Author Spotlight: Joe McGee

© J.M. Cooper

August 7, 2015

Today we are pleased to feature author JOE McGEE and his debut picture book, PEANUT BUTTER AND BRAINS.

Be sure to enter the giveaway for a free copy of his book at the end of this interview!

Welcome, Joe!

©2015 Words by Joe McGee ©2015 Pictures by Charles Santoso

Tell us about your background and how you became a writer.

This is kind of a long story, but I’ll try and condense it as much as possible. So, I grew up as a voracious reader and with a natural affinity for storytelling. I was the kid reading the tabloids aloud as my mother held me on her hip in the grocery checkout line. 

In 4th grade (and this is when I really feel it started) I was one of a few kids from the entire school to be selected to attend a regional “Young Authors’ Day.” A few children from each school were sent to a day-long series of creative writing workshops. I wrote superhero stories, puppet plays, short stories and mythological retellings. This triggered something in me and I knew that I wanted to grow up to tell stories and be a published author. By 6th grade, I was writing short stories in spiral-bound notebooks and holding readings at recess. Kids would gather in this brick alcove to hear me read my work aloud.

I kept writing, studying the craft, gathering some small press publications under my belt and winning some awards that really gave me the confidence to keep pushing forward. Life came along and took me on a detour: I went into the Army as a platoon leader; jumped out of planes, lived in Korea, played soldier. I fell into a decade of electrical construction. But I never lost the desire, the dream, and one day I woke up and realized that I had strayed too far from who I was and what I wanted. 

I went back to school for my Master of Arts in Writing at Rowan University, where I graduated with the Outstanding Master of Arts in Writing Award, awards for my fiction and poetry and, more importantly, a realization that I had a voice, a knack, and a love for writing for children. I took several classes with Lisa Jahn-Clough, a children’s author with a ton of publications (picture book through YA) under her belt who really opened the door for me. She helped me realize my potential for the world of writing for children. Following her guidance, I applied to the Vermont College of Fine Arts’ Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. I was accepted into the program and was honored to receive a merit scholarship for my work.

Wanting to be a well-rounded writer, able to run the gamut of the children’s writing world, I took a picture book intensive semester right off the bat. Based off of the work I did in that semester, and immersing myself in the field and world of publishing (i.e. seizing intern/reader positions, reading agent blogs, and connecting/being active), I secured my agent, Linda Epstein of the Jennifer DeChiara literary agency. We were able to sell the book rather quickly and here I am.

©2015 Charles Santoso

Could you tell us a little bit about PEANUT BUTTER AND BRAINS?

Peanut Butter & Brains is about celebrating your identity and not being afraid to be yourself, to separate from the crowd, to go against the grain…in other words, to stop feeling forced to comply, to be a sheep. It’s about being true to yourself. 

In the book, Reginald, a zombie, does not want to eat brains like all the other zombies. No, he wants a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He is not content to just shuffle along with the rest of the horde. He is not afraid to stand out (because, let’s face it, that’s difficult for children). I want kids to understand that it’s ok to be different than everyone else. They don’t have to do what everyone else is doing. This is a great time for diversity and celebrating individuality and that is exactly what this book is about: celebrating individuality.

How did you get the inspiration for this book?

My middle son, Logan, was going through a tough time where he was apparently not wearing the sneakers that all the "cool kids" were wearing (which were, incidentally, Lebron James sneakers) and so he was being teased and given a hard time by some of the kids in the neighborhood. It really bothered him and so, it bothered me. Up until this time, he had never seemed to care about doing what everyone else was doing and I have pretty much NEVER cared about doing what everyone else was doing, and so it really struck a chord. 

Since we both love zombies, I started thinking about zombies, and about people who just shuffle along with what everyone else is doing, not thinking for themselves, and I was hungry for peanut butter (because I seriously crave peanut butter) and .... BAM! Story idea. WHAT IF (favorite words EVER) there was a zombie who did NOT want to eat brains like the rest of the crowd...but wanted peanut butter and jelly instead? And there you have it, story inspiration.

What is your typical process for writing? 

