- Joan Bauer -
Bauer: Thanks for contacting me. It's always good to be asked questions about what I do because it makes me remember why I sit here at my computer with the world beckoning, slaving away in my cramped office.
Regarding your questions...
Students: What is your favorite/least favorite book that you have written?
Bauer: My favorite book so far is RULES OF THE ROAD because I feel, more than anything I've done, it interlinks humor and tragedy, which, frankly, is how I see my life. SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL, bless their hearts, said it was my best book yet and I humbly agree. My least favorite is STICKS because I wasn't as comfortable with a boy protagonist and, frankly, I think I personally can do more with humor for older readers. But I do want to let you know, that I truly love all of my children--not equally, but heartfully. There is no book that I wish I hadn't written.
Students: How do you come up with ideas for your books? Do you write about personal experience?
Bauer: Ideas come from everywhere. I saw a photo in a newspaper of a huge pumpkin years back and wondered what in the world people went through to grow something like that. Sometimes I get an idea for a character and start developing that and a plot streams from personality, like it did in RULES OF THE ROAD--although I must admit that much of that book was pulled from my own experiences living with an alcoholic father. Sometimes I'm intrigued by an image as I was in STICKS--that of the game of pool and what I felt it represented on that pool table--winning, losing, sportsmanship, etc. I keep an idea file and stick interesting things I find into it. RULES was "stuck together" this way--ten years ago I'd done a great deal of research on the shoe industry for a screenplay I was thinking about writing and never did. Everything is fodder for writers.
Students: How do you structure information for your books? How long does it take you to write a book?
Bauer: Each book is different. SQUASHED was my first novel, so I made all the mistakes on getting, losing, and misdirecting research in those early drafts. RULES flowed because so much was internal. STICKS had two parts--the plot and the math--I got the plot down first and then added the math and science when I knew how the characters would use them--not before. SQUASHED took 1 1/2 years to write, RULES took 6 months, STICKS took 1 1/2 years also, but I had carpel tunnel surgery to make things really interesting--hence, Poppy's and Mickey's hand problems--I related.
Students: Who or what do you read? Who or what has influenced your writing?
Bauer: I confess, much to Jean Brown's irritation, that I do not read YA literature except my own. A big part of this is I am easily influenced and I don't want to sound like anyone else. But adult-wise, my favorite humorous writer is P.G. Wodehouse, a most prolific dead white English humorist who did the Jeeves series and any number of funny works, many of which are in my bathroom in baskets. Don't ask. I don't have a favorite writer, but I enjoy Annie Proulx, Joseph Heller, Garrison Keillor's early works, some Ann Tyler, Barbara Kingsolver--loved ANGELA'S ASHES, OLDEST LIVING CONFEDERATE WIDOW TELLS ALL. I do reread F. Scott semi-regularly as well as dipping into Twain. I also read the Bible regularly--it's what gets me through. Regarding influences--my grandmother was a storyletter—quite funny--she greatly influenced my comic sense. Garrison Keillor's ability to bring heart and comedy to small towns certainly was with me when I wroteSQUASHED. I've been influenced by comedy writers like Max Schulman and Carl Reiner.
Students: When did you first want to become a writer? Why did you choose the young adult genre? How long did it take you to first get published?
Bauer: I always was interested in writing, even as a child. The trick was I didn't think of it as a serious career path or one that would provide an income (I was right about that for the first few years). I had no trouble getting SQUASHED published, other than going through two agents--but when I found someone reasonable, I won the Delacorte Prize and I was on my way. I've never had a novel rejected. Now screenplays are a different story. Strangely, I didn't choose the YA genre. I simply wrote a story about a 16 year-old girl--someone said, "You've written a YA book and I said fine." I told you I was easily influenced.
Students: Why did you choose such young characters? Wouldn't older characters have made the book more believable and broadened the audience?
Bauer: I chose young characters because I did not want, and my publisher did not want this book to be for older readers. This was always for kids 9-12. I chose fifth graders because of the math my daughter was doing in fifth grade and I thought this story could work well for interdisciplinary classrooms. I wanted Mickey to be reaching as a pool player--ten is an age when a tall kid who is good at the game can come alive, although it's thought of as an older person's game. From some of the feedback I've gotten from teachers, the age is working very well indeed. STICKS has been misunderstood by the general public because it's never been labeled for what it always was meant to be--a novel that uses math in everyday life for the 5-7th grade classrooms. Older characters, in my opinion, would have limited the story's appeal, made it darker, and the math would have seemed simplistic if you were dealing with high school kids. I get a fair number of letters from boys in the sixth grade on STICKS, so the kids seem to be into it.
Students: Do you have a background in math/science that helped you write this book?
Bauer: I don't have a background in math and science, but I have a whale of a background in hanging out in pool halls when I was a teenager. My husband is the mathematician/engineer in the family and like Arlen, he sees math played out everywhere. He was a great help. I also talked to several championship pool players to make sure my theories worked. By the way, they were all ten years old when they started the game.
Students: Because of the subject matter (gardening), I would like to know if researching gardening sparked your interest to take up the hobby?
Bauer: I was sure I would love gardening after I wrote SQUASHED. I bought over a hundred dollars of gardening tools, etc. that I was going to use to transform my back yard. After an hour of backbreaking misery it became clear that I prefer gardening as a metaphor. I have a landscaping service do the rest.
Students: I was surprised to learn that pumpkins can reach over 600 pounds. Is there any special type of pumpkin seed you can buy to produce such a large pumpkin?
Bauer: 600 pounds is small these days. The largest pumpkin now on record is over 950 pounds. The big daddy of all seeds is from England, the Atlantic Giant, I think, created by Howard Dill. A Big Max is an actual seed, but if you're really going world record, buy from Howard.
RULES OF THE ROAD
Students: I heard that you were afraid to write this book after the others. Why were you afraid? Did it have something to do with your past experiences?
Bauer: Jean Brown has been talking about me. Yes, I was terrified to write this book because it was more serious than my others and I was afraid people wouldn't let me change. I refused to do a one word cutesy title because I felt that would mislabel the book. It is a very personal story for me and writing so close to the bone was difficult. There were times when I felt very naked writing this story. I cried remembering the pain I went through with my father. I worried about being trite and overemotional. I was worried about handling alcoholism and humor at the same time--that was a very cautious dance. A few early readers suggested I not have Harry Bender die, but I disagreed. It was his death that empowered Jenna. I wasn't sure during the entire writing of this book--it was unsettling, like knowing your low on gas and there are no service stations in sight. I was also concerned about how my mother would respond since some of this story is quite like the experiences I had with my father. She was thrilled with the book, by the way. She even told me that some of the things I thought I'd made up had actually happened. Interesting how truth and release keep getting dragged out in fiction. Go figure. I've always felt that RULES was like a war story--the mature soldier gets killed in the line of fire; the younger soldier takes up the cause and goes on to win the battle. This was also a very important book for me to share with my daughter (it's dedicated to her) because it helped her see the struggles I had with my father, and how they made me stronger. That was the gift this book gave to me--a clearer understanding of the empowering gifts that come from growing up in an alcoholic home. And not only that, I got paid for it.
Page compiled in part by: Carrie Doll, Stacey Marshall, and Shelley Houser
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