Sunday, September 20, 2009
The Unread - Interview with Mike Jung
Today for The Unread, for a mere moment in time, I've managed to corral the fun and crazy guy known as Mike Jung. Some of you may know Mike from Verla Kay's Blueboards where he's one of the great administrators, or from Facebook where he's bound to crack you up, or on Twitter where you can read his contributions to the wacky and disturbing tale of #flatulenteye. And if you don't know Mike, you should! His mixture of snark and humor have made me snort-laugh alone, in front of my computer more times than I care to admit. So why am I still talking? Let's get to Mike!
When did you start writing and why in the world would you want to do such a thing?
I’m sorely tempted to go into the usual “I started writing stories about butterflies and piglets in the womb and was born with a quill pen between my teeth” song and dance – both of those things are true, by the way – but I’ll just say I really started writing stories for children (as opposed to merely thinking about them) right after my daughter was born in the summer of 2006.
It is also true, however, that after my emergence into the world, rumpled butterfly & piglet tales in hand, quill pen clenched in my bicuspids, I embarked on a lifetime of varied writing activities purely for giggles and grins. An old and dear friend of mine still has a stack of nonsensical letters I wrote to her during college: no doubt she’ll spring them on a horrified world if I ever achieve fame and fortune, badly disillusioning my loyal readers.
In 1997 I got the notion in my head to write children’s books, partly because I was working with preschoolers and really loved reading to them, and partly because my own reading choices had by then resulted in quite a few years of “hey, isn’t that a book for kids?” questioning from random irritating people. In classic wrongheaded fashion I took a class in children’s book illustration at UC Berkeley extension, realized that I’m not even close to being a pro-caliber illustrator, and spent the next nine years idly dreaming about being a children’s writer while living my life in other ways. When my little girl was born I thought, “Oh, crap. Suddenly I have colossal reasons to NOT start writing for another 18 years. How badly do I want to do this?” I finally realized that I want to do this very, very, very badly. So I started doing it.
How do you make the time to write? Don’t you have other things to do?
Well, that whole “go to work and earn a paycheck” thing constantly gets in the way, and of course my family sits atop my priority ladder with a comfortable amount of space between them and the next step down. My daughter generates enough energy to power an entire advanced civilization, so I drag my aging carcass around after her as quickly as I’m able. There are also indispensable activities like writing snarky updates on Facebook, sending cryptic messages out to the world on Twitter, overreacting to posts on Verla Kay’s Blueboards, etc. The things I end up sacrificing the most in favor of writing are recreational activities, time with friends, and sleep.
I used to play music a lot and don’t really do it at all anymore, which is sad, but between writing and making music it’s clear which one is higher priority. Social time is important, of course, so I make sure and get my squinting countenance out there in the world and actually visit with people, but I’m a believer in the sanctity of my writing time. When push comes to shove writing wins out. I try to go easy on the loss of sleep because it screws up my ability to write, along with every other way I need to function during the day. When it’s necessary I can also do that peculiar fast-twitch kind of notepad writing while standing in line at Costco or sitting in the waiting room at the dentist’s office – the usefulness of the fast-twitch stuff really depends on how deeply in the writing groove I am overall, however.
There’s little glory for unpublished writers. What keeps you going?
What do you mean?? THAT GUY AT THE SEMINAR PROMISED ME ALL KINDS OF—oh wait, he was a little sleazy. This might be a sign of arrogance, hubris, delusion, what have you, but I think I actually have a little glory in my future. I know it’ll take as long as it takes, but I feel confident in my writing abilities and about my prospects for getting published, and if/when that happens, well, that would be pretty darned glorious, dontcha think? The writing is enjoyable and fulfilling for its own sake, but honestly, representation and publication are my next big goals. I love writing fiction and I want to do it in a professional capacity, with all the processes, frustrations, rewards and new horizons that entails.
What kinds of stories do you like to write? Are your books going to make us laugh?
