Allen Zadoff Interview: 'Drink a bottle of wine, stumble to the harpsichord, and poop out a brilliant...'

Each year, the SCBWI gives out the Sid Fleischman award to a book that most exemplifies excellence in humor writing.

Allen Zadoff snagged the 2010 prize for FOOD, GIRLS, AND OTHER THINGS I CAN'T HAVE (Egmont USA), a funny and heart-squeezing tale of a tubby high-schooler who joins the football team to impress a girl and ends up accidentally impressing everyone.

Allen's career is following the same trajectory, though no doubt with more deliberate intent. This year, Egmont published Allen's MY LIFE, THE THEATER, AND OTHER TRAGEDIES. He also served on the SCBWI panel that selected the 2011 Sid Fleischman award winner. And he sent off another novel to Egmont. (Note to Allen: This is annoying. You are making us look bad.)

TeAllen Zadoffam Blog asked Allen about his start as a children's author, his working relationship with the delightful Elizabeth Law, and any advice he has for people who aspire to write humor (it involves sex, so do read on):

How did you get into writing children’s books?

It was fate. In the year while I was waiting for my first book, an adult memoir called HUNGRY, to be published, I sat down and wrote a novel.  The main character was twelve years old. That’s the voice that came out of me naturally. So I never had to decide to write for teens or try to get into YA. There was no strategizing about getting into the business.  There was only me writing from my heart. Luckily, my heart is immature, overly dramatic, and filled with longing.

What’s your writing process like?

I still have a fantasy that all creative processes are supposed to be like Mozart in Amadeus.  Drink a bottle of wine, stumble to the harpsichord, and poop out a brilliant symphony overnight.  That’s not what it looks like for me.  If you had filmed me while I was writing my last novel My Life, the Theater, and Other Tragedies, you would have had to burn the footage.  I go to bed early so I wake up well rested. I start writing at 7am, go for 4-6 hours, then take a break.  In the afternoon I switch to promotional activities and business stuff.   

The work itself is fascinating, difficult, filled with passion and discovery. But the process is slow, steady, and quite frankly, hard work.

Elizabeth Law has published your two YA books through Egmont. How’s it been working with her—as fun and hilarious as she seems on Facebook and Twitter? And how important, overall, do you think the editor/author relationship is in the creation of a great book?

Two books with a third on the way.  I can’t get away from that woman!

Honestly, I love my collaboration with Elizabeth Law.  I’ve written about it a lot because I consider myself lucky to have found her.  I trust her instincts, and that allows me write and take big risks knowing someone has my back.  I get a manuscript as close to perfect as I can, working really hard to put my vision onto the page.  Then I hand it off. Inevitably I get editorial comments that challenge me to take it to the next level.

To tell you the truth, it’s humbling and I hate it.  No matter how well I think I’ve told the story, there’s always stuff in my blind spot.  That’s where Elizabeth comes in. She’s part coach, part cheerleader, and always an astute editorial presence.  She's also funny as hell and a theater lover like me. I’m a better writer because of her.

And yeah, if you need American Idol updates or Farmville equipment, she’s your woman.

Your writing is hilarious, and you last year won the Sid Fleischman Award for FOOD, GIRLS. This year, you’re one of the judges for the contest. What do you think makes for truly comic writing? And do you have tips for people who dream of doing it well?

Thank you for the compliment, and I was honored to be a judge this year. I love our winning book,  Alan Silberberg’s Milo. [Martha's note: I blacked that out for four reasons: 1) to tease you; 2) because I don't want to get busted if it's still a secret; 3) I wanted to see why the censors liked doing it so much; 4) Whoa. I am getting a contact high from the awesomeness of censorship. Kidding!]

It’s the rare MG novel that will make you laugh and cry. It’s honest and heartbreaking, which is what I try to capture in my own work.  As for being funny, I don’t know what to tell you. You have to suffer a lot.  If you can avoid writing funny and instead write good-looking, romantic leads who fight supernatural creatures and occasionally sleep with them, I’d do that instead.

If you could get any celebrity to pose with your latest book, which one would it be?

Our promotion on My Life, the Theater, and Other Tragedies has been so much fun!  The book is about a theater techie in a school where the crew is at war with the actors, and we’ve got theater celebrities like Frances McDormand, Liev Schreiber, and Raul Esparza posing with the book on my website.  By the way, the idea was inspired by Samantha Berger’s promotion for the Martha books which is ingenious.

But who would I like to pose with the book?  The cast of Glee!

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