. That works for me. Find what works for you.

Here's a whole lot of other advice I've offered.


Question One: If you could have lunch with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

I didn't cheat on question one, but I am going to cheat here. How could I ever pick just one writer to chat with when I have questions for so many? I wouldn't want to waste my lunch on Stephen King or J.K. Rowling as they're still alive, so I might theoretically meet them, whereas Roald Dahl or Robert Heinlein or Ayn Rand (more of a fist fight than a lunch) would require the supernatural event offered in this question.

But I would very much like to shake the hand of every writer who has ever faced these 7 Questions or written a guest post for this blog and thank them in person. So I think I'll chose more of a conference than a lunch with all those fine writers and their choices for lunch (that should cover most of the writers I'd like to meet who haven't appeared here) and you, Esteemed Reader. It wouldn't be the same without you.



(no sense linking to my website as you're here)

3 comments:

  1. Baby Ninja is adorable, but you already knew that :) Nice interview, I agree picking the top three books is always a difficult choice. But, I too like to know what other authors are reading, it's always interesting to see what they pick.

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  2. Mr. Kent. I am unbelievably excited for your recent success, and the birth of Baby Ninja! As I read this blog, I can almost mischievous smile on your face as you drop a bit of not-so-obvious humor. Great blog, great site, and I'm buying all of your books tonight to read.

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  3. ...and never-mind the grammatical errors. I mean, aren't you supposed to edit these comments, sir?!

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