Men, Boys & Books: A Conversation with Stephen Mooser
By Anna Olswanger
Stephen Mooser is the President and cofounder of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). A former magazine reporter, documentary filmmaker and treasure hunter, he began writing books for children in 1970. He has now written more than fifty books, from The Ghost with the Halloween Hiccups (picture book) to The Hitchhiking Vampire (novel). Here he talks about writing books that appeal to boys.
OLSWANGER: You write a wide range of books. Is there a common thread among them?
MOOSER: I’ve written nonfiction and I do an occasional picture book, but I’d say most of my children’s books tend to be chapter books for second to fifth graders, kids eight to twelve. I write easy-to-read adventure stories with lots of cliffhangers. In the backs of my books are jokes, freaky facts, things that tend to appeal to boys.
OLSWANGER: Why boys more than girls?
MOOSER: I can only say that as a boy, I loved having adventures. I loved pirates, ghosts, weird and strange things, things that were on the fringe of reality. I still like that kind of stuff, so I write adventure stories. And I still spend parts of my summers going on adventures.
OLSWANGER: What kinds of adventures?
MOOSER: I’ve explored the desert in Utah. A few years ago a friend and I traveled around the world taking back roads, visiting ghost towns. I’ve spent a number of years looking for treasure, going into little towns, being on the road in places where people generally don’t go. I like to think that my life is made up of memories. One year, I’m off doing something strange where I don’t know what’s going to turn up around the next bend. To me it’s just a rush. It’s stimulating. I think people get the same thing out of a movie, water skiing, or a book. Your senses get stimulated and heightened by the potential for the unexpected. That’s something I put into my books, with cliffhangers and flips of plot, so that the kid is surprised. I think that’s what happens when you have an adventure.
OLSWANGER: What’s your advice to someone who wants to write books for boys?
MOOSER: I would advise them to read material that’s written for boys, starting with Treasure Island, which is one of my favorite books, and Robinson Crusoe. Go to “Indiana Jones” movies. If that stuff doesn’t appeal to you, don’t write it because it won’t be fun for you. It will show. For any kind of writing you do, you have to educate yourself to what the possibilities are. So start by reading what’s available and trying your hand at it and seeing if it’s enjoyable. If not, write something else. You shouldn’t set out to write something specifically for boys. I didn’t set out to write for boys, but teachers encouraged me because boys, particularly boys who were reluctant readers, enjoyed the books.
OLSWANGER: Why is it important that boys read?
MOOSER: To me it’s important that everybody reads. A kid who grows up in this society who can’t read, or can’t read well, is in trouble for the rest of his life. Boys in this society are discouraged from reading, or it’s not cool to read. Their peers say, “Don’t catch me with a book!” They feel it’s not a manly thing to do-not all boys, but there’s enough of them that feel that way. But if they pick up a book that’s fun and easy enough to read, they’ll feel positive about the experience. They’ll pick up other books. I don’t care what they read. Developing the ability to read is a critical skill, not just for getting a job but for functioning in a democracy. It’s frightening to think of people voting who don’t know what’s going on.
OLSWANGER: As a boy, were you encouraged to read?
MOOSER: My mother was a librarian and we subscribed to magazines and a couple of newspapers. There was a lot of reading material around the house, so I read. My mom tried to force me to read certain books but I didn’t read those. I would pick up other things. I enjoyed reading but I didn’t read all the time either. I read enough to become a good reader.
OLSWANGER: Did your mother limit the amount of television you watched?
MOOSER: We didn’t have television until I was twelve, and once it showed up, I watched it as much as I could, even test patterns! There just wasn’t that much on when I was young. But I think television is a destructive thing for kids’ reading habits. It’s tough to battle. It’s easier to sit and watch a television show than to pick up a book. If it were a winter’s night and there was nothing to do around the house, kids might pick up a book. But if there’s a television there, they’ll turn it on.
OLSWANGER: What about multimedia? Do you think that’s destructive?
MOOSER: I don’t know. I think all that stuff can be positive, but it can be destructive too. A kid who sits and plays a video game all day isn’t developing reading skills any more than a kid who watches television. A kid involved in an interactive story might be a little better off, although a lot of times those kids tend to be self-absorbed. That’s a danger too. The world has changed and you can only hope that parents and teachers keep kids aware of the written word. No matter what, kids are going to need to read. Sometimes when I speak at schools, I tell kids, “If you can read and write decently, you’re going to be in big demand when you get out of school.” Not a lot of kids can write.
