Patrick Jennings, looking eager to answer all of my interview questions
I first met Patrick when I was in charge of a local SCBWI event called The Inside Story. It’s a twice-yearly salon celebrating area book creators’ new books and Patrick was talking about his then-new title, The Wolving Time, a compelling take on persecution with werewolves as main characters. When I read his newest, We Can’t All Be Rattlesnakes, I emailed him straight away and asked if I could interview him.
Patrick, were you a flashlight-under-the covers or a run-and-play-and-collect-bugs kind of kid?
Little Patrick on the outside looking in
I was more a run-and-play-then-hide-under-the-covers kid. I was afraid of the dark. I didn’t read in bed. I went to sleep ASAP.
What was the nudge/spark that set you in front of that blank paper to write for children?
It came when I was enrolled in a graduate studies program in filmmaking at San Francisco State circa 1990. I’d been writing all through college (for over a decade at that point) but hadn’t found an idiom that suitably enthralled me. Abstruse Marxist/feminist/semiotic film criticism certainly wasn’t filling the bill. Then I took a job as a teacher in a preschool (I had a background in art education, and preschool was all art education) where I read lots and lots of picture books. I had never really had exposure to them before, having not been read to as a child [sniffle]. I then reread the books I’d loved as a kid, then I read ones I’d hadn’t read, then ones published since, and before I knew it I was suitably enthralled.
Who are the writers you read to be inspired?
Steig, Sendak, Seuss, Cleary, Kafka, Dahl, Twain, E.B. White, Edward Gorey, Edward Lear, Shakespeare, Cervantes, J.M. Coetzee, David Mamet, Polly Horvath, Kevin Henkes, M.T. Anderson, Cynthia Rylant, Lynda J. Barry, Joan Aiken, Arnold Lobel, George Marshall, Jules Feiffer…(I’m just getting warmed up)….
Do you have any special writing talismans/tokens in your writing space? If so, what are they?
I have this little plastic figurine of the Wizard of Oz that has moved around my desk for a dozen years or so. The Wizard was a “humbug”—a fake, an impostor, a pretender. In Baum’s book, he tells Dorothy and company, “I have been making believe.” Make-believe has been my full-time job for ten years. My little Wizard reminds me of that.
I love the title concept explored by Carolyn See in her Making A Literary Life: What do you do that helps you sustain and nourish your literary life?
I don’t know See’s book, but I can say that my life is a “literary” one, and that I care for it and feed it much as one would any life. Some writers talk about what time they sit down to write each day and how many hours they write and how many days they write each week, etc., but not me. That’s because I’m always writing, even when I’m asleep and dreaming. I keep pens and notepad (spiral-bound index cards) handy at all times. I never feel guilty for reading instead of writing (i.e., in the conventional sense of setting word to paper), no matter what it is that I’m reading. Reading is part of the job, as is strolling, staring into space, and eavesdropping in coffeeshops. I rarely feel guilty for not writing, no matter what I’m doing. To my mind, it is far worse to write too much than too little. Far more energy needs to be spent thinking, reading, observing, talking, remembering, organizing, doing, learning, and living than to scribbling down words. (Though notes should be taken as the mind gets older and feebler.)
What’s the worst writing advice you ever received?
I don’t know about the worst advice ever, but I once wrote down this quote from Maya Angelou and it has stuck with me: “The idea is to write so that people hear it and it slides through the brain and goes straight to the heart.” To imagine the brain and the heart as separate, even antagonistic, is, at best, quaint, and, at worst, potentially psychosis inducing. Angelou portrays the brain as a sort of hazard, like quicksand, to be adroitly bypassed. I distrust a writer, or anyone, who attempts to circumvent people’s brains and appeal directly to their hearts. We have a few good strong words in our language, in fact, for those who stoop to such tactics.
What was the scariest thing you’ve done as a writer?
That would be writing and delivering my grandmother’s eulogy. “Nanny” was the unchallenged matriarch of the Jennings side of the family for decades. She was big and brassy with an Ozark Mountain drawl, distinct opinions, and a mulish disposition. She was fond of saying to me, throughout my life, “You look jis’ like yer dead daddy.” She scared me to death, so I’d always tried to steer clear of her. Luckily, my dad moved our family to Indiana before I was born, while Nanny and most of the rest of the Jenningses remained in Joplin, Missouri. When Nanny died in 2003, at age ninety-seven, my beloved Aunt Ruth asked me to fly to Joplin and deliver the eulogy. Why me? “Because you’re a writer,” she said. How could I refuse? I was to speak in front of the entire Jennings clan and their loved ones at the Southern Baptist church Nanny had attended. The pews were filled with family, most of whom I’d never met, hadn’t seen in many years, or couldn’t remember. The body of the mother of us all was laid out in her Sunday best in an open casket to my right. Everybody in the room, except my two-year-old daughter and my wife, knew Nanny better than I did. What’s more, I looked and sounded wrong. I had no proper black suit; I had no drawl. I didn’t even believe in her religion, or her god—their god. Boy, had they booked the wrong speaker for that gig. When the program indicated it was time for the eulogy, I walked up onstage to the miked podium. I was not introduced and there was no applause. It was absolutely still. I was never more scared in front of an audience in my life. I looked at a side door and seriously considered bolting. But that seemed, I don’t know, pagan. So instead I began to eulogize: “Whenever I saw Nanny, the first thing she always said to me was, ‘You look jis’ like yer dead daddy.'”
What are you proudest of in your work?
That it has made kids laugh, including kids I’ve never met, or seen, or will ever meet or see.
