Monday, March 10, 2008

Ruth McNally Barshaw and Rampaging Pitbulls

I've been flat on my back for the past ten days, fighting the Virus from the Depths of Hell Itself. Still it holds me in its grip, but I managed to sit up in bed long enough to update this blog. At least I think I'm updating the blog. This could be another hallucination brought on by the fever. I'm told the other day I ran through the house shouting that I was the former Belgian longjumping champion Nils LaFontaine. It was only when I stood on the dining room table to receive my gold medal that the Resident Brit and a couple of neighbors managed to tackle me and haul me back to bed. I am now relatively certain I'm not Nils LaFontaine but as they say, only a fool is completely sure of anything.

Ruth McNally Barshaw: the explosive interview!

After the raging success of my interview with Susan Vaught, I decided to try again. This time, the lovely and talented Ruth McNally Barshaw was kind enough to answer my questions and I didn't even have to threaten her much. Without further ado, here it is:

Dr. Missy: Your first book is ELLIE McDOODLE: HAVE PEN, WILL TRAVEL from Bloomsbury USA, which received Two Thumbs Up and a Hoohah from Dr. Missy. Your forthcoming book is ELLIE McDOODLE: NEW KID IN SCHOOL, also from Bloomsbury. Who the heck is Ellie McDoodle? Are you Ellie McDoodle?

Ruth Barshaw: Nooo. She's more brave than I ever was. When I was a kid, mostly
I was embarrassed to be alive. Still, we do share many of the same afflictions and idiosyncrasies. The Ellie books have a lot of little truth-becomes-art moments in them. Like where Ben-Ben is eating Ellie's favorite cereal, with his toes, right out of the box. In real life it was my daughter, Katie (who Ben-Ben is based on, incidentally). Editors think I'm wildly imaginative, but really I just lead a twisted life.

DM: England. 1942. The Second World War at its height. Bombs falling in
London. U-Boats on the prowl in the English Channel. Spies everywhere. Food, gas, and clothing rationed. Many people sleep in tube stations because they no longer feel safe on the surface. Instead of writing about that, you created a story about a girl who goes on a camping trip. Were you inspired by wartime England or was it something else?

RB: Actually it was the Korean War. My dad was a Major and enlisted in the
National Guard when he got back home. Every summer he'd spend two weeks at National Guard camp in northern Michigan. Because he and my mom had 7 kids and it'd be insane to leave her alone with us for two long weeks every year, we went with him and camped at the state park nearby. The Ellie story came from those annual trips. So did my affinity for raccoons, packing things efficiently, and campfire smell.

DM: Tell us about Fing Fang Fooey.

RB: It's a variation on Rock, Paper, Scissors, and it's used to count out who is "it" for a game of, say, Sardines, Ghost in the Graveyard, or Cereal Tag. Everyone stands in a circle with their fists in the center. Together they all chant at the same time, pumping their fists, "Fing, Fang, Fooey!" and on "Fooey!" they all thrust one, two or three fingers into the circle. Add up all the fingers, start counting from the youngest person in the circle, and the person you land on is "it." This is all carefully documented in the first Ellie McDoodle book.

DM: Kirkus describes ELLIE McDOODLE as "Part journal, part graphic novel"
which is also the case with such recent books as DIARY OF A WIMPY KID and THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET. Are we seeing the emergence of a new genre in children's books?

RB: I hope so. I'd throw AMELIA'S SIXTH GRADE JOURNAL in there too.
I'm thrilled to be in such good company with these nonstandard graphic novels. It's fascinating that all these books/series came about at roughly the same time. Each alone might have been merely a footnote. Together, and with HUGO CABRET taking the Caldecott this year (Yay!), each gains street cred. Maybe we're a mini-trend -- we need a name. And a spokesmodel.

DM: How did you come to the attention of your agent? And why does she want
to be known as Eddie "Carwash" LaRue?

