Open Book Interview With Jeff Szpirglas

Share |
Open Book Interview With Jeff Szpirglas

Open Book interviewed Jeff Szpirglas, author of Fear This Book (Maple Tree Press, 2007) via email on October 29. Jeff is also the author of They Did WHAT?! (Maple Tree Press, 2005) and Gross Universe (Maple Tree Press, 2004). Jeff’s stories have been published in Chirp and chickaDEE magazines, where he has also worked as the kids’ page editor. He has written for the television series’ Polka Dot Shorts, Ricky’s Room, and System Crash, and co-produced two radio pieces for CBC’s Out Front.

Jeff is currently living in Toronto, influencing young minds on a daily basis as an elementary school teacher. He is very good at typing and very bad at singing, and does a lot of both.

OB:

What sort of research did you do for Fear This Book?

JS:

The kind that goes on forever! Typically I try to look at similar books on the market and try to figure out ways to make the material my own. I’ll look to different sources: academic journals, the Internet, or other related texts. I generally end up with a binder of notes and research the size of New Brunswick. From this, I’ll write the book, and find as many opportunities to amuse myself with silly jokes along the way. Then I fact check. I hunt down as many scholars or experts as I can to verify that my interpretation of the facts is correct. For “Fear,” I was lucky to have a close friend who works as a clinical psychologist, but I often worry that I’m pestering the academics with these constant queries. It’s usually the folk in niche areas, like earthworm or slime mould research, who I get along with the most. I don’t know what that says about me, but slime mould is pretty cool. Rock on, Myxomycetes!

OB:

You must have discovered all sorts of strange phobias when researching your book. What’s the most surprising phobia you read about?

JS:

Hippomonstrosesquippedaliophobia. It’s the fear of long words. What brainiac came up with the name for that one? I mean, how are you supposed to learn what your phobia is if you’re too afraid to even look up the definition?

OB:

Do you have any phobias?

JS:

I’ve been terrified of stinging insects since a cloud of wasps stung me on a trip to Thailand. Just last week a wasp flew into our school hallway and I tried to deal with the situation calmly. All went swimmingly until a student pointed out that the wasp had landed on my shoulder. At this point I proceeded to scream loudly, bash it with my rain stick, and then leap into the adjacent classroom. This only irritated the wasp, which flew off in search of revenge and human blood. In a selfless act of heroism, I cut short my co-teacher’s math lesson, snatched the closest textbook I could find, and pounded the wasp into a semi-liquid state. I relish such opportunities for modeling appropriate behaviors to the young people of today.

I’m also afraid of loud dogs, heights, germs, forgetting people’s names, confined spaces, and, occasionally, teaching.

OB:

When did you first realize that you wanted to be writer?

JS:

Growing up, I was always making little books in my spare time. Everything from comics to non-fiction books about reptiles to gory stories about demons and dismemberment. Typical kid stuff. I remember a grade three assignment in which I wrote around two pages of a story inspired by “The Secret World of Og.” Writing that much when you’re in grade three is like pulling off “War and Peace.” Other lengthy and involved stories followed. I didn’t consciously pursue writing as a career until a few high school teachers nudged me in this direction. One in particular kept scrawling messages on the sides of my work: “I hope you plan to be a writer,” he would say. I wish he would have told me how much writers actually earned. In all seriousness, I’m forever thankful for the helpful teachers I’ve had over the years – it’s one of the reasons I pursued teaching (plus the benefits are good).

OB:

What was your first publication?

JS:

If we’re talking books, then Gross Universe was the first, back in 2004. But in high school, I managed to write a piece for The Hamilton Spectator, and reviewed movies for a magazine the Hamilton Tiger-Cats were putting out (guess what city I grew up in and you win a prize). Later, I sold some stories and articles for Chirp, chickaDEE, and OWL Magazines, where I cut my teeth as the kids’ page editor. The offices for those magazines are located in Toronto. Not Hamilton. Toronto. That’s right. I moved.

OB:

What’s the most memorable response to your work that you’ve received from a reader?

JS:

I don’t know if any one thing stands out as being particularly memorable, but I do love hearing when readers respond favorably to the books. As much as I have fun writing them, they’re really intended for other readers (and bragging rights for my parents, I suppose). I really dig it when the kids at school learn that I’m not just a teacher, but am also an author, which, like, totally boosts my street cred. Some more respect when I’m on lunch duty would be nice, though

OB:

What is the best advice you’ve ever received as a writer?

JS:

Revise, revise, revise. Boiling a project down to its bare essentials is often the best way to move forward, but it in no way negates all of your hard work. I’m assuming I get the opportunity to revise my answers to this interview, right?

OB:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

JS:

The view from my apartment onto Bathurst Street is as inspirational as any mountain vista. Not that I have anything against mountain vistas. In fact, if you know any mountain vistas and can send one my way, I’d be eternally grateful. British Columbia will do nicely.

On the technical side of things, I need a desktop computer with an actual keyboard with actual raised keys, and an actual mouse. Not one of those little nubs that moves the cursor icon on a laptop computer. I hate laptops! I loathe everything about laptops. If someone gave me a laptop, I’d probably hurl it against a bus. Thankfully I drive a car now.

OB:

What’s your next project?

JS:

All of my free time mysteriously vanished once I started teaching, so I decided to write a picture book. I figured the illustrator would be doing most of the work anyway. So far it’s turned out to be the most difficult project I’ve ever attempted! I’m only now reaching a point where the book is ready to be edited. Serves me right for making assumptions.

I’m also finishing a young adult novel to shop around. It’s a science fiction story about fifteen year-old boys with no girlfriends who tell really good fart jokes (in other words, autobiographical). If any publishers are reading this, it’s probably the best young adult novel in the entire history of human thought. Interested?

My next project after these will be getting some sleep.

OB:

What is the scariest book you know?

JS:

I haven’t read anything that’s chilled me, although I greatly admire writers like Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker. Right now I’m reading my class Gaiman’s Coraline, an annual tradition in which I attempt to scare the living daylights out of them. Great fun! As you might guess, I have an insatiable lust for horror films. They don’t scare me easily, though. I did watch the original Ju-On: The Grudge alone at home, at midnight, with the sound cranked up. That did the trick.

Related item from our archives

Humber

Forest Reading Festival of Trees

Open Book App Ad