Devin Scillian is an award-winning author, accomplished country artist, and Emmy-award-winning broadcast journalist. His books with Sleeping Bear Press include the national bestseller A IS FOR AMERICA: AN AMERICAN ALPHABET. His next title, MEMOIRS OF A HAMSTER, will be released in May. Devin lives in Michigan and anchors the news for WDIV-TV in Detroit. MEMOIRS OF A HAMSTER, your sequel to MEMOIRS OF A GOLDFISH, is set to be released in May. What made you decide to write about a hamster next, instead of the story of, say, a bird or an iguana?
Mostly due to true life experiences. MEMOIRS OF A GOLDFISH was drawn from family conversations about a fish we once had (named Steve, by the way). And when it came time to do another MEMOIR, I found myself thinking back to another family pet, a hamster named Seymour (just as in the book) who startled us one midnight when he sauntered across the kitchen floor. I don’t think we ever figured out his escape route. Your book is written in journal form—a personal account from a hamster describing the trials of his everyday life. What made you decide to write from the hamster’s point of view?
I think the format dictated the point of view, and to be completely honest, the format was dictated by the title. Oddly enough, most of my books have started not with a story idea but with a title. (I think a really good title just seems to jumpstart my imagination.)
And in this case, my then 14-year old daughter Christian came home one day and said she had an idea for a book called MEMOIRS OF A GOLDFISH. I thought it was one of the greatest titles I’d ever heard. Next thing I know I’m trying to channel my inner fish, and then my inner hamster.
I should add that I also think the memoir format is a great idea incubator for kids. It’s a great way to put on someone else’s glasses and see the world as they see it. You seem to be quite the Renaissance man; you’re a best-selling author, country music sensation, and a celebrated nightly news anchor. What were the challenges in bringing your children’s books to life with such a busy schedule?
Funny enough, I don’t seem to have trouble finding the time to do the writing. It’s the PROMOTION that proves to be difficult. (I thought all of the work went into writing the books; little did I know that your work is just starting when the book comes out.)
I like to write really late at night (after getting home from doing the late news) which is a lot easier to fit into a family life (when everyone else is asleep). But I also have come to understand that you find time for things that are passions, whether it’s golf, travel, art or writing. And I know it sounds like I’m all over the place with journalism and music and books—but when you think about it, they all boil down to storytelling. And telling a story is just something that I love to do. You’re speaking on a panel at IRA’s 58th Annual Convention—“The Serious Business of Writing Humor: The Importance of Funny Fiction in the Classroom.” Can you give us a preview of your thoughts on this topic?
It’s a pretty daunting topic. Can I help someone else be funny? Can someone learn to be funny? I’m not sure, to be honest. But I think humor is such a terribly important concept to young people (and young readers) that it’s worth some drilling down into.
I think one of the things that I’m eager to talk about is setting up your humor with the right kind of writing. Sometimes a very funny idea just falls flat in the execution. It has a lot to do with timing, and rhythm, and choosing the right words. Two comedians can tell the exact joke and elicit very different responses.
In other words, it’s not enough to be funny; your humor has to be expressed in an effective way for it to land with the desired impact. The theme of the conference is “Celebrating Teachers Making a Difference.” Can you tell us about a teacher who made a difference in your life?
Oh, heavens, quite a few. But two in particular really lit the runway on the writing life for me.
Deanna Tressin was my English teacher when I was a senior in high school, and she seemed to know that she should place high demands on me. She was just difficult enough to impress, and thoroughly encouraging when I delivered.
Second was my creative writing professor at the University of Kansas, Alan Lichter. He gave us a choice for one assignment and one option was writing a children’s story. I wrote a piece called “The Journey to the City” that he had the entire class read and then pronounced that I “could get this published tomorrow.” I didn’t find a way to get it published, but truly I didn’t need to; by then he had ignited the thought in me that I might be able to do this thing that I truly loved to do. Come see Devin Scillian at IRA 2013, where he’ll be participating in “The Serious Business of Writing Humor: The Importance of Funny Fiction in the Classroom” on Saturday, April 20, 2013. The panel includes authors Michael Buckley, Andy Griffiths, and Laurie Keller. It will be moderated by Colby Sharp.
© 2013 International Reading Association. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise. 5 Questions With… Chris Soentpiet (AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL) 5 Questions With... Salina Yoon (PENGUIN AND PINECONE)