RAWing with Geoff Herbach answering the five questions of doom
- You’ve written for the adult audience, but of late, you seem to be focusing on YA lit. Tell me how you got started writing, in particular writing for teens. What is it that draws you to tell the story of teens, in particular the struggles of young men coming of age?
I think the first part of that answer has something to do with what I find funny. Puberty is ridiculous and funny as hell. Secondly, it also sucks. It hurts (physically and emotionally). Thirdly, I remember being stunned by everything when I was a teen. Like the smell of gas when I first pumped it into a car and the smell of lip gloss and the taste of pizza. Everything blew me away. Combining all reasons, I find that stunning thing hilarious and sad (because most of us lose the ability to be stunned) and it makes me want to think about being a teen. Also, I have four teens right now in my house. They are so funny. Sometimes they act like little kids and sometimes they act like adults and I have no idea when it’s going to happen, when the kid part or the adult part is going to come out, and that all blows me away and makes me laugh (and it can make me sad). I both hate and love that the wheels can come off so fast. So, I guess I love this part of life. I love the intensity. There are so many great stories to tell right in these few years. I don’t do well if I’m not having fun and I find this all really fun. So, that’s why YA, I guess. I’m not sure if I’ll ever go back to writing novels for adults (but maybe).
2. Stupid Fast was stupid great, and I mean in the Rob Thomas / early Crutcher rarified air territory. Tell us a little bit about the origin of that story, in particular I’m interested in how did you know that Felton’s story wasn’t just one book, but three?
Man. Thanks so much, Patrick. Stupid Fast came from a lot of places. My son was growing so fast then (I like to tell the story of his left armpit going through puberty one night). I had a close family member who was living with me, a young guy, have a pretty significant mental break down. My own anxieties about what I was doing with my life (spending most of my time telling dumb jokes while my best friend from high school had given his life to taking care of kids – he’d become a middle school principal) were growing. And then I got this vision of a kid filled with anxiety, having just grown so fast, on the edge of breaking down like my family member was breaking down, a kid who played sports like me and my old high school best friend did, a kid who had a monkey voice in his head like I did all the time, and the book dropped out of me and it sort of changed how I look at everything in the whole world.
I pretty much knew by page 20 of Stupid Fast that I had both a mind and a soul story I wanted to tell about Felton that couldn’t fit in the first book (Stupid Fast is a body book). I found the middle one, Nothing Special, ridiculously hard to write, though. I think the third one, I’m With Stupid, is the rawest and best sort of distillation of the whole idea of Felton (that’s the soul), but it isn’t quite as funny as the body Stupid Fast.
3. In addition to your own writing, you also teach it at the college level. I’ve long held to the definition – which your books fit like my new pair of Chucks – that the best writing for teens isn’t that the paints the prettiest pictures, but that which holds up the best mirrors. How would you define great YA writing and which authors are on your YA Mt Rushmore?
I think there are really good books of the mind. There are smart, fun to read YA’s that are a joy, and are important, and do good in the world, but don’t quite land the way the great YA does (I actually think I did this with Fat Boy vs. The Cheerleaders – wrote a pretty fine book of the brain, that’s worth the read, but won’t nail anything to the wall). The books that kill me most are the ones that I feel in my body when I’m reading (and this is subjective, I know, but also real). My YA Mt Rushmore, which has a lot of people on it, has authors that can do that from time to time (I don’t think anybody can hit it with every book). Crutcher for sure, A.S. King, Carrie Mesrobian killed it in the last year, freaking J.K. Rowling did me in, Sherman Alexie, and going old school – we should all be talking about this book – Vision Quest by Terry Davis has killed me several times over. There are more up there on the mountain.
4. We did a school visit together a few years back and the energy you get, rather than give, visiting schools is amazing. Tell me why you think it is important that teachers and librarians host author visits. And what’s your best author visit story?
School visits are the best. There are a million reasons to bring an author in. Because I teach writers, one reason I like doing visits is me and the teen writers get to talk and we get to do writing together and they can see that doing writing well isn’t magic. You get a few technical skills down and you’re halfway there. Then you tell great stories that are all around you. I love it that author visits get kids jacked to read. I love it when kids come up to me telling me what I need to read. It’s just all that huge energy surrounding something that’s so fundamentally important to a good life (reading!). School visits are so good (you are a school visit ass kicker – I learned a lot from watching you operate that day).
There are a thousand funny things that happen during school visits, but my favorite thing is when a kid has totally loved a book and they want to do something with that love and they make some art about it and then give it to me or show me or whatever. That little stuff is really moving.
5. And now in this corner, Blatant Self Promotion: tell us about what just came out and if you care to confess, what you are working on now?
The Paperback of Fat Boy vs. The Cheerleaders just came out under the new title Gabe Johnson Takes Over. Yeah, that happened! I’ve got a really weird book coming later in the year called Strange Times, Origins that I co-wrote with Tom DeLonge who is the old front man from the band Blink 182. Then, I think a heart book is coming late this year (maybe early 2016). This Taco is a Keeper is the working title. I love that kid. His name is Taco.
Thanks so much, Patrick.