If you love Middle Grade books as much as I do, then I am sure you recognize the name Chris Tebbetts. It was my great pleasure to interview him regarding his life, his work with James Patterson and Jeff Probst, and his upcoming YA novel, Me, Myself, and Him. I hope you enjoy this interview!
~ The Haunted Wordsmith
You write on your website that you watched a lot of television growing up, what were your favorite shows and was there one that influenced your writing style?
My favorite shows (the ones that first come to mind) were Zoom, The Brady Bunch, The Jetsons, The Carol Burnett Show. But as for a show that influenced my writing style, I’d say it’s more true that television in general, and the fact that I watched so much of it, is what impacted my style. For better or worse, I like to write stories that respond to my own short attention span, with fast-moving plots and an emphasis on story over description or internal monologue. To whatever degree it’s pointed me in a less literary direction, I think it’s also given me pretty good commercial instincts and, even better, a style that appeals to so-called reluctant readers. I love to hear about kids who found a new enthusiasm for books by getting turned onto one or more of my quick-reading page turners—especially in a time when authors have to compete more than ever with the allure of the various screens that dominate our lives these days.
Many writers and aspiring authors love to hear other writer’s processes. Where do you like to write, and is there a particular method you use to create your stories?
99% of the time, I write alone, at home, and in silence. I’ve always liked solitude, and that serves me well as a writer—especially one as easily distracted as I am. I find that my process goes infinitely better if I give myself the physical and psychic space I need to get those words down on the page.
As for the methods I use for creating stories, I’m always evolving. I used to be someone who created and worked from outlines all the time, with a good idea of my overall story arc from the beginning. However, in the past several years, I’ve been outlining less and discovering my stories on the page (as we say) more. That approach is more organic, but also more labor intensive, since it means I end up writing a lot more material that doesn’t wind up in the finished book. For example, the first finished draft of my new book, ME, MYSELF, AND HIM clocked in at 120,000 words, which is a lot! But by the time I’d finished editing, rewriting, and cutting out everything I didn’t need, that same story crossed the finish line at just over 60,000 words. That’s an extreme example, and more than anything, I know that every project is different, so I try to approach each story with a minimum of assumptions about how I’m going to get it done.
Finding that elusive publishing deal comes with a lot of setbacks. One question that many aspiring writers have is how many rejections did you receive until you found the one that said yes?
My trajectory was a little different than the classic zillion-rejections story you hear from so many writers. The first novels I ever wrote were work-for-hire, which is to say, I was hired to write someone else’s idea. In this case, it was a four-book middle grade fantasy adventure series called THE VIKING, which I wrote for a book packager, Alloy Entertainment, and which they sold to Penguin Puffin for publication.
For me, that was a kind of shortcut to becoming a published novelist—and a real trial by fire as well. I’d never written a novel before, and I was given all of eleven months to write the entire series. It was a lot of work, and I learned on the fly, but by the end of that year, I had four books under my belt. The trade off, of course, is that I don’t own the copyright for those books. Work for hire isn’t a choice everyone will want to make for themselves, but in my case, it was a completely acceptable compromise that allowed me to bypass the mountain of rejections I might have otherwise accumulated on my way into the publishing game.
You have achieved well-deserved success as co-author with James Patterson and Jeff Probst, what was it like working with them?
I’ve heard a lot of stories from writer friends who have found the co-authoring process to be really difficult, but for me, I’ve really lucked out in the collaborations I’ve found.
On the MIDDLE SCHOOL series that I write with James Patterson, he comes into each book with a fully developed, chapter-by-chapter outline that I then draft into a polished first version of the story. I send pieces of those drafts to Jim once a month and he’ll respond with comments along the way. When the story is fully written, Jim then takes my draft and rewrites it to completion. I’ve found that our mutually spare writing styles have a real compatibility, and I’ve learned a ton from him about boiling down scenes and chapters to their very essence, which is part of the appeal to our readers.
With Jeff, who knows all about storytelling through his own t work but hadn’t ever published a children’s book before, the collaboration involved a lot more back and forth from the very beginning. We worked together by phone and email to develop our characters, setting, and castaway plot for our STRANDED series before the actual drafting began. That process was heavily aided by the fact that we shared a common language in Jeff’s show, Survivor, which has always been an absolute favorite of mine. It was just a freakishly happy coincidence that when Jeff went looking for a co-author, he approached an editor I’d worked with before, who gave him my name—and it all went from there.
What is one book that you recommend to everyone?
I’m going to cheat a little and make several recommendations in multiple categories….because who can choose just one?
