When I was a senior in high school, I got the once-in-a-rarity opportunity to interview my favorite author. I grew up reading Robert Liparulo’s teen fiction in junior high. In fact, when the books were coming out, I remember actually having fights with my friends over who got to read the next one first. One particular instance involved me throwing Whirlwind on the table between my two friends as they both dove for it, pleading to the others’ humanity, bribing each other for the chance to read it first.
Anyway, the following interview was turned in for my senior writing class, now resurrected here on my blog:
Robert Liparulo is the bestselling Christian author of the widely acclaimed teen fiction Dreamhouse Kings series, as well as his adult fiction such as Comes a Horseman, Germ, and his adult series The Immortal Files.
As a creative writing student and a Christian YA author wannabe—not to mention a huge fan of Liparulo’s works—I immediately wanted to try meeting with him for an interview assignment. We worked out a time through email, and I had the privilege to meet with him via Skype Saturday night. Mr. Liparulo was extremely nice and a blast to talk to—very warm and friendly, and he had a great laugh!
Me: At what age did you start writing?
Liparulo: Third grade. I was probably about nine. I was writing poetry and going around selling it to neighbors. I think they just bought it to get me off their doorstep. Then in fifth grade I wrote a story about the Concorde—which is a supersonic airplane—landing in the Azore Islands where I used to live. I gave it to my fifth grade teacher, and she sent it to a magazine and didn’t tell them how old I was. They ended up publishing it and sending me a check, so as soon as I realized I could get paid for writing, I knew that was what I wanted to do for a living.
Me: So is that what gave you the passion for writing?
Liparulo: Really, probably what got me excited about fiction writing was Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend—the novel—and in that book about several chapters in there’s a dog . . . and everybody is infected except for Robert Neville and he sees this dog and wants to bring it in and nurture it. After several chapters of trying to get him in to his house, he does and we realize the dog represents everything that was lost in the world, like families and picnics, and just things that were nice. Then the last line in the chapter is “in the morning the dog was dead.”
I cried. I was twelve years old when I read that—and I was a pretty tough little twelve-year-old. I thought, “Man, if words alone can make me cry, I want to do that for a living.” That was when I really understood the power of storytelling.
Me: So you want to make people cry.
Liparulo: I used to go around telling people that I want to make little kids cry. I still get emails from people who read the first part of Frenzy [book six of the Dreamhouse Kings Series] and they said it made them cry. . . . When I started getting those emails I was like “Yes! I finally did it!”
Me: So obviously books affect what you write. Would you say reading a lot more makes you a better writer? Do you think any other books have affected you?
Liparulo: Oh yeah. Probably more genres than actual books. There have been books I really loved the way they were constructed, like Atlas Shrugged —lot of classics, but really a lot of thrillers and horror. I used to read a lot of Dean Koontz and Stephen King. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Dennis Lehane and Elmore Leonard. The problem is you don’t want to emulate what you like. You kinda want to absorb it, but you don’t want to start writing like a favorite author. I just don’t think you can do it. You have to keep your own style—that’s the one thing you’re bringing to the table. Anybody can tell a story, and most people have these really killer ideas. . . . I think where they mess up is they try to copy a style that they like, and what they need to be doing is writing [their story] the way they would naturally write it. . . . So I think it’s important to read a lot, mostly to keep the ideas going.
I get a lot of ideas from reading non-fiction magazine articles, and I subscribe to everything—Psychology Today, a nursing magazine, gun magazines of course. All these magazines just kinda feed the mill so your brain is going. But I love to read fiction. I’ve met some writers who won’t read fiction because they don’t want it to taint their own style, but I just can’t imagine not reading fiction.
Me: You said you started writing in third grade. Have you ever written “books” that were picture books or something you thought “Oh! This will get published one day!”?
