Sunday, November 17, 2013

Author Interview with Chris Tebbetts

For this month’s interview, I bring to you Chris Tebbetts, author of a number of books, including the popular MIDDLE SCHOOL series that he co-authors with James Patterson.  In MIDDLE SCHOOL, THE WORST YEARS OF MY LIFE (Little, Brown and Company), readers meet Rafe, a lonely student who amuses himself by breaking school rules. MIDDLE SCHOOL, GET ME OUT OF HERE features Rafe struggling to fit in at a new school. In the most recent book of the series, MIDDLE SCHOOL, HOW I SURVIVED BULLIES, BROCCOLI, AND SNAKE HILL, Rafe toughs it out through summer camp.

Bullying is demonstrated with blunt honesty in the MIDDLE SCHOOL series. In these books, I see bullies who get away with their behavior. I see frenemies. I see oblivious adults, and I even see adults who bully children. While these stories acknowledge that the world does not always play fair, they also show how one can persevere through rough times.

It’s my pleasure to bring to you Chris Tebbetts.

How did you get set up to co-write the MIDDLE SCHOOL series with James Patterson? What kind of a system do you and James have for collaboration?
Jim found me through Alloy Entertainment. I’d written a middle grade series for them several years ago, and when he approached Alloy looking for potential co-authors, mine was one of the names they gave him.  After seeing some sample work from me, and an interview in New York, he invited me to work with him on MIDDLE SCHOOL, THE WORST YEARS OF MY LIFE.  

As for our process, Jim will come up with a detailed, chapter-by-chapter outline of the story first.  From there, I'll work on a draft, about ten to fifteen chapters at a time. Once a month, I send him those pages and we'll talk about how the story is coming along, as well as any adjustments or changes he wants to make.  Once we get to a finished first draft, I might do some rewriting, but Jim eventually takes on the whole thing and rewrites it to completion.  

And then on top of that, we have a third collaborator in Laura Park, our illustrator.  She works from the final manuscript and illustration notes to add all of the art you see in the finished books. The conceit of drawings is that they’re created by our main character, Rafe Khatchadorian, an aspiring artist. That means Laura needs to inhabit the character with her drawings much like we do with the writing, and I think she does it amazingly well.  It’s been a blast to see our ideas come to life that way, and to see the humor, details, and spin that Laura brings to the process.

Did Lisa Papademetriou consult with you when she was working on MIDDLE SCHOOL: MY BROTHER IS A BIG FAT LIAR?
Lisa Papademetriou and I didn’t consult with each other on MY BROTHER IS A BIG FAT LIAR.  All of that direct collaboration happened between her and Jim.  However—funnily enough—Lisa and I did co-author a YA novel several years ago (M OR F?, Razorbill, 2005).  The fact that we’re now both working on the MIDDLE SCHOOL series is just a really fun coincidence—and maybe also a statement about the small world-ness of the publishing industry.

What tips do you have for authors who want to plan and write a successful kidlit series like MIDDLE SCHOOL?
I’m a big fan of humor—not just as entertainment, but as a way of carrying a story (and its meaning) to the reader.  Humor is something I use for communication in my life as much as in my writing.  Everyone loves to laugh, so you can’t go wrong there.

A more elemental aspect of successful middle grade fiction (and fiction in general) is great characters.  That’s the core everything else is built around. I think it’s well worth taking the time to figure out who your characters are, and then being extremely picky in the writing process about what feels true for each one of them.  This is as applicable for fantasy as it is for realistic drama, and everything in between.  You have to be willing to grit your teeth, discard the not-quite-right ideas, and take the time to come up with something that works better.

Other tips: Don’t write to the market!  By the time you finish a novel based on today’s trend, it will be yesterday’s trend.  Write a story that appeals to you, one that you feel, and one that you can be excited about going back to over and over and over again.  This is especially true for series work, where you might be spending years with the same characters. Also, don’t save your ideas!  There will always be more.  It can be tempting to stash away great lines, scenes, or plot twists for later, especially when you have a whole series to write (and even more especially an open-ended series).  But I’ve never found that kind of scrimping to be worth it.  

The middle grade voice and character can be tough to nail, and you and James captured the candid voice and misunderstood character of Rafe Khatchadorian very well. How did you develop this character?
Rafe came to me from Jim, who conceived of him and wrote the first, very detailed outline of the first book (and each subsequent book).  A lot of the sense of humor was in that outline, and I think I lucked out in terms of responding immediately to what I found there. 

For my own part, I did a good amount of visiting middle schools, interviewing teachers, and most of all, talking to middle schoolers.  One thing that came clear to me through that process is the way in which the middle school experience has—and more importantly, hasn’t—changed since I was in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade.  In terms of social and developmental issues, I really heard back my own experience in those conversations, over and over.  That gave me a sense of permission to draw unreservedly on my own memories, which I think helped me write more freely than I might have otherwise.

