Wednesday, December 8, 2010

SCRAWL by Mark Shulman

Tod Munn is a bully. He's tough, but times are even tougher. The wimps have stopped coughing up their lunch money. The administration is cracking down. Then to make things worse, Tod and his friends get busted doing something bad. Something really bad.

Lucky Tod must spend his daily detention in a hot, empty room with Mrs. Woodrow, a no-nonsense guidance counselor. He doesn't know why he's there, but she does. Tod's punishment: to scrawl his story in a beat-up notebook. He can be painfully funny and he can be brutally honest. But can Mrs. Woodrow help Tod stop playing the bad guy before he actually turns into one . . . for real?

Read Tod's notebook for yourself.

And join us in welcoming Mark Shulman to the Cafe!

Melissa: Tell us about your book, Scrawl.

Scrawl is the story of Tod Munn, a tough kid from a bad neighborhood. And he’s in big trouble. The book is a journal he’s been forced to write as a condition of his not going to the juvie.

Everyone thinks they’ve figured Tod out – he’s supposed to be a bully and a thug and a budding criminal -- and he likes that they’ve got it wrong. Every day after school, he’s stuck with a guidance counselor who sees something in Tod that is actually right. He’s smart, and clever, and funny… all liabilities in Tod’s world.

As Tod goes through the short time period of the book, he is forced to reckon with his gang of friends, setting a path for himself that will either lead to bigger trouble or redemption. It sounds so grim, but it’s actually quite funny.

Melissa: What was your inspiration for this story?

A writer and an editor conspired to make me write a novel, but they weren’t in cahoots. The writer, Alison James, put me and a few others through a writing exercise that ended with my hypnotically-induced scribblings in the voice of Tod. Not long after, the editor Neal Porter more or less challenged me to write a novel. And when Neal Porter says “write a novel,” a writer listens. So I did.

Do you remember writing the first words? Are they still the same?
Not only are they the same, but they were barely edited. I figured out how to put them in the front of the book. You meet Tod at the point I met Tod – while he’s busting some kid’s glasses in my old high school. But he’s detached, almost sanguine as he considers the finer points of beating a kid up.

What kind of research did you have to do for this story?
I closed my eyes and thought about the layout of my old high school. Seeing how I spent six highly-formative years there, it was easy to set the stage. Having a fundamental blueprint of the school made all the difference in what’s where and how to get there. One other tool was Google Calendar. Since the book is told entirely in journal form, the days and dates had to click. The book is set on the same calendar as 2010.

Melissa: What is the hardest part of writing for you?

For me, writing is like one of those huge science-museum soap bubbles you pull up with a hoop. A number of circumstances need to be in place – the environment, the lack of interference, and steady focus on my part. Of course, when I’m crushing under deadline, all I need is some coffee and another hour.

Melissa What one question do you wish an interviewer would ask you but never has?

“Is the female lead, Luz, based on a real person?”

None of my characters are real people. Some are composite and some are entirely fictional. Luz the artsy goth girl is a favorite of mine because she muscled her way into the book far more than I expected. She was supposed to have a bit part, but she and Tod started talking and there were sparks. Not romantic sparks. More like the pre-romantic way two teenagers might use each other as knife-sharpening wheels. In their particular public school, there isn’t so much high intellectual wattage. So despite themselves, they’re drawn together. That’s why she promoted herself from a supporting role in one scene to a lead role in several.

Hey – I didn’t answer my own question! Luz is a composite of a few girls I knew in school. But she’s also quite a work of fiction.

Melissa: What are you working on now?

Several projects at once. I’ve finished an early reader. And a picture book. And I’m in the middle of a fun nonfiction title. And I’m fleshing out the next novel, which is in outline at the moment. And there’s another book opportunity that might be too good to pass up. And I’m volunteering in a few places, which always requires more time than I budget for. I’m an involved parent in my kids’ school, and I often pick up. And I’m married. And I do the laundry. And I read a lot. That’s about it.

Melissa: Tell us something about you that no one knows.

I’ve got an O- blood type, which makes me the universal pincushion. What’s more, my blood hasn’t got antigens, so even fragile recipients won’t reject it. That makes me extremely desirable, hematologically. So I give blood as often as I can. We O- folks have to stick together. So go out there and give it up.

Melissa How did you become a writer?

I got an old Royal manual typewriter for my 11th or 12th birthday. I’ve been at it ever since. In high school I wrote comics and a sci-fi magazine, and parodies of the school paper I would publish and sell. I’ve written advertising, tours, bad TV scripts, worse stand-up comedy, positioning papers, more advertising, CEO speeches, radio contests, a very funny menu for a hot dog restaurant in the garment district, cover letters, corporate videos, poems, apologies to traffic court judges, and anything even remotely resembling advertising. Then I met a wonderful schoolteacher, married her, and started to write books for kids. Those include picture books, nonfiction, preschool, novelty, movie tie-ins, TV tie-ins, books with glowing monster heads, voodoo dolls, trivia quizzes, humor, celebrity picture books, quote books, books with snails that slide around the page, and a novel.

Melissa What is your favorite line, passage, chapter from this book?

“I like reading. It’s free travel.”

Melissa: Was there any part that you struggled with or avoided writing?

Oh,yes. There’s a part about one-third of the way when Tod is going to make a defining choice. It’s one of those early winter afternoons when the weather is oobleck and the sky is prematurely dark and he does NOT want to be in this place making this choice to be a good guy or bad guy. So he is standing outside a door and he freezes up. And so did I. I hated the moment as much as he did. Then the phone rang and it was Discovery Channel with a bunch of projects and I took them all. Many moons later I picked up the book again, having received a piece of invaluable advice: Write the part after this scene, and then come back to it. How simple! And how very, very effective.

Melissa What's on your nightstand right now?

The Pullman trilogy, which I’m reading aloud to my daughter… Holes, which I read every so often for clues… Mockingjay, because I read the other two… a handful of mythology books, which my son loves… various issues of the Ultimate Spider-Man series… The New Yorker, because I’ve been reading it for 35 years and I’m only 48… and a lamp.

Melissa: Besides writing, do you have any other passions?

New York City, jazz, architecture, history, going on drives. And my family. We’re a tight group.

Melissa: What are your hobbies?

New York City, jazz, architecture, history, going on drives. And my family. Also, every two years, I follow politics the way other guys follow sports.

Melissa: Have you ever wanted to quit writing? Why?

Yes. Because it’s hard. And then when it isn’t, I don’t want to quit.

Melissa: If you could be anything else besides a writer, what would it be?

I imagine I’d like to be designing things. My mind is always at work improving on backpacks, carts, kitchen set-ups, lamps, toys, car accessories and room layouts. I’m especially keen on inventing all-new, multi-purpose objects. I don’t think there’s a living in that, though.


As a regular feature of the Cafe, Mark will be available to answer your questions over the next week. So drop by the comments and leave him a question or just throw some confetti!