Welcome to my book blog. For this Q & A, please welcome the talented author Chris Tebbetts. You may know him from his multiple collaborations with James Patterson in the wildly successful Middle School series. He just published a new YA book, Me, Myself & Him with Delacorte Press. He explains his journey below.
Can you describe the journey to publication for this book?
What a long, strange trip it’s been! My first dip into this story started as a short creative nonfiction essay, about the night I broke my nose after passing out huffing whippets behind the ice cream store where I worked in high school. I had no idea at the time that that little autobiographical piece would become the prologue for a novel, but it did…eventually.
I wrote ME, MYSELF, AND HIM slowly, over the course of about fifteen years, including long stretches where it sat in a figurative drawer while I kept busy earning a living on other projects. Eventually, my agent suggested trying to sell this book on partial manuscript, with the idea that a sale would force my hand and compel me to finish it once and for all—which is exactly what happened. We got four offers on the book, accepted Delacorte’s proposal, and I was off and running toward the finish line from there.
I’d love to say that this book just flowed right out of me, but the truth is, I’ve always needed a deadline to get anything done. For what it’s worth, I also believe it’s better to understand and adapt to my own creative process than to sit around wishing I were a different kind of writer. That was one of the real lessons from this project.
Where did you draw the book’s inspiration?
I have to give a nod to the movie Sliding Doors here. That was the first time I ever saw someone tackle this kind of parallel-narrative structure, following one character through two different outcomes from the same inciting incident. I’ve always been fascinated with that kind of “what if?’ question. What if I’d done X instead of Y at any given moment? How would (and wouldn’t) that choice have changed my life? The book is very much about those kinds of questions.
That said, when I first started writing ME, MYSELF, AND HIM, it was meant to be a traditional, single-narrative novel, where my main character, Chris Schweitzer, is shipped off to live with his father in California after a drug-fueled accident. But as I got to writing…and writing…and writing my early chapters, I couldn’t seem to get Chris out of his Ohio hometown. It was like the story itself was trying to tell me something, and so I decided to listen. That eventually led me to the idea of letting him stay home for the summer and get shipped off to live with his dad. Both.
Please share some of your writing process.
This is my 21st published novel, although virtually all of my previous work has been co-authored (including the MIDDLE SCHOOL series with James Patterson and the STRANDED series with Jeff Probst). With all the co-authoring, it’s been necessary to work from an outline. But on this book, for the first time, I really just jumped in with both feet and let the story take me where it wanted to take me. That’s part of what took me so long to write it, but it’s also been a more organic (if laborious) process than ever, in a way that I really enjoyed.
And even though I would call this a character-driven story, I’d also say that a lot of the characters themselves grew out of the themes I knew I wanted to write about. My fascination with theoretical physics and the multiverse, for example, grew into a physicist father for my main character. And my own memories of being a gay third wheel to my straight friends in high school led me to the strained three-way friendship between Chris and his two besties, Wexler and Anna.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
The thing I always knew on some level was that I wanted to be a storyteller of one sort or another. My first love was books, and I was a voracious reader as a kid. But from there, I got heavily into theater, and then filmmaking, and then back into theater, where I spent my twenties as a starving artist-director in NYC. I loved all of those experiences, but something about just wasn’t clicking for me.
Eventually, I landed in Vermont where the writing took hold again—and specifically, writing for young readers. That was when I stopped treating my storytelling like a hobby and started taking the business end of it seriously—looking for an agent, researching the markets, traveling to workshops and conferences, etc. And for me, that was when I realized, almost retroactively, that I’d found something I wanted to do for the long haul.
Where do you see your career headed? Do you have other WIPs or projects in the pipeline you would like to mention?
I’ve always admired the chameleons of the world more than the specialists—people like Lois Lowry and M.T. Anderson. Accordingly, I aspire to write as many different kinds of things as I can. I’m following up the YA contemporary realistic world of ME, MYSELF, AND HIM with a middle grade novel that is larger than life, silly, weird, and written for a much younger audience. (I can’t say any more, though, because I’m superstitious that way!)
Please share your favourite kidlit books that have inspired you and served as mentor texts. Pick one classic and one contemporary book. What is it about them that moved you?
Roald Dahl was an absolute favorite when I was a kid, in part for the way he wasn’t afraid of being dark, and weird, and also in the way he never condescended to his audience. I don’t think my stuff is as dark as his, but he really set me in motion as a storyteller when I first discovered novels, way back in the day. JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH remains an all-time favorite of mine.
In terms of a contemporary story, I’ve felt as though Louis Sachar’s HOLES was just about perfect. I love the way it works like a giant puzzle, laying out the pieces and then bringing them together in an unexpected way. I love how Sachar wasn’t afraid of that story’s complexity but also based it in a very simple and hook-worthy premise.
Lastly, I’m going to cheat and mention a few more books. One thing I’ve been noticing a lot lately is the way some of my favorite authors honestly capture the dark side of life and the great beauty of the world, all swirled up together in one story. Two of my recent favorites do exactly that: Padma Venkatraman’s THE BRIDGE HOME and Jo Knowles’ WHERE THE HEART IS.
What is the best (one) piece of advice you would give to other writers?
Get used to feeling uncomfortable and accept it as part of the creative process. Writing is all about finding my way—which in turn is inevitably about feeling lost at some point. For me, that kind of discomfort—that wandering in the dark with no guarantee of success—is one of the biggest obstacles to finishing a story. It happens on every project, which is good to remember. My greatest optimism comes from the conviction that if I haven’t figured out a story yet, it doesn’t mean I never will. It just means I haven’t thought about it long and hard enough. The answer is always there, if I’m patient enough
And a bonus Q- If you could be any flavour of ice cream, which one would you be and why?
Anything with cinnamon! I’ve loved cinnamon, big-time, all my life. Ben and Jerry’s makes a cinnamon bun flavor in pints that I only allow myself once in a while, but…..YUM.
Chris Tebbetts is the author and co-author of many books for young readers. His 2019 titles include the YA novel, Me, Myself, and Him as well as Middle School: Born to Rock, which is part of the #1 New York Times bestselling Middle School series he writes with James Patterson. Other titles include the bestselling Stranded series with Jeff Probst; the young adult novel M or F? with Lisa Papademetriou; and The Viking series. His work has received children’s choice awards in Oregon and Hawaii, as well a Sunshine State Young Readers Award nomination, and a nod on the New York Public Library’s annual list of Books For the Teen Age. He is a native of Yellow Springs, Ohio, and currently lives in Vermont.
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