Sunday, February 15, 2009

Holiday Bookshelf: Chatting with Ben Esch

While writing Sophomore Undercover (in bookstores February 24), Ben Esch slept on a fold-out sofa in his parents' basement, gained thirty pounds, and developed a crippling fear of raccoons. The author did not date much during this period. Ben now lives in Los Angeles and sleeps in an actual bed. Chase your dreams, kids.

INN: What inspired the unorthodox, unusual character of Vietnamese high school reporter and nerd, Dixie Nguyen?

BE: Dixie came from a couple of inspirations. First of all, I grew up in a small town in Northern California that was pretty homogeneous (homogeneous = chock full of white people). There was a Vietnamese kid in my high school class, and I used to think it looked interesting to see him walk around campus, completely surrounded on all sides by a bunch of huge, hickish white dudes. One day I got to thinking: what if he had an adventure?

As for the personality of Dixie Nguyen...well, to be perfectly honest, I'm not exactly sure how I came up with that. I guess I from the school of writing that when you write a character, you're basically writing about yourself. So, I suppose that means there's a fairly big chunk of the character that's me. A much more clever, adventurous, and slightly less of a big, goofy white guy version of me, but still me nevertheless. This fiction stuff is fun.
INN: Dixie uncovers a drug scandal involving high school athletes. How did you approach this topic-- through research, asking teens, memories of your own high school experience or something else?
BE: Though Sophomore Undercover took a lot of inspiration from my own time in high school, there was never a drug scandal in the football team. At least not that I'm aware of. No, let's just go ahead and say there wasn't a drug scandal. I just made up the drug scandal thing. Again, fiction is fun.

In terms of the rest of the story, I didn't really do any specific research until the book had gone through a few drafts, and even then, the "research" was just me walking around my old high school campus at night to remind myself where the buildings were. So, I got off pretty easy on this book. Unless you count the four years I went to the high school as research. In that case, I researched the hell out of this thing.

INN: If Dixie had his own game show, what celebrity would he choose to be the Vanna White and why?
BE: That's a good question...I've spent a lot of time thinking about this and I think he'd probably go with one of the cute but somewhat nerdy girls from that G4 channel (I'm all about that Ninja Warrior show, by the way) so let's go with Kristin Holt, maybe? Of course, I'm guessing that Dixie would spent most of his time staring at his feet and stammering if he was around anyone that pretty, so that would probably hurt the game show a bit...
INN: The ultimate question: how did your book break into print?

BE: Well, the first step was writing a book. An underrated, but essential part of the process.
The second step was finding an agent. There's a lot of stuff on the internet on how to go about doing this, so I won't get into the more boring details about how all that works.

The third step was working with the agent (Steven "I look uncannily like David Blaine" Malk) to make the book I wrote actually make sense. Turns out that most publishers are looking for something like that, which was a bit of a shock at the time. Anyway, we worked together for about seven months, I knocked off a hundred pages or so, learned quite a bit about writing, and in the end we had something that he thought we could sell.

The fourth step was selling the book. This was a rough couple of weeks, but in the end Disney-Hyperion was into the book and we were into Disney-Hyperion. Everybody at Disney-Hyperion is remarkably cool, by the way. And I'm not just saying that because they pay me. I mean, the money thing doesn't hurt, but they're still really nice regardless.

And that's how my book got into print.

INN: What's up next in your writing career?

BE: Well, the first thing up is the release of my book, "Sophomore Undercover" on February 24th which is equal parts exciting and terrifying. So, that's been taking up most of my time. I should probably tell you guys to go to my website: Oh, and we just got the Sophomore Undercover video game launched which is a guaranteed good way to waste five minutes. (

And after that...well, I'm under contract for another book with Disney-Hyperion that should be coming out in the Summer of 2010. So I should probably get cracking on finishing that.

INN: Any advice for teen writers?

BE: Three things:
1. Try to remember this time in your life. The stuff that you are going to be obsessed with for the rest of your life (for better or worse) is going to happen during your teenage years, and like it or not, this is the stuff that you're probably going to end up writing about. There's just way too much exciting stuff happening in your life right now for you to not remember it and use for creative fodder down the line. Keep a journal, hold onto your yearbooks, make a scrapbook...just make sure you remember it.

2. Write the story that you want to read. This is pretty much the only advice I feel qualified to give to any other writer. The neat thing about being a writer is that you get to craft the exact kind of story that you are interested in/want to read. I know it's tempting to try to write something that is popular, but if you're not really writing something that you're passionate about, it's going to show in the final product.

3. Read. And this just isn't to get you guys to read my book...but you know, it would be pretty awesome if you guys would read my book, actually. The best education you can have as a writer is reading. Read everything. I can't emphasize this enough. READ. Sorry I had to go all caps on you guys there, but I'm really serious about this.

Thanks so much!

Learn more about Sophomore Undercover and Ben Esch at


Beth Fehlbaum, Author said...

That sounds like a great book-- and I love the tone of your interview, from the intro to the end. :)
Beth Fehlbaum, author
Courage in Patience, a story of HOPE..
Ch. 1 is online!

w said...

Ben Esch is so inspirational. I love his blog it's so funny! I'm very excited to read this book. I just found out it's available on amazon already.

As a Asian American i am glad to see books like these written.


Kelly Polark said...

Great interview! Ben's one funny dude!

Amy said...

cool interview! i so want to read this;)