Matt Blackstone's new MG, SORRY YOU'RE LOST, released January 21st, and I'm pleased that he's agreed to stop by the blog to discuss his latest book.
What was the inspiration for the story? As Manny would say, it seems it would have to be a matter of vital, flabbergasting importance. Was it based on personal experience of any kind?
No matter where I’ve taught—Baltimore, New York City, and Great Neck—students have suffered recent family loss. I wanted to write a book that would empower these young people—make them stronger, make them laugh, make them lighter. I wanted to do more. I wanted to reach a larger audience who would benefit from the story.
Are your students aware of your publications? How does being a writer influence your teaching?
They do know. Most of them think it’s pretty cool. Others wish I would invent a new iPhone instead of writing books. Being a writer certainly influences how much emphasis I put on revisions. And there’s nothing more that a student loves to do than revise. [Insert student eyerolling and teeth sucking.] It’s cool to show them manuscripts with all the edits on there, and to share with them that book writing is within their reach if they work at it. A ton of my students are WAY more advanced than I was at their age.
To some extent, humor gets in the way of Donuts dealing with his own grief. Did writing with so much humor ever get in the way of telling your story? Or did it help?
For me, it helped. Pacing the book with humor and grief was difficult, but it made for a better book. I think it’s natural for those grieving to crave distraction – in part, through movies and T.V. comedies – a point that I tried to make with Denny and his dad.
Your characters are incredibly spot-on. These really are authentic seventh grade boys. (I especially love Manny's candy-selling. We had a boy who sold Blow Pops after lunch. He racked it UP.) How do you build your characters? From observation? From memories of what it felt like to be that age?
Thanks. When I taught in New York City, there was a student named Hubert who sold candy in the hallways. Every day. And made a lot of money. I interviewed him on his techniques and gave him credit in the Acknowledgments page. I also had a student who used the word “flabbergasting” pretty much every day. I thanked him, too. Both kids, Hubert and Joseph, were instrumental in the book’s completion. I was also able to use some of my own middle school memories (Mr. Perfect, soccer practice, idolizing English teachers). More than anything, it helps being around teens all day long.
What was your path to publication? How'd you start writing? Did you always write in the juvenile market?
I started this draft four years ago. It was originally more of a YA novel, but I couldn’t get the voices right, couldn’t figure out the tone. It was a better fit in MG. My last novel, A SCARY SCENE IN A SCARY MOVIE, was YA. I loved writing for that age, and I certainly enjoyed this genre as well. I think it being a MG book allowed my characters to be goofier, which helped to juxtapose the grief throughout.
How does being a teacher influence your writing? Are you inspired first by your students or do your students help shape your spark of inspiration?
Both. I couldn’t do this without my students. They’re so generous to share their feedback, so excited to contribute to the whole process. Because I’m a teacher, I try to write books that will not only entertain kids, but help them.
Did you ever have a teacher who told you to leave your hormones in the hallway? Have you ever told your students that? Do you find yourself mimicking old teachers in real life or on the page?
That’s a great question. I’ve never had a teacher tell us to leave our hormones in the hallway. But I will say that tomorrow before students enter class. The freshman will think I’m serious and the juniors will think I’ve lost my mind. I do use teacher material in my work. For instance, there’s a teacher in our English department who writes “Life is Good” on every worksheet. I wondered, what would someone do if he/she disagreed with that sentiment? Especially if they had gone through a recent trauma. The “Life is Good” material became a refrain that I really enjoyed writing.
After Manny fires Donuts, the solution to missing money is clever. Without giving anything away, how do you feel this is part of Donuts's healing process?
My mom always taught me that helping others is the best way to help yourself.
Do you generally feel, as Mr. Morgan does, that life is good?
Today I do.
Where are you now with your writing? Can you share any new projects with us?
Not yet, but I’ll be sure to update you with news.
Matt has also graciously agreed to give one lucky winner a galley of SORRY YOU'RE LOST and a finished copy of his previous release, A SCARY SCENE IN A SCARY MOVIE! The Giveaway runs through February 14, and is open to US and Canadian Residents only.