Don, what was your inspiration for writing DAN VERSUS NATURE?
A few years ago I met a guy named John who is a stunt coordinator for film and television. He is the epitome of a man’s man (something I aspire to, but fall very short of). Besides having one of the manliest jobs in the world John also hunts bear with a bow and arrow. He told me crazy stories of how he would get dropped in the wilderness by bush plane, all by himself, with only a bow and arrow and the basic necessities so he could track a bear for a week. He said that I should come out hunting with him some time and I had to laugh because as much as I would like to see myself as a rugged outdoorsman (minus the whole hunting thing) I wouldn’t last five minutes out in the woods without my computer, iPad and cellphone.
But John’s wild stories of surviving in the bush got me thinking that it might be fun to throw an ill-equipped teenager into that kind of situation. After that initial thought, the ideas started to flow fairly quickly and I soon found the story and the characters that would become the novel.
I don’t know that there was a particular scene that was terribly difficult to write but the character of Penelope was probably the most challenging one to find. She had quite a few incarnations before her true nature revealed itself. I think I was trying to force a type on her and she was having none of it. Once I let go and allowed her to present herself it was like that’s who she was all along. In hindsight it seems obvious now but it wasn’t when I was in the muck of it all.
I am quite proud of how she turned out in this book. She may be one of my favorite female characters that I’ve ever written.
What book or books would most resonate with readers who love your book--or visa versa?
I guess other realistic humorous fiction books. Burger Wuss by M.T. Anderson, Winger by Andrew Smith, Spanking Shakespeare by Jake Wizner, Spud by John van de Ruit, Doing It by Melvin Burgess. I know there are others but these are the ones that came to mind first.
How long did you work on DAN VERSUS NATURE?
I worked on Dan Versus Nature on and off for around three years. It was the book that took me the longest to write for a variety of reasons. It was the first book I was writing that wasn’t part of the Swim the Fly series so I was creating an entirely new world. But beyond that, so much was happening in my life during that time. As I mentioned, my father passed away but also my mother was dealing with health issues and my wife and I also moved. Sometimes real life intrudes and you have to put the writing off. But it’s always percolating there in the background. I will say the book was a saving grace during a lot of turmoil because it got my mind off some sad times.
What did this book teach you about writing or about yourself?
I learn the same lesson every time I start working on a new project. And that lesson is this: I can’t remember how I did it last time. I have to reteach myself how to write, how to structure, how to discover character voices. It’s like I start at square one each time. You would think it’d get easier but it just doesn’t. What I also learned is that if you just start writing, getting the ideas down, more ideas will come. There is no waiting for a muse. The muse comes when you start putting in the time. It’s infectious really. Once you start thinking story, more story comes to you.
What do you hope readers will take away from DAN VERSUS NATURE?
I hope readers will laugh. A lot. Maybe take away a few survival skills. Perhaps find a new understanding of the complexities of family relationships. But mostly laugh.
How long or hard was your road to publication? How many books did you write before this one, and how many never got published?
This will be my fourth novel. My first novel, Swim the Fly, was published in 2009. Before that I’d been a professional screenwriter for fifteen years. My road to selling my first screenplay was typical. A lot of scripts and a lot of rejection. I must have written at least a dozen screenplays (probably more) before I sold the first one.
By the time I’d written my first book I was prepared that the novel would likely not find a publisher. I was okay with that. I’d actually written it for fun, as a break from screenwriting. Well, that and my wife who is also a writer encouraged me to write a book for teen boys because she saw how I interacted with her sons and she felt I had a similar sense of humor. Which some people might take offense to, however it made me proud.
I decided if I was going to do it though I would write it for myself (which is how you should always write things). I wrote a book that I would have wanted to read when I was a teenager. Something funny. Something very true to life. Personal and close to the bone. I wrote it like I remembered being fifteen. I thought to myself, no one is ever going to publish this book because being inside a fifteen year old boy’s head can be a bit¬¬ – shall we say messy – and crazy, and awkward, and crude.
After I’d finished a first draft my wife had me sign up for a writing conference she was presenting so that I could meet some publishers and agents. It was at that conference that I pitched it to Kaylan Adair at Candlewick Press and she agreed to read it. A few weeks later they made me an offer. It was beyond lucky and I was incredibly excited. Never saw that coming. My wife and her amazing intuition deserves much of the credit in getting me published.
