Keen Readers Interview

The following is taken from an interview of me by Keen Readers (www.keenreaders.org). Keen Readers is an information hub for parents and mentors of reluctant readers.  They also support and donate books to reading buddy programs and offer features and writing contests for youth.

–Bill

Q. How keen a reader were you as a child?

A. I was about as far from a keen reader as a kid can get. Back then they didn’t diagnose children with ADHD, but if I’d grown up in today’s world, they’d have slapped a label on me and drugged me up with about an elephant’s gun worth of meds for sure. I couldn’t become lost in a story because I couldn’t concentrate. Well, that’s not exactly true. I got lost in books all the time. If the author was good enough to place a picture in my head, I’d be more likely to run with it than to keep reading. My eyes would continue to scan the pages, but then I’d reach the end of a chapter and realize the story I’d been reading wasn’t actually written down. Then I’d have to go back and search for the last thing I remembered from the actual story, most likely a paragraph or two farther along than the last time I dropped focus, and try concentrating again. I’d work my way through books in this manner, scanning the same pages dozens of times without actually reading them, until I eventually reached the end.

Q. What were your favorite books growing up?

A. I remember liking The Adventures of Tom Sawyer a lot, but it probably took me so long to read that I never bothered to check out Huckleberry Finn. The Hardy Boys books were easier because they weren’t as long, but frankly, mysteries are not the best venue for someone who can’t focus.

Q. What made you a keen reader (or are you)?

A. First off, while I’m still not the keen reader I’d like to be, I’m a lot better than I was as a kid. The sad part is I know this is only because my mind has slowed down. Now when it wanders, I can wrangle it back again before it has time to get too far off course. But back to the question: In college, I had way too much class work to add reading for enjoyment. Then after college I became involved in work and read very few books for pleasure until age twenty-five, when I read the entire Hitchhiker’s Guide series while on vacation, the first funny books (not by Dr. Seuss) I ever remember reading. Four years later I met Nancy, the woman who later became my wife. She was the definitive keen reader. She owned thousands of books, and I spent the next few years looking through her collection for more humorous authors. I remember reading a lot of Piers Anthony, Robert Asprin and Terry Pratchett and loving them all.

Q. When did you decide you wanted to write books?

A. Oddly, I had never thought about writing until I met Nancy, even though I had a first cousin, Raymond Feist, who was a huge success as an author. Nancy wanted to write a book but didn’t know how to start, and since I had no idea what I was talking about, I told her it was easy, just start. To show her how easy it was, I sat down and wrote a first chapter, and then since I was anxious to see where the story was going, I wrote more chapters, and more, until I reached the end. The finished book, which I now refer to as The Book That Shall Never Be Named, was gibberish, but I didn’t know this, so I proudly showed it to my cousin Ray, who told me it was gibberish (not his words. He’s far too eloquent a writer for that.) Ray did like my imagination, though—you don’t spend your whole childhood wandering away from the storyline without developing something—and said he thought I could make it as an author if I’d learn the craft. So, after a couple of decades of learning the craft, I’m trying to prove him right. Don’t let the two decades discourage you. I’m sure I could have learned quicker if I knew how to focus.

Q. How did your professional experiences affect how you think about reading and writing?

A. My first job out of school was as a field engineer, always on the road, doing little jobs for some plant in the middle of nowhere, writing a report about what I did, and then heading off to the other side of nowhere. My reports were so complete and so clearly written that our customers were always raving about them, mostly because up until then they had received little more than scribbles on a dirty napkin. But writing fiction is a lot tougher. There was, and still is, much to learn. Anyone serious about writing has to make the effort to learn how. One thing I heard over and over again was that the three most important things an author must do is read, read, read. I knew I was in trouble. But I was serious about being an author, so I started reading everything I could. My engineering background fit in naturally because it has me analyzing everything I read. What worked? What didn’t? What made me laugh? What about it made me laugh? How was it worded? I think this is probably the reason a reviewer recently said that my voice, whether intentionally or not, often sounded like Terry Pratchett’s. I can’t think of a better compliment.

Q. What’s your best advice to parents of teens and pre-teens who want to encourage their kids to read?

A. Find out what your kids enjoy and let them read about it. I used to love motorcycles when I was a boy and ended up subscribing to three different motorcycle magazines. I would read those issues cover to cover, even the ads, and wish for more. Don’t know where your kid’s interests lie? Not everyone is the same, but I think for most kids humor is a great place to start. If you can keep them chuckling, they’ll keep reading. I market my books to “kids age 9 to 90,” but mostly I’m targeting those hard-to-reach boy readers who have the same issues I had as a child. A lot of middle-grade authors manage that (quite well) by using “gross” boy humor. I use a more “cerebral” approach, making up some absurd situation and throwing in a lot of puns and word play that forces the reader to focus on what they’re reading so they don’t miss out on a joke. It doesn’t matter which route you go. Choose the one that keeps your kids turning pages.

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