Interview with Jon Skovron

Full-time tech writer and dad by day, awarding winning YA novelist by night, Jon Skovron took time out of his crazy schedule this week to visit with me about his craft, his favorite books and a particular half-demon girl who attends Catholic-school.

How and why did you become a writer?


I started writing in junior high, mostly just knock offs of books I liked. I started getting more serious about it in high school, but for some reason, it never occurred to me that I could actually be a writer. It was just something I did when I wasn’t doing theater or music. I went on to get an acting degree from Carnegie Mellon and promptly decided that the last thing I wanted to be was a professional actor (it’s a long story that involves Paramount Studios and an avant-garde production of Merchant of Venice set in a warehouse in Pittsburgh). At the time that everything was coming apart on me, I was reading The World According to Garp by John Irving, and with the arrogance that only someone in their early twenties possesses, I thought to myself, "Hey, I could do this!". And a mere ten years later, Struts & Frets was published.


What is your writing process (do you have beta readers? Work with a writing group? etc…)


I tend to follow the Stephen King school of thought. The first draft, which is generally terrible, nobody sees but me. And I mean nobody. It sucks and that’s exactly what rough drafts are supposed to do. I put it away for a month and work on something else. Then I come back and take a harder look at the mess I’ve made. I do this a few times, and then once I’m getting to that point where I’m beginning to lose perspective on the work, I ask a few beta readers to take a look at it. I’ll incorporate their comments and polish it up a bit more. Finally, I’ll have my agent take a look at it. Often I’ll also send it to someone who doesn’t particularly care for the genre to see how much it crosses over. When all that is done, it’s time to have my agent send it off to my editor. That’s always exciting because my editor generally has something brilliant to say that clarifies some nagging problem I’ve been struggling with. She’s good like that.



What inspires you as a writer?


Everything inspires me. Everything I do feeds into it. Books, movies, music, visual art, of course. People I meet, old friends, strange encounters. Even the worst things that happen are grist for the mill. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in some terrible or tragic situation and in the back of my head, thought, "Well, at least this will make me a better writer…". Richard Price said that a writer has to be constantly falling in love with life, and that is pretty true for me. Even when I’m miserable, I’m in love with it.


Wait, does that make me co-dependant with life?


Like many of us, you have another job other than writing. When do you find time to write?


I used to be super hardcore about managing my time. When you have little kids and a day job, leisure time is more or less nonexistent. I literally cut out anything that didn’t directly relate to my day job, my family, or my writing. No tv, no games, no movies, I barely even read books unless they were research for something I was writing. I think sometimes you have to do it that way. But as I discovered, it’s not something you can really sustain over a long period of time. If you don’t temper it some, if you don’t take care of the rest of you, the writing well starts going dry. So now I try to be more balanced.


Another part of finding time to write is not making it so precious. Instead of taking all this time to cultivate the mood, light candles, listen to music, or whatever, just sit down and write. If you have ten minutes, use it. You’d be amazed how much you can get done in ten minutes if you just get out of your own way.


What are some of your favorite books and why?

Man, that’s tough. There are so many. But for fun, let me list books that have been sort of sign posts in my life.


There were a few books I picked up as a teen (they didn’t have YA back then) that started me down this road of reading/writing. It is the wonder and play that these books inspired that is always at the center of what I do:


The Belgriad by David Eddings

Interview with a Vampire by Anne Rice

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams


Then I went through my "serious" phase in college, which I like to think gave my writing intellectual depth (hahahahah):


The Stranger by Albert Camus

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett


After college, I (re)discovered two important things.


Books with heart:


The World According to Garp by John Irving

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon


Books with magic:

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

The Scar by China Mieville

Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link


And more recently, I discovered the joy, daring, and lack of pretension in YA:


Valiant by Holly Black

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin

Goddless by Pete Hautman

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow


I guess if you mash all that up into one big ball, that could define my writing.



What advice would you give to writers who are just starting out?


You may have to write several bad books before you write a good one. Don’t panic. That’s normal. The bad books will teach you a lot if you just pay attention. Persistence in the face of constant rejection is the difference between those who get published and those who don’t. 


You mentioned on your blog you have a new book coming out. Do you have any details about your new project you can share?


Yes! The new book is called Misfit. It’s about a sarcastic yet lovable half-demon girl in Catholic School. It’s a much bigger, much darker book than Struts & Frets, but it still has my same humor and spirit. But, you know, with monsters and stuff. It comes out Fall of 2011.


Do you have any appearances or events coming up?

I’m going to be at PAYA www.bringya2pa.com on August 21st. It’s an event in West Chester (just outside Philly) to help raise money for Pennsylvania libraries. I’ll be talking about writing and doing a workshop in the morning and signing in the afternoon. There will be a ton of writers there, including my buddies Josh Berk, Cyn Balog, Amy White, and Jenn Hubbard.


