Award-winning author Gary D. Schmidt—Remember Who You Are—Part 2

What happens to an American boy and his family when he opens the door one morning to find a proper English butler on the doorstep?

Not one who has lost his way, mind you, but one who plans on moving in and taking over and doing all the typical butler-y kinds of things.

Two-time Newbery Award finalist Gary D. Schmidt’s latest young adult book, Pay Attention, Carter Jones, relays the challenges and joys of living with such a butler. More challenge than joy to start with. More specifically, according to Carter, a “pain in the glutes,” such as when Carter forgets to take his lunch to school. When a surprise awaits him in the school cafeteria, he is forever cured of forgetting his lunch.

Author of numerous children’s and YA books, Gary gave a book talk at Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee on February 9, 2019. He visited all the way from Michigan and from my alma mater, Calvin College, where he teaches. Read more here from my last post.

Professor and author Gary D. Schmidt; courtesy of Rising Bear Literary Agency

More than laughter fills this book. Though humor permeates, the Butler probes difficult issues Carter and his family face.

One of Carter’s middle school challenges is to remember who he is.

The February 9 audience, both kids and parents, had plenty of questions. Here’s part of the Q & A session from that day.

How do you explore the relationship between the Butler and the mother?

Gary: The mother is grieving over two losses, one of which can’t be repaired. She wonders what’s next for her. The Butler has to help everyone grow, including her.

It was a big temptation to turn their relationship into a romantic one. In fact, in one version, they are romantically involved, but I rejected it. I just can’t do that.

How did you research butlers?

Gary: Butlering is a serious profession. I went online and found rules and schools for butlers, but they’re quite pricey. I never watched Downton Abbey because of the fear of influence. 

I didn’t want this butler to be like Mary Poppins, either the book or movie version. There’s no magic or fantasy. The Butler is snarky but realistic, to distance from her. 

I don’t like that Mary Poppins (in the first movie) refused to acknowledge the magic scenes with Bert when the children referenced them afterward.

How do you decide who your audience is?

Gary: Writers must aim for an audience but I mainly write what I would want to read myself. I channel my middle grade self. Middle grade can be anywhere from 8 to 22, as a person grows. 

The question to ask is: What would happen to help you get from childhood dependence to adulthood and independence during the middle grade years? All of my books are about that. The Butler helps Carter achieve this.

At Calvin College where I teach,
Dutch parents have told their kids while growing up,
“Make good decisions and remember who you are.”
Well, it’s easy to forget who you are in middle school.

When do you make changes in your story?

Gary: In the book Trouble, which carried a Romeo and Juliet kind of theme with a 1976 setting, I changed my Italian character to Cambodian during the course of the story. It made the piece more relevant to what was happening during that time. I continued writing where I was in the story, making the boy Cambodian instead, and went back later to change the earlier details to be consistent.

Sometimes you have to acknowledge a bad idea and scrap it. I once started retelling The Wizard of Oz from Toto’s point of view. I thought it was a cool idea. But six weeks into the project, I thought it was stupid and quit.

Writing isn’t brain surgery.
I don’t have to get it right the first time.
I can take a break when necessary,
go walk the border collies. 

How much do you read?

Gary: Not as much as I’d like. I do plenty of reading for the classes I teach–The Canterbury Tales, Dante. I teach at Calvin, at the prison in Ionia County, and do summer programs. I read friends’ books, too, and have no time to read others. Once I had to read 350 books as a judge on the National Book Award panel.  

Are your characters based on people you know?

Gary: My characters are composites of various traits from people I know. In my early books, I’d start with a friend but change enough so he didn’t recognize himself. Pay Attention, Carter Jones has a dozen references to people I know. I’ve used their names. 

How do you know you’ve reached the end? 

Gary: When the editor says so. That’s one way. But also, did I do what I set out to do? If I can say yes, I’m done.

I don’t agree with E.B. White that every line is inevitable and there’s no debate among words. That’s not my way. 

I’ve written 49 books. I still send each one off, thinking, “What a bunch of hooey, what a joke.” I have to ignore that voice. 

How did you find an editor?

Gary: It used to be that editors were looking for new writers. I sent my first manuscript out without a cover letter and with the wrong format, to a viking Press editor. That editor took me on as an apprentice. The same thing happened to Maurice Sendak, who illustrated the greatest children’s book in 1963. (Where the Wild Things Are). 

