Pat Schmatz is an author whose Young Adult novels can speak to any reader. She writes with a power an passion that is contagious and she tackles hard topics, in her writing. I was first introduced to her writings by an electronic ARC (Advanced Readers Copy) of Bluefish from Candlewick, via NetGalley. I am incredibly thankful. In under a week I read three of her four novels. Pat grew up in rural Wisconsin and has settled back there. But her journeys have taken her through stints of living in Michigan, California, and Minnesota. She is a travel enthusiast who journeys when ever she can, From Vancouver, to New Zealand, to Japan, and any other place she can and back again. Pat volunteers and does administrative work for the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis. In the summers, she is on the staff of the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. In between she's running or skiing in the woods or swimming in the lake, she studies Spanish and Japanese and reads and rereads and writes and rewrites.
1. If you had not become a writer what do you think you would be doing for a living?
I have no idea what I'd be doing. I finished my schooling with an M.A. in Physical Education and worked as a fitness consultant for a while, but I didn't love it. Writing is the only thing I've loved. Everything else is a job - I give my time, I receive money. Some jobs I've liked better than others, and I prefer to work for someone who is doing good in the world, but for me jobs have been mostly interchangeable.
2. When did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you nurture that dream?
I talked about wanting to be a writer from very early on. When I told a middle school adviser, Mrs. McQueen, that I wanted to be a writer, she gave me a notebook and said "Then write." That's the best and most nurturing advice I've had to date, and I have followed it.
3. In writing Bluefish, what sparked you to write mainly from a guy's perspective, and specifically a guy with a learning disability?
I can't say I was sparked on either count. Travis came to me loud and clear, and he was a guy, and he loved the woods and swamp, and school was not working for him. Everything else grew out of that.
4. Mousetraps revolves around the themes of friendship, but also someone who was harassed at school who seeks revenge. That is a controversial topic to approach with all of the school attacks that have taken place. What gave you the courage to present Rick in such a sympathetic light?
I don't think it was a matter of courage or choice. The day Columbine happened, Rick began to talk in my head and I felt as if I knew him. The specifics of the story developed from there, but Rick was fully formed from the beginning. Knowing him the way I did, I couldn't possibly present him in any other way.
5. Your approach to truth and reality in Circle The Truth was rather unique. A young man who does not know the truth about who he is, and because of that the relationships he has. It was an amazing story, but how did you come up with the concept of a character who only communicates by reading Bible verses?
The first scene I wrote was Rith finding that spiral staircase in the middle of the night, based on a dream I'd had about my own house shifting in the night. As I wrote the next scene, where he descends the stairs, I discovered Bible Man along with Rith. I don't know where the concept came from - it was just there. The great thing about Bible Man was, whenever I got stuck in the plot of the book, I'd close my eyes and stick my finger on a page in the Old Testament, and whatever I found, I wrote. That's how I found the dog vomit verse.
6. What advice do you wish an artist had passed on to you early in your career, which you only learned through experience?
Don't worry about what other people think, or money, or practicality. If you love an art, do the art. Do it all the time. If you are afraid (and we all are), do it anyway. If you're not afraid, then you're playing it too safe. Take a risk, and then take a bigger one. It's best if you're not comfortable.
7. What authors influenced your writing style and format?
S.E. Hinton, most of all. Others are Stephen King, Lois Duncan, Joseph Krumgold, Willard Motley, Madeleine L'Engle, Jim Kjelgaard, and Mary O'Hara.
8. What does your writing process look like? Takes us through the steps from idea to publishing?
I start with a grain of an idea - from a dream, or a news story, or a conversation, or any combination of impressions. I begin to play with the idea by writing sketches, scenes, conversations, poems. I work on getting to know the characters. I might write conversations (or arguments) with them. I'm currently working on a book called Lizard Radio, and I spent almost a year sketching and reading about lizards before I began the first chapter.
Once I start the actual first draft, I work my way through, a chapter at a time. When I get stuck, I free write by hand for fresh material. I might write a scene by hand that I realize will come late in the book, and I save it. If I'm really stuck, I write letters to my characters and they write back to tell me what I'm doing right or wrong. Sometimes they yell at me. I rarely know where I'm going, but I follow my nose. I work with a critique group, chapter by chapter, and their feedback helps me to shape the direction of the next chapter.
When I finish a first draft, I let it sit for a while. Then I begin the revision process, retyping the entire story as I go. I make out a time line, with a few words to describe the scenes in each chapter. I typically move through several full revisions before I send it to my agent. She gives me feedback, and then it's more revision. At some point, when she thinks it's ready to sell, she begins to shop it to editors.
Once an editor buys the manuscript, I enter a much more focused revision process with that editor. Once that revision is complete, we move to line-editing and copy-editing for the fine detail of word choices and accuracy. I love working with editors - including the copy editors. They have my book's back, and take care of it in ways I could never do on my own.
9. Do you use a playlist when writing? Are certain books written while predominantly listing to the same music?
Oh yes, for sure. I don't listen to music while I'm actually writing, but I put together a list and listen to it when I exercise, or when I go out for a walk to think about the story. When I'm early in a first draft and getting to the know the characters and setting, I adjust the playlist a lot and listen to the music all the time.
