Up-and-coming tween novelists Josh Berk and Aaron Starmer, both C’98, didn’t know each other at Drew, but that didn’t stop us from asking them to interview each other.
JB: Aaron, is Dweeb the first novel you’ve published?
AS: After Drew, I wrote a big mess of a novel I couldn’t sell, but after I finished that I realized that the strongest parts of it were these stories about relationships between younger kids. So I said, Well, why don’t I take a shot at a novel for young people.
AS: How would you describe my book to someone?
JB: It reminds me of a classic teen movie. There are these five kids who get involved in this plot where their principal is trying to use them to skew the test results for their school. I don’t want to give too much away, but the kids get trapped in this test-taking dungeon, and they uncover a much bigger plot at their school. They are five awesome nerds figuring out how to save the world. It’s great. I loved it.
JB: How would you describe my book, The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin?
AS: It’s about a deaf boy who starts at a new high school and has to solve a mystery at a local coal mine. You took a big leap in deciding to make your main character deaf. The real fun of the book is that because Hamburger Halpin is deaf, his powers are in observation, but you get full access to his mind.
AS: Why a deaf protagonist?
JB: I had a short dream about seeing lip reading on a school bus. It seemed like an interesting scene, and so I wrote it, and then realized I had to build a character around it. Even though I knew nothing about the deaf world, I wanted this character to be able to spy on his classmates and solve the mystery. I did a lot of research to get the details right.
JB: Did you anticipate being a writer while at Drew?
AS: I was leaning towards getting into film or playwriting, but I just liked to tell stories. I’ve found this outlet in children’s fiction, which right now is the most robust part of the publishing industry because, surprisingly, kids are still reading, and you can let your imagination run wild in ways you can’t do in other forms.
AS: What about you?
JB: No, absolutely not. I was a political science major, and I really wanted to get involved in politics as a way to effect change in a world I saw as unjust.
JB: Was there a professor at Drew who played a role in you becoming a writer?
AS: I wasn’t very good at poetry, but I took a poetry class with Peggy Samuels, and she was the type of professor who would push you to do more. She saw that I had a spark, that I wanted to be better at this and she encouraged me. I took a playwriting class with Rosemary McLaughlin, and it was one of the most fun classes I had at Drew. All my writing classes were fantastic opportunities to learn from people who were professional or amateur writers who had a passion for it and to be there with other students who were into it too. It was a really fun atmosphere.
AS: What was your experience as a writer working with editors and a big publishing company, on things like titles and covers and the editorial process? That’s been the biggest learning experience for me.
JB: One of the things you learn is that writing a book is much less of a solitary experience than you would think. We went around with the title a million times. There are a lot of people involved: your agent, people in publicity and marketing and the head of line sometimes. I sent an email out to a group of my friends from Drew, and they all helped with my brainstorming.
JB: What about your title? How did your experience with that go?
AS: I came up with Dweeb early on, and everyone loved it. They were like, what 11-year-old boy wouldn’t like to read a book called Dweeb? It is actually an acronym for the five main characters’ first names.
AS: When I Googled you to learn about your book, I found out that when you sold it, it was announced on Publisher’s Marketplace the same week as mine.
JB: It was?
AS: Yeah, it is certainly a small world. Especially given how few people were in our class, and then our books appear the same week.
JB: That’s wild.
Starmer, a Hoboken, N.J., resident whose book, Dweeb: Burgers, Beasts and Brainwashed Bullies, was released by Delacorte in 2009, will publish a new novel, The Only Ones, in September. Berk, who lives in a “cornfield in Allentown, Pa.,” plans to follow The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin (Knopf, 2010) with Crime Scene Procrastinator in 2012.