Saturday, May 14, 2011

Inside the Writer's Studio with Chris Barton

We have a special Saturday edition of Inside the Writer’s Studio to celebrate Chris Barton’s new release, Can I See Your ID? I am unable to make the launch party at BookPeople today at 7pm (those of you there, please report on the event) but I am celebrating Chris’s latest success here in cyberland. Recently, there was a review in the Austin Statesman (with a little help from Kirkus Reviews) of Chris’s latest offering. From the review:

Barton's use of the second-person point of view gives these stories dramatic tension and a sense of immediacy. Hoppe's graphic panels enhance this effect.

Yep, a bold choice—that second person is—and one that worked well! Go, Chris.

A bit more about the book (publisher Dial)

True crime, desperation, fraud, and adventure: From the impoverished young woman who enchanted nineteenth-century British society as a faux Asian princess, to the sixteen-year-old boy who "stole" a subway train in 1993, to the lonely but clever Frank Abagnale of Catch Me if You Can fame, these ten vignettes offer riveting insight into mind-blowing masquerades. Graphic panels draw you into the exploits of these pretenders, and meticulously researched details keep you on the edge of your seat. Each scene is presented in the second person, a unique point of view that literally places you inside the faker's mind. With motivations that include survival, delusion, and plain, old-fashioned greed, the psychology of deception has never been so fascinating or so close at hand.

Chris, is of course, the author behind the picture book smash hits The Day- Glow Brother’s and Shark Vs. Train. Welcome, Chris.

Is there a story behind the story that you wish to share? (Ie: the ah-ha or lightning moment where the story inspiration struck)

In my file cabinet (“Filey”), I keep a lot of scraps of paper with potential non-fiction topics scrawled on them, and one of those was “John Howard Griffin,” a white reporter who wrote Black Like Me (The Definitive Griffin Estate Edition, Wings Press, 2006) about his experiences darkening his skin and traveling through the Deep South in the late 1950s. At that point, I don’t think I’d ever read his book, so who knows why he had crossed my mind, but every time I’d review my non-fiction file, there he was.

I’d also kept in my head, since May 1993, the story of a 16-year-old boy in New York City who had driven the A train for three hours by pretending to be a legitimate motorman. His name was Keron Thomas and for whatever reason, long after he’d faded from the national headlines, he was stuck in my memory.

So, I was reading Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow (Scholastic, 2005) several years ago when I came across yet another fascinating story that I remembered from long ago – that of Solomon Perel, a teenage Jew who spent World War II pretending to be Aryan at an elite school for Hitler Youth. There’d been a movie based on his life, Europa Europa, when I was in college, and though I hadn’t seen it, I’d been aware of it.
When I read the Bartoletti book, it struck me that Perel, Thomas and Griffin all had this common theme in their lives of pretending to be someone they weren’t, and I wondered, “What would that be like? And who else would know?” Some additional subjects came to me immediately – Riley Weston, who had pretended to be a teenager while writing for the TV show Felicity, and Forrest Carter, the white supremacist author of the debunked Cherokee memoir The Education of Little Tree (25th Anniversary Edition, University of New Mexico Press, 2004). Others, I had to scavenge for. But the origin of the entire project came down to me being lucky enough to hang on to three very different ideas long enough for them to bump into each other and become one larger one.

How important is community in keeping you inspired? What authors are a part of your virtual and/or hometown community? How do they keep you inspired? How do you inspire them?
For nearly as long as I can remember writing, it’s involved a community, even if it was just a community of two – me and the friend I was writing with. Even in elementary school, we would team up to write comedy sketches or comic strips, and that continued on through middle school (parodies of Dallas and superhero sagas) and high school (the student newspaper, and a mashup of Antigone and Three’s Company called Janetigone). 

The thing that attracted me to the University of Texas was the community that very obviously existed among the staff of the student daily, The Daily Texan, which I’d caught glimpses of during my visits to the campus while still in high school. Being around those folks turned out not only to be lots of fun, but also to inspire me to write things that they – skilled writers themselves – would laugh at or find interesting or be moved by.

When I stumbled into writing children’s and YA books, the community that already existed – before the explosion of children’s lit blogs, and way before Facebook – felt like home. Especially here in Austin, where there were so many gifted and generous writers for me to learn from and emulate and who eventually came to see me as a resource for helping them advance their own writing. I tell people that it’s a wonder any of us here get any writing done, because there are so many of us and so many opportunities for us to get together and… not write.

But the support and energy and encouragement I get from my writing friends in the Austin SCBWI community is indispensable. There are smaller subgroups within that community -- I’m in an in-person critique group with Tim Crow, Debbie Gonzales, Jennifer Ziegler, Gene Brenek, and Brian Anderson, and in an ad hoc virtual one with Don Tate, Julie Lake, Meredith Davis, Annette Simon, and Liz Garton Scanlon – as well as groups far beyond Austin. My literary agent’s clients are truly like a family, with reunions every year, and some of the connections I’ve made with other writers at conferences and other events go well beyond mere professional contacts. 

What, exactly, do we offer each other? A fresh perspective on issues to which we ourselves have gotten too close to be able to see clearly. An occasionally tough audience to try to impress – or one-up with a comment that’s (hopefully) just a bit more clever than the one that came before. Encouragement to persevere when a manuscript isn’t cooperating or the rejection letters won’t quit. Someone to celebrate with when they or I or one of our friends has gotten a piece of welcome news that reminds us that more good things will eventually come our way. And friends who are just glad to see us writing and happy to see what we’ve been working on.

