I recently had the pleasure to interview long time author and scholar, Alan Lawrence Sitomer. His newest book, The Downside of Being Up, hit the shelves September 15th, and is an enlightening look at puberty for boys. It is one of those topics that gets overlooked by most current young adult authors and Sitomer does a great job in making it humorous without being crude.
GeekDad: You have written quite a few books already; just released Nerd Girls; and now have The Downside of Being Up coming out – where do you get this abundance of inspiration?
Alan Lawrence Sitomer: I wish I had a more erudite answer for the “where do I get all this inspiration” question but I think it all boils down to the fact that I am highly immature, I love to laugh and have a screw loose. This is a pretty poor skill set for air traffic controllers but for young adult authors it seems to come in pretty handy.
I guess it all just boils down to the fact that I love writing. And I love kids. Who’da ever thunk that one day I’d love writing books for kids? The truly cool part for me is that kids love reading my books and this crazy give-n-take has me on a mission to 1) do my best work 2) be highly productive and make a lot of hay while the sun shines and 3) continue to do it until “they” literally refuse to publish me any longer.
And then I’ll write more anyway. At the end of the day, it not only keeps me sane, but keeps me out of trouble.
GD: Who are some of your biggest literary influences?
ALS: As a teacher I know the irrefutable value to a young person of owning strong literacy skills. (Note: As a high school English teacher, I was named California’s Teacher of the Year 2007.) This means I am all too acutely aware that reading is the ONLY way to build the mental muscle students need these days to tackle the challenges of the world ahead. Yet, if kids do not like the material they are being asked to read, in this day and age, they are gone-zo.
Conversely, however, if you write something they adore, their iPods, video games and txt messages will get tabled in favor of a gripping story. There are scores of books out there right now which prove this. I only hope to add to this phenomenon. (Lucklily, I am.)
All of this is a long-winded way of noting that before I discuss my own literary influences, I think it’s critical to acknowledge that students today NEED their own literary influences. Tragically, we have far too many youngsters growing up having never really read – and fallen in love with – a book. To think that YA readers now view me in this light, well… how wicked, cool and totally sweet is that?
As for me, a few folks one might expect – and a few folks one might not – have greatly shaped my own writing life. Dr. Seuss is first. His magic still cascades through my imagination and if there’s one single reason why I became a book lover, he’s it. W. Somerset Maughm also played a tremendous role, especially for the fluidity of his sentence stylings. Victor Hugo might be the one writer I would most like to have met to just say thanks because the joy in reading Hugo for me has always held a special, special place in my heart.
Do I even need to mention Shakespeare? The best there ever was.
Of course, I read a ton of contemporary YA stuff as well but when I was a kid, contemporary YA lit wasn’t really the burgeoning genre it is today so I didn’t have the wealth of great teen titles at my disposal. In a way, I am really, really envious of today’s kids. For modern day YA readers, the wealth of stupendous books is amazing in scope.
GD: What are you reading now?
ALS: I always mix it up. Ya gotta. The older I get, however, the more non-fiction I find that I am reading. A ton of the behavorial science books really intrigue me these days. Authors like Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Pink, The Heath Brothers, Clay Shirky – the list goes on and on – I really dig ’em. Also, in talking about NF I can’t forget to mention Michael Lewis. How great is he?
Of course, I try to make it a point to read a lot of books on writing as well. Sort of my own professional development class. So many writers have written about writing that I find to read them is to become both illuminated and inspired at the same time. And since I am also an educator working hard to try and re-shape literacy education across the United States, I read a ton of “teacher books” too.
Plus magazines. (How can I forget the magazines?) I love mags and gulp ’em down. They often allow me to see ideas and people from perspectives I wouldn’t normally get.
The internet has blown up this part of my reading life, too. I can’t believe how much online reading I do nowadays. For some people being wired 24/7 is taxing. For me, it’s invigorating. Of course, I do unplug but I ingest more information these days than ever and I love the way my brain is constantly being fed.
As for fiction, I don’t really read as much of it these days as I would like to. As mentioned, I read a bunch of YA stuff (business mixing with pleasure on that one) but the sad truth is there are more books I want to read than there is time for me to read them. It’s a depressing reality that I have absolutely no shot at getting through all the titles I’d one day like to ingest. Such is the curse of mortality, I guess.
GD: In The Downside of Being Up, your hero experiences a growing problem. Could you give our readers an overview of what to expect?
ALS: I like to think of my book The Downside of Being Up as Judy Blume for boys. Simply put, it’s a coming of age novel and the truth is, what could be more coming of age than going through puberty?
Let’s be honest, in the novel I am tackling a fairly taboo subject… or at least a subject that’s usually only mentioned in hushed tones as if it’s some kind of shameful little secret. However, here’s a newsflash for ya – Quick, cover your eyes! – adolescent boys get erections. There, I said it. Did the world just end? I doubt it.
See, all boys get erections. This is not a red state/blue state issue. Tall, short, brown-eyed or blue, two parents in the home or child of divorce, religious denomination, academic aptitude, physical height… none of it matters. Boys get boners and they pop up for all of us at the most inauspicious of times in our young adult lives. And when this first starts happening to us, WE FREAK OUT.
Yet, it’s just Mother Nature. There’s nothing “wrong” with us. We’re not deviants, monsters, bad people or pervs.
