Today, I am thrilled to share with you this interview of New York Times bestselling author Dan Gutman in which he talks about his new series Flashback Four. The first book in the series, Flashback Four #1, The Lincoln Project , (2016, 240 pages), came out in February. This book is a real winner, so I can’t wait to read the next one which will come out in March, 2017. There will be four books in this series. (See author interview for more details.)
First, one of the funniest bios you’ll ever read!
About the Author
Dan Gutman was born in a log cabin in Illinois and used to write by candlelight with a piece of chalk on a shovel. Oh, wait a minute. That was Abraham Lincoln. Actually, Dan Gutman grew up in New Jersey.
Like a lot of boys, Dan hated to read, but loved sports. That’s one big reason why he has written a lot about sports and aims his books at reluctant readers like himself.
Dan graduated from Rutgers University in 1977 with a degree in psychology (which means, in Latin, “a total waste of time”). He never took a writing class in his life, and it shows. He doesn’t know how to create beautiful “word pictures.” He never learned the standard formula for a novel. There is no symbolism or deep moral lessons in his books. He still doesn’t know the difference between a simile and a metaphor.
In 1994, Dan cooked up a middle grade novel about a boy who finds the most valuable baseball card in the world and discovers he has the power to travel through time using a baseball card like a time machine. The result was “Honus & Me.” The book was rejected by ten publishers over two years before HarperCollins published it in 1997. Why Dan didn’t submit the book to Harper first is a mystery.
In any case, “Honus & Me” was a critical rave, was nominated for eleven state book awards (the kids of California voted it their favorite book of the year), sold a gazillion copies, was loved by children everywhere, and was made into a play and a TV movie titled “The Winning Season.” It also established Dan as an emerging name in children’s fiction and, most importantly, allowed him to avoid getting a real job.
Dan takes a special delight in seeing “Honus & Me” sold at Scholastic book clubs and book fairs, seeing as how Scholastic rejected the book–TWICE–when he submitted it to them. To all the publishers who rejected “Honus & Me,” Dan has five words–Na na na boo boo!
“Honus & Me” was followed by “Jackie & Me” (which won the state book award in Pennsylvania and Maryland, “Babe & Me” (which won the state book award in Connecticut and Arizona), “Shoeless Joe & Me,” “Mickey & Me,” “Abner & Me,” “Satch & Me,” “Jim & Me,” “Ray & Me,” “Roberto & Me,” “Ted & Me,” and “Willie & Me.”
Despite the success of this series, Dan stubbornly insists his favorite book is “Johnny Hangtime” (2000), a story about a boy who is a Hollywood stuntman. The book was never nominated for anything and has sold about 12 copies, but it is soon to become a major motion picture (just as soon as Dan sells the screenplay he wrote for it).
In his insatiable quest for world domination, Dan turned toward younger readers in 2004, with “My Weird School,” a series of books for grade 1-3 about a school in which all the grown-ups are insane. There are over 60 My Weird School books now, and Dan’s goal is to keep writing them until HarperCollins rips the laptop out of his cold, dead hands. He knows where his bread is buttered.
Oh, Dan has also written lots of other books such as “The Genius Files” series, the “Flashback Four” series, the “Rappy the Raptor” series, and “The Kid Who Ran For President.” When he’s not writing books, Dan writes self-aggrandizing third-person bios like this one and visits about a 40 schools each year (how does he find the time?). Astonishingly, he is also a loving husband to his wife Nina and their children Sam and Emma. He also loves to travel, ride his bike, throw Frisbees, play ping-pong, and watch TV.
We could go on and on telling you lots of great stuff about Dan, his fantastic books, and what a terrific guy he is. But it would be a big bore. Besides, you’ve got more important stuff to do, like sort out your recycling. If you’d like to find out more about Dan or his books, visit his website (www.dangutman.com).
Dan thinks you should buy lots of his books, for three reasons. Kids will love them, and Dan needs the money. Wait, that’s only two reasons.
(Okay, Dan, here’s a third reason: adults will love them, too.)
TTx2: For many years now, you have been writing books for kids, including stand-alone novels as well as the popular series Baseball Card Adventures, My Weird School, and The Genius Files. How does the process of brainstorming, researching, or writing for your newest series,
The Flashback Four, differ from your process in the past, if at all?
Flashback Four is about a group of kids who travel through time with a camera to take photos of things that were never photographed before–like Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address. So it’s very different from My Weird School, which is just silly stories meant to make kids laugh (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). It shares some similarities with the baseball card adventures and The Genius Files in that they are all for older kids, they blend fact and fiction together, and they required a lot of research on my part.
The big difference between The Genius Files and Flashback Four (I wanted to call it THE Flashback Four, but for some reason the publisher did not want the word THE) is that each book in Flashback Four will focus on just ONE event. In The Genius Files, I had two kids (named Coke and Pepsi) travel cross-country over their summer vacation with their parents. So I had to research HUNDREDS of locations and carefully plot out their route on real roads, making sure something interesting and dangerous happened every few hundred miles. That was REALLY hard to plan out and make work as a story. The Genius Files was the hardest thing I ever had to write. And while I’m very proud of the series, I was relieved when it was finished. The fifth book is the last one. I won’t be sending Coke and Pep on a European vacation. You can stop asking.
In Flashback Four, on the other hand, I only had to research ONE thing. So I had the luxury to take a trip to Gettysburg and learn everything I could learn about Lincoln and the famous speech he delivered there.
