The loss of in-person writing conferences has curtailed my ability to connect with new authors. However, past conferences have provided a wealth of talented writers who inspire and motivate my writing, none more so than Chris Tebbetts, whom I met at the now sadly-out-of-operation Antioch Writers Workshop. Chris hails from the town of Yellow Springs, Ohio, but he has traveled extensively, worked in theater, and written such an impressive number of superb middle-grade books that I can’t wait to introduce you to him.
Janet Irvin: Welcome, Chris. It’s so good to have you join me this month. Since you’re one of our area’s own, I thought we’d start the discussion with your website, where you indicate you are a “small-town guy.” How does that identification influence your writing?
Chris Tebbetts: I’m honestly not sure it does influence my writing. I’m also a pop culture guy, which feels more relevant to my style, I’d say, than where I’m from. That said, I do think that my love of small-town life is echoed in my creative process, which relies on a lot of quietude and stillness. Some people are perfectly, happily creative in a big city, or even just writing in the corner of a busy coffee shop. I tend to do better in quiet isolation. I also have what I’d call a very permeable bubble, where I’m easily distracted by the presence of others. So it’s not hard to see the advantages, for me, of living in small, quiet places.
JI: Chris, you have traveled around the country. Do the various places you’ve lived show up in your stories?
CT: My YA novel, ME, MYSELF, AND HIM takes place in a very close version of Yellow Springs—and in particular, the YS I knew when I was the same age as my protagonist in that book. I loved conjuring that time and place. I’m not even sure if the setting felt as much like a character to my readers as it did to me when I was writing it, but that’s also part of the way we need to know so much more about all of our story elements than the readers ever will.
Beyond that, I’ve used a few other known places as settings, just as a matter of convenience, so I can have some experience to draw on when I’m creating those places on the page. So, for instance, my YA novel M OR F?’s Chicago suburbs setting was chosen because of where I went to college, but it wasn’t nearly as germane to the story, for me, as the Ohio setting was in ME, MYSELF, AND HIM.
JI: As you look back over your career, who has been the greatest influence on your storytelling?
CT: Roald Dahl wrote my favorite books, as a kid, and he’s always stayed with me, creatively speaking. Also, Louise Fitzhugh created Harriet the Spy, who kept a journal and showed me at a young age how writing could be an extension of myself, and not just a means of storytelling.
In terms of people closer to home, I recently saw a quote from Sandra Cisneros that said something very close to, “I didn’t become a writer because I went to school. I became a writer because my mother took me to the library.” Me too, Sandra! J
And in terms of mentors in the business, one of my first teachers, Barbara Seuling, had an enormous impact on my professional trajectory. When I talk about the publishing business at speaking gigs, I sometimes use a flow chart that shows how my whole career traces back to the day I just happened to sign up for one of Barbara’s workshops. It was through Barbara that I met my agent, and my now twenty-one-year-old critique group. It was also at that workshop where I met a guy, who knew an editor, who was looking for someone to write a middle-grade series, which eventually became my first novels…which led to my next novel, through an editor involved in that project…which led to my work with James Patterson…and on, and on.
Sometimes, publishing can feel like an impossibly dense industry to break into, and I try to remind people that it’s a bit like dating. Yes, there may be a lot of rejection, but at the end of the day, quite often, it boils down to putting yourself out there until you find that one right person at the right time.
JI: You worked in the theater for many years. How has your stage work affected or changed your writing?
CT: I think of my theater work as being related to my overall self-designation as a visual thinker. I was a film production major in college, and have always (like a lot of writers) thought about my stories in progress as mental movies. When I create a scene, some part of me is blocking actors through their movements, as I did in the theater. When I create transitions on the page, it’s usually some attempt at reflecting the dissolve, or fade, or jump cut I imagine on the theoretical screen of this story-movie in progress.
I also think a lot about improvisation in writing, and the ways it relates conceptually to the improv I loved doing so much back in my theater days. It’s a great way to hone one’s creative instincts, and also to fill a page when I’m feeling stuck. As with any kind of improv, the likelihood there is that I’ll create a lot of useless blah-blah, but also, inevitably, a few gems I can really use; things that I probably wouldn’t have come up with had I not gotten out of my own way, stopped thinking, and just wrote freely. By the way: One of my go-to craft book recommendations is FREEPLAY: IMPROVISATION IN LIFE AND ART, by Stephen Nachmanovitch. He’s a musician, not a writer, but I’ve found that book to be invaluable for my own purposes.
JI: I love the reference to improv. I used it in my theater courses. My own experience directing high school theater productions also taught me much about developing individual characters, which leads me to this: How do you decide which POV to use in your tales?
CT: Mostly organically. As much as I can think—and overthink—a story, I tend to write from whatever POV feels correct. That might be about how close-in I want to be for the telling of the story; or conversely, how much distance I might want. Who exactly is my narrator? Is it the protagonist? Is it someone else? A detached narrative entity? And in any case, what agenda (if any) does the narrator, or narrative voice, or narrative consciousness, bring to the story?