Liparulo: I started writing for a lot of magazines when I was younger. I wrote for Ranger Rick and Highlights for Children when I was really little, then for more grown up magazines [later]. I started writing a James Bond novel when I was thirteen, and I just dug it up about a year ago—it actually was pretty decent, but the thing that was so funny about it was that every time I ran into a word I had used already, I’d go to the thesaurus and find a different word. So there’s always words in it like the crowd, the rabble, the people. . . . Probably if I had overcome that earlier, I would have published earlier. I actually sold a book when I was nineteen to New American Library and it wasn’t complete, but I took the advance, blew it, and never turned in the book—but that was when I was young and stupid.
Me: Do you enjoy writing adult fiction or YA more? Because I know you’ve got more adult, but a whole series of YA.
Liparulo: That’s a really, really hard question. I’ve had that question before, and I pondered it even after the interview. I don’t know—probably young adult. When I’m writing adult fiction, I love it—I’m in that story—but when I think back to the books that I’ve enjoyed writing the most, I think of the Dreamhouse Kings. That’s mostly because I become my characters and I loved becoming David and Xander [the two main characters of the series]. I loved being that age again. My mother tells me that I was David at that age. She goes down the whole list and is like, “Okay, he does this—that’s you—he’s like this—that’s you—” and I didn’t realize it while I was writing it, but now that she pointed it out, I realized that I was writing about myself at that age. I started writing a different series called Hunter—which is a young adult series—and I really enjoyed that as much as Dreamhouse Kings. I think if I had to choose, it would be young adult.
Me: So that would mean you’d put a little bit of yourself in the characters. Is that on purpose?
Liparulo: I think most writers do, and I don’t think it’s necessarily intentional. For me it is. I don’t know how to write any other way, I mean that’s who I am. Whatever gets on the page comes from up here [in my head]. So it has to be me. That’s one reason I really work hard before I start writing is to think about my characters, because I want my characters to be people other than myself. Otherwise how boring would that be if every character was me? So I really do a lot of—you know how method acting is becoming your characters?—I do that before I start write. I kinda method write.
Me: Do you also take situations or places you’ve been, like, say this odd rock next to a creek or something—would you put that in a book if it had some kind of connection with you when you were younger?
Liparulo: I do. I do a lot. Often times I’ll write situations in a story and I don’t realize it was from my life until later, and then I’m looking at it and go, “Oh, that’s just like—” you know, whatever story it was—and I had a great childhood. My father was in the Air Force and we traveled all over the world. . . . It’s really easy to tap into that well of events from my childhood. Or it could even be something that I read or saw in a movie, but usually it’s not recent movies. Usually it was something I saw when I was ten…and I don’t realize I’m writing it in, and later I’ll go, “Oh, that was from James Bond” or whatever.
Me: What’s the usual number of times you rewrite a manuscript before you’re happy with it, and are you ever really happy with it, even after it’s published?
Liparulo: I don’t think any writer is completely happy with what they write. I’ve heard writers say they are, but I don’t believe them. I think if a writer had all the time in the world, and they didn’t have to publish, and they didn’t have to get paid and they didn’t have to meet deadlines, they would just keep writing on a piece of work.
I never revise. What you see is my first draft. Except for little scenes where an editor might come back and say “I was lost in this action scene” or “I couldn’t picture the house by the way they were running through it,” and then I’ll go back and rewrite a couple lines to make sure that it’s clear that they’re turning this way down a hallway or something, but as far as the actual writing, I write slowly, but I write very long hours. So I might write fifteen-sixteen hours a day and I’ll probably get three or four thousand words done on that day, which is actually kinda slow writing, but I never go back. That’s it. Once it’s out of my head, it’s very hard for me to go back and revise.
They say that revising in the hardest. I dunno. I just don’t do it. It probably would have helped me if that was a part of writing that I could master—go back and really focus on it. I like the thrill of writing. I hate editing. [Ernest] Hemingway said “Write drunk. Edit sober.” What he meant by that was when you write, it just flows all out. Then you have to have a different mentality, kinda this meticulousness, when you edit. I don’t like that meticulousness. I like the flow. The same way I believe that if I’m bored with my writing, a reader will be bored. If I’m excited about my writing a reader will be excited, so for me I just don’t want to work it to death. I want the reader to experience it as I’ve experienced it.