I’ve been with Kaylan and Candlewick ever since and I couldn’t be happier and more grateful. They are an absolute joy to work with.
Was there an AHA! moment along your road to publication where something suddenly sank in and you felt you had the key to writing a novel? What was it?
I’m not sure that there is any one single key to writing a novel. There are techniques and tips, I guess. Things, as I’ve said, I have to relearn each time I start a new book. For me I think what I always try to remind myself is to be in a specific moment, a specific scene, a specific person’s point of view as I write. Be present in the character’s body. Also, I approach novel writing in a similar way to screenwriting in that I try to structure my stories to have certain arcs and turning points (which inevitably morph and change as the writing progresses). The big difference between writing a script and a novel is that you have a lot more time to explore things in a novel and a lot more writing tools to explore them with.
What's your writing ritual like? Do you listen to music? Work at home or at a coffee shop or the library, etc?
I have a writing room in my house that is filled with books and toys and hockey jerseys (all things that I love) but I have learned over the years that I have to be adaptable. When you’re on a deadline you have to be able to write any time and any place. My family had a trip planned to China while I was rewriting Beat the Band and my deadline was rapidly approaching so I had to set aside a few hours each day to write in our room while we were sailing up the Yangtze.
I generally like to write while listening to music so I can block out all other distractions. The key to that for me is to pick music that feels appropriate to the tone of the book but also songs I can have on constant replay so that I basically no longer hear the words and it all becomes a sort of musical white noise.
Music is also a great reminder to have a rhythm to your sentences. Sometimes I will rewrite a sentence a dozen times if it doesn’t sound right rhythmically. I might add a word or use one with less syllables, use some alliteration or take some out just to get the cadence right. It helps to read your work out loud for that too.
Of course, there are also times where music drives me crazy and I need to have absolute silence to write. I don’t know why that is. Sometimes my brain just needs to focus on the words and the page only, I suppose.
What advice would you most like to pass along to other writers?
It’s always the same, really. Read a lot. Write a lot. Write what you love to write but read much more widely than that: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, memoir, song lyrics, textbooks, websites, blogs, things you would never think you’d be interested in. Writing is about wonder and discovery so you have to allow yourself to be curious and open to discovering new things.
Also, as I said before, don’t wait for inspiration to strike. Inspiration will only come when you put in the work. That’s the deal with this writing thing. It’s not really very glamorous. It’s you in your chair at your desk (or on your bed with your pad and pen, or walking on your treadmill desk, or sitting at a coffee shop with your ear buds in).
What are you working on now?
At the moment I am in the early stages of a new novel. I’m writing an outline and some sample chapters to see if it’s something I want to dedicate the next couple of years to. Also, to see if my publisher would be interested in publishing it. It’s in a similar vein to my other novels – big surprise – realistic, humorous, teenage boy fiction.
ABOUT THE BOOK
Dan Versus Nature
by Don Calame
Shy and scrawny Dan Weekes spends his time creating graphic novels inspired by his dream girl and looking out for his mom as she dates every man in the state of California. Then his mom drops a bomb: she and her latest beau, Hank, are engaged, and she’s sending her "two favorite men" on a survivalist camping trip to "bond." Determined to trick Hank into showing his true — flawed — colors on the trip, Dan and his nerdy germaphobe best friend, Charlie, prepare a series of increasingly gross and embarrassing pranks. But the boys hadn’t counted on a hot girl joining their trip or on getting separated from their wilderness guide—not to mention the humiliating injuries Dan suffers in the course of terrorizing his stepdad-to-be. With a man-hungry bear on their trail, no supplies, and a lot of unpleasant itching going on, can Dan see his plan through now that his very survival depends on Hank?
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ABOUT THE AUTHORDon Calame the author of SWIM THE FLY, BEAT THE BAND, CALL THE SHOTS and DAN VERSUS NATURE. He is also a professional screenwriter whose film projects include EMPLOYEE OF THE MONTH and HOUNDED. Of his many prior occupations, he says his most satisfying was teaching elementary school for four years in Los Angeles, where he received the LAUSD District Intern Golden Apple Award and a Los Angeles Education Partnership Grant. He lives in British Columbia.
--Have you had a chance to read DAN VERSUS NATURE yet? Do you have to relearn things each time you start a new book? Do you make sure there is a rhythm to your sentences? Share your thoughts about the interview in the comments!
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