First, a little about Mark.
I wrote and produced for television, doing shows for every major network.I worked on shows like Archie Bunker’s Place, Full House,
Saved By The
When I transitioned into writing YA novels, I read within the genre and was impressed by the wide range of subjects. Some of the more popular and recognized books dealt frankly with subjects like sexual awakening,drug abuse, coming out, eating disorders, molestation and even teen murderers.
For my first book I really wanted to focus on the “average” teen, whatever that was. My feeling was, while those subjects were provocative and often made for compelling reading, most kids whowere say, fifteen, had not yet had sex, were not abused (thankfully), were not coming out, were not suffering from bulimia , and while certainly exposed to drugs and alcohol, were not heading to rehab.
I wanted to speak to the majority of teens out there who were entering those years where life itself is a daily challenge filled with the search foridentity and exactly where one fits in this crazy world. Andy Crenshaw, the protagonist in The Summer I Got a Life, is one of those kids. His lot in life, his problems, dilemmas, dreams, yearning and spirit are hopefully relatable with just about every teen out there.
It’s Andy’s singular voice, his humorous take on life and his down-to-earth honesty that drives the story and makes you want to root for him.
What kind of reader were you as a boy? What were some books you liked?
I must confess that I really wasn’t much of a reader as a boy. I was a pretty good student and would do the requisite book reports, but, unfortunately, I didn’t read a whole lot on my own. I spent a lot of time outside on my bike or playing sports. I remember reading some Hardy Boys stuff and a few sports books, fiction and non-fiction, but not too much else. At that time, Young Adult lit didn’t exist as a genre.
What elements in books do you think appeal to boys? How do you try to work those into books?
It’s funny, but when I started out to write the book, I didn’t really come at it thinking, “Now, how do I appeal to boys?” I mostly wanted to create a realistic relatable male character, one who readers—boys and girls—could look at and see in that character, a lot of themselves. I know the prevailing wisdom is that boys prefer more “action” or gore and harder subjects, while girls lean more toward “softer” stories with romance. I think that boys and girls want pretty much the same thing in a story: likable, believable characters they can root for, and a story that speaks to elements in their lives.
One of the things that gave me pause about writing a YA novel was looking at the shelves and seeing 60-75 per cent of the books were about girls and written by females. I think teen boys have been underserved in this genre, with the exception of sports books and sci fi. But boys have romantic notions too, and just like girls, are trying to figure out that never-ending dance between the sexes. The Summer I Got a Life addresses this universal issue in, I hope, a fresh way with a character—Laura—who is also underrepresented in YA literature.
In my other novel, Stepping Up, I deal with a much more boy-centric theme, that of how sports and how good you are at sports affects one’s self esteem and popularity. I think it’s still true today that boys growing up in middle and high school have to contend with that dynamic. Being a “jock” may not be the be-all and end-all it once was, but it still carries a lot of cache within the social hierarchy.
You have two sons; what did you learn about boys and reading from them? Do you think their childhood differed vastly from your own?
I remember reading to my boys a lot when they were young, as there were many great children’s books to choose from. They, like all kids, liked to be entertained by a good story with identifiable characters, especially funny stories. I’ve pretty much written comedy my whole career and it was natural and comfortable for me to tell stories through humor in my books.
Unfortunately, as my sons grew older and dealt with the demands of high school, they read less and less outside of their required reading.Today, neither one reads books, which is sad, but hopefully will change someday.
And the BEST PART of this interview:
If I may, I’d like to share a pet theory about reading and readers, one that I’ve broached with a couple of English teachers. I think a lot of kids are actually being turned off to reading, sometimes for life. Because of all the required reading they must do in school, much of it totally irrelevant to their lives, reading has become a chore, a requirement, something they have to do to pass a test or a course. The pure enjoyment of reading for pleasure has been hijacked from these kids. I honestly believe, that at a certain age and grade somewhere in middle school, students should be encouraged to read what they want for a period of time. Just be asked to read for reading’s sake, to let their eyes wander over a page and hopefully discover whole new worlds and experiences that is the gift of books. Instead of turning children off to reading, we might be able to hook them on the pleasure and joy of reading. Then they may be able to tackle Shakespeare or Chaucer. I read where this is actually being done in a middle school somewhere with positive results.
My sons have certainly grown up in a whole different world from mine. The alternatives to and distractions from reading are vast and are growing exponentially. When I was their age we had television as our attention magnet, but it was nothing like TV today and certainly nothing like the internet and all of its applications.
Several months of the year I work as a writing coach to high school seniors, helping them write their college application essays. This has been a real education for me, seeing what teens are feeling and thinking as they are about to go to college. I have found that even some of the better students have a hard time structuring an essay and writing a good, clean sentence. There is no question that emails, texting, tweeting and all the other short hand methods of communicating have played a role in diminished writing skills. It will be interesting to follow this up with a new generation as technology continues to explode.
What kind of book are you working on now?
I’m thinking about a couple of ideas right now, not sure yet what I’m going to write next. It’s a big decision for me because, when you write a novel, you are stuck living with it for quite a while, considering the time it takes to write, then re-write and (if you’re lucky) re-write a bunch more to satisfy editors and publishers. So, for me anyway, it must be a story I really want to spend a lot of time with. I will probably try to stretch myself somewhat and write something a little edgier and more dangerous.
From Ms. Yingling: If you haven't added these two books to your collection already, make sure you take a look at them. I am really looking forward to seeing what Mr. Fink will write next! Visit him at