the Events calendar ACHUKA's own discussion forum go to the blog takes you back to the ACHUKA home page
Joan Bauer

1. You describe your grandmother on your homepage as a 'professional storyteller'. Tell us a little bit about her, and her influence on you.  

 

My grandmother, who I called Nana, had given up her career, unfortunately, long before I was born. My grandfather had insisted she do itóhe only let her perform at church functions for free. A real shame, too, because she was quite well known in her day as both a director of plays and a storyteller. Iím told that people lined the streets outside the church she was married in just to get a glimpse of her. A few even tore at her veil to get a memento. She told stories of Norwegian immigrants who had just come to America and all the crazy things that happened to them adjusting to a new land. She became those immigrants, too. It was all first person. Her influence on me was profoundóshe was so amazingly talented and funny. Being with her was like getting a one-woman show for free. I think that through her stories she helped me developOrder a keen sense of humor at a very early age. I have always appreciated the oral tradition of storytelling, and Iím sure thatís why I use so much first person in my novels. She really thought through her stories and I sensed a personal connection when she told them. She interwove humor with seriousness masterfully. She told "small" stories that spoke to universal experiences. I remember being very angry at my grandfather (who died when I was little) when I found out heíd stopped her career. I wonder if in some way I had to weed through some of those emotions when I decided to get serious about my own creative career. There was always this inner voice in me saying, "Come on. You canít make this work. Youíll try and something will happen. You might get a little success, but it will all go away. Get a real job." One of the great tragedies of my grandmotherís life was that she died from Alzheimerís Disease. She lost her stories. I tried to write about that pain with the grandmother in Rules of the Road. Sadly, none of her stories were written down. Nothing she ever did was recorded. I canít tell you what Iíd give to have just a few of her stories in any form.

2. You have written, 'I work in humor because I believe that humorous books teach young people to use laughter against the storms of life. There's clinically proven power in humor to change our bodies and minds. Humor is a survival tool.' Does this mean you wouldn't contemplate writing a humourless book?

 


 

I am the kind of person who needs to laugh, who uses humor to make sense of things. I canít imagine writing a book in which there is no humor whatsoever because, for me, humor intersects with the good and the painful parts of life. When I can laugh about something, or laugh in the midst of something painful, it shows me that Iíve found hope that things will get better. I donít think Iím capable of writing a book that doesnít have some humor in it. I get depressed just thinking about it.S

3. Something you've said about characterisation I find highly illuminating: "Characters are like children--they respond to what we expose them to, and quite often they don't pay any attention to what we say. When I get lazy in this area, I write myself into a corner--I don't know my characters very well and can only take them so far." Can you expand on that?  

 

Oh, these characters we create just amaze us all the time. If we writers have done the hard work in understanding our characters, they will have wills of their own, or at the very least agendas. And that means, for my main characters and to a lesser degree my secondary ones, I have to know who they are inside, outside, emotionally, historically, professionally, physically, socially, and on and on. I ask myself dozens of questions about where they were born, what families they grew up in, regions of the country they lived in, special gifts they have, dreams, nightmares, fears, desires. I just keep layering the information on top of information until I get a character who has a real, conflicted personality. I call it giving them a birth certificate. Iíve learned what happens when I donít do thisólearned it when I was writing Squashed. Iíd done very little thinking through that story and got to a point about a third of the way through it where I didnít know how Ellie and her father would respond to each other. I simply didnít know them well enough to know. So I went back and wrote out the history of their life together, what it was like while Ellieís mother was still alive, what her life and death truly meant to them, and gradually I learned who these two different people were, how they were connected, and how they were not. Then their voices became authentic and they started flowing in ways they never could when they were simply stick figures in my head.

4. Is this connected with your use of first-person-voice narrative?  

  I think so. By the time Iíve build up my main charactersí backgrounds, their voices are in my heads so strongly it feels like I can hear them speaking. Itís funny, I can never actually see my main characters fully, but I can hear them. I know exactly what itís like inside their guts and their hearts.

Order5. One of your novels, Sticks (not yet published in the UK, but available over the internet) concerns a 10 yr old pool player. As a teenager you were a keen pool player yourself--"The crack of a well-hit ball, the ram of a perfectly executed bank shot against the rail rang out like rifle shots and became to me, next to a Beatles song, one of the profoundly meaningful sounds in the universe"--but you haven't necessarily shared the obsessions of your other main characters (photography:Thwonk; vegetable-growing:Squashed; shoes:Rules of the Road). Because of that, was there a difference between writing Sticks and your other books?  

