If you've read my blog posts, you'll know that I'm a HUGE an of dance, and I'm often inspired by shows like "So You Think You Can Dance." So, when I heard about Brooks Benjamin and his recent MG release, "My Seventh Grade Life in Tights," I couldn't wait to read it and to learn more about its wonderful author. Before I get into the interview, I'll tell you that the book did NOT disappoint.
Here's my interview with the talented Mr. Benjamin. (NOTE: Any bold text in the interview is my doing for emphasis based on things I particularly liked.)
And you can see the adorable BOOK TRAILER right here.
In high school and college I was big into writing screenplays. It wasn't until 2012 when I finally tried writing an actual book. The inspiration for the story actually came from my relationship with my dad, but the drive to try something besides a script was a UT professor. She told me to write a short narrative scene about an unruly kid. So I did. And that's when I realized how much I loved that style of writing.
That example really reminds me why it's so important to try new things. I never thought I'd enjoy writing short stories and for years I avoided them, but after giving it a try, I realized how much I love to write them. And how much they've helped me grow as a writer as you UT experience did for you. It's also so important to read widely. Can you tell us about your favorite books, purely as a reader?
Sure! Some of my favorite stories are Bridge to Terabithia for the way it perfectly captures the tenderness of new friendships, Holes for how the setting is as much a character as Stanley, Better Nate Than Ever for its courage and honesty, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing for its tear-inducing humor, The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy because of how brilliant every single line of the book it, Flipped, for all the adorable middle-grade romance, and The Dark Tower series because Roland's focus and drive is how I want to live my life.
Ah, "Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing"... That one brings me back to my grammar school library when it was the hottest book and we all fought over it. I'm a huge King fan, including the "Dark Tower Series." (Little known fact: our dog, Rollie, was actually named after Roland of Gilead.)
Your new MG book, "My Seventh-Grade Life in Tights" just came out in April. Did you have any particular inspiration for that book?
I did. And quite the embarrassing bit of inspiration, too. I started a dance crew back in middle school with my friends. None of us knew how to dance, so we all taught ourselves. However, my sister (when she was supposed to be babysitting me) would binge-watch MTV with her friends, so I got to watch the videos, too. That made me the crew's leading expert of popular dance moves. And since my sister went on a pretty severe New Kids on the Block listening streak when I was in sixth grade, that became the music we danced to. So we called our group The New Kidz and practiced nearly every day after school.
New Kids! Another blast from my personal past. My friends and I weren't anywhere near as cool as you and yours, though. Do you have any interesting stories about your experience writing M7GLiT? Any perfect "ah-ha!" moments or challenges you overcame to make it work?
The biggest challenge to me was writing the studio scenes. I'd never stepped foot in a studio. But luckily, I knew several people who either had or currently danced in one. So I relied a lot on them to help me. As for an "ah-ha!" moment, I had one of those pretty early on when I started my first draft. Originally, the book began when Dillon was in sixth grade performing at the talent show.
It's so great to hear you reference the writing process and how much your book changed as you worked on it. What's your best piece of advice for writers struggling to complete a novel? Do you ever find yourself stuck, and if so, how do you unstick yourself?
Oh, I definitely get stuck. I'm great at getting stuck. In fact, I find myself stuck on a scene at least once a week. But that's not a bad thing. Getting stuck is how you know you need to dig a little deeper and refocus on the foundation of the story. Taking a step back and remembering what my character's "want" is--that one thing that drives every single one of his or her decisions--and allowing myself to brainstorm as many ways as possible to get him or her from point A to point B never fails to pry me out of the muck of storytelling uncertainty. And every time I can do that, I always come out unstuck and with a better direction for what I want to write.
I'm a plantser.
Hahahaa! I love that word.
I start with a very small outline (sometimes as brief as four or five lines--just the main plot points that could potentially fall at the 25, 50, 75, and 90 percent marks) and begin writing. And when the story takes a turn, I change the rest of the outline, begin writing again, wash, rinse, and repeat.
The agent query process is something we get to learn a lot about via author blogs, but the submission process is way more of a mystery. What was it like for you going on submission? What insights can you share now that you’ve come out the other end?
My submission process wasn't very typical, I don't think. I signed with Uwe, my agent, in March and about two weeks later, he'd sold M7GLiT. However, I'm currently on sub right now with my next MG book, and I'm finally getting a sense of that unbearable weight that is Publishing Silence.
I feel like we need a special font for that phrase: Publishing Silence. Maybe one of those zombie, creepy fonts. It's a scary thing. What was the most exciting moment? The most challenging time.
Since this was my very first book, every single moment has been the most exciting one. I'm like a baby and every milestone I reach feels so monumental I can't help but bask in it. Even the small things like seeing a barcode on the back of my hardcovers was surreal. I showed everyone. I was like, "That's my book! Those lines are my book!"
I would SO do that.
However, the most challenging thing so far has been the (thankfully very few) negative responses about the content of the book. My Seventh-Grade Life in Tights is about dance, and dance is an all-inclusive art form. Therefore I knew before I began writing it that I wanted my characters to be representative of the diversity we see in the dance world. Carson, one of the members of the Dizzee Freekz (the crew in the book) is openly gay and has a very big crush on another boy at school. I've received so many emails and messages from readers about how much they loved seeing a character like Carson in a MG book. But not everyone has been tickled to death about it.
What a great feeling! How do you cope with what I like to call "the long wait?" What's your best piece of advice for writers who are facing this themselves (and I won't lie, I have a personal interest in the answer to this one <wink>).
The long wait. Ugh. That's tough. And I'm pretty sure it won't get easier with the next book or even the one after that. It's just part of the game and every author in my debut group has either gone through several rejections for a project or is currently wading through the radio silence from editors. But what we've all done is continue to create. We build worlds and imagine characters and give them hopes and dreams and fears and flaws and set them out on little journeys or magnificent quests. We stay busy and keep listening to each other. We tell jokes and allow ourselves to vent. We remain honest and open with those we've formed friendships with but still encourage the ones we barely even know. And, for me, when I'm sitting in front of my computer, wondering if the story I'm writing will ever see the shelf of my local indie bookstore, I remind myself of how blessed I am that the world gets to read something I've written. And maybe, if I'm lucky, they'll get to read even more some day.
Thank you so much, Brooks, for taking the time to talk to us. Best of luck with your current book and the submission process. I can't wait to see what you've got coming next.
About the Author
The short 'n sweet version: Brooks Benjamin lives in Tennessee with his wife and their incredibly spoiled dog. MY SEVENTH-GRADE LIFE IN TIGHTS (Delacorte/Random House) is his first novel.
The not-so-short but still sweet version: In sixth grade, Brooks Benjamin formed a New Kids on the Block tribute dance crew called the New Kidz. He wasn’t that good at dancing back then. But now he’s got a new crew—his wife and their dog. They live in Tennessee, where he teaches reading and writing and occasionally busts out a few dance moves. He’s still not that good at it. MY SEVENTH-GRADE LIFE IN TIGHTS (Delacorte/Random House) is his first novel.