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Welcome to my first author interview of 2008. As you can see from the heading (and as I said in yesterday’s post, today I’m privileged to be chatting with one of the most talented men I’ve met, Bruce Coville.

Bruce has written more books than most people can ever dream of writing. More than 90, at this point, and continuing to rise. If you check his profile on MySpace, you’ll learn interesting information, like that some of the people he’d most like to meet include Jon Stewart, Lewis Black and Bill Clinton. From there, or if you’ve ever chatted with him for a while, you’d know for certain that he likes Broadway shows, and that in 2001, he founded Full Cast Audio, an audio-book publishing company that won two Audie awards early last year. (The Audies are to audio companies as the Oscar’s are to movies or the Emmy’s are to TV.) Full Cast Audio does what you’d expect from its name - full-cast audio productions of books, using kids for the kid roles, teens for the teen roles, and so on.

And now, on to the interview:

You’ve had three books come out this year – The Winter’s Tale, part of a series of retellings you’ve done for Penguin in October, and Hans Brinker, a picture-book retelling of the well-loved (but evidently seldom-read) novel by the same name out in November from Penguin as well, and, earlier this year, The Mischief Monster, part of the Moongobble & Me series from Simon & Schuster.

But what I know you’ve been working on diligently, and what I’ve heard from a reliable source could be your masterwork, is Dark Whispers, the third book inThe Unicorn Chronicles which is scheduled for release by Scholastic in July of 2008, although I’m sure you’re now on to the fourth and final volume of the Chronicles, The Last Hunt. (Curious about my source? It was none other than fantasy great Tamora Pierce, who tipped me on your genius at the LA SCBWI Conference this summer.) Interested fans can check out the Prologue and Chapter 1 of Dark Whispers at the Unicorn Chronicles website.

Because so much about Bruce’s earlier work can be found by reading his website or other interviews like this one at Scholastic or this one at Harcourt Books, I decided to focus on short stories for much of this interview.

1. You now have two solo collections out (that I’m aware of): Oddly Enough and Odder than Ever, both of which have been joined in last year’s release, Odds are Good: An Oddly Enough and Odder than Ever Omnibus; if my research is correct, they’ll be joined next year with a third collection, Oddest of All. In addition, you’ve edited at least a dozen anthologies bearing your name (e.g., Bruce Coville’s Book of Monsters), and you’ve edited and/or contributed to scads more, including The Unicorn Treasury: Stories, Poems, and Unicorn Lore; Half Human, which you edited and to which you contributed "The Hardest, Kindest Gift," a short story about Melusine (back to her in a mo’); A Glory of Unicorns (2000) which you edited and to which you contributed "The Guardian of Memory"; Ribbiting Tales: Original Stories about Frogs (2000), ed. by Nancy Springer ("In the Frog King’s Court"); Twice Told: Original Stories Inspired by Original Artwork, ed. by Scott Hunt ("Saying No to Nick"); Am I Blue?: Coming Out from the Silence, ed. by Marion Dane Bauer ("Am I Blue?", a coming out story featuring a fairy godfather); and 13: Thirteen Stories That Capture the Agony and Ecstasy of Being Thirteen, ed. by James Howe ("What’s the Worst That Could Happen?").

Before going too far into the topic, what’s the attraction for you in writing a short story?

Actually, I don’t find writing them all that attractive! My brain tends to think much more in novel form. (Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher was meant to be short story. I just got carried away . . .) It’s really all Jane Yolen’s fault; she kept pressuring me to write them for anthologies she was doing – then at some point said, “If we get enough of these, you can publish a collection,” which was something that did sound very attractive.

Of course, once I had nearly enough for a collection, she upped the ante by saying “We should have three new ones for the book, too.”

The funny thing is, despite my resistance to the form, I think that, page for page, my short stories represent much of the best writing that I’ve done.

I am amused to find out that the form is so difficult for you, since your written product reads so damn well.

Which would seem to reinforce the "need to suffer to make art" trope. I really hate that idea - so the fact that my own life and work would seem
to confirm it is kind of galling!

2. First, I want to ask you about ideas. Ordinarily, I assume that all writers get their ideas from the same place I do, the Central Idea Stockpile, but my understanding is that you have WBS ("Weird Brain Syndrome"), which is where your story ideas come from. When an idea turns up, how do you decide which ones are novels, and which are short stories?

Oddly Enough, there’s a short short called "Duffy’s Jacket", which is essentially what the local school librarian would call a "jump story;" the story is a long set-up to an ending payoff that causes one to jump (and chuckle). Because of its subject matter – a set-up with a "jumpline", almost the same format as a joke might have (although the story is, of course, not a joke), it is clearly a short story. But the premise for "With His Head Tucked Underneath His Arm" from the same book, or that of the Melusine story, "The Hardest, Kindest Gift" from Half-Human, could have been expanded and blown out into a longer treatment. Is there something about the idea or character in particular that governs your decision?

Actually, it’s the assignment most of all. That is, when I write a short story, it’s usually because someone has asked me to. So I start by looking for ideas that are appropriate for the format. These days, that often means sifting through the rather hefty “Idea File” that I’ve built up over the last two or three decades. The brain being cranky, ideas don’t come when you want them, they come when it feels like it. So when I do get an idea I write it down and stuff it in the folder.