You can learn more about Jon on his blog at http://www.jonskovron.com and by his books online or at your favorite indie bookstore.



Interview with Greg Leitich Smith


Attorney by day, author by night, Greg Leitich Smith is a special brand of Texan super-hero. Recently Greg took a minute to visit about what enticed him to make Texas his home, how he became an award-winning author and what new projects the Austin-based Superman is working on now.


How did you end up in Texas?


I grew up in Chicago and I came to Texas for the first time for graduate school, when I got my master’s degree in electrical engineering at UT. I really enjoyed the culture (and weather) in Austin, but I moved back north for law school and then eventually took a job at a firm in Chicago. After suffering through the second worst blizzard in Chicago history (and also having experienced most of the others in the top ten), my wife, Cynthia, and I decided we’d had enough, and made the move down to Austin.


Please describe your road to publication.


I think for every children’s author, it starts when you’re a child, and with falling in love with reading and writing. When I was very little, my parents would read to my brother and me. Throughout my childhood, we would make very regular trips to the local library, coming back home with shopping bags filled with books. Somewhere along the line, it occurred to me that it might, someday, be kind of cool to write one of these. While I kept that idea in my head, I also liked math and science, and eventually went on to get degrees in engineering and law.


More immediately, of course, Cynthia started writing before I did. And the first thing she did was to read children’s books. One of our author friends had told her that in order to write in a genre, you should read at least 100 books in that genre. Cynthia was taking it seriously, bringing home tons of picture books, middle grade novels, and YA novels from the store and library. We would both read them, and had the pleasure of experiencing for the first time in a long time the richness of children’s literature.


By the time Cynthia had sold her first novel, RAIN IS NOT MY INDIAN NAME, I had decided to try my hand at it, as well. I came up with the idea of doing the Galileo story, set in middle school and as a comedy (this eventually became NINJAS, PIRANHAS, AND GALILEO). I presented the first two pages of the manuscript to an editor at a conference, where they were well-received; although that editor didn’t end up buying the manuscript (she did have some excellent editorial suggestions). I received a couple more editorial rejections, and did some revisions, and eventually Cynthia told me I should send the manuscript to her agent, Ginger Knowlton. I’m almost positive Ginger viewed the prospect of reading a client’s spouse’s work with trepidation, but she read the manuscript and offered representation. The first editor at the first house (Little, Brown) she sent it to bought it.


You have published both middle grade novels and picture books. How do you approach writing to different formats and age groups?


A picture book is easier than a novel, but it does require that you puzzle out a concept and a story arc, determine if there are enough illustratable images, and then, of course, make the language sing. It has the virtue of being short, typically having only a single plot point, so it’s easier to hold all this in your head at one time. A novel, though, requires the interweaving of multiple story lines and character arcs over a much larger number of pages. Logistically, it’s harder to keep track of. Also, the fact that it is a large number of pages means it takes significantly longer to get a first draft or any kind of draft done.


With our joint picture book manuscripts, Cynthia and I have typically come up with an idea and then hammered out a draft in the course of an afternoon (Of course, revision takes considerably longer, and we go through many, many drafts before we decide it’s “right.”).


With a novel, it usually takes at least a couple months for a really bad first draft, and that doesn’t include pre-writing (i.e., research, character-building exercises, outlines if any, etc.). And then revisions take as long as necessary, sometimes to the point where almost nothing remains of the first draft.


How has your creative process changed through your career?


Early on, I would have an idea with a vague notion of the arc and how it would end, and then just sort of muddle through a draft until I had something novel-length.


For my more recent projects, I’ve tried to produce something resembling a loose outline. Basically, I use a spreadsheet and make some notes in each “cell” about what happens in each chapter or scene and then follow it in the first draft. I try not to stay completely wedded to it, though, and am willing to deviate if something more interesting/funny, etc., comes to me.


It’s still fairly organic, though: I’ll have a couple “proto-first drafts” (say, fifty to seventy-five pages) before I get to a full, novel-length first draft that I can then work on until the final draft.


What were your favorite books as a young reader?


The first ones that come to mind are SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON and THE LORD OF THE RINGS. I loved the whole idea in SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON of surviving without modern amenities (by which I mean electricity and indoor plumbing, not Wi-Fi!). THE LORD OF THE RINGS appealed to me for its sublime world-building and its themes of good vs. evil, temptation, duty, honor, and rollicking adventure.


For more recent books and authors, I recommend many on my blog: http://www.greglsblog.blogspot.com/


What project are you working on right now?


I’m hoping to be able to make an announcement on a middle grade/tween science fiction/fantasy novel soon. Beyond that, I have been working on a YA set on a ranch here in Texas for a while now, and I think it’s finally starting to come together.


You can read more about Greg and his books on his web site http://www.gregleitichsmith.com. His novels and picture books are available at your favorite local or online bookstore.

This interview also appeared in the August 2010 version of the Houston Banner.