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11 Questions with Author Mark Goldblatt

May 24, 2013

Today we welcome Mark Goldblatt to the blog. His first novel for young readers, Twerp, quickly became a favorite of many of us at Random House and we chose it as our Rep Pick title for summer. Here’s Mark to tell us a little more about Twerp, Shakespeare, writing and what’s next.

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What inspired you to write Twerp?

I think the seed was planted in the early 1970s, back when I was in high school. I’d started writing for the school newspaper, and a friend of mine named Ricky was razzing me about it—it wasn’t the kind of thing guys from our block did. But then, after a couple of minutes, his voice lowered, and he said something that caught me off guard: “If you ever become a famous writer, you better write a book about us.” That stuck with me, the tone as much as the content. There’s a sadness about it, an inkling of mortality, or at least a recognition that our lives were about to go in different directions. That’s what happened, of course. I’ve lost touch with most of the guys from the block. But not a day goes by where I don’t think about them, where their faces aren’t right in front of me, where their voices don’t come rushing back. I figured I owed them a book.

Did you have experiences similar to Julian’s when you were growing up?

There’s some overlap, obviously. I’m hesitant to get too specific on this subject because I’d like the book to be viewed as a whole. It changes the experience of the reader, I think, to know which elements are autobiographical and which are pure fiction.

How do you feel about Shakespeare, knowing his writings played a part in Twerp?

The earliest recollection I have of Shakespeare goes back to a fourth grade memorization test—I had to recite the entire “All the world’s a stage” speech from As You Like It. I hated  doing it; it was hours of work, and the words were mostly just sounds (though I do recall giggling at the bit about “mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms”). But here’s the thing. I can still recite most of that speech. The rhythm of it is irresistible, and the truth of the last line becomes more and more haunting year by year: “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” It’s just a perfect line.

Shakespeare’s writings are not incidental elements in Twerp—they’re a major theme. (One of several rejected titles for the book was Running From Shakespeare.) It’s the humanizing value of literature, the process of recognizing yourself in another character, and inferring from that the basic humanity of others, that transforms Julian. He goes from a kid who doesn’t think his suspension is a big deal to a kid who feels the full weight of his actions. I suspect the book will engender discussions about bullying, and I’ll be glad if it does, but I’m also wary about thinking of novels as public service messages. What I’m hoping is that the characters in the book feel human, even if their circumstances are very different from the reader’s circumstances. To read literature is to witness the humanity of others. That’s what redeems the activity. To my mind, it’s also the only long-term way to get at the underlying problem of bullying. It becomes harder to bully people who are different than you if you can sense their humanity.

Why did you decide to set Twerp in 1969 instead of the present day?

That was a practical decision. I know what kids’ lives were like in 1969; I don’t know what they’re like today.

What was your favorite chapter of Twerp to write and why?

The second-to-last chapter, where Julian finally talks about the incident that got him suspended, was the most excruciating part of the book to write. (I still can’t read it without choking up.) But I’m happy with how it turned out, so I guess that would be my favorite.

The book has received enthusiastic early reads from booksellers. One bookseller has compared Julian’s voice to that of Holden Caulfield’s, which is awesome. What do you think about that comment?

Well, to be honest, you say those sorts of things to yourself as you’re writing any book. It’s a way to convince yourself to keep going. But then a random reader posts on his blog that the book bored him, and you think, “Ah, well, they’ve finally caught on. They’ve realized I’m a fraud.”

Did you always want to be a writer?

I wanted to be a professional baseball player. Only a profound lack of talent stopped me.

Do you plan to continue writing young adult novels, or do you think you might write for adults down the road?

I’ve written five previous books for adults—including a murder mystery that, by a quirk of scheduling, came out just a month before Twerp. I’m working on a Twerp-sequel now. But I’m also putting the finishing touches on a theological tract. I think of myself as a teacher who writes on the side, not the other way around. The luxury of that is that I don’t have to take on projects to support myself. I write what I want to write.

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

The Middle Moffat by Eleanor Estes. I think I read it when I was seven. I loved that book; it was episodic, so you could put it down and pick it up without a lot of pressure, but it built to a climax. I bought a hardcover copy on Amazon several years ago, and I’ve read it cover to cover twice since then.

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

The fact that I can’t come up with a decent answer to this question is disheartening.

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

Read. A lot. Read stuff that’s very old, even if it tastes like medicine. I’m talking about the dead white guys. Homer, Sophocles, Dante and Chaucer. Oh, and Shakespeare. Then sit down and write.

As you can see, the enthusiasm for Twerp is spreading:

A vivid, absorbing story about one boy’s misadventure, heartache, and hope for himself.

Rebecca Stead, Newbery Award-winning author of When You Reach Me

After a weeklong suspension for participating in an incident in which a neighborhood boy was hurt, 12 year-old Julian Twerski is offered a deal by his English teacher—if Julian (aka Twerp) writes about the event that got him and his friends in trouble, he won’t have to write a report on Shakespeare. So, in the style of a modern day Tom Sawyer, Julian entertains his teacher with hijinks and humor while skirting around the story that ultimately must be told. Goldblatt has written a thought-provoking novel that would be an excellent reading group selection for ages 9 and up.

Ellen Klein, Hooray For Books!

Many thanks to Mark Goldblatt for joining us today. We hope you like Twerp as much as we do! You’ll find it in your favorite bookstore or library on Tuesday, May 28.

Please share your thoughts in our comments section.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. October 5, 2015 9:58 am

    What Shakespeare Qoute do Julian find.

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