2017-03-15 / Arts & Entertainment News

Improv on the page

Children’s book author never gave up the art of ad-libbing
BY NANCY STETSON


Chris Grabenstein Chris Grabenstein When author Chris Grabenstein attends a book festival or speaks at a school, he’s greeted like a rock star — especially by those in the 8- to 12-yearold range.

Even reluctant readers love his books.

Third through sixth graders adore him.

“They just go crazy,” he says, adding it takes a little more to win over the seventh and eighth graders.

Mr. Grabenstein is the author of such New York Times Bestsellers as “The Island of Dr. Libris” and “Escape From Mr. Lemoncello’s Library.” He has also collaborated with James Patterson on the I Funny, Treasure Hunters and House of Robots series and the books “Word of Mouse,” “Jacky Ha-Ha” and “Daniel X: Armageddon.”

When he talks in schools, he does an improvisational exercise with the kids, using their suggestions and ideas to write a story with them. It teaches them about story structure while also showing them how not to get writer’s block.

“I never know what the story’s going to be, what suggestions they’re going to give me,” he says. “It’s never the same story twice. That’s what keeps it interesting.”

Mr. Grabenstein is one of half a dozen children’s book authors attending the Southwest Florida Reading Festival taking place Saturday, March 18, in Centennial Park in downtown Fort Myers. This year’s event includes adult authors such as Nathan Hill (“The Nix”), Gregg Hurwitz (“Nowhere Man”), Cassandra King (“Moonrise”), James Grippando (“Most Dangerous Place”) and Beatriz Williams (“The Wicked City”). A total of 26 authors of books for adults, teens and children are expected to attend.

Mr. Grabenstein will speak at the children’s author/illustrator tent at 2:15 p.m. and sign books at 10:15 a.m. and 3:15 p.m.

Amusement park beginnings

Mr. Grabenstein started his career doing improv in New York City. He then began writing advertising copy, working for now-bestselling author James Patterson at J. Walter Thompson in New York City.

“He’s always been, and to this day is, the hardest working man in the business,” he says.

He recalls that Mr. Patterson would go to his office early and work on his books from 6 to 9 a.m. Then, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., he’d be the ad agency’s executive creative director.

“I remember seeing a picture of him in Advertising Age in 1985, a photo of him with a stack of his books, maybe five (different titles.) They weren’t the huge bestsellers yet.”

Inspired, Mr. Grabenstein began writing his own series of murder mysteries set in the fictional New Jersey seaside town of Sea Haven, where an amusement part is a main attraction. Like Mr. Patterson’s books, these were novels for adults.

But why the amusement park?

“Mystery writers try to avoid the Cabot Cove Syndrome,” he says, referring to the “Murder She Wrote” series where a murder occurred with frightening regularity in Jessica Fletcher’s coastal Maine town. “It happened so often, you would think residents would say, ‘Come on, let’s get out of this town, someone’s dying every week.’

“So I wanted to come up with a setting that had a transient population,” he says. Plus, he’s always had a fascination for amusement parks.

His first book in that first series, “Tilt a Whirl,” won the Anthony Award and was named one of the best mysteries of 2005 by The Sun-Sentinel, the Detroit Free Press, the Christian Science Monitor, Barnes&Noble.com and BookBitch.com

He eventually wrote eight books in the series, each one named after an amusement park ride or game (“Whack a Mole,” “Mad Mouse,” “Fun House,” for example.)

Then he wrote “a creepy ghost story about a haunted tree possessed by a demon of someone who’d crashed into it,” he says. He’d written 120,000 words when his editor read it and declared it would be perfect for readers ages 8 to 12 —“if you take the adult language and situations out and cut 70,000 words,” he says.

And Mr. Grabenstein, who has 20 nieces and nephews, thought: I might be able to write something my nieces and nephews could read!

So he did it. It became the first book of his Crossroads series.

“I realized, ‘Wow! I’ve got this 12-yearold MAD magazine reader in my brain,’” he says.

A team effort

About 15 years after their time together at the ad agency, Mr. Grabenstein ran into his former boss, Mr. Patterson, at the West Palm Beach Day Academy (Mr. Patterson’s son was in the class Mr. Grabenstein was speaking to). The two decided to give collaboration a try. To date, they’ve written 16 books together.

If it’s the first book in a series, Mr. Patterson will send him an 80-page outline. Mr. Grabenstein then sends back 10,000 words a month (toward a 40,000-word book). Then they talk on the phone and Mr. Grabenstein does rewrites.

“He is intimately involved in every one of those books,” he says. “It’s terrific fun. He’s easy to work with. He’s taught me a lot over the years how to write. He’s my mentor.”

Mr. Grabenstein hasn’t done too shabbily on his own, though. Both “The Island of Dr. Libris” and “Escape From Mr. Lemoncello’s Library” were New York Times Bestsellers. The latter was followed by “Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics” and “Mr. Lemoncello’s Great Library Race.”

And Nickelodeon made a movie out of “Escape From Mr. Lemoncello’s Library.” Set for release in the fall, it stars Casey Simpson (of “Nicky, Ricky, Dicky & Dawn”) and Breanna Yde (of “School House Rock” and “The Haunted Hathaways”).

Florida memories

He’s never lived in Florida, but Mr. Grabenstein’s grandparents did, and his family would visit them every year in St. Petersburg. Images from those visits — the heat in the car before air-conditioning became a standard feature, stopping on the road for cows to pass, his grandparents’ rambling house and old beach motels — show up in his writing.

The second book in Mr. Grabenstein’s Wonderland series is set to come out in May.

“It’s a collection of all those wacky things I used to see: Gatorland in Orlando, roadside Americana statues and crazy things. It’s the coolest retro motel you can imagine … a struggling underdog place like the mom-and-pop roadside attractions — Weeki-Wachee Springs, glass bottom boats, Frontier Town — all those memories rolled into one.”

Mr. Grabenstein says he’s still doing improv — only now it’s on the page.

“Take whatever comes into your brain, don’t deny it, take it and build on it,” he says. “Just put down whatever crazy thing comes into your imagination. Write down crazy stuff, then you can make connections.”

You never know where an idea will take you.

When he and his wife flew out to Vancouver to see some of “Escape From Mr. Lemoncello’s Library” being filmed, she was “totally blown away,” he says, adding she looked at all the actors and costumes and lighting and sets and crew and said in wonder, “All these people are here because of that silly idea!” ¦

Attending authors

Adult authors

Holly Brown
Colin Campbell
Shelley Shepard Gray
Mark Greaney
James Grippando
Nathan Hill
Gregg Hurwitz
Cassandra King
Mary Kubica
Taya Kyle
Craig Pittman
Kimberla Lawson Roby
D. Watkins
Susan Wiggs
Lori Wilde
Beatriz Williams

Teen authors

Kami Garcia
SJ Kincaid
Michelle Knudsen
Sara Shepard

Children’s authors

Candace Fleming
Chris Grabenstein
Grace Lin
Eric Rohmann
Tui T. Sutherland
Salina Yoon

Southwest Florida Reading Festival

>> When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, March 18
>> Where: Centennial Park, Fort Myers
>> Cost: Free
>> Info: 479-INFO or www.ReadFest.org

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