SIX MINUTES WITH STEVE COTLER:
Today on LitPick’s series Six Minutes with an Author is Steve Cotler. Steve is the author of the hilarious Cheesie Mack books for kids ages 8-12. He’s also a retired Little League catcher who's also been a shoe salesman, telecom scientist, singer-songwriter, Apollo 1 computer programmer, Hollywood screenwriter, Harvard Business School MBA, investment banker, and door-to-door egg man. He lives with his wife and writes in Sonoma County in Northern California's wine country. He thinks he is and always will be 11 years old.
How did you get started writing?
In 1963, I was a teenaged counselor at a summer camp in Maine. My charges were a cabin of about 15 ten-year-old boys. They all knew each other because they had come to this camp every summer for years. I was a newbie. The first night, just after lights-out, one of the boys asked me to tell a scary story. I demurred for several days, but after insistent begging, I finally made one up…and the result was so terrifying, it got me fired. By morning, however, my boys were the toast of the camp—survivors of the scariest camp story ever told!
I retold that story to my children and their friends at sleepovers many times over the years, and somewhere around 2000, I began to chatter about turning it into a book. But that’s all it was…chatter. I talked, but I didn’t write.
Then, in 2006, I chattered once too often, and my daughter (Julia Quinn), a very famous writer of romance novels [note from LitPick: not for children!], gave me a shove. “Dad! Why don’t you stop talking about it and actually do it!”
I was challenged. And once I realized that I needed to tell the story from the point of view of one of the campers rather than the teenaged counselor, the words began to flow.
Who influenced you?
My father was a raconteur. He could tell the longest story without losing a single listener. He had a dozen accents at his disposal and could, in a single narrative, draw out both laughter and tears. My storytelling appeared naturally under his wide canopy. But as a child, I hated writing. I thought it was boring. I thought I was terrible at it. And it hurt my hand. I wrote in large letters so the page would fill more quickly.
But children often take firm positions that are, simply put, just plain wrong. Actually I find writing mystical, fascinating, and fulfilling…anything but boring. And I’m not terrible at it; I’m actually quite good. But it still hurts my hand, so I use a computer. My handwriting has nearly atrophied.
What is your favorite thing to write about?
I started writing when I was in my 60’s and have written five books, all of them middle-grade novels, told in the first-person by Ronald “Cheesie” Mack, an 11-year-old who lives in Gloucester, MA. I think I chose that age because it was a time of glorious awakening for me. I had a terrific fifth-grade teacher.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to be an author?
It doesn’t matter what you want to do in life. Whether you want to be a teacher, a shortstop, or an airline pilot, you have to practice. No one ever became a rock star after picking up a guitar one time. And I would not like to get on an airplane and hear over the loudspeaker, “This is the captain speaking. We’ll be cruising at 38,000 feet. This is the first time I’ve ever flown a plane. Let’s see what happens.” To be good at something, you have to practice. And the practice of writing is re-writing. What you write does not have to be good the first time it hits paper. Practice makes it perfect…or at least better than it was. So write. Do your scales. Field grounders for an hour. Write every day.
Where is your favorite place to write?
A cabin in the woods with cell phone and internet service only available if I leave my desk and walk to the top of a nearby hill.
What else would you like to tell us?
“If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor, though he build his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.” (attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson)
You may have written the “better book,” but do not expect the world to beat that path. It is likely your publisher will do little to promote your book. Be prepared to do it yourself. I have been to over 300 schools across the country and in Australia and spoken to nearly 80,000 students in grades 3-6. My presentation challenges the kids intellectually, but also leaves them laughing hysterically. My children have all told me at one time or another, “It took you a long time, Dad, but you finally figured out what you’re best at.”
Thanks for sharing your story with us, Steve! We’re so glad that you found your great talent as a funny writer. The Cheesie Mack series is available in print and e-book.