Sweet Sixteener Jeff Zentner recently spoke with Fearless Fifteener Lance Rubin about his debut contemporary realistic humorous with a splash of sci-fi YA novel, DENTON LITTLE’S DEATHDATE (April 14, 2015 by Knopf Books for Young Readers).
Lance Rubin is a New Jersey native who has worked as an actor and written sketch comedy, including successful runs of The Lance and Ray Show at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. He’s also co-writing a new musical called Annie Golden: Bounty Hunter, Yo! Lance lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son. He loves Pixar, the Knicks, Harry Potter, and Back to the Future. His debut novel DENTON LITTLE’S DEATHDATE is coming April 2015 from Knopf Books for Young Readers, to be followed by a second DENTON book in 2016.
About DENTON LITTLE’S DEATH DATE:
DENTON LITTLE’S DEATHDATE takes place in a world exactly like our own except that everyone knows the day they will die. For 17-year-old Denton Little, that’s tomorrow, the day of his senior prom. Debut author Lance Rubin takes us on a fast, furious, and outrageously funny ride through the last hours of a teenager’s life as he searches for love, meaning, answers, and (just maybe) a way to live on.
Jeff: I love to laugh. I’m a huge fan of every sort of comedy, but when I read, I rarely find myself laughing out loud the way I do during television and movies. DENTON LITTLE’S DEATHDATE is one of those exceedingly rare books that made me laugh out loud. And this made me love the book. With that fawning out of the way, what are some of your comedic influences, and how did those inform DENTON LITTLE’S comedic voice?
Lance: I so appreciate that! In general, I love comedy that comes from a place of love, mixing humor and heart and honesty, so that was very much where I was operating from with DENTON. In a big picture sort of way, Back to the Future is one of this book’s hugest comedic influences. It’s my favorite movie of all time, and I’ve always loved that it takes place in a realistic, grounded world like our own except for that one sci-fi twist which opens the door to many comedic possibilities. So DENTON uses that same model, except with deathdates instead of time travel.
Freaks and Geeks and Superbad were also big influences, in the way that they have teenagers that are talking like actual teenagers and behaving in realistic ways and genuinely caring about each other.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: THE LAST MAN, too. I love how both of those feature characters in extreme situations reacting in real-feeling, often-humorous ways.
As far as literary influences go, the dry wit of HARRY POTTER is endlessly inspiring to me. Growing up, Jack Handey’s DEEP THOUGHTS and Ted L. Nancy’s LETTERS FROM A NUT were two books that made me laugh out loud so hard. Denton’s voice is nothing like theirs, but they opened my mind to that kind of subversive humor in books.
Lastly, I have to give credit to THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, as that was the first time a first-person narrator really cracked me up, mainly because Holden is so hilariously honest.
Jeff: In many ways, this book scratched the same itch for me as John Corey Whaley’s NOGGIN, in that both involved slightly fantastical, lighthearted-but-not-lightminded takes on the nature of living and dying. Do you have any particular philosophies of living and dying that gave rise to this book?
Lance: Love the NOGGIN comparison, and I love this question. Though I’m technically Jewish, my dad is a practicing Buddhist, and growing up with those ideas absolutely infused the way I think about life and this book. I’m not a religious person at all, but I’m fairly spiritual, and I’m always trying to live life in a more present way. Which is not easy to do! Especially in this social media age we live in. I think all of us could stand to be more mindful as we go through our lives, and more appreciative of the time we have, so that’s all made it into the book.
I also think we should put a higher premium on being kind and supportive of one another, so that found its way in as well.
As far as dying, I’m as terrified of it as everyone, but I really love the idea of being able to talk about it more openly and keep it in mind on a daily basis. I know that sounds morbid, but every time I consciously remember that I’m going to die at some point, and that the people I love will, too, it makes me so damn appreciative that I’m here and that right now, I get to be with those people that I love.
Jeff: I understand that you’ve already had a creative journey leading up to writing—in acting, among other things. Tell us about this journey and how it culminated in you becoming a published author.
Lance: I always thought I was going to be a professional actor. Like, since I was six or something ridiculous like that. I always enjoyed reading and writing, too, but I always figured I’d maybe write a book once I was a movie star. Like, a Steve Martin/Tina Fey situation.
I acted in things all through middle school, high school, college, went to performing arts camp for six summers, and most of my twenties were spent pursuing acting. I experienced some success—mainly in projects where I was also involved as a writer, like the UCB sketch comedy show I co-wrote and co-starred in, The Lance and Ray Show–but nothing close to financial stability, and being an actor was making me pretty unhappy. I loved the performing part, but I hated lots of the other parts, especially the auditioning, the disempowering feeling of waiting for someone to give you permission to work.
In early 2011, my agent and my manager dropped me, and I was simultaneously devastated and liberated. I had self-identified as an actor for so long that it almost confused me that I was so relieved to be dumped by them. I didn’t know what I wanted to do next, but I knew I wasn’t ready to try and get a new agent. Right around that time, I read and loved THE HUNGER GAMES and thought, “What if there was a story-driven book like that which was funny?” And then I realized a screenplay idea I’d been sitting on for two years could actually make a great YA novel.
