A mixed-up interview NOT about the Royal Wedding

Tired of talking tiaras? Had enough Wills and Kate, dresses, designers, and talk of horses? Never want to read another word about Prince Harry’s unruly hair?

Well, you have come to the right place.

Because today, the Mixed Up Files is very happy to introduce you to Chris Rylander. He is the author of The Fourth Stall.

 

 

 

 

If you haven’t heard about this great debut novel, here is a synopsis:

Do you need something? Mac can get it for you. It’s what he does—he and his best friend and business manager, Vince. Their methods might sometimes run afoul of the law, or at least the school code of conduct, but if you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can pay him, Mac is on your side. His office is located in the East Wing boys’ bathroom, fourth stall from the high window. And business is booming.

Or at least it was, until one particular Monday. It starts with a third grader in need of protection. And before this ordeal is over, it’s going to involve a legendary high school crime boss named Staples, an intramural gambling ring, a graffiti ninja, the nine most dangerous bullies in school, and the first Chicago Cubs World Series game in almost seventy years. And that’s just the beginning. Mac and Vince soon realize that the trouble with solving everyone else’s problems is that there’s no one left to solve yours.

 

And this is Chris.

 

 

 

 

He is a Chicago Cubs fan.  Normally, I might be polite and ask him about this, but I am a mean Yankees fan, and it is not polite to count championships.

 

(Sorry, Chris….someday……)

 

Welcome to the Mixed Up Files! Tell me, why did you decide to make this story for middle grade readers? What drew you to the genre?

I’d recently read a few middle grade novels at the suggestion of an agent who eventually became the agent who signed me and sold THE FOURT STALL. And one thing I noticed about middle grade books is that it seemed like you could get away with breaking the fourth wall more often, and also that use of that conversational, treat-the-reader-as-a-friend type voice was more common in middle grade fiction than young adult. I don’t know if that’s actually true or not, but at the time, it seemed like it was.

Fourth wall? (Former drama girl’s ears perk up.) Tell me more!!!

I actually didn’t perform. In fact, I didn’t even know of the existence of the term “fourth wall” when I started writing. It was something I learned after people started using it to describe The Fourth Stall. So I just knew it was something that suited my writing without knowing what it actually was or meant. I just knew I liked the casual conversational tone for this age group.

Hmmmmm……very interesting! So it’s natural?

I don’t write from a very cerebral standpoint in that I don’t analyze every word or every little choice that I make. I write much more from an instinctual place, I like to feel out my stories and just run with it, more than I do stop and think about them and about what I’m planning and why. And so, I can’t even say much about the details behind my choices regarding breaking the fourth wall, only to say that I did it because it felt right.

(Okay….now I’m feeling a bit jealous. I  toil over every word.)

And I thought that style of storytelling would suit my writing better.

(feeling slightly less inferior) So it is intentional!

I wanted to write a casual and fun and kind of wacky book, and I just thought I’d have more freedom to do all of those with a middle grade novel. An interesting fact, though, is that about twenty pages in to THE FOURTH STALL, I kind of abandoned it an wrote two other young adult novels… then after those didn’t work out, I returned to the THE FOURTH STALL. Sometimes I wonder what would happened, how things would have turned out, had I not taken those six months away from THE FOURTH STALL.

I think a lot of good things happen when we step away from our work. It gives us time to analyze if our stories are working. It helps us see the story more critically. Are there other tricks you would like to share? Since the voice of your book is so distinct, let’s start with that!

“Voice” was never that conscious of a thing for me. It was something that just kind of came naturally for me, so I’m not really even aware of where it’s most present or not. To me, all I see in each section or scene, is simply another part of the story.

(Sarah to her students: things develop when you start with scene!)

As for how I found the voice, I’ve been lucky in that my voice for middle grade and young adult writing has always come pretty naturally. And I feel like it’s always been my biggest asset. Because an editor or agent can help you with your plot, or your characters, or your structure, or even help you find your theme or heart of your story. But it’s much harder for them to help you find your “voice.”

It’s true. Voice is the soul of a book. Still….you had to develop it.

To find my voice, really all I did was tap into my inner kid, which was easy for me since I still feel like a 12-year old most of the time. I was only 23 when I started The Fourth Stall, and I grew up in the video-game age. So I feel like I already had a pretty strong connection to modern kids. I still love to do all things that most kids do: play video games; play and watch sports; watch movies; download tons of music, etc.

When you write are you completely in your main character’s head? When do you step outside that POV and think like a director?

This is a great question and to answer it, I’m going to back to my previous answer a little bit about not thinking so much and just running with things, and say that probably I do a little bit of both. I try to get in my characters’ heads as much as I can, but I also know that I am the owner of the story and their lives and that I can make happen whatever I like. There’s a lot of freedom in reminding myself that. So I think I combine the two.

Any other advice??

Let go of your filters. I don’t mean to just start cursing like a grizzled gold prospector, but so much of growing up and becoming adult involves censoring your imagination and personality more and more as you get older. There are a bevy of social rules that we’re always expected to follow, and as you enter the workplace there’s that ultimate kill-joy of “professionalism” hanging over our heads at all times. But when you’re writing for kids, you really need to let all of that go. Be weird. Be crazy. Have fun.

