Book Nerd Interview
Lewis Buzbee is the author of Fliegelman's Desire, After the Gold Rush, First to Leave Before the Sun, and The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop. Steinbeck's Ghost, his first novel for younger readers, was selected for the California Library Association's John and Patricia Beatty Award, and was a Smithsonian Notable Book. His second middle grade novel, The Haunting of Charles Dickens, won the Northern California Book Award and was nominated for an Edgar Award. Bridge of Time, will be published in 2012. A bookseller and publisher for over 20 years, he has taught for the last 12 years in the MFA program at University of San Francisco.
Why is storytelling so important for all of us?
Stories allow us to look at the chaotic world in a real but orderly way. We can better face our fears and disappointments, and the unknown, too, through stories. Humans seem hard-wired for stories, for finding coherent narratives in things, much the same way we seem hard-wired to find faces in patterns or in the cracks of an old painted wall.
What’s one thing that readers would be surprised to find out about you?
That I’m absolutely terrified of ghost stories and other monstrous tales. I love Poe, for instance, and greatly admire Stephen King, etc., but cannot for the life of me read such tales. And yet, each of my middle grade novels is filled with ghosts, fantastical creatures, weird goings-on. Don’t even get me started on haunted houses. This must be my way of coping.
You grew up in San Jose, was there a defining moment during your youth when you realized you wanted to be a writer?
Easy to pick out. I had never been much of a reader before, but when I was fifteen, I was assigned Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath for a book report, and it blew me away. The night I started reading it, I wrote my first short story—out of sheer compulsion—and haven’t stopped writing since. And within six months, I had read everything Steinbeck ever wrote and moved on from there, reading everything I could get my hands on. I actually put this story—in a slightly altered version—in Steinbeck’s Ghost, where it belongs to the writer Ernest Oster. A signal moment for me, reading that book, one that changed my life.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received from another author?
This is also retold in Steinbeck’s Ghost. When I was a freshman in college, I had the joy of meeting with Ray Bradbury and spending a few hours talking with him. Among the great pieces of advice he gave me that day, this has ever been my favorite: Writers should eat sandwiches for lunch; that way you can read and eat at the same time. Sound advice that.
What are some of the common challenges that new and experienced authors face and what advice do you have for over-coming them?
I suppose we all face the same challenges: ourselves. It can be daunting to continue writing, knowing that the world is filled with great books already, and there’s no real need for you to continue. You have to write because you have to write; it’s that simple. The joy is in the writing, and all the rest—publications or prizes or whatever—that’s all extra. I think beginning writers should beware of believing in “writer’s block.” There’s no such thing. If you can’t work on a give piece, write something new. If you can’t go on, you have to go on. Write anything. The only way to the other side of not writing is writing.
Your book Steinbeck's Ghost, can you tell my Book Nerd Kids Community a little about it and why they should read your novel?
It’s a mystery novel, of course. Every novel needs a good mystery, and that’s reason enough to read a book. But here, characters from John Steinbeck’s novels come to life and help the main character Travis see how big the world is, and dare him to go out into that bigger world. Books can give us courage to go out into the unknown; they’re not merely an escape from the bigger world. Books give you courage, I believe.
For those who are unfamiliar with Travis, how would you introduce him?
He’s a pretty typical middle schooler, actually. He’s kinda smart, kinda cool, but mostly, like all middle schoolers, he’s just trying to understand all the changes that are swirling around him. For Travis, he’s stuck between missing his parents—who are now a little too busy with work to spend time with him like they used to—and being on his own, earning his own independence. He, of course, like all of us—middle schoolers or not—simply trying to figure out what comes next in his life.
If you could introduce one of your characters to any character from another book, who would it be and why?
What a great question! I suppose I’d like to introduce Travis to Meg the main character in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. Travis has read and loves A Wrinkle in Time, and I think the two of them would get on really well. They’re both curious and smart, and they’re both bold and a little timid at the same time. It would be nice for Travis to have someone a little older to help guide him through the changes in his life.
You have the chance to give one piece of advice to your readers. What would it be?
Easy. If you want to do something do it, start now. If you want to write a book, or start a band, or paint crazy pictures, or get a job, or travel the world, start now. Don’t wait for some mythical time when “everything is right,” just do it. It may not happen right away, mind you, but it will never happen unless you start. And it’s fun, actually. All the joy is in the doing it. Start now.
What book are you reading now?
I just finished Life is But a Dream by Brian James, which is a beautiful young adult novel about a girl with schizophrenia. The writing is exquisite, and the characters are so compelling. The main character, Sabrina, even though she is ill, is just like the rest of us: the only one who feels different. And she both loves and fears that difference. A great book.
Where is the best place in the world you’ve been?
Prague, in the Czech Republic. It’s an incredible city that feels like it hasn’t changed in 600 years. It’s the closes I’ve ever been to time travel, like living in the 1400s.
What is your favorite room in your home and outside environment?
My study is in the corner of my living room, and it looks out over 7th Ave, a busy street here in San Francisco. I can read here and write and just stare out the window and watch people go by, and on good nights, I can see the moon rise from behind the houses across the street. And because it’s the living room, I also share time with my wife and daughter here. Feels like a very big room.
What's the worst summer job you've ever had?
I worked at a 7-11 in the summer after my freshman year of college. I’d worked all through high school, washing dishes at different restaurants, so I knew what work was about, and liked it. But being a Slurpee jockey just wasn’t for me. That summer there armed robbreries at 7-11s all around the country, and I was really nervous.
When was the last time you cried?
Probably last night watching some sappy commercial on TV. I cry at the drop of a hat. The last time I really, really cried was not too long ago while reading John Green’s YA novel The Fault in Our Stars, a beautiful and heartbreaking book.
What is your favorite food?
Pizza. Any kind of pizza. My favorite—which my wife and daughter don’t allow in the house—is sausage, pineapple, and anchovy.
Where can readers stalk you?
lewisbuzbee.com or on facebook. I’ve never had a stalker, and I feel a little left out.
It’s been two months since Travis’s family moved from their shabby old house to a development so new that it seems totally unreal. There’s one place, though, where Travis can still connect with his old life: the Salinas library. Travis and his family used to go there together every Saturday, but now he bikes to it alone, re-reading his favorite books: the works of John Steinbeck. Suddenly Travis is seeing Steinbeck’s characters come to life. There’s the homeless man in the alley behind the library, the boy who writes by night in an attic bedroom. Travis has met them before—as a reader. But how can they be here now? And why?
The story within Steinbeck’s Ghost is truly unique. Author Lewis Buzbee tells about a boy, Travis, whose life is turned upside-down when he moves to a new place. He is not adjusting well to his new environment. He find comfort in the library, a place he has always loved. He soon discovers that the library may be closing down due to budget and joins the committee to save it. A mystery quickly reveals itself that Travis and his friends try to solve.
Besides its very unique storyline, the greatest quality of this book is that it encourages young kids to read books. Steinbeck’s novels and its characters are mentioned but it does not require readers to know them beforehand to get a grasp of the plot. Lewis does a great job of describing the mentioned books and will leave readers feeling the need to read them. His writing style and approach of childhood is truly magnificent. Although it is intended for middle graders, young adults and adults will find it appealing. The author’s love for books is apparent as he writes an epic adventure that interlaces many references to Steinbeck’s work and beloved California locations. Lewis is a master at story-telling and Steinbeck’s Ghost just proves that he’s equipped with spectacular writing craftsmanship due to his love of reading.
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