Wednesday’s Interview with Greg Neri
Good morning, everyone. Greg Neri has joined us this morning for a spin in the writer’s chair. You may have seen his animation work on HBO or Bravo Channel with his piece on Chick Corea, the jazz great.
Thank you so much for sitting down with us, Greg.
Claudsy: I don’t often get a guest with your varied experiences. You’ve been at this a while, I know. Tell me, which aspect of your career gives you the most satisfaction?
Greg: Writing. From all the mediums I’ve used, writing is the most personal and solitary. It’s the purest form of storytelling for me. Unlike movies, there are no limits to writing—if you want 10,000 Vikings charging across the Arctic ice fields, you can do it!
And conversely, you can go as small as you want, getting into the head of a boy trying to figure out why his life is falling apart and seeing the world from his POV. It’s an amazingly unique form of storytelling.
The other aspect, of course, is hearing how your words affect the readers, especially getting through to non-readers who feel intimidated by books. I’ve had many whose first reading experience was with one of my books. Hearing that makes it all worth it.
Claudsy: I’d like to go back, if I may, to the early days of your work for just a moment. Were you as provocative and edgy then with your media production projects or writing as you are now?
Greg: From my days as a filmmaker, I’ve always alternated between dark and edgy & light and innocent stories. Its healthy to explore both sides because that’s what we’re made of.
So before I was writing edgy teen books, I was illustrating playful books for toddlers. Now I am trying to put elements of both into my work.
Claudsy: I know that you worked for a long time with inner city youth in LA. Why do you believe that teaching children storytelling in any form helps them develop and strengthen?
Greg: Most young people have trouble communicating ideas. So I tell them that every time they communicate, they are really telling a story. It implies that everyone they deal with, whether it’s a teacher through a school essay or their parents after something bad has happened, is an audience that needs to understand your story. These kids all know what they expect from a good story, so applying that to their daily lives is a leap they can make.
Claudsy: You didn’t stop there, though, did you? You went on from teaching kids to the development of two successful internet media companies for the corporate world. What motivates you to diversify so broadly?
Greg: I learned awhile ago that unexpected doors and experiences will open up for you if you let them. Most people don’t walk through those doors because they don’t fit their life plan. But if you’re open to it, some really exciting and unusual experiences lie in wait.
I never in a million years thought I’d become a novelist writing for urban teens. But one door led to another led to another… I didn‘t resist and here I am. It’s been a surprising journey so far.
Claudsy: Now you’re into graphic novels for the YA market. Your book “Yummy” comes out this year. Your artist training seems to have always been at the core of your work. Do you believe that the graphic novel is one of the strongest methods of persuading reluctant readers to stretch their reading experience?
Greg: Well, the one thing I read when I was young was comics. And now there are so many amazing things happening under the banner of graphic novels that it’s an exciting way to reach out to non-readers and use the medium to talk about serious issues like gangs. Me telling some kid to stay away from gangs means nothing.
Some kid experiencing gangs through Yummy’s perspective in a graphic novel is a powerful tool. It really hits the ages and young folks that need to see this, in a way that doesn’t imply being talked down to. It’s a very cinematic medium with tremendous range.
Claudsy: I’ve heard that the two books you have out now, MG novella “Chess Rumble” and YA novel Surf Mules, are doing quite well. You definitely stretched the reading experience with those. How difficult was it for you to move from one idea stream to the other with those projects?
Greg: Not hard. I have many sides to me, many ethnic and cultural influences and experiences. All my stories are influenced by real places and people. When I hear or see something that stops me in my tracks, I get a feeling like: now there’s a great story. And it’s all about the story. Doesn’t matter for which age or what genre. A great story is a great story. And that’s what gets me going.
Claudsy: That’s very true. Then you moved onto Ghetto Cowboy and Caught coming out in 2011 and beyond. Your credits keep piling up. How do you manage to schedule so many appearances, write, enjoy your family life, and think about new projects without going slightly squirrelly?
Greg: Who said I wasn’t squirrelly? Honestly, it’s just starting to become too much. I had to push back on one project recently, but the ideas keep coming. Maybe I need a staff of ghost writers…
Claudsy: A writer paying a writer to write what he should be writing. Now there’s a concept. But, one thing I would like to know is which gets you fired up the most; drawing or writing?
Greg: Definitely writing at this point. I haven’t drawn for a while, except with my daughter. Yummy was done with another illustrator, mostly because I wasn’t up for creating 800 drawings! Luckily, they now call writing a “language art” so I guess that means I’m still an artist…
Claudsy: What advice would you give new writers coming up, especially those from the inner city?
Greg: Give yourself permission to write badly. Really. No writer, no matter how great, writes brilliantly from the get go. All writers will tell you, the first draft is always horrible. But that’s fine because a first draft should be horrible.
The first draft is all about getting everything out of your head and onto the paper. It’s like squeezing all your paints out onto your palette. Then you can see what you have to work with. All writing is really done in the rewriting.
Claudsy: Excellent advice. Now, I just have to ask this. Why do you go trolling for alligators?
Greg: Because they’re there! I mean, how cool is it to have prehistoric creatures roaming near your house?! Gotta go see up close and personal. But never feed them…
Claudsy: I’d like to thank our wonderful guest for taking the time to be with us today. A busy schedule doesn’t always allow for such interruptions in an otherwise hectic day.
Although full-time writer Greg Neri didn’t become a reader until he discovered the Phantom Tollbooth in 6th grade, he certainly made up for the slow start. After taking three advanced degrees at UC Santa Cruz, he went on to filmmaking and writing for at risk YA readers. His books Chess Rumble and Surf Mules are available on stands today.
Greg won four prestigious 2008 literary awards including the American Library Association Notable Book and the Society of School Librarians International Best Book in the Language Arts, as well as several in 2009 including the ALA Quick pick for Reluctant YA Readers and the International Reading Association’s Young Adults’ Choices list. There are others too numerous to list here.
Greg Neri lives with his wife and daughter along the Florida coast. Readers can find more examples of Neri’s work at: www.gneri.com. Check out his reading list for MG and YA boys.
Please feel free to leave comments on this interview as well as any other presented. Tomorrow, as usual, I will take some aspect of this interview for a commentary. I hope all of you will stop by again to read and comment on it. But, if you can’t make it tomorrow, keep in mind that on Friday our guest will be Stephen “Quill” Eliasson, copywriter, playwright, and new children’s writer.
Have a productive and creative week everyone and stop by any time to just say hello, and hopefully, learn something new.
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