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interview

Question of the Month: Joy

by Susan Henderson on February 1, 2010

My sister-in-law sent this to me, and I figured some of you could relate…

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So we all know the misery of the business, but today I want to ask you about the flip side. After all, how many people do you know who follow their passions as much as writers do? So tell me, what about writing (or the ritual you have around writing) is a real joy?

Recently, Jordan Rosenfeld (author, radio host, and Writer’s Digest editor) interviewed me about the process of revision, and we talked about both the misery and the joy of it. Feel free to chime in!

One last thing, I hope those of you who are political geeks will check out Charlie Shaughnessy’s gloriously fiesty blog, Only Connect! Why am I recommending a political blog to writers? Well, for some of you, because you have a genuine interest in politics (think a male Rachel Maddow with a British accent). But for all of you, it’s a reminder of what writers need to do: Be bold, energize people (even if it’s energizing them to disagree with you), and find a way to connect.

{ 58 comments }

Ann Kingman, Bookseller

by Susan Henderson on March 4, 2009

Today, I’d like you to meet Ann Kingman, a book lover, blogger, and District Sales Manager for one of the major publishing houses. We’ll be talking about what she does with your books in that window of time between turning in your final edits and seeing your book for sale. She’ll also share her opinion about the current crisis in the publishing industry and the important role of independent bookstores. And by the way, as they say on NPR: The opinions expressed in this interview are solely those of the subject and not of her employer or its affiliates. 🙂

I hope you enjoy our conversation and find Ann as lovely as I do. And after the interview, be sure to check out her two blogs: Books on the Nightstand, a blog and podcast about books and reading that she does with her colleague, Michael Kindness. And Booksellsers Blog, where she shares what she learns about social media and online marketing with independent bookstores.

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First, tell me about you as a reader, and how you happened to make your career about books.

Like so many of us, I can’t ever remember not reading. Both of my parents were readers and that must be where I picked it up. One of my earliest memories is my mother banging on the bathroom door to check if I was all right. I guess I had been in there a long time. I was fine, I was just really enjoying the biography of Juliet Low (founder of The Girl Scouts) and some peace and quiet.

I definitely took refuge in reading in the years up to and after my parents’ divorce, when I was 9. Reading is what got me through those times. I don’t think it’s a particularly unique story, which is why I believe so strongly in the power of literature to inspire, to comfort and to heal.

I was a Magazine Journalism major in college (among other things), and my dream job was to work as a features editor at a well-known magazine. But magazine jobs were very difficult to find, and when I did get an offer, the pay was not enough to live on, especially in New York City. I was working with an employment agency, who sent me on yet another interview, this time to Dell Publishing. I knew them primarily from their puzzle magazines, and I wasn’t all that excited, but I went on the interview anyway. I still remember the feeling when I stepped into the Personnel Office: on the wall was a poster celebrating the 25th anniversary of Dell Yearling Books. And pictured on the poster were many, many of my favorite books from childhood — the ones that got me through so many bad times. I knew at that moment that I just had to work there, even if it meant sweeping floors. Luckily, it was an administrative job in the sales department, and it paid quite well because I was one of the few people who had computer skills at the time. I didn’t know anything about how books were sold, but I was willing to learn. My plan was to move to the editorial side of the company after awhile, but I soon fell in love with the sales side of the process, and that’s where I’ve stayed. Twenty-two years and four mergers later, I’m still basically with the same company, though it has changed in name and location many times since I was hired.

What exactly does a bookseller do? What are the best and most difficult parts of this kind of work?

My actual job is really that of Sales Representative. We think of “booksellers” as the people who work in the bookstores putting books into customers’ hands. My role is that of liaison between the publisher and the bookstore. I work with approximately 30 independent bookstores in New England. I meet with them several times a year to share with them the books that we will be publishing in the coming seasons—we usually work about 6 months ahead. For instance, it is now February and I am talking to them about books that will be published in July and August. I work with the buyer at the bookstore to decide which books they should stock, and how many copies of each they should buy. Much of my advice is based on my knowledge of the store, what their customers buy, and what their booksellers like to read. One of my favorite parts of the job is talking to the booksellers who work on the sales floor. I try to get to know them and know what they like to read, so that I can give them Advanced Readers Copies—these are “preview” copies of books that we will be publishing in the future. I try to get the booksellers to read them early and tell me what they think about them. Our hope is that they will love the books I give them and recommend them to their customers once the books are in the store.

