24 Carrot Writing is thrilled to welcome author Jarrett Lerner to the site. Jarrett is the author of EngiNerds, a middle grade series starter hailed by Kirkus as a “boisterous balance of potty humor and geek pride” and a “rollicking young engineer’s adventure”. Its sequel, Revenge of the EngiNerds launches next month and I know my nephew is hoping for more side-splitting fun (and farting robots!).
Jarrett knows how to have fun in his writing but he is also passionate and serious about being a contributing force in KidLit and having a positive effect on his young fans. To that end, Jarrett cofounded and helps run MG Book Village, an online hub for all things Middle Grade, and is the co-organizer of the #KidsNeedBooks and #KidsNeedMentors projects.
Welcome to 24 Carrot Writing Jarrett!
I’ve been drawing and writing since I can remember. Growing up, I definitely had other interests and hobbies – I played baseball and guitar and skateboarded. But I was always in the middle of a book or two, and I always had notebooks lying around with stories, sketches, and ideas. And while my interest in those other things waned, my interest in reading and creating only grew, and eventually flared up into a full-blown passion.
Even so, it never occurred to me that I could become a published author. In college, I was writing like crazy. And sure, I fantasized about being published. But I truly believed that that’s all such thoughts ever were and ever would be – fantasy. It took an author who I looked up to a great deal challenging me on that and encouraging me to make a go of it before I fully took myself and my work seriously. And then it took years and years to really find myself as a creator, to understand where the stories I wanted to tell “fit.” Or, to put it differently, it took years and years to accept and embrace the fact that I stopped maturing around the age of 10, and that I just wanted to write about farting robots and draw monsters all day long.
Even my earliest drafts of the first book ended on a cliffhanger (I’m a big fan of them!), and when the book eventually sold, it was bought along with a sequel. So I knew pretty much from the get-go that there’d be this follow-up. Revisiting the crew in a new manuscript was both fun and frustrating. I love these characters, and tossing them into a bunch of new crazy situations was a total blast. But there were times when I wished they weren’t so fully formed in my mind (and in the first book!), when if one or another character was just a little more like this or that it would’ve made the plotting of this second book a whole lot simpler. But that just forced me to challenge myself, and in the end, I think, I produced a better book because of it.
Henry James once described novels as “loose, baggy monsters.” He meant it especially when comparing them to short stories, in which there’s less room for detours and digressions and, on the part of the reader, less tolerance for “imperfection.” And if there’s a spectrum for such considerations, then poems would be at the opposite end from the novel. In a poem, a reader might notice (and be irked by) a single out-of-place syllable.
I think James was onto something. With novels, I feel more free to take detours or linger in a scene a bit longer than is strictly necessary, just because it might be interesting or enjoyable. You don’t really have that luxury in shorter works. But at the same time, there’s something thrilling about chasing the “perfection” that is (or at least seems) possible in shorter works. I labor over all of my sentences. But the shorter a work is, the fewer the sentences it contains, the more “right” I feel those sentences need to be.
I think my passion for storytelling and creating has always had a tendency to “spill over.” I read as much, if not more than, I draw and write. I get really, really excited about other people’s work, and want to share it with the world, and I think my involvement in the MG Book Village sprung out of that. And Kids Need Books and Kids Need Mentors – those are both projects aimed at improving and enriching the lives of kids. That’s something I try to do with my books too. While it may look like I’m scattered or that I’ve got too many irons in the fire, I see all of these projects as related.
I’ve been drawing longer than I’ve been writing, and growing up, the two were always linked for me. But I think school – and in particular high school and college – severed them in my mind. There weren’t any pictures in the books we were reading for my literature classes. And if I’d been caught with one that did have them, I probably would’ve been ridiculed for it. And the only time visual art was linked with storytelling was in my Art History courses in college, and then in an extremely scholarly manner.
There’s a great quote from Picasso – “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” I learned a great deal in high school and college. But I think it knocked me off my creative track. I was learning to write like Dostoevsky and Philip Roth and talk about paintings like I was interviewing for a job at MoMA when my heart lay with 8-year-old Jarrett making his own silly comic books in the back of the classroom. Fortunately, it didn’t take me a whole lifetime to reconnect with that kid.
