When writing your first draft, do you like to write by hand or on the computer? I much prefer writing on my computer. It’s faster and, given my penmanship, far more legible. As first drafts should be written for exploration and “anything goes,” the speed and tumble of writing on a keyboard lends itself to discovery and surprise. After all, writing is improvisation with your imaginary friends—your characters. Writing on a computer, provided you type faster than you handwrite, gives all of your characters easy and equal access to the “stage” of page, scene, and story.
What was your favorite childhood book? My parents used to read books to my sibling and me, such as Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, and The Swiss Family Robinson. I loved hearing those stories. Later, in high school, my favorite book was Moby Dick by Herman Melville. I was fascinated by how it told both a fascinating story but also wove in a detailed account of whaling in the 19th century. The book made me a lover of fiction and history.
What is the most exciting part about being an author? As a former actor, I love being an author because I get to play all the characters. As I put myself in their shoes, sometimes they do or say things I would never have imaged or said while in my own shoes. Being an author not only expands the mind, it expands one's sense of humanity.
What is the most challenging part about being an author? Certainly in an age where people are reading less—presuming you don’t count reading texts and social media posts as “reading”—getting people to read your books is a big challenge. As for the craft of writing, the most challenging part is solving the story problems that present themselves as you try to construct a cohesive and entertaining whole. No writer writes a perfect story out of the gate. Problems come with making fiction—make-believe—believable. But those story or character problems that pop up as you write are often the pivot point for a great breakthrough in your story.
What are three writing tips you've found beneficial? Keep writing. Keep rewriting. Keep problem solving.
What do you like to do when you're not writing? I think it was Margaret Atwood who said, “When I’m writing I’m not living; when I’m living I’m not writing.” So, yeah, living is pretty sweet. When I’m living—not that there’s an active alternative—I revel in physical exercise and sport. I much enjoy the sport Mark Twain described as “a good walk spoiled”: golf. Traveling and reading are right up there as well. Which reminds me of another quote I once heard: “Reading is butt travel.” You sit, you read, you go to wonderful faraway places.
EXTRA CREDIT INTERVIEW WITH BRIAN MEEHL
Joining LitPick for an Extra Credit Interview is Brian Meehl, author of books including Blowback ’07, Suck It Up, and Suck It Up and Die. He has an extensive resume that includes Sesame Street and The Magic School Bus.
Do you have a solid outline before writing, or do you usually get ideas as you go along? I am very much a solid-outline writer. The main reason for this is that it’s too easy for me to get carried away with dialogue and characters talking to each other. If I don’t have a full treatment or chapter outline, I can waste a lot of time constructing character conversations that, in the end, were just so much hot air. By sticking with the beat-by-beat story progression without dialogue it also keeps me motivated and excited to get to the drafting phase of letting my characters finally open their mouths and run with the story. Which is not to say that ideas and discoveries that may alter the “map” don’t come along. The element of a surprise discovery is always welcome.
Has someone you’ve known ever appeared as a character in a book (consciously or subconsciously)? Sure. The main character in my first book, Out of Patience, is very much like me as a boy growing up in the Midwest. Building characters in a story is like being a painter with a pallet with all sorts of blobs of colored paint on the pallet. You take a little of this from this person and a little bit to that from that person, and you begin to paint a portrait. To stick with the art metaphor, fictional characters are often a collage of people you know quite well and people you may barely know. One thing I find helpful is to start with a character’s physicality. Morning McCobb, in my Suck It Up books, began in my mind when I modeled him off a gangly and awkward boy I knew from my kids’ friends.
What do you do when you get writer's block? Because I wrote so much television with tight deadlines, I’m not sure I’ve ever suffered from writer’s block. In fact, I don’t really believe in it. Being scared of a blank piece of paper or blank computer screen is like being scared of a blank screen in your mind. There’s ALWAYS something going on in your mind - unless, of course, you’re an expert meditator and can totally think of nothing - which is to say, when you think you’re having writer’s block just focus on what’s in your mind’s eye. If you can daydream, which is basically what writers do, you will never have to worry about writer’s block. Now a “writers’ block party,” that’s something else.
If you could live in a book's world, which would you choose? Give me the adventure of the high seas in Moby Dick, or the fantastic wilds of nature in Swiss Family Robinson, or the even more fantastic world of Phillip Pullman’s Dark Materials series.
