My guest today Is author Jim Gibson. He has written an excellent series of books for kids (of all ages even I fell in love with them!) I could go on all day about how great they are, but I will allow him to tell you more about them. Let me warn you though, Perdita Whacknoodle will earn her way into your heart and once she does, you can’t leave her behind!
Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came to write your first “Perdita” book.
First, thanks for the chance to talk about writing and reading–and my books, of course. And thanks for your blog, which I think provides a welcomed service to readers everywhere.
I’ve fortunately always been a reader, and ended up being an English major and teaching high-school English for a while. My mother was a piano teacher, and I’ve always played the piano, so while I was teaching, I started playing music jobs in Atlanta’s social and corporate world. Though I loved teaching, I was stretched pretty thin, and working in music gave me more free time. So I’ve mostly been a full-time musician since the 1980s.
Along the way I self-published a book on music marketing. This was before the internet or desktop publishing, so I was happy when Writer’s Digest Books offered to republish that book. I eventually wrote several more practical books on the music business for them.
From that self-publishing experience, I realized that I could start my own record label and produce my own piano CDs using the same marketing skills needed for self-publishing, and that’s what I did for the next decade or so. I now have 16 piano CDs that sell in the gift-shop and museum-store market (and on Amazon, of course).
I also produced a video study-skills program with my wife, a college professor. When the Kindle came along, we rewrote and updated that video into a Kindle book—Making A’s in College, which is selling well.
As an aside, we produced that book a couple of years ago and paid to have it formatted. Now the writing program, Scrivener, can create both epub and .mobi (Kindle) editions in less than a minute! That removes a big technical hurdle for self-publishers.
Our two kids were astoundingly early risers, and when they were little they would jump in bed with me every morning. Somehow I started telling a completely outlandish story as part of our morning routine, and when we found a hapless dog up in the country, the stories began to involve her.
Before long “she” (Perdita Whacknoodle) was the voice of many of these stories, and they were clearly intended (by Perdita, that is) to enhance her standing in our family, since our original dog was an Australian Shepherd with official papers (which Perdita, of course, did not have).
Over time, Perdita’s character in these stories—and there were probably hundreds of them—evolved to a lovable but arrogant commentator on almost everything, who concocted elaborate and outlandish tales of her (completely theoretical) family’s background. The part the kids liked best was that Perdita was completely sure she was correct about everything, while in truth, she was completely wrong.
For years, my kids (who are now adults) told me to write the Perdita stories, so when the Kindle appeared on the scene with such wonderful opportunities for writers, I started working on the books. As they’ve developed, Perdita’s “translator” is Laura (our actual daughter) whose character is that of a very practical fourth-grader trying to tether Perdita, at least a little bit, to reality. (Laura is now a business consultant, so that pragmatic characterization is accurate.)
There are a LOT of Perdita stories waiting to be written, and as long as people seem to like them, I’m going to keep doing them. My favorite thing, so far, is that people seem to enjoy the books, and that kids write lots of reviews—which means they are reading!
And if people continue to let me know that they are using Perdita’s vocabulary, or identifying their own dogs as Whacks or Noodles, then I think my life will be complete.
What is your favorite part about writing?
I really like the fact that writing starts with a blank sheet of paper, and a story can go in ANY direction. That’s gives us astounding freedom—but the real task is to create something interesting.
I luckily found Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird some time ago, and I follow her advice to just write a lousy first draft, with your internal editor turned off. When I can get in the right ‘creative place,’ I’m astounded at how a story will just write itself, but even on bad days, I’m learning to just plow ahead and write something.
Of course, on later reading, that story that came so quickly may be truly lousy, but I also really, really enjoy the editing and shaping stages, which is where I try to turn the rambling first draft into something interesting. It’s a struggle, but a creative one.
Hemingway didn’t use extra words. Mark Twain talked about poetry being harder than prose. Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis told young musicians to “leave out the extra notes,” but that is a lifelong battle that is very hard to do, both in writing and in music. Staying away from cliches, for me, isn’t easy.
If there was one message in your books you feel parents should understand what would it be?
I’ve read a lot of children’s books recently in educating myself about the genre, and I’ve found that I don’t like the books with overt (or even more subtle) messages. So I’m NOT pushing any hidden agenda in these books.
However, if parents and children read the Perdita books and enjoy them enough to want to read more, and if Perdita’s upside-down approach to things encourages readers to realize that other people (or even dogs) might see the world differently, then that would make me very happy.
And, of course, if kids and parents would make up some words (like your blog’s recent contest, and creatify and besnazzle their language, then I think Perdita Whacknoodle would be very pleased.
If you could claim any literary work in the world as your own which one would it be and why?
As an adult reader, I think my current favorite would be Michael Malone’s Handling Sin, which is a hilarious and rambunctious tour de force that delivers serious messages through the humor.
But as a new writer of children’s books, I’m awed by Roald Dahl’s astoundingly creative stories. Maybe I’d claim Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as an inventive masterpiece that shows what happens when the imagination is unfettered. What a writer!
Tell us about your upcoming projects.
The fourth Perdita book, May Contain Nuts! will be out soon. It’s Laura’s attempt to wheedle some real answers from Perdita, but as it turns out, Perdita is a master at changing the subject. After that, I have a book planned about the time Par Whack (Perdita’s trouble-prone father) rode the train from Dahlonegee, Georgia to New York City and invaded the Wurstminister Dog show to free the dogs. That one will take a while to write, but it’s shaping up in my head.
I’m also pondering another non-fiction project or two, since the Kindle (combined with Scrivener’s power) offers such limitless opportunities.
Child literacy is important, and we all know this. Books like yours make reading fun for kids and for parents. Did you design your books this way on purpose or was it just a natural progression after you started writing?
