Today my guest is C. Lee McKenzie, who’s been a longtime follower of my blog and is a blogger herself. But she’s much more than that: Lee is also a professional writer. And not just a writer, but an author—a novelist, to be precise. She’s here today to chat with me about her new novel, which is called Alligators Overhead. Normally I’m not too crazy about those slithery critters. They’re a real health hazard to dogs where I live. But that’s a catchy title, don’t you think? And the book’s cover (which Mike says you shouldn’t judge a book by, but I do anyway, so sue me!) is an attention grabber. Take a look:
CLM: Hello, Buddy. I’m happy to be here.
B: We’ll get to your new book in a minute. But first, there are some things I’ve been dying to ask you ever since I found out that writing novels is your Real Job.
CLM: Okay, fire away.
B: So . . . as a human who dabbles with words and actually gets paid for her efforts, what advice could you offer an aspiring canine novelist?
CLM: You want to write novels, too?
B: Well, I like to keep my options open. Blogging is fun, but it doesn’t buy a lot of chew toys. Sometimes I feel like throwing caution out the window and setting higher goals. Plus I enjoy making stuff up—the wilder the better. So what words of wisdom do you have for me? And I don’t mean things like should I write standing up or sitting down? With a pencil or a computer? That last one’s a no-brainer, anyway—no opposable thumbs, see?
CLM: Yes. I see implement selection is a non-issue, Buddy. First, I’d tell you to start by drawing on what you’ve already experienced in your life. Any feline chases that have led you into danger or into some wonderful chance meeting with a charming pooch you’d give your favorite chewy toy to snuggle with?
B: Hmmm . . . I tend not to chase cats too much, because that’s dangerous all by itself. Those idiots run with scissors, and they’re not afraid to use them on you. Believe me, the nose knows! What else you got?
CLM: Check out the people you associate with. They might offer up some quirky characteristics or habits you can use when you start creating your characters.
B: Wow—yeah. I live with very quirky people, and some of their friends are pretty funky, too. I’ll start taking good notes. Please, continue . . .
CLM: I know you stroll on the beach; take note of that sand between your toes the next time you’re there and describe it. It’s all about choosing gritty, exciting images for your reader. Oh, and that makes me think of another suggestion. Determine who your readers are going to be before you decide what to write.
B: Gritty images—I can do that. And writing for the right crowd makes sense, too. I’m guessing my readers would be dog owners, mostly. Well, between all the thinking and planning and the actual writing, it sounds like novelists put in a lot of hard work. And you know what they say about all work and no play. What are your favorite pastimes when you’re taking a break from all that pounding on the computer keyboard? Personally, I like to go outside and roll in the dirt.
CLM: Oh, me, too! I think I was a terrier in my other life. When I’m not involved in dirt, I like hiking.
B: I love hiking, except when the weather’s too hot. Mike says what I do isn’t really hiking, but just pushing my nose around the block in first gear. I challenge him to try it my way sometime. Hey, here’s something maybe you can straighten out for me: I’ve heard that writers work best when they have things called muses. Just what is a muse, anyway, and where can I go about getting one? Are they expensive? Can you buy a used one?
CLM: If there’s a used muse, I’ll get me one. But seriously, I had a . . . forgive the term . . . CAT muse once. She actually helped a lot until she got an agent and started selling her own books in direct competition with mine. I taught that cat everything, and she turned on me. Muses are supposed to support and inspire artists—not eat the last can of tuna, then steal their agent list and walk. Sorry. I still get in a twist when I think about it.
B: Sounds like I’ve touched a nerve. Sorry about that. So a muse is a being and not a something. Suppose I wanted to be a muse for some other writer. Is that a job for a dog with my qualifications? And how’s the pay? And could I telecommute?
CLM: Muses come in all shapes and sizes. Actually, dogs have the highest qualifications for being muses. They’re quiet. They stay close. (Telecommuting is probably not as effective as being there in dogginess.) They remind authors they need to hydrate (loud slurping from water bowl or toilet) and they get those author butts off their chairs for walks every once in a while. Very healthy. And that’s one of the muse’s jobs—keep your author well. Next you have to inspire them. A cold nose to the ankle works. I’d say apply and see what happens. As to pay, hold out for the highest quality kibble, only the best doggie bed money can buy—and Liver Snaps. I hear those are yummy treats.
B: What a relief! After I asked, I was afraid you might not be too jiggy with a dog for a muse, since the cat didn’t work out. Who did you get to replace her—or are you between muses?
