Award-winning author Tim Myers shares his thoughts and experiences here along with an enlightening look at his book Rude Dude's Book of Food.
Tim's book was reviewed here for Nonfiction Monday.
Tell us something about you as a writer?
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
When I was a kid, I wasn't much interested in school, and mine wasn't a reading family, so I'd never had even a single thought about writing. But for some reason, when my sixth-grade teacher, a nun, gave us an essay for homework, I wrote a poem--I have no idea why. The day after we turned the homework in she asked me to stay back when the other students went out to recess. I was shaking in my boots, afraid I'd get in "big trouble" since I hadn't followed directions. To my amazement, she praised my poem and encouraged me to write more, which I did. For me, everything began there. One teacher, one eleven-year-old, one brief conversation. You never know when you might find yourself in a catalytic moment.
How does your career as a writer influence other areas of your life or vice versa?
I love this question--because this, for me, is at the heart of being a writer. Writing has made me a much better and happier person, and in any number of ways. For one thing, a writer has to learn how to truly pay attention to the world, which is a precious gift--and writing continually encourages me to pay attention in that deep and revealing way. For another, writing about an issue or idea can be powerful in helping you to clarify your own thoughts and opinions, not to mention in waking you up to the true importance of the topic. Writing also extends my emotional life, inspiring me not only to live more fully but also to understand others better, to "peer into" their lives, as it were. And I can't say enough about the pure pleasure of using my imagination, my reasoning powers, not to mention language, on a daily basis. Art to me is one of the highest forms of play known to humanity--and I love to play.
What do you do when you are not writing?
I love music and have been writing songs for decades, and for a while now I've been performing in songwriter competitions. I also love sports--especially basketball--and I work out regularly. My wife and I love to ride bikes together, and we've found wonderful bike trails around the Bay Area. I also do visual art when I can, and I love great movies and TV shows, and I love to hike. And I'm a storyteller, so I do that whenever I can too. What am I leaving out? Ah--eating at some of the great restaurants around the Bay. Going to museums.
Let's talk about the book.
Briefly, what is the book about?
Rude Dude's Book of Food is a history of some of the most popular foods in the world, like chocolate, hamburgers, and noodles. But it's told in the silly and slangy style of the character Rude Dude, and it's filled with stories, jokes, amazing facts, and the like. And somewhere within all that it also has things to say about healthy food choices and food culture in a globalizing world.
What inspired you to write Rude Dude's Book of Food?
I was itching to write a full-length book (my busy life doesn't always allow that), and had sent what I thought of as a picture-book manuscript to an editor. She liked A History of the World from a Hamburger-Lover's Point of View but rejected it, suggesting I turn it into a chapter book about other popular foods too. I thought that was a great idea, and I also loved the idea of writing in a particular voice, especially a very free and humor-oriented one. So I plunged in. It won't come as a surprise to any writer that, ironically enough, that same editor also rejected the finished book.
What would you like readers to take from it?
I was a classroom teacher for 14 years and a teacher educator for 20--I believe strongly that learning can be a fascinating and joyous adventure. But it isn't always presented to young people that way, and I find it especially ironic that history, the story of all humanity, is often turned into something dull when it enters the classroom. So I wanted to present all the exciting and weird and interesting aspects of food history, as well as to share the fascination of history in general. But I also want readers to learn something of the marvelous complexities of food history, and how that stuff on our plates--which we often put into our mouths without a second thought--is actually often a culmination of long, involved historical processes. And of course I want kids to start thinking about food in a more conscious way so they can learn to make healthier choices. I suppose I could sum up my whole goal in the phrase "learning fun."
What excites you about your current projects?
--I'm working on a fantasy novel series for adults and young adults, and I love the world-building involved, as well as the opportunity to address certain real-world issues through fantasy. And of course there's the simple, endless delight of telling a story. I'm also working on a lot of other smaller things--for example, I've just had a book of adult poetry accepted, a collection of poems inspired by stories. And that's a thrill for me, since story and poetry are two of my great loves.
