Customary interview structure requires interviewer to pitch interviewee’s credentials in this space. If I were going to do that, I’d tell you that Booklist called Timothy Power‘s The Boy Who Howled “comical but also poignant.” I’d mention that Kirkus called it a “positively giddy comedy” in which “an overriding sweetness prevails.” But since I like to mix things up, I’ll just mention that I read portions of TBWH while in line at the grocery and drugstore. Between its cover art and my helpless giggles, Timothy’s book easily gained a few Canadian fans. I predict there will be many more.
Jan: Welcome to Tartitude, Timothy! Shall we begin on an up-note by paying tribute to me? Specifically, that I managed to spell your last name correctly this time? Timothy Power. Power. NOT Powers.
To cement the distinction in our audience’s minds, if you were able to have only one superpower, which would you choose and why?
Timothy: Well, I’m practically a hermit, so I don’t need to be any more invisible than I already am…and I’m 6’ 7”, so I’m already getting an idea of the altitude rush of someone who can fly. I’d really like a superpower that enables me to whip up delicious meals out of nowhere in the blink of an eye, because I never cook and love to eat. I would have a French accent, and my superhero name would be BON APPETIT. As soon as the super me laid the table and cried “Bon appétit!,” I would revert to my ordinary self and tuck in.
And yes, Jan, you have earned my respect with the proper use of “Power”! My family comes from a town called Dublin East in Ireland. There is a definite snobbery there in favor of the singular, and that’s the default. But everyone here in America (I am American) seems to yearn to make it plural. Austin Powers has been a very corrupting influence in that regard. Tyrone Power, the incredibly handsome and charismatic Hollywood idol, is the proper movie star reference for me. 🙂
Yes. I know that Halloween costume clinched the comparison for me.
You know, for all we’ve hung out in the some of the same places for a year or more, I have no sense of your path to publication. I know you began writing as a kid, but was TBWH your first manuscript written as an adult?
Creatively, I actually started out with more of a visual vocabulary. In high school, I directed a Super-8 version of the Titanic story that anticipated the cinematic glory of James Cameron’s studio feature by a good twenty years. Mine featured a lingering shot of my sister loaded down with makeup and every last piece of our mom’s jewelry, looking aghast at the curious tilt of the water-and-food-color beverage in a crystal glass set on the conspicuously modern coffee table in front of her. With my camera in one hand and a model of the ill-fated ship in another, I staged the sinking in a bathtub filled with dry ice, which came off as very mysterioso. I graduated to 16mm film stock later at the University of Washington in Seattle, and went on to USC in hopes of getting into the film program there, but it didn’t work out.
I was also a pretty good artist, and so I applied to CalArts, where I started out as a painter. My mentor John Baldessari encouraged me to write, and I graduated with an MFA in Art on the basis of my writing. In one of my early painting critiques it was brought to my attention that I had made an effort to make every inch of the picture surface “interesting.” That, of course, is a very writerly quality. Every good book is made of interesting chapters made of interesting paragraphs made of interesting sentences made of interesting words. There isn’t any “uninteresting” space.
You worked as a prop designer for Nickelodeon. Was that a case of like attracting like, as in your inner kid found a working environment that appealed to him? A place you discovered your dark gift for writing for kids? Or a bit of both? Tell me about the chicken/egg nature of your work.
Despite my enormous sophistication, I am extremely juvenile. Is that what you’re getting at, Jan? 🙂 Children’s entertainment definitely has a big appeal to me. Kid characters appeal to me. Generally speaking, kids are just so much freer of baggage. Their histories are relatively short. They deal with situations in a more open-minded way than us older folk who think we’ve seen it all. “Fun” for kids seems to me to have a purer definition, more in fitting with the phrase “just for fun.” For a lot of adults, fun has got to have some end result, which makes me cringe.
But back to animation. First of all , a “prop” in cartoons is anything that moves that isn’t a character or background. It can be as simple as a penny or as complicated as a star cruiser. My first job was at Universal Cartoon Studios on a show called Earthworm Jim. That was the most fun job I’ve ever had, and I look back on those days with misty-eyed longing. The number of talented artists in animation is staggering, and as I went on to other shows at Warner Bros. and Nickelodeon I began to feel less than stellar.
At a certain point I wanted to try a field where my talent could stand out in a crowd, and that was writing (he says modestly). I don’t think I’m writing for kids. I think I’m writing for everyone. I wrote THE BOY WHO HOWLED for the fun of it, and because I was strangely determined to always be writing something. It turned out good enough that I figured I would try to get an agent for it. I wish I had known about Absolute Write then. My querying process would have been MUCH more professional. A lot of the agents I queried had no interest whatsoever in the book. A few of them passed for various reasons. Jennifer DeChiara called me up one afternoon and said she adored it. Of course I fell in love with her right away. The fact that she was an absolute pro helped. 🙂
“The eighteenth-century case of a French boy found living in the woods gets Americanized and updated: a boy is raised by wolves and then welcomed heartily back into society.” That’s how Booklist put it. So elegant!
