Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Meet James Riley

   Although James Riley now makes his home in Los Angeles, California, he was born in Connecticut and lived in several different states growing up. The third of four children, Riley spent most of his life in the Midwest. The family took many car trips, both in moving between states and during cross-country driving vacations, and these provided many opportunities for Riley to develop a love of reading.
   After graduating from high school, James went to Georgetown University. Although he initially intended to study Foreign Service, it wasn't long before he settled on English. After a brief stint at a law firm, James worked at AOL. Today, he works in production for Disney's online services.
   James gained recognition as a writer with his first novel, written for children and young adults. Half Upon a Time was selected as an NCTE Notable Children's Book in the Language Arts (2011) and has been recognized for excellence by the Missouri School Library Association, which named it as a finalist for the Mark Twain award (2012-2013).
   James fell into writing for children when going through some old school papers. A written remark from a 3rd grade teacher that his parents should "encourage [him] to write more often, that [he] liked to do it, and it might develop into something," gave him the push he needed to turn his love of writing into an effort to be a published author.
   James' most recent book, Twice Upon a Time, is a sequel to Half Upon a Time. The third and final, as-yet-untitled book in the series is expected to be released in the summer of 2013.
   For more about James Riley, visit his website or read the transcript of a conversation with James below.

Contributor: Heidi Hauser Green

A Conversation with James Riley, author of Twice Upon a Time

Q: Moving around as a child sounds adventurous. Is there a kernel of that in your writing?
JR: "Life of adventure" makes Iowa sound a bit more exciting than it might actually be. I wasn't what you'd call an adventurous kid otherwise. No broken bones to this day. So I guess people can view that as a challenge? But living that sort of life certainly felt attractive, and I did fall into reading a lot of fantasy books as a kid. Especially anything to do with magic, which I loved. I'd make up magic tricks for my parents on the fly...spoiler alert: that is not how to make up magic tricks.
The kool-aid won't always disappear just because you want it to.

Q: Why do you write for children?
JR: I think there's a barrier in adult fiction that requires a larger suspension of disbelief than normal. Adults as a whole have a harder time just believing something fantastic or ridiculous. We can't help it; we tend to grow out of those things a bit.
But by my nature of being ridiculous, it felt like maybe writing for kids might be a fun choice. I have such a love for my favorite childhood authors that it felt like trying to join a club with all of my favorite people already inside. Though it took a lot of knocking!
But I write a story that I'd want to read, hopefully both if I were a child and now, as an adult.

Q: Speaking of favorite children's authors, who were (are) some of your favorites?
JR: Some of these might be obscure. Alfred Slote was the first author I ever met in person as a kid, and I loved his "My Robot Buddy" books. J.D. Fitzgerald and the "Great Brain" series...that's still one of my all-time favorites. Fantasy-wise, Taren Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander is something I wish I could write.
I also had a small, tiny interest in fairy tales. Ruth Manning-Sanders put out a whole series of fairy tales from all over the world called The Book of ____, as in The Book of Witches, The Book of Princes, etc. I wore out a bunch of those from the library!

Q: Do you think your work with Disney has influenced your writing at all? How?
JR: My work with Disney hasn't, but my love for all things Disney certainly has. I always had a love for classic Disney cartoons while growing up (and I know I'm probably the only kid to ever like them). I also read a lot of comics as a kid, and found Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck stories that way, which were some of the most adventurous and funny things I've read to this day.
From there, I dove into the classic animated movies, and read about Walt and his animators, bugged my parents to go to Disney World repeatedly until they'd just throw up their hands in the air and take us just to quiet me down...anything Disney.
Disney certainly brought fairy tales into the mainstream consciousness, and I tried to use that, both because you can say "Cinderella" and people instantly think of the movie and because it gave me the chance to twist expectations, if everyone had the same foundation of "story."

Q: With the many high-action and swashbuckling scenes, these books seem ripe for the big screen. Do you ever find yourself thinking of them like "movies" when you write?
JR: I think growing up with movies so readily available for repeat viewings on tape or DVD makes it hard not to see things cinematically in some ways. It's both a blessing and a curse, since books are inherently different than movies, so require a different way of looking at things. But I think a film-like book might have an easier time connecting with kids who might not enjoy reading yet, too.
Or maybe I just say that because my descriptive writing is secondary to my dialogue, for better or worse.
I do play scenes out in my head, often to music, as if I were watching them in a movie theater!