That was DENTON LITTLE’S DEATHDATE. I started writing it and was surprised by how much fun I was having. While still juggling my various part-time jobs and acting work, I kept writing, and I finished a first draft in June 2012. Then I had some close people in my life read it–including my best-friend-since-I-was-three Zack Wagman, who’s a brilliant editor at Ecco–and give feedback. I did several more rewrites before I signed with my terrific agent, Mollie Glick of Foundry Literary + Media in August 2013. (I had the good fortune and charm to be introduced to Mollie by the aforementioned BFF Zack Wagman, who’s been such a large part of DENTON’S success.)
Mollie guided me through one last big rewrite, and then in November 2013, DENTON was sold to Nancy Siscoe at Knopf Books for Young Readers! And here we are. It still feels completely surreal.
Jeff: Tell us about your writing process/schedule. Do you have any particular quirks?
Lance: Once I started writing a book, I realized that just saying, “Today I will write for three hours,” would never be successful for me. I would end up procrastinating most of that time, and it would just be dumb. So, taking a cue from Stephen King’s ON WRITING, I started aiming for 1,000 words a day. That was so much more workable for me; I wasn’t allowed to stop for the day until I hit 1,000. Some days that happened within an hour or two; most days it took several hours. By the time I was writing the second DENTON book, I had left my main part-time job, so I had more time to write and started aiming for 2,000 words a day. I usually wasn’t successful, but it did adjust my brain in this helpful way that made 1,000 words seem like no sweat at all.
I rarely write at home, I’m always bouncing between a couple of different coffee shops and libraries. (I actually had mainly been writing at this great spot in Brooklyn called the Tea Lounge, but then it closed out of nowhere in December, which was quietly devastating. Now I bounce between places because I’m not gonna get hurt like that again.) I generally listen to music while I write, and the headphones going in is my indicator to myself like, “Okay, time to work now.”
And as far as schedule, I work way better in the morning, so it’s generally an 8:30 a.m. – 3 p.m. type situation. But sometimes I’m needed on Dad duty for our 1-year-old son, so that timing’s always subject to change.
Jeff: What is your biggest struggle as a writer?
Lance: Perfectionism. 100%. At this point I am so aware of this tendency in myself, and still, it’s a daily battle. I’ve gotten better at it during the first draft, where I can often push myself to write whatever I want and worry less if it’s good or not. But once I’m doing any kind of rewrite, the perfectionism demons arrive in full force. I end up feeling like everything should flow out of me in ready-to-publish form, even if said rewrite involves drafting a completely new scene. Inevitably, this just slows down the creative process. I really want to get better at diving in headfirst even if it’s not a first draft, knowing that if I’m unhappy with it later, there can always be more rewrites.
Jeff: What projects do you have in the works?
Lance: There’s a follow-up book to DENTON coming out in 2016. I just did a huge rewrite on that (my above-mentioned perfectionism made it take longer than it probably should have), so it’s close to going into copyedits. I’ve also started a third book, completely unrelated to DENTON, which right now has about 15,000 messy first draft words. I’m not completely sure what it is yet, but it has a female protagonist. I’ve also co-written a musical called Annie Golden: Bounty Hunter, Yo! with Joe Iconis and Jason SweetTooth Williams about a veteran musical theater actress who gets pulled into the world of bounty hunting. We just had our first workshop of it last month, and we’re hoping that a production happens in New York City some time in the next year or so.
What are your five desert island books and why?
I love desert island questions because I’m always thinking, “What is this situation where I’ve ended up living on a desert island and yet I’ve had the foresight to pick out my favorite books?”
But I digress. Here we go:
RULING YOUR WORLD by Sakyong Mipham. One of my all-time favorite spiritual books. This’ll keep me from losing my shit on the island.
THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY by Michael Chabon. It’s got brilliant writing and superb characters and an awesome WWII historical backdrop and comic books and I love it.
HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN by J.K. Rowling. This is my favorite book in the series, and the series is one of my favorite pop-cultural things of all time. So this will bring me joy.
OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout. Beautiful, beautiful book. I will sit on the island reading this, crying and missing humanity so badly. Hopefully that will be cathartic for me.
LETTERS FROM A NUT by Ted L. Nancy. As mentioned above, this book makes me laugh and laugh and laugh. It might just contribute to the island insanity I’ll likely already be experiencing at that point, but so be it.
If a portal opened in space/time long enough for you to tweet one thing at your sixteen-year-old self, what would it be? (I will be checking your 140 characters, by the way).
Nice job in the Spring Musical. Don’t get too attached to this acting thing, though, okay? Maybe spend more time writing.
What advice do you have for unpublished writers?
As much as is possible, operate as if you’re already published. By this I mean: refer to yourself as a writer, think of yourself as a writer, and carve out as disciplined a schedule as you can, as if writing is your job. You don’t need to wait for permission from publishing houses to do this; you can do it right now. And you should. If you don’t take yourself seriously, then the universe won’t be able to either.
About the Interviewer:
Jeff Zentner is a singer-songwriter and guitarist who has recorded with Iggy Pop, Nick Cave, and Debbie Harry. In addition to writing and recording his own music, Zentner works with young musicians at Tennessee Teen Rock Camp, which inspired him to write a novel for young adults. He lives in Nashville with his wife and son. In his YA contemporary debut, THE SERPENT KING (Crown Books for Young Readers/Random House, Spring 2016), three outcasts try to make it through their final year of high school in rural Tennessee with their spirits and senses of self intact.