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An Interview with Author James Deem
James Deem is the author of
and other books (as listed in this bibliography).
by Juanita Havill
This article originally appeared in 2004, in a different form, in Children's Book Insider
Since 1984 James Deem has written seventeen books for young people, among them unique, kid-pleasing nonfiction books and insightful and critically acclaimed middle grade and YA novels, including 3 NBs of Julian Drew, which was re-released in spring 2004 under Houghton Mifflin's new YA Graphia imprint. Deem recently retired from his teaching position at a college in New York City and moved to Arizona with his family where he now writes full-time, maintains two web sites, and is the author of the first online serial mystery for middle grade readers ever to be published by a public library system.
On Writing Fiction and Nonfiction
JH: You have written nonfiction books as well as novels. How do you decide that your initial idea or material will become fiction or nonfiction?
DEEM: When I think of an idea for a book, I know immediately whether it will be fiction or nonfiction. I suppose that initial determination depends on whether I want to stick to the facts or rely on my imagination.
For example, when I get a nonfiction idea, I usually have come across some information that is so compelling I must share the entire truth of it with children. By information, I mean a true story that completely fascinates the child in me. That's what happened with Bodies from the Bog. I started reading about bog bodies and the facts about their lives, deaths, and discoveries; I was hooked. It never occurred to me to write a novel about bog bodies; I would have had to take too many liberties with (and too many guesses about) the material. Even now, I can't even imagine a plot that wouldn't be hackneyed. The true archaeological stories about bog bodies were meaty enough to sustain any young reader; plus they really furthered my cause of teaching kids about science and history.
With fiction, my ideas also tend to begin with a true story (or a small true event that eventually becomes part of a longer story), but my interest is not the facts of the story itself, but the feelings and emotions that the characters bring to the story and that the events of the story produce (both in the characters and the reader). My fiction is much more about emotion and tone than it is about plot.
My books about ghosts demonstrate what happens when I am inspired to write nonfiction and fiction. When I wrote the nonfiction How to Find A Ghost, I related experiences that real people had recorded in their diaries, letters, and reports. I found the stories in specialized libraries (in the United States and the United Kingdom) that collected these self-reported, first-person accounts. The ghosts they described were essentially predictable and fairly mundane (that is, they were very different from the dramatic and horrifying ghosts that have been portrayed in movies and novels); even though their ghost stories weren't particularly scary, there was nothing boring about them either. But when I wrote my novel The Very Real Ghost Book of Christina Rose, I was more interested in exploring Christina's emotions, in particular, her need to believe in and see ghosts, and I was willing to bend and alter the truth as presented in How to Find a Ghost to include somewhat more Hollywood-style ghosts, as long as they didn't interfere with Christina's emotional story.
JH: In classes and workshops I have heard the advice: "write what haunts you" and "maximize your research." You are successful at doing both. Do you make a conscious effort to use research material for more than one project? Or does the information you uncover for nonfiction have to set off a spark in your imagination in order for you to write fiction about it?
DEEM: I find that what I research for nonfiction ends up being very serviceable for my fiction, but I never plan it that way. I think my writing is simply a product of both my life and my research, and I do research what fascinates me. Since I have been allowed to publish much more nonfiction, I look upon my nonfiction research as a wonderful gift (paid for by publishers' advances) which has allowed me to nurture the fiction-writing side of me.
JH: You have written both a ghost story and a mystery. Aside from the obvious difference that a ghost must appear in a ghost story, what is the difference between the two genres?
DEEM: I don't see myself as an expert on writing mysteries or writing ghost stories. Although I enjoyed reading mysteries from the third grade on and although I tried to create my own real-life mysteries with friends (such as searching for a crashed UFO in the woods behind my neighborhood when I was in 5th grade), I never studied the technique of writing mysteries and wouldn't really be interested in doing so. Similarly, although I have read thousands of ghost stories and although I believe I once saw a ghost myself, I was never interested in learning how to write ghost stories.
When I eventually wanted to write a mystery novel or a novel with ghosts, I didn't approach either as an exercise in genre, but simply as a chance to tell a story. I know that I must have used certain conventions applicable to ghost stories or mystery stories, but they were never calculated; I just wrote the way I always write--by using my intuition and instinct. I guess you can compare this to how I type: I never learned to type in school; I just started typing on a typewriter without any instruction. After typing now for over 40 years, I still cannot tell you where the letters are on the keyboard, but my brain can tell my fingers where to find them without me being consciously aware.... It's the same way writing works for me.
