Golly! An interview with Jody Feldman

Please help me welcome Jody Feldman to the Mixed-Up Files. She says she may have been a natural-born reader, but has never claimed to be a natural-born writer. Through a series of happenstances, she found herself enrolled in the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism and discovered she could write. Her credits a television special, a travel book, speeches, all means of market and promotion and … back to her reading roots … children’s novels. Her first, The Gollywhopper Games received the 2011 Grand Canyon Readers Award and the 2011 Georgia Children’s Book Award among other honors. Her second, The Seventh Level (both books from HarperCollins/Greenwillow) debuted on the Summer 2010 Indie Next List and received the 2011 Missouri Writers Guild Show Me Best Book Award. Jody Feldman lives in St. Louis where she’s always hard at work on the puzzles or mysteries or twists for whichever might be her next book.

Q: In your first book, The Gollywhopper Games, you say your inspiration was a child asking for more books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. How is your book similar? How is it different?

A: It’s true I drew much inspiration from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. While the majority of that inspiration stayed internal, some did creep onto the pages. Three instances …

I was especially taken by the way Roald Dahl established his magnificent fantasy world within the bleary environment of the surrounding town. I wanted Golly Toy and Game Company in my book to evoke even a sliver of that awe. I did, however, choose to stick to reality, making sure everything that happened in The Gollywhopper Games could happen in real life.

When I first read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it reinforced the concept of the instantly sympathetic hero, one I’d just begun to notice in movies. Admittedly, it’s the easy way out in character development, but this was my first attempt at a novel, and I ran with it. Originally, my character Gil was simply poor as was Charlie, but somewhere among the multitude of rewrites, I explored why Gil’s family didn’t have money and I integrated that into the plot.

I liked the elimination structure of the events in Charlie. I probably would have come up with my riff on that never having read Dahl’s book, but it is a similarity.

Here is what I perceive as the main difference. It took more than a respectful disposition, a kind demeanor, and a set of good manners to put Gil squarely in competition for the prize. While it was Charlie’s passivity that led to him being the last kid standing, Gil actively embraced his leadership and intelligence to shape his fate, himself.

Q: Are your heroes from your books based on real children you’ve known?

A: I like to say all my characters are shaped by people I’ve known. Sort of. To me, that means people I’ve known personally or have observed in real life, in history, in the news or in fictional circumstances. Including my own self. So that’s pretty much every- and anybody.

I have never fully based any character on one person. However, many of Gil’s actions and emotions just might have a direct relationship to how I personally would have faced and felt under those circumstances. In The Seventh Level, Travis and his unmedicated case of ADHD just might have come from a guy I knew in college (and later married). Funny thing, I didn’t make a conscious effort to use him. I started writing the character, the actions followed, and way on down the road, like on my very last read-through before the book went into print, I realized what I’d done. For the three heroes in Hopeful Book #3, like most of my characters, they just sort of appeared.

Q: Where did you come up with the idea for a secret society in your second book The Seventh Level?

A: From the first time I heard the term secret society – probably when I was in the single digits – the thought intrigued me. I wanted to know why they existed, how people got into them, what the members did, when they used their secret handshake … and have I exhausted all 5 W’s (and the one H)? I guess not, but you get the idea.  And if I’m going to spend years on a project, I need to have some amount of passion for the subject matter.

Coincidentally, I’d begun toying with the concept of secret societies about the time The DaVinci Code burst into bookstores. The buzz worked to escalate my interest. Suddenly I found myself constantly thinking about the secret society I might create. I ultimately decided to go against stereotype, away from the often-characterized dark and mean-spirited clubs, and I made The Legend a positive force in Lauer Middle School.

The Seventh Level launch party.

Q: Your books contain lots of clues for the characters to solve to move forward in the story. What can you tell us about your puzzle making process?

A: I can tell you why I feel qualified to create puzzles.* I can tell you the things I do to put me in puzzle-making mode.** But beyond that, all I can say is that a piece from over here combines with a glimpse of what’s over there and with a fleeting thought from last month and with a passing breeze or a kernel of caramel corn or a chord from a song, and I suddenly have the guts of a puzzle. That’s when I get serious and work the process to make sure anything I pose to readers is solvable … but not too, too easy.

