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Men, Boys, and Books:
A Conversation with Stephen Mooser
By Anna Olswanger
Stephen Mooser has been writing full-time since 1970. When he began writing books for children, he did it with a bang: in the space of five years he wrote 250 books, K-4, for the SWRL Reading Program published by Ginn. He has since written a number of major reading programs, including ones for Ginn, American Book Company, and Harcourt Brace, Jovanovich.
But most readers know Stephen for his trade books, now more than fifty, which began with the publication of 101 Black Cats (Scholastic) in 1975 and include the just-published Young Maid Marian and the Secret of Sherwood Forest (Meadowbrook). He has written in every genre: picture books (The Ghost with the Halloween Hiccups), nonfiction (Into the Unknown: Nine Astounding Stories), interactive science fiction ("Which Way" books), novels (The Hitchhiking Vampire), and chapter books (The Creepy Creatures Club books).
In 1971 Stephen co-founded the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and it remains the only national organization serving writers and illustrators in the field of children’s literature. SCBWI publishes a bimonthly bulletin; holds a yearly national conference and regional ones all over the country; provides more than 20 publications to its members on topics ranging from agents to small press publishers; and offers many other member services, including awards, grants, and discount programs. As president, Stephen has seen the SCBWI grow from less than ten to more than 10,000 members from all over the world.
Anna Olswanger interviewed Stephen Mooser at a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators national conference in Los Angeles.
ANNA OLSWANGER: You write a wide range of books. Is there a common thread among them?
STEPHEN MOOSER: I write humorous adventure stories. They're chapter books. But I do all kinds of writing. I've written nonfiction and I do an occasional picture book. I'd say most of my children's books tend to be for second to fifth graders, kids eight to twelve. I have never written anything much for anybody over twelve.
OLSWANGER: Do you specifically target your books for boys?
MOOSER: My books tend to be for boys because I write easy-to-read adventure stories. I put a lot of cliffhangers in. In the backs of my books are jokes, freaky facts, things that kids like. So my books tend to appeal to boys more.
OLSWANGER: Why boys more than girls?
MOOSER: I don't know. I can only say why they appealed to me as a boy which was I loved having adventures. I loved pirates, ghosts, weird and strange things that were on the fringe of reality. And I still like that kind of stuff. I still spend parts of my summers going on adventures.
OLSWANGER: What kinds of adventures?
MOOSER: In a couple weeks I'm going out to Utah to explore the desert. In the past a friend and I traveled around the world taking back roads, exploring ghost towns. I've spent a number of years looking for treasure, going into little towns, being on the road in places where people generally don't go.
OLSWANGER: Do you go on adventures to collect material for your books?
MOOSER: It's just having an adventure. I like to think that your life is made up of memories. One year, you're off doing something strange where you don't know what's going to turn up around the next bend. To me it's just a rush. It's stimulating. I think people get the same thing out of a movie, a book, or out of water skiing. Your senses get stimulated and heightened by the potential for the unexpected. Now that I think about it, that's something I put into my books, with cliffhangers and flips of plot, so that the kid is surprised. I think that's what happens when you have an adventure.
OLSWANGER: What's your advice to someone who wants to write books for boys?
MOOSER: I would advise them to read material that's written for boys, starting with Treasure Island, which is one of my favorite books, and Robinson Crusoe, you know, adventure stories. Go to Indiana Jones movies. If that stuff doesn't appeal to you, then don't write it because it won't be fun for you. It will show. For any kind of writing you do, you have to educate yourself to what the possibilities are. So start by reading what's available and trying your hand at it and seeing if it's enjoyable. If not, write something else. You shouldn't set out to write something specifically for boys. I didn't set out to write specifically for boys but teachers encouraged me because boys, particularly boys who were reluctant readers, enjoyed the books.
OLSWANGER: Why is it important that boys read?
MOOSER: To me it's important that everybody reads. A kid that grows up in this society who can't read, or can't read well, is in trouble for the rest of his life. Boys in this society are discouraged from reading, or it's not cool to read, I should say. Their peers say, "Don't catch me with a book!" They feel it's not a manly thing to do--not all boys, but there's enough of them that feel that way. But if they pick up a book that's fun and easy enough to read, they'll feel positive about the experience. They'll pick up other books. I don't care what they read. Developing the ability to read is a critical skill, not just for getting a job but for functioning in a democracy. It's frightening to think of people voting who don't know what's going on. And boys don't feel as encouraged to read as girls.
