Annnnnd we're back! It's been difficult to keep up with the blog as of late, but I have some plans to keep it going, beginning with a series of interviews of some friends and colleagues with books coming out this spring. We're kicking things off with KURT DINAN and his YA debut novel, DON'T GET CAUGHT, which hits the stands on April 1st - tomorrow! Nice marketing trick for a book about pranks, eh? Well played, SourceBooks.
You may recall Kurt giving me the third degree on his blog a few months ago. Here I return the favor, though I gotta tell you - it's tough when a book is so great. Yes, Kurt is a fantastic writer and a good friend of mine, so I'm biased...BUT prior to cracking DON'T GET CAUGHT I hadn't read much (if any) YA and just a few of Kurt's short stories, so I felt pretty good going in blind. Kurt kills it in his debut. You should grab this book because it's a ton of fun, but also for Kurt's use of voice, handling of an ensemble/team and tight plotting. Early reviews are excellent (especially over on Goodreads, where the book has been on fire for months.) But enough of this sweet praise. Read on!
Chris: YA fans are over-the-moon for DON'T GET CAUGHT. What's going on here? Give a quick pitch and sell the rest of us on this big debut.
Kurt: The quick pitch: DON'T GET CAUGHT is a fast-paced, funny, and prank-filled caper novel about a group of outcasts out for revenge. Or if you want the Hollywood elevator pitch, it's Ocean's 11 meets The Breakfast Club, but with a lot more dick jokes. At least that was my intention when I wrote it.
Chris: Mmmmm, I smell a movie. Speaking of which, the voice of the narrator, Max Cobb, (my favorite aspect of the book) screamed film voice-over in the best way, taking me back to movies like The Sandlot and Stand By Me, among others. How did you go about developing it? Balancing the innocence and teenager hijinx. Did it naturally roll off onto the page?
Kurt: Oh man, I'm glad to hear that because I struggle with voice so much. I honestly don't think it was until the 4th or 5th draft where I finally heard his voice and could write it. If I remember correctly, I think it was writing, "This is a terrible idea. It's stupid, irresponsible, and borderline suicidal. But I'm going anyway" as my opening lines where everything clicked. Now, those lines don't start the novel in the final draft, but something in there made Max come to life. After that, I had to go rewrite the whole novel to fit that voice, but it was fun work because I finally had it.
Chris: That's some serious persistence! Was fine tuning the voice part of the process of finding your footing writing YA fiction? What was it like moving from Horror to YA? Or were you always writing both?
Kurt: The move from horror to YA was easy because if I'm being honest, horror wasn't a good fit for me. Like a lot of people I know, I spent my high school years reading Stephen King. So when I started writing I wrote what I knew best. I had some success with a few horror stories, yeah, but I learned that I'm not really that dark of a guy by nature, and it's hard for me to get myself in the right place to write that way. YA though? Writing smart-assed, euphemism-slinging, antiauthoritarian teenagers? That's much more natural for me.
Chris: Speaking of smart-assed, euphemism-slinging, antiauthoritarian teenagers - you feature quite a few pranks in this book. What was the process like inventing them? Any you had to scrap during the editorial process?
Kurt: I did a lot of research on pranks, and then steroided them out to make them bigger and better. The fun part was figuring out how to make a team pull the prank off, and then write it in such a way that the reader doesn't know exactly what's being done until the very end of the chapter. I like to think of myself as a problem solver, so it was a fun exercise with each prank, thinking, "Okay, how exactly would you make such and such happen?" I did scrap one prank from an early draft in which the Chaos Club had turned around the first ten rows of seats in the auditorium so that everyone faced each other like in a subway car. I ditched that scene just to get the novel moving faster. And at one point Wheeler had a different prank than the one he pulls in the novel, but for the life of me I can't remember what it was. I do know that I wrote the prank he pulls on the football practice field on the writers' retreat where you and I met. My only goal that weekend was to write that chapter, and I was worried I wouldn't get it finished. I was in such a prank planning mode though that I knocked it out in a few hours, a first for me.
