The Writer’s Block: An Interview with Jody Feldman

I had the great privilege of interviewing the great Jody Feldman, author of The Gollywopper Games and The 7th Level. The Gollywhopper Games: Friend or Foe launches on April 21, 2015. While she loves incorporating riddles and puzzles into her stories, she didn’t keep us guessing.

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Middle Grade Mafia: Thank you again for agreeing to an interview with the Middle Grade Mafia. We came up with some questions below. I would also like to know about the timing of your third book in the Gollywhopper series.

Jody Feldman: Thanks so much for having me!

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MGM: The Gollywhopper Games is an intricate plot with a ton of action. How much of the book did you plot before writing?

JF: Not much, really. Or a lot, depending on how you look at it. The Gollywhopper Games was my first foray into novels (I mistakenly saw myself as a picture book author before that) and I was seriously befuddled about how one starts writing long. And utterly frightened. I’d made a decision to do it, so there’s no question I would. I’m sort of stubborn that way.

From day one, I envisioned a book about a big contest and a toy and game company. And then I stalled, but reverted to one of my best skills. I spent time in my head, thinking. And thinking some more. And more. And basically becoming obsessed by some story that was starting to form. There are occasional perks to being essentially introverted.

This process became my basic template for subsequent books. Here’s how it sets up.

  1. I get excited by a premise or a character or a plot point, excited enough that it’s basically the first thing I think about when I wake in the morning.
  2. My brain bats around all the possibilities. This could go on for a week or a month or more.
  3. Occasionally, I’ll write down a thought.
  4. Eventually, when it’s like the story is about to explode, I’ll hear my character’s voice which will lead to a first line.
  5. That’s when I rush to my computer and start writing.
  6. I finish with my masterpiece and let it sit.
  7. Upon reread of what’s mysterious turned into drek—that’s when I really start examining the plot and all its nuances.

It turned out that spilling the first draft of The Gollywhopper Games onto the pages (pre-computer, but that’s whole other story) was quite an orderly procedure once I’d decided on the format and rules of the Games. Then I watched a mental movie, best I can describe it, of contestants playing the Games. I just typed the play-by-play.

Since then, I have necessarily needed to plot entire books before I’ve started writing (so my editor knows where I’m going), but I prefer the other process more. It’s like a fresh discovery every day.

MGM: How do you keep coming up with puzzles? Do you keep a list and then fit them into the plot?

JF: When I first started including puzzles in my books, I had an entire pool to draw from. And having been a lifelong puzzle lover, that pool seemed ocean-like. Now that I’ve substantially depleted my puzzle reservoir, it’s not as large as I’d first thought. (Once I’ve used a puzzle, I’ll reuse it only if the plot calls for a rerun or I can put a new spin on it).

I do keep a puzzle file, occasionally adding fresh ideas, but I always go through a creative process when I’m ready to include more.

I will sit—with a thesaurus, a handful of differently colored gel pens and 11″ x 17″ pieces of paper—on the couch in front of the TV. Yes, with it on, though I’m not exactly watching the programs. I’m, once again, inside my head. But then, something on the screen will incite me to jot down a word or doodle a picture. And when there’s a bunch of things on my paper, it’s like a piece from the upper-lefthand corner will connect with something, say, on the lower right AND with a particular story element in my mind, and I’ll have the spark of a puzzle.

I can’t leave it totally at that. There’s also a conscious component. When I’m choosing puzzles to include, I do take into account the abilities (or lack thereof) of my characters, the plot situations, and the whole concept of different learning styles. It’s important to me that most, if not all, my puzzles have a true reason to exist in that particular story. And that my readers can find at least one puzzle that speaks to them.

MGM: Some of the puzzles are quite challenging. The reader definitely has to engage their left brain to solve them. Are there any analytical jobs in your background or have you always wanted to be a writer?

JF: If I’d been a boy, I probably would have gone into math or science. But when teachers stopped calling on me (and other girls) in favor of the boys in those junior high and high school classes, I stopped caring. It wasn’t a conscious decision at the time. It was only after I’d read an article on gender bias that it all clicked. Anyway, I do have a proclivity for math and science. It’s just hidden under my love for reading and, especially, my need to write. Oh, and if you’re a kid and you like math and science, check out engineering. I think I would have love that if I’d known what it was. Architecture, too.

MGM: The Gollywhopper Games as well as your other book, The Seventh Level, have had a couple of different covers. What is the reason the publisher changed the artwork and what was the strategy behind this?

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JF: If we’re counting, the first in The Gollywhopper Games series has had 4 covers; The Seventh Level, a paltry two. So let’s start there. It turned out that the original hardcover for The Seventh Level was a bit misleading with its Scrabble-tile-like font and the cartoon-character kid. Readers were not taken by it. The fiery redesign for the paperback has resonated more strongly with kids

The original Gollywhopper cover, for the ARC, was met with disappointment by some bigwig bookstore people. And so the hardcover art (half-faced boy) was born. My publisher still believed in the energy of the ARC cover, so when they issued the paperback, they did a riff on their original vision. I poll students at every school visit, and they overwhelmingly prefer the paperback art. That was version #3. And may have been the last if it weren’t for the book’s popularity. The Gollywhopper Games was supposed to be a stand-alone. Period. End discussion. But when my publisher decided that the book commanded a couple follow-ups, enough time had passed since the original release to warrant its repackaging as the first in the series.

MGM: How important was social media in the launch of your books and what worked best for you?

JF: Way back in the Dark Ages, February 2008, Facebook was newly opened to adults, Twitter had barely started gaining mass traction, and blogs still rode the current wave of popularity. I’d love to say I was on the cutting edge of all three, but it was such a dizzying time—both in being a debut author and in the social media world in general—I’d be lying. I did keep up with my LiveJournal for quite a while, but I found my comfort zone marketing with fellow debut authors in the Class of 2k8. Although we did as much as we could online – YouTube videos and blog, mostly – we still had actual hardcopy, U.S. Post Office mailing components.

Since then, my blog (sporadic as it is) has shifted over to my website, and you’ll find me semi-regularly posting on Facebook and @jodyfeldman. I’d love to say I have a fully planned, coordinated promotional effort—and I would, if I loved marketing as much as I love writing—but it’s more of a seat-of-my-pants deal. Maybe one of these days …

P.S. I’ve gotten some tremendous school visits thanks to FB, especially.

P.P.S. Theo Black’s brilliant and original design of The Gollywhopper Games website still proves to be a big hit with new readers.

MGM: Finally, is there a childhood book that inspired you?

JF: Hands down, Encyclopedia Brown. I not only found myself fascinated by these mini-mysteries, but it was the first time I wondered how Donald J. Sobol was smart and clever enough to create them. Looking back, it was also the first time I associated books with authors. Don’t know what I was thinking; maybe that books, like air, just existed.

Now I know better.

To keep up with the latest from Jody Feldman, visit her website, follow her on Twitter, and like her on Facebook. She  also has wonderful websites for The Gollywhopper Games and The 7th Level.


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