Today is different and it’s all about money. How much money will a book make them? Editors are looking for the next J.K. Rowling. (More on this next time.)

And the last decision maker in the book publishing process is the marketer. 

Who inspires you?

Gary: C.S. Forester who wrote the Horatio Hornblower series. I loved those as a kid. I loved the plots. They were page turners. Another favorite was Patrick O’Brian and his historical fiction sea novels. In those, 500 pages read like 280 pages.

How does your own childhood impact your stories?

Gary: The Vietnam War was a big influence. I saw it on news and knew people who served. As 7th graders, we wore black armbands to protest the war and got 2-1/2 hour detentions daily for wearing them.

Two of my books have 1960s settings: The Wednesday Wars and Okay For Now.

What are the inspirations for your other novels? An image, a character, an event, or a premise?

Gary: All of the above. For example, I teach at the prison. I met a guy named Jake–who later became Jack in Orbiting Jupiter. He said his favorite planet was Jupiter. He was a writer. I sent him a book about planets and a Jupiter poster, which was confiscated, unfortunately. 

Also at the prison, another guy, Joseph, sat with his arms crossed. He, too, claimed to be a writer.

“What do you write?” I asked.

“Doesn’t matter,” he replied. “No one will read it.”

I said, “I will. Send it to me.”

Joseph uncrossed his arms.
I consider that my crowning achievement
in forty years of teaching.

Joseph is the model for Joseph in Orbiting Jupiter.

Join me next time to learn more about how Gary D. Schmidt inspires student writers in college, writers conferences, middle school assemblies, and prison.

Other resources:

What books have you read, YA or otherwise, that exemplify how to “remember who you are”?

I’d love to hear from you!

Ever musing,


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20 thoughts on “Award-winning author Gary D. Schmidt—Remember Who You Are—Part 2

  1. It was interesting to read how his life experiences and acquaintances show up in his works, yet without people knowing they are subjects in the stories.

    1. Brad, you might be surprised to learn how many people end up in fiction without knowing it! But characters are often a composite of several individuals, not based on just one.

      1. That’s cool! Have you ever seen yourself in anyone else’s writing? Or imagined yourself as a character in someone else’s writing? I have done the latter!

        1. I have definitely identified with protagonists in fiction. When readers do that, the author has definitely achieved part of his goal!

    2. I’m fascinated with how many of my friends and acquaintances ask me the same exact question when they hear I write novels: “Am I in them?” Some have even tried to bribe me to put them in.

      1. That’s interesting. I think some people would wish quite the opposite, and not want to be in someone’s story at all!

  2. I LOVE this post!! I love hearing answers from a writer I respect so much. My very favorite of his books is Okay For Now, with The Wednesday Wars a close second. His voice is rather similar between several of his main characters, but I just love that character voice so much, I cannot get enough of it. And his descriptive language is so detailed and beautiful. It was particularly interesting to read about how people he knows have influenced how he wrote the characters in his books!
    He has written 49 books? I wish I could read them all! What happened to the unpublished ones? Were they simply abandoned as unpublishable?

    1. I agree with you about his writing! I love it, too.

      Some of those 49 books are textbooks, scholarly writing, and non-fiction for kids. Check out the link at the end of the post: “The complete list . . .”

  3. This interview is fascinating. (And it looks good, by the way!)
    So much to agree with! He writes what he would enjoy reading. Includes people (in some form or another) he has met/knows. He sends off each book thinking “What a bunch of hooey!”
    So much to learn from: scrap bad ideas, be willing to deviate from the original (changing a character to a Cambodian), be very careful about including romance in middle school books.
    I just feel badly that he doesn’t have time to read the books he wants to. But bless him for encouraging new writers.
    Thanks for this great post. I enjoyed every word!

    1. Glad you liked it, Anita. I learned a lot from this, too. It’s fascinating to hear authors talk about their work–especially books I’ve read.

  4. Laura! What a great post! It’s a good dose of inspiration and motivation! I’ll definitely check out Gary’s books. I’ve a few grandkids who might really enjoy his stories as well.

  5. I think I’ll have to make a run for the library. Pay attention, Carter Jones has me intrigued.
    And I think we have several “middle years” as we age. Any time we transition from one period of life to another, we somehow have to figure out who we are all over again.

    1. You’re absolutely right about having many “middle years”. We’re always trying to figure out how we fit into new places and situations. It can feel like middle school all over again.

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