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Glorious Days: An Interview with Bruce Coville

by on March 1, 2013

Bruce Coville was born on May 16, 1950 in Syracuse, NY. As a young man he often got into trouble for skirting chores to duck away and read everything from Mary Poppins to Doctor Doolittle. As Coville grew up he held many odd jobs: grave digger, toymaker, cookware salesman, just to name a few. Eventually he became an elementary school teacher, teaching second and fourth graders.

Always October, Bruce Coville’s newest book, is his 100th published work. Most middle grade kids have read at least one of his works; whether it is My Teacher is An Alien or Goblin’s in the Castle or Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher. He is loved by many children and adults and it was a great honor to interview him at his office, here, in Syracuse, New York.

His “office” is a large old house that is filled with plants, books, and audiobooks from his newest taping of Full Cast Audio (a company that he founded which includes unabridged recordings of books for youth). I asked to interview him because Coville won the Empire State Award for Excellence in Literature for Young People at the New York Library Association (NYLA) Annual Conference in Saratoga Springs this past year (2012). An award he most certainly deserved. As an avid fan since the age of 6, I can tell you how honored and star-struck I was to have this opportunity. Coville is a great writer, one that will transcend time and be read for many, many, many more years to come. You can find out more information about his books, his life, and Full Cast Audio at his website. www.brucecoville.com.

PL:       You worked so many odd jobs before you were able to become a writer, is there one that you think has influenced your writing?

BC:      Yes, absolutely, but it wasn’t an odd job it was a more normal one. It was the time I spent teaching elementary school. It was the best possible training for writing for kids, just spending time with them like that. In fact one year, a few years ago, I took a year off from speaking. I called it a sabbatical, but no one paid me not to talk, so I could be in town and I went to H.W. Smith, the school. I said, could I just come in and hang around with a couple classes? And I would go in twice a week and be with these two classes just so I could be close to kids again.

PL:       You have this great insight into the middle school psyche, do you think it’s because you spent so much time with kids?

BC:      It’s partly that, and it’s partly that’s about where my own psyche froze.

PL:       Yup, I understand that. Who is your favorite or most difficult character you have written?

BC:      Whoa, well you know what? Asking about favorites is a little like asking [a parent] which children do you love the most? And mother always answered “I love you both in different ways.” What a stupid answer! It’s you! I love you the most! But my mother never said it! Haha. If I could choose just one it would be Igor from Goblins in the Castle. Igor used to appear every year in my school when I was teaching. I would leave the room for the Halloween party and a few minutes later Igor would arrive because he was my half-mad twin brother. So there was a whole mythology about Igor, the kids knew him, they wrote him letters all year long, he would write back “Love, Igor.” So they were always waiting for Igor to make his appearance, it was a big deal. And he had to go in every classroom. Kids would chase him down the hall, he would jump on desks and hit them with his bear [just like Igor does in the Goblin’s in the Castle to poor William]. So, I have a very close bond with Igor.

PL:       I have a best friend who is going to love that answer right there.

BC:      Well I should tell you that the book I’m working on right now is a sequel to Goblins in the Castle.

PL:       You just made my day! Who has your models for your characters been and do they all come from you imagination or do you use your kids or even the kids that you taught?

BC:      When I’m teaching, I’m teaching character for writing, I say: “You should do what all great writers do, steal.” Just plop them from around you. I’ll give you a very solid example, the Nina Tanleven Ghost series, Nine is based on my daughter and Chris, her best friend, is based on my daughter’s best friend. Not so much specifically in terms of looks, but in the way that they interact. I just used them as a sense of girls. Rod Albright, in Aliens Ate My Homework, is based, the only time I’ve done this, on me. I used that pudgy, clumsy kid who couldn’t lie. Remember the story in the book where he got caught taking a cookie- that is ripped from the headlines of my own life. I was pathologically unable to lie for many years.

PL:       It’s not a bad trait

BC:      Well, but, if you read the book you see I’m obsessed with lying and truth-telling because then there is the Skull of Truth where the chronic liar, Charlie, becomes unable to tell a lie which leads to many awkward situations. Lies are part of the social lubricant of how we live with each other.

PL:       That’s true, very true. Who inspired you to read? Not necessarily write, but to pick up those books and start reading even though, as I was reading your biography, you’d get in trouble for doing it instead of doing other things.

BC:      Well, I love stories, but there is one turning point when I was 7 or 8, my father, who I never saw as a reader, took me in the living room, sat me in his lap and opened this big ugly brown book called Tom Swift and the City of Gold and I loved it. And, Dad was a traveling salesman so he wasn’t around much, so his time was precious. I got time my little brother didn’t have, so that was even better. And, having your father read to you, I mean its okay for men to read. You know we have a real problem with gender issues and reading in this country, and we need to have men read to boys more because boys often feel they can’t read. I can give you a long gender theory behind that, but it’s probably because reading is seen as a female activity, because usually if someone reads at home it’s Mom, in elementary school you’re being taught to read, it’s almost always a woman teaching you, your librarian is almost always a woman in elementary school. You know I don’t want to take those things away from women, but I would like to see half the Senate be female and half the House of Representatives be female, and half the people teaching in elementary school be men. But, to work with children, is seen as giving up power. “We love our children, we love our children” but we don’t mean it. We’re full of baloney. Come one, if we loved our children like we say we do, teachers would be paid like ball players, and ball players would be paid like teachers, but we’re full of baloney. It’s not okay to give up power, and working with kids is giving up power, so fewer men do it.

