Thursday, May 5, 2011

Talking with Jake Wizner, Author of SPANKING SHAKESPEARE and Writer of Hilarious Poetry

Welcome Jake Wizner, author of Spanking Shakespeare and Castration Celebration to Carpe Keyboard! I blogged last week here about the fantastic “boy voice” in Spanking Shakespeare, so I got in touch with Mr. Wizner. He graciously agreed to spend some time answering a few questions about his writing life.

Carpe Keyboard: I heard about Spanking Shakespeare from another author who was speaking at a writer’s conference. Did you know you were being recommended as one of the funniest YA voices out there?

Jake Wizner: I’ve gotten a lot of feedback about how funny the book is, but it’s always nice to hear that other authors are talking about it.  All of the early reviews that came out commented on the book’s humor.  I loved that one of the reviews called me the love child of Woody Allen and Judy Blume.  One thing that took me by surprise was seeing the cover of my book featured prominently in a textbook as an example of humor.

 As an English Lit major in college, I studied quite a bit of the Bard’s work. And even though Shakespeare (Shapiro, not the other one!) obviously has a gift for writing, he isn’t much of a literature lover. How…oh, how?...did you decide to use Mr. Shakespeare’s name for your main character?

I studied quite a bit of Shakespeare in college too, but I don’t think that factored into the name, at least not that I was conscious of.  As I recall, I was just beginning the book when my wife was pregnant with our first child.  We were in New Orleans, and each day we would make lists of possible names.  We knew it was a girl, so Shakespeare never made any of the lists, but we were having great fun thinking up names that none of our thousands of students (we had both been teachers for many years) had ever had.  All of which is to say that unusual names were very much on my mind.  One day, the name Shakespeare Shapiro just popped fully formed into my head, and I thought, “There’s a name that would cause a boy a whole lot of angst.”  And with that, I began writing what would become the book’s prologue.

Some of the events at Hemingway High were so funny, they seemed like they had to be based on reality somehow. Did you ever write posters for fake clubs in order to incite riot in the hallways? Or ever compose (BRILLIANT!) funny poetry for a girl?

I based a great deal of the book, particularly the memoir chapters, on experiences my friends and I had growing up.  The actual events are often exaggerated or altered for comic effect, but… my mother did blackmail me into giving away my dog, my grandmother did take me to see a semi-pornographic movie, one friend who was afraid of going to baseball games did get hit in the face at a game, and another friend got stoned before a graduation luncheon and announced it to the crowd.  We never put up fake posters in school, but we did amuse ourselves with playing worst-case scenario games.  I never wrote funny poetry in high school, but I did write quite a bit of it starting in college.  The only time I ever wrote a poem to get a girl, it was a serious one, and it freaked her out.  Maybe I would have been better off sticking to humor. 

In oh-so-writerly classes and (self-help) books for writers, I’ve read lots about the character’s arc or the character’s journey. I love Shakespeare’s journey from insecure, self-deprecating boy to caring young man. Did you map out a character arc for him either before or during writing? Or do you use a more organic method? When did you know Shakespeare would turn out to be such a young adult at the end?

When I submitted the first draft of the book to my agent, she loved the voice, loved the humor, but had one big concern: Shakespeare seemed to be the same character at the end of the book as he was at the beginning.  Somehow I had become so absorbed in writing humorous memoir chapters, I had forgotten to think through the ways Shakespeare would grow and change.  It was only when I revised that I seriously thought through how Shakespeare would mature.  The key was creating the character of Charlotte, who did not exist in the first draft.  Once her story began to take shape, it was easy to see how Shakespeare might change.

What was your search for an agent like? Was there any hesitation on behalf of agents about any of your language or references to sex and … um… bowel movements? I’d love to hear about your journey to publishing…

I had written some of a middle grade novel in a writing class, and my teacher encouraged me to finish it and see if I could get it published.  I knew very little about the publishing world at the time, but I had a friend whose father was a children’s book editor and my friend passed the book along.  His father loved it, sent me revision notes, and began speaking about drawing up a contract.  It seemed like a done deal.  I was going to be a published author just like that.  But then one thing led to another, my friend’s father left his publishing house, weeks stretched to months, and my friend’s father eventually suggested that I would probably be best off getting an agent.  He recommended one person, and I sent along my book saying my friend’s father had referred me.  That was enough to get it out of the slush pile, but the agent decided to pass. 

My friend’s father recommended a second agent, who showed interest, but wanted to see other things I had written.  When I told her this was my first book, she told me to send her something else when I had written it.  That something else ended up being 40 pages of Spanking Shakespeare.  She loved it – more than the middle grade book I had written – and encouraged me to keep going.  She did not express concern about the language or content, though at one point she did advise me to cut a section in which Shakespeare and Neil carry on an extended cell phone conversation from their toilets, describing their bowel movements in great detail.  I spent more than two years on the book writing and revising before my agent felt it was ready to send out.  The first editor she sent it to passed, but the second editor, who was at Random House, made an offer.  It was a thrilling moment.

Can you tell us about Castration Celebration

I wanted to write a musical, which is a little bit odd because I have only seen two or three musicals in my life and did not particularly enjoy them. But I’ve always loved writing irreverent songs, and I figured that I could write the kind of musical that people who don’t like musicals could also enjoy. I started with the lyrics, and then I built a script around the songs, and what emerged was something outrageous, over-the-top, and really, really funny, at least to me.
I had also been playing around for a long time with the idea of setting a young adult novel on a college campus, because I had spent the first ten years of my life living in a dormitory at Yale. I remembered clearly what kinds of adventures a young boy could have, and I imagined it could be even more fun for kids a little bit older. So that’s kind of how the book came together. Take a group of teenagers, plop them down on a college campus for a summer program where they can be working on a musical, and see what happens.
There’s a scene early in the book where Olivia’s playwriting teacher challenges her students to write not what they know, but what they want to find out. That’s sort of what writing this book was like for me.  Whereas Spanking Shakespeare was rooted largely in my own experiences as a teenager, Castration Celebration was really a work of pure fiction.

 When do you carpe your keyboard? What are your writing habits?

 Since I am a full-time public school teacher and a dad with two young daughters, finding time to write can be challenging.  My girls go to bed relatively early, but after a full day of teaching and parenting I’m usually too worn out to concentrate on my writing.  My most productive time is during the summer.  I will usually write for a few hours in the mornings and then meet my wife and daughters wherever they are for the rest of the day.

Thanks, Mr. Wizner, for sharing some of your writing life with us! I’ll keep an eye out for your next book – since I’m always thrilled to find one that makes me laugh so hard I snort tea up my nose! J


  1. Great interview. I have to read Spanking Shakespeare! Best of luck to Jake Wizner.

  2. Thanks for the great interview

  3. That's quite a story about the agent and pub quest! Worth popping in for.

  4. Thanks for this awesome interview, Karen and Mr. Wizner! I enjoyed reading this exchange so much that I just had to check and see if our local library carried Spanking Shakespeare - and they do, so I'm going to get it this afternoon! I can't wait to read it. :)

  5. Glad everyone is enjoying the interview...and in case you didn't get this from my last two blog posts...I HIGHLY recommend Spanking Shakespeare. Especially if you need a good laugh.