Behind The Scenes at Bookery Manchester: Paul Durham

To say Paul Durham is a family man is to speak only a half truth. Despite the fact Paul writes in an abandoned chicken coup on the edge of a swamp, which may or may not have magical properties, he would not be where he is were it not for his family. Paul is many things: He is a father, he is a husband, he is an artist, he is a fighter, and he was willing to sit down with Bookery Manchester for an interview about middle grade fiction, connecting with his audience, and Telling Lies to Children.

Jared: Why middle grade fiction?

Paul: Believe it or not, I actually never intended to write for children. I tried (and failed) to publish books for adult readers for many years. In fact, all of those literary rejections eventually took their toll and I reached a point in my life where I had given up writing altogether. It was only after my oldest daughter asked me to write her a story for Christmas that I considered writing for kids. What was supposed to be a short story turned into a weekly read-aloud at the dinner table. I never intended to show those pages to any agent or editor. Trying to get them published didn't cross my mind. I just wanted to create something to share with my family--and it was probably the most fun I've ever had as a writer. That little dinner-table story became The Luck Uglies, the first novel in my debut trilogy that finally broke me into the publishing world. It taught me to write for the "right" reason--that is simply to share the stories I want to tell with audiences who will enjoy them, no matter how big or small.

J: Middle grade fiction generally appeals to both adults and youths; how do you remain cognizant of that as you write? Framed elsewise, how do you make sure you keep your writing at a level kids can read while making sure to challenge youth enough to encourage future writers to challenge themselves with literary undertakings?

P: When my daughters were younger, I regularly read to them before bed. Unfortunately, many of the middle grade books we read together put me to sleep first. I've worked hard to populate my books with well-rounded adult characters whose journeys are as dynamic and important as those of the younger protagonists. I avoid "writing down" to my readers (kids are far smarter than the publishing world gives them credit for) and I don't shy away from the types of complex plot twists that will keep adult readers turning pages too. But here's one important secret I can share. Despite what the publishers and marketers will tell you, I don't write for kids. I write for everyone--children, parents, grandparents, teachers, and anyone who enjoys a good story. C.S. Lewis famously said, "A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest." I try to remember that every time I put words on the page.

J: What is your favorite part of school visits?

P: Next to actually writing my books, getting out and visiting schools is my favorite part of this job. After years of working in solitude on a project, there's something amazing about sharing it directly with your readers. I love the signing line--where I get to spend a few moments chatting personally with each reader. I truly appreciate those moments when a teacher pulls me aside and tells me how a reluctant reader became interested in books after reading one of mine. Whether it's a classroom of twenty fourth graders or an entire gym filled with five hundred students, kids always help remind me why I started doing this in the first place. I'm sure adult authors have a great time at their book events, but I bet they don't have nearly as much fun as children's authors.

J: I enjoy the idea of the “heroes” having the word Ugly in their titles, what was your decision behind that?

P: The heroes in my books generally aren't painted in black and white--they come to us in shades of grey. So yes, having "Ugly" in their names creates a nice contrast. The Luck Uglies are a secret society of outlaws and I wanted to come up with a name for them that didn't exist anywhere else. While researching real secret societies I came across the "Plug Uglies," an American street gang in the 19th century. I liked the name but wanted something unique--so I began playing with words, sounds, and themes until I got exactly what I was looking for.

J: For those who don’t listen, what topics do you cover in your podcasts?

P: My podcast, Telling Lies to Children, came about as a way to keep in touch with some of the cool and interesting people I've met in the publishing world. I can be pretty terrible at keeping in touch with friends, so this format gave me the perfect excuse to reach out. I try to interview a new guest on each episode--they've included best-selling authors, agents, editors, booksellers, and librarians. Topics vary based on the guest but they all relate to children's and YA publishing. I've shared stories about being on the road with other authors, discussed important topics like diversity and inclusiveness in children's publishing, and done an annual live Halloween episode from my favorite bookstore where booksellers offer their favorite spooky book recommendations. It turns out it's a lot of work to produce, host and edit a podcast so I've been on a bit of a hiatus as of late, but I've got a lineup of new guests ready and waiting to record.

Jared Carlson