ARTICLES WRITTEN BY MICHAEL J. ROSEN:
EXTRA CREDIT INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL J. ROSEN:
To celebrate Friday, LitPick brings you another outstanding interview with prolific author Michael J. Rosen! Michael is the author of poetry, picture, and young adult books, and has edited the books Baking from the Heart and Cooking from the Heart.
Michael has visited LitPick a few times, yet there are books we have neglected to mention! One of these is Place Hacking: Venturing Off Limits. This is a photo-illustrated nonfiction book about urban exploration—adapting Star Trek’s mission, it’s “to go places no one’s supposed to go.” Adventurers infiltrate or scale or break into abandoned or even occupied buildings, tunnels, construction sites, drains, ruins, factories, and other artifacts of the built environment. There is a link to the more information about the book at the end of the interview.
Do you have a solid outline before writing, or do you usually get ideas as you go along?
Since I write a variety of books—poetry, fiction, nonfiction, humor—for a variety of ages, I tend to have a few strategies…but none of them really includes a “solid outline.” I think I learned early on that the discovery process is where I find the most enthrallment and engagement. And I learned that I don’t know as I much as I think I do. That humility is really crucial to me. Yes, I might have a working understanding. I might have a vague impression—or even a vivid one that excites me. Yet I believe that the first work of composition is gathering, expanding, and exploring. Being open to what I hadn’t thought of, didn’t know, couldn't have projected.
So I would say that irrespective of the genre or age group, I begin writing with some attraction to a subject—and that could be an assignment, as well—and then, rather than diligently follow a path from start to finish (as if Siri were dictating directions!), I scout around and survey options. I browse. I try to disengage my need to get something right…right at the start. I distrust my eagerness to polish or settle on a certain plot point. It’s central to my methodology not to rely on methodology, lol. Creating a work, for me, needs to be mostly inspiration at the start—inhaling, taking in ideas, feeding the cells of creativity—and then the exhalation of condensing, focusing, releasing, exchanging the stale or used up for the fresh.
One sillier simile to explain this: Writers don’t simply toss their sentences like bread crumbs (an outline) as they wander about in the woods (the story) and then merely pick them up (revising), one by one, in order to find their way home (the polished manuscript). The whole idea is to get lost, not simply have a little adventure and hurry home for tea.
Has someone you knew ever appeared as a character in a book (consciously or subconsciously)?
Let me give you three answers. While I’ve never modeled any character on a single person, I typically combine facets of individuals I’ve met or known, along with quirks or speech patterns or behaviors or motives that I’ve gathered from media: the archetypal characters that casting directors have helped us recognize quickly so that the audience can quickly jump into a story’s plot and identify the conflicts involved.
Answer number two: All my characters, consciously as well as subconsciously, are based on the same person: me. How I remember myself young. How I imagine myself old. What would happen if I didn’t temper my fears or suddenly gave into them. What I felt like when this or that event or passage occurred. I need to know from my own experience the basis of each and every character’s motivation and perspective.
And number three: The “hero” of THE TALE OF RESCUE is entirely based on my dog, an Australian Stumpy Tail Cattle Dog named Chant. Although she has not—as yet—rescued a family in a blizzard, nor does she work 40 head of cattle every day (as mentioned before, I’m the sole member of her herd), my observations of my heeler’s body, actions, instincts, and personality provided nearly all the resources for my imagination in this novel. Indeed, since half the book is not told but sensed through the cattle’s dog’s perspective, I used my years of observing Chant on our twice daily walks across our acres to suggest what the heeler in the book might hear and smell, how the dog might react and behave, how its body would look and perform in deep snow and on ice.
What do you do when you get writer's block?
Maybe, like an allergy to gluten, writer’s block is a legitimate condition from which some authors truly suffer. But, for the most part, I think that notion is a bit of popular psychology, a bit of a tidy and convenient excuse that’s easier to live with than the simple fact that, often, writers need time to replenish the energy needed for this obsessive, solitary, difficult task of creation. The fact that writers don’t always have great ideas…or ones that they can “monetize,” and making a living is key to many authors. Also: Writers sometimes bite off more than they can chew, as well, and that “block” can almost be seen literally: Too much to process. Too difficult to digest.
