Recently we interviewed Elissa Brent Weissman, the author of the novel ““Nerd Camp”” when she visited us at our school, Chatterton Elementary School in Merrick. ““Nerd Camp”” is the story of a 10-year-old boy Gabe whose parents are divorced and his dad is remarrying. He now has a step brother, Zack, who is the same age. Gabe likes his new brother, but really wants to impress him. Zack is a cool skateboard dude and Gabe is, well, a nerd. When Gabe goes away to an enrichment camp he does not want Zach to know about his geekiness. The story is well written and very funny at times. It shows that all kids just want to be accepted for who they are.
Getting to meet Elissa was really awesome. She answered all our questions about the book and we even supplied her with ideas for future stories. Elissa explained to us that she wrote ““Nerd Camp”” because she herself was pretty nerdy growing up and wants kids to be proud to be smart and brainy. She didn’t have a favorite character in this novel, but all of us had characters that we really liked! Elissa is coming out with another book soon and we are sure it is going to be just as enjoyable as “Nerd Camp” — maybe even better.
Meeting Elissa was extra special to us because she grew up in Merrick and graduated from Calhoun High School. She now lives in Baltimore, but comes back here often to see her family. Want to find out more about Elissa? Visit her website: www.ebweissman.com.
What inspired you to become an author?
It would have to be books that I’ve read and that I still read. Anytime I read a good book, have you guys ever experienced this, you read a good book and it just makes you want to go and write something? And I experienced that all the time. Especially when I was your age. That’s why I write books for kids your age because those are the books that really inspired me to want to write.
What is your favorite Merrick memory?
Good question. I grew up here, my parents are still here so I come up to Merrick all the time and I don’t know. I think a lot too from when I was in high school. I was in Calhoun, I was in the drama program there and I have a ton of memories from doing plays and hanging out with my friends in drama and that’s sort of thing. But I can’t think of one. That’s a really good question. If I think of something I’ll get back to you.
Can you tell us what your new book is about?
I like to keep it a secret until I’m all done. But it’s another book for the same age group. It’s not a sequel. It’s something else entirely. And I’ll say it’s about a girl this time that gets into big trouble, but that’s all I’m going to tell you.
Do you like talking about your books?
I do. One thing is that writing is a very solitary job. You know, I sit down by myself at my computer to write, but I really like people and so it’s nice that after the book comes out I get to talk to kids like you first or classes or school groups and I get to talk about the books that way. All of these ideas I’ve just been keeping to myself and putting on paper and I get to hear what other people think about them. It’s fun.
Are you planning on writing a sequel to “Nerd Camp”?
I don’t know. So far I have three books out and they’re all individual. None of them have a sequel or anything. But “Nerd Camp” might be a good one to write a sequel to.
Like maybe trying to get Zack trying to get into the camp or something.
Could be. One idea might be maybe to do the next summer or someone else said they would really like to see what happens during the year. And that could be one way of going with it with Zack trying to get into camp for sure.
How long did you write “Nerd Camp”?
This one took me a long time. It usually takes me about a year to write a book and then once the publishing company decides to publish it and have someone, the publisher, it could be an editor, he gives me some of her comments or feedbacks I spend about another whole year of revising it based up what she said. And we go back and forth and go through different drafts. This book for some reason gave me a lot of trouble. And I wrote it many, many different ways before I got this version that I liked before I even got to the publishing company and then made all of those changes. So I think this one, probably I was working on it, closer to two years. It might have been a little bit longer.
Who is your favorite character in the story and why?
They asked me that question this morning too. I like them all. I really like Gabe, of course I have to like him because I’m telling the story from his point of view. I love Wesley. I think Wesley is a lot of fun. He’s a lot of fun to write. And I think Nikhil too. I actually, in one of the early drafts, before I got this version in that two year period, the story was originally going to be Nikhil’s story. I was going to tell it from his point of view. And you could imagine it would have been totally different. But he was the character at first. Kind of this boy who is so cautious that he reads the end of the book first just to make sure everything works out OK. And that was kind of the character I started with. But I realized as I was going along that the book really wasn’t going to be very much fun if I told it from Nikhil’s point of view because he’s too scared to have fun. But I still really like him and I like Zack too. He’s different. Who do you like?
Did any of your books win a medal and what book do you think should win one?
