The Alliance for the Study and Teaching of Adolescent Literature at Rhode Island College




- Alden Carter -

Interview Questions

1) What is your favorite or most despised book that you have read lately?

Favorite: A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin. More good writing per page than anything I've read in years. Despised: Finding Moon by Tony Hillerman. A lousy book from a good writer.

2) How do you come up with ideas for your books/ characters?

Watching listening, imagining people and characters in different situations.

3) Do you ever write about personal experiences?

Rarely. Some minor incidents here and there.

4) Who or what has influenced you?

My book-loving, scholarly, alcoholic father. My strong-willed, ruthlessly unsentimental (when it came to writing), editor mother.

5) When did you first desire to be a witer and how long did it take for you to make this a reality?

I wrote my first story when I was in third grade. It made my sister cry. Fantastic. I was in my late twenties when I got half serious, 33 when I quit to do it full time, 37 when my first novel was published. I'm 51.

6) How did you choose the Young Adult genre?

I like kids a lot and identify with their struggles. And my first published novel was a YA novel, so in some ways the genre picked me.

7) How long did it take for you to first get published?

I probably sent out my first book when I was about thirty or so.

8) Does characterization form a major part of your books? Explain.

Characterization is central. I believe strong books are written around strong characters. For me plot follows characterization both in process and importance.

9) What is perhaps the most memorable quote from one of your books?

Old Indian to a much younger one when queried for advice: "Never pry a bagel out a toaster with a fork and never stick your richard in a white woman. Neither is worth the risk." Frankly, I couldn't believe they let me keep the line. It's from DOGWOLF.

10) Have your characters ever gone off in different directions from what you originally intended?

Sure. That's part of the business. But truly good characters will rarely lead you wrong.

Hope this helps. Pasted below are a couple of lengthy letters. Feel free to quote.

Al Carter


Dear friends:

I am complimented that so many people have asked me for advice of late. Unfortunately, I know longer have time to answer every letter in as much detail as I would like. Everyone must find his or her own way in this business, but here are a few pieces of advice that address some common questions.

1. Learn as much about the markets as early as possible. Some forms of fiction are extremely difficult to sell. I have plots that I would like to explore but that simply don't seem viable in the marketplace. There are a number of books on getting published. Probably 75% of them are garbage, but you'll learn a lot from the other 25%. One that is well-regarded is HOW TO GET HAPPILY PUBLISHED.

2. Learn the rules of the various genres. It seems that I am constantly running into people who want to write children's books featuring little animals talking in verse. I have yet to run into one of these people who has taken the time to do word and page counts on current children's books, to learn anything much about the techniques of poetry (or the current unpopularity of the form in children's lit.), or to figure out that cutesiness is the kiss of death in this business. So, they are dead before they start. There are also genre rules for romances, westerns, gothics, science fiction, and even YA stuff. There is an entertaining book on the subject by Dean R. Koontz with a title something like WRITING SCIENCE FICTION AND OTHER GENRE FICTION. And, once you know the rules, you can know when to break them.

3. Forget poetry except for your own enjoyment and satisfaction. It doesn't pay. Consider forgetting about short fiction. Today's paying magazine market is so small and the competition so tough that it is easier to get a book published. There is a slowly growing market in books of short stories, but novels are still much easier to sell.

4. Some people are prolific enough they can make a living writing nonfiction magazine pieces, but you need to sell a lot to make it pay. The nonfiction market in books is good, and some people are making a real killing. The YA nonfiction market doesn't pay very well, but it is a place to get started. By the way, about 75% of the YA nonfiction is contracted for by the publisher. If you can get on an editor's list, she'll keep you busy. (Most YA editors are female.)

5. Once you've decided what you want to write (if you haven't started out sure of that), WRITE. Set aside time to write even if it's only a few minutes a day. I have never heard of anyone making it as a professional without working a regular schedule. Keep to your schedule even when you don't feel like writing. And be careful not to talk your ideas to death. The less time you spend talking about them and the more time writing, the better off you'll be. Likewise, don't show your work to ANYBODY, spouse included, until you're really ready. And, of course, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. It's a drag, but very little is very good in first draft. A dozen times is none too few.

