The first time I saw Michael Reisman, he was wearing glasses, and a fuzzy, brown robe (in the 100 degree heat). And– he was speaking with a thick, Irish accent.
I see you raising eyebrows, well here’s proof (not of his accent, but that he was wearing a bathrobe):
This was at 2010’s West Hollywood Bookfair. Michael, with the help of several willing teens, and some cool props, had explained what his books’ hero Simon Bloom did in all his adventures.
Michael and the other authors at the bookfair were super easy to talk with and were all eager to share their wisdom on writing. (You can watch their video interviews HERE.)
So that was the first time I met Michael. I emailed him and all the other authors afterward to ask if they were interested in being featured in a spotlight week and he was the second one to agree. I sent him the interview questions a couple of weeks later and waited…and waited some more.
A year later, I bumped into him at the SCBWI Summer Conference. I almost didn’t recognize him because he wasn’t wearing his famous brown robe—and glasses. I was amazed that he recognized me, as I was few pounds lighter from when we first met. (–a fact I am quite happy to share with all of you). He apologized profusely for making me wait for his author interview answers. He explained the circumstances behind this great delay and I assured him that it was all right. I know how very tough writers’ schedules are and I really didn’t want him to worry about the interview.
On the anniversary of our first meeting, he finally emailed me his author interview questions. I was so happy that I could finally feature his awesome books in my Spotlight Week, and have him gain more fans through this author interview.
Michael really put a lot of thought into answering every question and I truly enjoyed reading all of (his ramblings, as he put it). I hope you enjoy it just as much.
The charming Michael Reisman,
author Of “The Simon Bloom Series”
1. As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I think I wanted to be a dinosaur, but that didn’t work out. Beyond that, I loved telling stories but mostly did it through drawings. I thought it would be great to be a cartoonist or a comic book writer/ artist. (I wasn’t – and am still not – that good an artist, though, so I’m in quiet awe of those who can draw so well.)
2. What were your favorite books growing up?
I’d have to say A Wrinkle in Time and The Phantom Tollbooth (as well as comic books like X-Men and Spider-Man), but around 6th grade I shifted into reading stuff not written for young readers (like books by Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Jack Chalker, etc.). And sometime during 6th grade, I read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which has been my favorite ever since.
3. When did you know you were going to be a writer? What prompted you to take your writing seriously?
(Ah, this is where you get to see just how long-winded I can be…) I didn’t think I had any real writing ability until junior year of high school when my English teacher – Mrs. Fenster – gave us an assignment that let us be as creative as we wanted. And she liked mine so much that she gave me a really high grade and read it to all her classes. I realized, for the first time, that the strange ideas floating around in my head could be entertaining for someone besides me. From then on, I enjoyed writing papers/ essays that I was allowed to be creative in, but I did little more than dabble in such writing. It was only after I graduated from college and had an idea that I thought would make a good book that I decided to try writing one. Soon after, on vacation, I saw someone working on a laptop in a café overlooking a beach. I don’t know if that person was a writer, but it occurred to me that if I wanted, I could write books in cafes or wherever I wanted, and that was very appealing.
I didn’t decide to take writing seriously until years later, though. I was living in Los Angeles and working full time in a movie company job that I was miserable at. It was a good job for someone who wanted to become a producer or work in film development, but I realized I had no interest in it. I had started a 2nd book, but by the time I got home from work I couldn’t imagine sitting in front of a computer any longer, so I rarely got anything done. I took another vacation with the intention of using time away to decide if I would stop writing, let it be a once-in-a-while thing, or if I would make writing my main focus. Once again I was by a beach when I made up my mind – I couldn’t imagine stopping writing, so I’d have to dedicate myself to it entirely, working whatever jobs I could to pay the bills.
4. What’s the most unusual job you had before you became a full time writer?
While I think it’s perfectly normal, some think my work reading scripts/ books for movie/ TV companies is unusual. (I still do it a little now – I give notes on projects or tell whether I think the script/ book would make a good movie/ TV show.) I’ve had odd temp jobs like washing tents at some party-planning place or spraying cologne at the local mall when I was in high school. But I think my most unusual job was my very first one in Los Angeles. It was a long-term temp job at 20th Century Fox Feature Casting. We had TV stars and movie stars and musicians and sports stars coming in to meet with my bosses and, having just moved to LA, I was used to seeing none of those. It was also a nutty job…fast-paced and hectic and crazy. Doesn’t sound that unusual yet, right? Well, on my very first day my boss was filming a video for an upcoming executives’ retreat. She pretended to interview an orangutan named Sammy, the star of Dunston Checks In (a Fox movie). My boss – the head of Feature Casting – pretended to interview him for a role in a Tarzan project that was in the works at the studio at the time. This was my 2nd week in LA and my first day at this job, and here was a camera crew in the Senior VP of Casting’s office, filming her chatting with a small orange ape in a leopard-print leotard-thing. Does that count as unusual?
