Saturday, February 9, 2013

Author Adam Rex talks MG Characters & Themes

Illustrator-Author Adam Rex is the author of 3 MG and YA novels - including the award-winning The True Meaning of Smekday, and his recently-released YA novel, Fat Vampire - a never coming of age, story  - a tale about an over-weight, nerdy  teen who is bitten by a vampire at age 15 and now is doomed to be a nerdy, overweight, can't-get-a girlfriend teen... forever.  Adam creates a great mix of funny and serious themes in his novels.  He's also written 4 hilarious picture books, and illustrated countless books for others.  His picture book Frankenstein makes a Sandwich was a New York Times Best Seller.

In June 2012, Dreamworks Animation announced that they had cast Rihanna and Jim Parsons as voice actors for Happy Smekday!, an animated screen adaptation of Adam's Book The True Meaning of Smekday, planned for theatrical release in late 2014.  Congratulations Adam, and thanks for being here!  

The True Meaning of Smekday  is an award-winning middle grade novel that combines difficult themes of loss, change, and the need for courage, with humor and laugh-out-loud moments.  Let's talk about "Smekday" in our questions today.

Ok, Here's question #1)
In The True Meaning of Smekday, you tell a story about a little girl who has to deal with a tragic situation in which she and the inhabitants of her entire country (the U.S.) are forcefully relocated by an invading alien army. The aliens separate families, destroy communities, and take away human rights. It seems like this story could make middle grade readers afraid, and could come across as too serious. But after reading the book, readers are left with a positive feeling, and we remember mostly hilarious scenes and characters  -- like JLo the alien --  as well as moments of empowerment, joy, and courage throughout the book.  

Many of us as writers have difficulty finding this good balance between funny or upbeat scenes  and serious deeper meaning and themes in our novels.  So, how did you do it?  Can you give some specific tips/techniques on how to write and maintain this proper mix of age-appropriate humor/happy scenes combined with serious themes in books for middle graders and teens?

Tips?  I don't know if I have any tips.  When I introduce schoolkids to my aliens (the Boov) I'm always keen to point out how embarrassing it would be to be conquered by a race as cute as they are–they're short, shaped like a flip-top trash can, with little arms and big grins.  But I think it goes a long way that our conquerors in this book aren't faceless monsters.  I had earlier ideas for what the Boov might look like, and I eventually rejected them because they weren't relatable enough.

My main thesis for the book is really that the Boov aren't anything special.  They're just people.  They're out-of-towners, but they're people, with the same flaws and faults that we have.

And I think it helps that, very early on in the book, my kid character meets a Boov face-to-face and kind of bests him.  And he's friendly, and sort of incompetent.  I don't begin the book with the invasion and persecution, I begin it after the invasion is essentially over, and we've lost, and yet no one really seems to be fearing for her life.  We're getting pushed around, told what to do, but kids understand that kind of business as their default state anyway.  So the reader learns about the mild horror of the invasion after she's already met one of the aliens, and has probably decided that she likes him.

I often think of this as the "Tony Soprano Effect."  In the first episode of The Sopranos we're introduced to Tony, and he's giddily wading around in his pool with a bunch of baby ducklings.  And when I remind people of this, they often tell me that they forgot about the ducklings; but I'm convinced they never entirely did.  Over the next 85 episodes Tony does some terrible things, but we were in his corner from the beginning because of those ducks.

Anyway, I'd be lying if I told you that I thought about any of this very hard back then.  It was intuition, and some kind of vague internal barometer to tell me when I'd gone too far, and when I could go farther.

Thanks Adam, I think you made some very good points.  Two things that you mentioned that really stood out to me were: 

1.) Know where to start your book. You started this novel after the biggest trauma was over.  So as readers we still feel it and understand that it's an important part of the story, but it's not close enough to overly-traumatize either the readers, or the main character, a 9 yo girl. 
2.) Make even your "bad guy" characters "relatable."  Make them real people.

Those are great tips for the rest of us. 
QUESTION 2: So, to get even more in depth with an example of how to make the `bad guys’ "real" and "relateable" let’s talk about JLo. J We don’t want to give away everything about this goofy little Boov-on-the-run who befriends your main character Gratuity, but one thing I noticed was his way of speaking.  We all often struggle when trying to write characters who maintain consistent behavioral and speech patterns throughout our books. JLo is a character who does this well.  His behavior and speech patterns define him personally, make us love him, and also tell us a lot about the Boovs as a race.  You made him both personable and funny.

Can you give us some insight into how you gave him such consistent (and hilarious) speech patterns and how you managed to kept them consistent throughout the book?  Are there specific things we as writers can be intentional about when creating and writing characters in order to keep them so consistent?

I'm worried too many of my answers are going to be along the lines of "gut feeling," or "instinct."  I didn't have any set of rules about J.Lo beyond the obvious–as a foreigner, he has the usual suite of language idiosyncrasies: he doesn't often use contractions, or idiom, or slang.  When he DOES use slang it's notable, and when he DOES use idiom he should probably get it wrong.  Other than that, he has a particular problem with prepositions.  I had this vague idea that the Boovish language doesn't have them, or that they have modifiers that are added to nouns and verbs so that separate prepositions aren't needed.  So the Boov have some trouble with that.

In general, I seem to develop a sense pretty quickly of what my characters are like, so that I can make judgements about their speech on the fly–Mick wouldn't say this like that, I think, or John wouldn't use that expression.  It doesn't hurt, either, that I sometimes base characters loosely on friends or family, or on how I might imagine a public figure to be.

Another great answer packed with mini-tips, and specifics that we can learn from. Thanks Adam! I do wonder how many friends of novelists snicker as they read our work and find themselves in our pages!

Now we're off to strengthen our own Tony Soprano's, JLo's, and Gratuity's by making them real, sometimes making them friends, and by starting our books at the right places. 


Karen said...

Thanks for the interview. The True meaning of Smekday is one of my all-time favorite books. It was everything I want: dorky, sweet, funny, smart and heartwarming. Adam Rex -- your instinct is good.

Anonymous said...

Was just discussing the issue of serious themes in MG with critique partners! Your interview is timely and helpful for us. Thanks!

CL said...

All this and adorable too! Adam Rex, you are my hero. SMEKDAY is one of my favorite middle grade novels and I'm glad to hear it's being made into a movie. I love Frankenstein Takes the Cake and Frankenstein Makes A Sandwich. Dracula accidentally eats garlic bread... hysterical. Thanks for the interview, Janelle.

Janelle said...

1.) I totally agree with Karen.

2.) So glad this great interview by Adam will help your crit group, Rebecca! This is why Writermorphosis is doing this series - for even published writers to learn from each other! HOoray!

3.)Thanks for stopping by CL!

Jess said...

Love this interview~ I got to see Adam speak at a SCBWI conference and he was the same combo of wise and wise-cracking :) Love Smekday and Fat Vampire. I also have a four-year-old at home who's a huge fan of Mr. Rex's picture book Tree Ring Circus

Liz said...

Great interview. I loved the detail about awkward prepositions.