Interview with Allen Zadoff

Debut authors in YA have a difficult job: They must introduce well-versed teen readers to characters and story lines they have not read before. They have to be current, engaging, funny, intelligent, and, most importantly, not boring. Allen Zadoff author of “Food, Girls, and Other Things I Can’t Have” accomplishes this job and then some. With the thoughtful, honest, and smart protagonist Andrew Zansky, Zadoff tackles the topics of popularity, weight, confidence, friendship and self-identity with such ease and humor that only on a second, third read can one appreciate how layered the writing is.

His first YA novel, out in paperback on February 22, will be followed by his sophomore YA effort “My Life, The Theater, and Other Tragedies,” out in May 2011–and YARN will have an excerpt of that novel for you this spring!  And if that is not enough Zadoff for you, he just signed a book deal for a 3rd novel, has a tumblr blog, is a renowned writing coach, and was kind enough to answer some of our questions below.

Writing Process:
YARN: What does your writing process consist of, from the idea to publication?  Do you outline, draft, revise?  What is your favorite part?  Your least favorite?

AZ: First, I listen.  A character begins to speak.  He (or she) surprises me because I’ve never met him before.  He tells me about his life. Things are bad.  He has complaints. He wants something so badly that he feels he’ll die if he doesn’t get it.  He’s pissed off because it’s not going the way he wants it to go. He’s often funny because he’s so angry.

I write down what he says.  I ask him questions about his world.  I invite him to speak.  I try to be a good listener.

This is the beginning of the story for me.

A good example is the beginning of “Food, Girls and Other Things I Can’t Have.”  Andrew is speaking, giving the reader a little overview of his life. That’s what it’s like in my head when I start a project.

There is a long process that happens after this.  I ask myself a series of questions about structure, the story goes from general to specific. I work towards a rough outline. I hit critical mass at some point and it’s time to dive into the draft.  There are worries and doubts and distractions.  I get into my head.  I try to force the idea. I try to write well.

It never works. I surrender again.

When I get lost, I go back to the starting point.  I go back to the voice of a character who wants something so badly he feels he’ll die if he doesn’t get it. He knows the story better than I do.

I trust him.

YARN: Your other career appears to be as a writing coach.  What does a writing coach do?  How did you get into coaching?

AZ: It took me more than ten years to understand the process I described above.  How do you write a story? What is a story? What are the pitfalls along the way? How do you stay on track? How do you finish? How do you approach a rewrite?  How do you know when you’re finished?

I spent years writing and trying to figure that out. I had some good teachers along the way (and some bad ones).  I did critique groups.   I got a lot of notes.

But I never had the support, guidance, and overview of the process that I needed. Not until very late.

As a writing coach, I give other writers what I didn’t get: guidance, support, encouragement.  A way of approaching story that is simple, organic, and very exciting.  A way of working that allows the authentic voice to emerge.  A series of questions and free writing exercises that invites the imagination to play.  I’m a collaborator who doesn’t judge, doesn’t try to influence the process, but only helps to facilitate it.

To put it another way, if you want to work out, you can read a book about it, do it yourself, take a class… or you can hire a trainer.  I’m a creative trainer.

YARN: You mention that as a coach you ask questions to help authors set their story free. Does anyone serve this purpose for you as you write?

AZ: Yes. I need this!  I need help.  I’m still learning how to be a writer. I’m always learning. World-class musicians have teachers, opera singers and rock stars go to voice coaches, professional athletes have coaching staffs and sports psychologists.  What makes me think I can do this alone?

I get a lot of inspiration from Stephen Pressfield who wrote “The War of Art.” I don’t know him personally, but his work and way of thinking about making art has been invaluable to me.  Likewise with Viki King who wrote “How to Write a Movie in 21 Days—The Inner Movie Method.”  I know Viki, and she understands something very deep about the creative process.

I have a great collaboration going with Elizabeth Law, my publisher and editor at Egmont-USA.  We did “Food, Girls together, and “My Life, the Theater and Other Tragedies is coming out in May. Now I’m working on my third novel with her.

I also have a small group of fellow writers and filmmakers around me who are brilliant at helping me when I get bogged down.

YARN: Any coaching tips for YARN teen readers who have writing assignments for school that they don’t feel inspired to write?  How do you get un-stuck?

AZ: In my experience, there are two things that cause me to get stuck on an assignment:

  1. I don’t understand the assignment.  I have to step back and ask myself if I really know what I’m being asked to do.  Am I clear on the actual assignment? If you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s nearly impossible to do it, right?  Often I find I need clarity on the assignment or the way to approach it.  That’s when it’s time to ask for help.
  2. I’m afraid of looking bad, making a mistake, doing it wrong.  To this I say, surrender writing well and dive in to writing badly!  It’s a process, not a result.  You get better by doing it, whether “it” is academic writing, creative writing, or a love letter.

