Tuesday, October 26, 2010

PUSH Author Interview - Brian James

In 2002, I first discovered PUSH when I read the poetry memoir You Remind Me of You by Eireann Corrigan. I was mesmerized with her writing and sought out similar books. Next I read the PUSH anthology You Are Here, This Is Now: Poems, Stories, Essays and Art from The Best Young Writers and Artists in America, edited by David Levithan. I was impressed with stories and poems in the anthology which were selected from the winners of the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Over the years, I have been drawn to the PUSH novels and memoirs because I recognize a small part of myself in these stories. 

When I first started my blog, I knew that I wanted to share these books and thankfully, several of the authors have agreed to participate in my PUSH feature. Over the next few months, I will feature PUSH authors and books through interviews, reviews and giveaways. I hope that you will visit Actin' Up with books often and discover (or rediscover) the voices of PUSH.

My first interview is with Brian James, author of Pure Sunshine, Perfect World, Tomorrow, Maybe, Dirty Liar, Thief, Zombie Blondes, The Heights as well as several children's books. You can visit his website at http://brianjamestheauthor.blogspot.com/

1. Can you describe your experience having your first novel Pure Sunshine published by PUSH?

When I was a teenager, my goal in life was to have a novel published. I worked endlessly in college trying to hone my writing skills. I wrote Pure Sunshine the year after I graduated from college, in January of 1999. The book was acquired a few months later as the first book for PUSH, though the imprint wasn’t launched for another two years. So it was a long process between finishing the book and seeing it to actual publication. This gave me a lot of time to get used to the idea. Still though, it was strange to have achieved my lone life goal before the age of 25. It was around that time when I realized I might actually be able to not only have a novel published, but also have a career as a writer. I think holding the first finished copy of the book in my hands was when I first felt like that was possible. It was an indescribable feeling and I’m very grateful to David Levithan and the others at PUSH who believed in me and gave me the opportunity. I’m also glad I took advantage of it.

2. I once read in an interview that you didn't take any writing classes. Do you think that having a structured writing environment can hinder the creativity of a writer? Can it help?

That’s true. I’ve never taking a writing class. In college, I was an English Literature major. My philosophy back then was that I would rather study the great authors and deconstruct how they wrote in order to improve my own writing structure. I still believe that’s an invaluable tool. Reading is one of the most important things a writer can do. That said, I’m not against writing classes. I know many writers who have found them incredibly helpful. However, I think they’re value lies more in their ability to teach writers how to edit and revise in order to fully realize their story. Creativity can’t be taught. But there are a lot of aspects of the writing craft that can be taught. I just preferred to learn those things on my own, which had its advantages and disadvantages. I probably could have avoided a lot of mistakes and quickened the learning process if I had taken some classes. However, because I developed my style on my own, it feels very unique to a lot of readers.

3. Perfect World is written from the female perspective. Was it difficult as a male to write from the female point of view? What steps did you take to capture an authentic female voice?

Perfect World was the second book I wrote from a female character’s perspective (Tomorrow, Maybe being the first). I’ve since written four other novels from a female character’s point of view, including my newest book Life is But a Dream, due out next year. To be honest, I find it refreshing. When I write from a male point of view, I feel the voice is nearly always my own, which is easier but less interesting for me. As far as capturing an authentic voice, I’ve never felt like it was a struggle. Growing up, I always had a lot of really close friends who were girls so that point of view isn’t foreign to me. In addition, the way I write is so connected to the character’s emotions. We experience emotions similarly. Sad is sad no matter what our gender is. The difference is how we may or may not react to a situation. For me it’s less about gender as it is about knowing your character inside and out. I spend a lot of time thinking about my main characters before I write a single word. At some point, it becomes a little bit like channeling somebody else. As a writer, I believe we have to truly imagine ourselves as that character. I guess I approach it a bit like method acting.

4. Searching for new books to read is a small part of my love for books. What are some determining factors when you are selecting new books to read? Current favorites?