As a tangent: I sometimes use an alternate POV as an exercise in the middle of the writing process. For example, if I’m working in third person, I might rewrite a single scene in first person, to help me gain some insight into my character’s experience before I go back to writing in third person again. Conversely (though less frequently), I might flip things the other way, and rewrite a scene from first person to third person, if I want to figuratively pull out my camera and get a better view of what’s going on outside of my narrator’s head.
JI: With so many genres available to writers in today’s publishing world, what nudged you toward writing for middle-grade readers?
CT: That happened slowly, but organically. I went from theater to filmmaking, to writing, and then within that, I tried creative nonfiction, picture books, and, eventually, middle-grade novels. In an unconscious way (hindsight is closer to 20/20), I was looking for the kind of storytelling that was going to appeal to me enough that I’d also be (and get) motivated to pursue not just the creative piece, but also the business end of publishing: studying the markets, submitting my work, networking with other writers, looking for an agent, etc. When I started writing middle grade, something about all of it just clicked for me, and without making a plan to approach anything differently, I was suddenly putting in the effort where I hadn’t before.
In retrospect, it makes further sense to me when I think about the fact that those middle-grade years were the time in my own life when I was the most voracious reader I’ve ever been. So it tracks that I might find a special connection with writing for kids that age (and for my own inner fifth-grader, as well).
JI: You have collaborated with other writers on several projects. How does that work?
CT: I’ve co-authored a YA novel (M OR F?) with Lisa Papademetriou; two middle-grade trilogies (STRANDED) with Jeff Probst, who hosts Survivor on TV; and several titles in James Patterson’s middle-grade series, MIDDLE SCHOOL, as well as a couple of standalone titles and one adult thriller, 1ST CASE, which came out last July.
As it turns out, I love the collaborative work. And to answer your question, it’s different with each partner. James Patterson sends me fully written, detailed outlines of our projects, which I then start crafting into a polished draft, sent to him in monthly installments. We’ll chat each month about tweaks and adjustments to the plot along the way, or other changes that need to happen. Once Jim has a full manuscript from me, he’ll rewrite it to his own satisfaction, and the whole thing moves on to the illustrator from there.
With STRANDED, Jeff and I were more interactive at the character and plot development phase, over the course of a few months’ worth of phone calls and emails. Once we’d hammered out a synopsis, I worked on the first draft, and he’d rewrite pieces along the way, so there was a lot more back and forth.
And with Lisa on M OR F?, we each took a character and told the same story from two different perspectives, in alternating chapters. That was more like writer tennis. I wrote Chapter 1 in Marcus’ POV, then sent it to Lisa. She wrote Chapter 2 in Franny’s POV and sent the whole thing back to me. We only got together physically at the beginning, to craft the plot, and again at the end, to take a mutual look at the drafted manuscript and figure out what needed fixing
JI: This past year you added many activities on YouTube and Skype/Zoom to your schedule. How has expanding into the virtual changed your writing day?
CT: I don’t know that it’s changed my writing day, per se, but it has definitely changed my writing life. Before Covid, I was traveling a lot for teaching gigs, conferences, and workshops. Since then, the creativity has necessarily kicked in, not just for me but throughout the industry, as we figure out how to make these formerly in-person experiences into online ones that are as engaging as possible.
By the same token, the absence of travel has opened up a lot of time I didn’t previously have for my actual writing. It’s been a year of relative stillness and quiet, which are conducive to creativity (even if current events were conversely difficult to navigate). So, it’s been a bit of a dance, including a few silver linings. I’ll be curious to see how much we all do and don’t go back to our former go-go-go selves, once the pandemic starts to recede in the rearview mirror
JI: Is there any other issue you would like to address before we end our conversation?
CT: For a lot of people in the kidlit community (and elsewhere), 2020 was a year of reckoning, when it comes to matters of race and racism. I’ve always considered myself a very liberal person, in terms of socio-political issues, but my eyes were really opened this past year, specifically about the difference between being non-racist and being antiracist—as a person, and as a member of this industry.
Some very simple things people can do to support a more inclusive, less biased publishing industry are: buy and read books by more BIPOC authors (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color); amplify the work and voices of BIPOC people in the industry; and contribute to organizations like We Need Diverse Books, Highlights Foundation, Kweli, and others who are providing scholarships and opportunities for members of traditionally marginalized populations.
If you are invited to participate in a conference or panel, ask the organizers if they are including people of color in the event, and if not, ask if they would like help in identifying prospective participants to help diversify their offerings. That kind of initiative-taking isn’t always easy, especially for those of us on the more introverted side. But the overarching suggestion here, I think, is to simply put and keep these issues on your radar, and to look for the places where you can feasibly do something—anything—to more proactively support an antiracist movement, wherever you are. Thanks!
JI: Thank you, Chris, for this reminder of how writers can effect positive change in the world. Below are photos of the covers of Chris’s books. Want to know more? Visit his website — christebbetts.com.