Interview with Josh Berk

I haven’t done an interview for a while, and thought it was nigh time I did. So here in the blog is Josh Berk, author of The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin, which launches this week from Knopf Books for Young Readers and has already been given a smattering of stars by reviewers. This is Josh’s first book, and it’s a great one.

Dark Days reminded me of reading Three Investigators books when I was a kid… those were my poison, not the Hardy Boys (which are oft alluded too in DDoHH). It has all the spills and thrills of any mystery a kid reads by night under the covers with a flashlight because it’s just not possible to stop reading until you’re done, but it’s a contemporary story at the same time, and it transcends a formulaic mystery with characters and quirkiness and subplots that make it feel more classic.

The hero, Will Halpin (Hamburger is his IM name) is the hearing-impaired, round-bellied progeny of Holden Caulfield and Harriet Welsch. Well, he doesn’t match Holden’s cynicism, but he has his all-seeing critical eye and (like Harriet) records much of what he sees (and lip-reads) to his notebook. What Will has that Holden lacks is an essential need to belong, a desire to be liked even by kids he knows aren’t worth the trouble. That makes him likable and completely human.

When he leaves deaf school for public school (mostly for political reasons), he quickly concedes that his only pal will be a mutual outcast, the goofy Devon Smiley who sports a pony-tail and talks like somebody out of The Great Gatsby. He also realizes soon after that Devon is a much better friend than anyone in the complex social hierarchy at Coaler High School, with the gorgeous Leigha Pennington and the self-assured and obnoxious Pat Chambers at the apex. Those two break up, Pat meets with an “accident,” and as Will’s ex-girlfriend from the deaf school signs, “the game is afoot.” Devon, Will, and Ebony (the ex) are on the case.

There are plenty of LOLs and LOL2BIFTLOLISs along the way, but there’s a good caper here, too, with an excellent ending. Don’t let the deaf hero fool you — this is no “problem novel” about a kid with disabilities. Will would absolutely hate that.

K: I want to start with mysteries and secrets. They abound in your debut novel. What are some of your favorite mysteries? And, for that matter, what are some of your favorite secrets? Don’t worry, only like thirty people read this blog and only about half of them know you.

J: As a kid I actually hardly ever read The Hardy Boys, despite the fact that my book makes reference to them about a hundred times. I was an Encyclopedia Brown man myself. As an adult, my favorite mystery novelist is Kinky Friedman, the former country musician and candidate for Governor of Texas. His books are hilariously weird mysteries and I think he’s a fantastic writer. I also like TV mysteries like CSI and Monk quite a bit. I feel like authors aren’t supposed to watch TV but I learned a lot about how to structure a mystery, how to plant clues, introduce suspects, etc. from those types of shows. And maybe a few (hundred) Law & Order marathons.

Favorite secrets? Some of the stuff in the book about Will discovering long-lost relatives probably came to me because I not very long ago found out that I have a very cool aunt I never knew I had. It’s not exactly a deep family secret, but my grandfather re-married after he divorced my grandmother and had a whole second family I never knew existed. It was sort of a shock to find out that these other Berks were running around in the world and I drew off that a bit, having Will find out about some relatives he never knew he had.

Another family secret is that my son is a Yankees fan. I don’t know where he got that from and I shouldn’t have let that out. [Editors note: the editor showed extreme control by not inserting a comment here. – Ed.]

K: I know that you aren’t deaf and that you don’t have anyone in your family who is deaf, so how did you come to write about a protagonist who was? How much did you immerse yourself in the HoH world? Did you do anything like walk around with ear plugs to live the experience?

J: It came to me in a dream! It really did and I wish I had a better answer, but that’s the truth. I woke up remembering just one scene really, of sitting on a school bus spying on kids in the back. And it had that spooky dream feel, like something sinister was happening. I was in the mood to try a new YA novel and the fact that this was on a school bus where something spooky happened sparked me to ask myself more questions. The line of questions went like this: What sinister thing happened on the bus? How was this student able to spy on his classmates from afar? What if he was reading lips? Could I write a book from the point of view of a deaf student?

