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Interview: September 2011

Patrick Carman’s latest book and the start of a trilogy, FLOORS, tells the whimsical and imaginative story of Leo, the son of the maintenance man for the secret-filled Whippet Hotel.

In this interview, conducted by Kidsreads.com’s Usha Rao, Carman tells of the “weird hotels” of his youth that inspired the Whippet Hotel and shares why he considers the story “an ode to my childhood.” He also describes his goals in reaching out to young readers, discusses his literary influences, and lets us in on the wild imagination and lifelong curiosity that drive him to write.

Kidsreads.com: What prompted you to write FLOORS? It has a Willy Wonka-ish feel to it. Was that one of your inspirations?

Patrick Carman: Sometimes, when I begin writing a new book, I ask myself a question: Is this going to be a book I would have wanted to read when I was a kid? It’s probably a question I should ask about every book I write, but it doesn’t always come up. A lot of times I have a world and characters in mind and they just are what they are. Whether or not I’d have read about them when I was 10 doesn’t cross my mind. I know I’m going to reach some young readers either way.

With FLOORS, from the word go, I was writing the book I would have read as a kid. I think I’d even go so far as to say it’s an ode to my childhood. It’s the book I would have wanted to read as a 10-year-old. Part of that is because I loved CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY so much. But, as is so often the case with my stories, they usually involve one idea crashing into another. I also loved weird hotels, which I stayed in as a kid, many of them along the Oregon coast. I remember on more than one occasion pulling into a hotel parking lot with my dad behind the wheel and knowing --- just knowing --- that inside were hidden passageways, hidden rooms and whole floors of hidden things. And if only I worked at the hotel we were visiting, I’d know about these places, where they kept the really cool stuff.

I was a kid who loved to escape into a world that wasn’t but could almost be. FLOORS is a story I know I would have gotten lost in.

KRC: Although Merganzer if off screen for most of FLOORS, his personality really drives the book. Did the character of Merganzer come to you first, or did you build the story around Leo?

PC: The best adventurous children’s books do more than let us escape from reality; they also make us feel something profound. With FLOORS, there’s the big adventure exploring the Whippet Hotel, but there’s also a powerful undercurrent that gives the story weight. My dad worked a lot when I was growing up, and I know from talking to him that he has some regrets about that. Merganzer and Leo came to me at once, together, as a set of characters. Through them I was able to explore themes that are important to me: regret, disappointment, grief, longing, loss, and ultimately, joy. The trick is to build a world that kids want to move through because it’s exciting, immersive and fun, and build the whole thing on a foundation that will help them grow emotionally.

KRC: We never really learn much about Leo’s mom. Does Leo take after her or his dad?

PC: Leo’s mother (and Merganzer’s, too) are, essentially, ghosts in the story of FLOORS. Both Merganzer and Leo have to grapple with overcoming the losses of their mothers at a young age. We get glimpses of these characters, like shadows passing through, and they’re really designed to help us understand what Leo and Merganzer are feeling. The story isn’t about the moms, it’s about how the main characters move from grief to hope, from darkness to light. And, in a very real way, how Merganzer helps Leo process his feelings and re-enter the world.

To answer your question more directly, I think Leo, like most kids, takes after both of his parents. He’s bright and mechanically inclined like his father, gentle and quiet like his mother.

KRC: Leo’s father is often busy and distracted, yet the reader doesn’t sense any emotional distance between them. Do you visualize them as having a warm and loving relationship?

PC: One of my favorite scenes in the book is at the beginning, when Leo wakes up in the basement of the Whippet Hotel and makes coffee for his dad. The two of them stand before the call center, awaiting the work of the day, and there is a closeness. It’s so clear to me from the start that they love and care for each other. Much is unsaid, and that’s okay. I also see Leo’s father as busy in the best possible way. He fixes everything in the hotel, and he’s clearly shown his son how to do the same things. He doesn’t detach from Leo in his business, he involves Leo in the business of the day. By the time we meet these characters, it’s a given that Leo has been shown how to fix a broken pipe, reset the air conditioning, and take care of a hotel. That came from spending time together doing what maintenance men do: throwing on the tool belts and fixing things together.

KRC: There are so many wild and wonderful rooms and floors featured in FLOORS: the flying farm room, the pinball room, the room of ponds and caves, the entire haunted floor. Which one is your favorite?

PC: Without question my favorite room is the pinball room. I love the idea of a room you can play, where the couches become flippers and a bowling ball is shot into the room. There are a lot of lights on the floor and ceiling, a lot of bumpers that double as bar stools and chairs and lamps, and a control room so you don’t get clobbered. It’s the kind of room I imagined was hidden in the hotels I stayed in as a kid. A close second would be a tie for the railroad room and the room of rings.

KRC: New York City plays an important role in the story, especially Central Park. What made you decide that the Whippet Hotel belonged in New York?

PC: Merganzer D. Whippet’s father was a real estate developer. He owned skyscrapers, which gobbled up all of his time. There was never any time for Merganzer, because his dad was always working. If there was one thing Merganzer knew for sure when his father died, it was this: the buildings had to go. So part of the connection to New York rests on the idea that Merganzer’s father made some bad choices he would come to regret. He built an empire of skyscrapers, but it left no time for his son. And what Merganzer chooses to do with the assets he inherits makes New York even more important to the story: Merganzer sells all the buildings, buys one corner lot in Manhattan, and builds the most remarkable hotel in the world. It is remarkable for its wackiness, but also for the fact that it is quite small. It sits in the middle of an otherwise empty block, with a vast private park on all sides. The property is surrounded by a tall iron fence. This provided a marvelous opportunity for villains. Developers walk by or stare down at the tiny hotel from their lofty perches and think: I must have that land. That hotel must go! The Whippet Hotel, so small and meaningless, is an affront to the sensibilities of many a New York real estate tycoon. Merganzer takes special pleasure in this fact.