In the second book, which comes out in March, the kids will attempt to take a picture of the Titanic as it’s sinking. Very exciting!
I just finished the third book in the series. They’re going to go back to the year 79 and try to take a photo of Mt. Vesuvius as it is erupting. I had a blast writing that one, and my wife and I took a trip to Pompeii to research it.
There will be a fourth book in the series too, but I haven’t decided on the topic yet. Probably something to do with the Revolutionary War.
TTx2: How did you choose these particular four characters for the Flashback Four series? Did you decide on two girls and two boys because you did not want boys or girls to feel slighted? Were there any other characters that you considered using, but rejected? Do you plan ahead to future books and keep in mind that you would like a character to have a certain characteristic because it would be useful to a plot?
Some of my books (The Kid Who Ran For President, the baseball card adventure series) have a single main character. Some of my books have two main characters (The Genius Files). And occasionally, I decided to have a group (The Homework Machine, The Christmas Genie, Flashback Four). I don’t remember consciously thinking about this. It just seems to happen to meet the needs of the story. When I’ve used a group, it was because I wanted the characters to play off one another. Actually, I prefer a SMALL number of characters because I get confused when I’m reading a story and there are lots of characters to keep track of. I forget who is who.
Kids often ask, “Why are most of your characters boys?” I always say, “Because I’m a boy!” and everybody laughs. But it makes sense for me to relate most easily to male characters. I always have female characters in my stories too, but I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know what it’s like to be a young girl, and my female characters are probably not as realistic as the male ones.
Of course, I want ALL kids to read my books, so the kids in Flashback Four are two boys and two girls. I also made one of the boys African-American and one of the girls Hispanic. One of the characters comes from a working class family, and one is wealthy. Ethnicity or class hardly ever comes up in the story, but the world is a diverse place, and I want the characters in my books to reflect that.
I always try to give the characters different personalities and quirks. Everybody in the world is different. That’s what makes us interesting. In Flashback Four, one of the boys is a natural leader, the other gets all the funny lines. One of the girls is studious and conventional, and the other one has a bit of an immoral streak to her. I didn’t consciously plan out how those personality characteristics were going to show themselves in future stories, but just the fact that they have these characteristics will help me shape the stories as I write them. On a few occasions I’ve regretted making a character a certain way in the first book, because it limited what that character could plausibly do in the second or third book. That’s one of the challenges you face with a series that isn’t an issue when you’re just writing a one-shot book.
I don’t recall rejecting any characters in the series, but it’s possible that I did that and don’t remember. When you’re doing a series in which one book comes out every year, by the time you get to #3 or #4, you tend to forget how it all began.
TTx2: If you could time travel to any location anywhere, at any time in history and hang out there for a couple of weeks (I think I can guarantee your safely, for the purpose of this question) where would you go?
I would go back to December, 1903 so I could meet the Wright Brothers and witness the first flight. This is a great American story, and I have always been fascinated by it.
In fact, I wrote about it in my book “Race for the Sky.” In researching the Wright Brothers, I found that there were only five witnesses to the first flight, and one of them happened to be a boy named Johnny Moore. So I told the story of the Wright Brothers through Johnny Moore’s eyes.
The book came out in 2003, the one hundredth anniversary of the first flight. I was really proud of it. I think it was probably the best book I ever wrote, and I thought this was the book that was going to put me in the big leagues. Maybe even win the Newbery Award.
Unfortunately, it was my worst selling book EVER. It did so poorly that the publisher never even issued a paperback edition! There were about 50 Wright Brothers books that all came out at the same time, and I suspect that mine got lost in the shuffle. Now you can buy it for a penny on Amazon. Oh well. Live and learn.
Fascinating stuff. I really appreciate your taking the time to answer these questions. Thanks so much, Dan!
For brief period of my childhood, my parents gave me nickels for memorizing quotations. This was pre-internet, so I truly had nothing better to do. I did memorize most of the Declaration of Independence (which earned me no more than the much shorter “The fog comes on little cat feet” by Carl Sandberg). Learning the speech left me with a lasting admiration of it, so I was predisposed to like this book. I was not disappointed by Gutman’s treatment of the topic. Arresting black and white photographs of Lincoln help draw the reader into the story, and Gutman shares a lot of fascinating facts about the Gettysburg Address. For example, Lincoln wasn’t even the main speaker of the day! Some other guy spoke for about two hours, and Lincoln’s speech only lasted a few minutes! I learned some things from the book and my curiosity was piqued to learn more.
I liked this story for the same reasons I have enjoyed other Gutman books: it’s an easy-to-read, straightforward story with likeable characters, that nonetheless is not light on substance. There are so many funny moments in this book, such as when the Flashback Four encounter chamber pots; when the parents of the Flash Four who are asked to sign permission slips allowing their child to time travel and they all sign because they are distracted for different reasons; and when the Flashback Four have to deal with Lincoln’s son Tad Lincoln who is a total brat! I enjoyed this book from the first page to the last, and I look forward to reading the other three in the series.
My family went to New Bern, N.C. this weekend, where I actually encountered this sign at the wonderful Pepsi Family Center, which is part of the Tryon Palace complex. This “time machine” is a room adjacent to a museum exhibit. A dial inside the machine stops at the year 1835, and the doors open to a room of exhibits about N.C. in that year. I urge visitors with kids to NC to check it out!
For more middle grade book reviews, check out the MMGM links on Shannon Messenger’s blog.