5. What inspired you to write “The Gravity Keeper”?
Ok, another long answer: Part 1 is, I read tons o’ comic books in elementary school, and I’d sometimes imagine my own superheroes/ villains. Sometimes, I’d even draw them. (Most were animals or – for lack of a better word – things, ’cause I couldn’t draw humans very well.) One hero that I never drew (because he was human) was called Lawbreaker because he had the power to break the laws of science. Part 2 is, I was also fascinated by teacher’s having books – called Teacher’s Editions – that had the answers in the back. Answers!!! Oh, if only I could get my hands on that… Part 3 is I had some really fun teachers in high school (yes, I swear it’s possible!). My Chemistry teacher (Mr. Oliver) was funny and a bit nutty, and he had this great way of making scientific principles and laws and such stick in your head. I also had a funny and wacky Physics teacher (Mr. Friedman) and a very sharp-witted AP Biology teacher (Dr. Giglio). The three of them helped me realize how much fun science could be. Part 4 is many years in the future, when I worked as a reader for Nickelodeon and decided to try writing for young readers. I remembered my Lawbreaker-idea and how wild and interesting science could be. I wondered, what if what we thought were the laws of science were only a small part of the real nature of the universe, because we could only understand a little bit. But if someone had something…like a Teacher’s Edition…with the real answers to the universe in it…well, that would be pretty cool, huh? (I know, I know, that’s a really long explanation. Maybe I should make something up like, “Oh, it came to me in a dream.” Simpler, no?)
6. Which character in “The Octopus Effect” did you enjoy writing the most and why?
That’s a difficult question. I loved writing the core 3 characters as their friendship deepened, especially as they started to get their Octopus-themed powers. That allowed me to get fairly creative with what I had them do and how they reacted (e.g. Alysha’s jet propulsion was A Lot of fun to write, and I still love thinking about Simon’s gravity-arms). I also enjoyed getting to show Flangelo kick a little butt. And writing the Narrator-parts is always great fun, because writing in his voice makes me laugh. But Sirabetta was probably the most interesting to write. She learns some harsh lessons in this book, and she’s also dealing with a lot of personal issues. Sure she’s mean and a bit crazy, but she’s also a very sad character who’s had some tough times. To me, she’s more than just a villain. So, basically, I didn’t really answer your question, did I? (Though I will admit that naming and writing Phineas the lionfish was hugely enjoyable.)(Yes, I’m a total dork.)
7. Do you write outlines for your stories, or do you just follow wherever the story leads?
I don’t really outline. I write down the basic idea and start jotting down things that come to mind, like a few scenes or some characters and what they might do. Mostly, I ask myself questions and answer them…I sort of talk to myself in writing form to figure certain things out. I don’t usually do too much of this before I start writing, especially if I’ve envisioned several chapters and want to get started actually getting it down. That being said, I’m working on something new now, and I decided to try fully outlining it first. It’s weird, because that means making all the decisions of what will happen throughout the book before actually starting to write it. I’m refining that outline now and will soon dive in to the actual writing…I’ll have to see how that works out.
8. How long did you work on your first book? How many rewrites did you do before you finally felt it was ready?
My first book that sold – Simon Bloom, the Gravity Keeper – was really my 5th book I’d written. I was kind of writing it at the same time as another book, working more on one or the other depending on my mood. For some reason, I consider that other book my 4th novel and Simon Bloom my 5th. Anyway, for Simon Bloom I had to do a lot of research, too. It focused on physics and though I liked the subject, I didn’t remember enough of it from high school to work it into a magical system. So I got some books to help me understand the different laws and theories, chose what would make good super-power equivalents, figured out the basics of the world and how the Teacher’s Edition worked, and I wrote. Not including the research or the 4th book-writing, I’d say it took about 6 months for a first draft (including 2 different major restarts). I launched right into a fix-up draft before showing it to a few trusted friends who loved it as is. I did another fix-up draft, then I showed it to a couple of professionals (an editor and an agent) I’d been in touch with, but both told me they didn’t like the mixing of 1st and 3rd person narration. I got nervous and did a major redraft that made it all 3rd person (a change I never liked but feared was necessary). I kept revamping the order of the first few chapters, and the agent who wound up repping me was planning on passing until I sent her the latest version with the chapter order working better. Basically, I was the poster child for what Not to do, and I got lucky that this agent (Nancy Gallt) was feeling merciful enough to take another look and, finally, represent me.
9. Tell us about your path to publication.
My agent sent my book – then called the Teacher’s Edition – out to editors but, as I waited for responses, I kept feeling foolish for having made it all 3rd person based on 1 editor and 1 agent’s comments. I felt it wasn’t at its best and kept thinking that even if it got published that way, I’d always regret not having my Narrator talk in 1st person the way I preferred. After we received many rejections, the awesome Debbie Kovacs at Walden Media read it and liked it. Walden was entering into a partnership with Penguin at that time, and soon it landed in the hands of Eloise Flood – then the publisher at the Penguin Young Readers imprint Razorbill. She read it and told Debbie/ my agent that she liked it a lot. She gave super-detailed notes, going page-by-page through the manuscript, but eventually said that she had to pass on it as it was. I was understandably sad about that, but I decided I would fix what had been bothering me for the last many months of rejections by other editors: I’d bring back the Narrator the way I wanted him to be. So I reread all the rejection emails/ letters from editors, reread all of Eloise’s notes, reread that 1st/ 3rd person earlier draft and reread the 3rd person draft that had gone out to all the editors. Then I rewrote the whole book using the parts I liked most from both drafts and taking into account the comments I’d received that resonated with me. And then my agent sent it back to Eloise at Razorbill, telling her we wanted to show it to her first because she’d put so much time and thought into her notes…and this time, Eloise made an offer!
