Thoughts on Writing from the Author of The Mighty Lalouche

NOTE FROM STACEY: Matthew Olshan wrote The Mighty Lalouche specifically for illustrator Sophie Blackall to illustrate since he was familiar with her fascination of turn-of-the-century boxers.  My interest was piqued by this author-illustrator collaborations, so I eagerly anticipated the review copy.  Once I received the The Mighty Lalouche I was captivated by Olshan’s impeccable word choices and the exquisite illustrations done in the tatebanko style, which is a Japanese paper diorama art style.  Top off the fact that I’m a Francophile and I knew I had to feature this book on Two Writing Teachers.  Olshan is a multi-dimensional writer who is a novelist and an op-ed writer.  Therefore, I wanted him to share his diverse writing life with you in a guest blog post today.

THE MIGHTY LALOUCHE_cover imageI.   Sometimes a fictional character will leap fully formed into your imagination: for instance, a tiny French postman in billowing trunks and adorable boxing booties.

This presents an interesting challenge. You ask yourself: who is this plucky little fellow? How did he come to be such a brilliant boxer? Who is that huge bald man lying on the canvas? And, while we’re at it, what’s with the finch?

These mysteries may lead you to bury your own beak in research. You know your man’s French because his name is Lalouche. (The name is one of the first things you’re absolutely sure of.) And you know the story is set late in the 19th century from the opening line, which sounded in your ears a few moments after you first pictured a child-sized boxing glove raised in victory.

This is already a lot to know, but there’s much more to learn before you’re ready to sit down at your writing desk.

For instance, what was boxing like in Paris back then? (Your research reveals that La Boxe Francaise, or French boxing, actually emphasized kicking over punching.)

And what’s the deal with those incredibly cool electric cars you keep coming across in old French postcards? (Early electric cars were quiet and fast; the French invented a new word to describe them: “automobile!”)

A seemingly irrelevant detail, like the French obsession with electric cars, may suggest an interesting plot twist: Lalouche is fired because the post office is “modernizing.”

But what’s this? Lalouche is suddenly out of a job? What will he do? How will he feed his beloved finch? (Whose name, it occurs to you, is obviously Genevieve.)

What if, walking down the rain-slick cobbles of Paris, Lalouche sees a help-wanted poster for a sparring partner? Maybe the same skills that made him a great postman — his nimble hands, his speed, his strength — make him invincible in the boxing ring…

II.  For me, the process of writing fiction is like heaping up a mountain of sand. It’s a blind, bumbling enterprise full of maddening fits and starts. Characters appear out of nowhere, demanding attention; the work of six months can suddenly un-knot itself and vanish.

Novels are the worst: they mine you from within, incessantly, sometimes for years, until they’re either done — meaning you simply can’t stand to work on them anymore — or they prove themselves a long-winded, terrible mistake.

Kids stories are easier. Like poems, even the tricky ones, such as sonnets and sestinas, they present a much more manageable form. They’re simpler, both in the questions they pose and the energy they release.

In other words, you’ll know much quicker if the motivating idea behind them is good, or a clinker.

III.   Four years ago, I started writing a weekly op-ed column for The Perry County Times and its affiliated papers in southcentral Pennsylvania.

 My wife and I had bought a little farm on Shermans Creek, just over Blue Mountain from the Cumberland valley, which our young daughter named “Pencil Creek” because the word “Pennsylvania” sounded like “pencil” to her. Pencil Creek was our retreat from urban life in Baltimore, where we live most of the time. It was an experiment in rural living, and a social experiment, as well. Perry County is one of the most conservative enclaves in Pennsylvania, a far cry from the liberal environs of Johns Hopkins University.

How would we fit in? What would our neighbors be like? How many of them would be Mennonites or Amish? For that matter, how many ticks would hitch a ride on our basset hound, as we dragged her, protesting, through the field grass like a big blood sausage?

I was full of questions, but it wasn’t until one day when my pickup truck was denied access to the local carwash, on account of being too dirty (long story, won’t go into it here), that I was moved to write about life at Pencil Creek.

So far, I haven’t missed a week in four years. That’s a lot of columns!

There’s something to be said for a weekly deadline. Whatever’s happening in the rest of my writing life — whether I’m becalmed in the middle of a novel, or obsessively Googling the title of a new book — I know that come Thursday, I’ll be sitting down at my desk; meditating on the most important, or interesting, or annoying thing that happened that week; and trying to squeeze it, or stretch it, into 800 words of acceptable prose. At the end of the day, I will have a column. That’s not up for debate.

The only question is a qualitative one: i.e., how good can I make it?

A novel, or for that matter, a kids story, poses an existential challenge. It asks: can this be made at all?


Click on the link (below) to get a look at how The Mighty Lalouche was created.


Giveaway Information:

  • Many thanks to Random House for sponsoring this giveaway. One commenter will win a copy of The Mighty Lalouche by Matthew Olshan and Sophie Blackall.
  • To enter for a chance to win a copy please leave a comment on this post about any aspect of Olshan’s guest post or about the The Mighty Lalouche.
  • All comments left on or before Friday, June 21st at 11:59 p.m. EDT will be entered into a random drawing using a random number generator on Sunday, June 23rd. I will announce the winners’ names at the bottom of this post later that day.
  • Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, my contact at Random House will ship the book out to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you only leave it in the e-mail field.)

FROM STACEY:  Comments are now closed.  Thanks to those of you who left comments on Matthew Olshan’s guest blog post.  Lisa Keeler’s commenter number drawn so she’ll win a copy of The Mighty Lalouche.  Here’s what Lisa said:

We introduce our third and fourth graders to fiction writing in the spring. It is probably the most difficult genre to try to teach and many teachers feel uneasy with it. As I read Matthew Olsham’s thoughts on writing fiction, it occurred to me that teachers at my school might find what he has to say about characters and questions authors work through as they develop plot helpful. His reflections also remind me that I Iearn more about how I want to teach writing as I continue to work on my own writing.(I’m participating in Teachers Write again this summer.) Thanks for this post.