It seemed like a crazy idea at first, but the more questions I asked myself, the more interesting possibilities presented themselves. So I ran with it, despite having no knowledge of the subject or any real idea what I was doing. I didn’t walk around with ear plugs, but I did spend a few weeks where all day long I couldn’t stop thinking “how would this be different if I was deaf?” I’d come home and work that into the book. And then I did some more traditional research too — chatting with deaf people online, reading books on the subject, and consulting with a deaf librarian.

K: You’re a youth services librarian. I heard another author/librarian talking recently about how his interactions with young readers shapes his work. Is that true for you? Is there anything that came about because of interactions you have with young readers?

Note: I know our readers might be confused by that so let me clarify that Josh is (a) a dude and (b) a children’s librarian.

J: I actually don’t work in children’s services very much anymore because I’ve moved on to library administration. This means that I sit in an office and wear a tie and got to meetings about library policy and state subsidy re-allocations. It’s even more exciting than it sounds. Actually I rarely wear a tie. But sometimes they still let me do storytimes!  And being a librarian certainly shaped the kind of writer I’ve become. I wasn’t even very much aware of young adult literature as a thing until I went to library school and took a YA lit class. It made me realize that a lot of the types of stories I was playing around with writing would work much better as YA than adult books. We had to read something like 40 YA books that semester, lots of Printz Award winners, and a whole host of fantastic authors. So that was the first major influence. I started writing my first YA novel (it didn’t sell) pretty much right after I finished Rob Thomas’ RATS SAW GOD.

And although I don’t get to interact with young readers very much anymore, I certainly did while working on DARK DAYS. It was really fun to listen to kids talk about what books they liked, what they hated, and why. Also it was fun to just watch kids interact with each other and to listen to them talk. Basically I spied on them for details to make the book feel modern. It was quite enlightening!

K: Setting and family history both play into DDOHH. Is any of that based on your own family history in the mining country of Pennsylvania? Maybe historical sites you visited as a kid, similar to the one Will’s class visits? And if not, can you say something else interesting about your hometown so this question doesn’t bomb?

J: I grew up (and still live) just outside Allentown PA, which is just outside of “coal country.” The part of my family from Pennsylvania weren’t coal miners (rather Jews from Philadelphia) but I’ve always been sort of fascinated by the history of coal mining because it all happened just a few miles from here. It’s a fascinating history, full of strikes and cave-ins and ghosts and legends. “Happy Memory Coal Mine,” the old mine that Will and his class go on in the book, is based directly on the Lackawanna Coal Mine Tour in Scranton, PA. And yes! I did visit there as a kid. It was a summer camp field trip when I was probably about ten years old. You get to wear a miner’s helmet and ride in a coal cart underground. Highly recommended. And best was the part where we all stood around in the total darkness. That made a big impression on me. I probably didn’t care much about the history of coal mining at the time, but I really remember loving that part where we stood in the cool blackness a hundred feet underground. As soon as I had the idea to write a book where a student disappeared I immediately thought of that place.

K: I think you have another book or two in the works. What are their titles, and how are they connected to your first novel?

J: I am currently working on editing my second YA novel for Knopf. The tentative title is GUY LANGMAN: CRIME SCENE PROCRASTINATOR. It’s not a sequel or in any way connected to DARK DAYS other than that it’s also a funny mystery about a high school kid who finds himself at the middle of a mystery in his high school. It’s all new characters and a new setting, but quite a bit of the same kind of humor and intrigue.

K: As I always like to ask my guests, what’s the pet situation in the Berk household?

J: The Berk household is overrun with Boston Terriers. OK, there are only two, and they are small dogs, but they get into everything and it seems like we live with a herd of them. The female (Lily) only has one eye and hates everyone but me. The male (Oliver) loves everyone and is always happy and well-behaved, possibly because he was a stray before we took him in and now he lives like a king. He spends most of his life having his belly scratched and sleeping on fancy pillows.

K: And a bonus question–how’s the snake situation?

J: It’s been a cold Pennsylvania winter so no snakes in recent months! I’m sure come Spring they’ll be slithering all over my yard, scaring the wits out of the dogs (and their owner).

Find out more about Josh and his work at http://joshberkbooks.com or follow him on Twitter @joshberkbooks.

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