*Crossword and other such puzzles have been part of my life pretty much forever. Also, from the moment I knew brainteaser-type riddles existed, I would ask adults to stump me some more. With such a solid and constant background, it’s as if I understand puzzle mechanics by virtue of my Ph.D in Puzzle Engineering.

A sample peek at one of Jody's brainstorming sheets. Blurry on purpose to perserve the mystery.

**Okay. So there I sit on the comfy couch, an 11” x 17” piece of white paper on my lap and a collection (from 2 to 20) of gel pens of various colors at my side. In front of me, the TV is on. Yes, the TV. But I’m not watching it like a normal person. See that tower in the action scene? Draw it on the paper. Hear gelatin in the commercial? Write it down. Oh, and write down fancy-free, curly, and circumvent, too. Now, how’d that doodle of a snail get on my paper? And what’s with the words in chartreuse?

Q: What would you like your readers to take away from the stories?

A: Wow! That was a fun ride!

(Anything else is extra icing.)

Q: Are all your books written for the middle-grade audience?

A: All my published books for children are middle grade. And those I have lined up to write are for that age as well. When I was finding my voice as a writer of children’s books, though, I dabbled in everything from picture books to edgy young adult. That means I have around four dozen completed manuscripts, most of which will never escape drawer incarceration.

Q: What is your favorite part of book creation?

A: You mean other than writing The End? Okay, so I don’t write The End. I put ###.

Seriously, writing is hard. It’s boring. I tell kids that it’s frustrating to have these flashes of genius pass through your brain, only to see them lie flat on the page once you put them down in black and white.

So it follows that my favorite part is away-from-the-page brainstorming. Daydreaming about a character who will, one day, become completely real to me. Visualizing setting and how I might be able to kick the ordinary up a notch. Pondering over ideas that range from here to there or beyond. Any one of these ideas may soar or may bomb, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is, right then, anything is possible.

Q: Do you have a favorite writing food or snack?

A: I have to stop and think about this. Really. I have a huge sweet tooth, but when I visualize myself going to the kitchen to grab a handful of something, it’s of the salty variety. Or fruit. I’ve trained myself to eat more fruit. Sometimes, nothing works like a protein – cheese, nuts, leftovers. Most honestly, it’s whatever will power me through writing the next scene.

Q: What inspires you most?

A: Reading something – a phrase, a sentence, a scene – I’d written yesterday or last week or the month before and wondering what elves came in during the night and put some really good words onto the page. Realizing a). I can actually write and b). those ideas might not exist without me? It’s heady stuff.

Q: Do you have any new books coming out soon? Can you tell us anything about them?

A: After several substantial rewrites, I just turned in hopeful Book #3 to my agent. Its working title is The Deep Downstairs, but for the first time, I’m not entirely positive the title will stick. What will stick are the mansions, caves, and backstory with pirates. Also the puzzles.

Q: Do you have any advice for middle-graders who might be interested in writing their own story?

A: When kids ask me how many books I plan to write, I say I’ll keep writing as long as it keeps being fun. So my advice: When writing stops being fun, stop writing until you feel it might be fun again.

I know. I know. That’s not real advice. So here comes the real stuff. Warning: it’s not easy. After you finish your first draft, put it away for 2-3 months. And I mean if it’s printed on paper, you take that copy and triple wrap it in plastic, put it in a triple-taped box or bag or envelope, then put the package in a hard-to-reach spot so you’re not tempted to look at it. If the story is on your computer, print it out AND copy it to a disc or a flashdrive, hide those away from yourself then delete the file from the computer. When those months have passed (and mark that date on a calendar), get out your story. If you’re reading it with an open mind, you will find places that don’t make sense, that are less interesting or exciting than you’d like, that use boring language … those types of things. And that’s good because the most important part of writing is in the rewriting. When you can see and accept what’s not perfect with your story, then you have the ability to craft it into something you’re very, very proud of. It took me lots of years to learn and understand that, but when I did, well, that’s when my books got good enough to get published.

Wendy Martin spends her days drawing fantastical worlds. In the evenings she writes about them, then she visits them at night during her dreams. Visit her universe at her web site http://wendymartinillustration.com

Wendy Martin