Chris Grabenstein went from acting with an improv troupe (alongside Bruce Willis) to writing commercials under James Patterson, to finally regaling middle grade (and adult) readers with his novels. His second book featuring Mr. Lemoncello – the eccentric billionaire who designed an inventive new library in Escape From Mr. Lemoncello’s Library – picks up where his first one left off, expanding his library clue-searching game across the country. Virtually unknown to readers until he started visiting schools for Mr. Lemoncello, and then earning fans with his engaging presentations, Grabenstein now has plenty of work on his plate, between school visits, his own books, and writing with former boss Patterson, including the I Funny, Treasure Hunters, and Daniel X series. He spoke with PW about how improv helps writing, what it’s like to collaborate with Patterson, and what’s in the works for Mr. Lemoncello.
You’ve worked in advertising and in improv. What led you from that to children’s books, and how does your background inform your current career?
All advertising – on TV, the radio, in a magazine – is basically a big interruption. Nobody really wants to watch or hear what you have to say. You have to earn the viewer’s attention and give them a reward for watching or listening. Looking back at my 20 years of writing commercials, I think it helped prepare me for writing fast-paced page-turners that grab the attention of even the most reluctant readers. It reminds me of what my first publisher said to me: “I like you ex-ad guys. You don’t waste people’s time.”
Improv is a big part of my in-person school presentation. I teach story structure and the power of rewriting by, basically, making up a story, on the spot, using the kids’ suggestions. My goal is to demonstrate how, if you give yourself permission to write a really bad first draft, if you just say “yes, and” to whatever pops up, you’ll never have writer’s block and maybe even surprise yourself with what your subconscious has to contribute to a tale. Then, of course, we talk about rewriting. Because writer’s block only happens when we try to make something perfect on the first pass.
You’re releasing a sequel to Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library. What direction are you taking the series in this volume, and are you planning more books?
The new book, Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics, was inspired by a fifth grader on one of my school visits who remarked, “I bet Charles Chiltington (the villain in Escape) has the worst Christmas vacation of his life, watching the winners of the first game starring in Mr. Lemoncello’s holiday commercials.” That got my mental wheels whirling. I imagined that kids all across the country would wonder about the new TV stars, too. When they learn that starring in the Lemoncello holiday spots was the prize for a game they weren’t invited to play, they demand a rematch. Mr. Lemoncello is buried in letters and emails. He decides the kids are right so he sponsors the first ever Library Olympics, featuring teams from seven different regions of the country. Twelve library games will be played and whichever team wins the most medals will be crowned the true champions of the library.
And, yes, we are already planning a third book: Mr. Lemoncello’s Great Library Race.
The first book has been optioned by Nickelodeon. Is there any word on the project moving forward? Would you want to be involved in the adaptation?
We’re hearing good things from Hollywood. Nothing official yet, but fingers are definitely crossed. We should know whether the project has a green light by late spring or early summer. I’d love to visit the set if the movie gets made (and ride the hover ladders) but I think it might be best if a more experienced screenwriter crafted the script. After all, movies from books are all about cutting things out, killing darlings. That would be easier for someone else to do, I think.
You’re also quite prolific in writing books with James Patterson. How do you balance your own work with those projects?
When I write with James Patterson he does more than half the work. In fact, he sends me a 60–80 page outline, with all the characters and the whole plot completely mapped out. I execute against that outline and send him new pages every month for each project that we’re working on. So, about half of a month goes to Patterson projects, the other half goes to my solo work. I also drink a lot of coffee.
Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics by Chris Grabenstein. Random, $16.99 Jan. ISBN 978-0-553-51040-9.