KRC: The Whippet Hotel is a strange, quirky and magical place. What is the strangest place you’ve ever lived in or visited?

PC: For me, a sense of place is so deeply connected to time, so I’d have to say the strangest place I’ve ever been is the world I grew up in. I say this because looking back 35 years later, I’m mesmerized by how different it was, sad that it’s gone forever and nostalgic for the freedoms I enjoyed.

I grew up in the mid-1970s in a sprawling middle-class neighborhood. It seemed to go on forever. We had no camps or planned activities in the summer or after school. We were not only encouraged to get out of the house, we were ordered out. And don’t come back until dinner! was a common refrain. We rode our bikes farther and farther afield, set off fire-crackers in the park, jumped our bikes over ditches, played football in the street, threw rocks at one another, jumped off of roofs, played records on turntables, watched “The Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island,” and never once did we ever feel programmed. We were free to do as we pleased, and what pleased us most was the freedom itself. Looking back, that’s some potent magic I’d love to get my hands on again.

KRC: Merganzer D. Whippet is a wacky and imaginative inventor. Do you like to tinker with gears and gadgets, or do you see novels as your mode of invention?

PC: I just spoke on a panel with Mark Bowden, who wrote BLACK HAWK DOWN and a bunch of other great books. He was so wise about just this question. What he said is that having scientists report on science would result in articles everyday people wouldn’t be able to relate to. Instead, have a good writer who is ignorant about science write the article. That person will ask the kind of questions a non-scientific person would ask, and explain things in a way a non-scientific person can understand.

In the same way, I have to say I know absolutely nothing about the inner workings of gadgets, programming a computer, building a hotel, creating a room that has a train screaming through it --- these are things beyond my ability, but that’s okay. I’m terribly curious about these things, probably because I don’t understand them. And the curiosity gives me all the energy I need to imagine them, build them, and explain them with words. I’m just a normal guy with a very active and curious imagination.

KRC: With so many successful series books --- Skeleton Creek, The Land of Elyon, Atherton, The 39 Clues, Trackers, and others --- under your belt, you’re clearly not someone who experiences writer’s block! Where do you get your ideas from?

PC: I’ve been very lucky to have publishers who are willing to let me write whatever I want, and truly, that has made all the difference. I think if I’d had an editor who said, after the success with Elyon, that he was only interested in another fantasy series, I might have lost my way. But I’m blessed to have David Levithan as an editor, and before him Craig Walker (a brilliant and treasured editor I really miss). They allowed me to follow fantasy with groundbreaking (and risky) multimedia horror (Skeleton Creek), then tech thriller (Trackers), then adventure (The 39 Clues), and now FLOORS, which I’m not even sure how to categorize: comedy, adventure, fantasy?

KRC: What are your favorite children’s and YA novels? What sorts of themes do you find most interesting as a reader?

PC: I read very little modern children’s and YA literature. This is partly because the stack of adult books is always so darn high, but also because I’m nervous about letting another voice in. I learn plenty about writing by reading tons of adult novels that challenge me. I guess I just worry that reading a lot of children’s lit will somehow turn me in a direction I want to steer clear of. And for better or for worse, I sort of feel as if the only opinion that matters with kids books is the opinions of the kids. I’m not a kid anymore, but I can tap into what made me happy as a young reader. I’m not sure that makes me a very good adult judge of children’s books.

When I was a kid, the books and writers I loved were these:

Roald Dahl tops my list. There is nothing of his I don’t love. The older I get, the braver he seems. He was not only a great world builder (something I admire), he was a risk taker. If he were writing today, I think he would seriously consider creating something like Skeleton Creek, 3:15, or FLOORS. He’d be right out there on the edge.

The Narnia books drew me inside with such force there were times as a kid I felt more at home in C. S. Lewis’s world than my own. I was all in.

MRS. FRISBY AND THE RATS OF NIMH --- a wow book for me when I was 10.

THE FISH THAT SAVED PITTSBURGH --- the first fictional sports book I ever read, and still my favorite.

KRC: Do you have a specific audience or reader in mind when you write your books?

PC: With 3:15, Trackers and Skeleton Creek, I use videos to encourage distracted young readers to re-imagine what a reading experience can be. For some of them, reading just isn’t on their list of entertaining things to do. There are video games, movies, TV, cell phones and the Internet all lining up to entertain them. Sometimes I’m trying to make books blend in rather than stand out. If watching a video every 20 pages gets them reading, we all win.

With FLOORS, I really did write the book I wanted to read in the fourth and fifth grade. Other times I just write and hope it’s all going to turn out okay!

KRC: I kept picturing FLOORS as a movie or an arcade-style video game. Are there any such plans underway?

PC: I think FLOORS would be a marvelous world for a film, especially CGI. I want to see those rooms!

KRC: Is there a sequel in the works for FLOORS? What other books are you working on at the moment?

PC: I have another new project out called 3:15, my effort to get wired kids interested in the short story format. Find it at www.315stories.com, where you listen, read and watch a story in 15 minutes or less.

And I just turned in the manuscript for FLOORS II! It will be a trilogy. This feels oddly like a baby announcement.

Thank you for the fantastic questions!