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Joseph Monninger: A Conversation with the Author and an Opportunity You Don’t Want to Miss

October 28, 2011

We wrap up a week of great posts from a few very talented writers with a fascinating and insightful conversation with author Joseph Monninger, whose new young adult novel Finding Somewhere goes on sale in a couple of short weeks (Nov 8, 2011).  

At the core of this story – about best friends who go on a road trip to save a horse and end up saving themselves – are themes of friendship and freedom and combined with the beautiful prose, we think this book is perfectly suited for teen book clubs.  Which is why we’re super excited to announce an awesome opportunity for our readers.  If this post has put Finding Somewhere on your radar (we hope that it does!) and you’d like to read this book in your book club, classroom or other group setting, the author is available to Skype with you!!  Email kids quotes (at) random house (dot) com if you’re interested and we’ll send you additional information!

For a great visual to compliment this post, click here to watch a brief video – a glimpse into the writing life of Joseph Monninger.  (If you love beautiful scenery, you won’t want to miss this!!) 


What book made the strongest impression on you as a child?

Years ago I read a crazy book called The Kid Who Batted 1000. I haven’t seen it in a long, long time. The main character lived on a farm and for some reason he could only hit a baseball foul….otherwise he would break greenhouse windows or something. He became incredibly skilled at it—I forget exactly how—and eventually he went to the majors. No one could strike him out. Every time he came to bat he hit the ball foul until he walked eventually. So, according to baseball scoring rules, he had no at bats. Then in the World Series he was up with the bases loaded and he hit a ball down the line….and, naturally, it hit the foul pole and won the game. It’s hard to know why a book gets under our skin, but this one sure got to me.

I also loved dog books. Call of the Wild. Lad: A Dog. They took me away. I loved the smell of the books, the hardback covers, the yellowed pages. I also read Pearl Buck, Imperial Woman, The Good Earth, and some others. I have always loved stories, and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to enter a story fairly easily. Suspend disbelief.

Finally, I shouldn’t leave out comics. I loved comics. I read Superman and Batman and a bunch of others. I loved going to the barbershop for a crew cut, because I got to read all the latest comics.

What is one thing about you that would surprise your readers?

I write standing up. I have a small cabin with a desk inside just below chest height. I started writing standing up because my back would get stiff and painful if I sat too long. Eventually, though, it seemed more natural to be standing. I feel more alert that way. So, that’s what I do. I recommend it.

As an author, how do you feel about the role social media plays in your writing life?

It’s powerful. I believe in stories, and social media is a way of turning our lives into stories. Each little entry is a mini chapter or scene. Our stories are illustrated by photos, and music snippets, and so forth. If you could take someone’s Facebook profile and really examine it, it would be a novel or at least an autobiography. Now, how does that impact a writer’s life and work? Well, I think the pat answer is that it distracts from “reading” but I’m not sure. I think it’s a new literature and an interesting one. It transforms readers into collaborators.

As far as connectivity—I love things like Goodreads and Amazon reviews. I enjoy seeing what other people are writing, what they think about what they are reading. I was lucky enough to have Eternal on the Water, one of my adult novels, selected for a Barnes & Noble First Read program. They handed out 500 advance copies to random readers, then I went on line and discussed aspects of the novel with the readers. It was a terrific experience. I loved getting direct questions from all over the country about the novel. We had a common reading experience together. Most authors never get to hear that directly from readers. I enjoyed it immensely.

What was your favorite genre to read as a teenager?

Probably sports. Sports and dogs. I also stumbled across an account of shark attacks that had taken place in the early 20th century off the coast of New Jersey. I devoured that book and it eventually became the source of Wish. I also read Jim Corbett’s books about hunting tigers in India. Loved that stuff. As I got older, probably in high school, I read the Lord of the Rings. That was a landmark read for me. I’m not sure I’ve ever been as lost in a story, pleasantly so, as I was when I first read those.

What inspired you to write about girls and horses?

Most of my work has revolved around animals. Baby, my first young adult novel, concentrated on sled dog racing—something I did with my son for many years. Hippie Chick was about manatees, an animal that is hard not to love. It was also about being marooned, a story element I always found appealing. I read Robinson Crusoe several times as a kid. Wish fed my love of sharks. My lifelong fascination with sharks, really. Now, in Finding Somewhere, I am taking on the incredible love girls seem to possess for horses. All the stories, really, are about human-animal interaction. As I’m writing this, I have our last sled dog, Laika, beside me. She is curled up in a chair. I love this dog. I have loved all our dogs, and because we ran a sled dog team, we had plenty of dogs around. I love cats, too. What is this thing between us? I don’t know, but I don’t doubt it for a second. It’s the truest thing I know.

Laika, by the way, was named for the cosmonaut dog that went into space and never came back. She—the historical Laika—was a street mutt that the Russians sent out of the atmosphere. That story tears me up. Apparently she lived only a few hours, then died and burned up when the capsule reentered the earth’s atmosphere. Our family always remembers that Laika in April, the month when her spaceship became a streak across the sky. I was pleased recently when I heard the Russians have a statue commemorating the early cosmonauts. Down by the feet, the artist had the generosity to include a small dog looking out. Laika, who led the way for humans, as dogs often do.

