Tuesday, March 31, 2015

An Interview with Jeff Anderson About His New Middle Grade Novel

Most of us know Jeff Anderson for his brilliant work as a teacher and writer of professional books. I have learned so much from Jeff through his workshops and books. Mechanically Inclined is a book that I go back to often and his others stretch my thinking about writing.  This year, Jeff's first MG novel is due out and I was lucky enough to get an advanced copy of it.  The book is called  Zack Delacruz:  Me and My Big Mouth and it is due out in August from Sterling. It was a great read and I can think of so many past students that will love this book.  This is probably geared toward the upper end of middle grade--I am thinking grades 5-7 seems perfect.  

I had the opportunity to interview Jeff about his book and his writing.   I learned so much about his writing and this new book! 


Franki:  Why, after focusing on writing professionally for teachers did you decide to write a middle grade novel?

Jeff:  Actually I began trying my hand at writing fiction for middle grade readers almost 20 years ago.  While my first published work was professional writing for teachers, my first love was middle grade and YA fiction. Since my professional writing was fairly successful, I decided to give fiction another shot after letting it wane for five or six years. Instead of revising what I’d done in the past, Zack’s voice came to me and spilled out on the page, and many revisions later that became Zack Delacruz: Me and My Big Mouth (Sterling, August 2015).  I have a blast plotting stories, cracking myself up, going back to certain settings—hamburger joints, school festivals—any of the settings in my books and paying attention in a new way.

Franki:  You mention in your note before the story that Zack Delacruz is a lot like you. Can you talk more about that?

Jeff:  That's the fun of fiction, isn’t it? Bits and pieces and flashes of your life unconsciously work their way into your prose. Zack is short—I am tall. But the way the difference contributed to us standing out is our link. And let’s just say my big mouth had a way of getting me into trouble as well—saying the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person. But all the characters have a bit of me or people that I’ve known—even in embarrassing ways. Like Janie, I sometimes spit when I talk. This was not conscious choice for her character, however. I only realized the connection later. It just happened. That’s the other fun of fiction. As I write characters they become real people to me. They do the things they’d naturally do, which are sometimes things I’d do or I’ve seen people do. There is a power beyond the conscious mind that weaves conflict and humor into my fiction. I love the way the ideas just keep coming.

Franki:  You do such a good job of balance of real middle school issues with humor in the book. How did you do that and was it a conscious decision?

Jeff:  Thank you. I’m glad you think so. There’s that conscious word again.  I’d say no. I didn’t decide to balance tough issues with humor. That’s what came out when I started to write. The reality is I was bullied relentlessly as a middle school student, and I believe the birth of my humor came from these experiences. If I made people laugh, I’d survive. They say a peacock’s feathers are so beautiful because they eat thorns. Through constant bullying I received, I ate a lot of thorns, making humor a feather in my cap.

Another connection to me is my parents were divorced around this age, but I was separated from my Dad by a three-hour drive and three-times-a-year-scheduled visits. In this book, the closeness I have with my father is the one I wished I had. That’s another wonderful thing about fiction. You can change things or experience them in a new way. The way you want. I felt alienated and alone as a child. I had such a wish to disappear. Those thoughts couldn’t help but arise as a theme in this middle grade book. But I hope the humor makes it fun. It wasn’t a message book at all, but still I think one can be found in it if you look. 

Franki:  You’ve taught this age level. Did you notice kids you’ve taught show up in the characters of this book?

Jeff:  I wanted to write a book my students would want to read. In that way they are present as an audience I wanted them to relate to. And in a way everyone I’ve ever known shows up in Zack DelacruzMe and My Big Mouth. But of course none of them are actual people. They are fabricated mixtures of people’s voices and experiences as well as mine.

I’ve taught over twenty years in the classroom and that experience oozes all over these pages. The things my students liked, said, worried about, and wrote about find their way into the fabric of my stories. I don’t often see the students I taught in books: kids that hope and dream and have everyday kid problems, but also happen to be kids of color. I am so honored that I have the chance to give my students and those like them a true reflection of their day-to-day lives. But quite often my experiences work their way in. For example, in high school I was the one who ate all the chocolate bars I was supposed to sell. I, like Zack, turn to a jar of peanut butter when stressed. When I saw the illustrator’s rendering of that scene from the book, I saw me—young and old—all over that picture. 

Franki:  I wasn’t aware there would be illustrations. Tell me about that.

Jeff:  Yes, I absolutely love Andrea Miller’s illustrations that aren’t in the advanced reader copy (ARC) you received. The pictures really add a layer to the book. If you’re interested, sometimes we release sneak peaks of illustrations on twitter. (@writeguyjeff, @andreacecelia, @sterlingbooks) And while I am at it, I am honored to have the fabulous Tad Carpenter, the cover designer of Wonder by RJ Palacio, designing the cover of Zack Delacruz: Me and My Big Mouth.

Franki:  Can you talk a bit about your experience writing a middle grade novel as opposed to the other writing you do?

Jeff:  In some ways, writing both genres are the same. I have to set aside large chunks of time to draft and revise. But fiction comes together in a different way than nonfiction writing for teachers. For teachers, it’s my voice and my actual experiences teaching writing. For my fiction book, my voice is that of a sixth grader. The characters exist only in my mind and the pages. It’s freer.  Organization matters in both cases, but in fiction it’s about the plot and change and connection. In my professional books, it’s how I can best show teachers options and possibilities. And in the end, there is something incredibly healing in fiction writing that isn’t the same in professional nonfiction. The story is all. Fiction is also a more fun to write, though I enjoy writing whatever I work on. With fiction, I feel a new purpose, a new way of reaching readers. That’s a wonderful feeling.

Franki:  Will Zack Delacruz be a series? If not, what future writing for kids do you have in the works?

Jeff:  Yes, Zack Delacruz is slated to be a series of books. I actually have already drafted the second book in the series and am revising it right now. I also have a YA book that I’d love to get out there in the next year or so. It deals with the truth of how our pasts do in fact change us and form us and haunt us.


  1. So exciting! I hadn't heard that he was writing a novel. I'm so glad I found out via your post with the interview.


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