You’ve had two books come out this year – True Talents, the sequel to Hidden Talents, came out in March, and The Curse of the Campfire Weenies and Other Warped and Creepy Tales came out in September.
Back in May, I interviewed you for The Edge of the Forest, and we discussed True Talents, as well as your blog, Gadfly in the Ointment. We talked a bit about both books at the time. What are your favorite parts of the tour? What’s been your favorite reader reaction to True Talents? To Curse of the Campfire Weenies?
The best part of the tour was that I lost about ten pounds, even though I ate well. Whenever I had any down time, I went for a long walk. (Now, if I could only arrange four or five more tours, I’d be at a healthy weight.) But I suspect you’re interested in a book-related aspect. I was pleased to discover I’m starting to get known. Most of the schools I visited already use my books. I met some wonderful booksellers, and got to sign the wall at several stores. It was fun seeing all the signatures and drawings. As for reader reactions, I was pleased when people told me they liked True Talents even more than Hidden Talents, and that they enjoyed the mix of stories in Campfire Weenies.
In a 2002 interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith, you briefly discussed writing humor and writing a serious piece (your short story, "War is Swell"), as well as writing for series and a plethora of other bits and bobs. And I got to thinking more and more about your short stories, and not just because I happen to own at least two different Weenie books (cue Sherman Schrader: "Ask me about my wiener!"), but also because they are so tightly crafted.
In this interview, I’d like to focus on short stories. Before going too far into the topic, what’s the attraction for you in writing a short story?
I’ve always loved short stories. I grew up reading a lot of genre fiction. I think I read every short-story collection and anthology in the Morris County Library’s science-fiction section. It’s natural to write what you read. Stories are great for exploring weird or quirky ideas. They’re also a lot easier to revise than novels, since you can really keep the whole thing in your mind and in front of you.
You now have at least five solo collections out: The Witch’s Monkey and Other Tales, Kidzilla and Other Tales, In the Land of the Lawn Weenies and Other Warped and Creepy Tales, Invasion of the Road Weenies and Other Warped and Creepy Tales, and The Curse of the Campfire Weenies and Other Warped and Creepy Tales. Word on the street is that Tor has signed you for another Weenie collection, with a weenie to be named later.
It’s slightly less impressive than it sounds. The first two books were combined into the third one. So I can only take credit for either three or four collections, depending on how you want to count them. Still, that does represent 105 stories. And there is indeed a 4th Weenie on the way. I’m excited about it. I’m hoping to recapture the feel of my first books. Some of the newer stories have strayed a bit from the straight, classic sort of horror I originally wrote. I love the new stories, but I sometimes worry that I’m dangerously close to getting a bit too self indulgent and literary. I need to hit the brakes before I skid into that lane. I already have one new story that is totally horrifying in a very funny way, and a couple flat-out scary ones. There will be snakes, hornets, and at least one carnival ride.
(Note to readers: To learn whether a short story is literary, you may wish to consult "A Guide to Literary Fiction", one of David’s humor pieces at his website.)
In addition to your solo collections, I’ve located at least a dozen other short story collections to which you’ve contributed in the past seven years or so: The not-yet-available Owning It: Stories About Teens with Disabilities(2008), ed. by Donald R. Gallo (Your story’s title, "Here’s to Good Friends", makes me sing the Lowenbrau theme song every time I read it); First Crossings: Stories About Teen Immigrants (2007), ed. by Donald Gallo, for which you contributed a piece called "Pulling Up Stakes" about a Transylvanian kid who makes friends with the local Goths; Destination Unexpected: Short Stories (2006), ed. by Donald Gallo ("Bread on the Water"); Tripping Over the Lunch Lady (2006), ed. by Nancy Mercado ("Science Friction"); What Are You Afraid Of? Stories About Phobias (2006), ed. by Donald R. Gallo ("Claws and Effect"); Dreams & Visions: Fourteen Flights of Fantasy (2006), ed. by M. Jerry Weiss & Helen Weiss ("Abra-Ca-Deborah"); Guys Write for Guys Read (2005), ed. by Jon Sciezska ("Copies"); Sports Shorts (2005), from Darby Creek ("Two Left Feet, Two Left Hands, and Too Left on the Bench", in which you discuss karate); Every Man for Himself: Ten Short Stories About Being A Guy (2005), ed. by Nancy Mercado ("Shockers"); Shattered: Stories of Children and War, ed. by Jennifer Armstrong ("War is Swell" ); Don’t Cramp My Style: Stories about THAT Time of the Month (2000), ed. by Lisa Rowe Fraustino (for which you were the sole male contributor, with "The Heroic Quest of Douglas McGawain"); Ribbiting Tales: Original Stories about Frogs (2000), ed. by Nancy Springer ("A Boy and his Frog"); Lost & Found: Award-Winning Authors Sharing Real-Life Stories Through Fiction (2000), ed. by M. Jerry Weiss & Helen S. Weiss ("Dual Identities"). Oh, and I see you’ve contributed seven short stories to Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, available online for $2.50 per issue.
