Author of "Mosquitoland"
As a child, what did you dream of becoming when you grew up?
When I was a kid, I think the dream was to become a pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds. Shortly following that, I remember wanting to be a paleontologist, but only because I was so entirely obsessed with Jurassic Park. I always loved reading and storytelling, but it wasn’t until much later that it occurred to me that one could make a feasible profession out of it.
How did your friends/family react when you told them you wanted to become a writer?
I never really did. Tell them, I mean. I was a freelance musician in Nashville when my wife found out she was pregnant. Since she was the one with the steady job, it was almost immediately decided that I would quit my music, and be a stay-at-home dad. At that point, I shifted my creative energies from music to writing, and discovered I loved it more than I ever loved making music. My family knew I was writing, but since I was staying home with the baby, there was never, like, an I’ve-quit-my-job-to-be-a-writer moment.
Who inspires you in the industry?
Ruta Sepetys. Gayle Forman. A.S. King. Andrew Smith. Jason Reynolds. Laurie Halse Anderson. Corey Whaley. Jandy Nelson. Courtney Stevens. Becky Albertalli. Adam Silvera. Jasmine Warga. Julie Murphy. Sabaa Tahir. Tommy Wallach. Kelly Loy Gilbert. David Levithan. Benjamin Alire Saenz. Meg Wolitzer. R.J. Polacio. Aisha Saeed. Victoria Schwab. Stephen Chbosky. Nina LaCour. Markus Zusak. Emery Lord. Tim Federle. Kate Hattemer. Nova Ren Suma. E. Lockhart. Gwenda Bond. Laura Ruby. Lance Rubin. Dan Gemeinhart. Cristina Moracho. Steph Kuehn. Stacey Lee. Nicki Yoon. Kerry Kletter. Hannah Moskowitz. Also, the many bloggers, teachers, booksellers, and librarians I’ve met who work harder than anyone to get books where they belong: in the right hands. This industry is crazy-rich in kindness and curiosity and knowledge and inspiration. It’s why I love it so much.
Your first novel, Mosquitoland, is filled with such heart that I can't imagine a single person not getting attached to any of these characters (most notably Mim, Arlene, Walt, and Beck)... what sparked the idea behind this phenomenal book?
There really wasn’t any one idea. It was more like a thousand tiny things came together to make this one thing happen. The catalyst, as I mentioned above, was certainly the knowledge that my wife was pregnant. I’ve often said that it sometimes takes a great fear in order to confront a great fear, and that was certainly the case with this book. I was literally terrified into writing Mosquitoland. I’d just said goodbye to (what I thought was) my dream job, said hello to a day filled with diapers and crying and these little rice cakes called mum-mums. But I had a story to tell, and now I had the courage to tell it.
What is it you wished to achieve as you wrote this book?
Truth. The only thing I set out to do was tell an honest, heartfelt story.
How do you deal with "bad" criticism or bullying? What are some of your coping mechanism?
First, I think those two terms are very different. Criticism in art should be more than expected; it should be embraced. There would be no way to have honest discussions without criticism. But bullying takes criticism and makes it personal. It’s an attack on the artist, not the art.
A good friend of mine (Courtney Stevens, author of the wonderful FAKING NORMAL) once told me our goal is to have a thick skin, but a soft heart. Part of our job as authors is to be vulnerable, to lay ourselves bare on the page—an unfortunate byproduct of this is that we are almost never prepared for criticism. So part of the process is learning how to continue writing with that same vulnerability, to continue laying ourselves bare on the page, but to adjust our reaction to criticism so we aren’t totally incapacitated by it. It’s tough, and I’m still learning. As far as coping mechanisms, I pretty much rely on my family, my music, and Michael Scott.
What has been your greatest accomplishment so far?
A puppet interviewed me once. That was pretty cool. But seriously, I told my wife a long time ago that I would be really disappointed if I never published a book. Anything on top of that is added bonus.
What aspects of your job do you like best/least?
I love my community. I’ve made some of my very best friends through this whole process, and can’t imagine life without them. As far as aspects I don’t like—I know this might sound weird, but at some point in the course of publishing a novel, there’s a loss of innocence, an exchange of experience for naivety. Understand, I’m not complaining. I’m very happy to have that experience. But quite often, I find myself chasing my old innocence again.
What are some of your favorite books?
Wow. Tough to narrow down, so I’ll just name a few. I absolutely love The Lord of the Rings. I used to read it every other Christmas (alternating between that, and Harry Potter) before my writing deadlines got in the way. I also love Salinger’s Glass family novellas, in particular, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters. I love Eugenides (especially Middlesex), Steinbeck (especially East of Eden), and Vonnegut (especially Breakfast of Champions). On the young adult side, I already mentioned the writers who inspire me (above), so I’ll just say what I’m currently reading: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven. Only a few chapters in, but loving it so far.
Name two things that are on your bucket list:
I’d really love to see Arcade Fire live. I’ve watched a ton of their performances online, and love all of their albums. But I’d love to see them in person.
As silly as it sounds, I’d love to have a screened-in back porch some day. I don’t ask for much. Just a porch. Surrounded in screen. That is all.
What brings you the greatest joy?
What brings you the greatest satisfaction?
(Other than spending time with my family…) The end of a productive day.
Do you have a specific writing habit? (wake up at a specific time... minimum numbers of pages per day...)
One benefit of writing while taking care of a baby is that it trains you not to rely on routines or habits. I had to write where I could, when I could, how I could. And even though I’m no longer a stay-at-home, I still find myself able to write under almost any condition. I do aspire to a desk, and a little more routine in the future. But for now, I really don’t have any specific writing habits.
The end of the book finishes with there being a bit of hope for a second book, could Beck & Walt's journey be the focus of the sequel?
I won’t completely rule out a sequel, but I’d have to have a story to tell. Mosquitoland happened because I couldn’t not tell Mim’s story. I’d have to feel that same level of urgency in order to write a sequel, and as of now, I don’t.
What is the one thing you wish you knew when you were younger?
It’s about the process. In all things.
What is your biggest guilty pleasure?
Chips. I’ve never put down a bag of chips because I was done with them. It’s always with a sense of, I really need to stop now.
Describe yourself in 5 words:
Determined. Flawed. Organized. Honest. Chip-eater.
What do you most value in people?
Loyalty. Compassion. Authenticity.
Name 2 things people don't know about you:
I lived in England for a semester in high school.
I have a tattoo on my forearm that says “Raise High the Roof Beam.” It’s more than a nod to my favorite book; it’s a personal challenge to be a better person.
What is your motto?
Ha. Um. Raise high the roof beam.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Hopefully working on a book! Longevity in this industry is so rare, but I have some wonderful mentors and friends who have very successful careers, and I’m doing everything I can to pattern my own behavior and work ethic after them.
Any advice for those wanting to become writers?
Find a community. Writing is such an isolating experience, and while that is sometimes necessary, I’ve found it equally necessary to have people I can turn to who I know are in the same boat.
Also, READ. A ton. Just never stop, really.
Any last words?
In my experience, the best way to write is to tell the truth.
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