For writers (and creative people in general), I recommend FREEPLAY: IMPROVISATION IN LIFE AND ART. For readers of adult fiction, my latest big recommendation is PACHINKO by Min Jin Lee. For readers of YA fiction, I’m a huge fan of ELEANOR AND PARK by Rainbow Rowell. And for readers of middle grade fiction, I’m going to say, THE BRIDGE HOME by Padma Venkatraman. I just finished that book and it’s one of the best things I’ve read in quite a while.
Did you always want to write for the Middle Grade and Young Adult audience?
No, but I was always an aspiring storyteller of one kind or another, through my lifelong interest in books, theater, and filmmaking over the years. My years in professional theater (including a lot of children’s theater) laid the groundwork for what would eventually be my transition to writing, and specifically, writing for young readers.
In your upcoming novel, Me, Myself, and Him, Chris Schweitzer faces the age-old question of “what-if” through parallel timelines. What was the inspiration for this novel?
The first inspiration was the incident that sets the story itself into motion. The prologue of this book is autobiographical, about a drug-fueled accident I had at age nineteen, where I broke my nose and got into a lot of trouble with my parents, appropriately enough.
However, once I started writing the book, it took on a life of its own, and I started exploring the alternate realities that may have flowed from this accident. In one timeline (in the book), Chris is busted for what happens and sent to live with his famous but difficult physicist of a father for the last summer before college. In the second timeline, Chris lies about what happened and spends the summer trying to stay on top of that lie, among other things.
I’ve had a longstanding fascination with certain areas of theoretical physics—which totally sounds like I know more than I do. For me, though, the basic idea of the multiverse—that there is some scientific basis for the existence of various realities—is fascinating. The two parallel timelines in my book, following my character Chris through two outcomes from the same inciting incident, stand as a symbol of the infinite possibilities in every situation. In the book, we get to experience two of those realities as a kind of marker for the infinite number of other possibilities that aren’t explored on the page.
Lastly, I have to add that the movie Sliding Doors is a reference point for this book as well. That was the first time I ever saw someone tackle the idea of parallel outcomes, although it’s a conceit that has been popularized over the years.
Do you share any traits or qualities with Chris?
For sure—starting with his first name. That was a deliberate choice, of course, since this story is in some small part memoir, mixed with a much heavier dose of fiction. Beyond that, the book also draws on a lot of the emotional truths that were part of my experience at that age. For example, Chris Schweitzer (my protagonist) is out and comfortably gay. That wasn’t true of me at that age, but I certainly experienced some of the alienation that he does, as his friends start hooking up and leave him feeling like a social third wheel.
What is one takeaway that you hope your readers find in Me, Myself, and Him?
That what we know as “true” always exists in some larger context. It was important to me, as I explored the two parallel stories in this book, that the reader get to see some of what Chris does and doesn’t learn about the people in his life, depending on the circumstances. By the end of the book, each of my two Chris’ comes away with overlapping but distinct understandings about the events of the story as he’s lived it.
Is Me, Myself, and Him a standalone book, or will we see more timeslip stories with Chris?
I don’t know for sure. Part of that will depend on how this book sells. That said, if there is going to be a sequel, I already know exactly where and when it takes place, though I’m not sure about the larger story yet. I guess we’ll file this one under “wait and see.”
Even though Me, Myself, and Him will not be released until July 9, 2019, what can readers expect to see from you in the future?
I have two finished projects waiting to publish with James Patterson—a collection of short stories for middle grade readers and an adult thriller, both coming out in 2020. And I’m currently working on a solo middle grade novel that is nothing like ME, MYSELF, AND HIM. But my superstition being as it is, that’s all I can tell you about it!
Cinnamon rolls play a part in the story (I am positive readers are dying to know the best way to eat a cinnamon roll), what was the best cinnamon roll you ever ate?
OMG, how to choose?? I like the ones that take their cinnamon filling seriously, not just a whisper of cinnamon with a bunch of unflavored dough. And no raisins, for sure! (Not that I have strong opinions about it or anything…. ☺)
Meet the Author
Chris Tebbetts is the author and co-author of many books for young readers. Titles include the #1 New York Times bestselling MIDDLE SCHOOL series, as well as PUBLIC SCHOOL SUPERHERO, with James Patterson and illustrator Laura Park; the New York Times bestselling STRANDED series with Jeff Probst; the young adult novel M OR F? with Lisa Papademetriou; and THE VIKING series. Watch for his new young adult title, ME, MYSELF, AND HIM in July, 2019. Tebbetts’ work has received children’s choice awards in Oregon and Hawaii, as well a Sunshine State Young Readers Award nomination, and a nod on the New York Public Library’s annual list of Books For the Teen Age.
You can find him online at www.christebbetts.com and on Twitter and Instagram @christebbetts.