Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Striking A Balance Between Planning and Surprise: An Interview with Daniel McInerny

Why do you write for children?
I love writing middle grade fiction because it’s addressed to kids ready for a more nuanced narrative and emotional palette, but who haven’t yet been inveigled out of their natural sense of innocent enchantment about the world. That sense of enchantment includes a robust spirit of adventure and mystery, as well as a love of comedy. All of those ingredients make middle grade the perfect mix for me.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became a writer.

I’m a not-quite-48-year-old husband and father of three who lives in Northern Virginia not terribly far from Washington, D.C. I am a native of South Bend, Indiana (just downriver from Patria), a graduate of the University of Notre Dame (BA in English), and a holder of a PhD in philosophy. I spent nearly 18 years teaching and working at various universities in the United States, and just over a year ago left academia and launched Trojan Tub Entertainment.

I have been writing fiction all of my adult life, but only recently have begun to publish. I don’t only write children’s fiction. Last month I published my first novel for adults, a dark comic thriller called High Concepts: A Hollywood Nightmare. I also write short stories and screenplays and am currently at work on a radio play for a competition sponsored by the BBC.

See My Review Here!

What was the inspiration for your Kingdom of Patria series?I am a great fan of the comic stories of P.G. Wodehouse. In praising Wodehouse’s tales of feckless bachelors and wise butlers, Evelyn Waugh spoke of Wodehouse as creating a “fairy tale” world. It occurred to me that it would be fun to turn Waugh’s comment on its head and set out to create a fairy tale world that aspired to be as comical as the books of Wodehouse. My Patria stories are first and foremost meant to be laugh-out-load funny. Their plots revolve around adventure and mystery, but the tone is always light and fluffy. Their humor owes a lot to Wodehouse, but also to that of Roald Dahl, as well as J.K. Rowling in the more whimsical portions of the Harry Potter books. One of my reviewers on Amazon compared Stout Hearts & Whizzing Biscuits to the film version of Ian Fleming’ children’s novel, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I like that comparison. Rob Reiner’s film, The Princess Bride, from a script by William Goldman, also masterfully hits the tone I am striving for.

Tell us about your process.

I will usually get an almost hopelessly vague but nonetheless exciting germ of an idea and then follow it up with a lot of note-taking and outlining before actually getting going on composing the story. My Patria books involve a lot of characters mixed up in complicated, farcical plots, so that it’s simply not practical to plunge in like Hemingway and start writing to see where the story leads. If I proceeded in that way, I would eventually have to stop and start note-taking and outlining, because again, my stories have too many moving parts to keep straight without some kind of roadmap (to mix my metaphor).

The trap for me is that I can linger too long over the note-taking and outlining, becoming too left-brained about the process. I thus have to strike a balance between the desire to plan and know every aspect of the plot beforehand and the need to just start writing and let my imagination surprise me. I’m better than I used to be at striking this balance, but I still, with every project, reach a point where I become too analytical and where I need to simply put aside the notes and outlines and start writing.

What does a typical writing day look like?

I’m a morning writer. Afternoons when a deadline presses. Practically never in the evenings. These days I start pretty early and write until about mid-day.

Where is your favorite place to write?

The ideal for me is to be able to write anywhere, to be prepared to put words on paper even if my regular routine is upended. That being said, I enjoy writing in my home office the most. That’s where I am most comfortable and disciplined. I like being surrounded by all my books, having Internet access if I have to look something up or I want to read the paper during a break, and being able to go downstairs at will for a cup of coffee or tea.

Public spaces, like a Barnes & Noble, can work well for background work and a change of scene, but it takes a great deal of concentration for me to actually compose fiction in such a setting. Sometimes I do, but rarely.
What did or do you find most challenging in creating the story and getting it published? What do you wish you would have known?

These days, there’s really no reason to experience any significant trouble in self-publishing one’s books (as I do). Advances in digital technology and the new distribution platforms provided by Amazon and others make publishing a breeze. The real challenges come with the marketing.

I wish I had learned a little earlier than I did that the best kind of marketing is “content marketing,” i.e. providing rich fictional and other entertainment and informational content, some of it for a price, but a lot of it for free, in order to draw my audience in. The free content on the Kingdom of Patria site--the short stories, the activities that the two clubs are involved with, the character blogs, the Kingdom of Patria Storytime Radio--all helps kids and parents become familiar and comfortable with my brand. 

I've heard it said that from the Internet people are looking for either information or entertainment. A lot of self-pubbers do a great job at content marketing through information, "How To" articles and the like. All that is great and I consume a fair amount of it and produce some too, but my favored approach is to entertain by providing free fictional content. That's what interests me most and what I feel I'm best at.
What is the best writing advice you have ever received?

“A writer is someone who writes.” That’s an unromantic, lunch pail, craftsman’s take on what it means to be a writer, and I think it’s the best advice that any writer can begin with and return to.

When it comes to entire books on writing, I like Dorothea Brande’s Becoming A Writer, Stephen King’s On Writing, Robert McKee’s Story, and Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners.

Are you working on a new project? Can you tell us about it?

I could tell you about it, but then I would have to send the Knights of the Blue Sock out to hunt you down! :)

Among other things I do have a new children’s book brewing. I’m just getting started with it. All I’m able to say is that it’s a kind of prequel to the two Patria novels I’ve released. Why should George Lucas and Peter Jackson have all the fun!

What advice would you give others that write for children?

First and foremost I would urge them to enjoy the process, to play with the story, to let one’s own childlikeness (not childishness) come through in the writing. Second, to keep in mind that children’s literature is not only for children, but should be of such a quality that it can be enjoyed by anyone. Third, not to introduce children, in the hopes of being “relevant” or “edgy,” to aspects of the adult world that are beyond their maturity level.

Everyone is always welcome to the Kingdom of Patria! You can also keep up with the news from Patria by “liking” the Trojan Tub Entertainment Facebook page. Daniel McInerny can be found on his blog at the Kingdom of Patria, at his author site,, and on Twitter: @kingdomofpatria.

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