RB: It was all very mysterious. One of her spies told her about my SCBWI
NYC conference sketchbook on my website (, and the ensuing discussion on some of the writer groups about whether that style would work for kids' books. Carwash approached me. As luck would have it, she liked the work-in-progress, Ellie McDoodle, and it sold. A year later I finally found out who my benefactor was: Susan Vaught, the wonderful and illustrious author of Big Fat Manifesto, Trigger, and Stormwitch, among others. I'm forever in her debt, because Carwash changed my life.

Why the name? To remind her to sell, sell, sell, so she never has to
go back to her previous job.

DM: I'm not going to ask what tree you would be because the last author
actually answered the question. Instead, I ask this: If you could have a superpower, which one would you choose? And don’t say invisibility. Everybody wants that one but it’s really lame. Think about those Frantic Four people. There’s Flame Guy who shouts “Fire Ahoy!” and he catches on fire and flies around, and the Mr. Stretchy, who can stretch (duh), and Rocky, who’s made out of rocks or bricks or something and he’s real strong. Then there’s Invisibility Gal, who just stands around being invisible. Big deal. I'll bet she goes around peeping in windows at night or something creepy like that. So choose something else!

RB: Well, if I could be a tree, I would be back in first grade where I was a
tree in the class play. It was humiliating, especially getting my photo in the newspaper next to the stars of the show. I wouldn't want invisibility, actually. I've already had that, being born into a large family. My fifth-grade daughter told her teacher last week the thing she craved most was a voice -- she wanted to be an agent of change in the world, but felt if the class bullies wouldn't even listen to her, then how could she make the world listen, and stop the wars, and repair the earth? The teacher thought this was rather profound, as do I. What I crave is the superpower to preserve that idealism in all our youth. She's my youngest, and while I love seeing her grow into a thoughtful, helpful member of society, and maybe even a good leader, I'm scared about the changes that I know are coming soon. I wish all 10-year-olds could keep that enthusiasm for learning, the sense of wonder, strength and empowerment that so many of them have, and that too many people lose over time. That'd be a collective superpower, and we'd all be better for it.

DM: I went into a Barnes & Noble last week and tried to buy ATTACK OF THE
FROZEN WOODCHUCKS by Dan Elish but they didn't have it. In fact, the information desk guy sneered at me, like the book I wanted wasn't worth his attention. I'll tell you what, he was a nasty specimen. Later on, when we went into the cafe to get some Starbucks, the manager came in and started fooling with the cash register and managed to break it. "Nice job, Sherlock," I said after ten minutes of waiting, and he sneered at me some more while he failed to fix the register. In the end, we had to take our coffee and books to the front register, which he hadn't managed to break yet. The next time you go to a bookstore, what will you buy? I hope they have it.

RB: Wow, I'm surprised B&N didn't have Elish's book. You can get it on
Amazon starting at $9.66 for used and new (I admit I was shocked to discover the book actually does exist). I went to a bookstore tonight, for an author event, and bought: A tote bag with waves screenprinted on it. (I plan to add a fish; my mother's maiden name is Codd, and we do all sorts of fishy events with kitschy fishy memorabilia. Maybe I'll bring it to the next wedding) - A cow keychain that poops cola-flavored candies. - A mini Uglydoll keychain: Ice-Bat. Hmm, apparently I collect keychains. - THE DISORGANIZED MIND by Nancy A Ratey. About coaching ADD-addled brains like mine--I hope I manage to read the whole thing. :x - FUN DOLLS by Aranzi Aronzo, basically how to make cute, Japanese stuffed animals.

I got paid for some author visits this month and went on a book-buying binge that lasted two weeks. Some new favorites: Boni Ashburn's HUSH LITTLE DRAGON and Kelly DiPucchio's GRACE FOR PRESIDENT. If I buy something the next time I'm in a bookstore (critique group meeting next Saturday) it'll likely be a sandwich and a sketchbook.

DM: Dead mother books: cliche or not? Explain yourself.

