Frequently Asked Questions
(which have only ever been asked infrequently and which are mostly about 33 Minutes)
Q: Is 33 Minutes autobiographical?
A: Short answer: no.
Long answer: I had a best friend for a bunch of years starting around fourth grade. By eighth grade we were barely even friends anymore. But he didn’t beat me up, or even threaten to beat me up, and not a single other event that takes place in this book happened to me. But it is, I guess you could say, emotionally autobiographical. I was writing about what it felt like to lose your best friend for the first time, and that feeling was something I knew first-hand.
Q: 33 Minutes is structured kind of strangely. Barely any time passes and the chapters have titles like “11:41,” “11:45,” and “11:49.” Why did you do this?
A: So my honest (but also a little obnoxious) answer to questions like this (Why did you do something or What did you mean by something?) is to ask the asker, “Well, what do you make of it?” or “What effect did it have on you?” Because truthfully that’s what matters most. I don’t get to decide what my books mean, the reader does. But okay, I can still give you my version. But it’s a long one, so don’t say I didn’t warn you:
For some reason, I have a tough time writing books in a straightforward way. When I’m writing I’m trying really hard not to just imitate other books I’ve read. Part of not imitating is thinking up new character with new conflicts. But another way to get to someplace new is to tell the story in an unusual way. This is often where my books begin, with an idea of how to tell it. For instance, my next book is a young adult novel made up entirely of lists.
Of course, these kind of techniques (or gimmicks) only get you so far. You still need to have fascinating characters doing fascinating things. But for some reason these kind of strange techniques get me excited about writing a new story, and without that excitement it’s pretty close to impossible to write anything worth reading.
In the case of 33 Minutes, I thought it might be fun to start Sam’s story right near the end. I had a feeling that Sam would be at his most interesting when he thought he was about to get beat up by Morgan, so I open the book just a bit before that’s going to happen. That also (I hope) grabs the reader’s attention right away, since there’s immediate suspense and conflict and all those good things. The idea of starting a story near its end came from some advice I got once from the writer Michael Chabon, who I’m guessing got the same advice from someone else. But it was my idea to break it down into chapters that only last five minutes or so.
Writing chapters that only cover a few minutes (see, I told you this was going to be a long answer) also let me do something else I love to do when I write: describe a moment in great detail. So that’s what the chapters are, a bunch of moments magnified. That and a lot of flashbacks, because of course you can’t ever tell just the end of the story.
Q: How long did it take you to write 33 Minutes?
A: Around two or three months. But I didn’t write it all at once. I wrote a bit, sent that to my agent (or agents actually—it’s complicated—Simon Lipskar and Daniel Lazar, who are both incredibly good readers and not just absurdly good agents), wrote some more, took a break, worked on something else, went back to it, sent it back to Daniel (who’s the official agent for this book), etc., until we felt it was pretty much done.
Q: Two or three months. That seems kind of fast.
A: That’s not a question.
Q: Now I see why you made your protagonist a smart-aleck. Fine. Wouldn’t you say that writing a book in two or three months is kind of fast?
A: I guess, but don’t think that I always write that fast. Sometimes you get lucky. You get an idea for a story and an idea for how to tell it. You start writing it, and against all odds your ideas turn out to be good ones. Next thing you know you have a book. But that’s not usually how it works. Usually things take much longer, because usually not all your ideas are as good as you first hoped.
Q: Wait, you said something about the book feeling “pretty much done.” What do you mean “pretty much”?
A: Well, honestly, I don’t remember if I thought it was 100% awesome by the time we started sending it around to publishers (that’s how it works most of the time: you write a book and then your agent sends it publishers, hoping someone will want to buy it). All I know is that the insanely excellent editor Liesa Abrams at Aladdin bought it, but then she had what people call “notes.” “Notes” is code for “Um . .. this part still needs some attention.” So then there were lots of little (and a few not-so-little) things that I revised, and revised again. By the time Liesa was done with it, the book was much, much better.
Q: Did you do the drawings in 33 Minutes?
A: No, but they’re pretty great, if I do say so myself. A woman named Bethany Barton did them. I chose all the places where they’d go, plus I explained (in words) what I wanted everything to look like. Still, Bethany had to interpret my explanations. The great thing is she totally got what I was aiming for, and in a bunch of places she came up with some little detail that made the whole thing way better than what I had first imagined.
Q: Are you going to write more books about Sam Lewis? Or maybe a book about Morgan Sturtz? Or even Amy Takahara? Like some kind of sequel?
A: Right now I’m not planning on it. I had a story to tell, and I told it. I do think about Sam from time to time. And Amy, too. Morgan not so much. I wouldn’t rule out another book entirely.
Q: Will there be a movie of 33 Minutes?
A: I have no idea. I hope so, because when people say, “I saw the movie, but the book was better,” they’ll be talking about my book.
Q: What’s next? Do you have another book coming out?
A: My next book will be a young adult novel and will be published by Simon Pulse in Summer 2014. Right now it’s called Three Days and Darren Jacobs, but that title is going to change. It might be called All These Things & More or A Number of Absurd Complications or something else altogether. This is the book told entirely in lists. I’ve started another YA novel, but only very recently, so it’s still too new to talk about.
Q: You write books for adults, for kids, and for teenagers. What’s up with that?
A: I don’t know. It wasn’t really my plan to become a writer, let alone write for this or that age group. I just write. Sometimes writing for one age interests me, sometimes another.
Q: Well, what did you plan to become?
A: I planned (and became) a professor for a while. I was a professor of literature (modern Hebrew literature to be exact). If you want to hear more about that, check out my longer bio. I still teach, though now I mostly teach creative writing, which I love to teach.