6. Reference books I use:
WEBSTER'S NINTH NEW COLLEGIATE DICTIONARY (even if you own a good dictionary, get this one. You'll see why.)
THE CAREFUL WRITER by Theodore M. Bernstein (there are other good handbooks)
THE WRITER'S MARKET (Outdates quickly, use the library's)

7. The quickest way to become a professional is to act like one. The books on getting published will tip you off on some of the amateur mistakes. For example, never send a piece to Fiction Editor. Send it to a person. The name will be in THE WRITER'S MARKET or THE LMP. Example two: don't tell them how much they should like your piece; they're not interested in your opinion but in your work. Do anything you can do to show that you are a professional, intent on being a professional, or at least know the rules of the game.

8. Submission format is not difficult: double space with one inch margins all around, heading (name of the piece/your name/Page - #) in upper right hand corner, start the first page of the piece or chapter halfway down. Include stamped return envelope until you are really established. Don't copyright your material before submitting it. Just keep a copy. Chances are almost non-existent that anyone will steal your ideas. By in large, publishing is an honest if exasperating business.

9. Rejection kills most writers in the ol' proverbial bud. One or two rejection slips and they toss the pieces and their ambitions aside. Rule 1: Never worry about the quality of a piece until it's been rejected at least ten times. (There are just too many reasons for a rejection other than quality.) Rule 2: Never let a rejected piece spend the night in the house; get it out again. Rule 3: Remind yourself as often as necessary that if the jerks can't recognize brilliance, that's their problem. Rule 4: Always be working on another piece. The more you have in the mail, the less the individual rejection hurts. I used to keep a dozen queries, grant requests, sample chapters, or completed pieces in the mail at all times. That way there was always hope, even in the years I was building a huge collection of rejection slips. Even now, I usually have at least a half dozen things out at any one time.

10. Agents. Most won't take you unless you're published, which seems rather a Catch 22. But give one a try if you feel that you have a large part of a marketable book. (Very few handle articles, poetry, or stories, and then only for the big names.) The worst he or she can say is no. Then try another or try to sell the book yourself. Just don't give up.

11. Don't pay reading fees. Ever.

12. Children's picture books are deceptively simple in appearance, but they have some strict rules. There are a number of good books on the subject. I would suggest that you visit a first-class library for a look at the books available. Perhaps even better, visit or write the Children's Cooperative Book Center at the University of Wisconsin--Madison (600 N. Park St., Madison, WI 53706) or one of the other children's book centers around the nation.

13. Unless you are a professional illustrator, do not send the MS. with illustrations. Do not arrange for a friend to illustrate it either. Publishers will almost always reject collaborative efforts unless you have a proven partnership. The editor will line up the illustrator.

14. Consider joining a writers' group or organization. The local ones are handy for manuscript criticism and mutual support. Just don't get hung up on the organization and forget that your focus is on becoming a writer--a profession that must be largely a solitary one. On the regional level, the Wisconsin Regional Writers is pretty good. The last address I had was: Roxine McQuitty, Membership Chairperson, Wisconsin Regional Writers, 4633 W. Fond du Lac Ave., Milwaukee, WI 53216. There is also the Council for Wisconsin Writers, which is a quieter organization of published professionals. Address: CWW, 510 Presidential Lane, Madison, WI 53711. Finally, there is the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). It is fairly expensive but I recommend it highly for the newsletter and workshops. Address: SCBWI, 345 North Maple Drive, Suite 296, Beverly Hills, CA 90210. They will provide the name of the current Wisconsin Chapter advisor.

15. No matter how you do it, keep faith. If you keep working at it, eventually you'll make it. (Now and then, glance at the garbage on the paperback rack. It helps to remember that some real idiots get published.)

Greatest good luck,
Al Carter

Dear friends:

I am complimented that so many people have recently asked me for advice. Unfortunately, I know longer have the time to answer every letter in as much detail as I would like. Everyone must find his or her own way in this business, but here are a few pieces of advice that address some common questions.

1. Join the school newspaper staff if you haven't already. Journalism will teach you much.

2. Read as many books as your leisure time will allow. Be adventurous and try many different authors and types of books. (You may have zero interest in westerns, but read one anyway just to find out about the genre.) If you are particularly moved by a passage in a book, reread the section with attention to the word choice, sentence structure, punctuation etc.

3. Start writing. (Don't talk too much about your ideas before they are down on paper. That will rob you of the excitement of pursuing the idea.) To write well takes a great deal of practice. One of my major regrets is that I did not write more when I was younger. If I had, I'm sure I would be better at it today.

