There’s something oddly captivating in the sight of a human being scarfing down 53-3/4 hot dogs (and buns!) in 12 minutes. When I saw Takeru “Tsunami” Kobayashi set that record in the Nathan’s Famous July 4th Hot Dog Eating Championship, I knew I had to write a novel about someone who would aspire to such a feat. That was the birth of BIG MOUTH, my teen novel about a fourteen-year-old boy who pledges to break Tsunami’s weiner-eating record and take the competitive eating world by storm. It’s fun and joyfully gross, but it’s also my sneaky way to get kids (especially boys) talking about eating disorders.
Tell us something about yourself.
I edited books for Harcourt Children’s Books for ten years—until I climbed over the desk and tried out the author chair on the other side. Now I do the writing, with two teen novels published by Random House, along with freelance editing and running my writers’ advice website Dear-Editor.com. Armed with a fascination with pop culture, I enjoy sculpting stories from extreme places and events—tattoo parlors, fast food joints, and, most extreme of all, high schools. In fact, I tend to do everything to the extreme myself—I and the mother of triplet boys. Hey, one person’s “extreme” is another person’s “efficient,” right?
How did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get started?
I always wanted to write novels—but I didn’t reveal that dream to anyone until I sold my first manuscript, Honk If You Hate Me. Only a handful of people knew I was writing at that point. In fact, when I began drafting that novel two years earlier, I only admitted to my husband that I was “typing.” He knew what I was up to, of course, but he let me have the privacy I needed to experiment. He’d ask, “Did you type a lot today?” And I’d reply, “Yes, I typed a lot.” I didn’t want to be someone who forever talked about writing a book but never actually did it. I didn’t even know if I could do it. One day, seven years after I became an editor for a major publisher, I decided to find out if I did have what it takes—the ideas, the ability, and, perhaps most important of all, the discipline—to be a Writer. I plopped myself down and just started typing: “The wrinkled checker kept looking up at me.” So begins Honk If You Hate Me.
What do you believe is the hardest part of writing?
The DOing. Before I tried my hand at writing a novel, I thought the trick was finding the right idea, but that’s not it at all, at least not for me. I found ideas spilling out of my head, once I started looking. No, the hardest part is just sitting down and doing it. There are so many distractions—and fears—that must be overcome to even start, let alone finish, a manuscript. I’ve learned that I have to be willing to just sit down and type, whether there’s a scene ready and waiting or not. Eventually something interesting will show up on the page to get my juices flowing.
So many writers are also parents, often working full time at non-writing jobs? How do you balance raising triplets with writing?
Luckily, my non-writing profession—editing—lends itself to at-home freelancing. Besides bringing in the cash, it lets me continue doing what I enjoyed most about editing with Harcourt—interacting with creative people and helping them reach their potential. God, I love that! The problem was, I desperately missed all the writing conferences, book soirees, and daily publishing chit-chat that went with being a house editor. When the boys’ were born, my “house” narrowed down to the four walls that surrounded me. The bulk of my daily chit-chat was with three small creatures who couldn’t even talk their first two years of life. I yearned to be in touch again, to talk books and marketplace and publishing gossip with people who could form words longer than two syllables. I missed the larger writing community.
My writers’ advice website, Dear-Editor.com, is my way of rejoining that community. I’m once again talking writing and the book biz on daily basis with writers in all genres, all over the country, and I’m getting to do it from my home office while my trio naps and after they go to bed at night. The best part is, I get to sling around all the craft tips and publishing biz insight I’ve gleaned from my unique experience on both sides of the desk, which means I get to contribute to the community that so energizes my creativity. That’s enormously important to me.
How do you do research for your books?
My books are fun to research. For Honk If You Hate Me, a novel about a sixteen-year-old girl who hangs out at a tattoo parlor, I hung out at tattoo conventions. For Big Mouth, I ate. Hot dogs, ice cream, candy… you name it, I ate it. Not surprisingly, I gained seven pounds writing that book.
Did you learn anything from writing this book? What?
Researching Big Mouth exposed me to staggering stats about eating disorders: 45% of 1st-6th grade boys and girls want to be thinner, and 37% have already dieted. And get this: Over half of females aged 18-25 would prefer to be run over by a truck than be fat; two-thirds of them would rather be mean or stupid. This makes me ever so grateful to have a voice on the topic, a way to expose teens to the dangers of eating disorders. I’ve wanted to do that since my own high school days. One of my high school friends was on the wrestling team. He would go days without eating—at the encouragement, or at least the blind eye, of his coaches. That amazed me. While we girls were self-conscious and secretive about how much we ate or didn’t eat, how much we gained or lost, he was toeing the line of a lifelong eating disorder in full view of everyone. Big Mouth may be about loyalty and friendship, but it is also about choosing balance over unhealthy extremes, about seeing the line between real life and media hype, and, most importantly, about recognizing the misguided reasonings that lead to eating disorders. Seventy percent of high school boys are dieting, with peer pressure, media influences, and the weight demands of sports such as wrestling leading the list of reasons why. I hope that Big Mouth offers boys an entertaining and funny opportunity to explore these pressures.
What are you reading now?
Right now I am reading the amazingly funny Whales on Stilts, by the imitable M.T. Andersen. It’s one of those books I read while thinking, “Man, I wish I wrote this thing!”
Are you working on your next book? What can you tell us about it?
I suppose that after gaining weight while researching Big Mouth I should have started a book about gym rats. However, I went in another direction—many directions, in fact. With all those ideas “spilling” out of my head, I can’t help but work on multiple projects at once. I’m currently writing a new teen novel, creating a chapter book series for kids aged 7 to 10, and totally losing myself in a paranormal thriller for grown-ups. I love my job!
What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing or publishing?
Editors often find themselves telling young writers, “Show, don’t tell.” That is, don’t describe something in your story, show it in action and let the readers make their own judgments based on what they observe. My advice to aspiring writers is a kissing cousin to that philosophy: “Do, don’t talk.” Whether you call it writing or storytelling or simply “typing,” sit down and do it. Even the best ideas are nothing without the doing. I learned that firsthand. Let your fingers start tapping keys or pushing pens and see what happens. You never know, you might just be writing the opening line of your first published book.
Where can readers learn more about you and your book?
Excerpts for both of my books are on my website, DeborahHalverson.com. The site also has a blog that covers that thrills, chills, and spills of being a triplet mom and writer. Those interested in the insight’s I’ve gleaned from my unique experience on both sides of the editorial desk can visit my writers’ advice website Dear-Editor.com. There I advise writers about craft and the publishing business.