Friday, July 30, 2010

Jon Skovron Lets us in on Some Writing Secrets as Well as How to Make a Good Mix Tape

We're pretty excited about this author interview. If you love books about characters who Love music (capital L), [and you know that here at TATAL, we Love (capital L) those sorts of books], then today is your lucky day.

Jon Skovron is the author of Struts and Frets, which is one of my favorite books from last year (you can see the review here). Mr. Skovron very nicely agreed to do this interview and share with us some insight on writing, his taste in music and even what he has coming up next. If you want to learn more about the author, you can check out his blog, his website, his twitter and his book page.
We really appreciate him letting us bug him about how to make the perfect mix tape and what favorite bands of his made it on to the pages of his book-- we did it all for you! Enjoy!

1. Can you give us a quick synopsis of "Struts and Frets?"

My one line pitch is: It's about music, love, and family. But mostly about music.

The official blurb is:
Told in a voice that’s honest, urgent, and hilarious, Struts & Frets will resonate not only with teenage musicians but with anyone who ever sat up all night listening to a favorite album, wondering if they’d ever find their place in the world.

Music is in Sammy’s blood. His grandfather was a jazz musician, and Sammy’s indie rock band could be huge one day—if they don’t self-destruct first. Winning the upcoming Battle of the Bands would justify all the band’s compromises and reassure Sammy that his life’s dream could become a reality. But practices are hard to schedule when Sammy’s grandfather is sick and getting worse, his mother is too busy to help either of them, and his best friend may want to be his girlfriend.

When everything in Sammy’s life seems to be headed for major catastrophe, will his music be enough to keep him together?

2. Sammy is a guitarist and a song-writer and those are major parts of who he is. Are you also a musician?
I started off playing trumpet in school bands. You know, concert bands, jazz ensambles, that kind of stuff. Total band geek. Then I discovered guitar and that changed everything. In high school, I was in a few rock bands. I played guitar in a couple, and bass in one (my favorite). I wrote a lot of music back then, too. In fact, all of the songs in Struts & Frets that Sammy writes come unedited and raw from my own teenage song book.

The only one I keep up with now is guitar. Although I have been eyeing my trumpet lately...

3. Sometimes in books about music, the characters mention bands or songs that totally seem out of place and the reader is left wondering why the author is dropping in these bands. This never happens in Struts and Frets. The characters each have their own different tastes that make total sense. Was it difficult to give your characters such strong and authentic-feeling musical tastes?
That's actually something that came pretty easy to me. When I'm writing a character, I always associate them with certain kinds of music. Something I play that gets me in the mood to write about them. I have a huge music collection that pretty broad and I make a ton of playlists. I even have custom Pandora stations for the main characters of each of my books, which you can check out here:

3a. Even though the music mentioned clearly belongs to the characters, did you slip in a shout-out to your favorite band?
Of course! That's all over the place. I really am a huge Pixies fan. Also, slipped in amongst a lot of well known bands is one called The Lights, which is a small, post-punk trio out of Seattle. The drummer is a friend of mine.
4. I love the way the book is designed to look like a spiral notebook, down to the doodles and the chapter names. Did you have any say in that?
I had no say in the book design, and I'm so glad. Because there's no way I would have thought of something this cool. The art director, Chad Beckerman, is a really talented guy. I can't wait to see what he does with my next book.
5. Jen5 is a really strong and opinionated female character with many facets. Why did you feel it was important to include her in Sammy's circle of friends rather than just featuring an outside girl as a "love interest"?
There's a special kind of weirdness when someone you've always known as one thing (such as a girl who is a friend) becomes something different (a girlfriend). A romance that's built first and foremost on the trust and loyalty of friendship can be amazing, provided the friendship survives the transition.

6. There is a great scene in the book that revolves around a mix tape. What do you think it takes to make a good mix tape?

There are many different kinds of mixtapes/playlists out there. Road trip mixes for you when you've got a long drive with or without a friend. Crush mixes you make to impress and woo the person you've just started hanging out with. Inspiration mixes, for things like working out or getting psyched to start a project.

In general, I like dynamic mixes. I vary the pace and volume of songs, and add some surprise twists like sudden genre changes. But the most important thing, which really is the most important thing when you're creating anything, is to remember the purpose of the mix. Keep that in mind and trust your instincts, the rest falls into place.

