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SBBT: Jordan Sonnenblick Interview

I'm pleased to welcome Jordan Sonneblick today as part of the Summer Blog Blast Tour. Jordan is the author of Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie (review) and Notes from the Midnight Driver (review). Both are laugh-out-loud funny books, despite being based on serious underlying topics. Drums, Girls is about a 13-year-old boy whose pesky younger brother is diagnosed with cancer. Midnight Driver is about a 16-year-old boy who steps out of line and is sentenced to community service visiting with a crusty old man. What makes them funny is the wry, self-deprecating and utterly believable voices that Jordan brings to each of his characters. My questions are in bold.

Thanks for being here today, Jordan. First question, did you read a lot as a kid?

The DARK IS RISING sequence, by Susan Cooper, was the big turning point. After I read her books, I was hooked for life.

Tell me about a favorite and/or unusual place that you've read books (as a child or an adult)?

No special spot -- I will read ANYWHERE!

When did you start writing? Or did you always write?

I always wrote when I was a kid. Then I basically took a break from the end of high school right up until the day I started writing DRUMS, GIRLS & DANGEROUS PIE. Apparently, the fifteen-year hiatus was a necessary part of my development.

Your website says that you are a middle school English teacher. Are you still teaching full-time?

I am on a two-year leave of absence, but I am planning to go back in fall 2009. I meet tons of kids on school visits, but I miss having my OWN students.

Both of your books feature musicians. For Steven from Drums, Girls, especially, music is his thing - what he can get lost in, and know that he's doing something great. Your website picture shows you holding a guitar. Do you play drums, too? Have you ever played in a band? Or the school band?

I play drums, guitar, and bass. If I just had some more arms, I could be a fairly decent rock band.

Both Steven and Alex go through significant personal growth in their respective books. They each start out not quite doing the right thing, and even railing against what they know they're supposed to be doing. Steven has trouble being there for the sick younger brother who adores him. And Alex starts out feeling quite sorry for himself for having to spend time with the crusty Sol in a nursing home. Did you, as the author, always know that they would evolve to do the right thing? Or were you figuring it out along the way with them?

I'm a big pre-plotter. Both DRUMS and NOTES were very heavily outlined beforehand. I don't generally know how characters are going to interact in each specific scene, but I do know, in broad strokes, how the protagonists will change, and I always know the last line of the book before I start writing. I sort of think a good analogy would be to a road-trip vacation: you have roadmaps, or Mapquest directions or whatever, and you know the kids are going to fight in the car -- but you have no idea how and when each fight will arise. Even within a tight outline, your characters will surprise you just as your kids do.

One of my favorite thing about both of your books is their narrative voice, in each case wryly sarcastic, sometimes self-deprecating, and utterly believable as the voice of a teenage boy (though there are certainly > differences between Steven and Alex). What I'm wondering is, does this voice stem more from your own internal 14-year-old, or from spending time with kids as a teacher and visitor to schools?

I have certainly learned a ton from my students in the 14 years I've spent as a teacher, but I think that mostly comes out in my plot details. My continued sense of teen-boy voice is almost totally a result of my general immaturity.

Your books make me laugh out loud, and I heard that same feedback recently from a 12-year-old girl who I know. Does this humor come naturally in your early writing, or is it something that you add more on revision? I find it especially interesting because both of your books deal with such serious topics.

For me, funny is easy as I'm drafting -- I was always the smart-mouthed kid who got kicked out of class. The serious parts are the challenge. Truthfully, I think that the reason I couldn't write for fifteen years before DRUMS was because I needed some life experiences -- marriage, becoming a parent, being a teacher -- so that I could become a person who could handle being serious in print.

I love the character of Sol from Midnight Driver. Was Sol, and/or Alex's relationship with someone elderly and different from him, inspired by some real-life person or event? I remember reading that you wrote Drums, Girls at least in part in response to a girl from one of your classes, who had a younger sibling with cancer, and wondered if that was the case with Notes from the Midnight Driver.

Sol is a composite character: he's basically a combination of my favorite grandfather's vocabulary and personality, the illness (and reaction to it) of a roommate my grandfather had in the hospital a week before I started writing NOTES, and a totally made-up musical career. The biggest of those three components is my Grampa Sol, who was always extremely crusty and snappish with everyone else in the world, but endlessly warm and attentive with me. He was also a teacher and writer, so obviously his influence on me was just huge. Grampa Sol is 96 years old now, fairly docile, and quite senile, so it was really important for me to capture some of his old fierceness on the page.

Are you working on another book? Is there anything that you can tell us about it? Will we find out more about Alex and Laurie in the next book? (It was such a pleasant surprise to see Steven from Drums, Girls, show up in Midnight Driver.)

My next two books are finished already, so I'm just chomping at the bit for their pub dates to roll around. ZEN AND THE ART OF FAKING IT will be published by Scholastic in October, and is about an 8th grader who lies to his whole school, mostly to impress a girl. Then, in the spring, a new division of Holtzbrinck, called Feiwel & Friends, will publish my first middle-grade novel, tentatively titled DODGER & ME. I wrote D&M for my 9-year-old son; it's about baseball, an imaginary blue chimp, and what happens when girls stop being yucky.