JH: Are you consciously aware of the plot before you begin a novel, or do you discover it as you write? At what point do you know how the story will end?
DEEM: The best way to explain how I deal with plot is this: as a novelist, I am like a traveler who discovers himself in a strange and amazing land. As I become aware of my surroundings, I do have a very sketchy map (either on paper or in my head) and perhaps some directions from a local resident (i.e., a character) or two. At the outset, I usually know my destination (the final event or episode) and a few of the stops I want or need to make along the way. But as with all trips, I sometimes find other places to go and other people to meet, and the trip usually takes on a life of its own, one that I never could have pre-planned. Of course, when I do arrive at the final destination, I may well discover that I am not satisfied with this place and that there is a better haven, a little further down the road, where I prefer to end my trip. In short, fiction writing for me is always discovery, even though I may have some initial signposts and route markers in mind.
When I began to imagine my online novel The Mystery Club of Luna Drive, for example, I knew my three main characters and only two events: one that would begin the book and one that would take place "near the end" of the book. I couldn't have written an outline if I tried, because I had to take the trip to figure out where my ideas would lead. Since I had to write this book linearly (that is, one chapter had to be finished before I moved on to the next, and I was unable to revise any previous chapter), I had to rely on my instincts as a traveler (and writer). Right now, I am writing Chapter 9. I had no idea even two months ago what would be happening in this chapter, but it makes perfect sense now that I am involved in working my way through it. Of course, I still don't know what will happen in Chapter 10. Oh, but Chapter 11 (the penultimate chapter)! That's the chapter that contains that event that I foresaw at the beginning. I am excited to get there, even though once I begin work on it, I know that Chapter 11 may change from my vision. As for the Chapter 12, the last chapter, I have no idea how the book will end. Somehow, I trust that it will.
JH: Your description of plotting makes me think of a pilgrimage. Do you find the journey more rewarding than the destination?
DEEM: The journey is always hard work, even on those days of tremendous discovery. It's always much more pleasant to look back and see where I've come from. And that encourages me to go on and travel somewhere else.
JH: Do you have a focused idea of each character before you begin to write your novel, or do the characters surprise you along the way, as your plot does?
DEEM: I always have a pretty focused idea of the main characters, but they can still surprise me by how they react when they confront the plot. When a character walks into a new room, I don't always know how that character will respond--I think it's best that way, for when I try to predetermine a character's response, I usually end up with something less than satisfactory.
Sometimes I will unexpectedly be taken by a minor character (who was only supposed to make a brief appearance in one scene); then I will try to use the character in more scenes. This happened in The Mystery Club. Tía Rosa was such a scene stealer when she appeared in Chapter One (the only scene I had planned for her) that I had to invite her back for more scenes.
JH: You describe the process of writing your online mystery novel as linear. Is this different from the way you usually write novels?
DEEM: I have always written a novel rather haphazardly. If I wake up and feel like working on Chapter 7 (because it has a really good scene), then I work on Chapter 7--even if I haven't written a word of Chapter 6. In fact, I may well work on the ending, long before I tackle the middle. As I write, ideas will come to me that I then weave into previous chapters. And as I write, changes will occur that will cause me to alter (and often add) episodes in other chapters. If I can compare this to music, it's like starting out to write a trio and eventually adding more instruments so that the piece of music is turned into a symphony. By the time I get a first draft of a novel, I have spent a lot of time revising many of the chapters and weaving many threads. I don't worry about making mistakes, I just take the time that I need to make the book what I want it to be. That explains in part, why 3 NBs of Julian Drew took 27 years to write.
So in writing The Mystery Club of Luna Drive linearly, without benefit of more than one month's work on each chapter, I have had to adapt my much more laid-back style of writing. I have had to throw caution to the wind and write like hell, revise as much as I can within the 30-day time frame, and hope that I have avoided grammatical errors (for I am the only copy editor) and content errors (for I am the only editor) and web errors (for I am the only webmaster). It is a daunting task, and I am looking forward to the day when I can look back at the rewards of this journey.
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