Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Interview with author David Michael Slater

Author David Michael Slater is under the spotlight today. We’re chatting about his (adult) comic drama, Fun & Games.

David Michael Slater is an acclaimed author of over 20 works of fiction for children, teens, and adults. His work for children includes the picture books Cheese Louise!, Flour Girl, and The Boy & the Book; the forthcoming early chapter book series, Mysterious Monsters; and the teen series, Forbidden Books, which is being developed for film by a former producer of The Lion King. David’s first work of non-fiction, We’re Doing It Wrong: 25 Ideas in Education That Just Don’t Work – And How to Fix them will be released this fall. David teaches in Reno, Nevada, where he lives with his wife and son.

Welcome, David. Please tell us a little bit about Fun & Games.
The 1980s: it’s the time of Dungeons & Dragons, banana clips, and Atari. Jonathan Schwartz is growing up in a family like no other. His sisters, Nadia, the dark genius, and Olivia, the gorgeous tease and temptress, manipulate Jon and his friends for their own entertainment. And his Holocaust survivor grandparents? Their coping techniques are beyond embarrassing. A disastrous visit to Jon’s class by his grandmother unhinges his famous father, setting off a chain of events that threatens to send the dysfunctional Schwartz clan up in flames once and for all. Fun & Games is a heartbreaking and hilarious story of faith, family secrets, betrayal, and loss—but it’s also a tale of friendship, love, and side-splitting shenanigans.

Some reviews:
“David Michael Slater’s 1980s coming-of-age story fuses intense family dysfunction with literary intelligence. Mr. Slater throws all kinds of crazy against the wall—and not only does it stick, it works brilliantly…Fans of David Sedaris, Jenny Lawson, and Augusten Burroughs will crown David Michael Slater their new king.” –THE NEW YORK JOURNAL OF BOOKS

A Holocaust-survivor grandmother who makes macabre jokes. A famous father whose anti-religious books attract sexually-desperate groupies. Sadistic sisters, an alcoholic mother, an unusually high body count for a novel this funny, and a plot that encompasses Hebrew school, porn producer thugs and a faltering orgy for literary deconstructionists without missing a beat. Even more remarkable, David Michael Slater’s Fun and Games is a male coming-of-age story that doesn’t rely on shock humor or gratuitous offense for chuckles–it’s hilarious because it’s tragedy happening to somebody else, a boy named Jonathan, who in terms of teen hormones and bewilderment could have been us…Fun and Games is the funniest book about growing up Jewish since Portnoy’s Complaint.” –Judith Basya, HEEB Literary Editor

What inspired you to write this book?
It’s “geographically autobiographical” in that the protagonist grew up in my house and travels a similar path to the University of Michigan, but otherwise his family does not resemble mine at all. That said, the book is about the kind of issues I grappled with growing up.

Excerpt from Fun & Games:
Sixty seconds later, the video had been returned to its drawer, and the class was sitting up straight, staring at both Myna’s blue velour running suit and the lavender scarf on her head, while Tziporah introduced her as a brave woman who had seen the kinds of things she prayed every night we would never know, but about which she had to make sure we knew, which is also why we’d been watching that awful movie.
“It is in March, 1939,” Myna said with no further ado. “I come here to America with my first husband, Nathan Schwartz, from Moravia, Czechoslovakia. We leave just weeks after Hitler’s armies come and call it part of their Protectorate. We have a tiny time to get away because the first ‘Protector’—he tries to pretend for a while that they weren’t there to murder us all good and dead.”
I started clapping. I didn’t mean to, but I thought it wasn’t absolutely impossible that she was done. There wasn’t all that much left to the story. Everyone turned and looked at me, so I stopped. But I could see from their eyes my clapping was the first interesting thing that had happened all class long.
Myna went on to tell how she and Nathan had owned and operated a small general store in Moravia for nearly ten years, then how they sold it in late 1938, even before their country lost its bordering territories (and thus all its defensive capabilities) because they could “read the letters on the wall.”
“Nathan was a pessimist, thanks to God,” Myna told my bored class. Then she added, “We are all of us pessimists now. Do you know why this is so?”
Receiving no response, she answered her own question. “The pessimists went to America,” my grandmother declared with a twisted grin and her finger in the air. “The optimists went to the gas chambers.”
I clapped again. Only four claps this time because Tziporah gave me the Major Screw Eye. Fortunately, no one appeared to be listening.
Myna looked a bit concerned about the lack of reaction she was getting, but nevertheless proceeded to share the boring story of her flight to America, the gist of which was that after selling their store, she and Nathan applied for visas with a group of extended family members. Neither had siblings or living parents. The Nazis had by then taken over, but somehow the applications were approved anyway. Myna ascribed this amazing good luck to the chaotic nature of those first uncertain weeks. “We could have been approved for tickets to the moon!” she cried. “Such numskulls, they were! No one knew who was in charge of what or what was in charge of who! All we needed was some money for a nice Jewish bribe, and poof! we are coming to America. Any questions?”
She was warming up. That last remark was a bad sign. Any minute now she was going to tell a Jewish joke. The world was about to find out that my grandmother, the Holocaust survivor, told Jewish jokes. But maybe she was done. There was no way anyone was going to ask a question.
Sarah Glickman raised her hand. I wanted to chop it off. Where was our broadsword when I needed it?
“Did you keep in touch with everyone after you got here?” she asked.
It was my impression that a dozen or so family members made the journey, though neither names nor exact numbers were ever made clear because the entire group wound up scattered across the country. We were never in contact with any of them, and Myna never talked about her relatives except to say they didn’t get along.
My grandmother shrugged. “To run for our lives—on this, we could agree, but nothing else. Once we got off the boat—What’s the point? Besides, most of us got different names when we arrived to Ellis Island.”
Sarah had no follow-up question, thank God. I prayed we were finally done, but someone else asked what Myna and Nathan did when they got to Pittsburgh.
Damn you all! I wanted to scream. You don’t care!
“Some money, we still had,” Myna explained. “We open a new general store in thirteen months, if you can believe! My son, Michael—he was born in 1944, but my Nathan died from cancer in the liver just a year later, so I run the business myself and raise him there. But then, many years later, I finally married to Jon’s grandfather, Leon.
I stood up and clapped like crazy. Show over.

What exciting story are you working on next?
My first YA, a book called You Must Go On.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
Probably when I saw my name on the first published book, a picture book called Cheese Louise!

Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
I’m a full-time middle school teacher (English). I write a little bit each day whenever I find the time. You’d be surprised how even 15-minutes here and there can add up!

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I don’t plan out my books. I just write until I hit a wall, then start revising it from the start, which always gets me a little bit further. When I hit another wall, I repeat the process over and over until I get to an ending I didn’t know was there.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A professional soccer player.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
I appreciate your interest in Fun & Games. It’s being considered by a number of movie producers right now, so I hope to have good news on that front soon!

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Thanks for being here today, David.

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