10. What were your favorite books and authors to read as a youth?
Laura Ingalls Wilder and Jim Kjelgaard were my favorite authors until I stumbled on The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. That locked in at the top of the list, and has been my favorite ever since. I love many books, but no other has grabbed my heart in the same way.
11. What are some of your favorite books and authors now?
I'm a total Ann Patchett fan. I love The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. I still love Stephen King. All three of them do something I haven't been able to figure out how to do - beautiful character ensembles with shifting viewpoints. Among YA books, I closely follow Markus Zusak, Jacqueline Woodson, and Kate DiCamillo. All three of them take risks and leap ahead to some entirely new place with each book, and I admire that.
12. Some of your books are available in electronic formats but with that comes bootleg distribution. What are your impressions of ebooks and the distribution of them through torrents and other illegal means?
Honestly, I don't think about it much. What happens to my stories once they're released is none of my business - I no longer own them. I figure if I do my art, tell stories as honestly as I can, and try to move with integrity in the world, good things will happen. I know I'm not a particularly good businesswoman, and that's okay with me.
13. Some authors monitor torrent sites and have their publishers contact them to remove their content. Do you do so are have someone do so for you?
Hm. I don't even know what a torrent site is, so I'd have to say no…
14. I once heard Madeleine L'Engle state that her characters were real to her and almost an extended part of her family, she said once that at the dinner table she sat up and stated "Meg just finished her PhD." Are your characters real to you, do you ever get glimpses of what they are up to now, or once you finish a book is that it?
My characters are very real to me. I might think about what Mrs. Estronsky would say about something, or how Rick feels about something on the news, or how Travis would like that bird in flight. I hear their voices in my head, and think their thoughts, long after the book is published. But they usually don't grow or change beyond the bounds of the book itself.
I have found myself thinking about what happens to Velveeta in high school though, and that makes me think another book might be starting in my head.
15. One of the greatest strengths of your books is the characters. Which of the characters that you have created is your favorite and why?
Ohh, that's hard. Velveeta is the easiest character I've ever written because she never shuts up. I'm fond of Mrs. Estronsky and Bible Man because they both came out of nowhere and keep giving me good advice. Travis is the character that has been the hardest to write - because he never talks - but I spent so much time trying to get to know him that he has a special place in my heart. Really though, I love all my characters. I have to, or I wouldn't want to have them in my head all the time. To me, those characters in my head are the best part of being a writer. Many of them enrich my life in huge ways, and they make me be better in the world. I realize that I create them, but it doesn't feel like that. It feels like they come and hang out with me and I'm the luckiest person in the world.
16. I once had a university professor state that the true goal of a university education should be to teach one to learn how to think. What would you state should be the goal of higher education and why?
Hm. I don't disagree with that goal. My education taught me how to think, and that's been useful. More importantly, it taught me how to learn, how to focus, how to take ideas from others and shape them and form them and own them. In my experience, higher education wasn't particularly helpful in developing my art, but it showed me how to find what I needed on my own, and gave me the confidence to seek sources that resonate for me. Higher education provided me with the tools to access whatever I needed. Maybe that's the most important thing - to see education as access to maps and tools. It's up to the individual which maps we use, which tools become our favorites, and how to decide where we actually want to go.
17. Many people have commented on how each of your books would make great films. Have any of them been optioned or has any interest in actually developing them begun?
I haven't had any offers or interest yet in film rights for any of my books.
18. What books are currently in progress for you? Writing, researching, planning or even just ideas that you would like to work on?
I just finished a first draft of a new YA novel with a working title of Lizard Radio. I have a vague idea of a book about Velveeta tapping on the back of my brain, but I have a lot of work to go on Lizard Radio before I can dip into that.
19. Completely off topic but what TV shows or movies do you enjoy?
I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and watch all seven seasons over and over (sometimes in Spanish). I don't watch much current TV, but occasionally I'll Netflix a series - recently, I've liked Glee. Some of my favorite movies are Rocky Horror Picture Show, Stand By Me, Empire of the Sun, and Billy Elliot.
20. If you were stuck on a desert island and could only have 10 books to read again and again, what books would you want with you?
For today, it would be:
Lisey's Story by Stephen King
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Rumi - The Big Red Book
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Knock on Any Door by Willard Motley
Essential Neruda Essencial (Neruda poems in English and Spanish)
The biggest kanji workbook I could lay hands on (I'm an ongoing student of Japanese)
To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - J.K. Rowling
21. What advice would you give to young aspiring authors and artists?
For aspiring authors - write! And read. Read and write and write and read. For artists in all mediums, know the masters, find your favorites, soak in the work of those who have gone before and those who excel in the field now, and do your art every day. And know your truth. If you don't know your truth, set out to find it and never stop. You can't lie in art. You may be talented and understand the craft, but if you're afraid of the truth it will trip you up every time.
Thank you pat again for taking some time to answer some questions for the readers at Book reviews and More. I for one anticipate your next book, and know I will be rereading your existing books soon.
Books by Pat Schmatz:
Circle the Truth
Mrs. Estronsky and the U.F.O.
Author Profile Interview with Pat Schmatz