WBBT Interview: Humor, Writing, and the Emotional Truth with Allen Zadoff

Allen Zadoff

I am so pleased to welcome Allen Zadoff to my blog. Allen is the author of FOOD, GIRLS, and OTHER THINGS I CAN’T HAVE, one of my favorite reads this year. This book has special powers–it made me laugh out loud, cry, and then start laughing again. Allen is a master of getting to the core of an emotion and twisting every drop of it to bring out humor. It should be no surprise FOOD, GIRLS, and OTHER THINGS I CAN’T HAVE received the honorable distinction of winning the 2010 SCBWI Sid Fleischman Humor Award.

Of course once Allen agreed to an interview, I had to read his bio on his website. It should be no coincidence this was meant to be… Allen was born in Boston; I live near Boston. He lived in upstate New York; I grew up there. We both graduated from the same college. See what I mean? I know, I know. It’s a stretch, but maybe some of Allen’s humor will rub off on my writing…

Wait until you read what Allen has to say. He is simply a wonderful soul. You’re going to want to grab your favorite beverage and hang out for awhile.

Without further ado, I give you Allen Zadoff…

HWM: In 2007, your memoir, HUNGRY: LESSONS LEARNED ON THE JOURNEY FROM FAT TO THIN, was published. What made you realize you wanted to write YA books?
ALLEN ZADOFF: I didn’t realize it so much as it realized me. In the year it took for HUNGRY to come out, I wrote my first novel, a sweet, dark story about a 14-year-old boy competing with his younger brother to win his father’s love. That book did not sell (yet!) but people read the narrative voice and said, “You’re a YA writer.” My response: “What’s YA?” In hindsight I’m very glad I didn’t know what I was doing. I wasn’t thinking about genres or what I could sell. I was just writing from my heart. After that, I was so upset that my first novel didn’t sell, I sat down and wrote FOOD, GIRLS, AND OTHER THINGS I CAN’T HAVE. Again, I found the teen narrative voice was very natural for me. And Elizabeth Law, my lovely publisher at Egmont, read an excerpt from FOOD, GIRLS and realized there was a budding YA novelist in front of her. She snatched me up with a two-book deal.

HWM: You won the 2010 SCBWI Sid Fleischman Humor Award for your second novel, FOOD, GIRLS and OTHER THINGS I CAN’T HAVE. Congratulations! How did you celebrate?

Photo Credit: Michelle Houts (www.michellehouts.com) SCBWI 2010

ALLEN ZADOFF: Well, I didn’t have a big dinner; that would have been counterproductive. I called friends, I called my publisher, and then I sat back and tried to take it in. When the book won, it didn’t feel so much like I won, but more like Andy (my main character) had been heard. And I felt really excited for him! (Crazy, right?) And the real celebration happened many months later when I accepted the award at the SCBWI conference. That’s when I got to share it with my fellow writers and it was a blast!

HWM: Humor is very difficult to write. You do it so well, while also capturing the poignancy of the moment. I found myself laughing and then having to reach for tissues. What’s your secret?

ALLEN ZADOFF:

Depression.

I’m only half kidding. When you’re sad, deeply sad, you hit that point where tears turn into laughter. You can’t cry anymore so you might as well laugh. It’s why I love Chekhov. He’s the master of moments like that.

Humor always blunted pain for me. It’s not that my life has been so terrible, but I was fat for my entire childhood and teen years. And I was not cool fat like Jonah Hill. I was miserable, shy, quiet fat. I developed a strong survival instinct in high school. I felt I couldn’t compete in a lot of areas, so I became the funny, smart kid when I really wanted to be the sexy, athletic one. I mean, honestly. Would your rather be Woody Allen or James Bond? So I try to put that in my heroes–They’re nervous, sad, socially awkward, and they spend a lot of time in their heads. And they’re funny because it helps them cope with not being cool.

HWM: I adore your protagonist, Andrew Zansky. He’s smart, self-deprecating, and not afraid to show his emotion. How long did it take before you were able to capture his voice?
ALLEN ZADOFF: The voice came immediately. The story is what takes time. When I start my novels, it’s usually because of the voice. I begin to write because a character has something he wants to tell me. I let him say what he has to say. When it’s going well, writing is more an act of ventriloquism than anything else. The character is using me to speak through, and I do my best to get out of his/her way.