OLSWANGER: As a boy, were you encouraged to read?
MOOSER: My mother was a librarian and we subscribed to magazines and a couple of newspapers. There was a lot of reading material around the house, so I read. My mom tried to force me to read certain books but I didn't read those. I would pick up other things. I enjoyed reading but I didn't read all the time either. I read enough to become a good reader.
OLSWANGER: Did your mother limit the amount of television you watched?
MOOSER: We didn't have TV until I was twelve, and once it showed up, I watched it as much as I could, even test patterns! There just wasn't that much on when I was young. But I think TV is a destructive thing for people's reading habits. It's tough to battle. It's easier to sit and watch a TV show than pick up a book. If it were a winter's night and there was nothing to do around the house, kids might pick up a book. But if there's a TV there, they'll turn it on.
OLSWANGER: What about multimedia? Do you think that's destructive also?
MOOSER: I don't know. I think all that stuff can be positive, but it can be destructive too. A kid that sits and plays a video game all day isn't developing reading skills any more than a kid that watches TV. A kid involved in an interactive story might be a little better off, although a lot of times those kids tend to be self-absorbed. That's a danger too. Whatever, the world has changed and you can only hope that parents and teachers keep kids aware of the written word. No matter what, kids are going to need to read. Sometimes when I speak at schools, I tell kids, "If you can read and write decently, you're going to be in big demand when you get out of school." Not a lot of kids can write.
OLSWANGER: What's the hardest thing for you about writing?
MOOSER: The hardest thing is discipline. I've been freelancing now for twenty years, so every day I have to act like I'm going to an office and have a boss because if I don't do that, I start sliding. I love writing but getting started sometimes, or not having a specific contract, or just working on a project that I don't know whether it's going to sell or not is hard to do. I have to force myself because that's my job. But I do like writing, and when you come off with a great sentence or paragraph, it's a rush. It's a great feeling.
OLSWANGER: Do you revise as you go?
MOOSER: I revise a lot as I go. I make sure that the page makes good sense before I move on, but then I'll come back and go through it three or four times.
OLSWANGER: Did your formal training in motion pictures and journalism help you with your writing?
MOOSER: The motion picture degree didn't help me get into motion pictures, but it did help me think in terms of scenes. When I go to a movie, I study how it's put together, how the scenes work and how little bits of information can be put together. The journalism degree was good because it taught me how to get information across clearly and succinctly.
OLSWANGER: Could you have learned to write without formal training?
MOOSER: It's hard to tell because I've been writing so long. I've learned a lot coming to Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators conferences. I've sat through twenty-three national conferences and I don't know how many regional conferences, and every time somebody tells me something that makes a difference. So I don't think you can learn on your own. I learned most of my hard-core writing from studying books. Sid Fleischman was a mentor of mine. I loved his books, so without thinking about it, I read and reread some of his books twenty, thirty times. That was my education in writing. A lot of writers do that.
OLSWANGER: So SCBWI was a big influence in your development as a children's book writer?
MOOSER: If I hadn't been involved in this organization from the start, I would have drifted back into journalism.
OLSWANGER: SCBWI has only a handful of male members. Do you think that limits it as an advocacy group?
MOOSER: The people that are directly involved in the organization are looking out for the organization as a whole. Also, somebody pointed this out years ago--most of the people who show up at conferences are women, but if you look at books that are published, it's about fifty-fifty. I don't know what that says about the Society or book writers or people that show up for a conference, but it's just that a lot of people involved in SCBWI tend to be ex-teachers and librarians, professions that women traditionally went into. I'm sorry this organization isn't more culturally diverse. I think that's more of a problem than the gender thing. We've made efforts to bring in people from a wide spectrum of ethnic backgrounds, but we haven't been very successful. That's one of the things that pains me most--the lack of cultural diversity in children's books in general, and in this organization in particular.