I’m impressed by your research skills. There are also another dozen magazine stories out there, starting back in the late 1970's, and about 13 stories in a line of anthologies Highlights produced in the 1980's, but I’m far too lazy to ever compile a bibliography.
First, I want to ask you about ideas. I reckon you get them the same place as all other writers, from the Central Idea Stockpile. But how do you decide which ones are novels, and which are short stories? In your most recent collection, The Curse of the Campfire Weenies, there’s a short short called "Alexander Watches a Play," which reminds me very much of a story my grandfather used to tell me that began "It was a dark and stormy night. The boys were sitting around the campfire. In walked the Captain. ‘Evening, Captain.’ ‘Evening, boys.’ ‘Tell us a story, Captain.’ And this is the story the Captain told . . ." (al capo ad infinitum). Because of its subject matter, it is clearly a short story (and a fairly short short story at that). But the premises for "Spin" or "Predators" 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?
That’s really a key question. As you point out, some ideas are too small for more than a story. (Though there are some novels out there that contain very small ideas, or even no ideas at all.) I tend to have a limited attention span, so I like to get right to the point. I think that the stories you mentioned, and many others, could have easily been expanded by extension. I couldn’t pad out the events in them into a book, but I could take the character and concept for a longer walk. I guess the main factor is how much the idea excites me, and how willing I’d be to live with it for months rather than days. Though maybe “excite” isn’t the right word, because I do get excited when I’m grabbed by a story idea. Maybe the real answer is that when the idea is right for a novel, I get flooded with a wealth of possibilities. I can see branches rather than a straight line. This really is a fine question, and it merits a lot more thought.
As for where I get all those ideas, each Weenie collection ends with a brief explanation of the inspiration for every story. But to boil things down to a simple answer – sometimes I brainstorm, and other times I just pay attention to all the noise floating through my mind and harvest whatever seems useful.
David Lubar and a big weenie
I was hoping you’d share some of the "tricks" to writing short stories 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 ("Mr. HooHaa!" or "Sniffles", say), they’re described en masse (e.g., "a bunch of six-year-olds" or "everyone on my bus"). And I’ve yet to notice a subplot, although most of them have clear narrative and emotional arcs, with the emotional arc mirroring the story in most cases, or operating in tandem in others. 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)?
That’s another interesting observation on your part. And an astute one. I think my short attention span is a factor here, too. I definitely keep the characters to a minimum. I’ll even go back during revision and look for characters I can combine (literarily, not surgically). The only time I violate that might be when I have a scene where there are a bunch of kids making comments about something. I might give them names, but they rarely get more than that. I can’t think of even one story of mine that has a sub plot.
As for tips, let me see what comes to mind . . . I definitely think that the longer the story, the more rewarding the ending has to be. If everything comes down to a clever twist, the story needs to be short. You don’t want to read 50 pages, only to encounter a pun or the news that all of the characters were actually tadpoles. Speaking of twists, the writer needs to toss in enough clues so the ending resonates, but not so many as to give away the ending. This is the tightrope you step onto when you attempt to surprise the reader. On a more global scale, I think the best tip comes from the title of Jane Yolen’s writing book: Take Joy. I think it’s a good sign if you are enjoying the process.
On a somewhat related point - in your opinion, is a short story for children any different than a fiction magazine article for children?
There’s really no difference as far as individual stories go. The real issue is that when a story is in a collection, it has to balance with all the other stories. For example, I can’t have two stories about an evil mummy in the same collection (unless the collection is called The Great Big Book of Evil Mummy Stories), or even two that are too similar in theme and mood.
How difficult (or easy) is it for you to come up with titles? A number of your short stories have punny titles: "The La Brea Toy Pits" (from Road Weenies); "The Unforgiving Tree" (from Campfire Weenies), and many of the individual pieces contributed to the anthologies included above; others have plays on words (e.g., "A Little Night Fishing" from Road Weenies). In those cases, do the punny titles come first? How important is a title to a short story? Is the title of a novel more important than that of a short story?
"The La Brea Toy Pits" started as a title. Once those words popped into my mind, the story could almost write itself. "War is Swell" started out that way, too. Everyone has lots of flotsam and debris floating through the brain. The trick is to pay attention to it as it zooms past, and write it down.
I think a good title can enhance the effect of a story, especially if the second meaning is only fully understood after the reader reaches the end. (My favorite titles of all are the section titles Ambrose Bierce used in his short story, "The Damned Thing.") But I feel there’s plenty of leeway for mundane titles in stories. I don’t think I’d want to see Shirley Jackson’s "The Lottery" or Ray Bradbury’s "Kaleidoscope" with clever or punning titles like "Getting Stoned" or "Starburst."
With "A Little Night Fishing," I took the whole reference issue a bit farther. One of the characters is Wally Klein, with the idea that Wally is an alliterative bow to Wolfgang, and Klein refers to a word in the German title of Mozart’s "A Little Night Music."* I even tried to write the first paragraph so it had the same rhythm as the opening bars of the piece, but it came out feeling a bit awkward, so I let that conceit die.
