Jack Ferraiolo Interview
In November, I was able to meet Jack Ferraiolo at a book signing with Tom Angleberger and Michael Buckley at Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville. We ate fabulous Lou Malnati's pizza before the book signing and I got to chat with Jack about his books, book banning, his family, his writing, his writing for Word Girl, my writing, and lots of other nonsensical stuff. There was never a dull moment sitting next to this hysterical guy who is full of humor and wit but can also talk seriously and candidly about writing. Writing questions for this interview was so much fun and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as we enjoyed working with Jack. You can read Jen's review of Sidekicks and we hope you grab a copy to read and find our for yourself how awesome it is.
TMT: As I’ve been brainstorming questions for this interview, I’ve been thinking about superpowers! Your main characters in Sidekicks are superheroes and Word Girl and Captain Huggy Face, as superheroes, encounter many villians. Have you been a fan of superheroes since you were young? Did any reading you did when you were young influence your love of superheroes?
Jack Ferraiolo: I’ve been a fan of superheroes since I’ve been alive and conscious. I used to LOVE the Adam West Batman, and could never understand why people laughed at it (“Batman and Robin are in MORTAL DANGER!! WHY ARE YOU LAUGHING?!?”) I also LOVED the Superfriends Saturday morning cartoon, even though that show made my favorite superhero (Batman) little more than a babysitter for the Wonder Twins (later, I found out it was because they couldn’t show any of the characters hitting each other…and a Batman that can’t punch is a pretty limp Batman). I also read a ton of comic books…In fact, I’m pretty sure the first thing I ever read was a “Double Danger at the Daily Bugle!” a Spiderman/Daredevil comic book (where they teamed up against Electro and Blizzard…) One of the first books I got as a present was a big Batman compendium. My parents were so sick of it being the only book I was interested in taking out of the library (and dealing with my tantrum/depression when it was already taken out) that they finally just broke down and bought it for me.
I read comics throughout my childhood… Then, when I was about 13, I read Born Again and The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, and The Watchmen by Alan Moore… And wow…talk about a light going on in my head. Sure there was violence and swearing and other unsavory things going on (which I had never seen in a comic book context before), but what affected me the most was the way those stories took the hero/villain conventions, broke them down, and really questioned them. What is a hero? Or a villain? And what happens when the motivations for each start to seem very similar? Can you really tell them apart?
If I could have a superpower, it would be to teleport. I would love it if I could come home from work, teleport myself to the beach for a few hours, in Hawaii no less, and then come home. What superpower would you choose to have?
I would definitely choose the ability to pause time for thirty to forty-five minutes… That’s not enough to disrupt the whole space-time continuum, but enough to get in a few levels of Arkham City without being interrupted every five seconds… On a different note, I’ve noticed that my idea of an awesome superhero power has changed drastically since I was a kid. Then, I was all like “I want super speed! And strength! And I’d like to fly!!!” Now, I’m like “I want 30 minutes of peace and quiet.” My second choice for a superpower was to be able to get out of bed without my feet hurting, but that was way too sad…
I love to tell people that besides writing novels, you also created and write for Word Girl! And you are the voice of the Butcher! It seems like writing for the show might be a more collaborative effort. How is your writing experience different whether you are writing for a television show or for your novels? Do you think about what the audience will be seeing the character do? Do you have to write that into your script? (Your writing for Word Girl is completely fascinating to me...)
In a lot of ways, the writing process is similar. Eventually, it’s about me sitting down at the same time every day, banging the keys on my computer, and constantly reminding myself that I have to at least pretend like I know what I’m doing. Scriptwriting is a lot less intimidating, especially when you get to the revision process. A script is so airy…full of white space… If you change something on page four, there are only 18-20 pages after that to go through and keep consistent. Change something on page four of a book, however, and you really feel the weight of those big hunks of prose that come after.
It’s funny, because whether I’m writing a book or a script, I always try to picture what the audience will be seeing. It’s just that in a script, I don’t have to describe it as much. The directors and animators that I’ve worked with have been amazing…all I’ve had to do was describe something minimally, then watch as they take it in awesome new directions. There was a learning curve there when I started writing books… “You mean, I have to describe EVERYTHING that happens? Seriously?”
