Author Spotlight: Interview with Clete Barrett Smith
A while back Ruby and I had the amazing opportunity to read an advanced copy of Aliens on Vacation and then have dinner with the author, Clete Barrett Smith. We loved his book and pestered him with tons of questions, but of course we didn’t have our notepads handy. That was months ago, but we’ve kept in touch, and for some reason he’s still willing to talk to us despite our annoying e-mails. We’re proud to finally share our interview with such a great, fun author! Enjoy!
Aliens on Vacation is about a 13-year-old boy, Scrub, who is sent to spend the whole summer with his hippy grandma at her Intergalactic Bed & Breakfast (which turns out to be a vacation hot spot for aliens). How did you come up with the big idea?
I’ve always loved alien-visitation stories, but it seemed like everything that I saw at the time was really dark and violent; the aliens were coming here to enslave us, or eat us, or steal our resources or whatever. The spark of the idea was: “Wait a minute . . . what if they are just coming here to hang out?” I thought that would be a fun way to do an alien story with a lot of humor mixed in with the action.
When I was ten years old I was sent from my little hometown to spend the weekend with my grandpa in the big city of Seattle. My grandpa was a great guy and real character . . . but not always the best babysitter. On Friday morning, he said, “I have to work all day, here’s $20. I’ll see you at 6:00 and we’ll have dinner.” I was pretty nervous in downtown Seattle, so I walked to the nearest movie theater to buy a ticket to anything so I’d have a safe place to hang out. The only PG offering was a brand-new movie premiering that day that I had never heard of: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.
I bought a ticket and sat in the front row. And fell in love. A boy my age with an alien in his backyard? And none of the grown-ups knew about it? And they had adventures together? This was definitely for me.
The movie ended and I still had several hours to wait for my grandpa. So I hid behind the curtain while the ushers cleaned the theater, then when they started letting people in for the next matinee I went back to the front row and watched it again. I think I liked it more the second time.
After it was over I still had two hours to wait. Yep, I hid behind the curtain again. And watched it a third time.
When it was over, I called my grandpa from a pay phone in the lobby to tell him where I was. When he came to pick me up he asked if the movie was any good and I told him it was the best movie I’d ever seen. So he bought a couple of tickets and we went in together. He even sat in the front row with me. So I watched E.T. four times on the first day it came out.
When I went back to my hometown, nobody had heard of the movie (this was back when movies opened in big cities and took a week or so to get to the smaller towns). So of course I told all my friends that I had an alien living in the shed in my backyard, and that he liked Reese’s Pieces a lot, and that he could make my bike fly. This worked out great until E.T. started playing in our little town. But it was my first time telling stories to other people, and I guess I got addicted.
Is Scrub based on anybody in real life? What about his grandma? (We think her tofu snacks are groovy!)
I think that, like many first time novelists, my main character is sort of autobiographical. For me, the summer between sixth and seventh grades clearly marked the line between childhood and adolescence. Like Scrub, I became interested in girls and had my first kiss (if you’re reading this, Hello, Jenni Wiegand!) Becoming a starter on the basketball team was one of my goals. I was more aware of fitting into social groups. (Oh, and I met my first alien.)
I didn’t intentionally base Grandma on anybody. But when my wife read the first draft, she said, “You know who the grandma is, don’t you? It’s your mom.” She was totally right. My mom isn’t a hippie, but she is an unabashed Pollyanna. In the story, Grandma is extremely tolerant and always tries to see the best in every alien, no matter how strange they look. That’s definitely my mom. (But, you know, with humans.)
How did Grandma get involved with the alien tourist bureau? What are her ambitions in life and the universe?
That is the story for a future book!
Scrub meets a cute but alien-obsessed girl named Amy (who is unfortunately the daughter of the snoopy town sheriff). Where does Amy’s passion come from?
When I first started writing this book, I did a lot of journalling in the voice of an alien-obsessed kid. I wasn’t really writing scenes, but just making observations on aliens and sci-fi in the voice of a kid. One of the ideas that intrigued this anonymous young person was the lack of UFO crashes. I mean, if people are reporting UFO sightings every single night (and they are, just check the National UFO Reporting Center, located right here in Washington state), then why hasn’t there been a single crash reported? With UFO’s zooming all over the night sky and no traffic regulations, isn’t an accident inevitable?
I thought that was a funny idea, but when it came time to actually write the story, I did not want the main character to be alien-obsessed. I wanted him to have his own things to worry about, and then be thrust into this extremely strange summer job of disguising aliens and chaperoning them on little outings. But I had all of these alien observations, and that’s how Amy was born. When Scrub sees Amy, the first thing out of her mouth is about aliens, and she soon tells him about her thoughts about the dearth of UFO crashes.
While I was writing the story, I had a lot of fun reading Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke books “as” Amy–taking notes about things that I thought would interest her. I really like Amy. She’s a lot smarter and more savvy than Scrub (as is usually the case, I think, with middle school boys and girls) and she kind of works him over.
Jenny’s favorite alien is the grumpy squid-thing that complained about bad customer service. Ruby’s favorites were the hyperactive twin brothers who resembled trees and could glow in the dark. How did you come up with such diverse species and characters? Do they resemble anyone in real life? (Please name names; we’d like to get you in trouble.)
