“I Came Up with a Crazy Regimen: 1,000 Words a Day”—An Interview With a Debut YA Novelist

Lord of the Flies meets middle school in Clay McLeod Chapman’s entertaining new YA novel The Tribe: Homeroom Headhunters.

New kid in school Spencer Pendleton has your typical adolescent challenges—the school bully, crabby teachers, an overprotective mother—oh, and a group of clandestine runaways who inhabit the school may want him to join their vigilante tribe. Like I said, your typical adolescent challenges. Homeroom Headhunters is a charming blend of realism and whimsy, a poignant journey you’ll want to savor. Clay was kind enough to chat with us about his writing process, dispense some invaluable advice to young writers, and of course, provide us with some top notch literary Monopoly analysis.

Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Clay! Before Homeroom Headhunters your literary focus seemed to be in screenwriting, short stories, and playwriting. Why did you decide to write a trilogy of YA novels?

When I was in class one day back in the 6th grade, I remembering hearing this sound above my head. Something had shifted on the other side of those fiberglass panels in the ceiling. I remember asking myself—what if there was somebody up there? I totally daydreamed about that for the rest of the day. Fast forward twenty years later, when this children’s book editor asked me what story ideas I might have—and it kind of just popped out: What if there was a kid living behind the fiberglass panels in the ceiling at school?

It’s interesting that a passing thought you had 20 years ago is now a fully formed book. I’m going to start taking my daydreams more seriously. Speaking of daydreaming, if you were to assemble your own Avengers-esque team of literary characters to overthrow a middle school, who would you choose?

I’m a fan of Alan Moore’s comic “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.” I would totally rip a page out from his book and assemble all the characters from classic Victorian horror novels and have one big monster mash—H.G. Wells’ Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Invisible Man, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Plus the mummy and a werewolf and even the Creature from the Black Lagoon for safe measure (even though they’re from movies, not books).

Not only is that a terrifying array of united mayhem, but they also possess the absolute best theme song of all time. Tell me a little bit about the writing process for Homeroom Headhunters. Do you stick to a stringent schedule? Do you have any specific tricks in terms of dealing with writers’ block?

Your theme song is much better than the theme song I was thinking about.

I really cracked the whip on myself for this one. I came up with a crazy regimen: 1,000 words a day. They didn’t have to be the right words. Just tell the story. I’d wake up early, sit at my tiny desk and hop to it. If I hit a patch of writer’s block, I’d just have my narrator talk about whatever was on his mind—so by the time I reached The End, I had four hundred messy pages of Spencer Pendleton talking all over the place. His voice just took me in all of these different crazy directions and I simply followed him wherever he wanted to go. That said, the actual book evolved and grew within the revising process. What’s the saying? “Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten”? That’s totally what happened with Homeroom Headhunters. I cut it in half, added another half, cut that half in half and added some more, until it suddenly became the lovely three hundred pages of absolute looniness that you hold in your hands now.

I’m sure you get this next question all the time, but I have to ask. Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edgar Allen Poe, and Jack Kerouac sit down to play an old fashion game of Monopoly. Who wins and why?

It’s a draw because F. Scott hits up the local watering hole with Rich “Uncle” Pennybags, Jack goes for a joyride in the silver race car, Ed steals all the funny money, and Ernie ends up losing his temper because he was thiiiiis close to taking it all.

I love the idea of somebody referring to Ernest Hemingway as “Ernie.” One of my favorite sections from Homeroom Headhunters is when Assistant Principal Prichard gives Spencer his copy of Catcher in the Rye and tells him to “Read at your own risk. A book like that can turn your whole life upside down.” Do you personally have a book that elicits that type of emotion?

There have been a few, but going way back to when I was a kid, like seven or eight or so, I’d love reading Gary Larson’s The Far Side. My grandmother would take me to the library and let me check out two books at a time and all I’d ever want to check out was The Far Side anthologies. She was a little miffed at me, given the fact that they were single-panel comics, but reading is reading so she wasn’t going to argue. A deal’s a deal. That’s what I wanted to read. Half the jokes went over my head but I loved them. Absolutely loved them. Still do. They were dark, they were pretty nerdy, and just downright surreal.

That’s interesting. I’ve heard the same thing in terms of the Peanuts cartoons as well. It almost seems like comics can serve as a gateway into reading.

The Far Side was a gateway book. Just like Stephen King was a gateway to Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, certain books open you up to other books. It’s kind of like looking at a family tree of authors, where you trace back through the generations of literary influences, one after another after another…

You’ve had quite the prolific writing career thus far. Is there any advice you’d give to aspiring writers? Is there any information or helpful tips that you’ve found useful that you wish someone would have shared with you when you were starting out?

As far as advice goes, I know it sounds a little cornball, but I was totally serious about the whole “saying yes to every opportunity that comes your way” thing, even if you have absolutely no idea how to do it. Yet. Say yes first and figure it out. That’s what led to Homeroom Headhunters—and I’d say I hadn’t had that much fun writing something in a long time. Maybe that’s my second piece of advice: Make sure you having fun writing what you’re writing. That sounds like it might be a little obvious, but it’s a good thing to remind myself every so often. If I’m not having fun writing it, it’s pretty doubtful anyone will have fun reading it. Unless they’re, like, total masochists.

Great point. That’s why I rarely enjoy reading my printer instruction manual. You can just tell that the person who wrote it phoned it in. Keeping with the theme of having fun while writing, it’s 1936 and your best friend John Steinbeck informs you he’s writing a book titled “Of Mice and Men.” Judging only by the title Steinbeck gave you, what’s your best guess as to what his novel’s about?

Okay. My book is published by Disney, so technically speaking, Mickey Mouse is my boss. The last time I talked to Steinway (it’s a convoluted private joke between us two), he mentioned this new book of his. I figured he was writing a tell-all about Walt and his recent Steamboat Willie cartoon, trying to cash in on the whole mouse craze going on around here. I told him it was a bad idea, but John never listened to me anyway…

Haha. You may have just found your next novel. Clay, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us, and good luck with Homeroom Headhunters! It was such a delight to read. Last question. Truth or dare?

Dare.

Send a tweet to 90’s movie icon Pauly Shore promoting your new book coming out on May 7th.

Dear God—I just tweeted Pauly Shore.

Clay McLeod Chapman’s YA Novel The Tribe: Homeroom Headhunters will be available May 7th. You can pre-order a copy here.

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