I don’t mean to sound smug, at all. I appreciate that some writers throughout history were plagued with writer’s block, dry spells, and even an early—or too late—creative burst that didn’t create a great canon of work. Some writers create a single book…and find themselves without the time, opportunity, or, perhaps, motivation to write. Some find themselves overwhelmed by a book’s attention…or by its lack. And because it’s the minority of authors who find financial prosperity (or even solvency) by writing alone, I can appreciate that some “blockage” is simply the stress of the business. The economics. The process of submitting, the negotiations with agents and editors, the marketing and promotional expectations.
Again, I try to believe in this because I have shelved almost as many projects as I have completed. I’ve labored over many proposals and manuscripts that I simply never completed…or sold…or figured out how to “unblock.” And yet I feel I have no option to just state that I have “writer’s block,” and sit on the warm-up bench waiting for my Muse to call me back into the game. So my basic defense is this: Keep many irons in the fire. And, strike UNTIL the iron is hot.
If you could live in a book's world, which would you choose?
Oh, such a funny question. I find it difficult enough to live in this world—to understand what goes on in this world, with just my own “take” on what’s what and what I should and shouldn’t do. And to live in another book would mean not only trying to understand the world, but also another individual’s interpretation of it. Plus, in every book, there’s a problem, right? Some conflict to wade though. If not tragedy and misunderstanding and grief. Another way of saying this: The great poet and essayist W. H. Auden once wrote in his brilliant collection THE DYERS’ HAND: "A poet or a novelist has to learn to be humble in the face of his subject matter which is life in general.” His work is, in essence, an admission that, in Auden’s words, “Life is more important than anything I can say about it.” But to live in another writer’s book, that is to admit—as Auden said a critic must do, that “Mr. A’s work is more important than anything I can say about it.” Maybe it’s self-centered or self-absorbed: I’m still trying to grab ahold of life AS I am attempting to know it.
What is your favorite book-to-movie adaptation?
To answer this question, I'd have to read a LOT more books, see a LOT more movies…AND be sure to choose movies based on those very books I’ve read. (Plus, I’d have to be able to see the film within a few weeks of my finishing the book to have the faintest chance of remembering enough to compare the two. No lol, in this case!) Alas, I don’t. Typically, I don’t read many books that would be considered for a screenwriter’s adaptation. For instance, nonfiction/natural history books. (Oh, those might make for Discovery Channel documentaries, I suppose.) I read poetry. (You bet! I’d be among the first in line when a collection of Robert Frost’s or Elizabeth Bishop’s poems are treated to the magic of cinema!) As for the films I see, they tend to be films from other countries or the purely entertaining spy and superhero flicks whose original texts I don’t read.
If you could have lunch with one other author (dead or alive!), who would it be?
This comes under the category of “favorites,” no? A realm in which I find that I always squirm. I mean, only ONE? Well, that would mean choosing from among my many passions? I’m an “all of the above”-kind of person. I’m an author with interests in writers who are scientists and comedians, fabulists and storytellers, poets and essayists. I revere authors of books written for young readers at the same time I love philosophical writers whose musings I can barely grasp, they’re so far above my head. But, in the spirit of cooperation, I’d have a lunch with…let me see…how about a potluck in which all the writers who profoundly shaped my imagination and emboldened me to write would bring a dish?
Wild Card Question: In one of your pictures it looks like you and your dog are doing yoga together. Do you practice yoga, and how did you get your dog to do it with you?
Yes, my heeler, Chant, goes to yoga with me at two different studios. At one, she’s actually welcome in the room, and she dutifully lies beside my matt while I go through the vinyasa flow. (Okay, that’s just training; I teach my dogs sit, down, stay…and I’m not kidding, I mean it.) The fact that one of the poses is downward-facing dog—a pose known in dog terms as a "play-bow”—is a coincidence when she assumes it. As is her version of savasana or resting pose: Heelers like to lie on their backs, belly-up, front and back legs half extended.)
But what’s important to say here is: I try to train a dog to enjoy as much of the good life as possible. Training, routine, rewards: Anything that allows my dog to participate in as many things that I do as possible is a good thing. I want and need a canine companion who can be an integral and entertaining part of my life. It always saddens me to meet a family who has relegated their dog to just a small sliver of their lives, home, and activities because they haven’t taken the time to teach the dog what’s expected in each situation. And so by virtue of their inattention or frustration, the dog is far from central in their lives. I wrote a whole book on this: My Dog! A Kid’s Guide to Keeping a Happy and Healthy Pet.
