Welcome Back, Writer/ Author David Parmelee!
David was one of my first guests when I joined 4F, 1H. I asked him to join us because he had just had his first novel published. It is based on actual events during the American Civil War: “The Sea is a Thief”
[link to interview: https://fourfoxesonehound.wordpress.com/2013/04/12/3052/]
Although I don’t ask guests to return when they have simply had a new work released, David has just had a work published in a different genre, the completely fictional Middle Grade book, “Miss Feesenschneezen Is Ill”.
Welcome back, David!
Please tell our readers the charming story of how you put this project together over the years. (How Miss Feesenschneezen, et al, were ‘born’.)
The Sea Is a Thief was published in 2013 and written the two years or so prior. You know how long it takes after you “finish” a book for it to be taken up by a publisher and find its way into print. The seed for Miss Feesenschneezen Is Ill was actually planted in September 2004, when our daughter Andrea was in fourth grade. For no particular reason, one day I decided to spin a little yarn for her about how teacher would be out sick and require a substitute. I searched for “cartoon teacher” and a found a wonderfully random assortment of images: first, a tiny little woman with a pointer. A stout mustachioed fellow wearing a vest teaching Math (in Hebrew). Then a man in a suit with a leopard-skin shoulder throw. A menacing spinster. Two men wearing ties chasing each other down the hall. Finally, a penguin in a graduation mortarboard. I would caption these with a couple of paragraphs about how the teacher was still out, and the chaos that would ensue because of the bizarre substitute. I wrote then very fast between 7 and 8 in the morning as she would get ready for school, and put them in her lunchbox. One day in 2015 or so I re-discovered them and thought to myself, “These really are sort of charming and funny. There might be a little book in them.” Andrea agreed. By then she was theatre and film design student at University of the Arts in Philadelphia. I changed a few of the characters and expanded the story quite a bit, but I’m astonished to re-read the originals and discover how closely the final book matches the outline I sketched out in those little vignettes written for our fourth-grader.
This is a big change from your last book, David. You are a father of four, your youngest is about to graduate from high school. Had you planned on writing for the younger set, [M. G., ages 8-12], or was this just a continuation of the original story?
The book definitely sprouted from the vignettes written for my daughter when she was the age of the intended audience. In a broader sense, I taught eighth grade for a year and have taught the eighth grade Confirmation class at our parish for 23. I have always loved kids of any age. To watch our own children learn and grow was an experience nothing short of miraculous. Other than our youngest, all have been strong readers, and our two girls truly love books and literature as adults, as they did growing up. For that reason it’s a particular delight for me to serve up something that kids will enjoy. I like to say it’s written for smart grade-schoolers who like to read, and have their own opinions about school.
“Miss Feesenschneezen Is Ill” is filled with humor, but there are life lessons throughout the story, am I correct?
Thank you so saying so! Funny is good, at least on this planet. Yes, I have discovered some higher meanings in the story. I didn’t focus on that at all during the writing—the story was driving itself down a mountain road with sketchy brakes and no guardrails. When I sat back, long after Sunbury [Sunbury Press]taken on the book and I was looking at details like choosing an epigraph, I recalled lyrics to “Days Between,” a haunting ballad by the Grateful Dead, with lyrics by Robert Hunter. The Dead are my music. Here’s the lyric:
There were days
and there were days
and there were days I know
when all we ever wanted
was to learn and love and grow
Once we grew into our shoes
we told them where to go
walked halfway around the world
on promise of the glow
stood upon a mountain top
walked barefoot in the snow
gave the best we had to give
how much we’ll never know, we’ll never know
Pulling out the line about shoes: “Once we grew into our shoes, and told them where to go.” There’s nothing as adorable as little kids’ shoes. They are so tiny and remind as of how very small fully-formed humans with independent thought really are. Plus, kids’ shoes are colorful, and tell a story about the personality and ideas of the wearer. My takeaway is that during our youth, it’s our job to decide who we are—to form an identity. It begins to happen at an incredibly early age, looking back in it. Once we set out on that course it is unlikely to change altogether. The job of schools is to help with that process, while they teach us things. Schools are run by adults. Sadly, once we become adults, we forget about the process of deciding who we are and fail to understand it anymore. We can only marvel at it from a distance. This is why school can seem so absurd to a child. Miss Feesenschneezen still understands, though, and that is what makes her so special, and effective. My kids have all had marvelous teachers who understood that, too. We treasure them. Many of the things I say about Miss F. are based on the characteristics of real teachers. Among my favorite moments is the conversation between Miss F. and the five high-level physicians, in which she is telling them how wonderful and bright her students are. They have a pleasant moment as they recall the teachers who thought of them as wonderful and bright–and that is part of the reason they are high-level physicians today. That, and exceptional ability, of course.