None of them have won a medal. My first book, “Standing for Socks” won kind of a smaller award. It was named one of Bank Streets Best Books of the Year for 2009, which was pretty cool. It’s tough. I don’t know if I really write the type of books that win kind of those big awards. My stuff is a little bit like those. Those are really, really great books that you hear about that won medals. I really enjoy them, but they’re a little bit deeper and kind of tackle bigger ideas, I think then my work does. Mine intends to be a little bit more fun. But I like to try and walk that balance. They’re not totally throwaway books like they have absolutely no sense at all, they tackle some bigger ideas, but at the same time hopefully they’re funny. I don’t know if I will win any of those medals, but maybe someday.
What authors did you like as a child?
My favorite was probably Louis Sachar and I love Louis Sachar and this was before he wrote “Holes,” all the Wayside School books, if you read those, and “Sixth Grade Secrets” are my favorite and absolutely hilarious. I also like Gordon Korman. He published his first book when he was 13. So inspiring and I actually wrote to him. I interviewed him when I was about your age. Not for Kidsday, but for a project at school. I got in touch with him and interviewed him, which was pretty cool. When my first two books came out I sent him a letter and said, do you remember me? I interviewed you and I was 11 and it was really inspiring to help me want to become a writer and look I finally did it and here are my books. He wrote me back and he said, I’m glad to hear that a former fan is now the competition. That was really nice. And probably after that would be Lois Lowery.
Were you a nerd when you were a kid?
Absolutely. I’m still a nerd. I was kind of like Gabe though. I loved school, I loved learning. I liked every subject especially writing, reading, but I liked math also and science. I didn’t really like social studies. Kind of boring. That was my least favorite, but I didn’t like it. I had a lot of friends. So I was a social nerd and I never really thought about myself that way. But looking back definitely. I wasn’t one of the really cool popular kids, but I didn’t really think of myself as being -- I didn’t get made fun of for being a nerd. I had some tough times, but I -- I was pretty much like Gabe.
What was your childhood like?
My childhood -- well just what I had just said -- nerdy, having friends. It was great. Obviously I loved being a kid because I still write for kids. I had two brothers which was a lot of fun. I did a lot of theater and before that I did community theater. All sorts of stuff. Typical suburban good kid.
Did you make any changes from the original story line?
When I started the first book? Yeah, as I mentioned I changed it a lot. It was originally going to be an Nikhil story, then it was Zack came to camp and that sort of thing. But once I really hit on this idea of Gabe who desperately wanted his new step brothers to like him. He really wanted this new brother and was so excited and then he finds out this new brother doesn’t like nerds and I realize it’s going to be sort of Gabe struggling with that. Then it started to flow. The ending with the snake, that was something that didn’t come into play until after the whole first draft. So you guys were saying Zack wasn’t too bad when he first came to camp even before the snake incident. In my original version it totally wouldn’t have worked because the snake thing didn’t happen ... Something my editor pointed out that I needed something in the end.
What were your favorite childhood books?
Probably all those books by those authors I mentioned. Plus I have to add “Babysitters Club.” There are hundreds of them and I read them all. She was coming out with a book a month.
Where is your favorite place to write?
I write in various coffee shops and things around. I live in Baltimore. I have a very hard time getting work done in my house. I get too distracted. Especially now I have a baby and I can’t get anything done. I’m with her and she’s fun to play with. I got out to various places. I have a few places I frequent, but nowhere that I go every single day. And that’s where I do most of my work.
How long did it take you to get your book published?
This one? The whole process from the time somebody says they want to publish to the time it comes out on the shelf takes usually about 2 years. This one was a little bit quicker. This one only took about a year and half. Rushed it through so it could out by summer. It’s a long process. My first book was published by Simon & Schuster by this company called Atheneum and then my editor there, who’s been the main person who worked on the book, she got laid off, then I got a new editor and she decided to leave and go to graduate school, then I got a new editor who went on maternity leave. So I had all these editors and in the mess of all of that, it didn’t work out... so I left and went to Penguin for [my second] book and then that editor left and I ended up, so I had a literary agent who represents me. Whenever I write a book she’s the one who sends it out to various editors to see if they want to publish it. And after my editor left Penguin she was sending it around to people and people didn’t really want it. I was almost actually thinking, well no one is going to want it. I’ll just go to the next one and then something happened, we had some sort of miscommunication and she never sent it to this new editor at Simon & Schuster and when she sent it; it was like yeah, I love it. So if she sent it to her right at the beginning maybe it would have been quick. But I don’t know how long it was in totally. It was awhile though. At least 6 months probably wondering what was going to happen.
