Sunday, April 15, 2012

1/2 Dozen for David Teague

Over a decade ago, I got a postcard in the mail from the Delaware Division of the Arts, announcing the work of their new fiction fellow, David Teague. Not recognizing the name, I flipped it over -- not expecting much, frankly. I grew up in Delaware. We have no feeder team for writers, and we're incredibly small, and I'm hard on language. But what I read was beautiful, rich, lush prose -- which made me turn to my husband and say, "We've got to meet this guy."

These were the days of phone books. I called him, and we invited him and his wife over for dinner. They walked into our little white-tiled foyer, held out a bottle of red wine. We bobbled the pass. The bottle dropped and broke and splashed across the white tile. In my memory we were ankle -deep.

It was a christening of sorts -- a ship, a friendship ... And that couple ended up being David Teague, who is now a celebrated children's book writer, and Marisa De Los Santos, a New York Times Bestselling novelist. At the time, none of us had any published books, but we had like minds -- strange in ways we each appreciated.

Today, I'm introducing DAVID TEAGUE and his wonderful, fanciful picture book FRANKLIN'S BIG DREAMS. (I've read some of Teague's novels that haven't seen the light of day -- which he mentions below. They are astonishing, beautiful... and the light is coming...)

Here's a 1/2 Dozen for DAVID TEAGUE:

I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?


In Franklin’s Big Dreams, a man with a sledgehammer builds a railroad through Franklin’s bedroom because when I was little, I dreamed about railroad tracks running past my bed.

As I was trying to fall asleep, I could hear a train rumble through a tunnel and blow its horn as it approached town. I never minded lying awake as long as I imagined people moving through the night, going someplace.

The railroad in my dreams ran beside my bed and through the back wall of my room into the yard. After the passengers had thundered past in their glowing Pullmans, I'd wake up, climb out of bed and follow the rails on foot to see where they went, but since I was walking, I never caught up. When the woods behind my house got too dark, I always turned around and went back to my bedroom.

And then I woke up.

I always wondered where those tracks led. After thirty years of writing books that never saw the light of day, at least I learned enough about stories to realize they’re good for making sense out of odd situations. So I made up a story about a kid with mysterious trains, ships, and airplanes traveling through his bedroom and named him Franklin, hoping maybe he could figure the whole thing out. And it appears that he did.

Research. We all have to do it. Sometimes it’s delicious, sometimes brutal. Tell us a tale from the research trenches.

I’d like it if all I had to confess was that I’ve abandoned the library in favor of Wikipedia, but it’s far worse than that. In lieu of research, I go to my kids’ swim meets, buy a program, and steal the names of the entrants. Just this weekend, for instance, Jake Blazer smoked his fifty freestyle, Emily Cranker cranked on her hundred IM, and little CeCe Streaker, well, how do you think she did? Actually, she was sick and missed the meet, poor kid, but if she’d been there . . .

Last fall I became acquainted with Dhruv Pant. OK, maybe not as awesome a name, from a competitive standpoint, as Cranker, Streaker, and Blazer, but this guy clearly belongs in a story. Maybe a story that addresses this mystery: “Is there a singular of ‘pants’?”

As luck would have it, a lady in the stands this weekend happened to hear me exclaim something along the lines of “You can’t even make up stuff this good!” whereupon she kindly informed me she had done just that, being Mrs. Blazer.

Criticism. It’s part of the territory. How do you handle it? Is this the way you’ve always handled it?

I’ve only got the one book out there, Franklin’s Big Dreams, and I think it contains somewhere south of a thousand words. So there’s not a lot for critics to latch onto. Still, I will say that the most persistent reproach I encounter is that my plot is hard to follow. “Where did Franklin get a rocket ship?” the critics harangue. This rebuke may be heard consistently from the over-forty crowd, while readers under five know darn well where Franklin’s rocket ship came from. He asked the man with the sledgehammer for it. Come on! How hard was that? Did you read the book? Did you look at the awesome pictures Boris Kulikov drew? Sheesh. When every single five-year-old within a four state radius gets it and you don’t, isn’t it time to look in the mirror?

