Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Interview With Ron Koertge

Ron Koertge is one of our finest writers for young people, winning the P.E.N. prize for his moving novel STONER & SPAZ. This month Candlewick releases a sequel to his 2003 novel in verse SHAKESPEARE BATS CLEANUP - SHAKESPEARE MAKES THE PLAYOFFS. I'm delighted to have been able to ask Ron a few questions about the novel and his work.

Your new novel in verse, SHAKESPEARE MAKES THE PLAYOFFS (Candlewick, March 9, 2010), is a sequel to your acclaimed SHAKESPEARE BATS CLEANUP (Candlewick, 2003.) Did you anticipate writing a sequel from the start?

I never thought I'd write a sequel and I remember telling people I wasn't interested in sequels. That's how much I know, huh?I'm the kind of writer who feels his way along and I try and keep my head relatively empty ( my wife might say I don't have to work hard at that) so if ideas want a place to build a little nest, there I am. The weird thing for me is the Shakespeare sequel and then a sequel to STONER & SPAZ (Candlewick, 2002). Right from I'll-never-do-that to Holy-Cow, I-did-it-twice. The sequel to STONER & SPAZ (scheduled for 2011) was a complete surprise. I'm one of those writers who goes to work every day, a blue-collar ethic from my parents, probably. When SHAKESPEARE MAKES THE PLAYOFFS was done, I worked on poems for awhile. Pretty good ones, too. And then one morning I wrote the first page to a story and the narrator was Ben. I remember looking down at my hand like it was the culprit! But by that time I wanted to know what was on Ben's mind, so I just kept going.

You mesh a strong male teen voice with poetry, young love, grief, and baseball - and with all that, you manage a successful balancing act. Do you start with character or with story? How do you choose to write in prose versus poetry?

I certainly started the two Shakespeare books with character. I'm as interested in Kevin as any reader. Maybe more interested. Characters tend to nag me in a way that story (or Story) never does. I wonder sometimes if Kevin just didn't want to move on with his life and finish what he started. And how can he do that without niggling at me? E. M. Forster talks about flat characters vs. round ones. The former tend to be stereotypes (usually a bad label but not always), like extras in the movies: Grocer, Hoodlum #1, Hat Check Girl. Round characters are richer; they have more facets and quirks; there's no one-word label that fits. Maybe Kevin just wanted to be rounder.

I laughed out loud while reading "Transylvanian Limericks." I'm rusty on my poetry forms, and was grateful for your guideposts, but it appears that you choose the form to mirror your character's emotional state. Could you discuss that a bit?

I've written and read and taught poetry for years, and one of the things I tell my students is to try and match the sense of what's going on in, say, a line with the way the line moves. The classic example is this line of pretty near perfect iambic pentameter:

"The wounded soldier staggered past the barn."

Looks good, doesn't it. But a sentence about a staggering man shouldn't be so regular! The line itself should stagger a little. Easy to say, hard to do. The same kind of thing applies to whole poems. A really angry person probably isn't going to use a lot ofsmooth-sounded s's. K's or p's are more likely. And haiku, for example, are traditionally fluid and even sonorous. (I'd like to read a churlish haiku, but I'll bet they're few and far between. And if they exist I'll bet they mirror the poet's emotional state. )

Please talk a bit more about Kevin (my son's name, by the way!) I found him engaging and real.

Kevin is a better baseball player than I ever was, but we have a lot of emotions in common. My mother passed away at ninety- nine! But I felt the loss of her as I grew up and turned into a boy with friends and then a boy with a car. That small loss registered, and sometimes it still tolls down there inside me somewhere; it sure did while I was writing about Kevin's mom. I also know what it's like to prefer one girl over another or to have a girl prefer someone else over me. I know what it's like to sort things out by writing and then to try to write well rather than just "getting it out," as if feelings were impacted teeth.

Do you anticipate writing another story about Kevin? Are you working on something else that you can share with us?

Never say never, I guess. In a way it's up to Kevin. I do have a book of revisited fairy tales at Candlewick just waiting for an illustrator. Here's the first stanza to the one about Goldilocks, but it's narrated by the wee, small bear:

"The great, huge bear is not my father. The middle-sized
bear is not my mother. Because we walk on two legs
and talk, we naturally found each other."

Isn't that just wonderfully weird? So keep your eyes peeled in 2011.

Where's the best place for readers to learn more about you and your books?

There's always Candlewick, my publisher's, site for the book. And please join my new Facebook fan page for SHAKESPEARE MAKES THE PLAYOFFS!

Thank you for your time!

My pleasure!


Irene Latham said...

Congratulations to Ron! As a poet and big time poetry lover, I look forward to meeting Kevin. I also love the "never say never" advice. Let us all be open to the wide world of possibility... thanks, Janet!

Janet Fox said...

Thanks for commenting, Irene! Yes, I really loved what Ron had to say here.

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