Welcome again to Inside the Writer’s Studio and today we have with us a man of many hats: filmmaker, writer, poet, dad, husband, and outside-the-box thinker G. Neri. G. Neri is the ALA Notable author of Chess Rumble (Lee and Low, 2007) and the winner of the 2010 Lee Bennett Hopkins/ International Reading Association Promising Poet Award. His newest book, the graphic novel Yummy (Lee and Low, 2010), has received three starred reviews thus far (and is garnering buzz for both the Printz award and the National Book Award). His other novels for teens include Surf Mules (Putnam 2009), and the upcoming Ghetto Cowboy (Candlewick, 2011).
I’ve had the pleasure of briefly getting to hang with G. in person while in NYC for Book Expo and he is as kind as he is passionate. In fact, it was around this time that I had invited him to write for the launch issue of Hunger Mountain in 2009 and thankfully G. agreed to be one of our first contributors. G.’s piece, Creating the Book: How to Hook Urban (non)Readers is a must read for those interested in boys and literacy. And in January, 2010 G. contributed again. This time a short story, titled The Run, which was the original jumping off point for his novel Surf Mules.
I am truly thrilled to have G. (who is currently living in Germany) with us today.
Now, on to the interview…
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?
Community has been very important in my journey as a writer. I would not be where I am today without them. My writer’s groups made me the writer I am today by giving me endless support and feedback and literally tricking me into writing a novel! Previous to that, I never would have tried. Teachers and librarians have given me tons of love and support and keep asking for more, which makes me want to write more. And my readers, those urban teen boys who don’t like to read, inspire me to write for them when I see them getting turned onto reading…sometimes literally in front of my eyes. All these folks keep me going and I see them getting inspired by what I write, so we feed off each other for sure.
Theme can be seen as a dirty word but as writers I believe we all have something to say, something we want to share with the world. What is that something for you?
I definitely write books for boys in urban landscapes. My characters are the neglected, the misunderstood. And I’m definitely drawn to unique worlds that most people don’t know about, be it inner city chess, ghetto cowboys, surf mules, or junior gangsters in the southside of Chicago. My theme, I guess, is about finding your way through the urban jungle by stepping through unexpected doors that open and change your life.
What do you feel is your strength as a craftsperson? How do you turn your weaknesses into strengths?
There’s no question in my mind that my strength is recognizing a great story when I see it. All my books are inspired by real people, places or events. I turn them into fiction for creative reasons but I know a there’s a great story to be had when I see it, whether I hear or read about something online, in the paper, a magazine, on tv or radio or yes, even from a personal recollection of someone I am talking to. If it makes me sit up and pay attention, if it grabs me by the throat and leaves me shaken, if I can’t forget it no matter how I try—that’ll be my next story, even if I have others lined up, which I always do. It’s the one that sneaks up on me at the 11th hour that takes over the number one slot in my head.
My weakness may be that I am not the greatest of prose writers…I like the quote the grumpy guys from the Muppet Show—“He couldn’t turn a phrase if it had power steering!” So I tend to write in first person, which allows me to write in a voice that has its own poetry. Speaking of which…
How important is voice in your work? How does “voice” come to you?
I can honestly say I don’t know where the voices come from but they come. And as soon as they are defined, I let them lead the way and I follow along like a documentary filmmaker, capturing the story as it happens. They speak to me and I listen and they definitely help me find my way through a story.
I once heard Deb Caletti say when asked how her life has changed since becoming a published author that she feels she is living the life she is meant to live. How has your life changed since you became a published author? Has it? What lessons have you learned that you’d care to share since becoming published?
Well, I have worked in many creative mediums—film, animation, illustration, new media—but books feel the most comfortable to me. I like to be left to my own devices where I don’t have to rely on anyone to create. It’s nice to walk into a world that didn’t exist to me before. As far as changing my life, it hasn’t, not in a profound way. I work the same as I did when I was unpublished, but it’s nice to know I have places that’ll publish me without me having to search for a home. And it’s great to have an agent to do all the legwork for me, that’s so much better. I’ve gotten a lot of love and respect and have formed my niche audience. But I am far from famous or a celebrity, so my life from those who know me, continues along its path in much the same way. I just feel there’s a place for me now.
Writers love books; we love reading. What book do you turn to over and over again and why do you love it? I don’t reread a lot but two books hold a special place: John Fante’s Ask the Dust (Black Sparrow Press, 1980) and R.O Blechman’s The Juggler of our Lady (Henry Holt & Co.,1953). Both have a stripped down style of prose and storytelling that leaves me breathless. Fante’s alter ego Arturo Bandini is a crazy L.A hero of mine—passionate, funny, and full of life, even when he’s completely in the wrong, which is often. He is the patron saint of the uncelebrated starving writer. Blechman’s book is a simple and profound fairy tale—beautiful, pure and understated. It shows me there’s real power in simplicity and that even the smallest of gestures can have an amazing effect.
Do you have a favorite craft book? If so, what is it? And what is your favorite take away?
I really dislike craft books that are about connecting with your inner writer. I’m much more of a nuts and bolts guy and Steven King’s On Writing (Mass Market, 2002) is the only writer I’ve ever heard who has a process much like my own. He just stated in a way that made me understand what I was doing instinctively. I can’t say that I am a fan of his novels but that book is great.
I am living in Berlin for a year and my office feels like I should be signing a treaty or something. 15 ft high ceiling, lined with books all around and old parkett floors. Real old Europe.
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.
Little known wacky fact about me: I once played Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man under the direction of legendary satirist Tom Lehrer. After I bombed in the final rehearsal, a fellow actor came up to me and basically said we were all doomed and it was all my fault. But Tom believed in me and worked with me alone until I was able to get those crazy songs down. And I managed to pull it off. Afterwards that actor came up to me and said “I don’t how, but you did it. I didn’t think you’d pull it off, but I guess I was wrong about you.” He just shook his head and smiled. That’s kind of my mantra now.
Thanks, G. for being with us! And I will be marching like the Music Man as the award season begins as I have a feeling Yummy will continue to garner much deserved acclaim.