In Conversation With Brian Meehl Former Puppeteer on Sesame Street & Now Author
Reviewer & Author Interviewer, Norm Goldman. Norm is the Publisher & Editor of Bookpleasures.com.
He has been reviewing books for the past fifteen years when he retired from the legal profession.
To read more about Norm Follow Here
Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest Brian Meehl. Brian was a puppeteer on Sesame Street and in Jim Henson films, including The Dark Crystal.
His transition from
puppets to pen included writing for television shows such as The
Magic School Bus and Between the Lions, for
which he won three Emmys.
He has written several awarding-winning novels for Random House: Out of Patience, Suck It Up, Suck It Up and Die, and You Don’t Know About Me. Out of Patience was a Junior Library Guild Selection. You Don’t Know About Me won a Blue Ribbon from the Bulletin for the Center for Children’s Books. Two of his novels earned starred reviews in Publishers Weekly.
His most recent novel Blowback '07 has just been published.
Norm: Good day Brian and thanks for participating in our interview:
What do you consider to be your greatest success (or successes) so far in your career and what has been your greatest challenge (professionally) that you’ve overcome in getting to where you’re at today?
Brian: The first book (firstborn?) for any writer is very exciting. It was especially fun for me after a two-decades career as a performer. Out of Patience holds a special place in my heart for that reason, and also because it’s my paean to my Midwestern upbringing.
The book that’s been my bestseller (So far!) is Suck It Up, which was a hoot to write as it started with such a fun premise: What’s the last minority with special needs that needs to be recognized and embraced by multicultural America? Vampires. After all, isn’t staking a hate crime?
Norm: How did you get started as a puppeteer and what was it like working on Sesame Street and Jim Henson?
Brian: I fluked into it. I was a body-puppeteering mime in a Broadway show called Mummenschanz, and the Muppets were looking for a body-puppeteer to play Barkley the dog on Sesame.
I got the part and when Henson asked me if I wanted to learn how to do hand puppets, I said, “As long as I can do the voices.” I’d always loved doing voices and wasn’t a huge fan of puppets, but I wasn’t gonna look a gift-Kermit in the mouth. I had a great string of about six years on Sesame and in Henson films and then, right before Fraggle Rock started up, pulled outta puppets and tilted at other adventures.
Norm: How did you get started in writing and did your talents as a puppeteer help you in becoming a writer? As a follow up, did you read any special books on how to write?
Brian: Well, the need for
a paycheck pulled me back into puppets for a bit (Eureka’s
Castle) but I made a deal with the puppetmasters: "I’ll
wiggle your dollies as long as I can also write for the show.”
That’s how I began my transition from puppets to pen. It was good
timing because with a wife and young kids the 30-second commute in
your socks sure beat long days of hurry-up-and-wait in a television
Great books on writing? My
three favorites were/are The Elements of Style by Strunk
and White, Shakespeare’s Game by William Gibson,
and The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler.
Norm: Do you write stories to express something you believe or are they just for entertainment?
Brian: Definitely some of both. I often write with a humorous, tongue-in-cheek voice, and humor, especially satiric humor, is expressing an opinion via the end run of humor. I am an optimist and a meliorist (got that one from Somerset Maugham) so my stories do express a certain hopefulness for the human condition.
Norm: What helps you focus when you write?
Brian: Silence. I can’t write with music or human voices distracting me. I’m too much of an eavesdropper - writers’ curse. It’s just a matter of revving up my IFs (imaginary friends) and letting them hold forth.
Norm: What's the most difficult thing for you about being a writer?
Brian: Stopping the research and beginning to write. I use research as a springboard to ideas and there’s nothing more fun than the brainstorming part of writing a story. From a basket of explorables to beginning to write is always a bit daunting.
Norm: What did you find
most useful in learning to write and what was least useful or most
Brian: The absolutely most useful thing in learning to write is rewriting. In fact, you can call me just that, a “rewriter.” Least useful or destructive? Hard and fast rules like, in writing a screenplay, “The ‘inciting incident’ must happen in the first ten pages.” Gimme a break. It’s not paint by numbers.
