Luckily, Kristin Clark Venuti, author of Leaving the Bellweathers and The Butler Gets a Break, has it in spades. Or, maybe I should say that the real author of these novels has a wonderful MG voice. Because in writing her novels, Kristin partially channels the voice of a butler named Benway, who is 50% Jeeves and 50% Mother Theresa, sworn by an unfortunate “Oath of Fealty” to the Bellweathers, residents of the Lighthouse on the Hill in the village of Eel-Smack-By-The-Bay. The Bellweathers are “most chaotic family ever to live”: there’s the eyebrow waggling inventor Dr. Bellweather, the wall-painter Mrs. Bellweather, a son named Spider who saves Vicious Endangered Animals (including albino alligators & attack squirrels), a daughter named Ninda who advocates for the Oppressed (whether they like it or not), and a set of triplets named Brick, Spike and Sassy who think removing a few stairs from the staircase (thus causing the butler to break his leg) is an example of ‘negative space’ in art.
I was hoping to interview the intrepid Benway, but was happy that my first post as a new blogger on From the Mixed Up Files is a chat with Kristin Clark Venuti about writing, publicity, laundry, and the Power of Capitalization.
Check out the interview and leave your thoughts below – one lucky commenter will win … a butler! No, but you will win a copy of The Butler Gets a Break. How’s that for a New Year’s present? (Winner announced Dec. 23rd!)
When I was reading your wonderful novels, Kristin, I felt like you knew my deepest, darkest secret. Because the truth of the matter is, I have always wanted to have a butler (who hasn’t?): someone to do my laundry and dishes, feed me tea and crumpets with Devonshire cream, put my, er, ever-so-delightful children back to bed … four hundred and eighty three times in the span of 30 minutes… Not that I’m complaining, mind you. Now Benway seems to have it hard. Those Bellweathers are not only Loud and Quirky but all too often Up To No Good. Do you anticipate him successfully leaving the Bellweathers at any point? Or, er, leaving their bodies in some unmarked literary location?
Great question! I too, have always longed for a butler – just as I too, have longed for someone, anyone, to put my children back to bed four hundred and eighty three times in the span of 30 minutes. Benway’s only hope is for the children in his charge to grow up. Even then, I imagine he’ll be stuck with the childish Dr. Bellweather… but I like the thought of that. I sort of picture them growing old together, heckling one another, but appreciating their differences. Sort of like the Odd Couple, only Felix is British and Oscar is no longer taking his meds.
Now, I adore Benway and, of course, have ALWAYS WANTED A BUTLER (did I mention that already?), but did anyone ever challenge the choice of having a grown up be such a central character – the protagonist, really – in a children’s book? How did you make that choice?
I was actually pretty concerned about how having an adult protagonist in a children’s book would go over, since it is a notion that was challenged on more than one occasion. But Benway has a personality that kids can relate to. He definitely has it together better than the Bellweathers do. He fulfills the need for a straight man in order to show that the family’s actions are out of the norm, even by the standards of Eel-Smack by the Bay. Still, there’s enough privately held petulance coming through in his journal to keep him from being a saint. That makes him more interesting. At least that’s what I hope.
BTW – when I myself started to question whether or not Benway as a main protagonist would work for kidlit, my husband pointed me in the direction of Mary Poppins. I don’t know that anyone ever dreamed of chiding P.L. Travers for her choice there. I’m no P.L. Travers, but it was nice to be reminded that there are successful exceptions to every rule.
Tell me about your writing process. Because your books are a combination of Benway’s diary entries and third person POV prose. Do you and Benway have a collaboration in the strictest sense or are you a sort of translator and interpreter? (and I’m assuming you are sharing the royalties with him, or else I think Ninda Bellweather is really going to have a labor case against you!)
He definitely gets a share of the royalties! As long as he promises not to write a tell-all book about ME.
Actually, I wrote Spider’s albino alligator story first. I originally envisioned three short stories that had characters in common. But they kind of grew together and morphed into the Bellweathers. Benway was present in all, but not integral to any. (He’d be astonished to hear me say that though. He considers himself the most important part of any story).
Later on, it became evident that Benway needed to not only relate the kid’s stories, he needed one of his own.
Leaving the Bellweathers is my first book for children. I have to thank my lucky stars that it was in the right place at the right time on all accounts. I had never written for children and wasn’t sure I was on the right track. (I could go off on a tangent here about language choices and vocabulary for kids… but instead I’ll let that slide so I can sit back and enjoy the all-too-rare feeling of self control)
Someone told me about the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and mentioned a conference that was sure to have workshops addressing craft. I sent the first 15 pages of what was then a forty-page manuscript to the national summer conference in LA. The fabulous Kim Turrisi passed my ms along to a lovely woman who was a junior editor at Harper Collins. Jaira loved it, invited me to send it to her once I was finished with it. Of course, by the time I did so, she was no longer working at Harper Collins. Back to the conference I went, learning all the way. (The workshops on craft are super-helpful).
Through the SCBWI summer conference I met Tracey Adams of Adams Literary, who really liked it and had a good idea of who in the industry might share our slightly dark, slightly twisted senses of humor. Fortunately for us Regina Griffin at Egmont US, too, has a peculiar sense of humor. Egmont US bought LTB and it came out the next year, which is lightning fast in terms of a publishing timeline. The sequel, The Butler gets a Break came out a year later (October 22nd, 2010) again, lightning fast in terms of the publishing world.
I once heard you give a fantastic talk called “I’m published… now what?” (undoubtedly you had a more clever title, but along those lines). What are a couple pieces of advice for writers to create their own publicity buzz? What’s worked for you? (Tell us about the stuffed animals!)
