Monday, March 11, 2019

An Interview with Eric Muss-Barnes, Author of New Middle Grade Novel

Deep inside, every child knows, there is far more magic and enchantment, hidden in the corners of the earth, than adults are willing to admit. Somewhere out there, mysterious coastlines are plundered by cursed pirate ships, woodlands shroud kingdoms and castles you can’t find on any map, and deep in Old West mountain passes, gunfighters duel on forgotten stagecoach roads. 

All kids instinctively sense, these wondrous places still exist, and if you muster the courage to venture over just the right sliver of the horizon, you will find lands of adventure, grownups pretend to know nothing about. 

When four gradeschool friends brave a quest into the desert, seeking such forbidden country, they learn our world is far bigger than they ever dreamed possible, and monsters under the bed are child’s play, compared to the netherworld monstrosities lurking around ghost towns.

A Note From Writing Belle
I really hope you take the time to check out this interview with Eric Muss-Barnes, the author of this upcoming middle grade adventure novel. I personally don't get to feature a lot of MG fiction on Writing Belle, as most featured books fall into the YA, NA, or Adult categories - so this is a big treat for me! I love the concept of this book, because it's something I likely would have picked up to read when I was a kid myself. Read on to discover some fun insight into the creation of the novel in my interview with the author! 

Interview with the Author 

Q: Welcome to Writing Belle! Introduce yourself for my readers who haven't heard from you in a while.

A: Yeah, it has been a very long time. I believe the last time I was on your site was about 6 years ago, back in 2013. Well, my name is Eric Muss-Barnes and I'm the author of 11 books, including 6 novels. I've been storytelling my entire life, playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons since I was 12 years old and developing a real love for reading at around the same age. I tried to write about 3 different novels when I was a teenager, but I never finished them. Finally, when I was about 25 years old, I actually completed my first novel. That was nearly half-a-lifetime ago. My latest novel, called "Sheriff Jedediah Spade's Catalog of Netherworld Monstrosities", was written just a few months ago, in December of 2018.

Q: Tell us about your novel! Where did the idea for the book come from?

A: I jokingly say my "elevator pitch" is, "Imagine if Jumanji sent the Goonies to Westworld... minus the naked prostitutes."
I hate to say, "I'm really excited about this book!" because that is such a cliche all writers say about every new project. But, in my case, this book truly is a very special story for me. The reason it's so important is because it is based upon a story idea I had back when I was about 14 years old, and I was dreaming of being a novelist. The idea was simply this - what if maps were lies? What if there was far more to the world than we are told? What if there are whole areas of the Earth that are kept "secret" and "hidden" for a variety of reasons? I remember horseback riding at my uncle's ranch and fantasising if I just headed my horse off into the woods, what would I find? What if there was a whole magical world, down some Ohio woodland trail, that no one ever talked about? This is a very compelling idea, but as any good writer can tell you, a compelling idea is not a story. For 30 years, this idea kicked around in my head, but I never had a story to go with it.
Then, about 2 or 3 years ago, I had another idea. Growing up as a Dungeons & Dragons geek, I thought, "Who writes the monster books? Who finds out all the statistics and descriptions of the monsters?"
What if there was a sheriff in the Old West, who encountered all kinds of monsters on the frontier, and he started writing a catalog of all the creatures he had to dispatch?
So, these were two completely separate ideas, which I figured would be two completely separate novels.
But, once I thought, "What if these two ideas were put together?" it was like the floodgates opened. Suddenly I saw the kids, I saw the sheriff, I could see their faces, I could hear their voices, I could start visualizing scenes and conversations. All of it came to me in a surge, and within a week or two, I had the outline completed. One night, I went for a long walk alone in the desert, and I talked to the kids, and I promised them if they kept telling me their story, I would write it down and finish it as quickly as they told it. We both kept up our ends of the deal! My characters kept talking, so I kept writing!

Q: The book has a great title. How did that come about?

A: Long story short, the title is the result of me totally misunderstanding a line from "Ghostbusters"!
The story of the title is actually very funny. So, there is a scene in the movie "Ghostbusters" where the characters of Egon and Ray announce they are going to consult two spiritual books. One is called "Tobin's Spirit Guide" and the other is "Spates Catalog". Well, for years and years, I always thought they said "Spade's Catalog". When I was trying to come up with a title, I thought, "What if Spade's Catalog was just an abbreviation for a much longer title?"
That was when I came up with, "Sheriff Jedediah Spade's Catalog of Netherworld Monstrosities".
But, once I found out my mistake, I couldn't change the title! "Sheriff Spade" sounds cool. "Sheriff Spates" sounds stupid.

Q: Why middle-grade? And how is writing MG fiction different than writing adult or even YA fiction?

