James Sulzer, author of THE CARD PEOPLE series, lives on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, where he has taught students in grades 4 - 8 for 30 years. A graduate of Yale University, where he was a Yale National Scholar, he is also the author of Nantucket Daybreak (Walker and Co.) and The Voice at the Door, a novel of Emily Dickinson (Fuze Publishing). He has produced countless "sonic id's" for NPR.
EXTRA CREDIT INTERVIEW WITH JAMES SULZER:
Joining LitPick for an Extra Credit Author Interview is James Sulzer, author of The Card People series. The last book in the trilogy, Crisis, was just released, and it has received the LitPick Top Choice Book Review Award. One student reviewer says, “Crisis is a fast-paced, action-packed story!”
Check out the other reviews and the LitPick Book Brief video (https://litpick.com/books/crisis-card-people-3)!
***Do you have a solid outline before writing, or do you usually get ideas as you go along?
When I begin a novel, I have a general sense of the arc of the story, but I find it works best for me to let the plot reveal itself in the act of writing. Maybe this is because my brain works at its highest level when I’m actually writing; telling a story quickens my senses and my imagination in a way that mere planning cannot. There’s no substitute for being inside a story. Rather than planning out everything ahead of time, my writing process is to imagine the characters, then record what they say and do. Of course, this process requires lots of subsequent revision to make sure the story is presented to the reader in the best possible way.
Likewise, my characters usually spring from the ether in the heat of the moment as I’m writing. As I began The Card People trilogy, the traits of my main character, thirteen-year-old Paul, quickly emerged. And within the first page or two, his younger brother, Sam, barged into the story. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I see now that his character formed itself in contradistinction to Paul’s—messy where Paul was fastidious, flippant where Paul was respectful. The storyteller in me recognized that there had to be a colorful dynamic between these two. I immediately had a feel for their relationship: loving but trying, close but taxing to them both. Having grown up with two brothers, I had some material with which to work.
***Has someone you’ve known ever appeared as a character in a book (consciously or subconsciously)?
Bits and pieces of characters I know and love sometimes appear in my books, often in ways that surprise and please me. Most of the time I try not to recreate in full a person whom I know, but the feeling, the tone, the aura of a specific person who makes an impression on me in life will sometimes find its way onto the pages.
***What do you do when you get writer’s block?
Fortunately, I rarely get writer’s block. I am naturally glib and writing comes easily. The problem for me is making sure that I’m always writing at a high level. Sometimes my writing strikes me as flat and uninspired—a problem just as bad as writer’s block!
How do I overcome that? I try to imagine myself into the midst of the story so I can experience, really experience, the characters’ thoughts, sensations, and emotions. And I look for a rhythm, an easy feel for the use of language, that leads to good sentences and paragraphs.
***If you could live in a book’s world, which would you choose?
This is a tough question to answer, because many of my favorite books take place in worlds that are frightening or difficult in one way or another—the setting for characters who struggle to overcome their desperate situations. I may love to read about those worlds, but I wouldn’t want to live there!
However, one book’s world does come to mind: Wonder, by R.J. Palacio. Though Auggie faces many challenges because of his appearance and because of some mean kids at school and elsewhere, he is surrounded by loving parents and a remarkable sister who bring humanity and caring to every situation they face. It’s a world of redemption and hope.
***What is your favorite book-to-movie adaptation?
Brooklyn by Colm Toibin is a fabulous novel about coming of age. Amazingly, the movie (starring the super-talented Saoirse Ronan) is the equal of the book. Not only is the acting fantastic, but the color palette of the movie—the costumes, the furniture, everything—is exquisite. I can still picture the luscious shades of green in the first thirty minutes of the movie.
***If you could have lunch with one other author (dead or alive), who would it be?
Don’t we all wish we could have lunch with Shakespeare? I mean, come on, Will—how did you write so many great plays? How did you pen such transcendent poetic musings on the nature of men and women? What’s your view of people, anyway—half angel and half devil, or something better or worse? And, by the way, what’s your favorite meal? Oh, and would you mind taking a quick look at this piece of writing I just finished?
***Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I’d like to discuss some of the unique requirements for middle-grade novels, which are for children from age eight to twelve or thirteen. Typically, a middle-grade novel is an adventure story or a story centered on issues that children can relate to: friends, family, the feeling of being different or out of place. Fortunately, all of these provide fertile ground for warm, exciting pieces of fiction. How many of us count a middle-grade book such as Charlotte’s Web or Brown Girl Dreaming among our all-time favorite pieces of writing?
The middle-grade author needs to pace his or her story carefully. Young kids quickly tire of long descriptions. Action and conflict—and lively emotional dynamics—carry the day in this genre. Think of the manic humor and heartbreak in Jack Gantos’ Joey Pigza series.
There’s also the matter of language. The syntax and vocabulary must be simple enough for an eight-year-old, yet complex enough to hold the attention of a seventh grader. Shades of meaning are usually carried by context and character interactions rather than by verbal pyrotechnics. But it can be a mistake in middle-grade novels to limit language choices too stringently. If the context is clear, young readers can pick up the meaning of unfamiliar words.
Another problematic issue in authoring a middle-grade novel is how to include adult characters. They may be necessary for a number of reasons—as props (part of a realistic portrait of a family), as plot enablers (purveyors of transportation or suppliers of material goods for the kids), or as sources of conflict (villains or victims)—but their role must be limited enough to let the kids take center stage. Some middle-grade fiction authors contend, with only a hint of exaggeration, that the main character’s parents should be dead or missing. As an example, think of Harry Potter’s slain mother and father.
James, thank you for joining us for another great interview. Congratulations on the completion of The Card People Trilogy. You shared some great points about writing middle-grade novels, and we can’t wait to hear about your next middle-grade book.
SIX MINUTES WITH JAMES SULZER
Joining LitPick today for Six Minutes with an Author today is James Sulzer. He is the author of The Card People series and other novels. Both books in the series have received five-star reviews from a LitPick student reviewer. Be sure to check out the video of The Card People 2: Identity Swap (https://youtu.be/VmtMoudqS-U).
***How did you get started writing?
Don’t we all start as readers or listeners who are enchanted by a story? When I was very young, our father told fantastic bedtime stories to my brothers and me. Later, my fourth grade teacher read aloud to our class the best adventure story of them all—Homer’s Odyssey. From that time on, I knew I wanted to weave stories that would capture the imagination of readers.
***Who influenced you?
I truly believe that just about every book we read influences us. But some of my favorite authors for children are Roald Dahl (his visual imagination is unparalleled) and Judy Blume (her dialogue is priceless). More recently, I love the books of Jacqueline Woodson—a truly poetic writer.
***Do you have a favorite book/subject/character/setting?
Brown Girls Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson is my favorite book for kids from the past few years. Like everyone, I love E. B. White’s classic, Charlotte’s Web.
I also love adventure books—having grown up with the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift. I love books that show young people struggling to rise to a challenge and discovering unsuspected strength in themselves.
***What advice do you have for someone who wants to be an author?
Read a lot, and write a lot, and share what you write with friends! And don’t be discouraged if not everyone loves everything you write. Try to describe the world as you really see it, and listen to the sound of your words to find music as you write.
***Where is your favorite place to write?
I have a “shed” out behind my house, with a wood-burning stove for winter and doors that slide open for summer. It’s quiet, cozy, and perfect for writing.
***What else would you like to tell us?
The Card People series began as a bedtime story for my 5th grade class while on a camping trip in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. (I was a teacher for 30 years.) The kids knew I’d written novels for adults, and they suggested I turn the bedtime story into a novel for children. They were also my first editors as sixth graders, a year later, when I wrote the draft of the story. Their comments helped me improve the book immensely!
James, thank you for sharing more about yourself and your newest series. We love that your students inspired you to write the books. What a wonderful opportunity they had to be your first editors.
We are jealous of your writing shed, and we hope it inspires you to write many more great books for kids.