An Exclusive Authorlink Interview with David Lubar, Author of Hyde and Shriek
By Susan VanHecke
When Ms. Clevis, mild-mannered science teacher, accidentally spikes her smoothie with some lab chemicals, something seriously strange happens at Washington Irving Elementary. Ms. Clevis isn't Ms. Clevis anymore; one moment she's Jackie the sweet sixth-grader and the next she's the evil-doing substitute teacher Ms. Hyde! Can Jackie wangle a cure before she becomes the monstrous Ms. Hyde forever?
Award-winning author David Lubar doesn't disappoint with Hyde and Shriek (Starscape/Tor, 2013), his latest hilarious horror tome for tweens and the first of his new Monsteriffic Tales series. Lubar, whose debut novel Hidden Talents (Tor, 1999) was an ALA Best Book for Young Adults, is no stranger to lighthearted horror or the funny series. Young readers gobble up his myriad Weenies short-story collections—In the Land of the Lawn Weenies (Starscape/Tor, 2003) was an Oprah Children's Reading List pick—and they clamor for titles in his zombie spy-kid series Nathan Abercrombie, Accidental Zombie (Starscape/Tor).
As Kirkus Reviews raves of Hyde and Shriek, it's "ever-so-slightly creepy monster fun"!
AUTHORLINK: How did Hyde and Shriek come about?
“The book had an interesting origin and odyssey.”
LUBAR: The book had an interesting origin and odyssey. Back in 1995, I got a contract from Scholastic for a four-book series I'd created about kids who become monsters. Those books, in sequence, were about a vampire, a witch, a werewolf, and a ghost. My former agent told me he could do a better job selling foreign rights if there were six books in the series. So, being in my early forties at the time and thus still full of energy and optimism, I wrote two more books. One of those was based on Jekyll and Hyde.
Alas, my former agent was a bit overconfident and only sold rights in one foreign language, and not even a whole language, at that. He basically sold Spanish-language rights, but only in South America. Eventually, the four books went out of print. (Don't cry for me, Argentina—I had enough other books in print by then to keep me from leaping off a bridge.) Given that they were my first chapter books, I was sort of fond of them. So, a year or two ago I asked Tor to consider republishing them. They agreed. And, in an example of why it is nice to have a smart publisher, they were aware that a new book would get more reviews and attention than a reissue. Since Hyde and Shriek had never been published in English, it could legitimately be introduced as new to the US market.
AUTHORLINK: Talk about crafting your dual main character. What were the challenges of writing from alternating, completely opposing viewpoints—totally evil and totally good?
LUBAR: It was pure joy to dive into the evil side, and it was a nice exercise in ethics to explore the good side. (I try to make use of my philosophy degree as much as possible in my writing in an effort to amortize the cost.) I basically had license, by way of my evil character, to be wonderfully horrible. We all have a bit of Hyde inside us. For the most part, we keep the monster under control, but I got to unleash mine. As for sweet, innocent Jackie, whenever she reappears, her first thought is Goodness. Admittedly, this is not the most subtle leitmotif ever used in a chapter book, and it will certainly never fuel a dissertation, but it will amuse the young readers who notice it.
AUTHORLINK: How many revisions did Hyde and Shriek go through, before and after acquisition? You've said revision is your favorite part of writing—why? Any tips for discerning what's not working in a manuscript?
“I tend to revise heavily before an editor even sees a manuscript.”
LUBAR: I tend to revise heavily before an editor even sees a manuscript. In this case, with the version that went to the Spanish publisher, there was no editing by anyone else. That made me a bit uncomfortable. It's always good to have extra eyes on something. Happily, for Tor, my editor Susan Chang did her usual great job of letting me know where I dropped the ball. I also gave the manuscript several revision passes before sending it to her. And, given the time that had passed since I'd written the original version, I could see everything much more clearly than with a typical revision. I highly recommend letting all manuscripts sit for a decade or two between revisions. It really makes a difference.
AUTHORLINK: Hyde and Shriek is another of the "magical scariness" tales you do so well. What's the appeal of monsters and horror for you? Why do kids eat that stuff up? You were a huge monster fan growing up—do you intentionally turn to those classic horror tropes for inspiration when you're writing, or do they just bubble up organically?
LUBAR: I think the appeal of monsters comes from two separate, but equal (cue the Law and Order sound effects), branches of enjoyment. Monsters have power. Kids don't. That was one of the inspirations for the whole series. I wanted to write a middle-grade horror novel from the viewpoint of the monster. I didn’t want my main character fleeing in horror—I wanted him or her to be a source of terror and awe. But I was aware, given the tender age of the readership, that I might need to allow the character to return to a normal life, family, friends, and home. As I was thinking about that, it hit me that it would be fun if a kid could temporarily become a vampire because he ran into a vampire who only wanted a small sip. That was the spark that inspired the series.
The other appeal of monsters comes from the similarity of humor and horror. I love writing stories that grab the reader. Humor and horror both serve that goal. They both explore the unexpected and the unusual. As for the classics, in this series I wanted to go with familiar monsters. (It's hard to picture a young reader grabbing a book and shouting, "Wow—these kids turn into anthropophagi! I have to read this.") This explains the original four. When I started writing book five, I was actually a bit concerned whether young readers would know Dr. Jekyll. Some informal surveys during school visits eased my worries.
AUTHORLINK: You have an extensive background in video games. How has your experience as a video game programmer influenced or affected your writing? Perhaps you think more visually as you write? Maybe you're more aware of the importance of pacing?