We’re male. This is the way God made us. And let me tell you, I really wish there was a book like this around when I was a kid if only for the simple sake of someone letting me know that I was normal. In a way, and I am entirely serious about this (remember, I was California’s Teacher of the Year) this text is bibliotherapy and young adolescent males are going to find more than just penis humor in this novel; they are going to find identification.
My book is both funny and tragic at the same time but the thing is, THIS IS NOT A BOOK ABOUT SEX. In fact, there is no sex in the book at all. This is a tale of a boy going through a very significant and very disconcerting right of passage on the journey to adulthood and if there is any sort of moral to the story it’s that “You can’t stop Mother Nature.”
GD: This is a topic that we typically do not see brought up on young adult novels that often. Where did this plot concept come from?
ALS: I wrote The Downside of Being Up because I wanted to write a book that young boy readers would love. And, as I well know, there is nothing that young boys love to do more than laugh. Therefore, first and foremost, I really wanted to dig my writing heels in and go for, as they say nowadays, an LOL reading experience. That was the original seed.
Of course personally, I love to laugh. However, I also feel that a lot of what people peddle as “comedy” in young adult books today is lukewarm at best. Me, I wanted to go for “spitting milk out of your nose funny.” So far, the reaction has been pretty good and while I can’t promise that everyone is going to find the book riotous, I can tell you that I laughed my rear-end off while writing it. Truly, I never laughed so hard in my professional writing life. To me this is significant because as author, I always believe I am the first audience. To paraphrase something Robert Frost once said, “I am the first crier and if my work doesn’t bring my own eyes to tears, why in the world should I expect it to have any sort of impact of the such on others?” This is true of me as well. If milk isn’t spitting out of my own nose then why would it ever spray through the nostrils of anyone else?
The teacher side of me, though, also knows a heck of lot about the critical relationship between literacy skills and academic achievement and life success. Especially, for young boys in this day and age. It can be argued – and it has – that we are raising a generation of non-readers, the implications of which are already proving to be calamitous for today’s young men. Well, the only way to elevate a young person’s reading skills is by getting them to read. And kids today, boys, will read if they are provided reading material which “speaks” to them in some meaningful way.
A comedy which sympathizes with a universal tragedy through which we all suffer, has always felt to me like a solid project on which I ought to hang my hat. The Downside of Being Up is a book that can hopefully be used as a tool to not only convert young male readers from skeptics who “don’t like to read” into “fans of reading as long as they are given a ‘good’ book.” As the old saying goes, if you build it they will come. This I believe to be true… but somebody’s gotta build it. And so I’ve tried in my own small way.
GD: Who is the audience for this book?
ALS: It’s a fairly small audience for which I am aiming with this book. Basically, it boils down to two groups: boys and girls.
Boys because this book speaks to the almost universal male awkwardness we all go through at the cruel hands of puberty. As all the classic kings of comedy writing knew, there are smiles to be mined from pain and, like death and taxes, certain aspects of growing up when you are male prove to be unavoidably perplexing, befuddling, and anxiety producing. This also makes them downright hysterical, too. We often cope with fear and pain and emotional wreckage through laughter. Sometimes, there is poignancy and emotional relief to be found in smiling.
But girls have really enjoyed the book, too. Almost in a blush-faced way. “This really happens?” they ask. “Boys really go through this?” they discover. Girls are a curious lot by nature anyway but when it comes to “learning about the biology of boys” there are quite a lot of eager eyes hungry to gain an insider’s perspective into the tragi-comic journey of the opposite gender. When breasts develop, the entire world can see them so girls have been much more open about dealing with changes their bodies undergo because they are undergoing these changes in a “there’s no way to hide it” way. But boys? All we do is hide our erection at a certain stage of our developmental life.
And no one ever talks about it. No one ever gives voice to the dread, the fear, the angst, the inelegance and the embarrassment. The Downside of Being Up seeks to do that. Heck, this book is noble, it’s a tome filled with significant literary worth.
It’s also got a bunch of “my penis is out of control and I am a total wreck about it” jokes in it. As our protagonist, Bobby Connor finds out, the truth hurts.
GD: Any talk of taking this book to the big or small screen?
ALS: I just emailed my agent so that I could have my people talk to your people about making sure we get all the right people together.
GD: You have conquered the young adult segment, any thoughts of writing a different genre?
ALS: I think that your interpretation of the word “conquered” and mine are a wee bit different. J.K. Rowling “conquered.” Alan Sitomer blipped.
I do have a new children’s picture book coming out in time for Father’s Day 2012. It’s called Daddies Do It Different. Essentially, it’s a fun romp through the day of the modern day dad.
We get the job done… we just “do it different.” (And if you don’t know what that means, just ask any mom.)
I also have 33 titles in the school curriculum I have built called The BookJam which is being used in classrooms around the country right now with much success.
However, I haven’t yet channeled my inner pirate to write a harlequin Romance but now that you mention it…
GD: What is next for you?
ALS: Figuring out dynamic ways to better serve the students and teachers of this country is tops on my list. Writing new books, doing keynote speeches at conferences, working to influence clear-headed thinking on matters of educational policy (an oxymoron, I know), this is what’s on the plate right now on a professional front. On the home front, it’s all about the fam.
I love being a dad and I couldn’t feel more blessed. Who knew being a geek would take me to these heights?