Larry was one of those weird children who liked to write and who had a grandfather who not only indulged Larry’s written expression, but encouraged it by corresponding with him whether he was across town or in another part of the world. Today, Larry has written more than one hundred fifty-eight books for young readers, and he’s still writing.
For what age audience do you write?
I write fiction and nonfiction for kids between the ages of pre-school to young adult. Although I’m known mostly for my nonfiction for middle-grades on up, my favorite genre is the picture book, which I think requires enormous skill, because the writer has to be so succinct while at the same time he must also pay attention to rhythm, language, page-turns, and format. Long ago, I wrote chapter books, and this is a genre I hope to return to in the next couple of years.
Henry: So true. Picture books are a distinct form of literature.
Tell us about your latest book.
My latest book, just out, is STRIKE! The Farm Workers’ Fight for Their Rights (Calkins Creek). It’s about the Filipino grape strike in Delano, California, 1965, which paved the way for Cesar Chavez and his struggling union to come to power. Larry Itliong and the other Filipino Americans who began that strike are often ignored. Yet, without them, the story of Chavez—who actually didn’t want to involve the UFW in the Filipino action at first—may have been painted differently.
Henry: I’ve only written fiction so far, but I think it’s great you are telling tales that need to be told.
What do you hope readers will get from reading that book?
I hope readers will understand the significant role that Filipino Americans played in this, the most important agricultural strike in U.S. history. I would hope, too, that they come away from the book understanding that we need to be measured in our inclination to place important historical figures on pedestals. Chavez has become almost a martyr by many, yet upon closer examination we learn that he was human, flawed, and motivated in part by ego and a selfishness that eventually led to the UFW’s downfall.
Henry: Good point. A complex and imperfect figure like Dr. Martin Luther King.
What aspect of writing do you find most challenging?
First drafts are hell, pure hell. Most of the time, I am not somebody who shows up at the computer each morning eager to get started. I’ll respond to email first. I’ll answer interview questions like this first. I’ll tidy my desk or do a load of laundry (often washing clean clothes). In other words, I procrastinate and avoid. This wasn’t always the case, but I find (for me) since most of my nonfiction books are contracted before I write them and there’s always a deadline looming that it takes some of the joy of process out of it. On the other hand, those projects—poems, picture books, and even nonfiction books—that I write on speculation are often the most enjoyable because I can tackle them at my own speed without the pressure of having to have them finished by a particular date. Once I have a first draft, though, I love revision and tweaking and refining. I love playing with words. I LOVE HAVING WRITTEN. And I still get a great sense of accomplishment when I can hold an actual book in my hands or see it on a shelf in a bookstore or library.
Henry: Nice. “I love having written” is a great expression.
What is a powerful lesson you’ve learned from being a writer?
There is, probably, almost always a better way to write something.
Henry: True, and yet at some point we must submit. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough.
What has been a memorable experience that you never would have had if you had not been a writer?
There are so many. Meeting a reader who tells you your book had impact on his or her life. Being told by a father that his child takes your picture book to bed each night and sleeps with it. Being invited to schools and conferences hither and yon to speak about writing and the books you’ve written. Many of my books are about the African American struggle for freedom and equality. Perhaps my most memorable experience was when I was invited to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute to speak about writing Birmingham Sunday and being introduced to an audience of 7th and 8th graders by their teacher as a black American writer. (We had not yet met.) The teacher later apologized to me, saying that she didn’t think anyone but an African American could tell the story with such heart. I explained to her there was no need for apology; it was the greatest compliment I’ve ever been paid.
Henry: You’re white!?
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Trust in yourself and your ability to tell the story your way. (I lost this for a while when writing STRIKE! because I’d chosen the wrong fact-checker to vet the manuscript. It taught me an important lesson: choose an objective person to check your work for accuracy rather than a friend or devoted aide.)
Do you have any favorite quotes?
A favorite quote above my computer is by M. A. Radmacher: “Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.’”
Do you have any strange rituals that you observe when you write?
You mean like PROCRASTINATION? I do love white noise—the sound of the washer, dryer, and dishwasher humming while I write. But since I live in a desert and am concerned about our water supply, I listen to classical Spanish guitar instead. I also don’t like to talk about my work until it’s complete because I worry about using up all the words speaking about a topic instead of writing about a topic. It’s also a good way to lose one’s enthusiasm about a topic. I pop in and out of Facebook or email when I’m thinking about what to type next.
Henry: Procrastination is not a strange ritual. It is a lifestyle.
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
I would love to have the power to bring peace and equality and adequate food to all people throughout the world (for obvious reasons).
Henry: A lovely, selfless wish.
If you could have three authors/artists over for dinner, who would it be?
Probably Picasso, Gertrude Stein, and Hemingway. Picasso, because he was quite randy and lived life to the fullest. He’d keep us entertained. Stein, because she had a unique theory of writing rhythm and I’d like to know more about it. Hemingway, because I’ve always admired the way he could turn the most simple of events into an enthralling story with a minimum of words.
Henry: That would be one lively dinner.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I think in another life, I must have been a chef because I love to cook. I’m told I have one of the largest cookbook collections in the U.S. When I’m not at my desk or in my kitchen, I’m either on my mountain bike riding various trails, in the garden, or at the scrap metal yard.
Henry: C’mon, you can’t say “scrap metal yard” without elaboration. Are you constructing a rocket ship?
What would you like it to say on your tombstone?
Either “The End” or “Larry Dane Brimner is turning the page.”
Henry: Well, that’s a page turn I don’t want to see.
Where can readers find your work?
At the public library, an independent bookseller like the Yellow Book Road, or your favorite online book retailer.
This interview is also posted on the San Diego Children’s Books Examiner.