My thanks, as ever, for sharing my words and works with the readers of LitPick. I’d love to hear from them. All good wishes!
Michael, as always, thank you for visiting with LitPick! We do have one more question. May we please join you at the potluck?
BOOKS AS GIFTS:
Today, Michael Rosen joins LitPick to talk about books as gifts and to tell us about some of the many gifts he has written.
1. What makes books a great gift for Christmas, Hanukkah, birthdays, or any time?
2. What was your favorite book as a child?
I’m going to answer these first two questions together, if you’ll indulge me.
Books WERE my favorite thing as a child. Not one favorite book…but books themselves were my favorite. Books on the natural world. Books on magic tricks and optical illusions. Hardy Boy mysteries. MRS. PIGGLE-WIGGLE. THE BOXCAR CHILDREN. Riddles. Puzzles. The HOW AND WHY WONDER BOOK series. Comic books about superheroes (no D.C.! Marvel only!). And let me try to say why…using the perspective of a grown-up.
Several years ago, while working as author-in-residence at an all-boys middle school, I finished lunch with the students as a head master made announcements. He concluded by asking how the students wanted to spend their day between exams and Thanksgiving break. “Let’s do something special,” he urged, knowing the students would already be focused on vacation. “Want to come dressed as your favorite sports team?” he offered. The room exploded into cheers. Boys around me clapped each other on the back and slapped high-fives, shouting approval and names of teams as though victory were suddenly at hand.
And there I was, amid that crowd of pre-teens, a few decades more mature, accomplished, and confident, thinking: “I don’t have a favorite sports team. (I never did—not when I was their age, not in college, not ever.) I’ll just miss school on Favorite Sports Team Day.” Yes, despite the intervening decades, I felt a shudder of exclusion and embarrassment as though the teacher had called on me particularly—particularly because I was known to be unprepared.
Okay, I was considered popular, funny, smart, and plenty of other consoling adjectives in junior high school. Still, dread and anxiousness plagued my adolescence. (Likely, it plagued everyone’s, but part of this trouble is simply not realizing how common it is!) In gym class or during team sports, cocky, loud-mouthed jock-jerks made me feel marginal and mediocre. On the school grounds, kids we called “hoods” tormented me and the other obvious targets, which isn’t to suggest I didn’t construe it all personally. “Just ignore them,” adults would always advise. And I would…so that instead of feeling like a chicken-shit loser I’d feel felt like a mature-and-aloof chicken-shit loser.
Indeed, I began to feel a precocious maturity, since most of what preoccupied the boys my age seemed to me ridiculous. (And surely it WAS, as was my sense that I ought to go along with everyone else just to be…included.) Yet this may be the point from which I began to dream of a world where what I wanted to do and what I could do well would be the popular and enviable qualities. I couldn’t entirely believe in a world that didn’t value and feature the traits and attributes that I identified as my own: being Jewish, for instance; being preoccupied with 000 drawing pens and honors biology rather than RBIs and MVPs; being thought of as responsible and caring and sensitive rather than reckless and adrenaline-fueled and sophomoric. Where was the world—and where were its occupants?—that held what I held dear?
Dreaming of alternatives is the root from which stories and poems leaf out and tangle and blossom. “What else?” “What if?” “What more?” “What now?”—these are its fruits.
Blessedly, libraries now burst with books that lend commonality and credence to so many more experiences and backgrounds, to the broadest range of family groupings and cultures. Books abound to nourish nearly every passion and curiosity. And, yes, I try to create books that add to such diversity and individuality.
And so the answer to your question—and I do appreciate your patience: Books are a gift that goes beyond the material object. Books are a gift to the individual within. The individual receives the artifact, the beautifully printed possession itself, true. But it’s the heart and soul that receive—that feed upon—the specific, acknowledging, inspiring, emboldening, mysterious, beckoning content that the book provides.
3. Tell us about your books and why people should buy them as gifts.
Since I’ve published well over 100 books, I can’t quite imagine telling our readers more than a few things about a few books. But first, lest I already appear to be bragging by dint of sheer number, I should just say that making books has been my primary and ongoing work for some 35 years. A trial lawyer’s, is trying cases. A surgeon’s, might be fixing faulty or failing limbs. Just so, my work as a writer is taking on books—as if they were one “case” or one “patient”—time and time again.