The most difficult part of my job is really remembering what time of year it is! As I said earlier, I am currently selling the books that we will be publishing in the summer. However, I am also working with my bookstores to make sure that they have enough copies of the books that are out right now—the books that are selling, getting review attention, and getting good word of mouth from booksellers and readers. In addition, I am now starting to read manuscripts that will be published in the Fall. I’m always working at 3 points in time, and trying to keep it all in the air without dropping any of the balls is a feat that challenges me on many occasions. It’s not exactly difficult, but there is definitely the feeling that our work is never done. We work the books throughout their whole life cycle to make sure that every book finds its readership.

So, walk me through the process, if you would. An author finds out, Yay, Big Publishing House bought my manuscript! When do you come in?

The timeline differs at each publisher, but the general process goes something like this: Author gets contract, and the book gets put on the publishing schedule (so far out in the future that the author likely believes that they will not live to see the publication, but the long process is a whole ‘nother story).  About 6 months before the publication date, the editorial, marketing and publicity departments present the title to the sales reps at a meeting formally known as the “Sales Conference.” These conferences happen 3 times per year. There is a marketing and publicity plan mostly in place, and the cover may or not be finalized.

Prior to the Sales Conference, the reps have received manuscripts or manuscript excerpts, and information about each book on that season’s schedule. At the Sales Conference, the reps talk about the books with the publisher, editor, marketing and publicity departments, learn more about the content of the book, the marketing plans, etc. Then we reps go out and sell the list to our bookstores.

On our sales calls, we talk with the buyers about titles that might be comparable to the books we are selling, we look at previous books by the author and how they’ve sold, and we spend a lot of time figuring out who at the bookstore is the right reader for each book. We also talk about how the store will promote the books they are most excited about: in their newsletter, by putting a stack at the front of the store on a table, a window display, etc.

We know that not every bookstore can carry every book, so we work with the store to determine which ones their customers will most want to buy. The staff at most of our independent bookstores know their clientele extremely well, and with the help of computerized inventory systems can determine which books are the best for them to bring in. Often a bookstore will start with a small quantity, just 1 or 2 copies, but if a bookseller on staff reads and loves the book, they will order more. Many bookstores are so passionate about the books that the staff loves that they can sell hundreds of copies of a favorite book simply by recommending it to their customers.

Fascinating! Over the years, I’ve gathered bits and pieces of this process, but, finally, I have a coherent picture. And I never knew bookstore owners gave their customers so much consideration.

With your more than 20 years in the publishing business, you’ve seen companies grow and buckle and merge before. Does this current publishing crisis feel different to you? And would you call it a crisis?

I’ve been through many “crises” and though it’s a clichĂ©, it’s true that in publishing, the only constant is change. That being said, we are definitely in a time where there are many challenges to keep us all on our toes. During my career, the challenges have previously come basically one at a time, with most of them being a new outlet for book sales threatening the survival of existing channels. This time we have that, of course, with online bookselling, but we also have the rise of the e-book, print on demand, various formats, a recession… and they are all happening at the same time.

Is it a crisis? I don’t think I’d label it as such. This feels more like an evolution. Certainly things will change, and the uncertainty makes people uneasy. It’s a personal crisis to those who have devoted their lives to the industry and find themselves out of work with few opportunities to stay in publishing. But as an industry, publishing will always exist.

I’m such a fan of your bookseller’s blog because I think it’s really at the forefront of trying to rethink how publishers and booksellers might adapt to the changing habits of readers. Talk to me about the types of changes you’re making (or thinking about making) to stay competitive.

I think we all have to change our definition of “customer.” As publishers, our customers are not only the retailers and wholesalers who pay us directly, but the booksellers on the front lines, and the consumer who purchases a book at retail. The industry is great at speaking with their retail and wholesale customers, but not so good at talking with the others. This needs to change. Booksellers have to get up to speed on the technology, and probably make some significant investments in their websites and e-commerce systems.

A website is no longer “nice to have,” and a robust e-commerce system will allow them to stay competitive. We are in a time when the idea of supporting local businesses is nearing a groundswell, and local bookstores stand to benefit if they can keep the customer experience at the top of mind. Many customers will happily support a local business, and even pay a bit more, if it is convenient for them to do so. Booksellers need to make sure that ease of use is there, as well as continue to educate the public about the benefits of shopping locally. They also need to work with other local businesses to help drive that message home. And it’s more important than ever that booksellers create relationships with their customers to better serve their market.