OLSWANGER: What’s the hardest thing for you about writing?
MOOSER: The hardest thing is discipline. I’ve been freelancing now for over twenty years, so every day I have to act as though I’m going to an office and have a boss because if I don’t do that, I start sliding. I love writing but getting started sometimes, or not having a specific contract, or just working on a project that I don’t know whether it’s going to sell or not is hard to do. I have to force myself because that’s my job. But I do like writing, and when I come off with a great sentence or paragraph, it’s a rush. It’s a great feeling.
OLSWANGER: Do you revise as you go?
MOOSER: I revise a lot as I go. I make sure that the page makes good sense before I move on, but then I’ll come back and go through it three or four times.
OLSWANGER: Did your training in motion pictures and journalism help you as a writer?
MOOSER: The motion picture degree helped me think in terms of scenes. When I go to a movie, I study how it’s put together, how the scenes work and how little bits of information can be put together. The journalism degree was good because it taught me how to get information across clearly and succinctly.
OLSWANGER: Could you have learned to write without formal training?
MOOSER: It’s hard to tell because I’ve been writing so long. I’ve learned a lot coming to the SCBWI conferences. I’ve sat through all the national conferences and I don’t know how many regional conferences, and every time somebody tells me something that makes a difference. So I don’t think you can learn on your own. I learned most of my hard-core writing from studying books. Sid Fleischman was a mentor of mine. I loved his books, so without thinking about it, I read and reread some of his books twenty, thirty times. That was my education in writing. A lot of writers do that.
OLSWANGER: The SCBWI has only a handful of male members. Do you think that limits it as an advocacy group?
MOOSER: The people who are directly involved in the organization are looking out for the organization as a whole. Also, somebody pointed this out years ago-most of the people who show up at conferences are women, but if you look at books that are published, it’s about fifty-fifty. I don’t know what that says about the Society or book writers or people who show up for a conference, but it’s just that a lot of people involved in the SCBWI tend to be ex-teachers and librarians, professions that women traditionally went into.
OLSWANGER: Few writers make a living from writing. How have you done it?
MOOSER: I was fortunate. I started off having a wife who supported me my first few years-I only made a couple of thousand dollars a year. Also, from the start I took any kind of writing job that would come along. I wrote a show at Sea World, I wrote film strips, reading programs, test items. I would do anything. I never turned anything down. I still don’t turn anything down-if it has to do with writing, particularly children’s writing. I found out that if you’re willing to forgo a fancy car, you can find ways to hustle up a living in this society. You may not get rich but you’ll be able to do what you want. You have to be a little brave initially, or lucky like I was to have somebody support me until I got established, but there’s a lot of writing work out there-if you’re willing to struggle along.
OLSWANGER: Why do men seem to be better at hustling than women?
MOOSER: Men tend to be more serious because writing may be the critical part of the family income. The pressures are tremendous. I mean, after I got established, if I hadn’t been able to bring in half the income, I would have felt compelled to go out and get a regular nine-to-five job. A lot of times it starts out as a hobby for women, or they are teaching and it’s a sideline. It’s not what they are doing to support themselves and to survive. There are women who approach it in the same way as men do-as a serious business, but I think there are more women who have other sources of income.
OLSWANGER: Has it gotten harder or easier over the years for you to make a living as a writer?
MOOSER: It’s gotten easier because I know more people. I’ve also gotten better. I don’t struggle so much with plot problems that I used to, so people will recommend me if they have a project that needs to be done fast and well. They know I can do it technically. I have the skills.
OLSWANGER: Do you ever get writer’s block?
MOOSER: There was one book that took me a year to do. I struggled with it. I was blocked in some way. It was a big contract and there was a lot of pressure and I tried too hard. That was the only time. It didn’t stop me from writing-I wrote and wrote and wrote, but it was just going in the wrong direction. I don’t get writer’s block because I can’t. My job is to write, and writer’s block is just an excuse not to write. You can write anything. It might not be any good, but sometimes you write your way out of it. Sometimes, I don’t feel like writing and I’ll sit around and think, “Oh, I’ll just take a look at this old story,” and then I realize how much fun it is and get going again.
