"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

AEI Client Royce Buckingham Interview with Through The Toll Booth

Interview with Middle Grade Novelist Royce Buckingham

by Clete Barrett Smith on October 4, 2010

in Features

This week I’ll be looking at middle grade books with boy appeal.

Royce Buckingham is a Pacific Northwest author who specializes in boy-friendly fiction. His latest book, the supernatural mystery/thriller The Dead Boys, was released by Putnam on September 2 and is a Junior Library Guild Selection.

TOOLBOOTH: Your new book, The Dead Boys, is full of intensely creepy scenes. What are the challenges in writing horror for children?

BUCKINGHAM: It’s a knife-edge, so to speak, because you’re trying to scare them but you’re not trying to traumatize them. You want to do things that are scary but also kid-safe. The difficulty is, how do you get a really good scare, but without the jeopardy that we know as adults is the worst thing that can happen to you? You have to take yourself back to when you were a kid and remember things that scared you then. Some things you forget – like how scary a bully can be. For me, it was a bully with a knife. I was terrified when I got home from school that a bully with a knife was going to cut me. Now, I’m not sure how the bully was supposed to get in my house, or what it was going to be like when he cut me [laughs]. But that was enough.

TOOLBOOTH: Your first two books mixed horror and humor, but this story is strictly scary. Did it feel like you were working without a safety net when you decided to forego the humor? How was that process different?

BUCKINGHAM: I wrote the first draft and my editor asked me, “Do you want this to be spooky?” When I said, “Yes,” he told me he would adjust my tone, and then he cut one hundred of the two hundred pages that I had sent him. And what he had done was cut out all of the humor. I was outraged and terrified and started over, but it all seemed to work. Because now the tone was consistent. The creepy moments are no longer watered down by parts that are safe. There’s no place for the reader to run – you go to the next chapter and it just gets scarier. There’s no place for the reader to relax.

TOOLBOOTH: Your books are often described as “boy-friendly.” What elements do you think constitute a good “boy book”?

BUCKINGHAM: Boy protagonist, first and foremost. Action. Not a lot of internal thought – now, that’s not because boys don’t think, but they tend to like action. They tend to like to see things happen, they like to get to the point.

TOOLBOOTH: Does word count play into a book for boys? Dead Boys is a very spare story – was it a conscious decision to write a short book? From my days as a teacher, I know that many boys tend to pick the shortest book on the list.

BUCKINGHAM: There’s a synchronicity between the way boys read and the way I write. Because I’m a lawyer, I’ve been trained to write with an economy of words. Boys like to get to the point, which matches up with what I do.

TOOLBOOTH: Speaking of getting to the point: Your books all have supernatural elements. How soon do you think a story should get to the supernatural hook?

BUCKINGHAM: I think probably by the first line. Or earlier [laughs]. When boys flip your book open, I want them to be hooked right away by whatever your best idea is.

TOOLBOOTH: Is that why you wrote a prologue that sets up the monster tree?

BUCKINGHAM: Yes, I’ve done that with all of my books. I call it a James Bond opening. James Bond movies always open with a big action scene, and you know right away what kind of movie you will be watching.

TOOLBOOTH: Speaking of supernatural elements, how do you deal with suspension of disbelief for a main character?

BUCKINGHAM: That’s a tricky question, because it’s a hard thing to do. One thing you can do is tell your reader more than you are telling your main character. Dead Boys isn’t like that, but a lot of books are. One of the tricks of Dead Boys is that the kids talk like they are from different eras – 60’s, 50’s, 40’s . . . Now, a reader will pick up on that, because they know what kind of book they are reading, but the main character might not pick up on a clue like that. The reader is paying close attention but the character is not hyper-aware.

TOOLBOOTH: Finally, I know that you have a lot of experience in pitching story ideas – to agents and editors in the literary world as well as film producers in Hollywood. What are some tips you would give people on how to pitch well?

BUCKINGHAM: There’s a pitching formula, and you can go to screenwriting books for that. Save the Cat is a good one to show you how to set up a pitch. They can say it better than I can. But once you have the formula down, what you have to do is you have to practice it. It’s like anything else; if you practice you get better at it.

TOOLBOOTH: Who are you practicing with?

BUCKINGHAM: People at parties, people at work, professionals in the industry, friends, fellow writers when they have time. Anybody who will listen. Your waiter. You get to practice with different personalities – people who are interested, people who are bored, people who interrupt. You do it a zillion times and it all becomes part of your experience. And the people who have experience with something generally do it better.

You can visit Royce online at www.demonkeeper.com

- Clete Barrett Smith

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