Debut Author of the Month: Eric Luper...
Just as those unfortunate folks who can't keep away from casinos, if you read the first chapter of Eric Luper's debut Big Slick you'll be hooked. Luper's young adult novel is set in a Texas Hold'em world of high stakes and big bucks, but, as the author explains below, it's more than just a book about playing poker.
Tell my readers a little about your first novel, Big Slick, which was just released by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.
Big Slick is a novel about a young poker prodigy named Andrew Lang who gets himself into some hot water after he decides to "borrow" a few hundred dollars from the cash register at his family's dry-cleaning business to play in a big tournament. Andrew makes mistake after mistake and things quickly spiral out of control. Throw into the mix a hot co-worker crush, a borderline geeky best friend, and a very strange family dynamic and we have the recipe for some major-league hi-jinks.
But although people like to pigeonhole Big Slick as a "poker book," it's really a novel about love, friendship and trust.
And tell us about some of the research you did as you wrote. Did it ever get...expensive?
Surprisingly not. I started writing Big Slick soon after I learned about the game. After reading about a dozen books on Texas Hold'em, I was probably better prepared than most when I first sat at a table. And I had a killer good-luck streak. I played in Atlantic City, Las Vegas and at a local Indian casino and every time I left with more money than I started with.
Lately, I have been playing far less often and my skills have waned. I'm not nearly as sharp as I was. In fact, I'm a sitting duck (at least that's what I want you to think!).
What's a bigger gamble: going all-in, or submitting an unsolicited manuscript?
Submitting an unsolicited manuscript is not a gamble at all. A writer must continually hone his craft, write and revise relentlessly, and do the research to find the best publishing house and editor for his novel. If some part of that is luck, please show me the angle!
You didn't have an agent for your first book Big Slick. How did you wind up at FSG?
I met Wes Adams at the mid-winter SCBWI conference in New York City. I found out he was Jack Gantos's editor and I had to go see what the guy had to say. Wes had forgotten his glasses that day and winged his presentation. I'm not sure if this was shtick or if he actually showed up with notes that he was unable to read, but it won me over. He had me at hello.
Tell us a little about your path to publication.
I have an English degree from Rutgers College, but I decided rather than choosing the path of the starving artist I would choose the path of the not-starving artist. So, I went to professional school after undergraduate. After a few years, I decided to get back into writing and I began to tinker around with this and that. I worked on a middle grade fantasy, a picture book, a chapter book and another young adult title. Each piece I worked on got progressively better, and although I had a few nibbles, I couldn't seem to get any traction. Then Big Slick happened in 5 months or so and it was accepted on one of its first submissions with very few revisions necessary. It seems I had turned a corner.
Why did you decide to pursue an agent after your first publication was underway? How did you find your agent Linda Pratt?
Having my professional practice and a family and a house and pursuing a writing career is too much for any one person to handle. I opted to get an agent because I wanted the additional time to write.
I have known Linda Pratt since 2001 when I got a 10-minute critique with her at a conference in Lake Placid, NY. After her critique, she offered to take a look at my submission once I revised it. In retrospect, the book was terrible, but Linda read all 200+ pages of it and sent me a 5-page single-spaced critique letter that did not spare the rod. Short of getting my first book contract, it was the most cathartic moment in my writing career. I submitted things to her periodically after that, but somewhere deep down I knew I wasn't ready.
Then, after Big Slick was in the can and I was going full-steam on my next novel, I saw Linda at the Rutgers One-on-One conference. It may sound crazy, but I walked right up to her and told her that I was ready for her. She lit up and suggested I send her what I was working on. I sent her Bug Boy in February of this year and the Sheldon Fogelman Agency offered me representation within weeks. The call came as I was trying my best to navigate Disney with my family. I was so excited that it was a struggle not to drive my rental car into a giant topiary of Goofy.
This question alone could be a topic for a book-or at least a thesis of some sort. For me, writing is a very private endeavor. However, I think writers, like any artists, need an outlet to share the experience with other like-minded people. I consider myself fortunate to have grown alongside dozens of other writers-seeing each of them develop, blossom, stumble, and succeed right as I'm doing the same has been awesome. The Class of 2k7 has been particularly interesting because we are all following a very similar trajectory right now-the release of our first books. It's been so helpful to hear about editing woes, cover design gripes, review indigestion and book release jitters from so many other talented authors right when I'm experiencing the exact same thing. Even though we are all very different, we're all in this together!
How did a reluctant reader like yourself end up an English/Creative Writing major at Rutgers?
I am going to have to chalk that up to uninspired high-school English teachers. I remember Mr. Byrne teaching us about iambic pentameter with his head buried in a book. He read us Reuben Bright by Edwin Arlington Robinson with such a stress on the meter that he sounded like a depressed robot. I tuned out for the next three years.
Only when I got to college-when I took my freshman composition class-did I get the suspicion that I might actually like this stuff. We read The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera and our professor asked us to write an essay on it. Then the teacher scrambled up the essays, redistributed them, and charged us with writing a "review" on the other student's paper. Mine was called "The Unbearable Paper of Rebecca ______." I trashed this girl's essay like I was a scorned lover with a thorn in my paw and haven't looked back since.
And before I get all sorts of hate mail: No, our grades were not affected by the reviewer's opinion!
Do you think if there were more books like Big Slick (exciting, a little racy, with male main characters) when you were younger, you may have been more interested in reading?
I would like to think so. When I was in 7th grade, I thought I should be "into" books like Lord of the Rings and Dune, but they were far beyond my reading level. This shut me down. For a guy who didn't read much, I spent a lot of time in the library. I actually got into a fistfight in the library. Clearly, I lacked proper guidance.
What's your advice for reaching the notoriously reluctant teen male reader?
Write about what makes you nervous, happy, sad, or frightened-whatever moves you. Then trust that it will move someone else. For me, this is the hardest part about writing. You have to bare your innermost feelings. You have to put everything out there. If you are writing and you do not have a visceral reaction, then you are not digging deep enough.
Short chapters and a lot of action help too!
What's your best piece of advice for aspiring YA novelists? What's your best piece of advice for aspiring gamblers?
My advice for aspiring YA novelists and aspiring gamblers is the same: Get a real job. Very few novelists and very few gamblers are able to make a living at what they love to do!
Can you beat me at poker? (Does everyone ask you that?)
Like I said before, my skills have really slipped. I'm terrible these days. So, when do you want to play?