10. How has your life changed since you got published?
There are a lot of cool aspects to it. It’s a great feeling to hold a print version of something I wrote…I carried the advanced reader copy of my first book around in my computer bag for a long time, just so I could take it out and look at it sometimes. To my delight, Simon Bloom, the Gravity Keeper is currently in various foreign languages – Portuguese, German, Basque, Greek, Spanish and Catalan, with versions in Japanese and Hebrew coming soon. I get to see how my favorite chapter title in Gravity Keeper (“It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Gets Hit By Lightning”) looks in different languages. The Gravity Keeper is also being developed as a feature movie by Walden Media and I’m excited by how that’s moving forward. I’ve gotten to meet some authors who I not only admire but who have been inspirational to me. I’ve gotten to do talks for people of all ages with audiences ranging from 15 to 300 or so, talking about writing and science and life as an author. And that’s amazing! I love hearing from readers of all ages, especially when they tell me how they’ve been positively affected by my writing. There are even some videos and fan-art made about Simon Bloom, and that thrills me. It’s an incredible feeling to know that the characters and stories I’ve come up with have made people smile and, perhaps, inspired them.
11. What’s your typical day as a writer like? Do you have any writing-related rituals or quirks?
Well, I’m a night-person, so my typical work day involves waking up in the late morning and doing some work at my home-office space. Then I often head out to a café where I’ll get some caffeine (and sometimes, food) and do more work. I’m usually there from 2 or 3ish til 6 or 7ish, then I go home and power-nap, work out, eat dinner (really my lunch), and head to a late-night café for my next shift. That place closes around 1am, and after that I’ll eat ‘dinner’ and perhaps do more work from home or, if I’ve gotten enough done that day, I’ll veg in front of the TV a bit – I have to keep up on movies/ TV for work…honest! I try to be in bed by 4 am or so. I don’t think there are any real rituals in that, though I do have favorite seats in the different cafes I frequent. Nothing superstitious about the seats – just near outlets and, preferably with a window view or a good view of the whole café. (I like to people-watch…when I needed some villains and heroes for The Octopus Effect, I literally looked around the café and chose people for characters’ names/ appearances.)
Author Michael Reisman, photo by Rita Crayon-Huang
12. Do you encounter challenges in your writing life? What are these challenges and how do you overcome them?
Oh, sure – I don’t know any writer who doesn’t. They include difficulties in getting my ideas to translate from your brain to the page the way you want them, or getting others (agents/ editors) to believe in a project as much as I do, or getting the word out on my writing. And, at times, accepting that something just isn’t ready yet (as much as I want to send it out to the world)…sometimes I need to put something down for a while and then revisit it with fresh eyes, for example. Maybe the biggest challenge for me is to remember that there are forces at work beyond just me and the page – the economy, the state of the industry, decisions being made that I cannot influence. To deal with this, I can only do the best I can on my end and not try to control what I can’t control.
13. Are you currently working on any other projects?
I’m working on a lot right now. I’ve been developing some ideas for TV shows…animated and live action…and I’ve been working on a movie treatment (a prose description of how the movie will work) for an animated project. I’m also making an outline for a new middle grade novel I’m working on. After that, there’s a middle grade novel I finished but need to revisit to fix up certain core problems in it.
14. What advice would you like to give to aspiring writers?
There are lots of factors that are important in being a writer in any medium, especially in writing novels, that you hear about a lot: Learn as much as you can about how to write, read a lot (in all genres), revise-revise-revise, make sure your characters are believable and engaging, etc. All of these are important. But I want to underline the importance of one thing: persistence. Writing careers can be filled with ups and downs, stumbles and successes. If it’s really worth it to you, don’t be discouraged. If you believe this is something you truly want, then work hard and face down every setback or obstacle. Don’t expect it to come easily – you not only have to work hard, you have to harden yourself to the troubles you’ll face. You have to be patient with other people, with the industry, and with yourself most of all. I don’t know of anyone who was an instant success. And if you truly want to do this, if you truly love writing and want to make a career out of it, you have to be dedicated to improving your abilities, making contacts, and being persistent no matter the difficulties.
15. What would you like to say to your young readers? Is there any advice that you would like to give them?
Hmm. Maybe, above all, to love what you love. If you love sports, great – that’s your thing. If you love science, great, that’s your thing. If you love to read, to dance, to sing, to draw, or if you love math, studying, building things, etc., then don’t let anyone tell you it’s not cool or wise to do it. (Unless, you know, it’s something that’s really dangerous for you or for others.) You don’t have to make a career out of it – you can do this thing as a hobby or a once-in-a-while interest – but if you love it and it’s not going to hurt anyone, don’t be afraid to make it a part of your life.
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