Q: What is your writing process?
JR: With the third "Half" book coming out about a year from now, and starting a new series after that, I've been thinking about this. Basically, I have far too many ideas to ever use, which seems bad for the environment or something, like I'm leaving a faucet on.
So when I do find an idea I like, I try to flesh it out a bit, see if it's more than just "Wouldn't it be fun if …?" That pares things down even more, and I generally start plotting things out a bit. Plots never stay the same from that initial point, but I like having a map of where I want to go from the beginning, if only so I know when I get lost and can either push myself back on track or embrace it. (Usually embrace it; you find a lot of weird things off the map.)
So my first draft is always just littered with notes of things I think of as I go, and just write down to make sure I remember as I go back for a second one. I never stop on that first draft, because it's so easy to never stop editing when you start, so I just continue to the end and get a story out...then I go back and fix/change/delete entirely.
I usually write "whenever I can." That's almost always at night after work, which makes it hard sometimes. I give myself a goal of five new pages every night, and whenever I meet that, I consider the day a success, whether or not the pages work for me. They can always be changed/deleted/fixed/deleted/deleted.

Q: What are the particular challenges of writing a series?
JR: I like cliffhangers...like I said, I grew up reading comic books and just naturally think everything should end on a cliffhanger. I can see how that is not ideal for a lot of other readers, though. But more important than that to me is setting up the entire series in the first book. I prefer series where you can tell there's been a plan from the start. There are exceptions, but for the most part, when an author can foreshadow an event in the last book within the first book, I just feel like I can give that author my trust and have it be rewarded.
So I definitely wanted to plan out the entire series before I started writing the first book. And for that reason, there are all kinds of things I set up inHalf Upon a Time that won't play out until the end. I think most readers call them "loose ends."

Q: Can you tell me more about your next series?
JR: There's certainly nothing certain about it yet, but if things go well, it'll be the story of a 12-year-old girl who is a criminal genius and is sent to a boarding school for bad kids that's being terrorized by the Snitch, a fellow classmate (and fellow genius) who has a Sherlock Holmes-ian talent for knowing when a rule-breaking is about to take place.
So, generally, it'll be about wanting to be good when sometimes all you know is how to be bad.

Q: Can you see a similar sort of succinct message in the "Half" series?
JR: It's a cliché, but ultimately I see the point as "Just Be Yourself." Jack's both fighting against and trying so hard to be the classic hero that he's missing what makes him him. He's not a classic hero...he's a trickster archetype. And he's been having so much trouble [in books 1 and 2] because he's not embracing his true self, in a lot of ways.

Q: Along with that, how would you describe Jack's personality? And Phillip's?
JR: Probably much too much of me! Jack, to me, is the kid who doesn't know what he wants out of life yet, so assumes that he's just "wrong" somehow because the normal expectations of everyone else just don't work out for him. There will be a new "test" for him at the beginning of book 3 that mirrors the one he took at the beginning of book 1 that he'll be doing much better at, just to give a bit of a hint.
Jack characters have always been very clever, but fairly generic, so readers (or listeners) could put themselves into the character. So generally I wanted to keep him as much an "everyman" as I could, in some ways, with just a lot of me thrown in.
Now Phillip...I love Phillip, honestly, though a lot of reader's don't! To me, he's exactly every Disney prince ever, just trying to do the right thing, though he is shirking some princely responsibilities to be out on these quests. That may be coming back to haunt him in book 3.
We'll see some scenes from Phillip's perspective too--like we did from May's in book 2--that might help give us a little more insight into who Phillip is.

Q: You've already touched on this, but how do you write stories that connect with young readers?
JR: Assuming I do that (which might be a big assumption!), I think it's about remembering yourself as a child, and how you always felt older than you were. I'd definitely prefer to talk up to readers, if that's a phrase, than ever to talk down to them. I think kids will rise to a challenge, and hopefully have fun doing so.
I also think that the more you examine yourself, and the questions you had at that age, the more you can hopefully create something that tries to answer those questions for kids wondering the same thing. Even with pirate monkeys wandering around in it.

Q: What book(s) are you reading now?
JR: This will sound like a plug, because both are edited by my editor, Liesa Abrams, but I've got Unwanteds and Merits of Mischief on my shelf to read next. I also just finished The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, which I loved unconditionally, like a puppy.

Q: Do you have anything specific you want to say to your readers?
JR: A huge thank you for picking up the book(s) in this series in the first place, and an ever bigger one if you liked it! It's still hard for me to understand that I have two books now on bookshelves in stores, so it's an ever bigger leap to realize people are reading words I wrote. Someday that should sink in, but for now, it's still an amazing surprise whenever someone tells me they even picked it up. So thanks to everyone!