I’m thrilled to welcome Bruce Hale to the Mixed-Up Files. Bruce has written and illustrated over twenty-five books for kids, including his Chet Gecko Mysteries and Underwhere series.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your series and how you came up with the idea to write them?
The Chet Gecko books came from someplace deep in my subconscious, I suspect. I’ve always had a love for hardboiled detectives, ever since I was a kid watching Humphrey Bogart movies with my dad. That love grew as I got older and read Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and other classic noir writers. The gecko part? I think that came along because I was living in Hawaii, in a house that was lousy with geckos. And the name “Chet,” I suspect, came from Chet Baker, a jazz trumpeter whose recordings I love. But really, Chet Gecko emerged when I was doing some free writing, noodling around on an idea for a mystery book. He showed up feisty and fully-grown — sort of a Gecko Venus on the half shell.
The Underwhere books have a more straightforward origin. As a longtime cartoonist, I was toying with the idea of doing a book that was part-graphic novel, part-conventional fiction. I tried and discarded several ideas, trying to establish the logic behind switching between the two forms of storytelling. Finally it hit me: a world at the center of the Earth beneath our feet, called (what else?) “Underwhere.” Once I had that play on words, I couldn’t resist. The graphic novel sections take place in Underwhere, and the narrative fiction sections are in our own world. It was only later that I realized I may have unconsciously based the concept on the Pellucidar novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, an author I loved in 3rd-5th grades.
Your books are really funny, and whenever I’ve seen you in person, you always have the audience laughing. When did you realize that you have a gift for humor?
I guess I’ve always had a twisted sense of humor, but it started coming out most strongly in my acting and cartooning when I was in high school. A gift? I look at it that way, but I’m not sure all victims of my puns would agree.
What advice would you give to people who want to write funny stories?
Part of being funny is being willing to take risks. There’s the risk of offending, as well as the risk of falling flat on your face. And no risk is greater (or joke funnier) than telling the truth. In life, that’s where a lot of my favorite humor comes from — telling truths that everyone is thinking, but no one is saying. In writing, if you take a risk and get a little “out there,” you might come up with something funny, or you might flop. Same thing if you tell uncomfortable truths in a funny way — sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But unless you risk, you’ll never know. My philosophy is, give the joke a shot; you can always revise it later.
Another thing about writing funny: it’s all about revision. Dave Barry, one of my favorite humorists, says he spends hours searching for exactly the right word, and phrasing his sentences in exactly the right way. That’s what it takes to write humor — lots and lots of revision.
Which middle-grade novels make you laugh the most?
One of my favorite middle-grade series is MT Anderson’s Lily Dare and Jasper Dash books, like WHALES ON STILTS. Hilarious stuff. Recently, I read Mac Barnett’s first BRIXTON BROTHERS book and snorted frequently. And as far as classics go, both WINNIE THE POOH and THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH still make me smile.
Do you have a fun writing exercise to share with us?
Yes, it’s called Teen Villain Questionnaire. Chet Gecko villains invariably have goofy names and fearsome aspects, but sometimes they’ve got a hidden motivation or a weakness/soft spot that you wouldn’t expect. Design a teen magazine-style questionnaire, and answer it as if you were a Chet Gecko villain (create your own goofy name and villainous character). Example questions: Name your favorite hobbies? Your idea of a dream date? Who’s groovier, Elvis or Edward? Have fun with it. You’ll find a lot of humor comes in creating strong contrasts between the questions and answers, or within the answers themselves. (Ex: Hobbies? Thievery, world domination, and stamp collecting.)
Thank you so much for participating in our Skype Giveaway! What do you love about Skype visits, and what makes yours special?
Skype visits are a blast! I love that I get to work with smaller groups in Skype visits, as I normally do large assemblies when visiting schools in person. I like that the kids get plenty of chances to be a star, standing up in front of the group to ask me questions. My visits are special because we tend to laugh a lot, while at the same time getting inspired and even learning something. My sessions include storytelling with character voices, plenty of Q&A, a brief slideshow on how I went from being a reluctant reader to an author — and, best of all, a short cartooning lesson. And you never know who will show up — sometimes my dog Riley joins the conversation mid-visit, which kids love.
Is there anything else you would like to share with us?
Just this month, I had a short story published in the new Guys Read collection, GUYS READ: THRILLER. It’s a spooky tale of a kid who hunts for cryptids. I’ve got two picture books in the works: POOCH IN BOOTS, and BIG BAD BABY — as well as a longer novel that will remain top-secret for now.
I have teaching guides for CHET GECKO and SNORING BEAUTY on my website. I’m passionate about helping people become better storytellers. If you could use some help on the road to getting published, I invite you to subscribe to my free monthly e-newsletter of writing tips. You’ll find interviews with agents and editors, feature articles on aspects of craft, Q&A, inspirational quotes, and the occasional bad joke.
One lucky winner will receive a signed paperback of DIAL M FOR MONGOOSE. Leave a comment below and our random generator will choose a winner on Saturday, September 24th. You’ll get extra entries for sharing a link on your blog, Facebook, or Twitter.
***Please mention each link in a new comment so the generator will add your extra entries. Winners must live in the US or Canada. Good luck!
Mindy Alyse Weiss writes humorous middle-grade novels and is constantly inspired by her ten and thirteen year-old daughters, adventurous sock and underwear munching puppy, and two stinky but adorable ferrets. Visit her blog to read more about her writing life, conference experiences, and writing tips.