How do you think reading about Rafe and Georgia’s experiences with bullying can empower young readers who are bullied?
I like the quote, “We read to know we’re not alone,” usually attributed to C.S. Lewis. 
It feels applicable here. Everyone who reads these MIDDLE SCHOOL stories is going to relate to the bullying aspect in one capacity or another—either as someone who has been bullied, witnessed bullying, perpetrated it, or all of the above.  That kind of mirror can be a powerful thing.  It shows readers a reflection of their own experience without directly implicating them.  That, in turn, can make it all easier to digest and process.  From perspective comes understanding, and from understanding comes positive change.

Let me also say, I don’t want to over-simplify the issue.  For the kids who suffer most from bullying, it can be overwhelming.  It can also feel convincingly futile—as though there’s nothing to be done for it, and that things will never change.

But a story that shows a character coping with his or her own version of those same problems and then coming out the other side with a sense of hope, accomplishment, or optimism—that’s a great thing to be able to offer a kid.  It’s not a full solution to a problem as pervasive as this one, but I think it’s an essential part of the solution.

When you look back on your own middle school years, what comes to mind? Have you ever been to a summer camp like Camp Wannamorra?
Okay, here’s where I part ways with Rafe Khatchadorian.  I was a happy kid who mostly played by the rules, had a lot of friends, and actually liked middle school.  I really lucked out in that regard.

Summer camp, on the other hand, was another question.  I had plenty of bad experiences there, both as a camper and as a counselor.  I just don’t think summer camp and I were a good match.  It always gave me that alienated feeling, the kind I know is so common for kids in middle school, where it seemed as though everyone was having a good time but me.

One exception: The summer after sixth grade, I went to something called night camp, which was great.  We slept during the day and went out at night, scouting nocturnal critters, working with the raptor center, feeding wounded and recuperating owls, and learning all about life in the night woods.  I loved it.  One of these days, I’m going to write a night camp story.

Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to share about? Will there be any more MIDDLE SCHOOL books? (Please say yes!)
Yes, and yes!  Jim and I are finishing up work on the next MIDDLE SCHOOL book right now.  It’s called SAVE RAFE! and it will be out June 23, 2014.

I also have another middle grade series out this year, called STRANDED (Puffin), which I co-authored with Jeff Probst, the host of Survivor.  It’s a trilogy about four siblings who find themselves as castaways on a deserted island in the middle of the South Pacific.  It has lots of adventure, and lots of nonstop action, which I like to write just as much as humor. 

That series was inspired by the fact that so many young Survivor fans have asked Jeff the same question over the years: “When are you going to do Survivor for kids?”  And because that’s not a practical idea from a t.v. production standpoint, Jeff figured this story would be a great way to respond to all that interest.  The first two STRANDED books are already out, and Book 3 comes out this week on November 19th.  


Dianne K. Salerni said...

This was fascinating to me, glimpsing the process by which a co-authorship with a big name author takes place. It's clear that Chris is highly respected for his work, writing, and experience. (Would love to see his name larger on the covers ...)

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great interview. It was so interesting to learn how Chris collaborated with James Patterson. And his advice on how to write middle grade characters is so right on. I'll have to check out this series.

Pat Hatt said...

Great interview indeed and yeah humor helps a lot when writing most anything I find

Crystal Collier said...

I love this--especially how middle school has and has not changed. It's amazing that the human condition remains the same, even with the changes from generation to generation.

Christine Rains said...

Fantastic interview. Very interesting to learn about the collaboration. And I'm a reader that really appreciates humor!

S.P. Bowers said...

I'm glad someone is able to write about this and hopefully reach kids. MG writing isn't for me as I'd have flashbacks to many of the things you wrote about and end up even crazier than I am. I'm so impressed by the people who can write about those years with humor and compassion.

Jay Noel said...

Great interview!

I've always wondered what the process was for collaborating with the legend that is James Patterson. How does that man even sleep? He's got so many books out.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That is really impressive! Collaborating with someone like that would be a little intimidating.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Cynthia, for the interview, and everyone else for the nice comments! I meant to add that I can be reached directly through

Sherry Ellis said...

The Middle School books are hilarious. My kids love them!

Unknown said...

Love the covers of these books and must find a child to buy them for (hmmm I can be that child). Very fun interview-- so glad to know about the books.

Ruth Schiffmann said...

I haven't read any of them yet myself, but I've heard only good things about the Middle School books. Congratulations to Chris! And thanks for the interview, Cynthia.

Anonymous said...

I always enjoy posts about collaborating and co-authoring. I've been wondering if it's something I should do.

These books look awesome and I hope to read them.

Shelley Sly said...

This was a fun interview! I've been meaning to read the Middle School books. They look like they're very entertaining!

Charlie N. Holmberg said...

MG is hard! At least in my book. I didn't know about this series, but now I do! Great interview.

Gina Gao said...

This is such a great interview! Thanks for sharing this.

Shannon Lawrence said...

I saw both these series at our book fair this week! (Scholastic). It was at an elementary school, so I didn't purchase them yet, but did note them. They look interesting. Great interview (questions AND answers). :)

The Warrior Muse

Anonymous said...

"We read to know we’re not alone" - wonderful words to read :)

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