YARN: In “Food, Girls” Andy notes that “people don’t jump up and down when you write a story.” At YARN, we believe that people should, and we’re trying to change that…one story at a time. How do you inspire teens to stick to writing even though the going might be tough? What general lifestyle advice do you have for teens who want to be writers?

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AZ: I like your attitude, YARN!

Here’s an interesting story about writing and lifestyle. When I was younger and wanted to write, I’d stay up all night, wait for inspiration, look for inspiration in certain, shall we say, less than inspiring ways.  When I got serious about my writing later in life, I started to go to bed early.  This is because I learned that I write best in the mornings, and if I was going to be fresh for the morning, I had to start the night before.

I’m not telling you to go to bed early. I’m saying that I started to create a safe zone around my writing time.  It was precious to me, and I wanted to protect it. Writing is about consistency and repetition. It’s like learning to be a fighter pilot.  From the outside, it seems romantic and adventurous.  But to become a pilot, you have to log hundreds of hours in the air. Take off, landing. Take off, landing.  That’s what the writer’s life is to me.  You have to log a lot of time in the chair.  So whether you write ten minutes or ten hours a day, respect the time, protect it, and keep yourself in shape for your creativity.

Finally, about inspiration.  The idea messed me up a lot when I was starting out. I thought you had to be inspired to write. Big mistake.

I found that inspiration happens because you’re writing. Inspiration is not the spark plug that starts the car, it’s the turbocharger that kicks in when you’re already driving.   Your job is to write. Some days you’ll be inspired, some you won’t. But when you are, you’ll already have a pen in your hand.

Books:
YARN: Your novels so far have dealt with issues from your own life–”Food, Girls” was, at least partly, about what it’s like to be a fat boy in high school (a theme to which you also devote a non-fiction memoir, “Hungry”), and your next novel “My Life, the Theater and Other Tragedies” (coming in April), would appear to use real-life material from your own days in the theater (for YARN readers who might not know, Mr. Zadoff has a degree in theater from Harvard).  Were these conscious choices you made as a writer—like, you sat down and said, I want to write about a kid who had some of the same issues as me in high school..?  How do you “fictionalize” material from your own life?

AZ: It’s all me.  It’s never conscious.

Here’s the paradox: I write characters who are not like me all the time.

I’m not a mother, but I wrote the mother in “Food, Girls.” I was never a ten-year-old girl, but I wrote the sister.  These characters have emotional truth for me.

Someone once said that when we dream, we are all the characters in the dream, not just the main character. After all, the dream is coming from my head.  It’s the same for writing stories.  I have to have a deep relationship and understanding of every character in my story–the hero, the villain, the guy on the bus picking his nose whom the hero glances at but never talks to.  They’re all me, just different aspects of me. (I’m not admitting to picking my nose, but it may have happened once or twice.)

YARN: Can you see yourself writing about a teen who is nothing like you?  (We know you signed a deal for a third novel with Egmont.  Can you give us a clue about that protagonist?)

AZ: I think I answered this above, and I’m pleading the fifth when it comes to the new novel. 🙂

YARN: Your writing is hilarious.  In fact, “Food, Girls,” won the 2010 Sid Fleischman Humor Award from SCBWI (and a particular favorite scene of Kerri’s involves an unexpected poetic moment on the football field that had her giggling for hours).  Does the humor come naturally to you (i.e. you are just generally blessed with the aptitude for making people laugh), or is it something you have to work for?

AZ: Thank you!  When I was preparing my Fleischman Award speech, I wrote three instructions to myself on a piece of paper.

  1. Don’t try to be funny.
  2. Tell the truth.
  3. Try to be funny.

Funny for me is a certain angle.  I’m basically a sad person.  My heroes are often sad, angry, or very nervous. There’s something that happens when you take those negative emotions and turn them 15 degrees to the right.  They become funny.

Is it natural? I think so.  But like any talent, it can be developed through practice.

Honestly, I don’t know how to write funny stories. There are people who can tell you what comedy is and how to write it, but I’m not one of them.

I once tried to write a funny screenplay.  I sat down and said, “I’m going to write a comedy now. A big Hollywood comedy.”

Nothing.  Misery.  A tumbleweed blew across my living room floor.

I can’t write a comedy. I can only write a story.

For me, funny arises from attitude and detail.  “My Life, the Theater, and Other Tragedies” is about a boy whose father died tragically two years before, and he becomes a techie and goes up to the catwalk in the theater and hides from the world.  Is there anything funny about that scenario?  Not really.

Except when he’s up there, scared, shy, and hurting, he starts to think, “How do I go to the bathroom? I’m twenty-five feet in the air. Where do you pee on a catwalk?  I can’t just let it fly.  Maybe I should pee in a bottle. Wait, I’m already a freak. Do I really want to be a freak who pees in a bottle? That’s Hunchback of Notre Dame crazy. I’m not ready for that.”

Suddenly it’s funny.