 

Actually, I have shared the passions of each one of my characters, just not always overtly. In Squashed, Ellieís desire to grow the biggest pumpkin in Iowa was exactly how I felt about trying to grow my big dream Orderof being a successful writer. In THWONK, although I am truly one of the worldís worst photographers, I do know what itís like to see the world through a creative lens like A.J. does through her camera. In Rules of the Road, I never sold shoes, but I was in advertising sales for ten years and I had experienced the high drama of eyeball to eyeball selling. In Backwater, I pulled from my real love of history and my familyís many hiking trips to the Adirondack Mountains. Sticks connected me with an old loveóplaying pool--but I quickly discovered that itís much easier to play the game than write about it. I Orderstruggled with the pool game scenes because in the early drafts they sounded boring, but the breakthrough came when I started seeing the game scenes as a dance that I needed to choreograph. That added a rhythm to it. I could feel the characters move around the table, point their cues, hit the balls. The other complexity in writing Sticks for me was trying to sound like a ten year-old boy. Iíd had no brothers growing up; my folks were divorced when I was 8 and I rarely saw my father. So, I had no choice but to drive my husband crazy. I followed him around with a note pad, shrieking: "Tell me everything you remember about being ten. Nothing is insignificant here." My husband Evan is the archetype for Arlen Pepper, the ten year-old math visionary in the book.

6. Squashed contains some great slapstick set-pieces (the exploding pumpkin for example). Have there been any moves to film it?  

  There have been and none of them, to date, have panned out. I do tend to think visuallyólearned to do even more of that during my stint as a screenwriter. I always visualize my books happening.

Order7. The character in Squashed is overweight. Underlying the humour the book tells the poignant story of this plump girl's developing self-image and her first relationship with a boy. It was your first book and you wrote it while recovering from a serious driving accident. The themes of first novels are normally significant for various reasons - are they in this one?

 

 

Well, certainly as a young person I knew all about being plump. Pudgy we called it then; chubby. Awful, awful words that still make me spin with memories. I did want to write a book that showed a big girl not becoming anorexic thin, but having a really good life, getting the guy, AND winning with the vegetable. Weight was definitely an echo between Ellie and Max the pumpkin. Squashed relates to me on so many levelsóon being who you are despite what other people think. Iíve always been a person like thatónever a mainstream kid. Then thereís the message of overcoming adversity and how it can make us stronger. I was certainly overcoming plenty after my car accidentówondering if I could write again. Figuring I could; doing it in twenty minute segments at first due to the chronic pain. Learning so much about the power of laughter to heal. The humor in that book was downright healing to me. I think that when I finished writing Squashed, I felt that I, too, could win.

Order8. The relationship in Squashed is movingly affectionate, rather than 'hot' or 'passionate' . In Thwonk you have fun in undermining the class stud. One Amazon reviewer has written: "Thwonk, is an excellent book for a teen who, like myself, scorns ordinary, flouncy teen romance novels, or romance novels period." Indeed, in some ways the values in your books are reminiscent of the better aspects of the Fifties and pre-Flower-Power Sixties, exactly the period of your own childhood and early adolescence. Is that significant?  

 

Somewhat, although I became a teenager in 1964 and lived through the Sixties in all itís fire and cultural diversity. The Sixties, more than the Fifties had the biggest impact on my adolescence. Iíve managed to wipe out any memory of disco in the early 70ís which, I think, is to my credit. What Iíve learned from writing for YAs is that the experience of adolescence is much, much more universal than we might think. Being understood, parental angst, hormonal upheavals, obsessions, fears--these have been with teens forever and ever. Iím not convinced that the heart of people has changed all that much over the yearsóI see the changes more on the outsideóthe fashion of the minute, the lipstick of the millenium. That kind of thing. As a forty-eight year-old woman, this gives me a lot of hope.

Order9. Rules of The Road is a case in point. The book is so effective because the main character is so UN-contemporary, so UN-like the cliched picture of the somber and joyless adolescents who take part-time jobs just to earn some weekend money. Jenna is like a character from a Preston Sturges film, dreamily high-minded. Her speech towards the end literally brought tears to my eyes. How did you work up so much enthusiasm for shoe-selling?  

  I simply loved the thought of a kid being passionate about selling something so common. When I turned the rock over in my mind about what kind of a person would really succeed at selling shoes, it became clear to me that it would be the kind of person who was humble, not showy, didnít mind getting on her knees to help people. I wanted Jenna to have all of those attributes and to show how loving something ordinary can make it extraordinary. I added that passion for selling shoes because it was funny. I wanted Jenna to be completely anti-bimbo, to show that jiggles and bumps do not an interesting person make. Itís whatís inside, what drives us, NOT how we look or who we hang out with that defines us as people. As the shoe business part of the story grew, I found myself relishing in all the nutty characters I could create. I have, for the most part, loved work. It fuels me, gives me interest. I love what I do as a writer and I know lots of other people in other professions who love what they do. I wanted to celebrate that, and as a humorist, I had to push the envelope a little and see how funny I could make that. One of my favorite lines in the book is "selling shoes is the quickest road to humility in all of retail."

10. Rules of The Road is my favourite of your books,Order so it was disappointing not to see it better promoted in the UK. It was given an appallingly inept jacket, which gave quite the wrong impression of the main character. How do your books go down in AUstralia or other parts of the world?  

 

I think Iíve done fairly well for the most part. Rules of the Road is coming out in Germany soon. Thwonk has been published in six languages. The U.K. Rules of the Road cover was mentioned in at least one major review as being inappropriate. I think everyone loses when a bookís cover art doesnít honestly portray the story.

