Author to Author: Mark Shulman
So, without any more ado, I give you Mark Shulman…
SCRAWL (Roaring Brook, 2010) is your first foray into young adult fiction. What made you want to write for this age group?
I suppose the easy answer is that, like most men, I’m still a teenager at heart. For me, the teen years shared the prefix terri: terrific and terrible. It was my most volatile period, ripe with incredible highs and lows. Probably more than at any other age, who I am was defined by those few years of my life. So, to finally answer your question, I realized that I have so many memories of my teenage self, and my thought processes, that I could perhaps possibly write a novel from that point of view.
SCRAWL is the story of a boy who’s in serious trouble. He’s also at the threshold between acting like a bad guy and being one. For me, being a teenager was also about trying on roles. Unfortunately, a few of mine were photographed. Tod doesn’t think he has any choice but to be defined by his hard-luck neighborhood. But choices emerge. Will he take the clues and switch paths? Could I make a difference to a teenager on a similar trajectory? Perhaps some day this book can give someone hope. It’s not the first mistake that defines us, it’s the second.
Where and how did the story originate?
I never thought I could (or would) write a novel. That’s something that real writers did, not me. One day I was at lunch with an editor I admire, Neal Porter. He looked at all my books – picture books, nonfiction books, preschool and humor books – and he asked me what I really wanted to write. I casually uttered the words “write a novel” the way my young son says “be an astronaut” and the next thing I know, Neal’s making me live up to it. “Send me something,” said Neal, and I sent him a few paragraphs I’d recently written.
Those paragraphs have their own strange history. A writer friend, Alison James, gathered a few friends together and hypnotized us into starting a story from scratch. She landed us in our own random worlds and had us start scribbling. Alack! I was suddenly in my old high school, beating up some kid and busting his glasses. Having been the punching bag myself, and not the aggressor, my fictional bully had a connoisseur’s appreciation of how best to assault someone. And he was telling the story himself.
"It’s not the first mistake that defines us, it’s the second."
Bullying is a hot topic these days. Do you have personal experience with bullying (either on the giving or receiving end)?
Fat, noisy Jewish kid in a huge, tough inner-city school in the 1970s. Need I say more?
There are not many books that have a bully as a main character. It must be tough to do that and still maintain sympathy for the character. What were the challenges in writing Tod and how did you overcome them?
You know those times when you can’t help but look bad in front of a particular person? And you know that circumstances are stacked against you, and you’re being woefully misunderstood? That’s how Tod spends every day of his entire life. He has a bad-guy exterior, but he’s got a real heart.
Tod also has an inviolable moral code, like a Hammett antihero. He will never sell out. There’s something alluring in that trait, and it makes a good character better when the tension is ratcheted up. Sure, he’s an extortionist and a thief and a punk and a thug and a bully… okay, fine, I’ll admit it. But he’s true to himself, and his eyes are wide open. That’s what made him intriguing to follow around.
There were two significant writing challenges for me to make Tod believable. First, I didn’t have any interest in beating people up, so Tod doesn’t either. He just wants some pocket change, and to be left alone. Tod clearly differentiates himself from the “hard guys” and “mean kids” who cause trouble for sport, not money.
Second, the book is told as a chronological journal, with some fun (but legal) cheating in the timeline. A stoic like Tod is going to be skimpy with the information until he gets it dragged out of him. So, not only does his character grow and change, but so does his writing within the story. I always like a challenge.
Both Tod and his mother have sewing skills. Can you sew or did you fake this well?
Darn socks. But that’s it.
The book is written as a series of journal entries. What were the challenges associated with that format?
I mentioned that Tod needed to open up in stages. That wasn’t easy, since chapters couldn’t readily be shuffled for pacing if the tone kept evolving. Another challenge was that, being a tough guy writing to his guidance counselor, Tod wouldn’t naturally confess all his misdeeds and inner thoughts. I needed to invent a way for Tod to finally tell all, and I’m happy with the solution near the end. Lastly, keeping the dates straight was no picnic. I had to use Google Calendar to plot out each day, and see how they related to each other. November 1st, Thanksgiving, and November 30th are all referenced, so everything else needed to fit the narrative timeline. Did I mention I like challenges?
You have a bunch of other books for younger readers out on the shelves. From a writer’s perspective, how was SCRAWL different from those books?
I’m proud of my many books, regardless of size or stature. I put thought into all of them. My picture books have unexpected moments; my nonfiction has interesting tidbits and humor; my sticker books have story lines; my novelty books acknowledge and build upon the novelty. All these books use paper and ink, and syntax, but that’s it for similarities to SCRAWL.
What I’ve usually done with my previous, shorter books, is to visualize the completed book and create the text to fill the shape. With the novel, I mainly followed my lead character around. No structure, no form. I had a plot to eventually come back to, and characters running amok. The wise sages before me assured me that the book would make sense altogether, and they were right. Characters who were meant to be good ended up not-so-good, and vice versa. A few minor characters barged in and took over entire scenes. Luz the artsy goth girl elbowed her way in, every chance she got, and she added great fizz to her scenes. And when slightly-psycho Rex met a street preacher, it was all I could do to type fast enough while Rex ran the show. That doesn’t usually happen in a Discovery Channel book about sharks.
What was the oddest or most interesting job you have ever had?
I am proud that I have had a number of strange jobs. Here’s one: In college I somehow ended up with a bluegrass radio show on the NPR station in Buffalo. I knew nothing about bluegrass, but I could read a playlist. The show began at 5 am on Sundays. Rather than wake up early, I simply didn’t go to sleep Saturday night. I would be delirious by 7 am and, with an hour to go, I would start featuring album sides. Once I woke up to the record skipping. Nobody noticed. Also on that station, I would read the news in the evenings with a British accent, or replace the names of politicians with the names of my friends. I also ran the trivia contest a few times. I have no idea why I wasn’t booted. It’s a fairly large station.
What’s coming next from Mark Shulman?
A little more of everything. The second novel is outlined and underway; it should appeal to the readers of SCRAWL. I have finished an early reader, a picture book, and am working on a nonfiction book for a Big Nonfiction Publisher. Some other stuff is in the works, but I’ve learned not to report on primordial ooze. I’m also working on a sequel to Seth Baumgartner’s Love Manifesto. Someone should.
Thanks so much for your time (and for the the plug), Mark. I urge readers to pick up this book. It's quite unique.