Word Girl has so many unique characters. (Nocan is my favorite! And Huggy, he’s cute.) Do you have any tips for young writers about using dialogue in their writing? Maybe about how you are able to portray a character and his or her personality through the use of dialogue only.
One of the greatest projects I did in college was for a sociology class. The professor made us record a family conversation (had to be with four or more people present). Then we had to transcribe the conversation and analyze it. We noted the amount of times people introduced different subjects, which subjects introduced by which people were picked up by the group for further discussion (and which were left to “die on the vine”), how many times people were cut off mid-sentence, etc… Just the normal rhythms of conversation that we take for granted, but when studied, really reveal the dynamics of the group and the different personalities involved. Each individual had their own verbal tics that revealed both their subconscious image of themselves within the group dynamic, and how they felt about the others they were talking to.
What I learned is that how a character speaks is as much an indication of that character’s self-image, status, personality, etc. as what that character is saying. And how when we’re in a conversation with someone, we often filter a lot of those tics out (have you ever counted how many times you or someone you’re talking with finishes a sentence with “You know?”), but the rhythm of that conversation will take on the dynamic of the relationship between the people conversing. So my advice? Record conversations (let the people involved know you’re recording it, for god’s sake!)…or if you’re involved in a conversation with a lot of people, just sit back and listen for awhile…and really try to be conscious of the rhythms of the conversation that you usually take for granted. Listen to the pauses…the things people say or do to fill the awkward spaces in the conversation…who tries to dominate the conversation…who tries to challenge that “dominator,” and who just gives in…
Sidekicks has such a great boy appeal right from the beginning, but it also has a sort of star-crossed lovers storyline that I really think would also appeal to girls. Where did you get the idea for Sidekicks?
Well, in the late sixties through to the seventies, DC decided to start aging Robin up…but they never changed his costume. So, they have this college-aged guy, wearing the smallest green jockey shorts in the world, flying around kicking and punching people. Even as a ten year old, I knew that couldn’t have been comfortable for anyone involved.
That idea stuck with me, and after I wrote The Big Splash, I started thinking of new ideas for books…and this idea of chronicling the moment when a superhero sidekick realizes that he’s outgrown his identity (and his costume) kept coming back to me. It seemed the perfect way to describe some moments that I experienced in middle school…those days when you have the sudden, painful realization that some of the things you used to enjoy (as a “younger” kid) were no longer “age appropriate.” Adjusting to that new reality was hard, especially if you didn’t realize you were doing something “wrong” or “babyish” until you were in school, surrounded peers who had figured out the reality way before you. Prepare to get a new nickname.
As for the romance aspect of it, that age was raw in a lot of bad ways…but it was really, really exciting in others. I’d feel these strong crushes, these instant connections to girls I had just met. And feeling that was heartbreaking, but exhilarating. That sense of unrequited “love,” the longing for something just out of reach…there’s something sweet about that. I wanted to capture that…the fact that humiliation was very real and could be had on a grand scale…but so was the ability to find a strong emotional connection to someone, and how the obstacles inherent in getting to know someone could intensify those emotions…
When I (Jen) met you, you talked about your first experience with a school deciding to un-invite you from speaking to their students because of the content of your book. Can you talk about what that felt like as an author? Do you have anything to say in response to people who want to ban your book, Sidekicks, or books in general?
It felt lousy. Look, as an author, you have to come to terms with the fact that not everyone is going to derive the meaning from your work that you intended. You can only hope that many more people will get what you were going for than not. What was frustrating to me was this belief that what I was doing in the first half of Sidekicks was only for cheap laughs, so that I could squeeze in as many inappropriate jokes as I possibly could. I felt like people who read it like that were missing what I was going for. I can go on for pages on this (and I may have to write a sprawling blog post to further elaborate), but I’ll try to be brief (and hopefully not sound too defensive). Here’s the thing about boys and inappropriate, inopportune, and completely uncontrollable reactions in the nethers…as a teen, you knew it was going to happen. The only thing you could hope was that when it did, you had a means of either hiding it or deflecting attention away from it. But that was the least of your problems. The biggest concern (at least for me) was that people were going to think that I was some kind of pervert…that whatever I was doing at the moment of the “reaction,” no matter how innocent, was somehow motivated by sex…if I couldn’t control my own body, what else couldn’t I control? WHAT WAS YOUR MOTIVATION YOUNG MAN?!?
