Into the Book: What helped you take your first steps in writing? If there was one particular thing that really inspired you to become an author, what would it be?
Gary Schmidt: Hmm. . .I'm always nervous about the word "inspired," as if there was some moment when everything clicked. I always liked to tell stories. I liked to read during middle and high school--not so much earlier than that. And I really did have amazing English teachers during those yeras who shared with me their love of books--who taught me how to love what they loved. In terms of imagining myself as a writer, I suppose the first step really was Earl Hamner's work in The Waltons. I know, this dates me and today that show is (wrongly) considered sentimental. But the narrator's voice in that show--which began and ended each hour--was incredibly powerful to me; I think that I first imagined living the life of the writer by seeing it in a kid somewhat older than me, and by enjoying the voice projected on that show.
ITB: Your books all have a distinctly ‘real’ feel about them, as if this story really happened in some small town in New York; how do you capture that? Where do you get the material for the setting of your books? Does the setting play an important part in your inspiration for the books?
GS: I do think about setting quite a bit. In his Vanity Fair, William Thackery likes to play with setting, and what he does is helpful to all writers: At times he uses setting specifically as a mere stage. He even talks about it as a puppet show. At other times, he uses it to comment on the action. It seems to me that the setting should always be more than a stage--it should always be reflecting or commenting upon or ironically undercutting or at the very least offering some contribution to the meaning of what is happening to the characters. In terms of the small town, I live in a very small town in Michigan. I also am most familiar with small towns in New England. So I suppose this is all sort of natural for me. But perhaps even larger is this: When you are writing a novel and are about to spend a year on the first draft, you better like the place you inhabit imaginatively. And I like the places that my characters are inhabiting. In some ways, I wrote First Boy because I wanted to live for a while on a dairy farm.
ITB: How does your worldview play into the books that you write? How much of the books are based off of your own experiences? Is there any specific book which is a fictional autobiography, so to speak?
GS: This is really at least two very different questions. First, in terms of autobiography, all of my characters are created characters. None of them are distinct autobiography. I suppose the closest to me would be Turner from Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy in terms of who the kid is; in terms of the actual events, Holling from The Wednesday Wars would be the closet to my actual life. I think that most writers--particularly writers who are writing for young readers--remember their own pasts as they writer; certainly I do. I often think, What would I have done at this particularly moment when I was thirteen or fourteen? Even if I don't use that option, it at least gives me an idea, and puts me back into the age my character is currently occupying.
In terms of "worldview," I think that all writers work out of a worldview. Maybe a definition of being a hack is writing out of someone else's worldview just to do a writing job. A writer must work out of those ideas and beliefs; those who do so best are--to me at least--some of our most powerful writers. I think of someone like Jacqueline Woodson, or Walter Dean Myers, or Gary Paulsen (especially Dog Song), or Francisco Stork, or Katherine Paterson, or Pam Munoz Ryan, or Nikki Grimes, or. . .well, I could go on and on. . .when I think of these folks, I think of writers who write out of those parts of themselves that are connected to their deepest beliefs and hopes and understandings about the world. And since I am a Calvinist, I write about a deeply broken world, and about grace in that world.
ITB: The characters in Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now are incredible. Everyone we’ve met who’s read the books have loved Holling, Doug, Lil, and the other faces of your novels. How do you develop these characters to become so real that they literally step off of the page?
GS: Developing a character is an incredibly slow business for me, and I'd be glad to know how some other folks do it. A first draft takes me about a year, and during that year, I am trying to produce new material each day, and to redraft the old material at the same time. The constant redrafting means that I can add detail and meaning time and time again, as I try to craft a character who is not one-dimensional--since no one is--and who has many conflicting motivations and interests and understandings. We are all so complex, so much a mixture, and I want my characters to show that. But this, obviously, is very slow work.
ITB: Which book so far that you have written (and there are more than a few) has been your favorite once finished? Which was your favorite while writing? Which character is the most real to you?
GS: I never know how to answer this one. I can tell you about all the different dogs I've owned and loved, but I would never know how to compare them in a way that would lead me to say that one was my favorite. (Though, to be honest, the border collies we have now are really something.) The same is true of my books. There I things that I like about all of them, and things that I would like to redo about all of them. But no one is my favorite. I guess this is true of the characters as well. No one is more real to me than the other, since I lived with them for a long time, and so they all feel real.
ITB: What advice would you like to give to any aspiring or beginning authors? GS: The best--and really only--advice for a young writer is to do two things: First, read. Read everything. Read works that are too hard for you, and too easy. Read all genres. Read all forms. Read what you hear people talking about, and read the book that no one else has heard about. Read all the time. No good writer is not first a good reader.
Second, write. Set a reasonable goal, and write. And as you writer, don't write for your own self only. Write for the larger audience: the world.
But first, read.
ITB: Last, one specific question from an ItB reviewer: How do you approach major revisions to your novels? How complete is your first draft, usually?
I revise every day. Each time I sit down, I go back to the beginning of the chapter, and revise up to the last thing I've written. In this sense, writing for me is recursive, cycling back and back and back. Other writers push straight through and complete a draft without going back at all; after the draft, they then revise from the beginning. But for me, this is a slow process that easily takes a full year. Usually by the time that year is over, the book is at least conceptually complete. But after that year, I can do the larger revisions with a sense that the larger meanings are in place. However, as a writer, I always have to be aware that something completely new can enter in, and so I have to be open to that new element. If that new thing means whole changes, well, then that's what it means. I wrote Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy three times. But that's the writing life.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions, Mr. Schmidt. We’re very excited to be interviewing you and we look forward to your future books!
Andrew, on behalf of Into the Book