What's your worst writerly habit?

Clearly, my worst writerly habit is making up stories about people who invent a new kind of metal. I know exactly why I do this. And it is a terrible reason. Here is the line from which my vice springs:

A I sit looking out of a window of the building

I wish I did not have to write the instruction manual on the uses of a new metal.

--John Ashbery

I mean, please, John Ashbery? Could I be more pretentious? In my defense, I didn’t know who John Ashbery was when I first read these tremendous lines, which, by the way, sums up my relationship to much of poetry: Don’t know it exists, read it, it blows my socks off, socks are draped over a hydrangea in the yard.

But boy, as soon as I ran into this guy looking out of a window of the building, I immediately began to wish I DID have to write the instruction manual for the uses of a new metal. I mean I was DYING to. It sounded like a killer job. And so far, I’ve got a book about Elktonium, which is three times heavier than lead, has an odd odor, kind of like Tropical Mr. Clean, is about as strong as heavy-duty Saran Wrap, dissolves in lemonade, and frightens dogs, though on the positive side, it shimmers the same iridescent green as the lid of an old lady’s pillbox. Plus, I wrote a book about Illuminatium, which is 5 times stronger than steel, glitters like agate, casts its own light, never tarnishes, and possibly has bonus properties I haven’t even thought of yet. Both books are, alas, unpublished. Which is why I consider this writerly habit bad. Help me, John Ashbery.

Was there an extremely influential writing teacher who great impact on your writing life?

There was an extremely influential geometry teacher. Doyle Jackson. I loved geometry, and I loved Mr. Jackson. He made all the boys wear ties on test day. Girls: dresses. Well. He hurled instructions like a drill sergeant at Camp Lejeune. He had total faith in geometry, and he was right. Geometry provides the rules, and if you abide by the rules of geometry, you will prosper in geometry. Mr. Jackson was so assured of this, he seemed like a theorem on two legs. I don’t know for certain, but somehow I think this answer might appear to be preparing to posit geometry as an allegory for narrative. But that’s not what I wanted to say about Mr. Jackson.

One Saturday afternoon, my friends and I were watching the Razorbacks on TV. This was back when we were in the old Southwest Conference, playing a gaggle of boneheads from Texas as usual. And there, in a zebra shirt, laying down the law in three dimensions in the space defined by the gridiron and its Z axis just like Euclid would’ve done, was Doyle Jackson! Flipping coins! Tossing flags! Blowing the whistle! Penalizing miscreants! Stopping the clock! Starting it! He was the czar, much like in class. My friends and I turned to each other and said, “Jackson rules! Secretly, he was a football referee all this time!” I really respected that guy, and I’ve always, in the back of my mind, imagined that one day Mr. Jackson will see my name on the spine of a book and say, “Teague rules! Secretly, he was a writer all this time!”

Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?

No. Nobody ever does. Come on. Get real. Somewhere I read that Gabriel Garcia Marquez writes all morning, has lunch, takes a nap, and spends the rest of the day chatting with dignitaries, or something like that, maybe I dreamed it, but anyway, it doesn’t matter, because none of us is Gabriel Garcia Marquez, so we scramble every second to finish what we have to finish so our families or our cats can eat, and then we write like maniacs when the chance comes up, or feel guilty if we don’t. Amen.

David Teague, the author of FRANKLIN'S BIG DREAMS, lives in Wilmington, Delaware, with his family: the astounding novelist Marisa de los Santos, the beautiful singer Annabel, and the jazzy pianist Charles. He teaches literature at the University of Delaware, works in the library at Charles and Annabel’s school, and loves to read books--silently, out loud, in bed, in the back yard, and in the side yard.

To read more 1/2 Dozens by novelists, essayists, poets,