A: Why a book geared toward kids? My first novel, "The Gothic Rainbow", is a very dark and violent vampire story, with lots of sexuality and adult themes. And as much as I am proud of my first novel, I also find that slightly embarrassing. I'm not really sure why I wrote that kind of story. I think it was mostly the product of residual teen-angst. I didn't grow up influenced by violent and sexual stories. So, why did I write one? Because when I look back over my life, and I think about the most important and influential stories, I always go back to the kind of books I read when I was in gradeschool. Some of the authors I admire most, and some of my favorite books, are still stories like "A Little Princess" and "The Secret Garden" by Frances Hogdson Burnett or the Oz stories by L. Frank Baum. Even my favorite movies are all of that style; films like "Explorers", "E.T.", "The Goonies" and "Stand By Me" are some of the most important stories in my life. Even movies like "Jumanji" were a huge influence. The story that inspired me to become a writer is "The NeverEnding Story" by Michael Ende. Even Harry Potter starts his adventures at the age of 10 and they last until he's 20; unquestionably, that is probably the most formative decade of all our lives. All of these books and movies are very innocent and childlike (granted, there's some mature language in some of those movies, but they are still wonderful coming-of-age stories). And as I have gotten more experienced, I knew THOSE were the kind of stories I should strive to tell. So, that is one of the reasons I'm so happy to have finally written a book in this genre, with a young audience in mind. Because I can truly say, this is the kind of story I have always WANTED to write.

There is something very magical about that age of 10 to 13 years old. You're not a little child anymore. But you're just barely a teenager. The friendships we form, the lessons we learn, the experiences we have, are all very special at that age. We all want to get our letter from Hogwarts, or dig up Jumanji in our backyard, develop mutant superpowers and join the X-Men, or have an adventure with Old West gunfighters. And when those things don't happen, at least we can read books about those characters, and pretend we are there.
As for how it is different from other writing, I don't think it is different, other than leaving out obscene language, sexuality and graphic violence. Great children's books should be mature and sophisticated in their thoughts and character depth. Writers shouldn't belittle their audience or talk down to kids. We all know that 12 year old who is way beyond his or her peers; super smart, an old soul of depth. I think when you write for a young audience, you write with THAT kid in mind. Write what you know THAT kind of child would love and appreciate. Because deep down, when they are all alone with a good book, maybe other kids are smarter than you expect.

Q: How long, on average, does it take you to write a book - from the very first draft to the publication?

A: Wow. That is a great question. There is no straight answer. Literally each and every one of my books have evolved and germinated at different rates. Some have come to me in a flash over the course of 6 months (like "The Page of Wands"); some have taken 4 or 5 years (like "The Gothic Rainbow"); while others have taken 3 decades (like "Spade's Catalog"). Every story is different. But, like any other skill, I do find, the more I write, the more I improve both the quality and the speed of my work. Although Spade's Catalog took 30 years to contemplate and discover, once I found the characters, the kids were so eager and excited to share their story, it was easy to hear them, and I was able to write the first draft of 80,000 words about in about 3 months. Ray Bradbury once said something to the effect of, "You're not a real writer until you've published a million words." Well, my previous book or two pushed me over the 1 million word mark. So, maybe with this novel, I'm finally a real writer!

Q: Who would you say are your primary writing influences? 

A: Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison are my two writing heroes. I'm delighted to have met both of them in person, and even had dinner with Harlan Ellison. Those men are my idols. They write like no one else. And the interesting thing is that they are almost polar opposites in terms of their styles. Ray is very poetic, childlike and innocent. Harlan uses a gritty verisimilitude. But they are both brilliant.
I also love the conversational style of Richard Bach. Reading his books feels like you are sitting down and having a chat with the man. The ease of his tone is astonishing.

Q: What types of middle grade fiction do you enjoy reading? How did those authors influence your own MG writing?

A: You know, it's funny, I'm so clueless about the granular genres of fiction these days. I've never even heard the term "middle grade" or "MG" until you started asking me. I have always just seen books as "fiction" and "non-fiction". The books I loved the most, as I was growing up, were probably all considered "Children's Literature". I loved stories like "A Wrinkle In Time" and "Island of The Blue Dolphins" and "The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe". And, of course, the book which inspired me to become a writer, "The NeverEnding Story". But, as for the most influential, I have to again go back to Frances Hodgson Burnett. Her writing is so perfect and eloquent. I love the fact her work is over 100 years old, yet still has such a contemporary feel. She doesn't use lofty words or sentence structures, yet at the same time, she doesn't talk down to children. She shares some very deep thoughts and perceptions in her stories, but phrases them in ways a child can grasp. She writes very plainly, yet beautifully. Her tone and her voice made me see that so-called "Children's Literature" shouldn't be simple or naive. Kids are smart (especially those who love to read) and you should treat your audience as the intelligent boys and girls they are.

Q: Where can readers learn more about both you and your work?