Order11. In Backwater, your latest US novel (not yet scheduled for UK release), the main character's 'thing' is history, much to her lawyer father's disgust. It comes back to the fifties theme in a way, because alongside plenty of humour, the serious side of this book is all about keeping connected to the past. What made you turn to history as a theme for this novel?  

 

Well, my seventeen year-old daughter is seriously thinking about becoming a historian, so I pulled greatly from her passion for the subject. I am a connect-the-dots person so Iím always interested in how history brings us to truth in the present. But with the current interest in family history and genealogy (at least in the U.S.), I donít think of history as being a throwback to the Fifties. Millions of people are tracing their roots to find new ways of understanding who they are from who theyíve come from. I wanted to explore that in a story; wanted to show how the energy of that passion could pit a committed non-adventurer against the elements to find the truth. I was also intrigued by how you make history funny.

12. Can you tell us what the main character's 'thing' will be in your next book?  

 

Waitressing and comfort food. I have deep understanding in both subjects.

13. You were a regular visitor to the public library in River Forest, Illinois, where you grew up. Is it in libraries that YAs are most likely to stumble on your books?  

 

Certainly, libraries, but bookstores are selling them nicely as well. Happily, Iím on school reading lists, being taught in grammar, middle, and high schools as well as college. I canít tell you how weird it is to be homework. One of my favorite letters from a reader went something like this. "Dear Mrs. Bauer, My important paper on you was due four months ago. Could you fax me everything youíve got on yourself before my father kills me? Your fan foreverÖ"

14. The marketing of and the future of teenage/YA fiction has been the subject of a number of Special Guest interviews and features on ACHUKA. Do you have any strong views on YA novels as a genre?  

 

What I love about YA fiction is that itís for kids right where they are, it deals with their issues--not adult issues, teenage ones. I think YA novels are an important bridge between adolescence and adulthood. More and more Iím hearing of adults who have gotten hooked on the genre. The teenage years are so perilous, we need everything we can get our hands on to try to make sense of them.

15. Give us a picture of your working day, including specific details of the tools of your trade.  

 

Clutching my cup of Harrodís #14 Breakfast Blend tea, I get to work around 9AM, having just stepped over several piles of library books in various places on my office floor. When I am finishing a book, I donít shower until later in the afternoon. When I am starting a book, Iím cleaner. I do a great deal of research with my work and am surrounded by books relating to whatever subjects Iím writing aboutófor the book Iím finishing now I have books on emotional intelligence, owning and operating a restaurant, motorcycles, leadership, something called, "The Gifts of Suffering," adoption, cancer, and several American cook books. I get looks of deep concern from librarians when I take my array of books out of the library when Iím beginning a new project. Now my officeóitís a cross between a library and a toy store. I have lots of toys hanging from wires above my desk. I turn on my Gateway computer and usually read the last twenty pages of what I last wrote to get a sense of where to go next. I am exhausted by this and get more tea. I repeat this process until Iíve written a few sentences, then a few more. I donít have a certain number of pages I write in a day. I tried that once and failed abysmally. I just cut away at my work until decent sentences appear and follow them with more decent sentences. Occasionally a really nice sentence appears and I will read it endlessly and pat myself on the back. Most of what I do is revision. Although it is a gift when whole sections come out in first draft that donít need rewriting. I have all my drafts printed out AND saved on my computer with names like THIS, I SWEAR IS THE LAST DRAFT. THE ABSOLUTE LAST DRAFTóNO KIDDING. HELP ME BEFORE I WRITE AGAIN. Unfortunately, I never remember which draft is which with these headings. But somehow, following this pattern, I write novels. About one a year. I suppose it helps that when Iím not writing, Iím compulsing about my work. Years ago my daughter made a sign for my office door. The first side reads MOM IS WRITING. The other side reads MOM IS THINKING ABOUT WRITING.

16. And finally, you've said that you can tell when your writing's going well because it makes you laugh out loud as you're writing it. Has any episode made you laugh so much you've had trouble continuing with it?  

 

I can think of a few examples of sustained laughter. In Rules of the Road, when Jenna is talking to Harry Bender on the phone and he is spouting Texas-isms such as, "Always drink downstream from the herd." For some reason this broke me up. Also the section where a man who worked with Harry is recounting Harryís greatest moment as a shoe salesmanówaiting on Imelda Marcos who bought thirty pairs of shoes in an afternoon. In Squashed I was in hysterics when I wrote Ellieís speech about why she grows giant pumpkins: "Lettuce doesnít bring heartache. Turnips donít ask for your soul. Potatoes donít care where you are or even where they are. Tomatoes cuddle up to anyone whoíll give them mulch and sunshineÖ" Vegetable schtick does it to me every time. In Backwater, writing the audacious wilderness guide, Mountain Mama gave me some good hoots as well. Once when I was in my office writing and laughing, my daughter came home from school with a friend. From behind my closed door I heard the friend ask Jean, "Whoís in there with your Mom?" Jean paused and said solemnly, "My mother is alone."