Interview with Chris Rylander, Author of The Fourth Stall

Today, I would like to welcome Debut Author, Chris Rylander to Kid Lit Frenzy.  As part of The Fourth Stall Blog Tour, Chris has done several guest posts and interviews.  To check on all of the posts, head on over to Walden Pond Press for more details.

THE FOURTH STALL is your debut novel. Did you intentionally start out to write a Middle Grade novel, or did the story come first and then you realized it was Middle Grade?

It was a definite decision to write a middle grade novel. I’d recently read a few middle grade novels at the suggestion of an agent who eventually became the agent who signed me and sold THE FOURTH STALL. And one thing I noticed about middle grade books, is that it seemed like you could get away with breaking the fourth wall more often and that use of a conversational, treat-the-reader-as-a-friend type voice was more common in middle grade fiction than young adult. I don’t know if that’s actually true or not, but at the time, it seemed like it was. And I thought that style of storytelling would better suit my writing. I wanted to write a casual and fun and kind of wacky book, and I just thought I’d have more freedom to do all of those with a middle grade novel. An interesting fact, though, is that about twenty pages into THE FOURTH STALL, I kind of abandoned it and wrote two other young adult novels… then after those didn’t work out, I returned to the THE FOURTH STALL. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened, how things would have turned out, had I not taken those six months away from THE FOURTH STALL

In developing a book which has such a familiar voice (a little bit mob, a little bit noir), were there things that you felt you needed to add or avoid to keep it from being too predictable?

This is a great question, and there probably are things I should have conscientiously avoided or added to keep it unpredictable. But the truth is, I didn’t really think about it that much. I just kind of dived into the story without much planning or thought. And I think it was that, more than anything else, that helped to (hopefully) keep the story surprising and different and unpredictable. And if all else failed, I always had the talking unicorn factor in my back pocket. Whenever I hit a wall in a story that feels too familiar, I just bust out the talking unicorn with an eye patch and that usually solves everything. Luckily, or maybe unfortunately, the unicorn was never needed for THE FOURTH STALL.

In writing The Fourth Stall, did you base any of the story on situations that you faced as a sixth grader? Did any of the characters resemble people from your life?

Actually, there is only one scene and one character based on actual events/people. The origin story of Mac and Vince’s business was based on something that actually happened to my brother and I back when we were in kindergarten and first grade respectively. Except the real life version was actually a lot more strange and violent and macabre than what ended up in the book. I already push the boundaries a little regarding violence in a middle grade novel, so the real story, which involved a battle axe and a kid who threw steak knives with deadly precision, had to be edited down a bit. The only character who is based entirely on a real former classmate is Kitten. Which is what makes the fact that he’s most readers’ favorite character so interesting to me.

Did you always want to be a writer? When did you first start writing and what was the story about?

I’d always wanted to someday write a book. But that was just it, I always thought, well someday maybe when I’m like 50 years old and have tons of time, I’ll give writing a try. So based on that logic I never did much writing as a kid. Actually, I didn’t do any writing outside of school assignments. I did like to draw cartoons, though, so there always existed a desire to tell stories. I first started writing when I was 23. And interestingly enough, the very first bit of writing I did was a proposal and sample chapters for a non-fiction book about the bizarre history of the earliest divorces in American history. And the funny thing was, the concept garnered a lot of interest from agents, but none of them liked my sample chapters. Finally there was one agent who kind of gave it to me straight and said, basically, this is a great concept, but your writing is just way too boring, terrible almost. And I really appreciated his honesty, I truly did. It was that rejection that propelled me in the opposite direction… I was kind of like, well, I can do exciting and funny and weird if I want to. And so then I wrote my first bit if fiction, which was a novel for adults about a teacher named Abe Lincoln who gets kidnapped by a guy with a mustache and a chick with an eye patch. The story also had these characters: a Canadian Mounted Police Officer with palindrome and candy necklace obsessions, a packrat wolf, a mannequin who fishes, Elvis, and a talking mustache. I’m not kidding, that’s really what the novel was about and I really did finish it and actually submitted it to agents. And not one of them told me my writing was boring. Ha!

If you could spend that day with 1 or 2 of your favorite children's book characters (doesn't have to be from Fourth Stall), who would they be and what would you do?

Definitely the characters from the HARRY POTTER books. They might be some of the best contemporary children’s literature characters ever created. They really come to life in the pages and when you’re reading about them, you’re just dying to be friends with them. I think that is a large part of the magnetic draw of those books. Plus, they’re British, which means I’d listen to whatever it was they wanted to tell me. And they can do magic, which opens up those two days to be full of crazy-fun stuff.

What kind of writing advice would you give to children who want to become a writer?

This is actually the topic and main point of many of the school visits I do: You’re never too young to be a writer. I wish someone had given me this advice when I was a kid! All I ever heard was that it was impossible to get published, so there was no point in trying. So I didn’t! I mean, I started writing when I was 23 and then had my first book deal within two years and now all the time I wonder… what if I’d started writing at age 9 or 10? Could I have been published by 21? By 16? By 13? I’ll never know, because I never tried.

If someone picked up your iPod/MP3 player, what music would they find on it? Do you find yourself listening to music while you write?

They’d find all sorts of stuff that not many people have heard of: The Weakerthans; Son, Ambulance; Desaparecidos; Karate; David Bazan; Cursive; Damien Jurado; Les Savy Fav; The Elected; Okkervil River; Pavement; and many, many others. They all have one thing in common: great lyrics. I rarely listen to music while I write… but more often than not, listening to music is what inspires me to sit down and write.