RB: Sooo old and cliche. Disney started it with Snow White in 1939,
and nearly every Disney mother since is dead. Haven't we had enough of this sorry trend? Though I admit I may write a dead father book eventually. My dad died when I was 12 and it nags at me. I think dead mothers exist in novels to give characters desperation, loneliness and independence. Maybe there are other ways to achieve that.

DM: What inspires you to write? Do you listen to music, do you sit under a
shady tree, or do you stand in the middle of your writing room and scream for an hour as I do?

RB: :::laughing::: I'm sorry, that's such a disturbing visual (so unlike you). Deadlines inspire me. Paying the mortgage inspires me. The rising cost of travel inspires me. I do listen to the radio, often classical music in the daytime, NPR news in the evening. Or I listen to the small selection of MP3s on my computer, over and over and over. I'm a rut sort of person. Last year and the year before, while doing book revisions, I watched all available seasons of The Office, over and over and over, laughing my fool head off. It was glorious.

DM: What is next for Ruth Barshaw?
My studio's a mess. My adorable dog is elderly. Our dishwasher is broken. Two of my kids got engaged recently, one's pregnant. Most of our family birthdays are in April and May. I am reading two great books on illustration and transcribing harmonica songs in musical notation. My picturebook is almost ready to submit to Carwash, and I have a few new ideas for the next Ellie. March is Reading Month turned into March is Visiting Author Month. I've been running sporadically and want to make it regular. I need a haircut before I start hacking away at it myself. I want to make some Ellie dolls. Life looks to continue as it has been: Tumultuous.

DM: Ask yourself a question. Go ahead, it won't hurt.

RB: Were you ever given an upside-down spanking?
Why, yes, in third grade, for talking too much, and at the time I was, regrettably, wearing a dress. Why do you ask?

Thanks so much, Dr. Missy. I appreciate your patience. You, Susan
Vaught, Carwash and Mr. Bushida are my heroes.

Email of the day

Dear Dr. Missy,

My first book is coming soon and I want to do as many book signings as possible. Since my book is about pets, do you think I should bring my dog to the signings? His name is Rupert and he's a really cute poodle who just loves people.

Pet Lady

Dear Pet Lady,

I also have a dog. His name is Scooter and he is 95 pounds of Staffordshire bull terrier. We "liberated" Scooter when he was a puppy from one of those Michael Vick places that train dogs to fight. Contrary to popular belief, bull terriers are not naturally violent. What makes them popular as fighters is that they are very powerful and possess approximately 3,000 huge teeth.

The biggest problem with having a bull terrier is that Scooter developed the idea that he could best show affection by gnawing on us--whatever arm, foot, hand, breast, nose or other extremity he can reach is equally satisfactory. He is particularly fond of toes, perhaps because they have an interesting flavor or maybe they're just the easiest target, what with toes being at floor level most of the time. When Scooter still possessed his razor-sharp puppy teeth, the entire family went around with scabby toes. It looked like we shared a particularly disgusting foot disease.

Another thing about bull terriers is they like to shop. Scooter becomes positively giddy when we take him to Petsmart or Petco. We have to go up and down every aisle to make sure we don't miss anything, with plenty of stops to sniff especially interesting items. We finish at the hamster cages, where Scooter sticks his nose against the glass and causes the hamsters to suffer panic attacks.

One time Scooter decided he wanted to shop at Best Buy. He ran inside before we could stop him and proceeded to start a small riot. "There's a pitbull in the store!" a woman screamed, and people started running around aimlessly while Scooter patrolled the aisles. The security guy hopped in place near the front door, waving his arms and shouting about keeping calm while my son stood in front of him yelling "Don't shoot my dog!" I guess my son thought the security guy was packing heat.

Anyway, my son finally corralled Scooter near the cell phone area and brought him back to the car, where he found the Resident Brit and I sprawled in our seats, helpless with laughter. I am laughing now, just thinking about it.

Hmm. Looks like I didn't address your question about taking your dog to a book signing. That's a shame.

Dr. Missy