As I said above, I believe that books are ways out of ourselves…as well as ways into ourselves. Diving into the unknown, be that a foreign land, a distant time, or another other species…be that our own emotions, our family’s ancestry, our hopes or dreads or aspirations. And I believe that books are where we find ourselves. Yes, our own thoughts, experiences, and emotions twined among the writer’s lines.
To me, that makes books that one person chooses to give to another a very personal, cherished, and lasting gift. A gift that lasts long after its opening or even its reading.
May I share one example from a recent picture book?
When I first saw the images for what would become THE FOREVER FLOWERS, I could hardly believe the connections to my own rural property in Ohio. Here were the same barren trees, the same hellebores—the “forever flowers”—shriveling after their nine months of beautiful greens and pinks…and a similarly devoted dog, always in orbit around me, the center of her universe.
On my own crowded walls hung similar drawings and fabric patterns of birds, dogs, and flowers. Along most flat surfaces of my home stood my collections of nests, broken farm implements, flint, fossils, tiny bones: the evidence of stories told time and again—nearly all of them, without my knowledge—on the foothills of my property.
I was commissioned to write a story for these pictures. And I felt as if I had come upon a suite of drawings that someone had made of my home, as if I had been on an exchange program for nine months, and a beautiful young artist from Germany had stayed here and left me this record. So while the surroundings seemed familiar, my challenge was to discover—or rediscover—the inhabitants’ intertwining story. (This is, in many ways, what every reader brings to a book: The discovery of what they know within the unfamiliar plot, within the unknown.)
I found so much history within Sonja Danowski’s every page. Every object—snowmen on a handmade sailboat, spindles of thread, sketches of hot-air balloons, the miniature universe of the windowsill’s inhabitants—felt to be a part of the nighttime dreams, misplaced memories, and unspoken secrets that hide in the shadows of the tales we share. Ultimately, the words I created for THE FOREVER FLOWERS made up just ONE tale. So many untold stories remain for readers to imagine in their own world, however far from Germany or Ohio they might be.
Additionally, let me suggest a few other books to share here as holiday gifts. SAILING THE UNKNOWN: TRAVELS WITH CAPTAIN COOK, is a story in the form of a dairy kept by a young boy aboard the ship ENDEAVOR, one of Captain James Cook’s vessels that explored the unknown lands of the southern hemisphere.
THE TALE OF RESCUE, just published last month, is a classic adventure story. KIRKUS REVIEW’s starred feature called it “A fine, superbly illustrated tale of adventure, bravery, and loyalty.” With 24 stunning watercolors, this is a novel of a cattle dog who rescues a family stranded in a blizzard. WALL STREET JOURNAL writes, “When the humans begin to fail in the deep drifts, the heroic dog—and, really, is it not heroism?—hits upon a remarkable stratagem to make straight their way to safety.”
Next, are three books of haiku. Each is a collection of poems about 20+ species or breeds with truly lovely illustrations and supplementary passages of natural history. They proudly sport a constellation of stars from all the major reviewers: Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, School Library Journal, Booklist, Smithsonian, Horn Book. While published as books for younger readers, these titles are ideal gifts for anyone on your list who shares a life with these other creatures.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t select my collaboration with world-renowned artist Robert Sabuda, whose all-white pop-up assemblages grace a verse that I wrote in CHANUKAH LIGHTS, a celebration of the persisting tradition of lighting the menorah across the centuries and the globe.
Once again, my thanks to all of you who read along with LitPick. And my warmest wishes for a meaningful and rich holiday season…to you and to all who share your celebrations.
Michael, only recently have you been introduced to LitPick’s readers and you have jumped in with both feet. Thank you! We appreciate the interviews and article you have provided. We wish you and Chant a lovely holiday season and a happy and healthy 2016! We are looking forward to hearing from you in the new year!
Readers, make sure to watch the video for “Chanukah Lights.” The link is below.
The Tale of Rescue teaser video: http://bit.ly/TaleofRescueVideo
The Maine Coon’s Haiku and Other Poems for Cat Lovers: http://amzn.to/1HuQU4H
The Cuckoo’s Haiku and Other Birding Poems: http://amzn.to/1HuUV98
The Hound Dog’s Haiku and Other Poems for Dog Lovers: http://amzn.to/1FMh7XY
Sailing the Unknown Around the World with Captain Cook: http://amzn.to/1CPEUE3
The Forever Flowers: http://amzn.to/1HuYCMf
Chanukah Lights: http://amzn.to/1D4xjSC
Chanukah Lights video of pop-ups opening: https://vimeo.com/27737066
SIX MINUTES WITH MICHAEL J. ROSEN:
Today, Michael J. Rosen takes the stage on LitPick’s Six Minutes with an Author! Michael is the author of some five dozen books for children of all ages. He is a huge dog lover. :) For over 35 years, ever since he worked as a counselor, water-safety instructor, and art teacher at local community centers, he has been engaged with young children, parents, and teachers. As a visiting author, in-service speaker, and workshop leader, he frequently travels to schools and conferences around the nation, sharing stories, poems, creativity, and humor.
