Swanky Seventeener Jennifer Fenn recently interviewed Mike Grosso, author of I AM DRUMS, a contemporary middle grade novel published by Clarion Books on September 6, 2016.
About the Book:
Sam knows she wants to be a drummer. But she doesn’t know how to afford a drum kit, or why budget cuts end her school’s music program, or why her parents argue so much, or even how to explain her dream to other people. But drums sound all the time in Sam’s head, and she’d do just about anything to play them out loud—even lie to her family if she has to. Will the cost of chasing her dream be too high?
About the Author:
Mike Grosso is a musician and a fourth-grade teacher who always keeps a guitar in his classroom. His father gave him his first lesson, and his mom taught him how to keep a steady rhythm. Mike continues to write and record music at his home in Oak Park, Illinois, where he lives with his wife, son, and a drum set he plays much too loud. I AM DRUMS is his first novel.
Jennifer: Are you a drummer?
Mike: Yes! I’m pretty rusty from living in an apartment building – neighbors tend to frown upon noise levels that cause plaster ceilings to crumble – but a recent move to a small home with a drum set is helping me get my chops back.
Jennifer: I am always interested by authors who can write well in the POV of the opposite gender. What made you decide to write from a middle school girl POV?
Mike: I knew long before the plot emerged that Sam was a girl because the words came easily when I imagined her that way. I let her talk and act the way she wanted and she filled in the blanks from there. I’m still not sure why she had to be a girl, but if I’d written her as a boy I doubt I’d have finished the book.
Jennifer: What kind of music were you into when you were Sam’s age?
Mike: I was Sam’s age (11) the year Nirvana released Nevermind and Pearl Jam released Ten, so I was a hard rock kid. My parents exposed me to a lot of great folk and bluegrass and my drum teacher was turning me on to jazz, but I was hyperactive so headbanging appealed to me. I rocked out to a lot of Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and some of the grimier rock that came out in the early 90s. My brother was into Led Zepellin and Hendrix, so I got into them by osmosis.
Jennifer: Did you listen to music while you wrote this book? If so, what?
Mike: This is really odd, but I find music distracting when I write. I love it so much, but I see fret patterns and chord formations in my head when I listen to it. That’s great for composing, but less so for writing focus.
Jennifer: In “I Am Drums,” the music program at Sam’s school is cut. As a teacher, what are your feelings about the importance of arts education?
Mike: The research consistently shows that amazing things happen in the brains of kids who participate in music programs, but, unfortunately, percentiles and finger pointing are all the rage right now. If you can’t position music as a way to beat Finland, nobody listens for very long.
And it doesn’t help that people making cuts are seldom the ones interacting with kids. It’s easy to slash a program when the student population is reduced to data points on a chart.
Jennifer: When and how did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
Mike: I’ve always enjoyed writing, but I had to convince myself it was possible to be a writer before I could want it. That didn’t happen until my late twenties.
People are terrified of being bad at things, and this is amplified when you put a work of art out there. It’s okay, though, to write a bad story, draw an awful picture, or compose a terrible song, because you can always try again and hope the next one stinks a little less. I tried really hard to improve and get published after realizing that.
Jennifer: Are you part of a critique group? If so, how did working with your CPs benefit you?
Mike: I’ve never been part of a critique group, but I minored in creative writing and found the courses to be a great way to meet other writers. Musicians naturally find each other, but aspiring authors experience a special kind of solitude that can feel like a prison if you don’t step out of it every so often.
Jennifer: How did you come up with the idea for your novel? Did you know this was “the one”?
Mike: I started with a shell of a character and wrote the first two pages multiple times. They were in the voice of a girl who couldn’t sit still because of the rhythms in her head. The title came to me the day I started writing, and it never changed.
I hoped it was “the one”, but I brace myself for failure with every new manuscript, even now. Doubt seems to be an organic part of my writing process.
Jennifer: How did you find your agent/editor?
Mike: In a Topps agents/editors booster pack!
Except that’s not true at all. I found my agent through a typical query letter. I knew I wanted an editorial agent, and his comments about an early draft of I AM DRUMS were priceless.
Because my first publisher closed, I’ve had the odd experience of working with two editors for I AM DRUMS. I’m so lucky that both of them have been perfect fits – most writers are lucky to work with one great editor, and I’ve worked with two!
Jennifer: What was your revision process like for this book?
Mike: It was my first time implementing what I now call the Six Week Wait. Whenever I finish a first draft, I set it aside for a minimum of six weeks so I can return to it with a reader’s eyes.
I AM DRUMS was my first time trying this, and it successfully found a publisher twice. I’ve since turned it into a ritual.
Jennifer: Imagine your perfect reader. How would you describe that person?
Mike: My perfect reader is a kid dressed in neon colors and reading books while jumping on their bed without getting motion sickness. They probably love turtles, too.
Favorite writing snack?
Oddest job you ever had?
I was briefly a talk radio producer for an ABC affiliated radio station in Chicago. I collected news articles, ran the board, and screened callers before they went on air for a show that broadcast in the middle of the night.
Big brother, little sister, in the middle, or one and only?
I’m the youngest of three brothers. It’s a miracle that my parents are still standing.
Music to write by?
None, surprisingly. I see fret patterns and chord formations in my head when I hear music, so it’s much more likely to distract me than help me concentrate.
What were you reading when you were 16?
Vonnegut. I read an average of zero books per year between the ages of 11 and 16 because I had so much trouble focusing. Vonnegut got me back into reading because his books were so odd and accurate to how I was feeling at the time. I read his stuff and thought, “Is it really okay to write like that?”
Robot revolution or zombie apocalypse?
Zombie apocalypse. The robot revolution will probably fall down a flight of stairs and break its touch screen.
Favorite Broadway musical?
Um… uh… the Chicago Cubs! Wait, no…
A band you loved when you were 16 that you still listen to.
Failure. Their name makes people shake their heads, but they’re the only band that makes an electric guitar sound like the world exploding.
I also still love Helmet. This sometimes scares people who know I teach elementary school, but I met Page Hamilton and confirmed that there is a sixty-year-old Kindergarten teacher in Oregon who also loves Helmet.
Two cats, but I’m truthfully a dog person that married a cat person. I’ve come to understand and appreciate cats over the years, though.
Do you write longhand or type?
I always type. I understand the allure of longhand, but it doesn’t match the tempo of my brain. I forget sentences halfway through writing them. My handwriting is also terrible and I obsessively scratch out things.
About the Interviewer:
Jenn Fenn has been filling notebooks since she was in elementary school, penning “Babysitter’s Club”-inspired series. She’s never without a book! Fenn is terrified of corn fields but has jumped out of a plane, eats her cereal without milk, and has run a marathon. She’s a graduate of Lycoming College and Rosemont College’s MFA program. She’s represented by Amy Tipton of Signature Literary, and lives with her husband, daughter and Scottish terrier in Downingtown, PA.
Her YA contemporary novel, FLIGHT RISK, will be released from MacMillan/Roaring Brook on July 18, 2017.