Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Interview with Josh Berk

by Jodi Webb

Josh Berk is the author of The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin (Knopf, 2010), a young adult mystery that combines ghosts and murder with teen angst, all set in a high school in the coal region. Berk’s second teen comedy/mystery novel is slated for release in 2012. According to Berk’s website, his past vocations have included journalist, playwright, and a guitarist for a punk band. Currently a librarian, Josh and his family live in Allentown, Pa. At the Write It Right conference, Josh will be giving 2 sessions: Writing for YA Audiences, and Getting Your YA Novel Published. In the first of a 2-part interview, Jodi Webb talked with Josh about writing for teens and 'tweens, developing an audience, and the publishing process.

BDWN: I just finished reading The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin, your first YA book, and it was full of the thing that intimidates me most about writing for a YA audience--teenagers communicating. Did you lurk in dark corners spying on teens talking to one another, hire teens consultants to OK your dialogue?

JOSH: Yes, I lurked in dark corners! Well, not quite. But I was working at a public library frequented by teens. Despite it being a library, they were never very quiet and it was pretty easy to "spy" on them. Also, I managed a crew of teen workers. I must not have exactly projected managerial authority because they soon pretty much talked to me (and emailed me, and texted me) like I was a peer. Some of this definitely influenced the voices of my teen characters. Also, being naturally immature helps.

BDWN: Your book is unusual because Will, who is deaf, and his hearing friend Smiley communicate mainly through the written word...IMing, emailing, writing on paper. Was it easier to write that "dialogue" or the oral dialogue between hearing characters?

JOSH: This is a good question! Dialogue is always my favorite part to write. It tends to flow for me whereas I struggle with other parts of writing at times. I like to get the characters talking and just set them loose. The texting/IM dialogue didn't really feel any different than spoken dialogue to be honest. Will and Devon got into a good flow and the words came fairly naturally.

BDWN: Obviously you're no longer a teenager, but at least you can remember what it was like while writing your characters. But what about your main character, Hamburger Will Halpin who is deaf. I know you aren't deaf but is that something you have life experience with?

JOSH: I started writing the book knowing pretty much nothing about Deafness! I wrote the first draft pretty much just wondering "what if?" and "what would such-and-such be like" for a person who couldn't hear. Then I did research (not sure why I did this backwards) -- reading books by deaf authors, hanging out on Deaf websites, and interviewing some deaf people who I got in touch with. Some of the jokes came from this research and some of it just came from my desire to portray Will as a "regular" adolescent. One deaf reader pointed out that the sort of "earthy" humor Will has is very common in the deaf world, and then gave examples of jokes that I didn't think of as "deaf" jokes but rather plain old teen-boy humor.

BDWN: From my point of view, writing about teenagers is a nightmare simply because they're so trendy. What's in today is totally lame tomorrow. Does anyone still say totally lame? Did you ever worry that by including certain details...IM ing, gold name necklaces, etc, you would date your book? Or did you hope readers would look past details to the great plot?

JOSH: This is a good point. Youth culture moves so fast and publishing moves so slow! I actually wrote the book in 2007 and it didn't come out until 2010. I did worry about things becoming out-of-date and my editor helped pick things that we could alter to be less likely to be outdated. For example, in the first draft everyone in the book had MySpace pages, then I changed it to Facebook, then I just put something vague like "social network page" because I figured that something like that would last, whatever it might be called. And I made up a fictional device ("The Crony") rather than name a type of handheld device that would be replaced by something newer (like, the iPhone, for example, which hardly existed way back when I wrote the book but now is everywhere). My editor also had me pull references to current movie stars and rock bands who she feared might date the book.

So I'd say, yes, it is a concern when writing contemporary YA, but certain things transcend all eras. Youth culture changes, but adolescents are pretty much the same as they've always been. Maybe my book will seem hilariously out-of-date in a few years, but I was just trying to write honestly about a moment in time as I saw it. I think readers will appreciate that. And gold name necklaces will never be lame! (Haha. Maybe they already are?)

Check back on Friday for Part II of Jodi's interview with Josh!

Josh Berk photo by Olaf Starorypinski

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