OLSWANGER: Few writers make a living from writing. How have you done it?
MOOSER: I was fortunate. I started off having a wife who supported me my first few years--I only made a couple of thousand dollars a year. Also, from the start I took any kind of writing job that would come along. I wrote a show at Sea World, I wrote film strips, reading programs, test items. I would do anything. I never turned anything down. I still don't turn anything down--if it has to do with writing, particularly children's writing. I found out that if you're willing to forego a fancy car, you can find ways to hustle up a living in this society. You may not get rich but you'll be able to do what you want. You have to be a little brave initially, or lucky like I was to have somebody support me until I got established, but there's a lot of writing work out there--if you're willing to struggle along.
OLSWANGER: Why do men seem to be better at hustling than women?
MOOSER: Men tend to be more serious because writing may be the critical part of the family income. The pressures are tremendous. I mean, after I got established, if I hadn't been able to bring in half the income, I would have felt compelled to go out and get a regular nine-to-five job. A lot of times it started out as a hobby for women, or they are teaching and it's a sideline. It's not what they are doing to support themselves and to survive. There are women that approach it in the same way as men do--as a serious business, but I think there are more women that have other sources of income.
OLSWANGER: What's your reaction when you hear writers complain about rejections?
MOOSER: You've just got to try hard and do your best. It's tough. There are people who give up everywhere. That's fine if somebody gives up because that means I have less competition. Maybe they're not good enough. Maybe it isn't worth it for them, but it is for me.
OLSWANGER: Has it gotten harder or easier over the years for you to make a living as a writer?
MOOSER: It's gotten easier because I know more people. I've also gotten better. I don't struggle so much with plot problems that I used to, so people will recommend me if they have a project that needs to be done fast and well. They know I can do it technically. I have the skills.
OLSWANGER: Writing continues to be your sole source of income?
MOOSER: My income varies from year to year depending on how many books I'm doing. When I'm doing a lot of books, I can pretty much live off the books. Otherwise, I've got to branch out into speaking, educational writing, whatever I can find.
OLSWANGER: What's your writing day like?
MOOSER: My office is in my house, so I'll get up and work from 8:00 in the morning until about 11:30. Then I go off and play basketball at the "Y," and then I come back and have lunch. Sometimes I'll do Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators business. If I've got a project or a deadline, I'll do more writing. Then my son comes home from school and that's it. Sometimes at night I'll write if I get an idea, or feel like it. For the most part, I just work in the mornings.
OLSWANGER: You moved from California to Maine a few years ago. How did the change in locale affect your writing?
MOOSER: Maine was a bad place to be a writer because you're up there with all that solitude. It's too much solitude. I need a lot of stimulation. The best place for me as a writer was living in New York City where there's cultural diversity. There were movies, plays, street theater, stuff going on. There were other writers around--there's not very many in Maine. So I moved back to Los Angeles.
OLSWANGER: Do you sometimes get writer's block?
MOOSER: There was one book that took me a year to do. I struggled with it. I was blocked in some way. It was a big contract and there was a lot of pressure and I tried too hard. That was the only time. It didn't stop me from writing--I wrote and wrote and wrote, but it was just going in the wrong direction. I don't get writer's block because I can't. My job is to write, and writer's block is just an excuse not to write. You can write anything. It might not be any good, but sometimes you write your way out of it. Sometimes, I don't feel like writing and I'll sit around and think, "Oh, I'll just take a look at this old story," and then I realize how much fun it is and get going again.
OLSWANGER: The book that you struggled with for a year--what was it?
MOOSER: It was the first book in the "All Star Meatballs" series called Babe Ruth and the Home Run Derby. I had been writing another series--about a book a month--and the books had been really good. This book was not good, but by the time I finished with that series, I was back to doing a book a month and the books were much better than that first one.
OLSWANGER: What's it like to write interactive books?
MOOSER: I haven't done any for a while but I liked doing those "Which Way" books. They were science fiction and I love science fiction, so I was able to pull back old plots. I could really let my mind go, plus they were good books for reluctant readers, boys for the most part. Kids could pick those up and you'd have a story in two or three pages and be done with it. I'm sorry I'm not doing any more of those.