4. Set aside time to write even if it's only a few minutes a day. I have never heard of anyone making it as a professional without working a regular schedule. Keep to your schedule even when you don't feel like writing.

5. Rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite. Very little is good in first draft. I am firmly convinced that good writing is the product of careful rewriting. I usually go through a piece twenty to twenty-five times before it is published.

6. Investigate the books on writing in your local library. About 75% will be of doubtful value, but the other 25% will help a great deal.

7. Find a friend who is honest enough to tell you what needs work. Take the advice and rework your piece. Sometimes, you'll discover that the piece is garbage. Chuck it and start again.

8. There are some excellent summer programs in writing for young people. Check them out. If you really want to be a writer--and I don't doubt that--skip the job flipping burgers next summer and go to one of them. Your school counselor or the head of the language arts department can probably help you. You might want to write to the National Association for Young Writers, P.O. Box 3000, Dept. YW, Denville, NJ 07834 for information.

9. Have faith in yourself. Many writers have been published quite young. S.E. Hinton published THE OUTSIDERS when she was only 18. Lois Duncan and Gordon Korman were even younger. However, success at such an early age is quite rare. Most writers get a lot of rejection slips--I certainly did--before making a sale. Unfortunately, most people trying to become writers give up on a piece after a rejection slip or two. Then after two or three pieces get rejected, they give up altogether. Don't do that! Persistence more than talent separates published writers from unpublished dreamers.

10. Develop a thick skin. Take criticism gracefully, use what's useful, and discard the rest. A writer can be forgiven a lot of things, but never quitting.

Good luck.

Best wishes,

Mar. 22, 1998

Mr. Anderson's Students
Lapeer High School

Dear Friends:

Thank you for your many interesting letters and questions. Most of the questions about my personal life and career are answered in the enclosed autobiography.

To your questions. Where do I get the ideas for my stories? I think a writer must train himself (or herself, as the case may be) to be a good observer and a good listener. A writer must leave himself open to emotions, even when they hurt. If he does that, I think the ideas will come. The world is a very exciting place, filled with stories waiting to be told.

I have been a full-time writer for about seventeen years. I write for young adults because I like them. I find myself constantly impressed with the courage, toughness, and resiliency of young people. They deserve to have good books written for and about them, and I hope some of mine measure up.

Do I write about events that happened to me? Not directly. My characters are made up of bits and pieces of people I have known or observed. So too with the events. However, I always share some common concern with my main character. Like Carl in Up Country, I had an alcoholic parent. Not my mother, but my father, who died when I was seventeen.

When I decided to explore the issue of growing up in an alcoholic home, I thought I was already an expert. But one January night, I sat down to take just a glance at a book called A Survivor's Manual for Children of Alcoholism. And I had one of the most frightening intellectual and emotional experience of my life. I met my own ghost on every page. By midnight, I'd had the shocking realization that I hadn't understood anything about my father's alcoholism or what it had done to me and the other members of my family. And I was in an absolute towering rage. How could I, who'd always imagined myself as pretty bright, have been so incredibly stupid? I would not show today, not even to my wife, what I wrote in the margins of that book that night.

But now I would not trade that experience for anything in the world, because it changed my life. I finished that book at five o'clock in the morning and went for a very long and very cold walk. I returned home determined to get a grip on my past and my life as I was living it. I read more books, joined an adult children of alcoholics' group, and attended a couple of workshops. And guess what happened? I became a much happier person. Today, I am an infinitely happier, more relaxed, and I think gentler person than I was before. And I wrote a book, Up Country. So, while Carl is not me, nor I him, we became friends in our mutual search for understanding and happiness. May he find them, in whatever realm fictional characters go to live when their stories have been told.

Which brings us to the matter of a sequel. No, I doubt if I would ever write one. Through me, Carl has told his story. Besides, he's had enough trouble already, and I don't want to put him through any more. He now belongs to you more than he does to me, and you are free to imagine whatever future you would for him.

Do Signa and Carl stay together? I hope so, but see paragraph above. What became of Steve? Beats me. Maybe he's in prison, maybe he's working with the poor in Calcutta.

Do I get to hang out with writers. Well, I get to meet a few of them. Chris Crutcher, Gary Paulsen, and Bruce Brooks are friends. And so is Bill Anderson. You guys are pretty darned lucky to have a real, honest-to-God writer as a teacher.

