Hi Mixed-Up Filers!
I know all of you are probably thinking, What? Has it been five months already?
Well, no, your eyes do not deceive you. I have been given a reprieve from my usual 150 day restriction between posts, and Elissa Cruz was VERY specific about this, just this once, in order to bring you the following interview with Clete Barrett Smith.
Clete Barrett Smith is the author of the Aliens on Vacation series, which also include, Aliens in Disguise and Aliens on a Rampage. He also recently completed a non-Aliens book, which will be released by Disney-Hyperion in July of 2014.
First off, I’d like to thank you for speaking with us today. I’m a huge fan of your books, so I am trying to be less of a fanboy and more of an actual interviewer, so bear with me.
I’ve read how you got the inspiration for the Aliens on Vacation books by hiking in the Pacific Northwest and thinking about what a great vacation spot that would be, which from pictures, I’m sure I’d agree with you, but how did the next step in your mind, logically become aliens?
My younger daughter, who was three at the time, asked me what an alien was. I got really excited and took her in the backyard that night and showed her the stars and told them that they were all actually suns and there were billions of them and there were even more planets circling those suns and those planets might have creatures growing on them, etc. etc. etc. She soaked in my astronomy lecture and then looked at me very solemnly and said, “Daddy . . . are aliens ticklish?”
I thought this was a pretty funny question and it got me to thinking about aliens in a more fun, lighthearted way. I’ve always loved alien stories, but they are mostly pretty violent. I figured that not all alien spacecraft could be warships; I mean, some of them have got to be like RV’s, right? So I credit my daughter with putting me on the path to writing this book (but only because she’s still too young to understand royalties.)
Well, now I can’t stop wondering about whether or not aliens are in fact ticklish, but for now, my logical next question has to be, do you believe in aliens? And if so, are they among us and hopefully friendly?
Of course! There are billions of planets in the Milky Way galaxy, and from what we can tell, the Milky Way is not a particularly important or unique galaxy, and Earth is not exactly located in the middle of the action.
But no, I don’t believe they are currently among us. (Although it’s tempting to believe this in order to have some sort of way to explain the popularity of reality-TV shows.)
When did you start deciding that you wanted to become a writer and not only that, but write for kids?
A family friend gave me the Chronicles of Narnia on a Sunday afternoon when I was in second grade. I fell so hard in love with those books that I faked a major illness and stayed home from school every day and did nothing but read and I devoured the whole series in a single week. It was the first time I had ever had that experience of not being able to turn the pages fast enough. When I finished the last book, I knew what I wanted to do: Write books that were good enough that kids would want to trick their parents into thinking they were deathly ill so that they could read all day.
The Narnia series is what inspired me as well. During the writing process, after that time when you discovered that you wanted to write for kids and before you were initially published, did you start reading a lot of middle grade, or had you always done that straight through?
I actually don’t read much middle grade, because I want to have my own voice and not be too influenced by things that I read. I try to write books that I would have loved as a kid, so I tend to think more about the stuff that I read when I was that age.
How about now? Who do you read?
Okay, this will sound like it’s contradicting my previous answer, but there is so much good stuff out there for kids right now. I think the Origami Yoda books are the perfect middle grade stories. Adam Gidwitz, Mac Barnett and Adam Rex’s stuff is a lot of fun. Tommy Greenwald’s Charlie Joe Jackson character has a great voice. Rick Riordan is a rock star with kids. Nancy Farmer is amazing. I love Gordon Korman. I worked with amazing children’s authors in grad school and I really admire all of their stuff. Rita Williams-Garcia helped me out so much in writing the first book and I think she is one of the most versatile writers for young people right now.
The road to publication is filled with heartbreak and rejection, at what point did you feel like, “Hey, I just might be able to do this?”
I think it’s really important to celebrate all of the little victories along the way before you get that first writing contract. Little things happened throughout the years. I won an award at school; I got my first money for writing when I took second place in a national contest; I signed with an agent that I respected, etc. I saw all of these as small-but-necessary steps toward my ultimate goal of publication. At times when the rejection got tough, I would think about those things and try to talk myself into believing that they meant I was on the right path.
Can you tell us also about what the events were when you finally did “make it”?
Well, after several years of writing, going to school for writing, submitting, etc. it all kind of happened at once. Within the span of one month I had offers for an option on TV rights at the Disney channel, an option for film rights from some Disney producers, and publication offers from five different publishers. After years of rejection it was pretty overwhelming and fun.