Ahh, yes. The old author as public relations person. I’m very fortunate in that my book was on the launch list of Egmont’s US venture (they’ve been around forever in Europe, but just decided to get into the US market recently) so my book got maybe more publicity than it otherwise would have… still there’s a lot for me to do.
Middle grade fiction writers are lucky in that if they’re halfway decent at presenting, they have a captive audience in elementary school kids. What kid wouldn’t rather go to an assembly than sit in class? So getting school visits is a great way to publicize a book. Another way to increase buzz is through blogging, but this is a strictly do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do-you-ninny sort of a thing. I am very bad at it.
One marketing thing I stumbled upon though, turned out to be a lot of fun. I found a website that had these cute little albino alligators for sale. (In my book, the oldest child brings an Endangered Albino Alligator home to live in the Lighthouse.) In my other life, I’m a scenic artist, so I ordered some alligators and then painted these little crates for them to live in. I sent them to my agent’s kids for fun. She thanked me on Facebook, at which point my Very Funny publisher, Elizabeth Law, saw them and let me (and our hundred or so mutual Facebook friends) know she really thought SHE should have one too. So I made a special one for her (it had a lot of needs, as I recall, such as injections four times a day among other things). The head of marketing at Egmont US saw the alligator and liked it so much that she ordered hundreds of them to be used in promotion. She even had them custom made with red eyes. This was a very nice thing. I carry them with me when I do school visits, and leave each school library with one as a mascot. The alligators come with a letter from Sir Tennyson Prufrock that details how they are to be cared for. It’s a lot of fun – and again, a very nice, above and beyond kind of a thing for my publisher to have done for me!
I have read on your website , that you are in fact a Very Untidy Individual. If you had a butler…say, Benway… working for you, what would you have him do? I know your family is the inspiration for many of the Bellweather children, would they be as awful to Benway as Spike, Ninda, and the triplets?
I am indeed a Very Untidy Individual – and may I just say, that the world (and in-laws in particular) became far more forgiving about this personality trait once I became a Published Author. Here’s how folks see the math: Untidy Individual = Lazy Housekeeper
BUT Untidy Individual + Published Novel = Creative Genius. It may not be true, but it works for me!
If Benway lived with me, I think I’d just have him fold and put away laundry. Really. I often have visitors to my house sign my laundry room walls – but it’s usually a pigsty. If a first time visitor is invited to sign, I try to make sure a copy of my book is Prominently Displayed, so I can wave toward it airily – as if to say Published Author here, Don’t Judge. It doesn’t usually work, but it makes me feel better.
As for my kids mistreating Benway – it’s true that the Bellweather kids are based in large part on my own tribe, however my kids really are Very Conscientious Individuals, who have been raised to take the feelings of others into account…so, no. I don’t think Venuti Villekula would be as hard a place for Benway to work as the Lighthouse on the Hill.
The Habit of Capitalizing Important Things in your text – tell me about it. Is it an Homage to The Bear of Very Little Brain? (Ie. Pooh?)
You know, it’s funny. Capitalization is one of Benway’s quirks. He uses it to draw attention to phrases he thinks are important – but I never considered where this quirk might come from. Now that you mention it though, I am a huge A.A. Milne fan, and it very definitely seems like one of those things that creeps into one’s subconscious and works its way out in writing. Good call, Sayantani!
I also read that one of your inspirations for the Bellweathers books was Roald Dahl. What other authors – from your own childhood or now – do you turn to for inspiration? (and do they have butlers?)
Roald Dahl is by far the biggest influencer in terms of tone, but the Cheaper by the Dozen books by Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth had a big influence, as did Little Men by Lousia May Alcott, Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking (my house is named for Pippi’s), Helen Creswell’s books about the Bagthorp family, and of course, the Moffat books by Eleanor Estes.
I worked nonstop on the Bellweathers over the last two years, so that the sequel could come out so soon on the heels of the first one. I love him, but Benway is taking a bit of a break. I look forward to revisiting him and the Bellweathers in the future. There are at least two more stories to tell regarding that family’s misadventures.
Presently I’m at work on something completely different, though. I’m Very Excited about this new project and it’s going Extremely Well, but I’m keeping it under wraps for now.
Are your stories good medicine? [And I don’t mean in the sense of “I had to go to the hospital at Eel-Smack-By-The-Bay because I broke my leg on some negative space, er, art.”] How so?
I am a firm believer in laughter being the best medicine. I used to write tortured short fiction for adults. It was all very depressing, but that’s just what I was interested in at the time. Then, a week after his 18th birthday, my Godson was killed by a drunk driver. We were all devastated. It occurred to me during that time, that there was enough sorrow on the planet – and that there were enough people writing about important issues – and writing about them better than I could at the time.
I stopped writing for a while – but eventually I started again. I wanted to put some light back into the world.
I began writing about the Bellweathers, and I’d read what I’d written aloud to my Godson’s mother. In spite of the tragedy of her life, she would laugh. It really was very healing, the discovery that there were still funny things in the world. That there were reasons to smile let alone to laugh. So yes, I’d say Leaving the Bellweathers is good medicine.
Thank you Kristin, for your time, generosity and humor! And most of all, your fabulous middle grade VOICE!
Leave a comment below to enter to win a copy of Kristin’s book! Twitter or post to your FB (and tell me about it) and increase your chances of winning! Check back on December 23rd to see if you’ve won!
Sayantani DasGupta is a big fan of butler-based literature. If she could ever steal Benway away from the Bellweathers, she would have him fold all her Very Untidy laundry, and wrangle her Sometimes Naughty but Very Adorable children. She, like Kristin, is a Big Believer in Capitalization.