Chris: That was a great writers' retreat! I'm glad to hear you got some serious work done...unlike myself. It's all about the social interaction though, right? I'll keep telling myself that. Any retreats/conventions/tours lined up for this year? I saw you hit the big time at the American Bookseller Association's Winter Institute in Denver back in January.
Kurt: I just found out my book release party is on April 6th here in Cincinnati, so I'm looking forward to that. I'm also a guest at the Ohioana Book Festival in April, and the Pickerington Teen Book Festival in June. There are a couple of others in Ohio I'm hoping to attend as well. But yeah, the ABA Winter Institute was big time, and I spent most of my time looking over my shoulder worried that the book police were going to arrest me for slumming. I know you're supposed to "act like you've been there" and all of that, but putting me in a signing room with Richard Russo and Kwame Alexander is a bit ridiculous.
Chris: Getting back to the kids for a moment - I was on a panel the other day at Boskone and we were discussing the idea that every character in a story is a hero, that they have their own story where they are they hero, even if it isn't the main narrative. I think this idea applies to DON'T GET CAUGHT in how you really developed the whole cast. They have their own struggles, problems at school/home in addition to the group's goal/conflict throughout the book. How did you go about developing each story? Do you have a favorite?
Kurt: It's funny you brought this up because I gave each of the five characters an arc thinking I had to. It wasn't until I got into revising that my agent and editor both told me I didn't have to go to that length. But I love ensemble casts and used The Breakfast Club as a template. By the end of that film you know a good amount of each of those characters. I wanted each member of the Water Tower 5, the kids looking for revenge in the novel, to each have his/her motivation for doing what they do. Of those five, I think I like Wheeler's arc the most. I like the idea of the classic screw-up deciding to turn things around while still not changing who he is at his core. Like Wheeler says, he upgrades who he is, but doesn't do a new install. So he can be more responsible without being completely responsible, which no one would like.
Chris: I love that line about upgrading versus a new install.
It wasn't until I got into revising that my agent and editor both told me I didn't have to go to that length.
I find this statement fascinating as it reads to me like they said the book was good enough as is and that you didn't need to go the extra mile. Could this be attributed to the YA market/readership? Can you expand on this a little? Terrible plans, eh? Keeping them in high school? Do you envision ever taking these characters post high school?
Kurt: In an early revision note, I'd been asked to make Stranko, the vice principal, and sort-of-antagonist in the novel, a little less moustache-twirly. I humanized him some, and then wondered if I needed to do the same with the other four characters in Max's crew. I'd given them all arcs on purpose, but wasn't sure if I'd gone far enough. I was told, yep, you're fine. Actually, giving those characters arcs is what helped me figure out the pranks. Adleta, the lacrosse player with the terrible father, had to have a sports-related prank, and Malone, with her sexting scandal, had to get revenge on the girl who sent her picture around. It really was pretty helpful.
Keeping anyone in high school is torture, for sure, but as much as I dig these characters, I'm not planning to write about their post-high school lives. I would at least like to mess around with them during the senior year though.
Chris: You know every interview is going to bring up the sequel(s). Anything outlined/planned out? What's next?
Kurt: I have the basic idea for a sequel, and know a few of the pranks that will be pulled and why. I've started an outline and even some of the writing, which is a fun task because I like these characters so much. Hopefully I get approached to write a sequel soon because I have terrible plans for all of these characters. I mean, there have to be repercussions for the pranks they pulled, right? Do any of us really ever truly get away with anything?
Chris: Do any of us really ever truly get away with anything? - now that's a hell of tag line for a sequel. I'll let you have the final word!
Kurt: The last word? Okay, I can do that. Look, reader of Chris' blog, I get it, you read a lot of crime, and, like Chris, maybe you don't read a lot of YA. But here's the thing, I read a lot of crime, too. In fact, I pretty much bow at the altar of Donald Westlake, the master of the comic caper novel. DON'T GET CAUGHT is in that vain, just with high school kids and a lot more dick jokes. If you happen to read the novel and not like it, Chris promises he'll refund your money. What a good guy he is!
Get your copies of DON'T GET CAUGHT