As publishing becomes easier and less expensive, the number of books will increase. And I think that there will be an even more important role for people to act as curators for the volume of content that will come.  When faced with an infinite number of choices, we will still need someone to put a book in our hands (or the virtual equivalent) and say, “Read this, it’s fantastic.”

Last question. How could you convince a chronic Amazon user like me to buy from one of your independent bookstores instead? Here’s my reason for using Amazon: They already have my credit card, I always find what I’m looking for, and I can shop impulsively—the moment I hear of a book I want, I’m seconds away from placing an order.

Yes, let’s talk about bookstores.

I think people should feel free to shop at whatever business best meets their needs.  When you shop at a locally-owned and operated business, $68 of every $100 will stay in the local community. Shopping at a business that is part of chain will retain $43 in the local community. As the economy continues to falter and more of my friends and neighbors are losing their jobs, this has become even more important to me. I want to keep local businesses vital in my community, as they are what keep my community vital.

The second reason to support independent bookstores is one that should be of supreme importance to writers. There are more than 2,000 independent bookstores listed on Indiebound.org. Each of those bookstores determine for themselves what books will be sold in each of their stores. Pretend that there are no more independent bookstores. Imagine you are an author. What if the Romance Buyer at the big chain store decides that he does not want to carry your book in their stores? Now your book is not in any physical bookstore location. Worse yet, it’s possible that the publisher will not be able to proceed with the publication of your book. This is, admittedly, an extreme example, as I always think that there will be some thriving independent bookstores. However, leaving the decision of what will or will not be published in the hands of just a few is a dangerous path to take.

But let’s talk about you, the customer, for a minute. There’s no arguing the convenience factor of Amazon. Independent bookstores are working diligently to get up to speed with technology, and some stores have done brilliantly. Powells.com is the most well-known because they were there early. I do believe that independent booksellers need to make it easy for their customers to support them. So I would ask this: if you, the customer, want to support your local bookseller, but there are specific reasons why you don’t or can’t, have a conversation with the bookstore owner. Let them know what they could do to get your business. I know that it’s not always price that causes readers to choose another option. Often there is no price difference, or it’s just $2-$3.

This conversation will of course work better if it’s constructive and not just a litany of complaints. The bookseller may not be able to accommodate your wishes, or move as quickly as you’d like, but it’s important for them to know. In my experience, I’ve found that most bookstore owners love to talk with customers about what they can do better. A healthy independent bookstore is more than just a place to buy books—it’s a community center, a gathering place, and often an important anchor to a town’s retail center.

Ultimately, you should feel free to shop wherever you choose. Seeing the larger picture and understanding the ramifications is important, and may influence your choice of where to spend your money, but in the end, it’s all about choice.

One more thought: I cannot imagine a world where children cannot experience the joy of wandering around a bookstore, taking in all of the colors and pictures, touching everything, and pulling out a few dollars to buy a book that they picked out themselves. I witnessed this scenario in a bookstore yesterday, and it made me smile the rest of the day.

You’re lovely, Ann. Thanks for being here!

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Okay, maybe it’s my period, but that last answer totally made me cry. I’m off to find a local bookstore right now. While I’m gone, I hope you’ll leave a comment for Ann and visit her websites. And, as always, thank you for being here.

{ 32 comments }

Belle Yang

by Susan Henderson on February 4, 2009

Belle Yang is an author and painter whose honest words and vibrant illustrations tell stories about her Chinese heritage, the plight of immigrants in America, and the complex relationships between those we love.

Join our conversation as we talk about art, repression, writing for children, and the power of words.

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When did you know you were an artist/writer? And talk to me about how you knew—a joy in creating, rebelling against something, a need to tell an important story, …?

In 1986 I left Los Angeles, where I’d been studying art, because of a lover turned violent. He followed me to my childhood home in Carmel where I had taken refuge. This monster broke into my parents’ house and stole just about everything meaningful to us—my father’s five hundred, original poems, written in his own calligraphy, photographs galore, paintings, letters, yearbooks. All our clothes, too.