The writing style is a huge factor for me. I’ve always believed that anybody could come up with a good story, it’s how you tell it that is interesting. That said, I’ve always been drawn to the avant-garde writers like Robbe-Grillet, Celine, Quueneau, Brautigan and Burroughs. I’m also a huge fan of coming-of-age, obviously as that is what I typically write. Since I also write children’s books, I’m a big reader of all ranges from picture books to middle grade novels. In the younger books, I’m usually drawn in by character. In a strange way, I’ve blended those two things in my novels.

I must admit that until recently, I largely ignored current fiction. However, once I read all of the books by my favorite authors, I turned to newer books. In the last year or so, I’ve been reading mostly novels from the last decade or so. Two novels that I read recently that really stood out are Oryx & Crake by Margaret Atwood and The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue. In the children’s book area, I’ve been in love with the Ember series by Jeanne DuPrau, The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor and The Haunting of Charles Dickens by Lewis Buzbee.

5. Do you judge a book by its cover?

I wouldn’t say that I judge a book by its cover, but I’m certainly drawn books by their covers. Everybody is. We live in a visual age. So why I’d like to say that I’ve never decided not to read a book because of lousy cover, I’ve certainly read lousy books because of their amazing covers.

6. The blogging community is growing daily. What influences do you think bloggers have on writers?  

Well, I think the blog world’s biggest impact isn’t so much on the writers themselves but on the publishing industry in general. I believe that influence is overwhelmingly positive. The traditional way of discovering books (print media and bookstores) is fading. The blog world has stepped in to fill the void in a big way. I think their prescense is especially important when it comes to YA Literature. Before the blogs came along, publishers couldn’t figure out how to reach that audience. Now, it’s the biggest segment of the industry.

As far as the blog world on the individual writer, I think it’s great to have an outlet to reach readers and promote books.

7. Are there any blogs you visit frequently?

I follow about 100 different blogs on a wide-range of topics. I find that they are bit like a customized magazine with only articles about stuff I’m interested in. Two of my favorites related to books and writing are Andrew Smith’s Ghost Medicine and Children’s/Fantasy Illustrations.

8. I think the music we listen to can tell a lot about who we are. If you could make a playlist that reveals something about you, which songs would you include?

I couldn’t agree with you more. I listen to music constantly. I have a collection of nearly 3,500 albums. That said, making this kind of playlist would be an impossible task. Instead, I’ll give you a list of albums that I feel have been most influential to me as a writer:

Syd Barrett – The Madcap Laughs: This is an album that I listened a ton when I was 16 and 17 and still trying to find myself as a writer. I remember wanting to write stories that felt like Syd Barrett songs.

The Verve – A Northern Soul: This album really defined the way I felt in college and it’s mood still resonates throughout my novels.

Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea: A remarkable piece of poetry that taught me as much as any other piece of poetry of how to say things in interesting ways.

Neil Young – Live Rust: The first Neil Young album I owned, the fragile heartache in Neil’s voice is something I’ve always connected with and I think my characters would as well.

Nirvana – Into the Black: When I was in college, I remember spending $90 of my last $110 on this and it was worth it. Another constant in the hours of solitude trying to figure out how to write.

John Frusciante – Inside of Emptiness: Basically every John album could be on here, but this one particularly struck me while writing Dirty Liar and gave me the courage to tell stories that were difficult to tell.

The Manic Street Preachers – The Holy Bible: Hands down one of the best lyrical albums ever written.

9. Can you tell me about what you are currently working on?

I’ve just finished the last revisions of my next novel, Life is But A Dream. It’s about a girl struggling with reality in a world that’s gone crazy.

I’m also working on a middle grade novel, a movie script and a children’s chapter book project, all in various stages. In addition, I’ve already begun the process for my next novel. So, hopefully it will be a busy year.

Brian, thank you so much for your thoughtful answers and visiting with me here at Actin' Up with books!


  1. Great interview! The playlist question was awesome! I think that its neat to know what sort of music inspires a person to create. I love that someone has been able to make a career out of being creative.

  2. Wow, this was a fantastic interview. You had really thoughtful questions (and he gave really thoughtful answers!) I couldn't agree with him more about gender and perspective. I really feel that as long as it's true to the character, it's right--regardless of sex. Or gender.


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