My wife’s contribution was her consultation on Miss F.’s tour through the medical system. She is a family physician and has experienced firsthand the difficulties of American medicine in its current state, among them the “defensive medicine” doctors must practice in today’s litigious climate. Thus a teacher with a simple cold ends up out for a week, and consulting at a university research hospital. It’s ridiculous, of course, but not as much as you might think.
In the end we couldn’t use that epigraph because it’s tough to reach Robert Hunter, and you need his permission. But there it is for you.
[ Most people do not realize how little of songs can be published in books or used in movies without permission.-T]
For those who did not join us for your first visit, David, we’ll give full disclosure that you are a relative, married to a dear cousin of mine. I remember her mother telling mine decades ago that you had aspirations to be a writer. Have you been writing all along? Did you have the time or inclination to put your thoughts down?
I didn’t actually know she had said that! How good that is to know. I believe Mark Twain, one of my idols, didn’t start until his 40’s. I didn’t until over 50. I could never face my own work. What if it was really bad, or dumb? I couldn’t tell because I was too close to it, and I feared being bad. What changed everything was when the first close friends read drafts of The Sea Is a Thief and told me it was good. I knew they weren’t just being nice. I sort of threw myself into the pool to see if I could swim, and people swam up beside me to tell me I would be OK. It’s a huge thing. I admire people who have so much self-confidence they can produce art that isn’t great, without self-doubt. It does give us mediocre art, though. I’ve done a lot of theatre, and seen enough bad plays, that I’ve begun to write plays. Then you see a Tennessee Williams production and you just want to go hide, of course. But there are only so many great writers, and they are not the only ones people enjoy. It’s pretty good to be pretty good. I will never keep a journal, though. Not for me.
[Lack of confidence seems to be a family trait, David. -T]
The incredible illustrations for “Miss Feesenschneezen Is Ill” are by Maria DeCerce. How did you meet her?
Isn’t she the very best? I think she’s a genius. Our daughter began her university career at SCAD in Savannah, and I knew they attracted fine illustrators. I became a “SCAD Employer,” which involves putting a sort of want ad on their webstore and waiting for artists to respond. Of course their work can be seen online. As soon as I saw Maria’s drawings I knew it was a match made in heaven. It turns out her sense of humor, tinged with a whimsical sarcasm, is a great match for my own. And she has a wonderful habit of hiding little “Easter eggs” in the illustrations: tiny details that may or may not be relevant, but are always fun. Very few of the kids’ t-shirts are blank, for example. The chalkboards are covered with detail.
How much do her pictures agree with your mental images of the characters and scenes? Were the drawings done after the manuscript was finished? If not: Did her pictures influence your story on any way?
It was tough for me not to be bossy and tell Maria, “This character must wear this vest.” I tried to avoid it, and I hope I did. I offered plenty of raw material in the form of descriptions, but she took her own path, while staying very respectful to my intentions. She is fantastic to work with. For such a talent, she is exceptionally humble about the partnership. She was devoted to doing her homework and discovering really worthwhile detail to include—much of it never imagined by me. Ghanaian flags, maps of Belgium, etc. The book was complete when she got it, but because illustrations are so integral to a chapter book for kids, it can be said that the details in the pictures are indeed part of the story. She added many! Among my favorites are “The Floor of Shame.” That one was all Maria. I love the look of all the characters. She nailed it, for sure. They’re gorgeous. One random student she drew is such a cool persona that he’s become a character in the next book.