The police bungled the initial investigation: fingerprinting wasn’t done correctly, nor did the photographs of the broken window develop. When I did not hear from the police after a month, I wrote a letter to the District Attorney and the Sheriff’s department to explain my situation. I wrote the letter using an old typewriter. It took four days and I lost nearly that many pounds in weight. Within days of sending out the letter, the Monterey County investigators came to my aid. In two months, the abuser/stalker was arrested and our belongings retrieved from Simi Valley.

THAT’S when I knew I was a writer. I could move people to act through my words. When I visit kids at schools, I tell them the importance of writing clearly, because your ability to communicate via a written letter may one day save your life. Spoken words can be effective, but they dissipate if not recorded. Nothing is more powerful than the written word. I felt I’d become a painter after returning from China in 1989 and had sold my first piece through a reputable gallery. But I’ve known I was a painter since I was a child.

What a violation. But also, what a discovery: the power of your words! I love that you pass this message on to children. What’s been their response?

I study their faces, which look serious. I get a sense that my story has seeped into their little noggins—at least a clutch of them. You never know, do you? When I was in fifth grade, a poet came and read a piece about a man who is drowning in the sea and he waves to a person at a distance, who he thinks to be onshore, for rescue. That other person merely waves back. At the end of the poem, we realize both beings are drowning, waving to one another for help.

THAT really STUCK with me. So perhaps a few will remember that writing once saved a writer who came to visit and writing may also save them in some unexpected way, physically and emotionally. Wouldn’t you just love to meet one of your little readers decades down the Yellow Brick Road and be told that writing liberated them in an unimagined way?

Yes! I was once a little reader saved by a poet, myself.

Something that strikes me about your children’s books is that they go deep—you’re willing to explore sorrow and anxiety and disappointment. You could have chosen to tell some of these stories as memoir or adult novels, but you didn’t.

I’ve explored these states of being in my adult books, and I believe I have one good graphic novel for adults still in me, where I will explore sorrow and anxiety. Yet sorrow and anxiety are best set against the light, so there will be humor and joy. Just as in a painting, the colors jumps out when set next to black and the black is inkier set against bright color. This book may have to wait until I am no longer somebody’s daughter. It would not be a dark book, even if the subject is hardly pretty. My Chinese name is “Forget Sorrow,” and I forget pain quickly compared to people like my father, who has—to his own burden—an incredible memory for pain suffered. I’m glad I have poor memory.

ALWAYS COME HOME TO ME

What makes you pick up the pen versus the paintbrush?

Writing and painting are nearly the same to me. With writing, I paint the images. With painting, I tell a story. In the “fine art” pieces I sell in galleries, there are always stories I write on the back of the painting to augment the image. The words are revealed in a cutout window, protected by Plexiglas. I switch tools when I feel a need to use a different part of my brain. It’s good to give one part of my brain a rest and employ the other. The part that’s being used is getting a good massage. In all my adult’s and children’s books, I have been privileged to include words and images. The adult nonfiction books by Harcourt [BABA: A RETURN TO CHINA UPON MY FATHER’S SHOULDERS and THE ODYSSEY OF A MANCHURIAN] were graced with 25 paintings. My picture books—like the brand new one coming out in February, FOO THE FLYING FROG OF WASHTUB POND with Candlewick Press—includes my own illustrations and words. I can’t wait to perform this story in front of kids.

My current project, FORGET SORROW, a graphic novel (adult, “literary” comic book) to be published by WW Norton in 2010 is the perfect balance of the image/words partnership. I believe this is the format I will be working with for the rest of my life.

When I’ve been asked to write book reviews for The Washington Post, they’ve allowed me to include an illustration.

Tell me more about this graphic novel. (Mesmerizing title!)

It is about the life and death of my Manchurian great grandfather, the patriarch of a wealthy multigenerational family. He was born before the fall of the last dynasty and lived through the turmoil of warlord battles, Japanese invasion and occupation, Soviet invasion, Chinese civil war. With the Communist takeover, he was swept out of his estate and wandered a beggar. His children were afraid to take him in, as he ws black-listed as a “Declining Capitalist.” In Forget Sorrow, I explore how fortune unmasks men. My father and I tell the story alternately. It’s a story within a story.