What's currently in your book stack to read?

Right now I’m reading a book called YOU KILLED WESLEY PAYNE by Sean Beaudoin. And that has been brilliant and hilarious so far. Also in my To Be Read pile: FAT VAMPIRE by Adam Rex, THE BRIEF AND FRIGHTENING REIGN OF PHIL by George Saunders, JACKBLANK by Matt Myklusch, WORLD WAR Z by Max Brooks, THE GAME OF SUNKEN PLACES by M.T. Anderson, and literally over 100 others (and these are just the books I’ve already purchased, but haven’t had time to read yet.) My actual physical list (and yes I keep an actual written list in a notebook) has well over 1000 titles in it. I definitely wish I were a faster reader!

Thanks Chris for stopping by...I have already started to check out some of your book and music recommendations.  And of course, we are thrilled that you didn't wait until you were 50 to write your first book!!!

To find out more about Chris and The Fourth Stall, check out his blog here.

You can follow him on Twitter: @chris_rylander

For details on how to win a copy of The Fourth Stall, check out my interview here.
To order The Fourth Stall, check out IndieBound here.

Check out this YouTube interview with Chris for some additional insights into The Fourth Stall.

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: The Fourth Stall

Author:  Chris Rylander
Publisher:  Walden Pond Press (February 8, 2011)
Audience:  Ages 10 to 13 years
Source:  Copy for Review 
Fiction * Mystery 

Description from GoodReads:
Chris Rylander delivers a funny Ferris Bueler-style middle grade novel with The Fourth Stall.

Do you need something? Mac can get it for you. It's what he does—he and his best friend and business manager, Vince. Their methods might sometimes run afoul of the law, or at least the school code of conduct, but if you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can pay him, Mac is on your side. His office is located in the East Wing boys' bathroom, fourth stall from the high window. And business is booming.

Or at least it was, until one particular Monday. It starts with a third grader in need of protection. And before this ordeal is over, it's going to involve a legendary high school crime boss named Staples, an intramural gambling ring, a graffiti ninja, the nine most dangerous bullies in school, and the first Chicago Cubs World Series game in almost seventy years. And that's just the beginning. Mac and Vince soon realize that the trouble with solving everyone else's problems is that there's no one left to solve yours

Every once in awhile, I pick up a book and I am really struck by the writing.  I need to admit this doesn't happen to me a lot.  I may like or enjoy a lot of books, but there are fewer books that make me envious.  This happened to me as I read through Chris Rylander's debut novel The Fourth Stall about two sixth graders who run a business out of a bathroom in the east wing of their school.  Mac, along with his best friend and business partner, Vince, help other students with their problems - for a price.  Business is booming until one day trouble arrives in the form of a 8 year old bookie who wants out but his "employer" has other ideas.  Can Mac and Vince help Fred and still maintain their business and friendship? 

Rylander has created a story for Middle Graders that is part Godfather and part Film Noir with some humor thrown in for good measure.  And he is successful.  Rylander has nailed the essential tropes that fans of Noir expect but not in a way that seems trite.  With a cast of well-developed supporting characters, and just enough twists and turns, both children and adult readers will find themselves eagerly flipping pages to discover how Mac is going to solve this problem. And of course, when you arrive at the end of the book, you will want to find out what further trouble Mac & the gang will face.  (Glad to hear that there will/should be a sequel.)

In addition to a well-written story, a great cast of characters, and humor, Rylander has managed to capture boys and male friendship in his book.  Mac and Vince have been friends since kindergarten.  There is certainly a strong bond between them, but what happens when certain things arise that seeks to threaten that relationship?

For as much as I love this book, the educator in me feels the need to voice one word of caution - because of the style, there is some violence (kids do get roughed up) and some questionable behaviors (most principals/teachers will frown on a business being run on campus by students) on the part of Mac and his buddies.  However, when I find a story I love, and want to share it with students, I remind them that we need to "respect the story" and that "I trust that the antics such as the ones from the book won't be re-enacted out on the playground".   Most children are then able to sort through acceptable behaviors to behaviors written to make the story more exciting. 

Overall, I love this initial offering from Rylander, and I am very excited to see how his work develops and grows in the future. 

To check out The Fourth Stall Blog Tour Week 2, head on over to the Walden Pond Press blog here

For more information on Chris Rylander, check out his website here

Thanks to Kellie and Walden Pond Press, I have a hardcover copy of The Fourth Stall by Chris Rylander to giveaway.  This contest is open to readers in the U.S. or Canada only.  To enter to win, please complete the form below.

* Marvelous Middle Grade Mondays were started by Shannon over at Ramblings of a Wannabe Scribe. You can check out her Marvelous Middle Grade Monday choice and Giveaway Post here.

Rules for the Contest:

1. Please do not enter any personal information in the comments section, you must complete the Entry Form to officially enter the contest.  Comments with personal information will be deleted.
2.  The Contest runs from 12:00 a.m. PDT on April 11, 2011 to 11:59 p.m. PDT on April 18th.
3.  You DO NOT need to be a follower of this blog to enter.
4.  You must be 13 or older to participate in this contest.
5.  If you are selected as a winner, I will notify you by e-mail.  If you do not respond within 48 hours, I will select a new winner.
6.  Only US and Canadian participants may enter the contest.