Debra Garfinkle is a recovering attorney who lives in Orange County, California with her husband, three children, and Edna, their beloved but pain in the neck puppy. Debra’s first book, a humorous young adult novel called Storky: How I Lost My Nickname and Won the Girl, was published by Penguin in hardback in 2005 and recently released in paperback and German. In May, Penguin published her second and third young adult books: Stuck in the ‘70s, a humorous time travel novel, and The Band: Trading Guys, a racy novel about a teenage rock band.
Thank you! I wanted to start the book with a fun scene, but also with lots of tension. As soon as Shay winds up in a strange guy’s bathtub in the middle of the night, she worries about how she got there and how she can get home. And the guy, Tyler, worries about keeping a beautiful girl with him. He figures a nerdy guy like him will probably never get to interact with a girl like Shay again.
I set the book in 1978 because I was in high school then and I very mistakenly thought I wouldn’t have to do much research. Also, that time period gave me so much to make fun of— huge afros, disco, Neil Diamond, I could go on and on.
I had to do a lot of research about music, movies, fashion, news events, prices, and other things concerning 1978. That research was really fun.
Since time travel is involved, I also had to research physics. I never took physics class, and the study of science has always confused and terrified me, so that research was not fun at all.
Thank you! Yes, last year, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists awarded my Erma Bombeck-ish column second place for Best Humor Column in Newspapers under 100,000 Circulation. Over 100 columnists were entered in my category. I was thrilled to receive that honor!
After a long struggle to get my first novel published, getting the newspaper column was ridiculously easy. I was reading our local paper (The Aliso Viejo News section of the Orange County Register) and saw a request for new columnists. I submitted a sample column that day, and the next morning the paper hired me.
I love doing the column, though I agonize about having to think up new topics every other week. I enjoy making fun of whatever I want— often myself— and being a minor celebrity in my suburban town of Aliso Viejo. I’ve been writing the column for close to three years, outlasting two of my editors, and still get a huge kick out of seeing my name in print.
Thanks again! I think you should have some kind of natural ability to make people laugh. But I also think that ability can be improved upon. I could go on for hours on this— and do go on for hours when I give workshops. Some tips for writing humor are to use loveable but silly characters, exaggerate scenes, put the punchlines at the end of the paragraphs, and read your work out loud so that you may listen and watch the readers to find out what lines make them smile and laugh. Sometimes I get really obnoxious, stopping and asking my readers, “Was that a snicker? What line caused the snicker? Oh, it was allergies? Well, laugh, already, laugh!”
I’m really a tomboy at heart and, except for a short stage in high school, was never into frilly girl stuff. I have two brothers I’m really close to and have always had a lot of guy friends. Unfortunately for my poor parents, I also was incredibly boy crazy throughout middle school and high school.
My ideas for novels usually are based on characters rather than events or concepts. If I don’t fall in love with my main characters and yearn for them to have happy endings, writing is no fun for me.
And, well, I guess I’m narcissistic. I put a little of me into all my characters. For instance, I had a nerdy side in high school and was really into Backgammon like my main character Tyler. I also had a wild side in high school like my main character Shay and dated lots of guys, some of them pretty sketchy. I hope my kids never read this interview!
It was not an easy journey. Though Storky was the first novel I wrote, I revised it many, many times. It took over two years after I got an agent to get the CALL.
A few months before I got the call, I had revised my novel for a very enthusiastic editor at a big publishing house and it subsequently got turned down by the acquisitions committee there. Then the huge, 77-year-old law firm (Brobeck) that employed my husband went kaput. My husband found a new job in Orange County. While our children finished the school year and we tried to sell our house, he was commuting from San Diego and I was acting like a single mother during the week. The day after our first open house, our three-year-old flushed a toy down the upstairs toilet while we were sleeping. We ended up having $11,000 in flood damage upstairs and downstairs and had to take our house off the market. Then I crashed the minivan. It was a horrible time for me. Really, the only thing that kept me at all sane was keeping up my routine of writing an hour a day, even while giant deafening fans roared throughout the house.
But where was I? Anyway, we fixed the house and car, sold the house, and moved to Orange County. Shortly after we moved, I got the CALL from my agent. I had just taken my three kids to Chuck E. Cheese, and figured I deserved good news just for that alone. After my agent told me about Penguin’s offer, I asked her if it was okay to scream. She said okay, so I did. It was wonderful. In San Diego most people knew me as the struggling writer who kept getting rejected, while in Orange County I’m more known as an author and newspaper columnist. Actually, I’m mostly known here as the mom who usually wears sweatpants and looks flustered.
Storky is written in journal form in past tense with one main character. Stuck in the 70's is in novel form, in present tense with two main characters. So I think my second book was more of a challenge. I had to worry about transitions, two narrative voices, and all that horrendous physics research.
It was much, much, much easier selling Stuck in the 70's. By the time my agent submitted it, Storky had been published with some critical and commercial success, and I think my editor at Putnam liked working with me. I sure liked working with him, anyway.
Stuck in the 70's was sold after it was drafted. But I now have contracts for eleven other books for children and teens, all of which sold on proposal. I am overjoyed about that!
For me, it’s gotten a lot easier to write as I’ve gained more experience. I’m much faster than I used to be, and I know my strengths and weaknesses as a writer, so can try to focus on my (many!) problem areas when I revise.
It’s fun having that picture of me as a yell-leader on the book jacket— orange suspenders, yellow pants, orange pompoms, and all.
Oh, I’d have so much advice for my poor neurotic teenage self! I think the one thing I’d make sure to tell myself would be not to internalize everything, that if someone treated me badly it didn’t mean I deserved to be treated badly. Or maybe I should advise my 70s self to buy stock in Microsoft.
I guess I miss the sense of safety. Even though I know there’s always been crime, people just felt safer back then. I used to ride my bike all over the place as a kid, and hitchhike a lot in college, and not even conceive of such a thing as school shootings.
I also miss Space Food Sticks. My mom and everyone else’s moms used to pack them in our lunches. Supposedly, astronauts took them to the moon. They were brown and gushy, with the texture of Play-do. We used to mold them into fun shapes before popping them into our mouths.
I’m grateful we don’t have to rely on record albums. Mine always got scratched and would stick on the most annoying part of the song.
Two more books in The Band series will be out this year, in August and November.
I’m working on a totally fun project now. It’s a series of six humorous books for children. The series is called The Supernatural Rubber Chicken, and the first book comes out in June 2008. I also want to keep writing young adult novels. I have one in the works.
I love public speaking. I have taught many workshops on humor, character development, getting published, and other topics at schools, libraries, writing conferences, and other venues. I have spoken to as few as six people in a classroom and as many as 500 people in school auditoriums. More information about my presentations is on my website.