How did you get started writing?
I’ve been writing since I was 15. Which makes for 45 years of answering this question, LOL! Well, seriously I’ve been writing as a professional—publishing books—for half my life, ever since I was 30. I think the answer is…when I was 15, I was writing and drawing more than I was on the ball fields or in front of the TV. I moved toward the things that felt more rewarding (and I got better at them!), and I moved away from those things that weren’t rewarding (and I never improved!). And in 1970, when I turned 15, my new neighbor turned out to be a poet, fiction writer, and educator. She was the most welcoming reader a young writer could ever have. She became my mentor, my lifelong ally in this often solitary work as a creative individual – even today.
Who influenced you?
Yes, my neighbor. But…isn’t it narrow to only point to other writers as influences? I’ve found painters, musicians, outstanding citizens of this planet, family members, as well as the culture of a city or a countryside to be significant influences. And negative experiences, too, profoundly influence our personalities and our subjects or methods. I think the nuances of a writer’s individual voice are nearly untraceable. I remember a quote by a famous French writer, Paul Valéry, from my college days. He said that a lion is nothing but well digested sheep. He was referring to a creative person’s talents…where they come from…how they arise from all that’s been eagerly devoured. I hardly think of myself as a lion—or a carnivore!—but I do I appreciate the idea of devouring as many influences as possible. Absorbing and enjoying as many experiences and voices and points of view as possible.
Do you have a favorite book/subject/character/setting?
An old friend of mine used to kid me that I have NO imagination because my work so often is set in my present circumstances. While I really don’t write stories that are true or based in truth, I do anchor them very often in the particulars of places I know. For instance, The Tale of Rescue is entirely fictional, yet all the things I imagine in that book could happen. And the details—distances, colors, realities of a devastating white-out—are all gathered from my observations of and connection to my own cattle dog, my own foothills of rural Ohio, my own memories of blizzards and trudging in snow and the cow-calf business of my neighbor’s farm, and so forth.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to be an author?
Start with what you DON'T know! No, I’m serious. Don’t just KNOW what you want to write and start putting that into words. That’s lazy. That’s passive. That’s telling. That’s drudgery. That’s not using words as a real medium. That would be like paint-by-numbers: Filling in what was given. Instead, start by NOT KNOWING. Use writing to find out. To discover…what you never knew. That experience is so much richer for the writer and for the reader following along. So I’d say…start by non-knowing. Then try to find out something. Try harder. No, I mean try hardest. Now you’re onto something!
Where is your favorite place to write?
At this point, I type way, way too fast. So my handwriting is frustrating. I want words to come faster. While I write haiku by hand, I enjoy the fountain pen’s slower gait, the crossing out, the rewriting of the whole triplet quickly…I can’t manage anything longer without a keyboard. That all happens at my computer, in my studio/office, with a view of the forest and a cattle dog under my feet. So I do have an inspiring work environment.
What else would you like to tell us?
Since I have your attention (and thank you for this chance!) and since the invitation to share my thoughts came in light of my new novel, The Tale of Rescue, I’ll use this last question to tell—to ask!—anyone reading this to think about living a life that's more like a cattle dog. I’m serious. I’m trying very hard myself to do this. Be more like an animal, for starters. (We are animals!) So relish all your senses; don’t just count on seeing. Try to be more present: always aware, always giving your full-on attention, even if you’ve experienced something (like a walk) a thousand times before. Get outside. Be a part of nature – not just an occasional spectator, but a real participant. Give whatever you’re doing your all, not just marginal or divided attention. And never discount the joys inherent in “again.” Today—not “one day” or “someday"—is where you spend your hopes.
Thank you for spending six minutes with us, Michael! We’ll take you inspiring words about writing and living a full life to heart. Readers, make sure to check out A Tale of Rescue, which comes out today in print!