My most recent novel is a baseball novel, Bull Catcher. It's pretty good, if I must say so myself. What is my favorite novel among those I've written? A novel called Dogwolf, although I am fond of all of them in one way or another. Up Country is probably the one with more of myself than the others. I have a new novel, Crescent Moon, coming out in the fall. It is a historical novel set at the end of the lumbering era in Wisconsin.

Do I ever get stuck and not know what to write? Frequently. A writer simply has to fight through that. The worst thing he or she can do is to quit trying.

Advice on writing. Read a lot. Write a lot. Write on a regular schedule. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Develop a thick skin and learn to take constructive criticism. And rewrite some more. Don't let the first rejection slip or the tenth or the hundredth stop you. (By the way, many writers, including Lois Duncan, S. E. Hinton, and Gordon Korman all published books as teenagers.)

Am I married to Signa? Nope. My wife is short and dark. But she's tough and a farm girl, too.

What is my favorite car? I've always wanted to own a Land Rover. And not the wimpy ones of recent years but one of the square-shouldered ones made of steel and suitable for driving across the veldt. I don't, however, ever expect to own one. What do I drive? I have three cars: an 89 Sable station wagon, a 79 Ford F150 pickup, and a 1980 Plymouth Volare, soon to be a classic and with only 78,000 miles. Great car.

I think making a movie out of Up Country would be a great idea. I don't, however, have any control over such things. The book has been circulated with the movie companies without any takers. And I certainly can't afford the million dollars plus that it would take to finance one myself. Up Country took maybe eight or ten months to write. I'd have to look it up.

A couple of people asked why Carl didn't stay with his mother at the end, especially because she is not drinking. I think because he has come to realize how much he has to do to overcome his own problems. Living in an alcoholic home has been very unhealthy for him, and he needs to revise how he deals with the world. And although he has made a lot of progress, he still has a long way to go. He has a much better chance to succeed in the stable family in Blind River. Even his mother admits that, which shows how much she has grown.

For those of you who wrote of a parent's drinking, I would offer a few thoughts. For many years, I felt that something must be wrong with me because I could not love my father enough to make him stop drinking. That was a terrible mistake. Nobody--and I mean nobody--can make an alcoholic stop drinking until he/she is ready to seek treatment. Carl learns that, I learned that, and--as hard as it is--you will have to accept that reality, too. Your parent has an illness called alcoholism, and you can no more cure him/her than if he/she had cancer.

What can you do if you are living in an alcoholic home? You can learn about the illness and learn to live within your alcoholic family as happily and as clear-headedly as you can. There are many books that will help you to do that, including many far better than Up Country. Ask your librarian or school counselor for some suggestions. (You might take a look at pages 223-224 of Up Country. These are some of the typical responses of children of alcoholics to their situation, and the list is pretty close to what I found out about myself in reading A Survivor's Manual for Children of Alcoholism.)

There are many groups for young people from alcoholic homes, principally Alateen. If you are the child of an alcoholic and have not attended a meeting, go to one. There is nothing to be embarrassed or frightened about, although you will no doubt be both before your first meeting. I was when I attended my first meeting of an adult children of alcoholics group. But I've had few finer times in my life. For the first time, I was with people who had lived through the same thing I had. And, oh Lord, how similar we all were. We laughed, we cried, we shared, and came away with a wonderful sense of release. I kid you not, I walked home on air. And you will, too. Strange as it sounds, you'll have a marvelous time.

I know I'm not asking you to do easy things. But I promise you that you'll be happier for doing them. And always remember, you have a right to be happy. It is written into the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America: the right to the pursuit of happiness. By happiness the writers of the Declaration did not mean the pursuit of simply material things, but of a sense of well-being, of peace with ourselves.

As you no doubt have noticed, it's not easy growing up. It never was, not for any of us even in the best of times and circumstances. But here's a secret: as lousy as you may feel some days, there is HOPE. You are going to make it. You are going to survive being teenagers. Why? Because you are tough, you are capable, you are resilient. You may not feel so all the time, but you are. Guaranteed.

Again, my thanks for your letters.

Good luck and best wishes,
Alden R. Carter

P.S. One final thing. Trust your teachers. There are a lot easier ways to make a living than teaching, and people do it because they care about young people. Work with them. Trust them. It'll help.

Go back to the AUTHORS PAGE.

Go back to the A.S.T.A.L. Home Page.

This web page was last updated on: 21 June 2007

All content on this and all other related pages is Copyright © The Alliance for the Study and Teaching of Adolescent Literature at Rhode Island College.