Talking MG, Inspiration & Space Monkeys with the Awesome Nathan Bransford

Maybe you know him from his fun and informative blog. Perhaps you’ve been the recipient of one of his lightning fast query responses. Or maybe you just recognize him as that cool California dude in the orange shirt that looks like he’d be a whole lot of fun to surf with.

Now, get ready to know Nathan Bransford in a whole new role: middle-grade author.

Nathan’s sci-fi adventure, JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW, debuted May 12. Both funny and full of action, JACOB tells the story of three kids who trade a corn dog for a spaceship, blast off into space, break the universe and have to face their fears (and a planet full of substitute teachers) to find their way home again.

Nathan was kind enough to accept a virtual corn dog in return for an interview here on the Mixed-Up Files. Read on to find out how Nathan came to write middle grade, what’s next for Jacob — and how you can get a chance to win a free copy of this hilarious debut!

First, congratulations! You must be so excited after all the work that goes into creating a book to see JACOB WONDERBAR on the shelves. How does it feel to finally have your baby out in the world?

It feels great! Also a bit surreal because I’ve been anticipating it for so long. I began writing WONDERBAR in the summer of 2008, so it’s been nearly three years in the making.

Back in your agenting days, your tastes seemed to lean more toward literary and young adult fiction. Were you surprised when you sat down to write and the voice of a middle-grader popped into your head? What drew you to writing for this age group?

Yes, it did surprise me a bit. When it came to children’s books, as an agent I was definitely drawn more toward young adult fiction and more literary novels. But I let the idea guide the genre. The initial idea that sparked JACOB WONDERBAR was of a kid trapped on a planet of substitute teachers, and that felt middle-grade to me so I went with it.

I also was drawn to middle-grade because the books I read when I was that age were among my favorites. Between 8-12 years old is a powerful time to be reading books.

What are some of the books that influenced your own middle grade reading days?

Anything and everything by Roald Dahl, BY THE GREAT HORN SPOON by Sid Fleischman, ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS by Scott O’Dell, HARRY’S MAD by Dick King-Smith, MY SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN by Jean Craighead George, and the Calvin & Hobbes comics by Bill Watterson.

I love the fact that even though he’s on a wild space adventure, Jacob and his friends are still real kids with real-world problems. How do you keep your characters grounded, so-to-speak, when they’re off flying through (and breaking) the universe?

I knew that I wanted to ground the characters with some real-life issues, because it felt real to me. Even though kids have a very active imagination, it’s impossible to avoid coming back down to Earth. So Jacob has a missing dad and is a good-hearted troublemaker, Sarah is overscheduled and puts a lot of pressure on herself, and Dexter is timid. They have to confront their problems in order to make it back home.

Corn dogs… spaceships… burp breath… you’ve pretty much hit the trifecta for middle grade boys right there. How do you come up with your ideas? And names, too… I mean, what kid wouldn’t crack up at “Mick Cracken?”

Thanks! I tried as much as possible to remember the types of things I thought were funny when I was that age. So… yeah. Corndogs, burp breath and upside-down calculator jokes.

The name Jacob Wonderbar was inspired by my favorite coffee drink from Philz Coffee down the street from my apartment (Jacob’s Wonderbar Brew), and Dexter’s last name is an homage to a friend (who doesn’t take after Dexter). I don’t actually remember where Mick Cracken came from, but I do remember feeling that the name fits!

(Also, my son would like to add that a planet reeking of burp breath is quite disgustingly awesome. Not so much a question. Just a statement of fact from a nine-year-old boy.)

Haha, your son sounds a lot like me when I was that age.

You’ve written some very enlightening posts on your blog about ebooks and the evolution of publishing. How do you see ebooks changing the MG landscape?

I think middle grade may be a bit slower to switch over to e-books than adult books simply because parents may be reluctant to put $100+ e-book readers in the hands of 9-year-olds, but as prices come down and the devices become more ubiquitous I think you’ll see kids reading e-books more and more. I can remember the stacks and stacks of books I used to have on my nightstand, and I would have read even more if I didn’t have to wait for a trip to the bookstore or library.

Speaking of your blog, it’s such a fantastic resource for writers — chock full of industry information, inspiration, updates on The Hills. The blog’s reported to have 150,000 visits a month — and has even spawned its own baby blogs. Did you have any idea when you began it would gain such a following? What do you think is the key to social media success (space monkeys notwithstanding, of course)?

No, I really had no idea what to expect, but I’ve been extremely lucky. I think the key to success is to really cultivate a sense of community, and for that I was very fortunate to have such a great group of regular commenters, who set the tone in the comments section and who add so much to the blog experience. Other than that, I think the keys are consistency, patience, and remembering it’s all about what you can do for your readers and not what they can do for you.

And on the subject of space monkeys, rumor has it they’ll make an appearance in the next installment of JACOB WONDERBAR. What other tricks do you have up your sleeve for future books in the series?

Haha, yes they will! A band of space monkeys of suspect intelligence feature prominently in JACOB WONDERBAR FOR PRESIDENT OF THE UNIVERSE, the sequel to WONDERBAR #1. As the title suggests, Jacob runs for president of the universe and has to contend with the planet of news reporters, more crazy Astral planets, and his own self-doubt.

Book #3 is tentatively titled JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE INTERSTELLAR TIME WARP, and I’m just in the process of starting that one.

Lastly, it sure seems you can do it all — pen a novel, hold down a day job, educate and entertain the writerly community, host contests and critiques — and heck, in your agent days you were one of the most queried agents around. (And still, you answered every single query, often within minutes.) All that is just a long way of asking… Are you actually a robot?

Haha, no, I am all human. Very busy though! And if anyone has a spare robot could I borrow it?

Okay, good — thanks for clearing that up :-). It was so awesome to have you here today on the Mixed-Up Files! I’ll check my junk drawer for spare robot parts…

And, for our readers — since it turns out Nathan’s not actually a robot (but in fact, a really good guy), I’m giving away a copy of JACOB WONDERBAR! Just leave a comment below and our random generator will select our first winner on Saturday, May 28. And, because it’s the unofficial start of summer and we’re feeling good here at the Files, we’ll be choosing a SECOND WINNER on Tuesday, May 31! Yes, you read that correctly — for all of you that missed the first go around, we are giving away another copy of JACOB WONDERBAR on Tuesday. Just leave a comment below for a chance to win! (And, for all of you who entered the first time who didn’t win, you’re automatically entered in the second round!)

Plus, don’t forget — you get extra entries for linking to this interview on Twitter, Facebook, your blog (or by clicking the “follow this blog” button on the right). Just mention each link in a new comment so the random generator will add your extra entries.

Jan Gangsei