When I was a kid, I was very interested in making my own money, maybe to have that sense of independence. In the summer after third grade, I pestered the life guards at a local lake so much that they gave me a job helping them check out canoes to weekend tourists. You’d think that adult customers would be polite to a ten-year-old boy working at the lake, right? Well, not all of them. I learned that when you work with the public, you are going to deal with some rude, grumpy people who have an unearned sense of entitlement. So the grumpy squid-thing was my way to make fun of those people.
As far as other characters . . . I taught high school for twelve years, so I’ve definitely dealt with a lot of “characters.” Teaching is actually a great way to study character development, because a boy that you meet in September can almost be a totally different person by the following June (kind of like watching the character arc in a well-written novel.) So, while I don’t directly base characters on real-life people–I’d be afraid that I’d be thinking of the person and not the character, which might mess with his actions in the book–I definitely lift character traits from ex-students when I’m writing. (Sorry, I’m not naming names. Kids today have lawyers.)
What’s your favorite alien movie? book? TV show?
For movies, it’s always been E.T. In books, I loved The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as a kid, and I think that blend of action and humor had a big influence on my story. For TV shows, this summer my daughter and I both got hooked on the alien-invastion show Falling Skies. (Which is produced by Steven Spielberg, bringing my lifelong alien obsession full circle.)
8.You’re a teacher at heart and taught English to high-schoolers. How did your experience teaching enter into your writing?
I’m not sure about my writing, but it certainly helped with promotions. My publisher has been very, very good to me, and sent me on a national book tour where I gave elementary school assembly presentations. For some writers, this can be a pretty nerve-wracking experience. But for me, I felt right at home. A public school in Chicago looks pretty much like a public school in San Francisco or Seattle. And I really miss teaching. So for me, I’m not nervous going into a new school. It feels like going home, and I’m really excited to get to meet the kids there and try to get them excited about reading and writing.
On your website you give a lot of great, no-nonsense writing advice. What’s the most important thing for a new and/or young writer to know?
Don’t Try To Do It Alone.
I was a closet writer for many years. Only my wife and my best friend knew that I was writing. I was (stupidly) worried about what people might think about me if I never ended up getting published. The moment I declared publicly that I was a writer, and that I needed help, I started to find the most incredible people. I went to get my MFA in writing for children, and not only found some fantastic mentors and a supportive writing community, but so many lifelong friendships. I am so grateful when I think of all of the people who helped me write this story and get it published. I truly could not have done it by myself.
When we met you had a great story about Disney possibly making a movie out of the book. Exciting! How did that happen? Any news?
In a strange and rare turn of events, I actually had two Hollywood offers for the story before the manuscript had even been sent to publishers. I met an executive from the Disney Channel who was in Seattle because she had Northwest roots, and I told her about my story. She ended up making an offer to purchase the characters for an animated series. I did not sign that contract, but it was a huge deal for me because it was the first time someone had shown a real professional interest in my work (other than my agent, of course.) The story was sent out to movie studios, and producers associated with Disney bought an option on the movie rights, and then the next week the story was sent to publishers and I received several offers. It was pretty amazing. After years and years of rejections, there were suddenly lots of people interested.
As far as updates go, in June they renewed the option for another year, so I’m taking that as a good sign. I’ve always loved Disney movies, and now I watch them with my kids, so it would be a huge thrill to see Scrub and his pals on the big screen!
Last time we talked you were just about finished with the manuscript for book 2, Alien on a Rampage. How’s that goin’ for you? Do we get to read it soon? Please?
Rampage is through copyediting and all finished up! The cover is fantastic (I have it posted on my website.) It will be released in May, 2012. Is that soon enough for you???
Any word on book 3? (No pressure.)
Yes! Disney-Hyperion recently offered me a contract to continue the series with book three. I’m thrilled. I just started writing it a couple of weeks ago and I’m really enjoying being able to hang out in Forest Grove again. It’s slated for a May, 2013 release. Oh, and they also offered to buy a brand-new, non-alien story that I have been working on. It’s tentatively titled Magic Delivery and it’s another boy-friendly, humorous adventure tale set in the Pacific NW. But with magic instead of aliens. (Yes, these are the kinds of things I think about.)
Thanks again to Clete Barret Smith for his in-depth and open answers. We can’t wait to read the next Aliens book and are really excited for a totally new series. If you haven’t already, check out our review of Aliens on Vacation, the first in the series, and be sure to visit Clete’s website (www.cletebarrettsmith.com) for more on his books and inspiration!
- Writing Tips And Advice|Writing Tips|Writers Hangout|top 10 fantasy books|top 10 censored books|internet censorship
- Buddhist Teachings in a Lovely Picture Book
- Action-packed Fantasy (with a bit of history and mythology, too)
- Planet Earth Is Home
- Everything Is Not What It Seems
- “If you had one day left to live, what would you do?”
- Cinderella is an Assasin
- No Matter What, “Wolf Won’t Bite!”
- “I knew there was something peculiar about you…”
- History Turns Into Itself in This Newbery Winner
- A Beautiful & Authentic Midwestern Picture Book