Name a writer whose work and/or career you admire. And why do you admire them?

M.T. Anderson is the first one who comes to mind, because of the range of his work. Handel, Who Knew What He Liked, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes (Candlewick, 2001), and Strange Mr. Satie, illustrated by Petra Mathers (Viking, 2003), are excellent picture book biographies, and if those were the only books by Tobin Anderson you’d ever read, you’d assume he was first and foremost an author of really, really good picture book biographies of idiosyncratic composers. But if your knowledge was limited to Feed (Candlewick, 2002), or The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing (Candlewick, 2006), or Whales on Stilts (Harcourt, 2005), you’d make the same assumption about M.T. Anderson and science fiction, or historical fiction, or wildly goofy parodies of half-century-old teen-sleuth/-adventure novels.

Just within the realm of picture book biographies, I admire Jonah Winter for the same reason – a couple of years ago, within two or three months he had new titles out about a dominating pitcher (You Never Heard of Sandy Koufax?!, illustrated by Andre Carrilho (2009, Schwartz & Wade)), an avant garde author (Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude is Gertrude, illustrated by Calef Brown (Atheneum, 2009)), and a 19th-century composing team (The Fabulous Feud Of Gilbert & Sullivan, illustrated by Richard Egielski (Arthur A. Levine, 2009).
For both of these guys, it’s the sheer range of their interest and high-quality work – and the freedom to pursue projects across that entire range – that I aspire to. Clearly, I need to start by getting a picture book biography of a composer or two out there.

What were some of the challenges you encountered when working on this novel/picture book? How did you overcome those challenges?

Can I See Your I.D.?  consists of ten biographical profiles told in second person and set at particular moments in my subjects’ lives. At some of those moments, they’re actively doing things, and at other moments, I have them – or you, since it’s second person – reflecting on what led to this point.
Some of the challenges in that were offering up an engaging second-person voice that was tweaked slightly from subject to subject but was still consistent across the entire book; finding the material that would allow me to recreate these actual scenes, including dialogue, without fabricating or fictionalizing; and blending the action with the reflection, shifting from one to the other, in a way that felt natural and believable and realistic.

I got past those challenges, or tried to, through a combination of researching long and writing short.
I collected a lot of information about these people’s lives, and about the times and places where these scenes occur. Sometimes, I just got extremely lucky, such as finding a book that provided the daily temperatures during the Civil War for the particular place I needed – and then discovering that it was unusually cold there that day, which gave me the sort of detail I needed in order to make the scene seem real. But the more I got to know these people, and especially the more time I was able to spend with their own words, the better I was able to glean distinctive elements of their voices to combine with my narrative voice, and the better I was able to understand how they saw their own situations.
Keeping the profiles brief – both because I write slowly and because Dial and I wanted Can I See Your I.D.? to pull in reluctant readers – meant working to zero in on what truly needed to be said, and to subtly and efficiently suggest a subject’s personality or background through the voice rather than through a direct expression of the sorts of individual characteristics that people tend to take for granted about themselves, and to smooth out or remove entirely any potentially confusing shifts between what was happening and what had happened previously.

Addressing a posthumous “you” in one of the profiles – set a dozen years or so after the subject had died – that was a whole different challenge.

Do you have a favorite craft book? If so, what is it? And what is your favorite take away? 

Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, illustrated by Joe Ciardiello (William Morrow, 2007). It’s a single New York Times essay mixed with extremely generous white space and spread out over 95 or so posterboard-thick pages. “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip” is pretty representative of the advice Leonard gives. It’s short and to the point, offered up by someone who knows what he’s talking about and who knows that you’d be better off getting back to writing – and to making your writing not sound like “writing” – than spending too much time reading about how to do it.

Inspired by the Actor’s Studio, what sound do you love? What sound do you hate?
I love the rumbling sound made by three of the four drawers in Filey, my big wooden filing cabinet – those drawers contain my research files, illustrators’ sketches, materials for school-visit presentations, notes and drafts for stories I’ve worked on and hope to get back to. That rumbling sound is the sound of me doing the work that I love. 

What sound do I hate? The rumbling of that fourth drawer, which contains appliance warranties, tax statements, explanations of benefits, automotive service records, and so forth – all the stuff I enjoy not thinking about while I’m writing.

Be brave. Share a paragraph from a WIP. 

“Uh-oh,” Dad says, and my stomach starts to lurch. I’ve never gotten used to this feeling I get when I realize he’s been caught speeding again – it’s the feeling of getting in trouble knowing you personally didn’t do anything wrong. A second later, Dad starts slowing down and easing us over toward the shoulder. I sit straight up and as close to the edge of my seat as my seatbelt will allow. Gid actually seems to enjoy the excitement of getting pulled over – he immediately twists around in his seat for a better look, and though he never says much about it, I could swear that his eyes brighten just like the flashing lights on the patrol car. I don’t get him.

In ode to Maebelle, the main character in my new book Truth with a Capital T, who keeps a book of little known facts about just about everything, please share a wacky piece of trivia that has stuck with you or please share a little known fact about YOU.

Abraham Lincoln received a patent, and he was the only U.S. president to do so. I’ve only known this for a few weeks, so I can’t really say yet that it’s stuck with me, but it was so surprising that it sure feels sticky. I’ll be trotting this one out during conversational lulls for quite some time.


  1. Great interview! Interesting questions.

  2. Thanks, Jeanette. I'd love to interview you--indeed I can't believe you haven't made an Inside the Writer's Studio appearance yet!