I’d returned home after the Tiananmen Massacre, but the stalker ex-boy-fiend was still a threat, having stolen my parents’ garbage around the time of the massacre to see if I’d come home or to find any info leading to my address. And so, I was forced to stay indoors much of the time after returning to Carmel. As in The Decameron, my father entertained me with stories of old China until the human plague passed. Incidentally, after 3 years in China, I was much better able to bridge the cultural and age gap, which had existed between Pop and me.

I’m looking forward to reading it! What do you say to other authors who also have manuscripts that have taken many years to complete and many more years to sell (particularly when there are authors out there who seem to deliver a new book every year)?

Tough question, which I can’t really answer well. The one reason I’ve been able to publish slowly and fairly consistently is because I am a niche author by being a Chinese-American and an artist/illustrator. In order to get your work into the world, you have to offer what’s not already out there, something fairly rare. And you also need to be open to change. When I could not get FORGET SORROW out in the traditional prose format, when the opportunity came for the graphic novel medium, I changed. Change is always scary.

That’s one possibility, that you are a niche author. The other is that you’re a fabulous artist who connects to the heart of your readers and who is able to simplify complex emotions and relationships so children can understand what was otherwise confusing or frightening. But whatever the reason, I’m glad these books are here for us.

When you look through your paintings and your books, what are the themes you see again and again? What do your characters wrestle with? What do they desire?

Theme: To rescue the voices that have disappeared in the chaos of war without a complaint. When I first began to listen to my father’s stories about Chinese country folk in 1989 (after returning from China post Tiananmen Massacre), I felt incredibly sad for the men and women whose lives were so bountiful, so interesting, earthy, but who died without a murmur. Their peaceful existence was shattered, first by the Japanese who invaded Manchuria, then the Soviets, and finally the Nationalists Chinese and the Communists. The Communists continue to wage wars against their own people. Such a waste! My characters all wish to find a haven, whether geographical or emotional.

You have a real understanding of the gift of free expression. I think a lot of us who were born in America take that gift for granted. There’s a line I was reading in your book, HANNAH IS MY NAME, that made me tear up: “We don’t have to stay quiet and make ourselves small.” In another article, you said, “To swallow your voice, to keep stories buried deeply beneath layers and layers of silence is to live in a state of bondage. Stories are magic. Stories make us individuals. They make us free.” It seems like that haven you speak about has something to do with this.

The Tiananmen Massacre was bondage and silence on a societal level. I had lived with an abusive man who was violent to me on a personal level. My China experience only underscored my knowledge of the insidious Evil in society. How will Hamas and Israel stop fighting when women in a relatively liberal country like the U.S. (women of all class levels) are beaten in their own homes, just for speaking their own minds? China looks wealthy to the outside, but its citizens are beaten down every day for speaking up against pollution and corruption.

Isn’t it a bit ironic to you that I write kids’ book? The Evil of which I speak is kept from them as long as possible. We send our kids out entirely blind about the subtleties of power. In CHILI-CHILI-CHIN-CHIN, my first children’s book, it was a reaction against being ridden, used like horse or pack mule by others or by society as a whole. Someone very astute person once said, “Belle you give off a sense of brightness even when your life has had its darkness.” But you can’t know freedom of expression until you’ve been muffled.

{ 33 comments }

Announcement: Someone interviewed me for a change.

by Susan Henderson on November 23, 2008

No blogging for me until the new year (except for in the comments section, where you can always reach and distract me). But I do want to point you to an interview I did with the lovely and talented Jordan Rosenfeld. She asked about the courage and stamina required of writers, and I’d love to hear how you‘d respond to her questions.

The interview is here.

Jordan very generously made this interview available via the link because I asked her to, but truthfully, her interviews are part of a newsletter, and it would be a nice gesture to Jordan if you subscribed to that FREE newsletter by clicking right here. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

For kicks, I’m posting this photo that those of you who have access to my MySpace pictures may have already seen. The cute one is my good friend and soccer teammate, Kenny. Part of what cracks me up about this photo is my rained-on hair and the cerebral palsy pose – one more reminder not to take myself too seriously. The cool thing about the photo, though, is the other reminder – that my best friends accept me, flaws and all.

Oh! Almost forgot. The same Jordan who interviewed me is also a fabulous freelance editor, and she’s seeking new clients who need developmental editing for fiction and non-fiction projects. Her strengths are in helping clients with narrative structure, pacing, plot-development, and the big picture issues of character development and overall dramatic tension. I highly recommend her!