When you were a kid did you like to write?
Yes, I loved to write. I wrote a novel when I was in fifth grade. It was my first book I ever wrote and I sent it off to try to be published and I waited until at least 6 months and nobody wanted to publish it, but that’s ok. And I got notebooks and notebooks still with stories that I wrote.
Do you have any words of advice for inspiring writers?
Do it, if you want to write ...I think writing is, and it’s not about getting published, or getting your story out there, it’s about the writing of it especially when you’re younger. I think it’s fun. It’s a great way to express yourself whether you’re writing about real things and stories that you’re making up. Read as much as you can. That’s how you become a better writer is by reading and thinking about what you read and thinking about what the author is doing and why and all these questions you guys are asking. It shows that you guys will all be great writers. Thinking about the books that you read and why they work and how they work. That’s what makes you a better writer.
Who designed the cover for “Nerd Camp”?
There are people at the publishing company who designed the cover. And this one has an illustrator drew - did the logo and also drew the camp fire and then what was fun, the same illustrator did just one or two diagrams inside - what was fun for this one - usually the author doesn’t get to have anything to do with the cover unfortunately. He doesn’t even get to see it until it’s done. But this one they sent me this picture of the campfire, and my editor said help us think of nerdy things to put around the campfire. So I got to help think of, I looked up this formula of fire, the temperatures and things like that. So I had some say in the cover.
You had a lot of information on lice. Did you have to research it?
Yes I did. I researched so much about lice, which who would have ever thought I’d become a mini expert on head lice. I didn’t know any of that stuff. I think I knew the singular was louse, but that’s all I knew. It was pretty interesting.
Are there any parts similar to your life?
Well I do teach at a similar camp. It’s not a sleep-away camp. It’s a day camp, but I teach a reading and writing class. In that respect something is similar. Nothing else is based on my real life although I’ll tell you a real funny story. The character, Wesley, his name Wesley Phan is from a real person who I don’t know very well. When I was in college I played on a table tennis team, so I played ping pong competitively and we would play against other colleges, but we also played in these open tournaments where anyone can play. And the way you play against table tennis, professional competitive table tennis, you have a rating just depending on how good you are, or how old you are, boy or a girl, anything. There’s some little kids who are really good. They’re like in training to play table tennis. Like they’re going to be in the Olympics someday. And I would play them as a college student and I would lose to them because they’re really good. I had no chance of beating them. The only match I ever won in my table tennis career was against a 7-year-old named Wesley Phan and the only reason I beat him was because we were suppose to play at night and he was too tired to play that he had to forfeit. I would not have beat him if I had to play him. He could barely see over the table and his parents were really, really mad that he wasn’t playing because this was going to hurt his rating because he would have beaten me. It was funny because my now husband, we would always joke about how it was that we would always remember the name Wesley Phan. So when I was writing this book I decided to make a character named Wesley Phan. So he’s out there somewhere the real Wesley Phan. I don’t know if he’s anything like this character at all. But there is one and he’s very good at ping pong.
Are any of your friends and family represented in your novel?
In “Nerd Camp”? Nobody is directly. I didn’t base any of the characters on people I know. This guy’s based on my brother something like that, but a lot of the characters are represented just kind of generally especially from the students that I’ve had where I teach over the summer at the Center for Talented Youth. My classes there were made up of really cool nerdy kids. And they kind of inspired me in general to write the book. Just all of their traits combined with things I made up to make the characters.
Why does Gabe keep everything to himself?
That’s a good question. I guess that’s just kind of the type of person that he is. And he’s really, in the book, struggling with wanting Zack really to like him, but clearly Zack isn’t somebody he can talk to about what’s going on because he’s so worried that Zack won’t like him for who he is. And even his bunk mates, he gets along so well with Wesley and Nikhil they have so much fun they don’t really seem like the right people to be worried about Zack with. Even his friends at home who we don’t get to see very much of but they’re there in the beginning -- Eric and Ashley -- and they write him letters and he writes them letters. If you think about there’s that one scene when Zack calls when he’s leaving for camp and they’re like oh, is that cool brother? So they’re not really the right people to talk to either. So he kind of has this internal struggle that he’s trying to figure it all out for himself and the type of kid that he is; is the type to do it in a logic proof and to keep the charts as a way of working it out.