NEW Paperback Cover! February 2011

 

HWM: My heart ached for Andrew, for his self-esteem and body image. I’m sure FOOD, GIRLS and OTHER THINGS I CAN’T HAVE struck a chord with many teens and adults. What has been the best fan moment for you (so far)?
ALLEN ZADOFF: Even though my third book is about to be published, I still feel very much like a new author. So every fan letter is a thrill for me, and interacting with readers (adults and teens) is a privilege. People will sometimes say to me, “Do you mind signing a book for me?” “Mind?” I say. “It’s an honor!” The truth is I felt really alone with my feelings as a kid. I read a lot of escapist literature–fantasy and science fiction–but I didn’t read about kids who felt like me inside. So I try to write the emotional truth, and I hope kids will feel less alone when they read my work.

HWM: What is your writing process or ritual?
ALLEN ZADOFF: Writing is like learning how to fly a plane. There’s no substitute for logging hours in the air. It’s the most unromantic thing in the world, but the real writer’s life is sitting in a chair every day. (Hopefully it’s a soft chair.) Sometimes I sit and nothing comes, just noise and chatter. Sometimes I sit and it’s pouring out of me. But either way, I’m working. I’m asking the hero questions, thinking about the story, outlining, discovering. It’s a process.

I work as a writing coach, and this is something I stress with my clients. When I was younger, I thought writing was about being inspired so I spent a lot of time waiting for that to happen. Today I think writing is about work. Sometimes that work is inspired, but often it’s not. We work as writers so when the miracles come, we’re already working.

MY LIFE, THE THEATER, and OTHER TRAGEDIES is set against the backdrop of a high school production of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT's DREAM, photo: Wikipedia

 

HWM: Your new book, MY LIFE, THE THEATRE and OTHER TRAGEDIES, will be out this spring (May 2011). What can you share about this book?
ALLEN ZADOFF: I can’t wait for this book to come out because the story is close to my heart. MY LIFE, THE THEATER is the story of Adam Ziegler, a theater techie, a backstage crew guy who works on lights. Adam’s dad died two years before, and he kind of went up into the catwalk in the theater and stayed there. In the book, he falls for an actress on the other side of the spotlight. Big problem, because the techies and actors are at war in his school. A techie isn’t even allowed to talk to an actor; it’s considered a betrayal of the techie code. So you have this kid who feels safe up high and far away from the world, and suddenly he wants this thing that’s down on the ground and out of reach. This novel is the story of him coming down, rejoining life. I hope readers will find it funny, but I think it’s a slightly more serious book than my last one. I actually wrote it while my mother was very sick with cancer, so I think it’s imbued with this sense of, how do you move on after tragedy and live your life? As for the theater part, I was a huge theater geek when I was younger. I was an actor all through high school, then I became a director in college, and I even went to graduate school as a stage director at Harvard. Although I don’t do theater anymore, it was a lot of fun thinking about it again. I’ve felt like I was back in the theater for the last year. I’ve even been listening to show tunes!

HWM: What project(s) are you working on now?
ALLEN ZADOFF: I just signed a deal to do a third novel with Egmont. I’m very excited! I can’t talk about it yet because it’s still forming, but it’s going to be really, really funny. And it’s my first book set in Los Angeles where I’ve lived for the last twelve years. I’ve never written about this city, and I’m excited to explore the city and share it with readers.

HWM: As a writing coach, what secret or tip will you share with us?
ALLEN ZADOFF: I already shared the one about writing every day, but I’ll expand on that. When I started writing, I could do ten minutes a day. That’s all. It was too hard, too painful. The critical voices in my head were really loud. I was living in Manhattan, and I’d go to a coffee shop and sit in the window and write in my journal and listen to music. Nobody knew I was doing it, nobody cared, but I had to do it. Something in me was trying to communicate. Ten minutes became fifteen, then twenty, then thirty. When I got to an hour, it seemed like a miracle.

I think about those days when things get tough now. I try to connect to that deep voice inside me that needs to communicate, and I let go of all the worries about money, publishing, readers, critics, success. I remember the guy in NY writing in coffee shop windows because he had to. I love that guy. I’m so glad he stuck with it because it allowed me to become the writer I am today.

OTHER PLACES TO FIND ALLEN:

Go here for highlights and shiny links for more Winter Blog Blast Tour interviews. Enjoy!

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Vivian Lee Mahoney

Consider yourself warned: I write books about rebels. I'm also a postergirlz for readergirlz, a literary advisory group for teens. Who knew going back to the teenage years would be so rewarding?

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