Me: Then how do you then plan what you want revealed in each scene? I know The 13th Tribe had a whole lot of plot twists that sent me completely off the rest of the day!
Liparulo: I say I don’t outline, but I think mentally I do. I think I’ve got an idea of where I’m going with the story, but really I’m as surprised about where the story goes as the reader is usually. I’ll sort of outline the day that I’m going to write. I’ll sit down and, in 13th Tribe for example, I might have thought, “Okay, [this character] is going to get shot,” so I’m going to lead up to that. I’ll write down what leads up to [him] getting shot, and that’ll be my work for today. I don’t know what leads beyond that. Then the next day I’ll sit down and think, “Okay, [he’s] been shot. Now what?” and then I’ll write it down. So I do it day by day. I trust my mind to put a story together as it goes.
Me: Do you have an “I want it to end here” kind of way, or are you really just writing without knowing?
Liparulo: I have no idea about the endings of my books until they end. What usually happens is I’ll write up till about the eighty percent mark, and the last twenty percent comes so fast. It might take me three months to get the eighty percent and it’ll take me three days to get the last twenty percent. If it comes like that, then I know that’s where it needs to be. That’s the story. If there’s any work or struggle or block in that process at the very end, then there’s a problem, and I just throw it out and start again. Not the whole thing, I’ll throw out the twenty percent until I find the way the story wants to end. What I’m looking for is something that totally makes sense, but it’s still a surprise. So when I find it, I know it, and it just flows out.
Me: I remember the [plot twist] thing. I thought, “Oh, of course!” Like you said, it makes total sense, but I guess you didn’t know that [twist] was coming?
Liparulo: Now I knew who [this character] was early on, probably about halfway through. I didn’t know when I started out to write the book, but about halfway through, I thought, “Okay, I need this.” He came in and wanted to be in that story, and I wasn’t going to stop him, then that allowed me to put in those clues about who he was in there.
Me: Do you do any research when you’re writing? I know you said you write slowly, but does that mean you research things to get the airplane just right, or whatever?
Liparulo: I do about ninety percent of my research before I start writing, and I think that’s what keeps me from having writer’s block. I never have writer’s block, and I think it’s because I really know all the things I need to know. It’s kind of a trick, and I don’t know how it gets done, because I don’t know where the story is going, but I do a lot of research. So I over-research everything. If they may go to Rome, I research everything in Rome, and it turns out they’re only going to the Vatican, but I’ve researched the Vatican because the Vatican is in Rome. I could have written anything about Rome because I did all that research. If I sort of know that they’re going to Paraguay, I’ll research Paraguay.
Where I might have to do some research as I write would be little details like “How long does it take to fly to Paraguay?” or something like that. So little things like that I leave open, but the big stuff where I sorta-kinda know that I’m going to go in this direction, then I’ll research before I start writing.
Me: Is being an author just writing, or are there a whole lot of other things that come with it?
Liparulo: I wish it were just writing! The reason I got into writing was because of the storytelling part of it. When you become a published author, there are so many other things— about half of what I do is marketing and publicity, going on book signings, going to schools and talking to kids, doing interviews . . . stuff like that. Then in the other fifty percent, there’s probably about twenty-five percent that’s research and preparation, and then the actual writing—which most writers would call research and writing the same thing. I kinda separate it because I do it at separate times. So really it’s like fifty percent business, twenty-five percent research, and twenty-five percent writing, and I would love it to be reversed. I would love to have at least fifty percent just writing, and I’m doing some things right now where I’m thinking that may be my future: doing a lot more writing and a lot less marketing and publicizing and stuff like that.
Me: You said characters are really important to you, and you act them out, is there another way you make sure these are likable characters: I like them, my readers are going to like them, and they’re not going to be plain and flat?