Some news about past guests at LitPark: AN ILLUSTRATED LIFE just went on sale. Gorgeous and fascinating, and it features Danny Gregory and Tommy Kane. Hope I get it for Christmas. And Greg Logsted (Lauren‘s husband) has launched his debut YA novel, SOMETHING HAPPENED. If you buy either of these books and like them, tell people! Word of mouth is everything in the life of a book.

Okay, that’s it for today.

Thanks to everyone who stopped by. And thanks to everyone who linked to LitPark this month: Innovo Publishing, Blogging For Apples, Huffington Post, Enrico Casarosa, Italian Woman at the Table, largeheartedboy, Elevate the Ordinary, Brad Listi . Com, Bliggidy Blog, The Debutante Ball, The Nervous Breakdown, Inside-Out China, Notes From the Handbasket, Emerging Writers Network, Perpetual Folly, Upstate Girl, Jordan’s Muse, Kelley Bell’s FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS, Endless Knots, Making it up, In Her Own Write, Satin Black, Biscuit Cream, Twilight Spy, Daryl Ebneezra Kadabra, Read by Myfanwy, Side Dish, and Annette Hyder’s Ad Libitum (new blog alert for poets and feminists). I appreciate those links!

I’m heading to Virginia on Wednesday to spend Thanksgiving with my folks. Enjoy the holidays!

{ 89 comments }

Paul Green

by Susan Henderson on December 19, 2007

Paul Green is the subject of the documentary, Rock School, a not always flattering portrayal of a passionate teacher, trying to give kids the gift of rock and roll. Paul and I talked at a restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen with an iPod recording between us. Paul had complete freedom to push the off button whenever he liked.

You know when you have a near-three hour lunch and hardly eat that there’s some good conversation going on. And even though most of our conversation ended up being off the record, there’s plenty here to introduce you to a music-loving geek, who made the most of a tough beginning and found the vision and the work ethic to create one of the most unique, exciting teaching experiences out there.

Read the School of Rock manifesto.

Thanks to my amazing, O. Henry award winning webmaster, Terry Bain, I’ve embedded audio clips throughout the interview so you can hear Paul for yourself, especially some fun bits that are not here in print – his thoughts about The Orchid Thief, what he thinks of my shoes, what I think of his hair, ways to increase your chances of getting laid, that kind of thing.

One of the problems with two chatterboxes having a long conversation is that, if you’ve been hoping to keep something hidden – say, your complete lack of classic rock knowledge – you’ll eventually get busted and have to scramble around a bit (hopefully not with food in your mouth, but, yeah, okay) to try to paint yourself as at least a partial rocker.

But enough intro. It’s time to meet the incomparable Paul Green.

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Photo credit: Scott Weiner.

How ’bout we start with your life story?

Well, that’s, you know, that’s a long story. Uh… my dad died when I was very young.

How old were you?

Five. But I don’t really remember him. He and my mom were separated. I was raised by my mom, who was a mess. She was a victim of pretty horrendous child abuse. A drug addict. Always sick. So I technically raised myself from the time I was nine or so.

Moved out when I was fifteen, moved in with a couple of college students. My life really just like 180 for the better at that point…

Now, stop with the fifteen-year-old. Who was this fifteen-year-old like?

He was right on the cusp.

When my mom moved back to Philadelphia, we moved to a very white, working-class neighborhood, very not me. And as soon as I started hanging out in downtown Philadelphia with the punks and the hippies and all that, I started to find my people. …Started hanging out with all these Hispanic rocker dudes and their friends (and they’re my friends to this day). And we were a very talented lot – very good musicians, and I was a writer and all this kind of stuff.

…I was dirty, had dreadlocks, used to wear the same thing, which is black jeans, boots, a white tuxedo shirt and white jacket all the time. Walk around with my little writing book. Smoked lots of cigarettes. Did lots of drugs. Love drugs. Love girls. Kind of for all the wrong reasons, though. You know what I mean? …[But] I always say, it’s better to regret the things you have done than the things you haven’t done.

Somewhere along the way, got a work ethic, which I never had. You know, I was the laziest kid in the world. But, just being on your own and not wanting to go home, you eventually just learn how to work and make money and all that kind of stuff. But it took a while.

Did you run away, or you just told your mom you were leaving?