Currently I like writing middle grade, and my focus is on stories that I think would have been cool or fun or interesting during my own middle grade years. Okay, that’s an incomplete truth – those stories would also be cool or fun or interesting to me NOW. So I write about 12-year-old kids, and superheroes, and aliens, and giant robots, and dashing interdimensional botanists. I’m not actually writing that last one yet, it’s just an idea. So is the one about the mad scientist and his family. Also the one about the boy whose father works for a supervillain containment facility. And there’s this goofy Twitter-inspired story idea called OWEN AND THE EYE OF FLATULENCE about an ancient, evil, sentient, gassy orifice and the young boy it seduces into doing its fetid bidding, but I’m sensing it would face some marketing challenges. Plus I’d have to give Lisha Cauthen, Ellen Oh and Cindy Pon partial credit, and don’t I have enough competition without these other aggravatingly talented writers getting all up in my business? And if you’re not already following me on Twitter you should be! Follow me on Twitter! Follow me! LOVE ME! I NEED LOVE…
Will my books make you laugh? Hmmm. I hesitate to answer this because humor is so subjective, and making these metacognitive statements about the laughter-inducing potential of my own work is—YES. YES, THEY WILL. Partly because if you don’t laugh, I will find you, and I will destroy you. Okay, I’m just kidding about that last part - I don’t have to find you, I CAN DESTROY YOU FROM A DISTANCE.
So, how many manuscripts have you written and what have you done with them? What are you working on now?
I’ve only written one full manuscript, which is still the one I’m focused on. It’s called THE CAPTAIN STUPENDOUS FAN CLUB. It’s a middle grade novel, 35k words or so, about a 12-year-old boy named Vincent Wu who discovers that the alter ego of his hometown’s legendary, muscle-bound, six-foot-five superhero is actually a girl. I’m about to send it out on submission. I also have the previously mentioned works-in-progress – botanists, mad scientist, villain containment – but they’re all in a very embryonic state.
Have you had any close calls?
I have had one close call so far, an agent at a pretty highfalutin’ house did my manuscript consultation at SCBWI LA in 2008 and requested the full. I actually hadn’t finished the manuscript at that point, so I churned out the rest of it in a raging panic, and ended up doing a round of revisions with this agent over a 6 month period. Ultimately she passed on the MS, but I was (and am) hugely grateful for that opportunity regardless of her final decision. It showed me that my writing ability is actually good enough to draw an agent’s attention, which was not something I’d even tried to do before then. When I walked out of that conference I no longer saw myself as a clueless wannabe: I was a WRITER, and one with new confidence. The agent revision process was a potent source of motivation, and it improved my manuscript by leaps and bounds. I think I would have loved being represented by this person, so it was disappointing to get the pass, but I made so much more progress than I would have on my own. I’ll always consider it a watershed experience.
What’s your submission strategy?
CAPTAIN STUPENDOUS is out to my beta readers right now. My plan is to look closely through their feedback, apply one last coat of gloss, and start querying agents in a crafty and deliberate manner within the next month or so. If there’s a general hue and cry about some catastrophically large element I’ll dig in and fix it, of course, but I think the book is in good shape, so I’m prepared for that but I don’t anticipate it happening. I have a list of about 8 agents who I think might be a good fit, including a couple of referrals that I’ve been lucky enough to snare along the way, and I think my query letter is strong. So I’ll ship it out, then I’ll hunker down for the next however many months and get back to one of those zygote WIPs in order to avoid going stark raving mad from impatience and curiosity.
How does your family feel about your writing?
The Facebook update that’s probably received the most positive comments was about something my wife said to me. (And are all of you my Facebook friends yet? No? Why not? Go friend me on Facebook now! DO IT NOW! AAAAAAHHHH…)
Err, sorry – anyway, my wife and I have read some of the same writing-related books, including Stephen King’s ON WRITING, and she referenced that book one day. She thought about the period in Stephen King’s life when he and his wife were both toiling away at day jobs, raising their kids, and how he would go write in his laundry room after the end of day. Then the moment arrived where the paperback rights to CARRIE were sold for a gigantic amount, making his wife burst out in tears and sending his career into the stratosphere. My wife said that’s how she thinks of this period in OUR lives. We’re working hard, raising our little girl, making ends meet, and it’s the time just before I publish my book, launch a successful writing career, and change our lives forever. I will never forget that, and I think it says everything there is to say about the support she gives me.
