Arthur Salm, author of "Anyway: A Story About Me with 138 Footnotes, 27 Exaggerations, and 1 Plate of Spaghetti,"
Related Story: Author Arthur Salm
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. After reviewing books for years, it may seem natural to write one yourself. But when you've witnessed time and again how the best ideas can go wrong on the printed page, producing your own book must take a certain kind of courage. My next guest is one of those courageous new author types, Arthur Salm is the former editor and columnist for the Union Tribune. His first name is a middle grade novel called Anyway. Welcome to the show.
SALM: Hi, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Now, you've wanted to write a novel for a long time. When you finally sat down to do it, did you intend to write a book for middle graders?
SALM: Absolutely not. This was not my intention. It took me entirely by surprise. I had been a journalist for 25 years, and basically spent most of my time trying not to write fiction, it was sort of my job. Don't write fiction. So when I sat down on day 1, I had in mind an adult novel, a dark antic comedy that was ultimately really disturbing because that's pretty much my view of life.
[ LAUGHTER ]
SALM: And -- but I'd never written fiction and I was really intimidated. Can I make stuff up? I don't know. Now, my daughter was 12 at the time, almost 13. So I thought I'm going to warm up. I'm going to write a short story for her. You put your kids to put, you make stuff up all the time. So I knew I can do that. So instead of just telling her a bedstyle story, I'll just write it. So I started writing in the voice of this 12 year-old boy, and I thought of a funny thing that happened to me in college, and I said what if that happened to him? It would be really embarrassing. And I started writing, and about five hours later, I sat back in my chair and I looked at the ceiling and I screamed no! I do not. To write a children's book! But by that time, I had already seen off in the distance, you know, I could do this, and then he could come around there, and it was too late.
CAVANAUGH: You were hooked!
[ LAUGHTER ]
SALM: Yeah, yeah. I had a -- it was only a vague notion, but I knew where a book would go. And I thought I could do it, and I was into it, and it was too late.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us about the format of the book, how it looks. There are, as it says in the title, 138-footnotes, but they're used in a very innovative way. Describe if you can what this book looks like.
SALM: Well, the book does indeed have 138-footnotes, and the reason for is that is that the narrator, Max, he's not a direct type of person. He's a very good kid AI smart kid, but when he's telling a story, he tends to get sidetracked a lot, he goes on tangents. And that's where the title comes from. When he finally gets back to telling the story, he says anyway. So that's where the title comes from. But sometimes he'll go on a tangent that has nothing whatsoever to do with what he's talking about. And I put those in footnotes.
SALM: So most of the footnotes, they're meant to be fun and funny, and most of them don't have anything exactly to do with what's going on right now in the story.
CAVANAUGH: And they look like they're written.
SALM: Yeah, for -- yeah, they look like they're written.
CAVANAUGH: In handwriting.
SALM: They're in a font that looks like handwriting, and there are also doodles all around there, for which I had nothing whatsoever to do. This was the idea of Simon and Shuster. They said we're going to do it like this, and -- it just worked out brilliantly. I have to give them full credit. It really adds to the look of the book. And the feel of the book, I think it's important to get that feel.
CAVANAUGH: That different visual element.
CAVANAUGH: Arthur, would you read from your book?
SALM: Well, since you've asked.
[ LAUGHTER ]
SALM: Let me set this up for you just a little bit. The narrator, Max, is 12, almost 13. I'm going to read something very brief right near the beginning of the book. So it doesn't need much of a setup. He's gone over to his friend's house. And there's one reference in here that you'll only get if I explain to you. A couple of pages before, he was talking about this girl. He'd said something stupid, and he says she stared at me like she knew I was an alien but couldn't figure out which planets I was from. That's a few pages earlier. You'll recognize that when it comes up.
SALM: We weren't playing video games or looking for music online or doing Facebook, or doing anything, because he was on electronic restriction. I didn't even ask him what for. His parents are so strict, it's ridiculous. He gets no mornings or anything. He'll be giving his little sister a hard time about something, and bang, electronic restriction. His closet looks like something on the planet whatever aliens decided I was from would have. Sleeping area of typical earth boy, the sign would say. Footnote No.†22. Of no way would they use my room for a model. My parents gave up on it a long time ago. Don't take any food in there, my mom finally said. We don't want to attract hyenas. I told her hyena aren't just scavenger, they sometimes hunt and kill their prey just like lions do. That's why we don't want them in the house, she said.
[ LAUGHTER ]
CAVANAUGH: That's Arthur Salm reading from his new middle grade novel called Anyway. You were a book critic for how many years?
CAVANAUGH: How does it feel to be on the other side now?
SALM: I don't know yet, I just started.
[ LAUGHTER ]
SALM: I have gotten a review from Publicer's weekly, and it was a very good review, fortunately.
CAVANAUGH: When you were writing your reviews ever receive any angry comments from readers or authors are in a negative review?
SALM: Ever -- probably. But I honestly can't remember. They might not like something I said in some particular context. Upon but it was usually not how could you not like this book. I don't know if that's because book readers are more civil. Because I also reviewed movies and I would more frequently get angry responses from movie goers who didn't like what I said about a movie or actor.
CAVANAUGH: So you think book readers are a little bit more a genteel lot?
SALM: You said it.
CAVANAUGH: When you were writing your reviews, how did tackle writing the review? Did you have a check list of things that you looked for in any particular book?