Just told my mom and my aunt and my granddad I was just leaving. And my mom was on social security, and when I turned 16, she was going to lose one of the checks, but if you become emancipated, you can prevent that, so I kind of cut a financial deal with her. And at this point, she was drunk all the time.

No picture of dreadlocks, but we sure do have a fine prom photo.

So, when you were a kid, dreaming of being a rock star and playing air guitar in the mirror – who were you?

I was like corny stuff, you know? The Beatles. I’d just put on the radio, you know. I was playing air guitar in the early eighties, so Men at Work and that kind of crap. I remember really liking J. Geils Band a lot. I always used a tennis racket for air guitar.

I just used the air.

Yeah. I guess I didn’t have that level of imagination.

Do you think of yourself as a teacher or a musician?

A teacher. I was always a pretty good guitar player.

When did that change? When did you stop dreaming of yourself being a rock star?

Slightly before I started teaching. Don’t get me wrong; I can play guitar, but I always thought of myself more as a writer. And I was on my way to law school when this took off. I had already mentally moved on to academia, you know? So, if this hadn’t taken off, I’d hopefully be teaching law somewhere.

Describe how Rock School happened.

Well, community college happened first. And do you ever find something that was made for you? This program was made for me. I had always considered myself somewhat of an intellectual, always fairly well-read for my age, always prone to grand pronouncements. So this honors program was just heaven. It was challenging, and they’d force you to write. They’d print out your papers and hand them out to the entire class, and just tear them apart.

You know, School of Rock is the honors program, but adapted for rock music. They taught me how to teach, which is, care for the person, show them that you actually listen to what they say, and then beat the living snot out of them. And two, that the key to education is to find that point that you can push someone, right before they’ll turn you off. And they really got that. There were a couple times when I was quitting and I didn’t want to hear what they had to say. And they were just community college teachers anyway. But then you get over that bullshit. And it really is bullshit and self-defense. And you just let yourself learn. With the School of Rock, I never wanted good musicians; I’ve wanted good students. You know? Take a minute, and just listen.

You had this kind of family in the first School of Rock, you know, real small numbers, and now you’ve got this corporation. So how is that moving from to the other?

It never really moved for me because I always kept my small community inside of it. As soon as the Philly school got so big where I didn’t really have personal connections with all of the kids, I started All-Stars, which is just my way of taking 60 kids who really want to learn, and giving them access to me and giving myself access to them. So, as long as the All-Stars exist, there’s always 60 kids who are with me way too much. You know what I mean? Way too influenced by me and me caring about them more than I should, you know?

What do you think you offer as a teacher? What’s your gift?

Without being weird, I have almost a supernatural ability to read people, which is actually a blessing and a curse, because I’m also massively co-dependent, so I can tell who needs to be pushed, who needs to be pulled, who needs a hug. …It’s a con-man game, you know? It’s finding those right buttons to push.

And it’s learning as you go. My ego is large but flexible. I’ve made a couple of big mistakes and learned from them. And then, as a business man, my best assets are, I take the losses much harder than I take the wins. When something really great happens, it’s gone – you know what I mean? – like, almost as soon as it happens.

From the Rock School film premiere.

In what ways have you felt hurt or misunderstood by the press, and particularly how you were featured in the documentary?

I wouldn’t say “hurt,” but definitely misrepresented. Very early in the movie process I realized that I would have to brace myself for what was to come. The movie is basically 9 months of my life condensed to 90 minutes and played for drama. There is very little of the background and mundane stuff…simple teaching, hanging around the school, etc, that really balances the picture. Yes, I can be a jerk, and that is there on film. But I also try to be so much more.

From the documentary: Teaching C.J. Tywoniak.

Tell me something about you that might surprise me.

I’m an avid reader.

Who’s your favorite author?

At different times of my life, I’ve had different people. Who do I think is the best? Whose prose impresses me the most? Karl Marx. That mother-fucker could write. Probably the greatest rhetorician ever. This side of St. Paul.

I read almost no fiction.

Really? Oh, that’s got to change.

Nope. Probably won’t change. Every art form has its trappings. And, in order to enjoy that art form, you need to forgive it its idiosyncrocies. Except for the great works…, I just can’t forgive fiction its idiosyncrasies enough to enjoy it.