Share something about your writing process.
Where did you get your ideas for this book?
The first impulse came from nothing more than a sense of a narrator's voice, one that was funny and slangy and quite honest about its devotion to cheeseburgers. Then, at that editor's suggestion, I chose popular foods that I happen to love (this created strong motivation for writing but also made me hungry a lot). Then I did a lot of research, which was a blast.
What characters, themes or ideas attract you the most?
So many! I've got 10 four-drawer file cabinets filled with folders in which I collect ideas etc. for particular books I want to write. There's a wide range, and I do poetry, fiction, and nonfiction--I'm kind of all over the map. I'm often drawn to what I call "transrealist" story, that is, fantasy, science fiction, folklore, myth, etc. But I also love more conventional "realist" fiction, and I do plenty of straight-up argument, making a claim and trying to back it up. And I write for all ages, so that adds another wrinkle. The themes I'm interested in are too many to list here.
What part of writing is your biggest challenge?
Although I've written lots of fiction, I've never written a novel before, so my current fantasy novel series is a challenge in terms of going long distance. I'm especially concentrating on characterization, since I think that's something I need to develop.
What book(s)/author(s) have influenced your writing and how?
Some of my favorites are Ursula LeGuin and the religion scholar Huston Smith. I love Kipling's Kim, and I could rattle off a lot more; when I read both Bellow's Herzog and Eliot's Middlemarch, I was so moved and learned so much that when I finished each book, I turned back to page one and read each one through again. And I especially love the poetry of Yeats, Rilke, and Whitman. Oh, and I was only an adult writer until the day I read a particular picture book to my young sons. When I closed the book, I gasped, thinking, You mean you can do THAT in a CHILDREN'S book? In the space it took to read the book--no more than five minutes--I became a children's writer. That book was Where the Wild Things Are.
Being both entertaining and educational is a skill that many teachers struggle with when they attempt to write for children. Your background as an educator is apparent in the opening chapter on page two when you remark that history can be boring if you don't have the whole story. And on page nine you acknowledge your use of slang, then offer readers an explanation and encourage them to master the use of standard English. What was your strategy for striking a successful balance between those two goals throughout the book?
That's a great question, I think, because it gets specific about how one goes about making a desirable principle actually work in a practical way. The first step for me is having learned to love history, and I think that comes to you through two things: finding works that present history in its full human variety and power, and then finding in yourself a "vision" of the human endeavor. So many of us don't understand that the mere presence of humans on this planet is a miracle, an astonishment. And then when you look at what individuals and particular cultures have achieved, and when you get a sense of how such things always happen in the complicated circumstances of individual lives, you start not only to feel part of this huge endless river of human culture but also to understand that it's always a story, always has its up's and down's, its great demands and pressures as well as its triumphs. By its very nature, I think, human culture is an adventure.
But there's a second component too, which I learned through teaching and parenting. You have to learn how kids "work," so to speak--how they feel, for example, and the developmental realities they live with. If you learn this, you can begin coming up with effective ways to communicate with young readers--and then ways to motivate them. The single most important thing here may simply be believing that motivation is crucial, and that the hard work you put into creating motivation is worth it. One thing many of my education students didn't fully understand is that there's always a way to motivate a group of students--you just have to find it.
And when you do--the pay-off is enormous.
What important experience in your writing career would you like to share with this audience?
What I love the most about writing, as I've said, is how it lets me live a fuller, more intense life--not to mention a smarter and wiser life. I'm constantly reading and writing. And I find it worth mentioning that I do a fair amount of my thinking and creating in my dreams at night. I record my dreams on a regular basis, and they often make their way into my writing. I think everyone should pay attention to their dreams, which, although they're often silly or incoherent, can also be powerful messages we send to ourselves.
But I bring this up here as just one example of how books can help super-charge our hearts and our brains, to the point where I'm even thinking and making up stories, etc. in my dreams. And you don't have to be a writer to do this, to have this kind of intensity in your life--reading alone can have this effect on you!