Of course, all of this is tempered by real life, especially when you are a parent. I remember on the day I heard about my first book deal, my fourth-grade daughter came home from school. We had the following conversation:
Me: Guess what, honey? You know the stories that Daddy has been working on? They’re going to turn one of them into a real book! Can you believe it?
Daughter: [Huge smile]: You know what is so awesome?
Me: [Expecting to hear about how excited and proud she is] What?
Daughter: In my classroom, there were two people that had birthdays on the same day today, and BOTH of their moms came in with snacks, so that means that I got to have TWO CUPCAKES! Isn’t that amazing?!?!
Me: Ummm . . . okay. So that’s what you’re excited about right now, huh? Congratulations . . . ?
And that’s when it hit me that even though I was super excited and had achieved my lifelong dream, I was still just “Dad.” (And that’s okay. It’s my favorite thing to be.)
How much inspiration, have events in your own life played a part in your books? Anyone who you knew in real life, now characters in your books? And if so, who? It’s okay, you can tell me. Nobody reads this.
I taught high school for twelve years, so I have dealt with lots of “characters” and I find that they pop up a lot in my books. (But that’s all I can say. Unlike my 7-year-old daughter who I mentioned earlier, teenagers have a firm grasp of money and royalties and lawsuits.)
What is your writing routine like now? And what advice could you give to other writers?
I like to write in the morning and my maximum productive writing time is about three hours; after that, I need to take a walk or shoot some baskets or have a cookie—anything to get me out of the chair. Also, I do a lot of school visits. I really love that part of the gig, but it’s definitely time-consuming. And I’m usually reading a manuscript-in-progress from a writer friend (which is a small price to pay for getting great advice on my stuff).
Advice for writers . . . let’s see . . . Learn the routine that works best for you and don’t worry about how anybody else does it; Write because you enjoy writing, not because you want to be published; Write the kind of story that you would like to read and not what you think someone in the business is looking for at the moment; Don’t be afraid of the Delete button; Celebrate the small victories; Realize that those moments when you think your manuscript-in-progress is the worst book ever written is a normal part of the process and get past it; Find your community of supportive writer friends and treat them well; Read your drafts out loud; Write the book that you think you’ll never be able to pull off; Try to remember that staring at your computer and hitting the refresh button every five seconds will not actually make an email from a potential agent or editor appear any faster; When you’re slogging through another round of looking at copyedits and it’s really boring and you are so sick of your own story and you’re getting cranky and tired and you’d rather be outside in the sunshine or hanging out with your kids even if they’re doing something mind-numbing like playing Hello Kitty bingo, try to remember that it’s a necessary part of the process and this is the life you were dreaming about ever since you started sending out those query letters, so just suck it up and make sure those semi-colons are in the right place and pretty soon you’ll be done and then the book will be published and everything will be okay; Enjoy the ride!
I read that Disney optioned Aliens on Vacation for a movie, which already put me down for opening weekend when it happens, but who plays David in the movie? Or his grandmother for that matter? And not fair answering, “Oh, I really haven’t thought about that.”
Child actors grow up so quickly that I actually haven’t thought about David too much, but my dream grandma was always Goldie Hawn. I’ve always loved her and thought she’d be a great mix of funny, warm and spacey. And even though he doesn’t match the physical description, I think that Tommy Lee Jones would be hilarious as Sheriff Tate.
Both great choices and I could see them in those roles and if I still have my clout with Disney, I’ll get right on that. Okay, this is the part of the interview, where you tell me how much you enjoyed speaking to me.
Oh . . . ri-ight . . . I’d love to stay and chat but I’m right in the middle of a heated game of Hello Kitty bingo with an impatient 7-year-old . . .
(Elissa, during the editing process, please change his answer to something like, hmmmm, let’s see, oh…something like, “You’re the best interviewer ever, Jonathan!” ok? Oh, and also please make sure to also delete my request to have his answer changed. I don’t want to be embarrassed again. All right? Thanks! )
Anyway, I want to thank Clete Barrett Smith for taking the time to speak with me today. And as an added bonus, Clete has graciously offered to send an autographed-copy of ALIENS IN DISGUISE to one lucky reader, which will be based upon comments or shares on Facebook or Twitter.