You know, I can read a David Hume treatise. Probably the person I’ve read the most over the past three years, believe it or not, is Sir Winston Churchill. And I know he’s pompous and boring and all that, but for me, it’s a much more enjoyable read. I read The New Yorker every week. If they do a story about paint drying, I’ll read it, you know? I love good non-fiction writing. Of course, I love Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. I read To Kill a Mockingbird over the summer, which was fantastic.

So, when my book comes out, you won’t read it?

Depends. I’ll try. If it starts, The screen door swung closed at the front door of 23 Huntington Street and inside there was a chill air, no, I won’t read it. You know. Like, I hate that. The first paragraph of almost every fiction I’ve ever read just loses me, you know? I think it’s so forumulaic, it’s beyond, you know? You know what I’m talking about, right? So, modern fiction’s almost right out.

C.J. and Paul today.

When you think of your place in rock and roll history, at the end of your life, where do you hope you fall?

At the very least? Touch some kids’ lives. I mean, rock school makes incredible friendships. And, you know, showed people that creativity and courage and diligence in whatever you do, works. Pipe dream: I control rock and roll. You know? I own that shit.

Meaning what?

Meaning, you know, 17 different acts from our school make it. And because we believed in them and they trust us, we’re able to dictate how music’s done ten years from now. And, um, change it, put more control in the artists’ hands. Put the spirit of creativity and artistry back. Aim for the top while never losing focus of the bottom.

If you could change radio, what would you want to change about that?

Take some chances. They don’t take any chances.

What would you like to see someone take their chances on?

You know, music’s so beat right now. So, so, so beat.

It’s predictable.

Yeah, but even beyond, it’s just beat, you know? I mean, it’s a long – once again, you’re not going to get any real grand pronouncements because it’s such a multi-faceted issue – but it’s something I sit at my desk and work on all the time, you know?

I think that if people returned to making quality music again, everything else will follow.

What is quality music?

There’s just an inherent quality. Philosophically, I’m a real Platonist. Do you know what that means?

No, ’cause I only read fiction.

Yeah, I just made that shit up. You know, I don’t believe in any sort of relativism. I think there are truths. In fact, I’m almost positive there are. And I think there is such a thing as quality, and that the trained eye and ear can recognize it. And that there’s quality in the music in The Beatles and Led Zeppelin and Hendrix that far surpasses really anything that’s out there now. I think people stopped demanding quality.

What accounts for this?

Part of the problem is modern technology. That’s why I hate modern recording equipment. When the possibilities are limitless, the imagination is severely limited. You know? Because you spend so much time thinking about what you’re not doing that you forget what you are doing.

Some of the best recordings ever were done a four-track recorders. And all of the best writing ever, almost without exception, was done on typewriters or handwritten, where they actually had to take a minute and think about things and be careful about the words on the page, you know?

Paul and Julie Slick (among others) watching Eric Slick on stage with Eddie Vedder in Seattle. By the way, Julie and Eric, 2/3 of the Adrian Belew Trio, have just released the album, Side Four Live. Check it out!

So tell me, the fifteen-year-old who left home early, do you feel like you grew up fast or do you feel like you never reached adulthood?

Both. I grew up really fast in so many ways, and then in other ways, you know, …I take really good care of my family, I earn a decent living, I’m very responsible, those sorts of things. But at the same time, I’m not going to fall into that looking-back track. You know what I mean? I’m going to enjoy my life. …The grownups I’ve seen, I don’t want to be part of that.

Able to patch things with your mom?

We made our peace.

What do you want for your own kids?

Happiness. Before I had kids, people asked, “Are you going to talk to your own kids this way?” No. That’s not my job. My job is… happiness. And there’s all kinds of paradoxes. You know, most great art comes from unhappiness, but I’m not going to make my kids unhappy just to make great art.

Tell me about the role of music in your life, aside from work. If I saw you listening to your favorite music, what would I see?

Music is my life… the vibrations of the universe connecting us all to each other.

I would be in the car, and if I was with myself I would be singing along, or playing air drums, or rewinding a part to hear it again. If I was not alone, I would be pointing out a bass line, or drum fill, or giving biographical info for the song. Always teaching….

*

Paul conducting Mike Keneally (Zappa guitarist), Eric Slick and others at NAMM in California.

I’d like to end with this quote because it packs a lot of wisdom into something short and simple: “I’m not saying you’re going to play music for a living, but if you work hard at this age, you can do a job you love.”

Thank you for being here, Paul!

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