We met author Chris Grabenstein before his book presentation at Book Culture in Manhattan recently. He just released the book, “Mr. Lemoncello’s All-Star Breakout Game” (Penguin Random House).
What inspired you to make the Mr. Lemoncello book series?
The Mr. Lemoncello series was inspired by the fact that when I was your age, librarians were not happy. Their job was to protect the books from the children. Shhh, be quiet you’ll make the books wake up, Keep your sticky fingers off the books. And I started to go to a lot of schools about 10 years ago when my first books for kids came out and the librarians were friendly and the kids were laughing and having fun in the library. I said, "Where were these libraries when I was growing up?"
So, I wanted to create a library that was a lot of fun, where people learn but they had fun at the same time.
Are you more of an author or an illustrator?
I’m an author. I can’t draw. I can draw cartoons a little bit, but we’re very lucky that the Lemoncello books are all illustrated by Gilbert Ford. . When I was 10, I figured out I was pretty good at writing. I used to write these little comic books. Like you guys are doing this writing now, so you've got a little talent for it. But there’s other kids who are probably learning that they are pretty good at illustrating. Everybody goes off and learns how to do all of the skills and how to do what they've got talent in. They go off to become illustrators, I became a writer. And my friends at Random House put together the perfect pairing.
In the book, is Mr. Lemoncello you?
Yes, Mr. Lemoncello is me. Years ago, I worked with a guy named Jim Henson, who created the Muppets and I got to write for him. He had such a big imagination. And also, when I did improvisational comedy, I worked with the late Robin Williams. So I combined Robin Williams with Jim Henson to create Mr. Lemoncello.
What is your favorite book that you wrote?
I’ve had 58 of them published, and they’re like my children. I love them all. But if I had to pick one, I would pick the Lemoncello series because I get like 10 emails a month from parents who tell me their son and daughter used to hate reading until they picked up that book, and they fell back in love with reading. Something about the puzzles and the games and the way it’s written it gets kids who think they don’t like to read to like to read again. That makes me feel good.
What is the next book you’re thinking to write?
We just finished writing a fifth Lemoncello book called “Mr. Lemoncello and the Titanium Ticket,” and it’s with my editor right now at Random House. It will probably come out in 2020, and then I’m working on a new series for Random House called “The Smartest Kid in the Universe.” It’s going to be about the smartest kid in the universe. He wasn’t so smart to begin with, but then he ate some jelly beans and the jelly beans instantly made him smart in all sorts of subjects.
Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
I was at a panel the other day and a writer said: All you really have to do if you want to come up with ideas for stories [is] take out your earbuds for a half-hour a day and put away your phone and all your devices and go for a walk. And you’ll be surprised how many ideas start happening.
Did you ever get writer’s block?
No, I don’t. Before I started writing, I was in advertising, and before I did anything, I spent five years doing improvisational comedy here in New York City and I met a guy named Bruce Willis in our troop. He shaved his head and moved to California — we don’t know what happened to him. And whenever Robin Williams was in New York City doing like a movie or something, he would jump up on stage with us. When you do improv, there’s only one rule and that rules is to say “Yes, ma'am.” Take whatever happened in the scene and move it forward. When I write my first draft, I give myself permission to write a really bad, terrible, stinky, no good, first draft. And I just move ahead and I kind of make stuff up and I get it down on paper, then I come back the next day and start rewriting. The secret to never having writer’s block is to not try to make it perfect the first time because I’m here to tell you nobody gets it right the first time.
Did you do anything else besides writing books?
Yes, I wrote comedy for about five years, and while I did that, I worked at a bank, where I could type. I supported myself by typing, and then I got a job in advertising, which I did for almost 20 years. I wrote TV and radio commercials for almost 20 years. And then I quit and I said, you know that guy James Patterson had a pretty good career when he quit advertising. Maybe I could do the same thing. And then we ended up writing books together.
When you’re not writing, what do you enjoy doing?
Thinking about what I’m going to write next. My father had all sorts of hobbies. I don’t have any hobbies like stamp collecting or going collecting or anything because I like what I do. If you could find something you love to do and someone will pay you to do it, you’ll never have to work a day in your life.
Why did you collaborate with James Patterson?
He’s been the number one bestselling author in America for like 20 to 30 years. He’s actually in The Guinness Book of World Records for having more number one bestsellers then any author who’s ever lived ... He’s like super famous and also a nice guy. I remember we had fun. I learned a lot from him. I worked for him for four years at the advertising agency, and writing books is fun. He does the outline and then I execute against it and I send him like 10,000 words a month.
What day do you usually write your stories?
I usually write my stories Monday through Friday, but my wife would disagree. She would tell you I write every day. I’m always writing or at least thinking about what I’m going to write.
How many people does it take to create a book?
Well, give me that book right behind you, I’ll show you. Because what I try to do is say thank you to all the people who helped me. These are all the people that helped make this book come out. Thousands of people. All in Random House and my publicist friends and the people in marketing, the editor and the editors who have editors on top of them and sales people, design people and art people. So it’s just not me.
Did you enjoy writing and reading in school?
I enjoyed it quite a bit and I found every opportunity I could. Like at your school I would try and be on Kidsday because that’s pretty cool. When I was in school I was always trying, like in junior high school, which is what we use to call middle school, we had school newspaper. So I worked on that and I used to like to write stories that made my friends go, "you tricked me" — like putting a twist at the end. I had a lot of fun doing that.
Tami Koller’s fourth-grade class, Aquebogue Elementary School