By Kim Briggs
Today, we visit with Paul Acampora, author of I Kill the Mockingbird, Baseball Crazy, Defining Dulcie (Dial Books for Young Readers/2006), Rachel Spinelli Punched Me in the Face, as well as, multiple short stories.
1. So, tell me about I Kill the Mockingbird? What is it about and what inspired you to write it?
I Kill the Mockingbird is the story of three book-loving friends – Lucy, Michael and Elena – who sabotage their summer reading list. They concoct a plan that’s supposed to trick their 8th grade classmates into reading To Kill a Mockingbird over summer vacation. The good news is that the plan succeeds. The bad news is that it succeeds too well. Chaos ensues. High school looms ahead, and the relationships between the long-time best friends are changing quickly. There’s also baseball, dogs, ukuleles, cancer survivors, some Catholic comedy, and lots and lots of books.
The idea for the story started back in 2006 when the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece characterizing summer reading lists as “literary losers.” At the time, the article inspired a really interesting online discussion among a bunch of very smart librarians, writers, and assorted kidlit bloggers. They raised questions which were interesting to me including things like: What should kids be reading? How do adults choose books for kids? Why do kids become passionate about particular books? At the same time, I was also fascinated at the way the conversation itself sort of morphed and traveled because it was taking place online. I jotted some thoughts and notes about the whole thing into my own notebook. A few years later, the ideas were still interesting to me. Meanwhile, I’d come up with a title – I Kill the Mockingbird – that made me laugh. I shared it with my editor, Nancy Mercado, at Roaring Brook. She thought it was funny too as did her boss, Simon Boughton. I told them that it would be a story about friends who sabotage their summer reading list. I would have told them more, but that’s really all I knew. They signed me up to write the book based on just the title and the one-line description. I’m very fortunate that both Nancy and Simon have a lot of faith in me. In a lot of ways, I was inspired to write the book because Nancy and Simon thought I could.
2. When did you start writing, and what led you down the road to publication?
I’ve always enjoyed writing, but I didn’t attend to it with any kind of real focus. I didn’t practice in a regular way so I didn’t get any better. Around 2000, I got bored with my reading life so I went to the library and started revisiting authors and books that made me fall in love with reading in the first place. I re-read The Black Stallion and all the horse books by Walter Farley. I spent time again with Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators. I went back to the Dragons of Pern, the Mouse and the Motorcycle, a whole bunch of science fiction, and lots more. Soon I was asking the children’s librarians for recommendations. From there, I discovered Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo, The Watsons Go To Birmingham-1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Rules of the Road & Hope Was Here, both by Joan Bauer, The Moves Make the Man by Bruce Brooks, Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick, Rats Saw God by Rob Thomas, plus The Commitments by Roddy Doyle (which is really a YA novel), plus a whole bunch of newer work for young readers. Those books were telling stories about people and places not much different than the ones that I know. Plus, those authors were writing in ways that I recognized and enjoyed. They used honesty and humor and dialogue and sensible grammar. I thought I could do that. So I started to practice in a regular way. I focused on writing short stories because those were things I could finish. I joined the SCBWI and went to local conferences to learn more about the world of children’s books. Mostly, I kept reading every day and writing every day so that I could get better. I’d never even tried a novel when I first met my editor, Nancy Mercado, around 2004. But she liked my short work, and she encouraged me to think about a book-length project. Since then, Nancy and I have worked on three novels together and bunch of short stories too. I still read and write every day. I’m still discovering new (to me) writers all the time (Adam Rex, Rainbow Rowell, Erion Dionne, Lauren Roedy Vaughn, and Tim Federle are a few recent favorites). I’m still practicing in hopes that I’ll get better.
3. Where do you find your muse? Give us a brief synopsis of your writing process from start to finish.
Some days I have a couple hours to write. Other days I only have a few minutes so I always have a notebook with me. Whenever I have a moment, I jot down a couple lines of description or setting or dialogue (which is my favorite thing to write). I’m always copying down song lyrics and lines from biographies and memoirs that I think my characters would say or enjoy. I think about my characters all the time so in some ways I’m sort of writing all the time. As far as a muse, I try not to believe in that though I wouldn’t turn her away if she showed up at my door. While I’m waiting for her to appear, I just go ahead and write really badly every day, and then I try to clean it up so that it looks like good writing. I read every single day and usually have 3 or 4 or 5 books in progress at any given time so I know what good writing looks like. Because of that, I recognize that most of what I make is a mess. But then I clean it up. Make a mess and clean it up pretty much sums up my writing process.
4. Do you spend much time on social media post-publication? What platforms do you use?
I’m not as expert on social media as I Kill the Mockingbird might suggest. I try to send thank you notes to folks who post reviews of my work on Goodreads. I enjoy Twitter. I’d probably tweet more except that it takes me a couple hours to boil a thought into 140 characters. I use Facebook to see photos and news from family and friends. Tumblr doesn’t do much for me. I’d like to use Instagram, but I don’t have a smart phone. I use wordpress for some very occasional blogging.
5. Do you participate in many events? What type of events and who schedules them?
I manage my own schedule as best as possible. In addition to the writing, I also have a full-time day job so I participate in as many events as I can but not as many as I’d like. I have friends and family all over the country so I like to travel when I can. I especially enjoy visiting schools to lead classroom writing workshops. One of my favorite events is the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature’s One-to-One Conference. I’m a member of the Council so I get to help put that event together every year.
6. Were you in a critique group before publication? Are you in one now?
I have been part of a small critique group for nearly ten years. The guidance and support and enthusiasm we share has been tremendously rewarding and important to me.
7. On your website, you call yourself a Robot Maker and Dog Historian. What type of robots are we talking about—bionic canines that lick your face and bring you the paper?
The dog history is a totally geeky pop culture/historic/folkloric canine Twitter experiment. The robot is a gigantic basement project made out of cardboard, spray paint, pvc and stilts. I made him last year when I realized I’d be doing a school visit on Halloween. There’s no way I was going to show up without a cool costume! The robot has nothing to do with anything I’ve ever written. It’s just a lot of fun. Check it out: http://www.paulacampora.com/#!robot-workshop/c1mgj
8. Inquiring minds want to know, what projects can we expect to see in the future?
My works-in-progress include dinosaur poop, run-away grandma’s, tennis ball cannons, the Spanish American War, a 1973 Buick Electra, dogs who can do magic, and magicians who cannot.
9. You’re still a member of SCBWI. Why? You’re published. Some authors drop their membership after publication, why do you remain?
I don’t think I really understood what I was getting into when I joined the SCBWI. I mostly just wanted to be part of a community of people who were passionate about books for kids. Once I joined, I made friends. I learned a lot about writing and publishing. I laughed a lot. I also learned that kindness and generosity and enthusiasm are normal qualities in the world of people who make children’s books. I think much of that ethos is created and sustained by local SCBWI chapters. I want to be part of that.
9. Where can we find you? (blogs, websites, school visits)
Thanks for stopping by Paul!