Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Kristen: What I Talk About When I Talk About My Books

Today, my third teen novel, A Field Guide for Heartbreakers, was released by Disney-Hyperion. When you are a writer, and you tell people that this is your job, they usually ask the same sorts of questions. Here’s a popular one: What are your books about? You’d think by now that I would be prepared to field this question. I am a very prepared person. I never run out of cat food, apples, or paper towels. I keep an emergency aluminum laminated polyethylene blanket in my car that reflects my own body heat. And I can speak a little Spanish (If my screenplay partner is reading this, which is highly unlikely because he is crewing a yacht from the Bahamas to Rhode Island right now, he might object to the claim that I can speak a little Spanish. But I feel that my ability to recall three verses of ‘Vengan a Ver Mi Chacra Que Es Hermosa’ totally qualifies me to make this claim.)

Crowe’s Nest blog readers, I am not going to lie to you and pretend like I say zippy things to strangers. Here’s what usually goes down. A person whom I loosely know or don’t know at all or maybe one of my cousins asks me: What are your books about? My answer: I write about different stuff. This is actually a terrible answer, because it requires a ton of elaboration. And so I do that. And I attempt to summarize all my books with catchy sound bytes. (Not my forte.) Why do I do this? Because when faced with this question, I’m overcome with the impulse to persuade this person to like my books (maybe even me). I say: My first teen novel, Lost It, is about a girl who loses her virginity underneath a canoe. My second teen novel, Crimes of the Sarahs, is about a group of girl criminals who live in Kalamazoo, Michigan but they aren’t hardcore criminals, I mean, nobody shoots anybody in the head. My first middle-grade novel, Camille McPhee Fell Under the Bus, is about a girl with hypoglycemia who falls underneath her school bus. (When I say this, a lot of people look a little freaked out.) I find myself adding this qualifier—Don’t worry. It’s a funny book. It’s based on the time I fell underneath my own school bus. I grew up in Idaho. Very slippery roads. Seriously. It’s cool. I didn’t damage my brain.

Why am I making my elementary years sound like one giant bus tragedy? I don’t know. I keep talking and I try to make my next book sound universally appealing by downplaying any violence (I omit the book’s villain, Corky, a homicidal sociopath). My next teen novel, A Field Guide for Heartbreakers, is about two teenagers who travel to Prague and infiltrate a college-level writing program and encounter a ton of hot-dudes. At this point, it’s not uncommon for the person I’m speaking with to believe that they are funnier than I am and try to hijack my plot points for their own jokes. They say things like, Does anybody fall underneath their tour bus? Or, How many canoes does this story have in it? (I rarely think it’s funny when people hijack my plot points.) Okay. This is usually when I start talking about bears.

I don’t even try to manufacture a good segue. I say something, like, I know a lot about bear safety. I tell them, My first teen novel, in addition to being about a girl who loses her virginity underneath a canoe, has a ton of bear safety advice in it. The conversation either goes one of two ways at this point. Either I start talking about the ways to distinguish between the two main types of bear attacks —defensive and predaceous—or I keep talking about my forthcoming books. For this blog entry, let’s stick to the latter. I tell them that in my next middle-grade novel, The Reinvention of Bessica Lefter, my sixth-grade character actually wants to become a grizzly bear mascot. (I usually try to emphasize the sexual politics involved in this sort of tween ambition and highlight the novel’s strong feminist undertones. Apparently, I think a girl wanting to be a grizzly bear is a progressive idea.) At this juncture, the person I am speaking with usually concedes that I am a big fan of bears. I take this as a compliment, thank them, and press on. Because I still have another book to talk about. I say, right now I’m working on edits for my next teen novel, Enid Adrift, with Disney (I usually don’t say the word Hyperion, because when I say that word a lot of people not connected to publishing ask me ‘What’s Hyperion?’ And I can’t talk to this person for the rest of my life. I can’t break down all the major publishing houses and who owns what. Pretty soon I’ll wind up discussing Warner Bros. or ABC or that TV series Lost that I didn’t watch.