SALM: No, I didn't. I tried not to be too formulaic about it, I tried to keep an open mind. And just take the book on its own terms. And occasionally, if it was in a genre I wasn't interested in at all or something that I just -- I thought I couldn't really take on fairly, I just sent it out to somebody out for review.
CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, when you do review a book, what is your motivation? Is it your motivation to -- for the reader, for the reader of your review? Is your motivation to help the author? What motivate what is you're writing when you're writing a review?
SALM: I was writing for a newspaper. And so my obligation was to the readers of the newspaper. I didn't owe anything to the author or the publisher. I was strictly writing for the reader. And because I was writing for a newspaper, it's not literary criticism either. I always said it lies somewhere between the book report you did in eighth grade and serious literary criticism. You have to tell what the book is about, you have to determine what the purpose of the book was, what the author's goal was, and how successfully he or she achieved that goal, if the goal was achieved. And be fair about it. And also it's something that goes in the newspaper, it's something you want people to read temperature has to stand on its own as something worth reading on its own.
SALM: And it's not something you want to say, okay, I got to review a book, bang, it's reviewed, we got that out of the way. It's in the paper. You want people to read it want
CAVANAUGH: Now, somebody told you I read your review of such and such book, and it was such a good review, I didn't feel like I had to read the book.
[ LAUGHTER ]
CAVANAUGH: Would that be a compliment to you or would you feel you didn't do your job?
SALM: Good question. If it's a book that I liked, I would always want people to read it, and I tried never to give away too much. Kind a tough balance. You tell what the book is about, but not tell too much.
CAVANAUGH: How did being a book critic help you write this novel or did it?
SALM: I think it helped only in it being a book critic, I had to read a lot of books. And I must have tan in a lot, the ink on the page must have sunk into my fingertips through osmosis. But as far as tackling books as a critic, I don't think it happened me at all. I think it was the reading of booking and maybe thinking about books. But the act of writing criticism, I don't feel that it helped me at all.
CAVANAUGH: You've already told us that the initial short story that you wrote was sort of triggered by an incident in college which you've transformed into a middle grade experience for your main character. Is there anything else autobiographical about what happens to max or these characters in this book?
SALM: Yeah, yes, there is. When I started out, I was very unsure of myself, of my ability to make up interesting stuff. And I started out -- I sort of started out as a reporter, I was writing about stuff that had happened to me, a few of max's mini-adventures happened to me or sort of happened to me. But as time went on, I got a little more confidence, and most of the book is pure fiction. That said, the book -- you've started reading the book, it's not a really plot-driven novel. It's not like we got to find out how this particular situation is going to work itself out, and we'll see. I can't wait to turn the page to see what happens next. I'm really not -- I wasn't trying to make people want to see what happens next. I wanted them to be interested in what's happening right now.
SALM: Because this is a very realistic novel. There's nothing in this book that couldn't happen in real life. There's nothing in this book extraordinary happens. It's intensely realistic. And what I was trying to do is get across the feel. Max is 12, almost 13. And what he is acutely aware of is no longer being a little kid. And he loves no longer being a little kid. Of and the chemical and social assault of teen hood hasn't hit him yet, and he's sort of in this window. And it's a really glorious, giddy, fleeting time in your life when you're in this little window and you're intensely alive, and intensely aware that you can sort of make yourself into who you want to be. And Max is not real happy with who he thinks he is. He thinks he's boring. So the thrust of the book is his family takes him a one-week family camp, and it occurs to him that nobody there knows anything about him. And he can remake himself into more of the boy he thinks he wants be to, or the person. I'm sorry. The person he wants to be. And he wants to be out there. He wants to be dangerous. He wants to be wild. He wants to be unpredictable. And he kind of pulls it off, as you'll see. And things happen.
CAVANAUGH: Now, as you sort of got suckered into in a way, writing a middle grade book, that wasn't your goal, but it just sort of happened. Are you going to continue? Is this a series of books that you're planning?
SALM: It is a -- yeah, I am going to continue. I have continued. Just about two weeks ago, I sent a follow-up book to my agent. I say it's not a sequel. It has the same characters. And it takes place in the same universe. But it's a girl this time. It is not first person. There are no footnotes. It's told in an entirely different manner. Some of the incidents that take place in Anyway, this current book, also take place in the follow-up, only from a different point of view. Where their paths crossed, incidents are replayed, only you see it from a different perspective. Then it moves them ahead about six months in time, and I'm hoping to write a series of novels that eventually take the kids through high school, each book very different from the other.
CAVANAUGH: You can never know as you plot your novels, but you can never sort of plot your life. Here you are with this new book, and perhaps several more books like this. Of it's just sort of amazing, the way your journey has taken you.
SALM: Yeah, and I have to say I've been really, really lucky. One thing after another. I managed to get a fantastic literary agent. We signed with Simon and Shuster, and if you see the jacket of this book, an author has no control over the covers. Or the title, for that matter. They can do anything they want. And I got an e-mail from my editor that said the attached file has your jacket on it.
CAVANAUGH: And then it turned out to be something you really liked.
[ LAUGHTER ]
SALM: I clicked on it and I said that's my book.
CAVANAUGH: Arthur Salm's book, Anyway, officially debuts tomorrow. He will be signing books on Wednesday at seven 30 at war wicks books. Thank you very much.
SALM: It's been my pleasure.