LUBAR: Oddly enough, I'm not very visual. My strength in video games was in coding, which is dependent on logic. I guess you could say that my ability to look at connections and branches might influence my ability to create plots and complications. Game design and writing are both exercises in problem solving. In writing, I have the luxury of creating both the problems and the solutions. Books start and end with problems. I want my character to split into good and evil sides. How do I do make that happen? I want my character to be cured. How do I bring that about in a satisfactory way? Along the way, there are hundreds of small problems to solve, from "How do I replace this word I've used too often?" to "Where should I break this chapter?" Fortunately for me, I love solving problems.
AUTHORLINK: This book launches another series for you. Talk about how you craft a series. For instance, when you conceived Hyde and Shriek, did you realize it would necessarily have to be part of a series? Do you outline the entire series then pen the first book, or vice-versa? What are the challenges of writing a series—how do you keep characters developing and plots interesting while maintaining cohesion between books?
“The biggest challenge I've found in writing any series is that once you define something about a character, setting, or time period, you have to live with it.”
LUBAR: I sketched out the basic ideas of the first four books. To get the contract, I also had to show the publisher both the first book and the first chapter of each of the other three books, to prove I could do a different and appropriate voice for each of the four main characters. The biggest challenge I've found in writing any series is that once you define something about a character, setting, or time period, you have to live with it. If a book opens in November with my character in sixth grade, the next book can’t begin in September with him still in sixth grade. If a character is an only child in book one, and I need her to have older siblings in book three, I'm out of luck unless I come up with a very creative way to spontaneously generate family members.
As for keeping things interesting, that was easier than usual in this series, since each book featured a different main character. I got to know them in the first book and was eager to give each an adventure suited to the personality that had developed. I'd basically created a huge play set for myself, with all sorts of blocks and interesting pieces.
AUTHORLINK: Authors are often told not to pitch series to editors or agents, to pitch the first book as a standalone, as if it's presumptuous of the author to believe his or her idea has series potential. What are your thoughts? If an author does indeed want to pitch a series, what selling points should he or she focus on?
LUBAR: I think this is a case where an agent can be helpful. But for authors who are pitching on their own, I think it doesn’t hurt to be able to present a strong first manuscript, along with a short description of what else would be available. And, of course, it's important to distinguish between a series, a trilogy, and a sequel. None of these variations will have much of a chance of getting published if the first book isn’t solid. But, in truth, my opinion probably isn’t all that helpful, since I'm not an editor and will never be in a position to buy a single book or a series from anyone. Most writers, myself definitely included, have a somewhat myopic view of the marketplace. So take everything I say as informed but not necessarily representative of a universal truth. (Yikes—that was a rather verbose way of saying, "Your mileage may vary.")
AUTHORLINK: Novels, series, short-story collections—you're incredibly prolific. How do you keep yourself charged up and the ideas flowing? How do you keep track of all those story ideas? How do you know which to develop and which to set free? And, hardest part for most writers, how do you keep nose to the grindstone?
LUBAR: The first trick to being prolific is to write a whole bunch of stuff before you get anything published. That allows you to create an inventory. (I'm not advising this approach. But that's how I ended up with enough short stories on hand to fuel several collections before I had to go back to the well.) As for tracking the flood of words, I am a bit of a dinosaur. I still use Word Perfect 5.1 under DOS to write. So my organization is based on a bunch of subdirectories with names such as "ideas," "finish," "fragments," "dormant," "pitch," etc. I am hugely disorganized, but also hugely unphased by the prospect of looking through every file in a directory to see if one of them sparks a new idea or asks to be developed further.
“I often find that an idea that is sitting dormant catches fire when it is mixed with another idea.”
As for knowing which idea to develop, I often find that an idea that is sitting dormant catches fire when it is mixed with another idea. For example, I'd been playing around for a long time with the idea of a book called The Philosophy of Magic, where a teacher creates an elective to introduce philosophy topics by way of relating them to magic. (Yup, still trying to amortize that degree.) I had another idea about a kid who's training to be a warlock. Neither idea was really screaming to be written. I think I'd drafted the first chapter of one, and the first paragraph of the other. One day, it hit me that I could combine them. A young man who is training to be a warlock ends up in a class called The Philosophy of Magic. I'm a lot more enthusiastic about that book than either of its idea donors. As another example, the Nathan Abercrombie, Accidental Zombie series happened because my publisher suggested I think about zombies. (This was way before the trend shambled onto the stage.) But I wasn't sure I wanted to write a zombie book until the second idea showed up. I realized that a zombie had a lot of traits that would be perfect for a spy. So I ended up with a kid zombie spy. What's not to love about that?
“Who better than a writer to craft himself in his own image?”
How do I keep my nose to the grindstone? I find it helps a lot to be working on ideas that excite me. I've been a freelancer most of my adult life, so I've had plenty of opportunities to learn the dangers of slacking off. The final part of the equation is pure ego and self-image. Through some accident of brain wiring, I happen to be a very fast programmer. I was always coming in ahead of deadlines or being brought into projects that were in trouble. So I generated this image of myself as the guy who always came through. And I still push myself to maintain that persona with my editors. Who better than a writer to craft himself in his own image?
I guess that covers everything. (Oops—I forgot to mention that my dark and evil YA story collection, Extremities: Stories of Death, Murder, and Revenge comes out July 28 from Tor Teen. Okay, now I've covered everything.) Thank you for giving me this opportunity to talk about my craft, my books, and myself. Did you notice I got it back to you a day ahead of schedule? I hope you were impressed.
To learn more about David Lubar and his books, visit www.davidlubar.com.
About Susan VanHecke
Susan VanHecke is an author and editor of books for adults and children. Her titles for young people include Raggin' Jazzin' Rockin': A History of American Musical Instrument Makers (Boyds Mills, 2011), Rock 'N' Roll Soldier (HarperCollins, 2009), and An Apple Pie For Dinner (Cavendish, 2009). To find out more about Susan and her books, visit www.susanvanhecke.com and www.susanvanheckeeditorial.com.