How do you know when you have a story just right?
I never know. Eventually I just don’t get to see any more passes, then the book comes out. I don’t read the published books unless I have to. I’d just mark them up with my blood-red revising pen.
How long was it between “I’ve got an idea” to “We’d like to publish your book”? And what happened in between those moments?
It really varies a lot depending on the book, so I’ll just talk about it in regard to Rattlesnakes. The idea for it came to me in the middle of the night, October 13, 1999, in Crusher’s voice. She buried the title in a long speech about what a drag it was to be an animal whose chief defense was looking like a more fearsome animal. An editor at Harper said yes in October of 2004. Between those Octobers I wrote Crusher’s story, as well as wrote and sold two other novels and two short stories. I also moved from Arizona to Washington State and witnessed my daughter’s first five years of life. A pretty amazing period in my life.
What, if anything, in the writer’s life has caught you by surprise?
It’s been over twelve years since my first book came out and I am still cleaning out my cats’ litter boxes. When does somebody—a fan or some publishing house flunky—step up and start taking care of this for me? I thought it would have been before now.
Did you know that hummingbirds have grooved tongues and take 13 licks per second? You may feel free to add that to your website’s collection of fascinating animal facts.
I did not know that, and thank you. I typed in “grooved tongues” and “thirteen licks per second” on Google, however, and got some rather adult hits. The Internet, like the animal kingdom, is a seriously kinky place.
A series of questions about work habits:
- Computer or long-hand? Long-hand for notes, organizing, and rough draft. Computer for revising and readying for submission.
- Coffee or tea? Both, according to mood, but always black and strong.
- Quiet office or music going? Quiet.
- Desk: tidy or messy? Tidy on the outside, frighteningly untidy on the inside. I try to avoid opening drawers.
- Essential writing snack food: Coffee or tea.
Now about We Can’t All Be Rattlesnakes:
Where did the fabulous title of your new book come from?
Why thank you, and, as I mentioned, Crusher dropped it during a rant late one night.
How on earth did you so convincingly write from a gopher snake’s POV?
Keep your friends close, they say, your enemies closer. Snakes have always terrified me. Consequently, I have made it my business to know as much about them as I can. Did you know, for example, that if you are bitten by a boomslang you will soon begin hemorrhaging from your body’s every orifice? (I’ll pause here while you inventory….)
Was the snake/mouse friendship inspired by a real life event? If so, what was it?
Perhaps it was, now that you mention it. I learned a lot about snakes from a woman who kept snakes in her desert home in Arizona for “education purposes only.” This meant she discouraged the practice of catching wild animals of all kinds, except in her own special case, and only so that she could show layfolk the virtues of the creatures they were not to catch. Once when I had brought my preschool class for a field trip, she tossed a thawed, store-bought mouse to a roadrunner that often dropped by the ranch just for that reason. The roadrunner caught the stiff in midair, choked it down, then sped off. The kids and I were suitably awestruck. The little “Meep-Meep!” bird ate Mickey Mouse! But I was also struck by the thought of the awfulness of the frozen mouse and the store that sold mice as food for pet carnivores. Maybe the seed of my fantasy of a predator who just says no was planted that day on the snake lady’s educational ranch.
You took a gamble with Gunnar, the boy character in the book who’s not a very nice kid. Tell us about that.
Not all kids are nice, at least not all the time. Some kids aren’t nice very often at all. Some make a point of actively stifling any niceness they might occasionally feel rising up in themselves. Niceness just doesn’t come naturally to everybody, perhaps especially to those who play violent video games every chance they get. Truth is, I didn’t focus so much on whether or Gunnar was nice. I know a lot of boys his age, and I meet more of them all the time as I travel around visiting schools. Bottom line: I wanted Gunnar to ring true. I wasn’t looking for an idiosyncratic, artistic, sensitive kid here, like Nickel in Beastly Arms or even Ty in Out Standing in My Field—boys out of step with other boys. I wanted an alpha male, a terminator, a gunner. (I named him after meeting three video-game junkies named Gunnar at a school visit.) When you create a character, especially a major character, you’re obliged to make them complex; you’re not obliged to make them nice, or even likable. No one is thoroughly bad, especially kids. I give kids a lot of slack. They’re busy working, floundering, navigating, failing, trying to figure things out with what they’ve been given. I personally empathized with Gunnar, even if I didn’t like much of his behavior.
What animal is next on your list?
A guinea pig that acts like a dog.
Is there anything you wish I’d asked you? If so, what is it?
I supposed I wondered if you seen my end-page humor pieces for The Horn Book in the past year. “Cadenza” is the name of the feature. I’ve written two so far. As a librarian (on long sabbatical), I’m pleased and proud as punch to be writing for the magazine. I hope you and your kidlit savvy readers will seek them out, because the humor is pitched to a pretty specific audience. It’s a bit like writing plumbing jokes for Elbow Joint magazine; the jokes fall flat when read by people outside the field.
Susan Patron gave my readers a flaming dessert recipe; Laurie Halse Anderson shared her book’s playlists; Kathi Appelt confessed to being a fabulous shower singer. Do you have a secret talent? If so, please share! I cut hair.
Evidence of Patrick’s skillful scissoring
Thank you, Patrick, for this visit today! Next time I am lost in a good book, I’m going to remind myself that that is part of the writing process, too.
Patrick is a skilled writer and a funny man but a pathetic poker player. Ok he’s actually improved and is pretty good and I consider him a good pal. Bravo Patrick! And good questions Kirby. Looking forward to adding to my PJ collection.