And yes – there are some illustrated works in my future. I’m not allowed to talk much about them just yet, but if you follow me on Instagram and/or Twitter, I now and again give some sneak peeks (shhh… don’t tell my publisher!).
I’ve been lucky to receive a number of invitations to schools. And once I have an invitation, I usually start doing outreach to try and turn a single visit into a sort of mini-tour. Last year, for instance, an educator in Chicago expressed interest in my visiting her school. I put out a call to others in the area and was able to get a week’s worth of visits. I’ve organized several other trips in just that way. But I think it’s important to say that I wouldn’t be able to do this as successfully had I not put a lot of time and effort into connecting with educators and librarians all across the country (which is something I continue to do all the time!). I truly believe that kids’ educators and librarians and kids’ book creators are colleagues, and that the more we work together, the better work we can all do. Putting in that time and effort to make these connections has enriched my life in many ways. I’ve learned SO much. I’ve made incredible friends. I’ve grown as a person and as a creator. And, more practically, it’s helped me when it comes to booking visits.
I fully embrace the collaborative aspect of book-making. Sometimes I feel it’s a bit preposterous that authors get to have their names alone on their book covers! It’s almost always a team effort. I’ve also always subscribed to the idea that, once you put a book out into the world, it’s no longer yours – or no longer only yours. In engaging imaginatively with a work, each reader assumes a slice of ownership of the book too. I think because of all this, I find it thrilling to see what other creators do with “my” work. But that doesn’t mean I can’t question or challenge some of the choices they make – that’s part of the collaborative process too.
I think I do some combination of both – I set goals by the seat of my pants! I am never working on just one project. I always have two, three, and sometimes even four or five going at once, each of them usually in a different stage of completion (or incompletion). On any given day, I’ll take two things into consideration: (1) what I feel like working on, and (2) about how much time I’ll have to work on it. Given that, I might do some exploratory doodling, or dive into novel revisions, or work on putting together a picture book dummy. Every now and again, though, I really “land” on a certain project, and will give it my full attention and concentrated energy until it’s finished (or a draft or version of it is complete). I guess you could call it “occasionally organized chaos,” but it keeps things both fun and productive for me. And that’s huge. If I’m not enjoying the work, it shows in the results. That might not be true for all creators, but it is for me.
Of course, sometimes some of this goes out the window when you’ve got deadlines. But the majority of the time, I meet my deadlines without changing things up.
24 Carrot Writing sits on the premise that authors need to set and accomplish both writing goals and the business of writing goals. How do you balance your responsibilities to MG Book Village, Kids Need Books, and Kids Need Mentors with writing your books and hitting your writing deadlines?
I touched on this in an earlier question, but basically, I think it’s all about perspective, and about how you define your work and your goals. I love, love, LOVE making books. And yes, I could probably do that and only that all day every day for the rest of my life and be BEYOND content. But I don’t see making books as the only aspect of my work as a creator – or, what’s more, as the only facet of what I, as a human being, have to offer during my time on the planet. In addition to making good books, I want to more directly help and inspire kids, and I want to give back to the various communities that have supported and sustained me. With such goals, it’s not so much about finding balance as it is about finding the time to get it all done!
What advice do you have for beginning writers?
Embrace, explore, and celebrate the things that make you (and your creative output) uniquely you. The weirder and wonkier, the better.
You can purchase copies of EngiNerds or Revenge of the Enginerds using these links: www.indiebound.org/book/9781481468725, www.indiebound.org/book/9781481468749, www.amazon.com/EngiNerds-MAX-Jarrett-Lerner/dp/1481468723/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1547132304&sr=8-1&keywords=enginerds , www.amazon.com/Revenge-EngiNerds-MAX-Jarrett-Lerner/dp/148146874X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1547132360&sr=8-1&keywords=revenge+of+the+enginerds .
And be ready to have Jarrett in a bookstore near you! Jarrett will be at the South Portland Public Library in Maine on February 23rd and at Print Bookstore in Maine on March 12th. 24 Carrot Writers be sure to say hello!