Norm: Do you write more by logic or intuition, or some combination of the two? Summarize your writing process.
Brian: Writing is daydreaming. Can you separate logic and intuition in daydreaming? Let’s just say that Fred Astaire is Logic and Ginger Rogers is Intuition. You gotta let ‘em dance together.
Okay, if I must put a more pragmatic spin on it…Once I have a kernel of an idea, my writing process begins by 1) reading other books - non-fiction and fiction - that relate to the idea, 2) scribbling little brain puffs in the margins of those books, 3) taking all those ideas to a outline or treatment and, last but not least, letting the characters get “off treatment” and speak their minds, hearts, etc.
Why dialogue last? You can
spin forever doing dialogue. Wait till the end when you’re drafting
and you’ll save a lot of “killing babies” time.
Norm: Can you share a little of your current work, Blowback '07 with us?
Brian: Wow, that sounds like I’m supposed to read from the book. Okay, maybe that won’t work here. Unless I just plug in an excerpt and go have lunch. No, wait, I got it, “share.”
Blowback ’07 was a perfect example of the dangers of research. Wait, back up. I had already written a screenplay and novella (Pastime) about a superstar MLB player who gets jettisoned back to 1944 to play ball, so I already had the sports history time travel thing.
Then I read an incredible book about the Carlisle Indian football teams of very early 1900 and how they, along with their coach Pop Warner, saved and transformed football into the modern game. I was hooked on the history, and immediately wanted to send another hotshot athlete (this time high school) back to 1907 (the pivotal year for the Carlisle Indians and football), beat the crap out of the poor kid, and tell a story about how a past time and place reset this kid’s inner compass.
Can I go to lunch now?
Norm: What were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them?
Brian: Guess not. Well to make a short story long, I got so wrapped up in brainstorming Blowback ’07 it turned into a trilogy with multi protagonists. My intentions are pretty much two-fold: 1) give the reader a page-turner and 2) open a great big historical fiction window to a riveting time and place: The Carlisle Indian School in 1907. I’m very happy with the first leg of the Blowbackstool, and am almost done with the second, so, yeah, the jury’s still out on the whole stool.
Norm: What was the most difficult part of writing this book and what did you enjoy most about writing this book?
Brian: The most difficult - as it grew into a trilogy - was dovetailing the story of the protagonist (the hotshot quarterback) of the the first book with the story of two twins (Iris and Arky) who are the protagonists of the 3-book series. I felt like Ginger dancing backwards. What did I enjoy most? Figuring out how to do the dovetailing, and looking forward to a lot more backward dancing in the next two books.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your work?
Brian: For the Blowback trilogy it’s best to go to blowbacktrilogy.com. For my previous books, brianmeehl.com. I have twin websites ‘cause I’m a twin too. A lot of bifurcation in my life.
Norm: What is next for Brian Meehl?
Brian: Hope to do a last draft (such sweet words!) on Blowback ’63 (book 2) this fall and winter and have it out by next fall.
Norm: As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
Brian: So, what’s Blowback
The next book is very cool! In the spring of 1863, around Fredericksburg, Virginia, the Union and Confederate armies had been camped all winter on opposite banks of a narrow river. “Baseball fever broke out in camp” and both sides were playing a ton of baseball (a rather different game then) and trash-talking each other across the river.
This all before they dropped their bats, picked up their muskets and starting killing each other again in the Battle of Chancellorsville. So, in the Blowback trilogy, another modern teenager, a troubled baseball pitcher, gets sent back, along with his buddy Arky, to 1863 and are pressed into the Union Army a couple weeks before the big battle. The Civil War, baseball, a couple of knucklehead boys scrambling for their lives, what could be better than that?
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors
Brian: Thank you for putting up with me. In the mood for lunch?