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Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Do Better: An Interview with Stephen Bramucci

What made you decide to write your first novel? Was there any particular author you read that made you think, I could write like that? 
I decided to write The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo because of those Old Spice commercials. It's crazy, I don't even have a TV, I just saw those online and I love that boastful, mildly oblivious, and arrogant-yet-well-meaning voice. 

I also really love meta-fiction and "in jokes" and wanted to create a text rich with both. The book has notes from the narrator's butler at the end of each chapter that often contradict the main character's bombast. It's a fun way to foreshadow and call back to old jokes. 

In short, I did the only thing a person can ever do: I wrote the sort of adventure novel that I'd like to read. The pulpy Indiana Jones with a more flawed hero. That was the goal. 

How long did it take you to write your first book? Who encouraged you along the way?
Well, I wrote The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo in grad school, at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, so it took about two years. In that time there were endless "beta reads" and critiques by profs, classmates, friends, partners, and my family. I'm a big believer in showing things to people, and on that project, I got a LOT of input. 

Are you active with any writing critique groups? 
I have two critique partners that I communicate with online daily. I'm also part of an annual writer's retreat near Chicago that gives me a chance to share work and get opinions on it. 

In short, I'm not the precious novelist who treats my work like the wings of a butterfly. I like opinions about what's wrong, then I like to try to figure out how to fix it. 

What is the hardest part of writing for you? Starting? Creating a scene? Dialog? Tension, etc?
I'd say the hardest part is connective tissue. I want to get gestures, interactions, expressions, and blocking right and those are the bits I probably rewrite the most. 

How do you handle the editorial process?
I was signed by Sara Crowe (now of Pippin) shortly after graduating and the book sold to Bloomsbury. Over the next few years (the book sold in 2014), I had another three editorial passes with the amazing Mary Kate Castellani. Editors are geniuses and she is a particularly brilliant one. I personally have come to realize that I thrive with editorial guidance. 

What does your editor remind you to do most often?
She reminds me of the importance of leaving breadcrumbs for the reader so that my exuberant, eager characters aren't just racing to and fro without giving the reader some indication of why. I've learned a lot from her on that count. I'm a vagabond in spirit (and in my previous profession as a full-time travel writer) so I sometimes write like I travel ("this happens, then this happens, then THIS!") without making sure all those things are causally related.

What’s the best encouragement you’ve had in your writing?
I've won some contests and awards, but they never answered that nagging question of "am I good enough?" Nothing has. Not my agent, not my editor, not my parents, not my friends. 

The only thing that has ever worked is reading something I wrote and liked it. I intimately understand the fiction tastes of one human on earth... me. I wrote a book I love. If there 10,000 people who have my same tastes, I'll be fine. If there are 50,000, I'll be stoked. If there are only 100 then... I guess I'm out of luck. 

I don't know how to write for anyone. I'm actually very audience-minded, I want my books read, but there's just no way to fully know what people want and I hate pandering. 

I imagine most writers are like that. I think J.K. Rowling was probably just like, "I want to write about some kids doing magic" and it just so happened that 50 million people were like "I'm so into that!"

We have all experienced rejection. Give me an example of one you’ve had, and how you learned to write past it.
I wrote a book I truly loved while I was waiting on illustrations for The Danger Gang. It got a lot of interest but has yet to sell. I know a few people who are waiting to see how the first novel performs before making a final call. That gutted me. I'm published now! I have a deal! Doors are supposed to be thrown open! 

But it's not always like that. This is an industry and there are machinations and movements behind the scenes. I was low for a while, but what the hell are you going to do, not write? 

Forget that. Writing is too fun to give up, even during the low times.

What has frustrated you the most in writing/publishing?
Frustrated me? Timelines. I'm the travel and food editor at, where I'm responsible for editing and publishing 15 stories per day and writing at least one per day. So to sell a book in 2014 and have to wait so long to see it come out, that was hard. 

But I'm also a hippie -- very much one of those "it'll be launched the second the stars align" sort of SoCal types -- so I buy into the bigger notion of cosmic timing. The end result of this book is just lovely, which means that the timing was, ultimately, perfect. 

What do you know now about writing that you wished you had known sooner?
I wish I knew to start with a theme and build a story from there. I really like doing that and it was really something I hadn't considered until my friend Amy Rose Capetta mentioned it in her grad lecture. She's insanely successful and productive, so... seems like the sort of person worth listening to.

What is some of the best writing advice that you’ve received or could give?
Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman tell one another to "DB" in the margins of their manuscripts. It stands for "Do Better" and I think it's the best note any writer can receive. As Neil Gaiman says, "If someone tells you something isn't working, they are almost always right. If they tell you how to fix it, they are almost always wrong."
What is the next book that will be coming out? Can you give me a short synopsis?
The Danger Gang and the Pirates Of Borneo! launches on August 1. It's the story of a boy who thinks of himself as a master adventurer but hasn't actually had any adventures. When his parents are abducted by pirates, he stages a rescue mission with his fencing rival Julianne Sato, his butler, Jeeves, and his pet king cobra. 

That's it for today's interview. If you would like to learn more about Stephen's writing, here are some ways to get started.

Twitter: @stevebram 

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