by Mikaela Gilbert-Lurie
If you’re in the world of Middle Grade and YA Literature, you’re probably familiar with the work of D.J. MacHale. His Pendragon series was a #1 New York Times Best-Seller, and he’s the author of over 20 YA/Middle Grade books, including the Morpheus Road trilogy, a whimsical picture book The Monster Princess, and the Sylo trilogy. We’re very privileged to have D.J. teaching “From Tween To Teen: A Middle Grade and YA Workshop” at the Pad on June 14th!
D.J. took time out to talk to us about his work, his writing process, his roots, and what he finds so fascinating about YA and Middle Grade Literature.
1. As an author of Middle Grade Fiction, what would you say in terms of both marketing and writing that distinguishes this genre from more general YA fiction?
I could write an entire book on this question alone! My books straddle the line between Middle Grade and YA. With marketing, the biggest difference that I can see is the use of on-line resources. Many people who read YA are into social media, blogging, reading blogs, etc. Therefore, with YA a heavy emphasis is put on reaching out to bloggers to read the books and write reviews. That doesn’t work as well with Middle Grade because younger kids aren’t into social media in the same way. Of course, with both categories the publishers send their authors to the various conventions and book festivals. They’ll get their authors on the appropriate panels in order to reach a very specific audience.
The best way to promote a middle grade book is through school visits. There’s nothing like speaking in front of five hundred kids who are thrilled to be getting out of math class. It almost doesn’t matter what you talk about because they are just happy to be there (I take that back. You do have to be entertaining or they’ll eat you alive).
2. In some way or another, all of your books seem to have a sci-fi or fantastical edge to them. How would you recommend that burgeoning writers tap in to that kind of creativity that would allow them to create their own, alternate realities?
With any story, including fantasy, the rules of solid storytelling apply. I approach it by starting with something real. A character. A conflict. A choice. A situation. My characters are always “real”. Meaning, they don’t have super powers or other worldly abilities. I want the reader to relate to the character and their situation or conflict and care about them long before the larger than life aspect of the story kicks in. If you don’t have that, you don’t have a story that will resonate with readers. In other words, you don’t want a story with all sizzle and no steak. When readers ask me where I get my inspiration from, my answer is simple and not very exciting. I draw my inspiration from real life. Everything I write, even if it’s about a galaxy far, far away, starts with a very real, relatable character or issue that readers will respond to. From there the imagination kicks in and I layer on the fantastical elements. But the foundation has to be one with a solid character or characters that the readers will care about and relate to.
3. What did you like reading when you were growing up? Do you think middle grade D.J. would have liked The Pendragon Adventure? When your daughter is old enough to read them, do you think she’ll like the series?
Ha! My daughter has no interest in reading Pendragon. Though she did read SYLO and loved it. She has no interest in watching my TV shows either. But I think that’s more of a father-daughter rebellious thing. I, on the other hand, would have LOVED my books. When I was young, there wasn’t the wealth of middle grade fiction that exists today. My standard joke is that I went straight from reading Dr. Seuss…to Dr. No. My two favorite authors were Ian Fleming (James Bond) and Alistair McLean (who wrote war time adventures) I consider SYLO to be a blending of those two author’s types of stories. If I had D.J. MacHale books back then, (Or Rick Riordan’s or Eoin Colfer’s or James Dashner’s or any number of other great authors) I’d never have left the house to experience all of the things I write about now! So it’s probably a good thing that I didn’t have those books.
4. You do an amazing job of creating gripping and nuanced villains. How do you go about writing interesting villains?
Villains are the most interesting characters to write about because they are the most creative characters in any thriller. Heroes are noble and brave and thoughtful and go on an important journey and yadda yadda yadda, but it’s the villain who comes up with the plot. They are really the alter-ego of authors. When I create villains, I never make them evil for evil’s sake. I want their agenda to be something that the reader will relate to on some level, or at least to understand. Often their agenda may be somewhat positive. Where they go wrong is with their methods. That’s where I think my books stand out, if I do say so myself. I want the stories to operate on three levels. Younger readers like the action and the explosions. More advanced readers enjoy the plot twists, the character journey and the mystery. Truly advanced readers see the themes, and usually those themes have everything to do with the villain. A good villain is gold.
5. Who are your favorite writers?
Ironically, I don’t read much of the kind of stories that I write. Trouble is, I know all the tricks so it’s tough to get lost in a story like that. So I gravitate toward history, biographies and historical fiction. I already mentioned my two favorite authors from when I was young. I was also greatly influenced by J.D. Salinger, and “The Catcher in the Rye” in particular because of the voice that it was written in. My favorite book of all time is “The Call of the Wild” by Jack London. I also loved reading classic short stories that leaned toward the macabre because they’re like reading a mysterious puzzle that always has a surprising twist. Some favorite contemporary authors of mine are John Krakauer, James Bradley and Tom Wolfe.
6. In what ways does your background as a television writer inform your narrative style as a novelist?
I write visually. With screenwriting, you have to paint a picture using very few words. My prose may not be the most eloquent, but readers are always able to “see” what I’m writing about. I also believe that my dialog is solid because I write the way people speak. That comes from having written thousands of lines of dialog that actually had to be spoken by actors! Again, my dialog may not be the most literary use of the English language, but it’s real. I believe that’s one of the reasons that teachers love to read my books aloud to their students. Not only is my dialog real, but I write prose the way I speak, so when I’m writing it’s really more like I’m telling a story aloud…and writing down what I say.
7. Your most recent book, SYLO, is about a government conspiracy, so as a conspiracy expert we thought you we should ask you:
a. The moon landing: real or fake?
That’s real. As a child of the 60’s who wanted to be an astronaut, I can’t think any other way. Though it’s amazing to me that we no longer have the technological capability to do something that we were able to do forty years ago. Makes you wonder…
b. Does the illuminati exist?
Maybe not as such, but I believe there are multiple, smaller sects that are pulling the strings on everything. Usually their title is followed by the letters: Inc.
c. Are Elvis and Tupac secretly still alive?
No. And Paul is dead too (Just showed my age).
8. What insider tips will students if they take your class?
I’m hoping to impart some of the experience and wisdom I’ve gained over the years in writing hundreds of stories for young people. I can’t teach someone to write. That’s up to them. But I can point them in the right direction and hopefully prevent them from spinning their wheels by doing things that won’t lead to something positive.
Thank you so much for that informative interview, D.J! Catch his class, “From Tween to Teen: A Middle Grade and YA Workshop” at the Pad on June 14th!