Wait, was that a question about making mixes or writing books?
7. Sammy's family is key to the plot of the book and these inter-generational relationships are really special and separate Struts and Frets from a lot of other teen books. What inspired you to add the plot line between Sammy, his mom and his jazz-musician grandpa?
The plot line with Sammy's mom and grandfather is an opportunity to show different sides of Sammy. The gentleness he has with his grandfather is a huge part of who he is, although it might not be quality he'd be comfortable showing to his friends. His grandfather also acts as a mentor at times, something all artists need at some point in their lives.

His mother acts as that other voice. The voice of practicality, of pragmatism. Do the sensible thing. Get a "real job". These people mean well, just like Sammy's mother, but they ultimately don't get that an artist needs to make art. Without the art, the rest is kind of pointless. If I listened to that voice of practicality when I was in high school, I don't think I would have become a published author. It's really not that practical of a thing to pursue. Of course, if I had listened to that voice, life would probably have been a lot easier.

But I guess I'm not in it for "easy".
8. Who was your favorite character in Struts and Frets to write?
That's not a fair question at all! That would be like asking me which of my sons is my favorite! I tell you what, though. The character the surprised me the most was Jen5's father, Mr Russell. I originally wrote him as kind of a joke, making fun of old stuffy literature types. But as I kept writing him, I discovered that he has this whole other jazz-lover side to him, and suddenly his role became a lot more important in the second half of the book.
9. Did you pull from your own high school experience for any of Sammy's friends? Having been briefly in a high school band, the "rehearsals" really rang true for me.
I always borrow liberally from my own life. My favorite thing to do is to take two people I know, and squish them into one person. It creates a lot of interesting inner conflict, and the synthesis between the two personalities makes something totally new. I also like to think about things that happened to me or friends of mine and change them. We do that all the time, thinking about some exchange with a person and what we should have said that would have made it better, or what we shouldn't have done. The only difference is that in my writing, when I change things, it's to make it much worse. Because that makes a more interesting story.
10. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I started writing stories when I was pretty young. I think my first try at a "novel" was in junior high. But the funny thing is, it never occurred to me to become a writer. I don't know why. I wanted to be a musician for a while in high school. Then I wanted to be an actor. In fact, I went to college for it and now I'm a classically trained actor. But the real world of being a professional actor really made me unhappy. It wasn't until I was 23 that it suddenly occurred to me that I should try to make a living as a writer. I haven't looked back since. Even in the most discouraging times (and trust me, there were many!), even when the rejection letters were piling up, I stuck it out.

11.. Do you have a favorite place to write?

I like to change it up. Sometimes at my desk, sometimes on my couch, sometimes at a coffee shop or a library. Sometimes I write rough drafts in composition notebooks, sometimes directly on the computer. It all really just depends on my mood and the story I'm writing.
12. When you're writing, do you talk with teens or show them your drafts?
I'm pretty protective of my early drafts. Nobody sees anything for the first few drafts. Not even my agent or close friends. Usually around the third or fourth draft I'll show it to a few people I really trust. Not because I think anyone is going to steal my ideas. It's just that in the early stages, a story is so fragile for me that I feel if one person says the wrong thing, it could all just come apart on me. Once I'm about five or six drafts in, I start sending it out to some other writers that I know will give it a nice hard critique and by that time, the story is strong enough to withstand it.

Until recently, I never really had an opportunity to share a work in progress with a teen. But I just did a program through the LA School District run by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, authors of Beautiful Creatures, where I swapped chapters with a student and we critiqued each other's work. That was a lot of fun.
13. Can you share with us what your next project is?
Yes! I just signed the contract for my next book! It will be published by Amulet again, and comes out in the Fall of 2011. It's called Misfit, and it's about a half-demon girl in Catholic school.
14. Do you have a favorite YA author or book?
It's hard to narrow it one down to a single author or book! How about this...The books that won me over to YA were Coraline by Neil Gaiman, Valiant by Holly Black, Godless by Pete Hautman, and Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin.

15. Do you have any advice for our teens who want to pursue writing as a career?

Read a lot, write a lot, and don't give up. This last one is the hardest. You have to give up a lot of things to be a writing. You know, things like free time, better-paying jobs, that kind of stuff. When the submission rejections are coming in and you're giving so much up, it's easy to just quit. But every day you don't quit is another day you get better as a writer. And the better you get, the more likely it is that someone will want to pay you for it.

Thank you so much for stopping by Jon, and we are really looking forward to Misfit!

mixtape photo from: Andyadontstop
guitar photo from: Jsome1


lkmadigan said...

Excellent interview!!! Love STRUTS AND FRETS.


cleemckenzie said...

Jon, hats off to you for a great interview here. And thanks, Teens at the Arlington Library for hosting him. I highly recommend Struts and Frets.