You have previously published non-fiction books on marketing. Can you tell us something about them?
Actually not books, but training in person. I train salespeople and sales managers in the workplace, one-on-one and in groups. This year I’ve recorded some audio to accompany that process. You’ll find really good books on that subject in airports. Lots of businesspeople!
[Whoops, I saw them on Amazon and made an assumption! I need to do better research!-T]
I found non-fiction writing to be easier than fiction, although many do not. What is your opinion?
I wrote op-ed columns for two years and loved it. It took me forever because I never wanted to get a letter to the editor in which some fellow citizen made a point I hadn’t considered, and overcame my argument with it. It would take me five hours to write a 750-word column.
I really appreciated writing historical fiction because the facts provided boundaries. As an author you don’t have unlimited choices; you must obey the historical narrative. That makes life so much easier. Plus, the real story is probably way more interesting that what you might create out of whole cloth. Tom Clancy had terrorists flying empty planes into the White House and the Capitol; he never thought of them flying fully-occupied planes, because Tom Clancy has a soul and a conscience. Fact can be better than fiction, or, as they say, “you can’t make this stuff up.”
I remember that you were fortunate enough to find a publisher right away for “The Sea is a Thief”. Did you have any obstacles in getting “Miss Feesenschneezen Is Ill” published?
It took about a year for the first novel. I felt lucky indeed. Among the joys of working with Lawrence Knorr is that he is “local.” I’ve spent a lot of time in the Harrisburg region where he’s based. Great people. So easy to work with. I knew he published a limited number of children’s books, and when I sent him Miss Feesenschneezen he took it on right away. He liked the title, too. I suppose this is the biggest benefit of being a second-time author—somebody knows you!
Do you have an agent?
I don’t. I researched this, and a lot of folks said it’s as hard to get an agent as to find a publisher, so I eliminated the middleman. Nothing against agents—it just seemed more efficient. Publishing seems to be changing so fast. I don’t claim to understand it.
[There are publications and publishers who won’t touch work that is unagented. It is horribly difficult to get a complete play read without an agent.-T]
What types of works can we expect to see from you in the future, or are you just going to leave it up to where your muse takes you? (I find myself writing in genres I never expected.)
Miss Feesenschneezen is back, and she isn’t going away! The second adventure is Miss Feesenschneezen Is Fit. Principal Armstrong decides the school needs a fitness initiative, starting with the President’s Physical Fitness Challenge, a test many of us learned to dread during our school years. It doesn’t exist anymore, but I bring it back. She and the PE teacher, Mr. Fulcrum, must find ways to get the kids interested in fitness after they reject the fitness challenge, so they bring in a series of fitness “experts,” almost all of whom fail in turn. The ones who succeed do so for reasons we all can understand. There’s some tie-in to the first Feesenschneezen, too. And I bring in the much-maligned (for good reasons) “healthy lunch” programs initiated by First Lady Michelle Obama. I know her intentions were good, but the results were not. Miss Feesenschneezen sticks around the whole time for this story.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?
It is a true joy to share this with readers. Writing is work, always done alone. Nothing makes hours disappear like losing yourself in writing, does it? Sharing conversation about the book is pure fun. Jimmy Stewart talked about meeting fans of his films who would tell him about a certain moment they thought was especially good. He would think back to the day they shot that moment on the set, and recall that he had thought at the time that it was pretty good, too. That brought him joy. Same with me talking about the books.
How can our readers find out more about your works?
I always make a Facebook page now. Both books have one. www.sunburypress.com has my stuff, and of course all the other good things they are doing. Naturally we’re on amazon. Reviews are worth their weight in gold!
Thank you so much for joining us again, David and best of luck with “Miss Feesenschneezen Is Ill” !
Bless you, Tonette!