Saturday, June 14, 2008

Bookshelf: Interview with Steve Kluger

Steve Kluger shook hands with Lucille Ball when he was 12. He's since lived a few more decades, but nothing much registered after that. Kluger is a novelist and playwright with only two heroes: Tom Seaver and Ethel Merman. Few were able to grasp the concept. A veteran of Casablanca and a graduate of The Graduate, he has written extensively on subjects as far-ranging as World War II, rock and roll, and the Titanic. He lives in Santa Monica, and his latest book is My Most Excellent Year: A Novel of Love, Mary Poppins and Fenway Park.

INN: Broadway and baseball mix well in My Most Excellent Year. What made you integrate these two very different worlds into the story?

SK: They represent two of my many passions. Since they co-exist naturally inside of my head, it’s easy to transfer that mix onto the page. I never know ahead of time which character is going to inhabit which of my own interests; they sort of evolve on their own that way. However, all of their infatuations are mine as well.

INN: Do you have a favorite place you like to write?

SK: Sprawled out on the couch with a spiral UCLA notebook. The left-hand page is for trying out ideas and developing the sequence I’m working on; the right-hand page is for the actual narrative. I do my revising-editing-cleanup at the end of the day while I’m typing the text onto my PC.

INN: Ale’s list of celebrity acquaintances is impressive (and fun!), as is your own. I saw on your site that you met Lucille Ball and received a letter from Madeleine L’Engle. How did these experiences affect you?
SK: Madeleine was a case all to herself, because I sent her a fan letter when I was 11 (after I’d read A Wrinkle in Time), and her reply clearly stated that, “judging from the way you write, I wouldn’t be surprised if you grew up to be an author yourself one day.” She was the very first person to spot my potential in that area, and I kept up a correspondence with her until not too long before she passed away. (In fact, when my first novel came out, I sent her the very first copy off the presses.)

I also spent all of my high school weekends hanging out on Broadway, seeing musicals, and going backstage afterwards to meet the stars. This was pretty easy to maneuver: I had a form letter that I adapted for each musical/star. “Dear _______: I am a ___-year-old boy, and I have been waiting for months to see “[name of show].” Then I’d go on to add either that I was planning on going into the theatre when I grew up (which was true) or that I was a reporter for the school paper (which wasn’t), and that I’d love to come backstage after the show for (a) some advice; or (b) an interview. Excepting only Ethel Merman, Pearl Bailey, and Lauren Bacall (who sent me an autographed photo as a consolation prize), it never failed.

I must have met every musical comedy star who played Broadway between 1966 and 1970. The only obstacle I ever encountered was the time that I tried to buy a ticket for the Tony Awards at the Shubert Theatre--fifteen minutes before the show started and oblivious to the fact that this particular event had been sold out for months. So I opened the gold-painted stage door, told the doorman I was Carol Channing’s son and that my mother forgot to leave my ticket at the box office, and asked if he could go get her.

Counting on the fact that he couldn’t leave his post, I wasn’t surprised when he waved me in and told me where to find her. (This is the only moment in My Most Excellent Year that some people find farfetched. It’s also the only real-life experience I ever had that I reproduced exactly as it happened without any artistic license whatsoever. Sometimes the truth is harder to believe than what usually happens in real life--like Carlton Fisk’s World Series home run in 1975.)

What I got out of meeting all of these people was an absolute determination to be a part of that world--and to this day, few things are as exciting to me as finding myself at a professional function involved in a conversation with someone whose autograph I got in his/her dressing room when I was 16. Wow.

INN: Who are your favorite YA authors?

SK: There’s so little distinction between adult and YA these days, I can’t think of any contemporary authors who are slotted specifically into the YA category. (For instance, one of my earlier novels, Last Days of Summer, was written and released as an adult title; in the ensuing ten years, it’s made it onto high school curricula across the country and has morphed into a YA book. On the other hand, C.D. Payne’s Youth in Revolt was always intended to be a YA novel, but I can’t imagine teens appreciating the adventures of Nick Twisp half as much as adults do.)

So I can only go back to the perennials that were on the shelf when I was in school--and the only YA authors I read with any consistency at that time (not counting the fictitious Franklin W. Dixon of Hardy Boys fame) were Madeleine L’Engle and John R. Tunis, the latter having written possibly my all-time favorite novel, Iron Duke.

INN: Any advice for teen writers?

SK: Develop your passions by reading everything you can get your hands on that deals with subjects that interest you. If you have an idea for a story, begin with the characters and let them sit in your head for awhile until they begin to develop quirks, personalities and interests. When it’s time to begin writing--and this is critical--first figure out where your story ends. After that it’s just a matter of tracking it backward and deciding where you want it to start. The ending is what anchors you and focuses your story on where it’s going to wind up. I’d guess that 75% of unfinished novels fizzle out because the authors never knew for sure how they were going to wrap it up, and--as a result--the plotlines tend to spiral out of control, like a kite with a broken string. Finally, once you begin writing, don’t stop.

If you’re not satisfied with the way a particular piece is turning out, put it away and start something new--but never throw anything out. I can’t count how many times I’ve rescued entire sections of “trunk material”--years after putting them away--when I found myself working on a book into which they fit like a glove. In fact, Hucky Harper--the key character in My Most Excellent Year--was first invented 26 years ago. I had him in four potential novels or scripts that wound up going nowhere, and it took this long to find him a home.
So remember that everything you write has value--even if you don’t recognize it at the time.

Thanks, Steve!

You can buy My Most Excellent Year below and visit Steve's website at . (Definitely read this: I'm on my third time around.)


Gabbi said...

Thanks for commenting on my blog. Twice. :)

I love how we have the same name. Cool interview. Sounds like a novel I should read.

I've already read (and thorougly enjoyed Dream Factory; the part with Luke's middle name was too cute.) and I've started Scrambled Eggs... today.

Gabrielle said...

I'm looking forward to hear what you have to say! Definitely go for the book; I'm shamelessly plugging it wherever I go because it's just *too good.* And I've had a stretch of mediocre/bad books, so when I find something good, I run after it.

Enjoy Scrambled Eggs!

Anonymous said...

"Youth in Revolt" was NEVER intended as a YA novel. It was written for adult readers. The author has mentioned in many interviews that he was surprised that the book has appealed to teen readers as well.