SBBT Interview: The Mixed-Up World of Mac Barnett
He hangs out with the daughters of children’s literary kings, had his likeness placed on the poor man’s Boxcar Children series in the 90s, and is one of those authors who is on the cusp of taking over the world. Today we begin a week of author interviews with a bang! It’s Mac Barnett*, and a nicer fellow you’d be hard pressed to find.
Fuse #8: Okay, background check, buddy. I don’t know that many of us are aware of how you first burst onto the scene. As I remember it, first there was no Mac Barnett. Then suddenly there was Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem to the left, The Brixton Brothers to the right, and Guess Again! up above. So where the heck did you come from?
Mac Barnett: Unpredictable publishing schedules have created the illusion that I’m way more prolific than I actually am. I wrote and sold Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem my first year out of college. It came out last June, four years later. Then Guess Again! and the Brixton Brothers followed in the fall. And then with The Clock Without a Face just out and Oh No! coming in June, that makes five books in a year. I’m dumbfounded, because it feels like I spend most of my time sleeping and walking this dog:
His name is Crosby, and he does not belong to me, and in this picture he is sitting on picnic table, which is a trick I taught him but probably shouldn’t have.
Fuse #8: And how’d you get into kids’ books in the first place?
MB: Well it’s a weird story. I was working at a summer camp in college when I realized I wanted to write for children. The camp’s book collection was pretty bad, so I ended up making up a lot of stories to entertain the campers. And I think I figured out then that kids are the best audience for stories, or at least the kinds of stories I enjoy telling.
But the camp did have one book worth reading: The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales. The book was so smart, and so funny, and it was great to find something that four-year-olds and I loved with equal fervidity. So I decided that I wanted to write children’s books. Six months later I was back at school, in the shower, and I had my first idea for a picture book. I was telling all my friends about it, and I would always mention that it was inspired by a book called The Stinky Cheese Man. One morning I was telling my friend Casey at breakfast, and she stopped me mid-sentence and said, "You know my dad wrote that book, right?" I had no idea. I didn’t know how to say Jon’s last name or spell hers. The next day she told me that her dad wanted to read my book when I was done with it. The book I thought of that day in the shower turned out to be the third book I actually wrote (Adam Rex is illustrating it now), but I sent Jon the first draft of Billy Twitters and His Blue Whale Problem, and things went forward from there. It’s unbelievable to me that the guy who made me want to write kids’ books is also the guy who made it possible for me to do it for a living.
I never returned the camp’s copy of The Stinky Cheese Man. So now their once-awful library is even worse.
Although technically, I guess I got started in kids books 15 years ago, when, at the age of twelve, I modeled for the covers of a series called the Ozark Adventures. I never read the books, but as I understand it, they are sort of a Christian take on The Boxcar Children. The covers are firmly in that 90s drawn-from-photographic reference tradition. That’s me in the yellow shirt and me again piloting the bicycle-dirigible-glider thing. The photo shoot was as awkward as you’re imagining.
Fuse #8: One cannot help but notice that you are pairing with resident L.A. genius Dan Santat with the picture book Oh No!: Or How My Science Project Destoryed the World. Dan’s art imagines it as a crazed 1950s Japanese movie monster flick. Was that your initial idea for the book? Where’d you get the concept? How’d it originally start out? Answers!
MB: The story for Oh No! popped into my head on a trip to New York. I was imagining one of those sci-fi B-movie scenes of total urban chaos. Overturned cars, blasted buildings, buckled pavement. And the first few sentences, spoken by a young girl, came into my head: "Oh no. Oh man. I knew it. I never should have built a robot for the science fair." I wanted to write about a very particular kind of regret that only children can feel: a regret that is sincere but also usually less acute than the situation warrants. I’m thinking particularly of an episode at 826LA, a nonprofit writing center I used to run. I walked into the bathroom to find a kid who’d flushed many paper towels down a toilet and wrecked a 100-year-old plumbing system. He was standing in an inch of (thankfully clean) water, and he smiled sheepishly, apologized, and went back to the writing lab to finish his homework. It was a small step from that bathroom to ruined major metropolitan area, from the scatological the eschatological.
Fuse #8: Nice. Now your buddy Adam Rex has taken the plunge and written his first YA novel, you know (Fat Vampire). Are you tempted at all by the siren song of the teen book world?
MB: You know, the only thing making me want to write a teen novel is this picture, taken by my best friend when I was trying to get an author photo for the Brixton Brothers jacket:
So I feel obligated to write a teen novel angsty enough to justify that picture’s existence.
PS I love Fat Vampire.
Fuse #8: Darn right. Which brings us to The Clock Without a Face. I gotta ask you. Here you have a book that ties into a real world treasure hunt. Who’s idea was this? I know you aren’t the only person working on it, after all.
MB: This book was born at a dinner with Eli Horowitz, editor at McSweeney’s. We were talking about some books we loved, like The 11th Hour and the mysteries of Ellen Raskin and particularly Masquerade. And we started talking about how we might go about constructing a treasure hunt. It was important that the buried jewels to tie in directly with the narrative — too often treasure hunts feel pasted on to a lackluster story. But we wanted the mystery and clues to be organic, and to blur the lines between the book and the real world. I just love the idea that treasure could be lost in a story and found somewhere in America. I’m always trying to make my fictional worlds encroach on reality a little bit: There’s a hidden address in Billy Twitters where kids can send away for a risk-free 30-day trial of a blue whale, and the code breaking technique outlined in The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity really works.
Fuse #8: And where on earth did you get that fantastic illustrator?
MB: Scott Teplin! Scott Teplin is terrific. Eli had the idea to make the book itself a building, so that each time the reader turned a page she would see a new apartment. Scott was a natural fit for the task. He’d worked with McSweeney’s before, and Eli knew he’d be great. I was really overwhelmed by his abilities. There’s a kind of magic to those drawings: I’ve watched kids look at a single illustration for upwards of 20 minutes, discovering small details and tracing imaginary routes through rooms with their fingers. One little girl pretended to get shocked by the paranoiac’s electric fence and lay prone on the floor while her friends continued poring over the drawing.
Fuse #8: The book is a McSweeneys product which is interesting. Any particular reason for that? Did you try other publishers or were they number one from the start?
MB: Nope–it was McSweeney’s from the start, since Eli and I conceived of it together. I interned for McSweeney’s after college, so I’ve known Eli for years, and I was really excited to do this project with him. Of course, I do think McSweeney’s is probably uniquely suited to publish a pentagonal board-book armchair-treasure-hunt whodunnit.
Fuse #8: Okay. Last question. What the heck are you working on next? Because my library is desperately in need of a couple more Brixton Brothers installments.
MB: The next Brixton Brothers comes out in the fall: It’s called The Ghost Writer Secret. In fact, here is the cover, which I think is Never Before Seen or at least Rarely Before Seen:
And there are more picture books coming out, books about mustaches and sweaters and Adam Rex getting swallowed whole by a lion.
Fuse #8: Well fantastic! Thanks so much for stopping on by, Mac. And thanks for all the kooky pictures too.
[*NOTE: I think I should get quite a few points for resisting the urge to give this post the title "Mac and Me". Those of you familiar with that truly awful remenant of the 80s will understand.]
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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