Watch a man who teaches third grade. It’s perfectly alright, in our culture, for a woman to want to teach third grade for her entire career, but we are secretly a little suspicious of a guy who’s doing that because he should do the “right thing” and become a principal and do the “right thing” and take a position of power.

PL:      Very true, I’ve never really thought of it like that before.

BC:      It’s only true because I can’t lie, actually I can, I’ve figured out how to do it now.

PL:      You probably have a tell though.

BC:      If I did, I wouldn’t tell ya.

PL:      When you won the Empire State Award last year, congratulations by the way, you stated “Receiving the award validates humor.” Why do you think humor talks so well to this age group?

BC:      I honestly think humor talks well to all age groups, but kids love to laugh, you know they haven’t had the joy squeezed out of them, you know we’re working on it, but they aren’t too serious about life. They know that a lot of the world is funny, and laughing feels good, and they don’t feel guilty about it. So, it’s also the best way to get information across to them. I mean I learned that long ago when I was teaching. If the kid doesn’t know when the joke is coming, they pay a lot more attention to lesson because they don’t want to miss the joke. So humor is one of the most effective teaching tools we have. Dry teachers, who don’t provide some humor, people zone out. But, when you know there is a joke coming, because your teacher is a whack job, then you keep listening because you don’t wanna miss the joke.

PL:       I can see you being a very good teacher. The advent of E-books has created many changes in the publishing world. How has that affected your job or even your writing?

BC:      It hasn’t really affected my writing yet. The industry is in chaos. Has it affected my writing? Yes, in that, I used to have somewhat more freedom in that I could say to my publisher, or my publisher would say to me, “Oh, you finished this contract, let’s sign you up for three more books.” And we’d just assign a contract for three books, I mean we’d negotiate about what the cost was going to be, but then we would decide later what the books were going to be. That doesn’t happen anymore. I need an outline, I need to talk about what the projects are gonna be, because they don’t know where they’re going to be in a year from now. Everything’s very complicated and moving, as everything does in our society, faster and faster. It’s very hard for the publishers to keep up — their heads are in a tizzy.

PL:       I noticed in Always October that you keep technology out of it, in a way. You mention it, and refer to it, but it’s about the story. A lot of books I read now, for kids, it’s all about the gadgets; you always kind of keep it out. You recognize it, but you keep it out. It’s not the important part.

BC:      You have to acknowledge it now because its part of how the world works, but if you get too specific in the technology it’s going to be outdated in a year or two anyways. On the other hand, as somebody said to me the other day, in My Teacher Glows in the Dark, which I wrote about 20 years ago, there’s a thing there called the URAT, Universal Reader And Translator, he said basically you described an iPhone 20 years ago.

PL:       I gotta tell you my favorite books series is the Nina Tanleven series, mostly because you based it in places I recognized, and that was really cool coming from Syracuse. Do you talk to a lot of kids around here who see there town in where you’re writing.

BC:      The books are out of print now, so I don’t get that as much anymore. They had a good run; they were good for 15 years. If you want to see the house, go down to Euclid, turn right watch on the right hand side, a block or two down there’s a big old house with turrets. I moved it because I needed to have it more isolated. I used to walk past that house all the time and think “god, that just looks like it should be a haunted house.”

PL:       and the Quackadoodle Inn…

BC:      That was the Duchess Ann down in Mount Temper, New York. I stayed there one weekend with a friend, and they had in their brochure that it was rumored that there was Confederate Gold buried on the grounds of the inn, for exactly the reason I used in the book. So I was off and running with that one.

PL:       So these last three questions are from my kids at the Manlius Library. What is the best part of your job?

BC:      What is the best part of my job? It’s all the love I get from the kids. But there’s also the best part of doing the job itself, that’s the reward of the job, the best part of the job itself is where I get to a point where, and it happens usually just at the very end of the book, where I sort of shift from feeling like I’m writing the story and pushing the story, and to the point where I’m just writing down what happened, where the story just starts to flow. Where I’m not thinking about it anymore, it’s just coming out. Those are glorious days.

PL:       Who are some of your favorite characters from literature or books that you have read?

BC:      Taran, in the LLoyd Alexander series The Chronicles of Prydain, it’s a five book series. Lloyd Alexander was for a long time my absolute model on how to write for kids. Tiffany Aching, in the Terry Pratchett Wee Free Men books. Terry Pratchett is now my writing hero, except sometimes I get angry because he’s so good that it makes me think “I might as well just hang up my keyboard,” because Sir Terry he’s just, he’s amazing. He went from being a funny writer, at some point ten or fifteen years ago, something flipped, and he went from just funny to being very funny and also very very wise and very humane. Let’s see, other characters that I really like. Miri in Princess Academy. And I think the first character that I totally fell love with was John Carter of Mars, from the Edgar Rice Burroughs books. I wanted to be John Carter. I would go to bed at night hoping I would wake up on Mars.

PL:       And then the last question is: If you could meet or even co-author a book with any writer in history who would it be and why?

BC:      It would be Charles Dickens. I adore Dickens, I might of said Shakespeare but he didn’t do books, he did plays. But I really love the work of Dickens. Now, I had to get away from school because school ruined Dickens for me. Wasn’t until I was in my forties that I started reading Dickens. And nobody told me he was so funny, he’s hilarious. Powerhouse of an imagination, I would love to meet that man and work with him.