What is your favorite book-to-movie adaptation? Don’t have one off the top of my head, but related to the subject, I’m thinking of William Goldman’s line when someone said about a film adapted from one of his books, “Can you believe what they did to your book?” to which Goldman replied, “They didn’t do anything to my book. It’s right there on the shelf.” Movie “adaptations” are more like a jazz riff off a melody; some are more successful than others, but the melody lives on.
If you could have lunch with one other author (dead or alive!), who would it be? Mark Twain. He was such an entertainer and raconteur that lunch would stretch right into dinner.
Before becoming an author, you were part of the Sesame Street cast and wrote for The Magic School Bus. What is one of your favorite memories from this time of your life? One of the greatest joys of being a puppeteer is that having another character on your arm, with a different voice than your own, gives you a license to say things you yourself might not say (and you can always blame the puppet). While sometimes puppeteers will improvise when the camera is rolling, it was the improvisation and spontaneous byplay that puppet characters engaged in when the camera wasn’t rolling that was often hilariously fun. Sometimes it got a bit crude. So much so that when there were young kids visiting the set and we had to tell our puppet characters to mind their mouths, we would announce that “the sky is blue.” It was code for keep it clean. So, yes, one of my favorite memories was puppet trash talk.
Brian, thanks for joining us for another interview. It’s great to get to know you even more. Your thoughts on writer’s block will be very helpful if people struggle with what to write about. Thanks for sharing that little secret about the world of puppeteers.
SIX MINUTES WITH BRIAN MEEHL
Joining LitPick today for Six Minutes with an Author is Brian Meehl. Before jumping into the world of novel writing, Brian was on Sesame Street and was a writer for a few kids’ shows, including The Magic School Bus.
Be sure to check out Blowback ’07 on LitPick’s YouTube video book review channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=59NtcsJq3Hw
How did you get started writing? This morning, or way back at the beginning? Oh, right, back at the beginning. The first pieces I wrote were monologues and two-handers that were basically sketch comedy. Performing – as an actor for several years and as a puppeteer with Muppets – kept me away from writing until the hurry-up-and-wait of being in TV and film studios drove me to writing. In the process, I discovered a big difference between acting and writing. In acting, you usually get to play one character. In writing, you get to play them all! From there I rode a writing train that took me through screenplays to lots of children’s television to finally writing young adult novels.
Who influenced you? Okay, parents aside. In high school English classes, for his imagination and sheer flights of fancy, Mark Twain certainly warped my imagination. For structure – and the dance between fact and fiction - Herman Melville’s Moby Dick had a profound affect. I was blown away by the way he dovetailed chapters of riveting narrative with chapters detailing the how, what and why of whaling. Both of these writers planted the seeds of wanting to entertain and inform.
Do you have a favorite book/subject/character/setting? As mentioned, Moby Dick. Certainly Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. So much so that my YA novel, You Don’t Know About Me is a modern reimagining of Huckleberry Finn. In fact, the first five words in Twain’s classic are, “You don’t know about me.” Native American stories and characters have always had a grip on me. Having grown up in the Midwest, I often find myself going back there in my work.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to be an author? Observe, observe, and pay attention to detail. What you remember of sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches will come back to inhabitant, haunt and inspire your writing. Writing can’t start until you hold a feeling or image in your mind. Holding a feeling or image in your mind can’t begin until you’ve experienced the kaleidoscope of life. But never think you’re too young or too inexperienced to write. The observable kaleidoscope begins the day you’re born. And never forget, part of observing is reading, reading, reading other writers to see how they did it.
Where is your favorite place to write? Quiet. Usually found in my home office. If there has to be noise, let it be white noise. The eye of a hurricane will do. The only place I can’t write is within earshot of voices in a language I understand. Such voices keep interrupting my imaginary friends. It’s one of the downsides of being a hyper-observer: auto-eavesdropping.
What else would you like to tell us? I’m not as crazy as the above answers may sound. But then, if you want to be a writer, you have to be a little crazy. That’s the fun of it. When you’re a kid, the genie of imagination is out of the bottle almost all the time. As you grow up, all sorts of forces try to stuff the genie back in the bottle. Don’t shove your genie into solitary confinement – like you could if you wanted to. The imagination genie pops out of the bottle every time you daydream. And daydreaming with a pencil in your hand or your fingers on a keyboard is what writers do.
Brian, thank you for joining us for an interview and sharing the visuals of a kaleidoscope life and daydreaming with a pencil. We’d love to hear more about your time with the Muppets and other fun escapades you’ve have.