One of my last tasks with any collection is to go over the titles and try to improve any that I feel could use a bit of an upgrade. For example, "The Haircut," became "A Little off the Top." But there is a long tradition of simple titles for short stories, so I don’t feel bad about titles such as "The Chipper" since you know right off what the story will be about.
I think titles for novels are hugely important. A perfect title is clear, interesting, and layered with depth. It shouldn’t be puzzling when spoken. It should also not bring up eighty similar hits when you search for it online. After Hidden Talents came out, I discovered that was the title for a Judith Krantz novel. When I was waiting for Dunk to come out, I was terrified that Walter Dean Myers would come out with a book with that title first. (In retrospect, Dunk is not a great title, since a lot of browsers might dismiss it as a basketball book.)
Considering that most folks bemoan the dwindling availability of short stories, you seem to have 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. In general, those genres are tough for novelists because they require world-building, yet short stories abound as well (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 readers within those genres are more willing to read short stories? Or, put another way (and with a slightly different angle), are there categories of readers for whom short stories hold greater appeal than other types of books?
I believe genre readers are more open to stories. But I suspect that voracious readers who aren’t specifically interested in a genre will be more likely to sample it by way of short stories. As for world building, I take the coward’s route and set most of my stories in the real world, adding just one fantasy or horror element.
One thing some readers might not know, although many would suspect, is that David is a true Renaissance man. He learned magic as a child. He studied martial arts, and earned a black belt in Isshin Ryu when he was 18. He plays guitar (left-handed), loves to fish, and can do computer programming. He's written everything from the novels and essays we've discussed here to poetry and essays (published in places including the New York Times and magazines aimed at writers, including Writer's Digest).
David Lubar putting the hurt on a bag around 1973
Back in May, you hinted that you’re working on a three-book series for Tor that combines magic and martial arts, most likely for the middle-grade set. Can you tell me anything more about this yet, or is it one of those "but then I’d have to kill you" sort of projects?
It’s really more a case of "but it’s currently killing me." The book will definitely combine martial arts and magic, but there is much work ahead of me. Some issues are still in flux.
Beyond the series and the 4th Weenie book, I suspect I’ll be writing another YA novel. I also have an old middle-grade SF novel I’m revising for Tor. I wrote it back around 1978, so it needs a massive overhaul, but I’m pretty fond of it.
Cheese or chocolate?
Cheese. The stinkier the better, because that usually means I don’t have to share.
Coffee or tea?
Two cups of coffee in the morning, generally by IV, always French roast, never Starbucks if there are other options. Tea with Chinese food. Unsweetened iced tea when a cold beverage other than water is required.
Cats or dogs?
Cats, and lots of them. Dogs are too fond of people.
The color of money. (With a nod to Walter Tevis.)
Favorite snack food?
Olives, in a martini glass.
Favorite ice cream?
Peanut Butter, preferably without mix-ins, though that’s hard to find.
Water or soda?
Water. From the tap is fine, unless it’s funky.
What's in your CD player/on iTunes right now?
I have a 5-CD changer. I tend to let things stay in it for weeks or months. Right now, it has some Beethoven piano sonatas, Haydn concertos (including his amazing trumpet concerto), Doc Watson, Django Reinhardt, and Oh Brother Where Art Thou? Or maybe I just said that to show I have eclectic tastes, and I’m actually listening to an endless loop of 99 Red Balloons.
What's the last movie you memorized lines from?
The Great Train Robbery (the original version, not the remake.) Or perhaps I’m just saying that to amuse those folks who get obscure references.
With award season nearly upon us, I wish you much luck with True Talents and The Curse of the Campfire Weenies. I’ve seen True Talents on the Quick Pick Nominations list over at YALSA, and hope that bodes well for it.
Thanks. I’ve learned not to get too invested in this stuff. Or perhaps I’m just saying that to hide the fact that my soul and spirit will probably be crushed once again. But I’d hate to end this on a down note, so let me close with something amusing. As I mentioned, when word-play floats through my mind, I grab it. I have a file full of useless snippets. For example, I figure it would be fun to open a bakery that caters to book lovers, and offer Kahlil Gibran muffins. Hey – where’d everybody go. Come one, it wasn’t that bad . . .
* For folks who don’t know, the original title is in German: Eine kleine Nachtmusik.
My thanks to David for taking the time to answer my questions. It is very much appreciated!
Other stops on today's Winter Blog Blast Tour:
Sherman Alexie at Finding Wonderland
Christopher Barzak at Chasing Ray
Shannon Hale at Bookshelves of Doom
Julie Halpern at The Ya Ya Yas
Maureen Johnson at Bildungsroman
Micol Ostow at Shaken & Stirred
Lisa Ann Sandell at Interactive Reader
Rick Yancey at Hip Writer Mama
Jane Yolen at Fuse Number 8
To check out the snowflakes featured in today's blogosphere, click on the Robert's Snow button to the left to visit 7-Imp and the list of today's links (and a lovely 2005 flake from Eric Rohmann). In addition, Jules and Eisha have also been keeping an ongoing list of blog posts thus far featuring snowflakes and the artists who created them.