Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Author Interview with Ben Zackheim

My 2 cents:

Q: I love Shirley, your 8th grade super-sleuth! Where did you get the inspiration for her?

Shirley came from years of listening to girls (and parents) complain about the female heroes in their books. I mean, how many stories can you have about a girl "fitting in"? How many heroines are thrown into adventure against their will and eventually stumble upon victory? I shared their frustration. I wanted to offer a series where the main character uses her intellect to stay one step ahead of everyone.

The result was Shirley Link.

Shirley seeks out adventure. She gets bored if she's sitting around. Shirley is the smartest person in a really smart town, and everyone around her knows it. And she uses those smarts to overcome all obstacles.
It's funny, I saw a filmed interview with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (here's the link) where he details the origins of Sherlock Holmes. Apparently, he created Holmes when he became frustrated with protagonists who bumbled about, torn by self-doubt, or who won because of heavy “cheating” on the writer's part. I'm not comparing myself to the master, but it was comforting to see evidence that every generation has frustrations with all-too-real heroes and storytelling shortcuts.

Q: But she must have weaknesses, right?

Oh yeah. Shirley is awful at relating to people. In that way she learns from friends. She'll sometimes smile because she feels it's warranted in the moment, but her fake grin can scare the white off of teeth. At one point in Shirley Link & The Safe Case she actually scares away a fellow student. Her friend, Marie, feels it's her duty to stick a sharp elbow in Shirley's side when she bares her false smile.
Shirley can also be wrong. Marie is super-smart too and can arrive at correct conclusions before Shirley.

Q: What's your favorite, all-time comic book?

I had to struggle with that question when I wrote Shirley Link & The Hot Comic. I LOVE The Avengers. They have all the staples of the Marvel Universe – Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk, Thor. They also have a hyper-turnover, so almost of my favorite characters have been on the team – Spider-Man, Wolverine, Black Panther. In the end, I decided to put a $100,000 Mint copy of The Avengers #1 in danger because most people have enjoyed the comic series, or heroes in the comic series, for decades.
But my actual favorite series is different. I'm a traditionalist in the 80s vein. The X-Men from the Byrne/Smith/Romita Jr./Claremont era will always be with me. I literally have flashbacks to scenes from those comics sometimes. I'll be doing something random, like folding my pajamas, and comic book panels filled with Wolverine being way too cool pop into my head.
I can even tell you my favorite comic ever! New Mutants Special Edition #1 with Art Adams penciling. Epic stuff. It has everything Marvel was about back then, fearless storytelling and cutting-edge imagery.
I would have had Shirley try to save a Mint copy of New Mutants Special #1 in her second adventure, but it's only worth about 3 bucks. I'd be the only person biting my nails over that story.

Q: Do Wiley and Marie ever figure out they like each other?

Never! That would ruin the team!
I just glanced down and to the left which is a sign that I'm lying (Shirley would pat me on the shoulder for that).
I'll just say that the third book has a turning point in the relationship, but not in the way you'd think. There's a slippery slope between love and hate, and the ground tends to be like wet ice when you're a 14 year old. Marie is someone who does feel some kind of guilt about her intellect. She's not sure what to do with it. Especially when it comes to an alpha male like Wylie. She struggles with the stigma about being smart that Shirley distinctly does NOT struggle with, so Marie will be leaning heavily on her sleuth friend in the next few volumes. Wylie, for his part, is adopted and needs to tackle some ghosts in the third adventure. There will be a resolution to their relationship later in the series, and I think it's cool – though it will be a little uncomfortable for some. ;-)

Q: Can you tell us a little more about Jacob?

Jacob is a bit of an enigma. He's a kid who's been home schooled his entire life by a wealthy, eccentric inventor named D.L. Graham, who lives on a hill above Shirley's town. No one has ever seen any of the family around. When Jacob shows up in Shirley Link & The Hot Comic he's somehow convinced his dad to let him go to the same school that Shirley's in.
As it turns out, Jacob wants to be close to Shirley to test her out. He's heard of her adventures and believes he's her equal. I don't want to give too much away but my favorite scene to write (EVER!) was when he and Shirley meet. It's kind of like a meeting between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in an old detective movie. They test each other out, secretly delighted that they're talking to someone who speaks the same language, and who sees the world in the same way. Still, they don't particularly seem to like each other.
Jacob is going to be an ongoing character. I won't give away the ending of The Hot Comic, but his continued presence in the school, and in Shirley's life will have an impact, good and bad. And when D.L. Graham enters the picture, he'll do it in a big way, as is his style...

Q: Where is your favorite place to write?

Anywhere but home. If I'm home I cannot function as a writer. There are too many distractions, comforts. Beds beckon. Cats purr in kneaded nap traps. Ice cream whispers from the cold abyss. So I like to find a table somewhere like a coffee shop or library, and settle in with my iPad. I use the virtual keyboard and write with Google Drive, which many fellow writers think is nuts because the iPad keys are wonky. But I like the way I have to type slowly. It's the closest I'll ever get to thinking before every word, as we had to do when typewriters ruled.
The most work I ever got done was in a cabin, alone in the Adirondacks. I finished 200 solid pages in 3 days of my upcoming series, The Camelot Kids. I still aspire to that weekend.

Q: Will there be more books in the Shirley Link series?

I'm wrapping up Book 3 now, titled Shirley Link & The Treasure Chest. In it, Shirley discovers that she has an ancestor with close ties to a very successful pirate. I don't want to reveal too much but she needs to find the treasure for noble reasons. Without it, an elderly neighbor will lose her house to the bank.
Soon after the next Shirley I'm going to finish my upcoming series, The Camelot Kids, which is about a group of modern teens who find out that they're direct descendants of the Knights of the Round Table. A grumpy 3276 year old Merlin is gathering them up to help save New Camelot, a hidden kingdom in Scotland. It's an adventure/mystery for Young Adults. I plan on releasing four ebooks in the series at the same time.
Then it's on to Shirley #4 which will include some cool time/space clues, and a black cat who is much more than she seems.

Q: What are your dreams for the Shirley Link series?

If this was a joint interview with me and Shirley, she'd interrupt me (as gently as possible) and sum it up with, "Being smart and confident is just fine. People will still like you. You'll still find a place in the world."
To me, if I can help kids, both boys and girls, embrace their intellect as a superpower, then I'll have achieved what I consider to be my most important job as a writer.

Thanks, Ben! 

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