This is an interesting question, and the short answer is that I did hope the books would be fun to read.
I also really hope that they’ll be read aloud. Since the stories, as I mentioned earlier, came from my creating them every morning for my kids, I think that in my mind, I ‘hear’ them as I write, and that may make them easy read aloud.
My wife, as it happens, is a professor with a Ph.D. in reading, so our house was always very reading-centric as the kids came along. I can’t think of a better gift to give any child than the habit of reading, and if my books can help make reading FUN, then I couldn’t think of anything better.
As we all know, we’re living in an insanely fragmented world, where attention spans are shrinking, and lots of writing is done in 140 characters or less. I truly believe that the world is divided (and will be even more in coming years) into those who DO read, and those who don’t (or can’t).
So, anything parents, teachers, and writers can do to encourage the habit of enjoyable reading will benefit children for the rest of their lives. I don’t want to sound like I’m pontificating, but I really believe this, and I suspect that readers of your blog would agree.
Perdita is such a stubborn character, and yet she is so lovable. How did her personality develop in your mind. Was the character there before the story?
I know this sounds odd, and I assure you that my family is all sane—yet Perdita’s persona as an arrogant (but always wrong) ‘commentator’ on our family activities has been a continuing (and possibly bizarre) part of our family life for many years. Maybe it goes back to my childhood when I found that I could ‘talk’ through a stuffed animal and get away with saying things that I, as a human kid, couldn’t say.
So, when I started writing these books, Perdita’s stubborn wrong-headedness was already well established in our family. What I needed to do in the books was develop Laura’s character as the practical foil, and that wasn’t hard.
The trick, as you identified it in the question, is keeping Perdita likeable despite her stubborn arrogance, and I think that depends on her vision of the world being (sort of) plausible. Because, while Perdita is wrong about everything, she is consistently sure she’s right. So her world makes perfect sense to her.
Tell us about your own dogs if you have any– how have pets influenced your writing in these books?
We’re currently dogless because we try to travel a lot, and it just simplifies things. Both our children have dogs, though, and they often come to visit, so we have plenty of canine inspiration and chaos when needed.
As our kids were growing up, we had two dogs—the Australian Shepherd I mentioned earlier was the one Dave Barry would call the ‘main dog.’ Then we found Perdita, and she somehow, though absolutely no fault of her own, took on the persona I’ve talked about.
Of course, everyone talks for their dogs and cats. I think I took it to an unusual extreme. (And, for a long time, I was careful not to mention this around non-family folks. But now the cat is out of the bag . . . )
What does your writing process include? Do you follow a specific routine?
I try to spend a couple of hours at San Francisco Coffee in Atlanta every morning. I’ve done this long enough now that it just ‘feels like’ my place to write, and I usually have no trouble getting into the spirit.
Another book on writing I really like is Stephen King’s On Writing. He talks about how the story will just tell itself, and though I couldn’t tell you how it works, that’s true. I just start with a situation and a rough idea of where the story might go and start writing. Sometimes I write myself into a dead-end, but that’s OK. I know lots of writers use extensive outlines, but that’s not my approach. (Of course, we’re talking about talking-dog books here, not great literature or complex plots, so I have it easier than many authors.)
I’m not sure I’m really qualified to talk about writing this way, but I can speak about music with confidence. Sometimes I sit at the piano or the computer and feel really creative, and sometimes I feel utterly unspired. I can’t figure out why the inspiration sometimes comes, but I think it’s important to just work through the spots that don’t feel motivated. You can’t wait for a muse to alight. From years of playing for events I’ve learned that the gig must go on. The inspiration will (we hope!) arrive soon. And that works in my writing, too.
How has the journey of writing, publishing and marketing your books been vs. how you expected it to be when you first began?
Before I started on the Perdita project, I think I had a good idea of what would be involved for two reasons. First, I self-published a book the hard way back in the 1980s, so I knew the process. And I’ve run my little record label for years, and it’s very much like self-publishing in the sense that you do everything yourself.
Second, when I take on a new project, whether it’s writing for the Kindle or learning to make YouTube movies, or anything else, my lifelong practice is to first immerse myself in ‘how-to’ information. I always over-do it, I’m sure, but in the process I learn a great deal about the project I’m about to begin.
So, before I started writing Perdita’s books, I was reading widely about ebook publishing and writing. I watched YouTube tutorials (which can be astonishingly useful, though not always, of course), and found very informative blogs.
I knew, then, that writing the book is really the easy part—just like recording the CD is the easy (and fun) part. Marketing the thing is 90 percent of the game, and that’s where much of the effort must be focused.
But marketing can itself be creative, and it can be fun. Since it’s absolutely necessary, that’s good. The hard part, which we’re all trying to figure out, is how to balance all the marketing chores and opportunities with creating our books. We have to understand how important marketing is, figure out how to do it on a continuing basis, and try not to let it take over our lives. (And when I’ve figured out how to do THAT, I’ll write a book about it!)
Perdita’s twitter account is @WhackNoodle and she writes tweets (usually) as a dog-author.
Her blog, which isn’t always as active as I intend, is www.whacknoodle.com.
I’m currently planning for the next book, May Contain Nuts! to be on all ereader platforms and to remain free forever as an introduction to Perdita’s world.
Since I’ve mentioned the piano a few times, and my record label has helped me understand the self-publishing process, I thought I’d include a link to one of my YouTube videos. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5pPKr-RF8Wg
Thanks again, Ionia, for the chance to talk about all this with folks who love books. What could be better?
Thank you Jim for the incredible interview. The kids and I can’t wait for the release of the new book!
You can see my reviews of Perdita’s books by following these links
Two Christmas Stories