I totally agree. Once, when I was having a hard time with a story, a very wise editor told me: eat dessert first!

Just let everything you’ve been holding back at those formal dinner parties or at work meetings or on the bus, or wherever, just let all of that go when you’re writing. I think tapping into your “unfiltered” personality is one way of finding your true writing voice.

Now let’s move on to process–all the nitty gritty. The inspiration? How many revisions? Any roadblocks along the way? What was the most illuminating part of the revision process for you?

I wish I had a cool story of some sort to answer the first question, like that the inspiration came from a dream, or that it really happened to me in middle school, or that this talking tree in a park near my house told me to write it, or that an alien and Mickey Mouse visited me one night and surgically implanted the idea into my brain against my will. But, in fact, it was nothing quite so interesting. Basically it was just me sitting there, thinking, “Hmm, what would make a really cool middle grade story? What adult genre could I put a kid-friendly spin on that I haven’t seen done before?” Of course it had been done before, but I didn’t know that at the time.

As for revisions, I did two or three large revisions with my agent, and while they were a lot of work, I didn’t find them particularly difficult to do. What I mean is, I had no problem cutting stuff and adding stuff and changing things, and, in fact, I was actually happy to do it. Because here was this agent, this guy who could help me find my dream, who was willing to help me make the book better and help me get it to a place where he could sell it. To me, that was awesome! I was thrilled to be getting that opportunity, so I really don’t even think of all of those revisions as “nitty-gritty” at all. All I remember about that time spent working on revisions is excitement. Excitement that this real, live agent was really going to help me realize a dream, and more than that, he was helping me write a better book than I ever thought I was capable of writing.

 

As for roadblocks, you could either view the whole process as a series of never-ending roadblocks, just because it’s hard to get published. And you wouldn’t be wrong. Or you could say the only roadblocks are the ones you find for yourself. And even then, you wouldn’t be wrong. I think this is all a perspective or state of mind thing. Some people like to look back and see all they’ve overcome. Some people like only to look forward and not worry about obstacles at all. And I’m more the latter… I didn’t think of any challenge I faced as a roadblock per say, I didn’t even spend that much time thinking about the “challenges” to even think of them as anything at all. I simply didn’t dwell on things that weren’t moving me forward, I just kept pushing ahead, which meant moving on to the next agent instead of wondering why that one or this one didn’t want to represent the book, or pushing ahead with the third revision instead of wondering what I’d done wrong during the first two.

Was there a teacher or librarian (or mafia boss!) in your childhood who inspired or empowered you to be a writer? What were your favorite books as a kid? (I didn’t read a lot of books…if you didn’t either, please be candid!)

I really do wish I could point to one teacher or even a few here and say it was them. But I can’t do that because I’d be afraid I’d leave someone out. The truth is I had a lot of great teachers who inspired me in some way. But I didn’t start writing until after I’d graduated college, so I can only really thank those teachers for encouraging reading. Because more than anything it was my love of reading and books themselves that made me want to be a writer.

I think I’ll list my favorite authors and types of books rather than individual books since I rarely picked single favorites but rather just consumed as many as I could, one after the other. My favorite authors/series as a kid were: Louis Sachar, Roald Dahl, R.L. Stine (Goosebumps and Fear Street), Jerry Spinelli, Star Wars books (the ones for adults, written by Timothy Zahn and Kevin Anderson, etc.), Clive Cussler, Stephen King, and many more, it’s hard to remember them all!

What is your favorite place to write? Work day snack? Music to work by? Thing to sip while writing? Writers workshop or conference?

I like to write on my lunch break at my day job. Because when I’m there, there are no distractions, no Playstation games calling my name, no movies to watch, no baseball or football games on TV, no kitchens to clean or dishes to do, no laundry or appointments or other things going on.

You do dishes? Now I’m impressed!!!

It’s just hard to find time to write anywhere else. So at work on my breaks has always been my most productive writing time. In fact, that’s where I’ve probably written over 90% of every story I’ve ever started and/or finished. It’s where I’m doing this interview right now!

From the first page, your sense of humor was clear. And I love your website. I think boys are going to love this book. Do you have a message for boy readers? Any recommendations for future humorous reading?

Thank you for those kind words! The only message I have would be to keep reading! You will always be able to find time to play video games or play sports, and I know it’s hard to sometimes pick up a book instead. So read when you can’t do that other stuff, like read a lot in school or at night in bed when you’re supposed to be sleeping. Those are the two places where I did almost all of my reading as a kid, which still left me with a lot of time to play football in the backyard or play video games or watch movies.

For some great humorous middle grade reading check out The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex, anything by Jack Gantos, Spaceheadz by Jon Scieszka, the forthcoming The Detention Club by David Yoo (which I haven’t actually read yet, but his young adult books are hilarious so I have no doubt this will follow suit.) Plus there’s always my own childhood favorites that could be revisited: the Wayside Stories series by Louis Sachar or Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli.

Thanks, Chris, for spending time on the Mixed Up Files Blog. For those of you who want to know even more about Chris, check out his website at www.chrisrylander.com. And pick up a copy of The Fourth Stall. Now in bookstores!

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