CLM: Here’s a picture of my current muse. I hired her after the cat split.
B: Strange looking creature. But who am I to judge, as long as she gets the job done. She is handling it to your liking?
CLM: You can apply for her job. Getting it may mean relocating to California. Could you do that?
B: Seriously, you’d consider me? Oh, darn. I could leave my three cats in a heartbeat, but not my humans. And I’m pretty sure a coast-to-coast commute is above my pay grade. (heavy sigh) Let’s move on to your new book, Alligators Overhead. What’s with that reptilian theme? Is it about a boy and his alligator? Is it a horror story? Are alligators the new vampires, or what?
CLM: Honestly? The theme came from my staring up at my knotty pine ceiling and finding alligators. Really. Every knot, every brown streak turned into a scaly lizard with a long snout. There’s a whole tribe of alligators in my book, but they’re the good guys this time out. No horror, just a touch of magic. And spare me anymore vampires!
B: Alligator heroes, huh? Interesting concept! (Take that, mutant ninja turtles!) Interesting, too, about seeing them in your pine ceiling. I can relate, because we have this big old mahogany TV cabinet in the living room, and if you look at it just right, one of the doors has an image of me in it. Hey, wait a minute—alligators in the ceiling. Alligators over—OMG! I think I just got your title. Clever!
CLM: Thank you!
B: You’re welcome! So tell me, is Alligators Overhead your first book?
CLM: This is my third book, but my first middle grade. The other two were young adult novels. You know, books written about those teen years when everything is high drama: first love, first major disappointment, first experience with death or other loss—that kind of thing.
B: Yeah, dogs go through some of that, too. And middle grade is . . . ?
CLM: With middle grade, the characters are younger (8-12), the readers are focused on finding out who they are, so the conflicts in their books have to reflect that. Themes can be anything from friendship to school situations to relationships with siblings and peers. Did you ever read Charlotte’s Web? That’s a great example of a good middle grade novel.
B: I haven’t read that one. Mike told me it’s about a spider who’s really nice and not at all scary, and at first I was like yeah, right. But I guess if there can be good alligators, anything’s possible. I’ll have to check it out. If we might back up a little, what qualifies somebody to write middle grade novels, anyway? And for that matter, how about young adult? I guess I mostly mean you, Lee, not just anybody—how did your writing career develop the way it did? What led you to this particular point?
CLM: Let's just say I'm an avid reader and I wanted to be on the other side of that process for a change. I happen to have a family of young readers and so I started writing for them. It’s that simple. As to what led to this point? Sheer insanity and curiosity. You have to have a touch of both to keep at this writing stuff.
B: Curious and crazy—I’m pretty good at both of those. Maybe I’ll be an author yet! Man, I’m soaking up the knowledge today! Oh—perhaps you can clarify something else. If someone writes a ghost story, is that the same thing as ghost writing?
CLM: Not quite, but you are definitely on your way to doing some excellent writing. You’ve just created a double entendre. (small applause)
B: Thanks for bearing with me. You can tell I’m still struggling with the language. So ghost writing is . . . ?
CLM: It’s when a writer gets paid to write a book for someone else.
B: That’s sort of what I sort of figured. Mike says when it happens in school on a term paper or a take-home exam, it’s called cheating.
CLM: I think he's pulling your leg. In school, unless it’s a group project, you're supposed to do your own work and no one else’s. But ghost writing is all about collaboration.
B: Have you ever ghost-written something?
CLM: Nope. I’d be afraid to write somebody else’s story, but there are some super ghost writers who do. You might give it a try. Maybe you could write something for Mike.
B: Well, flight-of-ideas here . . . wouldn’t you even consider ghost writing the memoirs of a pretty talented dog who’s been around the block a few times? I’d do it myself, but the fiction thing still intrigues me, and I don’t want to stretch myself too thin.
CLM: That I might consider. We’ll have to talk about the possibilities later. Call my agent. Let’s do lunch.
B: You’ve said the magic word! Lee, thanks so much for visiting today. I’m definitely going to read Alligators Overhead, even though I’m not a middle-grader. Please come back whenever you can. And you blog readers, be sure to check out all of Lee’s novels, as well as her own blog, TheWriteGame, and her terrific website, CLeeMcKenzieBooks.com.
CLM: Yay! We did it. Great interview, Buddy. Here’s a scratch behind the ear.
Buy Alligators Overhead at: