Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Secret Life of Ben H. Winters

Ben H. Winters wrote the New York Times bestseller Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (with Jane Austen) and Android Karenina (Quirk Classic) (with Leo Tolstoy). As a journalist, Ben has written for a wide range of newspapers and magazines, from Slate to The Nation to the Chicago Tribune; as a nonfiction writer, he's worked on many books in the bestselling Worst-Case Scenario Survival Guide series; as a librettist, he wrote the children's musicals The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, A (Tooth) Fairy Tale, and Uncle Pirate, all published in acting editions from Samuel French.

The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman is his first novel for young readers and it's been nominated for a 2011 Edgar Award for mystery fiction!
The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman

About the book:
Just your average middle-school punk rock detective novel! A plucky seventh grader named Bethesda is determined to find out the hidden truth about her boring Music Fundamentals teacher. Soon the whole school is in a rock and roll frenzy, with Bethesda, Ms. Finkleman, and a pop-music obsessive named Tenny Boyer leading the charge.

I had the chance to ask Ben H. Winters about his new book and why he thinks The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman has brought up the curtain on a wonderful new part of his life.

Tell us about your path to publication.
With Finkleman, I had a pretty classic publication path, which of course still felt like a total miracle to me. After writing a few solid chapters, I reached out to an agent, Molly Lyons, who represents a wonderful friend of mine named Abby Sher. Molly was intrigued enough to ask to see the rest of the book, at which point I said, "Oh, um, right. Sure. The rest of the book." So I went ahead and wrote it, and -- after I had incorporated some very sage ideas of Molly's -- she sent it around to the various publishers. I am very glad to say that a couple were interested, and Harper (and my editor there, Sarah Sevier) seemed like the right fit.

As you've said, you've 'written a bunch of other stuff, including plays, musicals, articles, and most recently two parody novels, smooshing together famous books with strange genre elements: Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Android Karenina', so why the urge to write for younger readers?
Android Karenina (Quirk Classic)Writing for kids has long been a vague part of my plan, to the extent that any writer can be said to have a plan. The first thing I wrote for kids was a musical called The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, in collaboration with a great composer/lyricist named Stephen Sislen. That experience was incredibly fun and gratifying, and I just loved, loved watching kids watch that show. And it had a bunch of happy results: A) a marvelous gig as a creative writing "teaching artist" at an elementary school where the show had been performed; B) the opportunity to write more theater for kids, including two very fun musicals called A (Tooth) Fairy Tale and Uncle Pirate; and C) the crazy idea in my head that I should try writing fiction for young readers.

What was your inspiration for The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman?
I'm always fascinated, when working in schools, with the relationship between children and their teachers. Whenever a teacher lets slip some detail about their personal life, mentioning a husband or a dog or a previous job or a hobby, the kids kind of lean in and perk up. What? Teachers are actually human beings when they're outside this building? So that was sort of the seed of the idea: What happens when an enterprising seventh grader digs up some dirt on her seemingly-boring music teacher? I've also always played in bands and been a big fan of rock and punk music, so that was a big part of it too, the desire to write about music, kids playing music. I loved writing long descriptions of that special joy and power an eleven-year-old feels behind a drum kit.

Your previous two books, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Android Karenina were both "coauthored" with famous authors. Give us a sense of that experience and how that compares to having a first novel that's written entirely by you.
Sense and Sensibility and Sea MonstersWriting those "mash-up" novels was incredibly fun for me, both as a writer getting to take on an enormous and satisfying challenge, and as a reader getting to spend some serious quality time with two wonderful novels. I felt like my challenge on both Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Android Karenina was to take this terrific idea (of melding classic works of literature with genre fiction) and to make the actual finished product live up to the concept. (The concept, by the way, the whole mash-up craze, originated with Jason Rekulak, my brilliant editor at Quirk Books. A mad scientist of literature if ever there was one). Writing Finkleman was both a lot easier and a lot harder: easier because I wasn't constrained by any existing text that I was re-writing, and harder because...well, because I didn't have any existing text that I was re-writing. And as proud as I am of my mash-up novels, I'm even prouder of Secret Life, because it's mine, all mine!

On your HarperCollins author site, you say you have this sneaking suspicion that you'll be spending at least a big chunk of the rest of your career writing fiction for kids. Why do you say that?
I find everything about it to be so joyful. Imagining stories that will resonate with young readers is joyful, crafting characters and situations and (especially) jokes that they'll respond to is joyful, and visiting classrooms to read aloud and talk with kids is super joyful. So if I am fortunate enough to be allowed to keep doing all of these things, there's no way I'm going to stop. The sequel to Finkleman comes out in the fall, and I'm currently working on a historical fiction novel for young readers that I'm pretty jazzed about. So with any luck, I can be answering more questions for you in a couple years.

A big thanks to Ben H. Winters for taking the time to talk to us about his new book. If you'd like to learn more about Winters and The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman, please visit his official website.

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