Prince of Butterflies, which started out as a short story, though it is now a picture book, was inspired by the real event of a monarch migration landing on the side of my house when I was a kid. Twenty or thirty years later I put a note in the idea file that I should write about it. Five or ten years after that I was asked to write a story for a trial issue of a new magazine that Disney Press was starting. I went through the idea file, settled on that one, then got the actual story in an afternoon. But it sure had a long gestation period.

“Duffy’s Jacket” on the other hand, came to me when I was walking with my children and a friend in the woods. When we came back to the house I excused myself, went upstairs, and wrote the whole thing in an hour or so. I wish I could do that more often, since it is far and away the most popular and reprinted of all my stories!

3. My first exposure to the story of Melusine was as part of A.S.Byatt’s novel, Possession, which I found thrilling and wonderful and, truth be told, a bit disheartening – it’s so well done in so many ways as to make one question one’s own abilities to produce decent works of fiction. She used the actual tale of Melusine as part of the story, and also used Melusine as a metaphor. Your version of the Melusine tale, "The Hardest, Kindest Gift", obviously fits the theme of the anthology in which it’s found, Half-Human. What drew you to the Melusine story, and how did you decide to write it in the mixed format it has (a cross between straight, vaguely contemporary first-person narrative in "real time", first-person observations from Melusine, and first-person written narrative by the narrator’s deceased grandfather)?

To single out any one part of your writing as exemplary is, of course, absurd, as any of your readers can attest. However, I adored this bit from
"The Hardest, Kindest Gift":

I have thought about this much in the years since I came here to the monastery, where there is so much time to think, and I begin to wonder if in every marriage there are things that should remain secret. How much of ourselves can we really share? Is anyone ever ready to see the all of it, the deep and secret parts that we ourselves sometimes fear to peek at?

I do not know the answer. But I do know this: Whether or not there are things that should not be known, there are things that should not be said, words that once they poison the air can never be taken back, but hang like a curtain of venom between you and the one you love.

Several things about the Melusine story strike me as being compelling. To start with, it has love, betrayal, and tragedy, which are a pretty awesome trio. But there is also – if you accept the fallen angel part – an odd admixture of pagan and Christian myth structures.

As to the structure, I think it was partly driven by the fact that the root story has a generational aspect (some of that was trimmed out for the version printed in Half Human, but I’ve restored it for a longer version that will appear in Oddest of All, a collection slated for fall of 2008). Plus the original tale ends with Melusine trapped in this hideous form, which seemed to call for someone to rescue her. And it seemed that the onus for that rescue would fall on one of her descendants.

4. I was hoping you’d share some of the "tricks" to writing short stories for young readers as opposed to novels, apart from them being shorter by virtue of fewer words. For instance, I’ve noticed that most of them have a limited number of characters or, in a case where there might be a lot of other characters ("The Box" or "Am I Blue?", say), they’re described en masse (e.g., "the boys" or "everybody in his town" or "the people in the café"). And although most of them have clear narrative and emotional arcs, with the emotional arc mirroring the story in most cases (and quite literally in "The Japanese Mirror"), or operating in tandem in others, it seems obvious that sub-plots are out. One of the things that still surprises me about some of your YA short stories was that some of your characters become adults, marry, and sometimes even die, which seems contrary to some of the advice out there for children’s writers. Are there any considerations you take into account when crafting a short story? Useful tips you’d be willing to part with for folks interested in getting started writing short stories (besides the obligatory warning that the market for them is small)?

I’m probably not the best person to provide advice about short stories, given how tricky I find them to write. Your observation that I break structure is spot on, but that’s not done intentionally. It’s just something that, in certain cases, was required by the stories themselves.

I’d like to say something flip and rebellious like, “I’m not real good at following rules.” But the truth is, I wasn’t thinking about the rules, I was thinking about the story.

Which is suppose is slightly flip, but is also completely true.

5. Considering that most folks bemoan the dwindling availability of short stories, you’ve had quite a bit of success in the genre, much of the time with entries that would fall into the fantasy, science fiction or horror genres. All of those genres can be difficult for writers, including novelists, because they require world-building, yet short stories abound (and not just for kids - consider the success of collections by Neil Gaiman for adults and children, and Stephen King’s collections for grown-ups). Do you think that science fiction, horror and fantasy readers are more apt to appreciate short stories than readers of other genres? If so, is that based on tradition within the field or something else?

I don’t know that folks bemoan the dwindling availability of short stories as much as they bemoan the dwindling market for them. I do think genre readers – not just SF, fantasy, and horror but also mystery and western readers – do have a stronger devotion to the form than mainstream readers. There are probably a lot of reasons for this, but I think that one reason is that genre short stories tend to deliver a more satisfying reading experience. They may not be as deep, as rich in character, as lovely in language as mainstream short stories, but they are more apt to be shaped as stories than to be a “slice of life” thing that leaves you dangling.

That’s a personal reaction, of course, and probably exemplifies some reverse snobbery. But since you asked, that’s my opinion.