OLSWANGER: How has your writing changed over the years?
MOOSER: The main change in my writing is that I've gotten better with characters. When I first started, I wrote about 250 books in a reading series and learned a lot about plots. So I sold maybe twenty-five of my first books based on strong plots. An editor finally taught me how to develop a character--which is the most important part of a book anyhow. That's the biggest change that's taken place. My books are now character-based rather than plot-based, although I still have strong plots.
OLSWANGER: What changes have you seen in the publishing business since you started out?
MOOSER: I've seen a number of changes. When I started in the 70's, the publishing industry was coming off the 60's which were really good times. The 70's were a low point, but I didn't realize they were low because I had never experienced the good times. There weren't series opportunities as much, so I probably did twelve books in a row for twelve different publishers. I would just sell to whoever would buy my books, which wasn't particularly good. And then in the 80's things turned good for children's books, and I was in a good position. I did a lot of books, two or three series, and books got much better in the 80's. I think SCBWI had a lot to do with the improved books because the organization trained and educated a lot of people. Now, with the mergers, things have slowed down, particularly for writers like myself who are in the midlist. I think it will eventually turn around again after people drop out. People will adapt. The market's not going to go away.
OLSWANGER: How have you adapted to the mergers and the slowdown?
MOOSER: I've tried to pay attention to the market, who's buying what, and what's going on. I think marketing is a very important part of being a professional writer. I try to pay attention to trends, to where editors have gone. I've had so many editors. I've got editors everywhere. I spend a lot of time thinking up stories, and when I come up with what I think is a good story, I write it down, send it off and hope that somebody buys it. Sometimes they do and a lot of times they don't.
OLSWANGER: So in most cases you're submitting finished manuscripts, not proposals?
MOOSER: I generally prefer to write the whole thing. I write relatively quickly anyhow. Then if it's a long novel I might just write a couple of chapters but otherwise I write the whole thing.
OLSWANGER: Do you ever think about doing something other than writing?
MOOSER: I have enjoyed helping SCBWI grow from a small organization. I enjoy the business aspects of managing, but I can't think of another profession that would allow me to lead the kind of life that I do. The freedom to travel, to talk to kids, is important to me. I'm going to start doing some screenwriting the next few years but they are screenplays for kids, so it's still the same field.
OLSWANGER: If you had it to do over,would you be a writer?
MOOSER: I would be a writer because it was just something I did, starting in the second grade. No matter what I would have gone in to, I would have done some kind of writing. When I worked for other companies, I started the company newspaper. I wrote little plays. I always wrote. So it wasn't really a choice. I would have been some kind of writer. I don't know if I would have been a children's book writer. I studied journalism so I could have ended up writing magazine pieces, or working for a newspaper.
OLSWANGER: Is it hard to be a man whose profession is writing children's books?
MOOSER: Sometimes, when I tell people what I do, they go, "Oh, that's cute," or something like that. But it never bothered me because my parents encouraged me to do what made me happy, and writing, particularly children's books, made me happy. I always felt fine about that and never thought that I should be writing mysteries or horror stories. But sometimes, when people find out what kind of work I do, they think it's as if I were a kindergarten teacher.
OLSWANGER: Which they consider unmanly?
MOOSER: People have traditionally seen teaching in general, and certainly teaching kindergarten and first grade, as jobs that women did. And so a man in there makes them think, "What are you doing in this normally female job?" The truth is that the lower grades is where men should be. If I were to teach, I would want to teach kindergarten or first grade. I think that is where men can do the most good because a lot of these kids don't have a father or male figure at home.
OLSWANGER: Is there a particular legacy that you want to leave as a writer?
MOOSER: I guess if anything it's the notion that reading should be as enjoyable as possible, and that kids should be encouraged to read. I try to write funny, fast, adventurous books that kids will pick up. They won't necessarily be great literature that's going to last for a thousand years, but some kids will find enjoyment and want to pick up other books. I suppose if I could make kids laugh, want to visit some place, want to write themselves, then I feel good about that. And I think I do that every now and then with my books.
Copyright 1998 by Anna Olswanger. All rights reserved.
Other interviews by Anna Olswanger are available at Anna Olswanger Books.
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