Chris Rylander has been called many things: the voice of the next generation, the Mario Puzo of children's literature, and, every once in a while, Chris or Christopher. In between unicorn hunts, he managed to write a book for kids. The Fourth Stall, summarized here, tells the story of...ah, just read the link...and comes out February 8.
I sat down with Chris on the veranda of his seaside manor in a beautiful fiefdom he's dubbed "North Dakota." After pointing and laughing at a few of his serfs, we got down to the interview.
Murphblog: I’ve seen the book described as “The Godfather for kids,” which begs the question, “Why didn’t I think of that?” What made you think of it and did you run into any problems that might explain why less courageous writers (like Nicholas Sparks) have been reluctant to bring the world of organized crime into children’s fiction?
Rylander: I don’t really have a concrete explanation as to where the idea came from. I guess I was just sitting there eating some frosting probably or something, and then I thought to myself how fun it might be to take organized crime and put a kid-friendly spin on it. There were some challenges, sure, like trying to walk the line between the right amount of violence and having the kids use severed horse heads as pillows and everything. But in the end, I always just asked myself this question: “Is there enough blood and gratuitous violence in this scene?” And if the answer was “no,” then I simply added more. And I think it turned out pretty well. One dead body per page is usually a pretty good rule for children’s books. No, but seriously it was a challenge to get that part just right - because I didn't want to soften it to the point where it was cheesy. But I also didn't want to glorify grade-school gang wars.
Murphblog: Your main characters, Vince and Mac, love the Chicago Cubs and save money to attend a World Series game. The back of the book states that you’re also a huge Cubs fan. Psychoanalyze the Cub fan. What kind of person puts himself through such misery and disappointment year after year?
Rylander: The sort of person who is the opposite of that one guy who always loves to point out how right he is all the time while simultaneously pretending he is only feigning pride but deep down we all know what a smug jerk he is despite the fact that basically everybody likes him anyway and you just can’t figure out why. Did that make sense? I hope not.
Me: Sticking with the Cubs, which of the following emotions best describes how you feel when you read the name Steve Bartman:
a. Hatred because he screwed the Cubs
b. Pity because of how abominably he was treated
c. Jealousy because he had such great seats
d. Other—please explain.
Rylander: – b. Pity because of how abominably he was treated. Bartman, if you’re out there reading this, contact me, I’ll send you a free copy of my book. Heck, I’ll even send you two if you can somehow get the Cubs back to the NLCS.
Me: In the book, Vince is fond of repeating the befuddling wisdom of his grandmother. One example is, “The only real way to eat a pinecone is with tortoise gravy and a sense of self-worth.” What’s the worst advice you could give to someone who’s trying to write a novel?
Rylander: I’d say to write out your novel by hand using a mixture of water and your own blood for ink. That way, when you send the manuscript to editors and agents to consider, you can also include a note that says, “There’s literally a little bit of me in every single page. Enjoy.” They’ll be delighted, and you’ll have a book deal in no time. That, and I also always like to remind people about the importance of wearing a bow tie when you write.
Me: Back to the Cubs. In the book, Vince and Mac try to stump each other with Cubs trivia. I have some Cubs trivia for you. No cheating.
Rylander: This is not fair.
a. Nevertheless. In what year did the Cubs play their first night game at Wrigley Field?
Rylander: I’m pretty sure it was in the late 1980’s… I’ll say 1987. The thing is, I black out most of the Cubs games I watch because they’re just too painful to remember. So I never remember the trivia and Cubs facts they talk about on air. Mac and Vince, however, are too young to have developed that protective crust of cynicism, so they soak it all up like sponges.
[Editor's Note: The first night game was on Aug. 9, 1988.]
b. Why did Keith Moreland wear eye black when it was cloudy?
Rylander: Keith who?
[Editor's note: This is an acceptable answer.]
c. The Cubs have gone over 45 years without being no-hit. Which Hall of Famer was the last to throw a no-hitter against them?
Rylander: I want to say it was probably Koufax or Gibson, but I think this is likely a trick question. You can’t fool me that easily. It was definitely Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLoosh. Either him or former president Teddy Roosevelt… Teddy could do just about anything. In 08/08/88, he once stopped a tornado with nothing but a yo-yo and a smile.
[Editor's Note: Koufax. Well done, Chris!]
Me: The villain of your book is a teenage gangster named Staples. What other office supplies would make good gangster names?
Rylander: I don’t know, I went through them all, and I think Staples is the best. I toyed with both Eraserhead and Tapehead, but those were both already taken. Pen15 seemed too juvenile. And Notebook Pants just didn’t have the same ring to it. But Pencil-Cup McCoy was a close second, I can’t lie.
Me: The story contains a plot twist concerning Mac and Vince. When you write, do you plan everything out first or just go where the story takes you and make the necessary changes later?
Rylander: A little of both. I don’t plan out very much at first, but then as I get further along I plan more and more. Although, I really have to give my agent and editor a lot of credit. They both really helped me to shape the final plot and make it all work. And while I’m at, I should probably thank that glass of orange juice I drank that one time for giving me the energy I needed to finish the book.
Me: The end of the book implies a sequel. Are you working on that now? What other projects do you have going?
Rylander: Yes, actually, I just finished the final draft of sequel. That should come out about a year from now. As for other projects, it’s more like what don’t I have going… So that’s how I’ll answer. Here are the only genres that I currently don’t have a project started in:
Me: Well, Chris, between hunting unicorns, avoiding sharks, upstaging Nicholas Sparks, lording over the fiefdom of "North Dakota," and writing in every genre, it sounds like you're keeping busy. Thanks for making some time for us.
Rylander: Thanks so much for all of the great questions, Murphblog! It was a lot of fun.