Ellis Weiner talks to Colin about the trouble with readers, what's funny to a ten-year-old, and the difference between tension rods and lug nuts.
Plus, Ellis answers our own "Questions for Review"
CGB: While The Templeton Twin Have An Idea is ostensibly about two smart, cunning 12-year-old twins, it's The Narrator who, quite forcibly, steals the show, interjecting with his reading of the action of events, asking readers what they thought of his descriptions, and either agreeing or suggesting they go back and have another look. Did you plan to write a book within a book? Or did The Narrator sneak up on you as well?
EW: Neither, actually. I was charmed and inspired by the first three Lemony Snicket books I read, but once I got started, the voice that the Narrator adopted had its origins in two other things. One was a web site I had created around 2004 (?), when I decided that it would tedious to write the site "myself" and have to coyly pretend that it wasn't just a blatant act of self-promotion. So I researched other writers' web sites, and saw that Ian McEwan's was not written or maintained by him, but by an academic. So I invented a fictional academic named, anagramatically, Renee Willis, whose creation of ellisweiner.com was, ostensibly, an act of respect and scholarship. But when you read it you realized that he hated Ellis Weiner's guts, and his every comment and "explanation" was an act of disingenuous criticism, along with a bit of self-pity and grandstanding. That site no longer exists. It became so old and dis-used that I was told it would be impossible to bring it back to life. So there's a different one at that address now.
The other source was a voice I used for the book Santa Lives! Five Conclusive Arguments for the Existence of Santa Claus, which came out in 2005 and features a similar touchy, vain, whiny "expert". That's where the Narrator came from. The fact that he (unlike the others) was talking to ten-year-olds, helped his style to "mature." If that's the word I want.
I'll be the first to admit that I don't typically read books aimed at kids. Though with books by David Almond, Suzanne Collins, and yourself now unceremoniously challenging the notion or the need for a distinction between books for adults vs. books for young adults in readers' minds, including my own, I'm beginning to feel less like an authority on the subject than a man who lives inside a comfortable, well-meaning cave. This being your first book for middle-grade readers, you're perhaps as in the dark as I am, but are most books for young readers this funny?
Well, first: thank you. I doubt it. But I really wouldn't know, because I haven't read many at all. I wanted the Series of Unfortunate Events to be funnier, but I only read three. I suspect that most "funny" middle-grade (and YA) books are written by adults who don't particularly laugh at what they've written, but who think that kids will find it funny. (And who, I assume, are often correct. But that doesn't mean that the adult readers will.)
I've been writing humor for 36 years and can't do it without trying to make myself laugh. So I decided early on to stick to that, and let an editor tell me if I've gone too far. The notes I've gotten from my editor at Chronicle (Victoria Rock) have consistently been about plot, pace, and sentimentality (she's against it). The only time (in two books--the second is still being finished) she's suggested a joke has been too old, is when the Narrator in book 2 lists a number of roles he's played in musical comedies. The jokes were all plays on the names of real musicals (Katz; South Passaic; etc.) and I agreed that a ten-year-old reader probably wouldn't get them. So we cut them.
In addition to being a celebrated author and humorist for the likes of The New Yorker, Paris Review, and Spy Magazine, you play the drums. As a former drummer, I have to ask, what's the biggest, bold-faced lie you've ever told in order to get out of taking down your kit after a show? And also, what is a lug nut?
None! Never! This may be because I've played out, in performances, a tiny percentage of the time, and have mainly "played" on my own, for fun, or in rehearsals for this or that band, which almost never got gigs.
I thought lug nuts were the things that held the wheel (which holds the tire) onto the car--the hex nuts you have to take off with the jack handle before being able to change a tire. You don't mean tension rods, right? Which are--as you know--the eight or ten threaded rods that attach the drum head hoop to the drum.
The Narrator, though charming, is also quite irritable. Seeing as this is the first book in a series, how do you see him holding up in the midst of the sure to be increasing number of issues and imbeciles in need of his all-seeing assistance?
Now that you mention it, he may not. It might be fun to see what happens if he goes on strike, or sulks a lot IN PRINT. I'm not sure whether the source of that pique will be the characters, or "the reader." In the latter case, of course, he would get upset, not at anything an actual reader does or says, but what he imagines they would. That would be fun.
Editor's Note: While this interview was conducted via email, it's possible I do in fact mean tension rods.
Questions for Review
At the end of every chapter in "The Templeton Twins Have an Idea," The Narrator asks readers a series of belittling and hilarious "Questions for Review." I thought it might be fun to see what happens when they tables are turned.
What did you think of these questions?
These were excellent questions, with the exception of the lug nut question, which made me feel as though there were something I don't know. Nobody likes that.
Did you see that one about the drums coming? How could you.
No. I don't see it going, either. But it will have to, sooner or later.
Is there anything I didn't ask you'd like to add? No, I pretty much covered it? Above and beyond? Please. please, you're embarrassing me.
If I'm truly embarrassing you, then my work here is done.