December 6, 2013

Author Interview: James Ponti Author of the Dead City Series

This is being ran on Hooked on Books today - the blog written by my 6th grade students.
Please if you want to leave a commnet, leave it on Hooked on Books, so they see it!

Today we are proud to welcome James Ponti to Hooked on Books

James Ponti is the author of the Dead City Series - a great MG zombie series where a group of kids fight zombies! You can see a review of the first book in the series, Dead City, HERE on The O.W.L.

Mr. Ponti offered to do and interview and gave us the chance to review the second book in the series Blue Moon - that review is up later today!

Welcome James Ponti to Hooked on Books!

First some questions about you as an author

Why do you write?
Like many writers I have a colorful and unique family. A real family tradition was telling stories about trips and funny things that had happened to us, so I think I always liked storytelling. I also have a natural instinct to play “what if” when I see situations. For example, if I was riding in a car and saw an armored truck, I’d imagine what if someone was trying to rob that truck, how would they do it? These two things naturally led me to making up stories. At a very early age – I think around 10 – I decided I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. At times I changed what type of writer I wanted to be (a journalist, a playwright, a screenwriter, a novelist) but it was always one type of writer or another.

Does writing all day get boring?

It is a rare thing for me to get to write all day. I have a regular job as a television producer for NBC Sports on the Golf Channel so most of my writing is done at night or on the weekends. But it never gets boring. It does, however, get frustrating at times. I will rewrite some passages thirty, forty times changing it little by little until I can get it right. This can be frustrating because I’ll know that something’s not quite the way I want it to be but I have to keep trying new twists until I figure out how to fix it.

When you were in middle school did you like to write? When did you start writing?

I started writing stories in elementary school. The first one I remember was in second grade. It was about Mickey Mouse having a birthday party and all of his friends bought him a lamp. I have no idea why I came up with a lamp but a funny thing was that when I grew up I spent two years writing for the Mickey Mouse Club.

I really got into writing, however, in middle school. During the summer before seventh grade I got the chance to write for a special kids section of my hometown newspaper (The Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, Florida). Then in eighth grade I wrote the class play, which we performed for the school. It was a disaster story about Santa’s sleigh being hijacked by terrorists and in addition to writing the play, I also played President Jimmy Carter. (I think I only had one line because I was a much better writer than actor.) 
Both of these experiences made me want to write even more.

Where you a big reader when you were a kid?

This is a great question and people are usually surprised when I say that not only was I not a big reader, I wasn't a reader at all. I think the term they use now is that I was a reluctant reader. There were a few reasons for this. First of all, I was terribly slow at it. It was beyond frustrating that other people could read so much faster and it made me not want to do it at all.

Second, I had trouble sitting still long enough to really get into a book. (This is funny, because I didn't have trouble sitting still to write, only to read.) But I would much rather go down the basketball court and shoot baskets all day than read.

Finally, when I tried to read I had trouble finding books I liked. The one exception was From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I have loved that book my whole life. I think there is more variety of books for Middle Grade now than there was when I was growing up but I just didn't connect. Where I did connect was at the movie theater. I have always loved movies and when I was a kid you were allowed to stay in the theater and watch the movie for a second time and I did that all the time.

When I went to college, I went to film school and I majored in screenwriting. This had a big impact on how I write books. I think I structure them like movies. I also like to write dialogue in books because it’s such a big part of screenwriting. It was during college that I finally started reading and I really love to do it now. Not reading as a kid is one of the only real regrets that I have.

Now lets hear about this books!
This premise of this series is pretty great. What was the inspiration for it? Where did the ideas come from?

I came up with the story backwards. I knew I wanted to write about smart kids and that led me to coming up with a science magnet school where they all meet. Then I wanted them to work as a team and solve mysteries, so I had started to wonder why type of mysteries would smart science kids solve. That got me thinking about supernatural mysteries and I thought it would be neat if some of the mysteries led them to real otherworldly creatures. But I wanted it to seem real and have it be somewhat believable. That’s what led me to undead New Yorkers who look and act like regular ones. Like I said earlier, though, it’s all “what if?” What if they tried to use science to disprove supernatural claims? And what if some of the things couldn't be disproved? And what if there were different types of zombies, some good and some bad?

Are any of the characters in Blue Moon or the series based on people you know or people you’ve met?

Almost all of the characters are based in part on people I know. It’s important that the characters you write have strengths and flaws and I put many of my flaws in all of the kids on the Omega team. The two boys characters are named after my sons Alex and Grayson and they share some of the same characteristics with the actual ones. But it’s important to remember that you can only go so far with basing characters on people. For the story to work you can’t worry about how a real person you know would react, you have to write it like the fictional person you created would react. Also, if you think of a character as someone real who you care about it’s hard to have them face struggles because part of your mind is seeing that friend.

One thing you might not think about, though, is the setting. All the locations in the books are inspired by real places I found interesting. I've worked on TV shows for networks like the History Channel and they've taken me into underground mines and subway tunnels, which play a big role in the Dead City. One time I did an interview at the very top of the George Washington Bridge. (It was terrifying.) I used that setting and what I learned there for an important scene in Dead City. Whenever I go to New York, where the books are set, I make sure to set aside time to explore and look for interesting places where Molly and her friends can also go.

How long did it take you to write the book? How many times did this book get sent back to the editor for changes? – Basically how many drafts did it go through – how long did it take?
That’s a hard question for me to answer. Like I said before, I don’t really get to write all the time so I have to work in clumps. Also, while I’m still writing the first draft I’ll rewrite the same section more times than I care to count. Officially my guess is that the Dead City books so far have probably taken about a month to outline, about six months to write a first draft, and another couple of months back and forth with my editor. (The extremely talented Fiona Simpson.) I would say that the first rewrite can be pretty extensive, so that’s two drafts of big changes. (For example, she convinced me to move what I originally had at the end of book 2 and save it for the beginning of book 3.) After that there’s a polish, which has to do mostly with correcting mistakes like time passage and logic and then there’s one last copyediting pass. (This one is important because someone’s whose not worked on the book at all reads it so she can have a fresh opinion.) If you added it up it’s probably four drafts over about nine months.

What is the hardest part about writing this book or series?

There’s something very unrealistic at the heart of the Dead City books and that’s the idea that there are thousands of zombies living in and under New York City. For that story to work for me, I had to make it as realistic as possible and that’s not always easy. It’s taken a lot of research about New York. The truth is, while this is hard, it’s also my favorite part of writing these books.

The other part that is really hard is coming up with a plot and series of mysteries that is hard to figure out but that also makes sense when you find out the answer. This is really the secret to me. If you’re reading it and can figure everything out before the characters you lose interest. But, if you get to the end and it doesn't make sense, you feel cheated.

What is something you want us to know about this series?

Because I struggled with reading as a kid, I've tried to write books that I would have liked to read. I've also tried to do something different in how I write them. A lot of the story has been a real mystery to me as I work on it. I know some things that I want to happen, but for the most part I try to come up with mysteries and clues that I find intriguing. Then I try to solve them along with the characters. Sometimes, it doesn't work and you have to start over but when it does it feels really great.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer all our questions!!!
Watch the blog because later today there will be a review of Blue Moon, the second book in the Dead City series.

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