I say, Enid Adrift is about a group of teenagers who wind up adrift on a life raft in the Atlantic and get attacked by sharks. (People tend to like hearing this plot.) I then say, It’s sort of like the Breakfast Club meets Jaws. With four sets of twins. Usually, I then have to justify the plausibility of this situation. (No, not the sharks. The twins.) By this time, I am getting dehydrated. And when I get dehydrated, I rarely want to talk about my books anymore. I just want water. Luckily, I have a thermos that I got for volunteering for the National Park Service. I carry it everywhere. It has the words ‘Park Hero’ written on it. When people see it, they often ask, Which park do you volunteer for? This is not my favorite question. Because I volunteer as a gardener on Alcatraz, where I’m helping to restore the historic gardens. And when I tell people this, they usually want to hear more about it. Because people love hearing about Alcatraz and its famous inmates—Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, the Bird Man, Kevin Bacon. And I need to get home. I have deadlines. And a cat.

As I disentangle myself and wave goodbye and tell this random person (or cousin) to have a great day, I have no idea whether or not I’ve swayed this random person (or cousin) into becoming a reader of my books. But really, is that what I’m supposed to be doing when I go to the taco cart or muffler shop or vacuum repair store? (I own lots of things that break.) I mean, deep down, I’m talking about the deepest and downest parts of myself, I don’t want to believe that because I’m a writer that my life has become a pitch-fest for my books. I’m being serious. I am not the kind of woman who wants to wear a sandwich board. Am I? (Okay. Okay. If a friend needed me to, I would definitely wear a sandwich board.) I have a problem. As I see it, it’s a problem that requires two solutions. One: I need to learn to stop caring about what strangers think of me and my books. (why the acceptance of strangers at the taco cart matters to me is another blog post). Two: I need to formulate a better answer to the question. Maybe even a zippy one. . .

From now on when strangers and cousins ask me: What are your books about? I will say: Bears, buses, virgins, sharks, and tweens/teens suffering from blood sugar disorders.

Side note. Disney-Hyperion is sending me and a bunch of wonderful writers--Daniel Waters, Brent Crawford, Stacey Klemstein, Emily Franklin, Brendan Halpin, and Liz Rudnick--on an unREQUIRED READING TOUR. We’re taking our carry-on luggage and newly released books and going across the country. (Also, we will read from them. The books, not the luggage.) Or at least that’s the plan. If you want more information, visit my website and look for NEWS at www.kristentracy.com


  1. haha - Kristen, you should just say, my latest book has an ice cream cone on the cover, and leave it at that. Who doesn't want to read a book with an ice cream cone on the cover? I certainly do!!

  2. "It’s sort of like the Breakfast Club meets Jaws." I'm sold!

  3. Very funny post, Kristen! I hate it when people ask me what my books are about. I generally say, "Um... it's about a girl? She kind of has a tough year?" Or even better... "Oh, that. Yeah. I'm not really sure what it's about." Have a fabulous time on your tour!

  4. How about just saying something like, "I write about quirky characters who find themselves in unusual situations"? Not that that will stop people from asking you more, but you want them to, don't you? I mean, I'm really intrigued just from this blog post, so you're obviously a good promoter of your work.

  5. These are all really good comments. And that's a good suggestion, Paula. I guess I don't enjoy the question 'what do you write about' because almost any answer feels reductive. At least the ones I can think up. And because I write for more than one age group and I write poetry too, it feels extra difficult. When people ask me what my poems are about I usually say, "My childhood. And stuff that happened after that." Okay. Thanks again for your comments. I was being serious about my new answer to the question. I went to my Amazon author page and my bio now says that I write about bears, buses, virgins, sharks, and tweens/teens suffering from blood sugar disorders. It really does.

  6. You rock, Kristen, and so do your books.

  7. Kristen: You are a very funny lady.

  8. LOL... that does sound exhausting! I can never think of anything to say about my writing on the spur of the moment. I would probably just tell them, "Check out my website!"