And that dovetails with what people think about superheroes. In the comics there are only a couple of acceptable motivations for someone to go out and perform some costumed, vigilante justice. You could either be a thrill seeker, a do-gooder, or someone out for vengeance. There have been some experiments with having heroes looking to make some money, but they’ve been few and far between. The one motivation that has been pretty verboten is sexual, and with good reason. It’d be icky and creepy to find out that the person who came to your rescue was doing it just to get a little “satisfaction”…especially if that someone were wearing a costume. Very few people want to be an unwitting participant in some anonymous person’s fantasy. Yuck.
When we meet Scott, he’s struggling with something that all kids his age struggle with…why does he do what he does? What are his motivations for the way he acts? What is his IDENTITY? What happens when you’re pretty sure your motivations are altruistic, but your body betrays you, and puts those motivations in doubt (for you and the public at large)? That’s why the public freaks out a bit (Janet Jackson at the Super Bowl, anyone?), his classmates are merciless (because they’re wrestling with the same issue, and are reaaalllly uncomfortable about it), and his archenemy uses it as ammo (anything to win). It isn’t until he meets someone (a girl, no less) willing to goof on him about it, but still talk to him (without running away screaming), that he realizes that what happened wasn’t a statement about his moral character. His personality is more convincing evidence that he’s a good person than the “reaction.” The book is about normalizing that reaction…it happens, sure…but you as a person don’t have to be defined by that (regardless of whether other people want to define you like that). You get to define yourself, by your own parameters.
The Quick Fix, the sequel to your first novel, The Big Splash, will be out in September. Can you tell us a little bit about the series and The Quick Fix?
Sure! In The Big Splash, Matt Stevens is smart, witty, and tough as a steak from the school cafeteria. He's a middle school Philip Marlowe, and he just did something he said he'd never do: he accepted a job from Vinny "Biggs".
Vincent Biggio is a pre-teen Al Capone. Vinny's got his chubby little fingers in a lot of illegal pies baked at Franklin Junior High: extortion, racketeering, black market sales of stolen exams. Matt trusts Vinny like a deer trusts a guy in an orange vest, but Vinny just made him an offer that was hard to refuse: twenty bucks to return a good luck charm Vinny had lent out long ago. The problem? The girl he lent it to is Nicole Finnegan, a.k.a. Nikki Fingers, the most feared squirt gun assassin at Franklin Junior High.
Life at Franklin is tough, like trying to play the piano in oven mitts. Get on the wrong side of Vinny Biggs and you'll find yourself in "the Outs," the least popular "club" in school. How'd you get there? Water, apple juice, cat pee. anything liquid, strategically splattered below your belt for maximum humiliation.
While Matt is negotiating the return of Vinny's good luck charm, someone puts Nikki in "the Outs". Matt has to juggle two clients (Vinny Biggs and Jenny Finnegan, Nikki's younger sister) as he tries to find the trigger kid. Was it Joey Renoni, the hit kid with a high-pitched giggle and a hair trigger? Was it Kevin Carling, Vinny's right-hand man, and the boyfriend that Nikki left behind when she quit the life? Or was it some other kid with soda-induced courage and a big beef against Nikki? Matt's got to watch his back, and especially his front, as he works a case that's harder to navigate than the streets of downtown Boston.
In the Quick Fix, Matt is hired by a cheerleader (Melissa Scott) to find out why her boyfriend (Will Atkins, captain of the basketball team and all-around school hero) is acting strangely. While Matt is investigating, Melissa is put in the Outs, and a valuable object that Will gave her to hold is stolen. When every shady character in the Frank (especially Vinny Biggs) is hot to get their hands on that object, Matt realizes that this case was a lot more than he expected…and may be his last…
At Teach Mentor Texts, we are all about promoting literacy and spreading the love of books. How do you finish the statement: Writing is...?
…more fun than being eaten by wasps*! (*sometimes)
What about: Reading is...?
…what you just finished doing. And now you’re doing it again! And again! And—ah…you get the point…
Thank you again to Jack for celebrating our blogiversary with us!