David Pogue is the personal technology columnist for the New York Times, and is a tech contributor to both CBS News and CNBC. He has authored a number of technology books, including the Missing Manual series of computer guides. His recent book, The World According to Twitter, captures the most clever answers from his more than one million Twitter followers to his collection of thought-provoking questions. Pogue has just written his first book for children—a high-energy middle-grade novel set at a very, well, unusual, magic camp. He recently spoke with Bookshelf about his kids' book debut, Abby Carnelia's One & Only Magical Power .
You've had a very successful writing career outside the world of children's books. Can you talk a bit about how long you've been doing that?
I had always intended to be a musician, and was a music major in college. After graduation, I was working as a Broadway conductor and arranger in New York when the writing thing and the technology thing came about. There was a piece of sheet music software that I really, really wanted, but it cost $1000-something that a struggling rehearsal pianist could not afford. A friend of mine suggested that I contact the people at the New York Mac Users Group who put out this little eight-page newsletter, and offer to write a review of the software for them. Boy did a light go off in my head! That's how I got into writing and technology.
What inspired you to write a book for children?
Well, it's all very strange and was actually based on a misunderstanding. Deirdre Langeland, who turned out to be the book's editor, contacted me a few years ago and said, "I've read your stuff forever and I think your writing has a sense of humor and a certain goofiness. Did you ever consider writing for a younger audience?'"I told her that I hadn't really thought about it, and that a techno-thriller that I wrote back in 1993 was the only other fiction I'd attempted. We talked a couple of times, but then we both kind of let it drop.
Then, one morning, I was half-awake/half-asleep in that semi-dreaming state, when the story came to me in a dream—the whole thing—the character, her name, the premise, the goofy powers that don't amount to anything. An enormous amount of the structure and plot and the humor was all there. I still wasn't totally awake when I picked up my laptop and started putting it all down. I shaped it into a synopsis and sent it to Deirdre saying, "This could be totally ridiculous; I can't tell." But she was very receptive and said no-we love it, it sounds really promising. She turned out to be a fabulous editor.
There is one other funny thing about how the story came about. Once the book was all done, we were in a meeting with the marketing and PR people and the head of the company. He asked how I came up with this and I told him. Then Deirdre said that all along she imagined I was going to write a story about technology—maybe about a kid who was really good with gadgets or something. I had no idea!
Is this story based on any family situation or personal experience?
The magic stuff is absolutely from my own life. I've been a magician since I was little. But more importantly, I wished to be magic since I was a kid. I wanted to be magic so much—and doing magic tricks was the closest I could get. I did more than 400 magic shows when I was in my teens; I performed at parties and I worked at a restaurant where I went around to tables and did tricks for the customers. I went to all kinds of magic conventions. I ended up writing the Magic for Dummies book several years later. My ‘self psycho-analysis' on all this is: magic is why I went into technology. If you think about consumer electronics, you push a button and something really cool happens. It's the closest real-world magic we've got.
Do you have any magical powers?
It's heartbreaking, but no. I remember in fourth grade I had a friend named Bruce. He, like me, wished there was such a thing as magic, though he was on the edge, a bit skeptical. One night we got the idea to have a sleepover where we could set up the ideal conditions to see if we could make magic happen. We balanced a sheet of paper on the very edge of a desk—so close to the edge that the smallest bit of breeze would knock it right off. We lay there in our sleeping bags thinking that if we just focused all our attention and both tried with all our might, we could maybe knock the paper down with magical powers. We spent maybe an hour doing this. It didn't work. I'll never forget it. I thought, this is not asking too much. It's not like asking to fly or to be invisible—having the power to knock a paper off the desk is something so small, surely it could be real.
That's the feeling I wanted to get across in the book. I hope that after reading this there will be kids out there timidly reaching for their earlobes to see if just maybe they have some sort of magic power, too.
What was different for you about writing for kids vs. writing for your regular readers?
This was more or less a brave new world for me. When I'm doing my technical writing I'm basically it: the editor, the boss, the voice, the expert. Here, I'm not. I was much more dependent on Deirdre. But she was very gentle and supportive through the whole process. Another thing that was totally different is the length of time it takes to have a book published. I'm not used to that kind of lag time—for the computer books, we just hammer those out and they are available for sale on Amazon 10 days later. On the other hand, having things take longer also meant witnessing the loving treatment of my work. It went through what seemed like 1000 passes to make sure that the illustrations [there were originally going to be illustrations throughout the book] and the typography were just right.
What do your own children think of the book? Are they the right age to have been a test audience for you?
Very much. My son was 10 years old when I started on the book and unbeknownst to me he took the idea to the playground one day. He came home and said, "Dad—everybody loves it!" At first I couldn't believe he told his friends about it. But that positive reaction to the story was a huge confidence-builder. My daughter was eight at the time and she is a huge reader. She would just nag me all the time. "Next chapter. Dad, I need another chapter!" She would read them right off the laptop; she was the first person in the world to read the book. She even named a couple of the characters.
Do you have plans to do more middle grade stories?
We've talked about another book and I've been thinking of some ideas. I found writing this book much harder than the computer books. Every scene, every piece of dialog comes from nowhere. Someone famous said "I don't like writing, but I like having written." I love having written this book. Deirdre keeps asking for a meeting, but I'm incredibly busy with some other projects at the moment. I'm hosting a Nova miniseries for PBS that will air this fall and it has involved an enormous amount of travel and filming.
Will you be able to promote Abby Carnelia's One & Only Magical Power?
This is the phase where my other career will be useful. I have 1.3 million followers on Twitter and I've been keeping them up to date about how the book has been progressing. And we may use some other tech ideas; there's been talk of an iPhone app.
Anything else you'd want readers to know about your book?
Some people might be curious about why I inserted myself into the story as David, a guy who writes for the New York Times. I did it because I wanted to make this an anti children's magic book. There are so many stories about children who discover they have these amazing magical powers and their friends and the people around them just accept it—they have no reaction. That's so unrealistic. If there were to be real magic, it would be something random and small—like some kids can have perfect pitch or walk on their hands—and the real-world reaction would be very different. My goal was to make it seem real, and to have kids truly wonder if magic could happen.
Abby Carnelia's One & Only Magical Power by David Pogue. Roaring Brook, $15.99 May ISBN 978-1-59643-384-7