YARN: We can’t resist another question about your  trademark humor—The main character of “Food, Girls,” has an amazing sense of humor about his plight as a fat teenager. While struggling with your own weight, did you have this type of perspective? Were you able to laugh at yourself and find humor in painful situations?

AZ: No!  I wish I were nearly as funny back then. To be honest, I have to tell you that being fat is a lot funnier now that I’m not.  I felt enormous shame about my weight and secret eating when I was a kid.  I’m writing about those issues now with a foundation of fifteen years of recovery.

But herein lies one the secret reasons for my writing.  The message at the heart of my books is: You’re not as bad as you think you are. Everyone feels different, everyone fears there might be something wrong with them. Feeling different doesn’t make you a freak; it makes you human.

I wish I’d known this then, so I write about it now.

Sometimes I still struggle with this as an adult. So maybe I’m telling myself.

YARN: “Food, Girls” never fully resolves the food issue for Andy’s family. We get a sense that all members of his family, including little sister Jessica, will have ongoing, less than healthy relationship issues with food. This choice speaks to the extreme difficulty of overcoming an emotional dependency on food. What advice do you give for teens fighting this battle?

AZ: They might read my memoir “Hungry: Lessons Learned on the Journey from Fat to Thin.” It’s the story of my journey with my own food issues.  But I can sum up the book in two words: Get help.

The eating problem was much more than I could deal with on my own.  I don’t mean to scare people, but if you have an eating disorder like I did, it gets worse over time.  Even if it gets better for a while, it gets worse again.  I wasted a lot of years trying to manage my condition through diet and exercise.  I thought I could control it if I only had more willpower, if I tried harder, if I tried different things, if I found the right diet.

It was a lie.  In my case, I had a serious food issue that was akin to a drug addiction with food.  If you know people with drug or alcohol addiction, maybe you know what works to arrest the disease.  I did something like that.  I admitted I couldn’t handle it on my own.  I got into a recovery community.  I got help on all fronts—emotional, spiritual, and physical.

You may not have a serious disorder like me, but if you’re struggling on any level, you don’t have to do it alone.

If I could go back and talk to the 15-year-old me, I’d say, “Tell someone you trust about what you’re doing with food and the feelings you’re having about yourself.  A counselor, a therapist, a doctor, a friend, someone in your religious community, even your parents. Don’t let it be a secret. Hope comes from sharing this with others.”

YARN: As a coach of one sort, what do you think about the coaching style of the Coach in “Food, Girls”?

AZ: His intentions were good, but his approach left much to be desired.

On YA and Other Reading:
YARN: What are your top five must read books for an aspiring writer?

AZ: I’m a terrible person to ask this question to because I don’t have a top five.  My answer: Just read.

I always read writers who moved me.  It’s probably no surprise that I ended up in YA because I was never interested in intellectual or formal experimentation, especially not for its own sake.  I was drawn to emotion, to writers who made me feel something.

I was inspired by different kinds of writers at different times in my life.  From my days in the theater, it was Shakespeare and Chekhov. In college, it was Raymond Carver, Harold Brodkey, a ton of poets. I read the “Norton Anthology of Poetry” like a bible. Back in high school it was Salinger, Hemingway, even Carson McCullers.  I have good taste and terrible taste at the same time.  Today I still read because I want to be moved.  When I find an author who can do that, I read that author. I’m not picky about whether it’s a “classic” or not.

That’s my advice.  Find writers who move you, then look more closely to understand how they’re doing it.  What are the mechanics behind it?

YARN: What writers, or novels, are you jealous of—you read their work and think, “why didn’t I write this”?

AZ: When it comes to YA, I always give the same answer: “The Higher Power of Lucky” by Susan Patron.  When I read Susan’s book, it took my breath away.  Simple, beautiful, funny, heartbreaking.  She tells the truth in an amazing and specific way.  That’s my idea of great writing. Here’s the cool thing: I got to meet Susan Patron and act like a fanboy!

YARN: Do you believe there is uncharted territory or any territory that has been trailed too much in YA?

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AZ: I’m going to go out on a limb and say we need more vampires and werewolves. And call me sentimental, but where are the mummies?  There are not enough mummies for my taste.  If you can fall in love with something covered in fur, why not something covered in bandages?

YARN: Thanks, Allen.  This was fun.  Good luck with the paperback release, and we’re looking forward to having you back on our pages in April.

Allen Zadoff grew up in Massachusetts, and by way of Tokyo and other cool places, came to settle in Los Angeles.  He is the author of the memoir “Hungry,” about his own journey from fat to thin.  His hilarious novel “Food, Girls…” is about Andrew Zansky, a fat teen whose idea of good time is Model UN, who is mysteriously taken under the wing of the BMOC.  It’s a funny but also moving take on the plight of one of high school’s once invisible men.  Allen is also a writing coach, helping all sorts of aspiring writers realize their dreams of completing stories and books.  Find out more about him here.

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