I loved how Callum interprets the interactions between humans through the only context he knows: wolf-pack dynamics. After reading your book, I confess my thinking got pulled along similar lines. “Oh, there’s an alpha disguised as an omega,” and so on. Did writing this book give you insights into human nature? Did it help or hinder you in the classroom?
I see a lot of Omegas disguised as Alphas, too! (I think that’s what you meant? I’m definitely not looking at you!) Writing gives me insights into my own human nature. In early drafts I sometimes treat characters with a certain thoughtlessness. Out of sheer boneheaded egoism I make them speak and act in a way that isn’t really true to their “reality,” and then later realize I haven’t treated them with any respect and have to do better. (Your Canadian spellcheck just made me put a “u” in behavior. I feel so Anglophiled.)
I know you work as a substitute teacher, so you’ll appreciate the multiple choice nature of this next question: What position would I occupy in a wolf pack? A. Alpha B. Beta C. Omega (Now I know you were going to leap to say “alpha” there, but please allow yourself time to carefully consider your answer.)
I’m all for being a Beta, Jan, so that’s what I’d choose. It’s easier. You don’t have to shoulder the Alpha burden or suffer the Omega disgrace. Of course, to be a good writer, you have to be all three. You get to feel the thrill of victory AND the agony of defeat. 🙂
Then I’m Beta all the way. 😉 What’s your writing process?
I begin with an idea, and I always have a starting point. I write from there and discover the story along the way. I only outline when I run into a plot problem. I usually work it out mentally before I put it on the page. I’m a firm believer that there’s a solution for every problem, so I’m always optimistic. Napping is a very productive way for me to solve plot problems and word-choice issues. My bed and I have a very good relationship.
When you do you feel you have done your job as a writer? How do you measure success?
I know I’ve done my job when I okay it as a reader. I read with my brain and my heart (talk about schizophrenia!). Both of them have to clear it before I’m happy. And they are both very picky, which drives me crazy. They can spot insincerity a mile off.
Tell me about your most discouraging moment on the writing path, and the resources that got you through?
The most discouraging moments come when I’m reading a first (or third! Or fifth!) draft and realize how many problems need fixing. I hate that sinking feeling. I know I can fix them. It’s the amount of work that’s daunting, and the struggle, because a lot of times I will recognize a problem but reach the solution only through guesswork and experimentation. To read something I consider poorly written more than once is so tough, but of course it takes numerous passes to get things right. I have no choice but to face the onerous task with a smile and a can-do attitude.
On the day of your book’s release, you wrote a lovely piece about the role and value of the MG writer in lives of both kids and adults. I happen to agree with your points, but can you say more about what prompted the essay?
I have seen a kind of assumed hierarchy of importance among genres in the writing world, coming from readers and writers alike. It certainly isn’t a prevalent notion among the widely read. I’ve come across agents’ blogs where it’s noted how many inexperienced writers are querying inferior MG material. These new authors have somehow bought into an idea that the rigors of writing well are suspended when it comes to kids’ lit and they can knock off a children’s book without much effort. It probably boils down to the perceived need for a simplified vocabulary in middle grade books. As if “simple words” equals “easy writing.” Of course, it takes a lot of effort to produce a story worth reading no matter what the reading level, and anybody who equates good books with “big words” probably doesn’t really like to read anyway.
Did you have a special celebration the day your book was released?
I spent the afternoon at the Laundromat. My apartment unit was built in the 1920s and doesn’t have one. My second superpower of choice would be the ability to clean my clothes with a snap of my fingers. Or maybe I’ll stay BON APPETIT and just have my sidekick do the laundry AND the dishes. I DO get a sidekick, don’t I?
Your wish is my command!
Also, I will grant you one interview question of your own choosing. We could discuss literary influences, story structure, the establishment of a meritocracy within literary circles with the present ascent of e-books.
Timothy, what pithy, pivotal question would you most like to ask of yourself?
“What is your pet peeve?”
I absolutely hate it when I’m driving and see drivers throwing cigarette butts onto the road. I think it’s an incredibly galling thing to do. They wanted to smoke the cigarette, all right, but they don’t want anything to do with the end result of their choice, and they don’t seem to think they’re littering, either. Please, driving smokers, don’t do this!
You heard the man.
And now, peeps, Timothy has graciously agreed to take your questions, should you have any for him. He also has a copy of The Boy Who Howled for one lucky person. You will be eligible for the prize if you: comment below or in Part 2 of this interview, which will run in one week’s time; live in continental North America; and have your name drawn by RNG. To have your name entered twice, retweet this post, post a link on your Facebook page, or a link on your blog, then make sure to post the url below. Contest will be open until midnight MST November 28, 2010.
Thanks for being here, all!
ETA: Part Deux here.