OLSWANGER: What’s it like to write interactive books?
MOOSER: I liked doing those “Which Way” books. They were science fiction and I love science fiction, so I was able to pull out old plots. I could really let my mind go, plus they were good books for reluctant readers, boys for the most part. Kids could pick those up and you’d have a story in two or three pages and be done with it. I’m sorry I’m not doing any more of those.
OLSWANGER: How has your writing changed over the years?
MOOSER: The main change in my writing is that I’ve gotten better with characters. When I first started, I wrote about 250 books in a reading series and learned a lot about plots. So I sold maybe twenty-five of my first books based on strong plots. An editor finally taught me how to develop a character-which is the most important part of a book anyhow. That’s the biggest change that’s taken place. My books are now character-based rather than plot-based, although I still have strong plots.
OLSWANGER: What changes have you seen in the publishing business since you started out?
MOOSER: I’ve seen a number of changes. When I started in the 70’s, the publishing industry was coming off the 60’s, which were really good times. The 70’s were a low point, but I didn’t realize they were low because I had never experienced the good times. There weren’t series opportunities as much, so I probably did twelve books in a row for twelve different publishers. I would sell to whoever would buy my books, which wasn’t particularly good. And then in the 80’s things turned good for children’s books, and I was in a good position. I did a lot of books, two or three series, and books got much better in the 80’s. I think the SCBWI had a lot to do with the improved books because the organization trained and educated a lot of people. Now, with the mergers, things have slowed down, particularly for writers like myself who are in the midlist. I think it will eventually turn around again after people drop out. People will adapt. The market’s not going to go away.
OLSWANGER: How have you adapted to the slow down?
MOOSER: I’ve tried to pay attention to the market, who’s buying what, and what’s going on. I think marketing is an important part of being a professional writer. I try to pay attention to trends, to where editors have gone. I’ve had so many editors. I’ve got editors everywhere. I spend a lot of time thinking up stories, and when I come up with what I think is a good story, I write it down, send it off and hope that somebody buys it.
OLSWANGER: So in most cases you’re submitting finished manuscripts, not proposals?
MOOSER: I generally prefer to write the whole thing. I write relatively quickly anyhow. Then if it’s a long novel I might just write a couple of chapters but otherwise I write the whole thing.
OLSWANGER: Do you ever think about doing something other than writing?
MOOSER: I have enjoyed helping the SCBWI grow from a small organization. I enjoy the business aspects of managing, but I can’t think of another profession that would allow me to lead the kind of life that I do. The freedom to travel, to talk to kids, is important to me. I’m going to be doing more screenwriting, but they are screenplays for kids, so it’s still the same field.
OLSWANGER: Is it hard to be a man whose profession is writing children’s books?
MOOSER: Sometimes when I tell people what I do, they say, “Oh, that’s cute.” But it never bothered me because my parents encouraged me to do what made me happy, and writing, particularly children’s books, made me happy. I always felt fine about that and never thought that I should be writing mysteries or horror stories. But sometimes, when people find out what kind of work I do, they think it’s as if I were a kindergarten teacher.
OLSWANGER: Which they consider unmanly?
MOOSER: People have traditionally seen teaching in general, and certainly teaching kindergarten and first grade, as jobs that women did. So a man in there makes them think, “What are you doing in this normally female job?” The truth is that the lower grades is where men should be. If I were to teach, I would want to teach kindergarten or first grade. I think that is where men can do the most good because a lot of these kids don’t have a father or male figure at home.
OLSWANGER: Is there a particular legacy that you want to leave as a writer?
MOOSER: If anything it’s the notion that reading should be as enjoyable as possible, and that kids should be encouraged to read. I try to write funny, fast, adventurous books that kids will pick up. They won’t necessarily be great literature that’s going to last for a thousand years, but some kids will find enjoyment in them and want to pick up other books. I suppose if I could make kids laugh, make them want to visit some place, or make them want to write themselves, then I feel good about that. And I think I do that every now and then with my books.
Anna Olswanger attended her first national SCBWI conference in 1985. Her interviews with publishing industry professionals appear online at http://www.olswanger.com.