My daughter, on the other hand, is still too young to really grasp what I’m doing – everything I do on the computer is “checking email” to her.
What do you think is the hardest part about writing? What’s the easiest?
There are days when I think it’s all masochistic and impossible, but plotting is fiendishly hard for me. Like many writers I’m faaaabulous at coming up with random scenes with high entertainment potential, but stitching them together into a coherent narrative that propels the story forward in the right way is a challenge. And I suppose I’m an example of the classic “voice v. plot” dichotomy in writers, because voice is definitely the thing I’m best at. I can project personality, tone, emotion and rhythm very well, which I think comes from all those years of random, self-amused writing. I’m one of those dinosaurs who used to write honest-to-gosh ink-on-paper letters, and I’ve continued that practice with email, and now with all the social media technology we have there’s no end to the opportunities to write random things quickly and frequently, and I think quick, frequent practice is crucial for developing one’s voice.
How far would you go to get your book published?
I’ve already bribed you for this interview, haven’t I? I still think you demanded too much money… this “writing for kids” thing isn’t the fast track to millions, you know…
(Chocolate, Mike, it was chocolate. Must I keep reminding you!?!)
It seems like the writers I have at least a nodding acquaintance with all go pretty far with their efforts to get published. Blogging, tweeting, doing interviews, attending readings and publishing hootenannies, participating in online communities like the Blueboards and the Enchanted Inkpot, joining SCBWI, researching the industry… not to mention reading, and the actual writing! I’m doing most of those things, and I’m sure I will be doing all of them sooner rather than later. I have time and energy limitations, but I plan to do everything I’m able to do as long as it’s ethical, and not frowned on by industry pros. I know enough not to foist my manuscript on agents and editors as they’re headed for the bathroom, for example. Or to kidnap their pets and demand a multi-book deal as ransom. Or appear at a publishing conference wearing nothing but a sandwich board that says “PUBLISH MY BOOK, LOSERS!”
If you could live in any book which one would it be and why?
I don’t know that I’d want to! My life is pretty good as it is, and besides, why live inside the book when you could be the one who writes the book? I like being on this side of the equation. But since that makes me sound like a crabby misanthrope with no desire to play any reindeer games (that’s a fairly accurate description of me, by the way) I’ll take a swing at it: here’s a partial list. HARRY POTTER, of course, because who wouldn’t want to be a student at wizard school? THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, because the notion of an improbability drive appeals to me. THE TRUE MEANING OF SMEKDAY, because this is the year the Bigfield Fighting Koobish go all the way! THE CURIOUS GARDEN, or really any of Peter Brown’s picture books, because his flowers grows in such thick, silky bunches, and his sheep have those hilarious puffball bodies and stick legs. A CRICKET IN TIMES SQUARE, because hearing “Lucia de Lammermoor” performed by a cricket would be mind-blowing. In the adult realm, WONDER BOYS by Michael Chabon, because I want to take just one class with Grady Tripp. WILLFUL CREATURES by Aimee Bender, because I want to meet the woman with the potato babies. SOON I WILL BE INVINCIBLE by Austin Grossman, because, you know, superheroes. THE EYRE AFFAIR by Jasper Fforde, because despite my low level of Austen literacy (heretical, I know) and my prefabricated notion that England’s weather would leave a permanent blot on my soul, I’d love to experience a world where art and literature are so totally interwoven into the fabric of life. Also, I could pursue a career in time travel.
Isn't Mike great! To snort laugh alone at your own computer, and to feed Mike's lovable yet ever-hungry ego, you can follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.