A: My personal website is and the website for my books is (The name "Dubh Sith" is Gaelic and means "Dark Faerie" or "Black Faerie".) There you can find links to all my books and all the places you can buy them. Bookstores. Online. Ebook downloads. You name it.

Q: What advice can you give to aspiring writers - specifically those who are looking into writing fiction for children?

A: Gosh, I'm not sure! I mean, this book is my first attempt at gearing a book toward children, and it's not out yet, so I don't know how well it will be received. Maybe I'm not a good person to get advice from! But, I would definitely say, don't underestimate kids. Don't write down to them. Sure, there shouldn't be any sexuality or vulgar language in a children's story, that's obvious. But don't leave out philosophical observations, or complex plot twists, or sophisticated characters, under the assumption kids won't follow it. Show some respect to their intellect and perception. I know I keep reiterating that, but I think it's so important.
As for general advice, let me say this to any aspiring author reading my words... You already know what you need to do. If you are dreaming of writing, STOP LOOKING FOR ADVICE. You already have it. You're just scared to do it. You keep looking for that "magical answer" that will make everything fall into place. You already HAVE the answer. You need to sit your butt in a chair and WRITE. That's it. Nothing more. That's not new advice. That's not advice you haven't heard before. That's the same advice ALL authors give to you. We're not lying. We're not trying to trick you. We're trying to help. You want to publish 11 books like me, or reach 22 books like Summer? Then DO THE WORK. Sit down and WRITE. That's the secret. That's the magic. And that is what you already knew.

Q: When will Spade's Catalog be available for purchase?

A: No idea! I am hoping it will be released by the summer of 2019. This is my first novel to be promoted and drafted before it's published.
See, in the past, I would always finish a book, immediately release it, then promote it.
With this novel, for the first time ever, I decided to write a first draft, then let it sit for a few months. I am also telling people about it BEFORE it's published, which is another thing I have never done before. In the past, I always waited to announce the existence of a book when it was 100% done and available for purchase.
I'm so in love with this story and these characters, I really want to do them justice. So, I am planning to start my revisions in a few weeks, then maybe by the summer, I will be able to share it with the world.
I have to say, I am honored to be making my first public-announcement about it with you! Other than one or two brief social media posts, this is my first full-fledged announcement of it!

Q: Thanks so much for dropping by! It's been a pleasure!

A: You know, Summer, I have to say, it's always an honor to correspond with you. You are almost 20 years younger than me, and you've written twice as many books. I admire that so much. Corny as it may sound, I kind of look up to you. And you aren't one of those people publishing 40-page stories and claiming they are "novels". You are producing works of considerable volume and genuine weight. You are a prolific and talented author, and a person with wonderful values and ethics; and all of those traits are unfortunately a rarity in the world today. Your husband is a very lucky man to have won the love of such a respectable lady, and your daughter is truly blessed to have a mother with such integrity. I am sincerely grateful to know you and chat with you. Even if we've never met in person, even if we only exchange a few words here and there, it's an absolute privilege to be peers with a woman of your talent and dedication to the craft of storytelling. Or, as I may have expressed my feelings for you in middle school, "I dunno... You're kinda cool, I guess."

About the Author

Raised by the 1940’s swingkid generation of his maternal grandparents, Eric Muss-Barnes is a Fifth Generation American, born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. There he spent the first 32 years of his life, before picking up and moving to California, with no job and nowhere to live, in the spring of 2003. (Although, he frequently jokes, he was “born and raised 2,500 miles outside of Los Angeles”.)

During the course of five decades, Eric has spent years working at Walt Disney Studios; solo-piloted hang gliders over 6000 feet above the Earth; dated fashion models, rockstar goddesses and glamazon actresses; been thrown and dragged by horses (arguably similar to his dating experiences); earned a living as an American Greetings toymaker and a Hollywood game designer; ridden motorcycles more than 100,000 miles through mountains and desert sandstorms (make that “over” mountains, he’s not Buckaroo Banzai); produced, directed and edited numerous music videos and an award-nominated film (The Unseelie Court); briefly wed a tattooed MENSA astrophysicist chick, who was also a drummer in heavy metal bands; crewed on an Academy Award nominated movie (American Splendor); skateboarded in pools all around California with XGames medalists and documented his adventures in an online video series which has garnered over 6 million viewers; written an epic duology of vampire tales, plus standalone speculative fiction stories and imaginative literature (for a total of 11 books, including 6 novels); photographed numerous fashion models and sold his images in several art gallery showings across the nation; had stories published in multiple fiction/non-fiction anthologies; served 12 years hard time in parochial schools; been trained in the use of firearms by the San Bernardino County sheriff’s department; purchased 10 acres of the Mojave desert (while unemployed) to begin building a Disney-inspired, technologically-advanced, off-grid, dreamhouse/cabin project, called “Luthorville”; and created and programmed a blog called “InkShard” where you can see videos and essays about his experiences as a writer.

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