6. What’s next?

Owing partly to having lost my mind and started an audiobook publishing company, I have a long backlog of promised projects. The most urgent next book is the fourth volume of the Unicorn Chronicles, since I dast not let as much time go by as I did between books 2 and 3. (Nine years is really excessive!) After that – and balancing nicely against your opening questions – I’m expanding my short story “My Little Brother is a Monster” to a full length novel, tentatively titled In the Land of Always October. Then I have to move right on to the next Magic Shop book, and then a sequel to Goblins in the Castle. I have my work cut out for me!


Cheese or chocolate?

Coffee or tea? Coffee

Cats or dogs? Cats

Favorite color? Depends on the day

Favorite snack food? Peanut butter and crackers. (First thing I eat every day!)

Favorite ice cream? Ben and Jerry’s (I know, that’s a brand, not a flavor, but they have too many divine options to choose from)

Water or soda? Water

What's in your CD player/on iTunes right now? Andrea Marcovicci’s “Some Other Time”. (I listen to a lot of cabaret singers – Nancy Lamott, Karen Akers, and the divine Marcovicci.)

What's the last movie you memorized lines from? Young Frankenstein (Some people like sophisticated quotes from Casablanca, but I most often quote Peter Boyle as the monster: “MMMMMMMMMMMM!” Accompanied with the proper facial expression it’s an extremely useful and versatile quote.)

My thanks again to Bruce for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer my pesky questions. Right now he's hard at work on the fifth "Moongobble and Me" book, likely to be called The Naughty Nork, which is, per Bruce, "a bit longer than the previous ones." It's half written and all outlined, so Moongobble fans should take heart. After that, he's back to finishing The Last Hunt and, with it, The Unicorn Chronicles.

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( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 3rd, 2008 01:59 pm (UTC)
Thank you both for this! MMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM!
Jan. 3rd, 2008 03:30 pm (UTC)
Was that a monster MMMMMMM or a yummy MMMMMM? Oh the ambiguity of it all . . .
Jan. 3rd, 2008 02:20 pm (UTC)
Great interview! Thanks!
Jan. 3rd, 2008 03:30 pm (UTC)
You are most welcome.
Jan. 3rd, 2008 03:21 pm (UTC)
What a joy to read. Thanks. I'm trhilled to hear there's a third collection coming.
Jan. 3rd, 2008 03:31 pm (UTC)
Me too. Although I'm hoping the selection of the title doesn't preclude a fourth. (What is odder than Oddest of All?)
Jan. 3rd, 2008 03:42 pm (UTC)
Wow, he is one busy dude! How nice of him to take the time to talk with you for our benefit!

Jan. 3rd, 2008 04:08 pm (UTC)
Considering he has a ton of speaking engagements plus he's running Full Cast Audio (which has been recording Dark Whispers, btw) on top of all the writing stuff he mentioned, I'm just thrilled we can exchange the occasional email. And I, like you, am grateful that he took the time to answer my questions.
Jan. 3rd, 2008 03:42 pm (UTC)
Awesome, awesome interview. My children love the Moongobble books and will be thrilled to know another book is in the near future!
Jan. 3rd, 2008 04:17 pm (UTC)
And another Magic Shop book is in the offing, too . . .
Jan. 3rd, 2008 09:28 pm (UTC)
Very cool. And what intelligent questions. I'd be all, "Remember when you had the Moongooble keep turning things into cheese? That was really funny."

Jan. 3rd, 2008 10:31 pm (UTC)

Making me snort Coca Cola out my nose was not nice, MR. Funny, maybe, but not nice. I laughed because your comment is so funny, and so patently false - I've read your blog for years now, and I know you'd have been at least as coherent as I.
Jan. 3rd, 2008 09:28 pm (UTC)
Thanks so much, Kelly!This was awesome!

"Sed-a-GIVE?????" (one of my favorites too!)
Jan. 3rd, 2008 10:33 pm (UTC)
I'm so glad you enjoyed it - I would have hated to disappoint a die-hard fan like yourself!
Jan. 3rd, 2008 09:29 pm (UTC)
Very cool. And what intelligent questions. I'd be all, "Remember when you had Moongooble keep turning things into cheese? That was really funny."

Jan. 3rd, 2008 10:27 pm (UTC)
I have nothing insightful to say at this moment, as I'm gonna read this when my girls go to sleep, but just popping in to say: I CAN'T WAIT TO READ IT! And it looks beautemous.

Jules, 7-Imp
Jan. 3rd, 2008 10:32 pm (UTC)
I sure hope it lives up to your expectations! *nail biting*
Jan. 5th, 2008 02:50 am (UTC)
This was a really great interview of a really great author. Thanks for sharing it!!!
Jan. 5th, 2008 08:38 pm (UTC)
You are very welcome.
Jan. 5th, 2008 05:07 am (UTC)
Congrats, Kelly! Great interview. Thanks to Bruce for sharing so much backstory.
Jan. 5th, 2008 08:39 pm (UTC)
Isn't he the best?
Jan. 5th, 2008 10:07 pm (UTC)
:) My favorite Coville book is The Ghost Wore Gray.
( 22 comments — Leave a comment )

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