As an author of books for adults and young adults, what are the differences, if any, and the similarities? Do you plan to continue writing young adult novels?

Yes, I love the YA world. I admire young readers. One of the best, most interesting reviews I ever received—more insightful than the NY Times by a long shot—was by a young women who wrote in a blog entry about Wish. One of the main characters in Wish has cystic fibrosis, and this young female reviewer also has a chronic illness. She connected with that novel on such a deep, intimate level—and wrote about it beautifully—that it blew me away. So, yes, I’m in the YA world for as long as it will have me. I also like the idea of young people stumbling onto my books in a library. That’s about the purest reader-writer connection you can have.

As far as similarities between YA and adult fiction—yes, they are much the same thing, though, of course, they have slightly different target audiences. All stories work with identical principles. I teach fiction writing at a university and year after year, short story after short story, we are engaged in the same thing. How do you tell a story? What makes a story real? How do characters come to life? Whether it’s YA or adult, fiction or non-fiction, the ingredients remain the same. It’s all about how you mix them together.

Are you working on a new book(s)?

I suspect I am still a teenager at heart. I seem to always stumble into YA ideas. But, yes, I am working on two new novels right now. My favorite way to work is to write 50-100 pages of a new novel, then let it sit. I can see it much more clearly when I return to it.

By the way, I try to write 1,000 words a day. I’ve been doing that for over 30 years.  Most days I get it done.

What is one piece of advice you would like to give to aspiring authors?

Write. Simple and easy are not the same thing. The advice is simple. Write. Is it easy? Not always. It’s like jogging, or quitting smoking, or going on a healthy diet. It’s simple, but not easy. You need a body of work. You will get better. I tell my students that they can’t wait for a comet to cross the sky to mark the start of their writing careers. Write.

One other thing. (I know, the question was one thing, but I have to sneak in this other element.) A novelist friend of mine said the number one obstacle keeping us from writing our best is the trick of telling ourselves next time it will be better. We all do this. It’s a way of protecting ourselves. Well, this novel is okay, we say, but what I’m working on now is so much better…. Bunk. That’s a bad way to go. Stand up and take it on the chin. Vow to make every work you do the best you can do at the time. Stand behind it.

Do you ever experience writer’s block?

Not writer’s block, so much, as writer’s pause. In between novels, I cast about and get grumpy. I keep picking up ideas, fiddling with them, then chucking them away. False starts. I’ve learned to trust that period of fallowness now, but it’s never easy. I know eventually I’ll light the match, but, boy, it isn’t fun to keep striking it against the box.

What was your favorite chapter (or part) to write and why?

There’s a scene in Finding Somewhere that has the two girls, the two main characters, going for a horse ride late at night. I like that scene. There’s another scene where an older woman climbs on a horse and simply sits there, feeling the essence of horse, remembering her own horses. My family has a rule that if we are on vacation, petting any dog we come across magically sends back that pet to our dog. That woman experienced a similar feeling for a moment on the horse. One horse becomes all horses.

Is there anything that you would like to say to your readers and fans?

Yes, if you don’t like one of my books, put it down. No one should ever feel compelled to labor through a book if she or he hates it. (Except maybe in school, and that’s another subject….) Doris Lessing, a wonderful novelist, said this in a foreword to a collection of short stories. A million books are waiting.  If you despise a book you are reading, okay, onto the next. Not every book will be your cup of tea. That doesn’t mean the book is bad, necessarily, it’s simply not for you at this moment in your life. You may enjoy it some years from now. Or never. That’s okay. But I will argue that you should read one way or the other. Literature comprises a marvelous conversation that has been going on for several thousand years. How else can we know what it’s like to be a prisoner in Siberia, or to be a tiger hunter in India, or a poor rural boy on a raft in the Mississippi? Reading broadens us.

I’ll also say that a book is a wonderful, miraculous piece of technology. If I could tell you that I invented a thing that cost about $10, would keep you entertained for hours, that you could carry it anywhere, that it might teach you a thing or two, that it might reflect back to you what it is to be human, well, that would be a great invention. Books.

Which character speaks the loudest, to you? Do any of them clamor to be heard over the others?

I ask my students if they see or hear what they write. I know that I hear my characters and, in fact, the whole narration. So, for me, it’s about hearing the narrator. I know of good stories, fabulous stories, that I simply can’t write. I don’t have the story’s DNA inside me. (That’s why it’s so futile when someone learns I am a novelist and they say, boy, do I have a story for you….if I can’t feel the narrator, no story, no matter how potentially interesting, will work for me.) Anyway, voice is huge. When you get the narrative voice going right, you have a partner in the enterprise.

Thanks to Joseph Monninger for joining us at RAoR today, and thanks to our readers too.  Please leave any questions or comments in our comments section.

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