Liparulo: I always look for the human part in my characters. The emotions, the things that make people human. That could be anything. That could be David sneezing and snot blowing out of his nose, which could be very embarrassing, but is also very human, you know? So anything that someone could relate to . . . . I dunno if likable is the right word. I get what you’re saying, and I think likable characters are important, but I think it’s more important that the characters are . . . understandable. Like even Taksidian [the villain in the Dreamhouse Kings] for example, even Nevaeh [the antagonist from The 13th Tribe], I think they need to be people that somewhere inside you can see the human in them.
For me, I dunno, I think it really helps that if you’re a writer, you have a huge heart for people. Your heart just beats for them. I’m one of those people—and I described David as this—who cries during commercials. Like if there’s this little kid getting licked by puppies or something, I’m just like, “Oh, it’s wonderful!”
And because of that, those things stay in me. I remember those things that touch me, and there are a lot of them, unfortunately. I’m able to draw from that. If I want someone to really like a character, I just think back to those things, or I’ll even think of some people that I know. What about Wayne do I really like? Why is he my friend? Or, I really like this little kid. Why do I like that kid? Maybe it’s because he asks a lot of questions, or because of his inquisitive mind or something. So usually I think of people that I know and can say, “Okay, what’s likable about them?”
And rarely is it looks. It has very little to do with that. I try not to describe characters very much physically. If I describe David then my idea of David is put in your head and I would rather you have your own idea of [him]. Where that’s not totally accurate is where there’s an important reason to describe somebody. Like David, he’s got a link to his dad and Xander has a link to his mom, and there’s a little bit of that through their looks: what color eyes they have, what color hair they have, things like that. But other than that. . . .
I go back to Elmore Leonard: he wrote an article called ‘The Ten Rules of Writing’ and one of them was “Don’t describe your characters.” He said the most he ever described his characters was by a hat, like ‘Bill had the stetson hat.’ That gave the reader more room to fill in all those blanks. There’s something called the Synaptic Effect in writing. It’s where the reader will fill in what the writer doesn’t, and that kind of makes the character yours. So that’s why I intentionally leave out some things about the characters, hoping that you’re filling them in. If I say he’s likable or he has a funny laugh, I try not to describe the laugh, because I want you to describe it in your own mind, because what you think is funny is going to be different from what I think is funny.
Me: I think the only question I have left is . . . what would be some good tips for people who want to write, starting out writing, have an idea of being an author. . . . What do you think?”
Liparulo: Boy, there are so many different things. Some of the ones that worked for me starting out: Read as much as you can. I don’t understand trying to be a writer without being a reader. Read everything. The ideas come and styles start to develop when looking at other people’s styles. [Also] write a lot. I subscribe to Malcolm Gladwell’s theory of Ten Thousand Hours. It takes ten thousand hours of doing something before you get very proficient at it. Which if you think about it, ten thousand hours is a lot of time. It takes five years if you worked full time. I think by writing all the articles I did, I probably had more than ten thousand hours of writing, putting words on the page, before I started writing fiction. I think that helped enormously. So just write everything. Don’t pick up the phone and call your friend, write your friend! Just get words on the page.
I used to write my family letters in different dialects. I would write strange southern dialects and stuff like that. They’d write me back and say, “What are you talking about?” Or I would write weird one-word sentences for the whole letter . . . [I’d] try to be dramatic. And that was my way of practicing getting words on the page, so I think that’s really important, and probably the last thing would be: think of yourself as a writer. Do whatever you think a writer does. For me, way back when, I was emulating Hemingway. I dressed like Hemingway. I had a cat and named him what Hemingway’s cat was named. Just things like that. You start making the mold and then you fit into that mold. Does that make sense?
Me: Yeah, yeah that makes sense. There was no way I’d ever own a cat, though!
I thanked Mr. Liparulo several times for this opportunity (one which completely made my month). He remarked that it was nice finally “meeting” over Skype, to which I couldn’t have agreed more. After I ended the call, shouted a victory cry, and shut my Skype down, I realized I had barely blinked the entire time he spoke, riveted to every word. I learned so much about writing I didn’t know what to do with myself!
You can check out Robert Liparulo’s books on his website.