Today’s interview is with Jordan Sonnenblick, author of Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie, Notes from the Midnight Driver and the forthcoming Zen and the Art of Faking It. For plot summaries of Jordan’s novels, see my book reviews.
1. If I had to characterize your writing, I'd say that you write funny books about serious subjects. In the case of Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie, I know you set out to write about dealing with a sibling's having cancer. Notes from the Midnight Driver includes coping with parental separation/divorce, underage drinking/drunk driving, healing familial rifts (in several ways) and inter-generational relationships. Did a particular issue come to you first? Or did it start with a particular character?
Notes actually came about because of a whole separate issue. In my job as an 8th grade English teacher, I had a class of students who were totally horrible to a substitute teacher one day. I made them write apology notes, which came out as weaselly excuse notes instead. So my starting point for that book was, “What if a basically good person did something stupid, and then refused to take responsibility?” Then, the day I started outlining the plot, my beloved grandfather got really sick and I had to fly to Florida to be with him in the hospital for a few days. So between the main character's refusal to apologize, and my Grampa's colorful personality, I realized I suddenly had a novel to write!
(My pet theory was that this is an homage to your own grandfather, but I'm interested to hear how it came about.)
Yup, there's definitely a tribute to my Grampa Sol going on.
2. Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie is told from the point of view of Steven, a thirteen-year old drummer who must deal with his younger brother's leukemia and the resulting shift in family dynamics that it brings about.
a. Who do you consider to be the “girls” referred to in the title? Renee and Annette, certainly, but is Samantha one of the girls as well? Why or why not?
I never thought about it, but hey, they're all girls, right?
b. Steven spends much of the book in isolation of one kind or another -- the physical isolation of being alone at home or with his drums, the psychological isolation of denial and later, anger and avoidance, until he learns to speak up for himself a bit and “work on the things [he] can change”. Was that isolation a something you conceived from the start, or did it evolve during the writing (or re-writing process)?
The isolation was absolutely integral from the get-go. I was going on my own experience of my parents' getting divorced during my high school years; there was a six-month period when I withdrew completely. Ultimately, secrets are isolating.
c. Partway through the book, when Steven ditches math class to spend time in the band room with Annette, she gives him a CD of “Take Five” by Dave Brubeck and tells him to learn it -- and that she has something planned for it. What was it that she had planned?
Just that they play the piece together -- no big hidden meaning or anything. That's just a hard tune for a drummer.
d. “Take Five” is not the only jazz tune mentioned by name and artist in this book (or, for that matter, in Notes from the Midnight Driver). Was it something you listened to as a teen, or not until later? Are you actually trying to promote interest in jazz among your teen readers, or just adding detail to particular characters?
The music is in there because playing jazz is what I loved when I was a teenager. And I always wished someone would write a teen book that nailed down how I feel when I play the drums.
Is jazz your favorite music genre?
As a listener, my musical tastes are all over the map. But as a player, jazz is just the ultimate challenge.
3. Notes from the Midnight Driver is told from Alex Gregory's point of view. After Alex gets drunk, steals his mom's car and mows down a neighbor's lawn gnome, he is sentenced to community service at a local nursing home, with the irascible Sol Lewis, a crotchety old man who enjoys insulting Alex in Yiddish.
a. In the “Afterwords” found in the paperback edition of Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie, you've said that Steven was a lot like the 13-year old you. I know that your basement houses drums and guitars, and Alex is a guitar player. How much of the rest of 16-year-old Alex is based on your own history (or personality)?
Just his parent-divorce situation. Otherwise, I'm much more Steven than Alex.
b. I was pleased to see Steven and Annette, now older, in Notes from the Midnight Driver, and not just because it was nice to follow up with Steven a little bit. As a former jazz band, stage band and marching band member (piano and percussion, thank you), I so enjoy the positive depiction of band nerds in your books. Are most of the readers that you receive fanmail from involved in the arts, or do you hear from a lot of nonmusicians as well? What is the prevailing view of the musical characters you portray so well?
I get lots of fan mail from drummers, which feels great. And whenever I do a school visit, the band teacher seeks me out to thank me for writing a novel about our weird little subculture. However, probably the most disproportionate segment of my fan mail comes from cancer siblings, followed by parents of reluctant readers who are glad their kids found a book to love.
c. Notes opens with Alex sitting watch over a dying person. Why did you decide to open there, rather than just starting with Alex's misconduct?
It's the old Latin writing trick of starting a story in the middle -- or “in medias res”, as Horace would have said. I figured if it worked for Homer's Iliad, it would work for me. I think that beginning is jarring and disturbing enough to make readers want to know how the story gets to that point.
d. In Notes, as in Drums, the main character has a female friend who becomes a potential love interest. However, you avoid going too far down the romantic path. Is that because you'd prefer not to write mushy romance scenes, or because male readers prefer not to read them?
Neither. It's because I had lots of those inept friend-romances when I was a teenager, so I feel a special knack for writing those interactions.
4. Your next book, Zen and the Art of Faking It, is due out from Scholastic in October. From what I could scrape up on the book, it's about an eighth-grade boy named San Lee who has moved around. A lot. And when he arrives at his latest school, he concocts a way to be different -- by pretending to be a Zen master. Care to dish a little more about it?
Nope. It's my secret, for now. All I can say is that I read Zen aloud to a classroom of teen “test pilots”, and they unanimously said it was my funniest book.
5. What's next?
I'm just finishing off the last revisions on my fourth book. It's part one of a middle-grade trilogy for the Feiwel & Friends imprint at Holtzbrinck. The working title is Dodger & Me, and it's about a boy who rubs a magic lamp -- but instead of a genie, he gets a hyperactive blue chimpanzee as his invisible companion. I've never had this much fun writing a book, so I think Dodger & Me will really make some pre-teens laugh next spring.
6. Speed round:
Cheese or chocolate? I get instant migraines from chocolate, so it's cheese by default.
Coffee or tea? Coffee and tea. Both rule.
Cats or dogs? I’m allergic to cats & dogs.
Favorite color? Blue.
Favorite snack food? Yogurt.
Favorite ice cream? Dulce de leche -- I'm a snobby ice-cream eater!
Water or soda? Seltzer mixed with fruit juice.
What's in your CD player/on iTunes right now? Oh geez, everything but country. My all-time gurus are the Beatles. But I'll rock anything from emo to African choral music.
What's the last movie you memorized lines from? Because I have two school-age kids, I am a huge expert on Pixar movies. My most shining parental achievement is that I can do all the voices from A BUG'S LIFE.
For more about Jordan Sonnenblick, see Little Willow’s interview from Monday, or check in with Jen Robinson tomorrow.
Other SBBT interviews today:
Mitali Perkins by Vivian at Hip Writer Mama
Svetlana Chmakova by Sarah at Finding Wonderland
Dana Reinhardt by Jackie at interactivereader
Laura Ruby by Liz at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy
Holly Black by Gwenda at Shaken & Stirred
Hilary McKay by Leila at Bookshelves of Doom
Kirsten Miller by Erin at Miss Erin
Julia Ann Peters by Betsy at A Fuse #8 Production
Carolyn Mackler by Gayle & Trisha at The YA YA YAs