My process? I’m not even sure I have a process. But, with picture books especially, I think visually. What this means is that I get an idea for a book, and I kind of see it big picture…literally, in pictures. Then, I draw out a map of the book in little squares that represent the pages. I do this on a big piece of newsprint paper, this way I can see where the page turns are, and the spreads, and where I am with pacing. Then, I begin to write the book. I will literally put “Page 1-3: Front Matter” and then “Page 4: [whatever is going on here, or dialogue or whatever].” When I write the manuscript for submission, both for my agent AND for editors, this is what I do, because this is how I envision it. Yes, I am very careful to not take the illustrator’s job. I rarely put illustrator’s notes, but I am pretty good at hitting the pacing and flow of the story this way.

I try to make sure that my words are illustratively evocative. That’s a term that should be coined, I think: “Illustratively evocative.” I want to conjure images in the illustrator’s mind and have them salivating to hit the pages with the ideas they have. I’m an amateur cartoonist and an illustrative dabbler, so I understand the connect between spark and art.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Advice? Well, I will say this: Do not be afraid to take risks, to take a chance. What’s the worst that can happen? You’ll fail? You’ll get rejected? That’s more than you’ll get than if you do nothing. You learn from your failures, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and try again. Fear of failure stops most people from trying. 

Also, this: Don’t be afraid to add another ball to the mix. Already juggling four? Yeah, you’re comfortable. The fifth is scary, what if you drop them? Don’t know until you try. I was going through VCFA grad school, teaching university classes, father to three boys, writing, blogging for Project Mayhem and an opportunity came along to intern for JDLit as a reader. I said “yes.” That led me to finding the opportunity with Linda and having the connection to get an inside track on having my work read. Had I said, “no, I have too much going on,” I might still be unagented and/or unpublished. 

Now, this being said, my last piece of advice is learn when to say “No.” This is a “no” to anything that is not writing related. Stop watching TV, don’t feel obligated to attend every social/family event, hang up the video game controller, give up sports, etc, etc…time is finite. What are your priorities?

People can keep up with what is going on, events, news, etc, on my website

What is something that people don't know about you?

One thing people don’t know about me….I’ll give you two:

a. When my mother was pregnant with me, she was bitten by a spider monkey. That makes me part spider monkey. Ok, I don’t know if that last part is true, but the first part is. My parents had a pet monkey. Why? I don’t know, it was the 70s. The monkey was jealous of my mom and so when my dad went to work (he was in the Air Force at the time), the monkey would chase and attack my mom. It bit her and now, I am super human-monkey boy. Seriously, I can climb very well.

b. I cannot blow bubbles. This is primarily why I do NOT chew gum, that and I find it an incredible waste of jaw power and physical energy usage. I do not, however, hold this against the majority of the population who choose to chew gum and no doubt have much stronger jaw muscles than I do.

Thanks, Joe!

Joe McGee is the author of PEANUT BUTTER & BRAINS (Abrams). He is a graduate of the Rowan University Master of Arts in Writing program, where he received the Medallion Award Scholarship for excellence as the outstanding graduate writer, and The Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program, with an additional VCFA certification in picture book writing. 

Joe’s fiction and poetry have won many awards, to include 2nd place in the Writer’s Digest national short story contest, two VCFA merit scholarships, a VCFA scholarship award for short fiction, 1st place honors in the Rowan University Denise Gess Literary Awards for his poetry collection “Have You Seen Me?,” 1st place honors for his poetry at the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference, 1st place honors for writing for children and young adults at the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference, and 3rd place honors in the Writers’ Journal ghost story contest. 

Joe is a former airborne Army platoon leader, the father of three boys, and a writing professor at Rowan University with six years collegiate teaching experience. Joe is represented by Linda Epstein of the Jennifer DeChiara Literary agency. He is currently revising a middle-grade novel and has another picture book under consideration.
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  1. Love this post especially the extra things that we didn't know about Joe at the end.

  2. Great advice. Great title. Hope he does a signing at the Rowan bookstore!

  3. Loved Joe's post (even though I'm a peanut butter-hater!). Looking forward to reading. :)

    1. Thanks, Wendy! And no worries on the anti-PB position, lol...I won't hold it against you. :P

  4. Such a fun post Joe! And I LOVE peanut butter too. :) I felt your pain with the story of your son and his shoes - as my son and I have had the same sort of thing happen. Glad you have something wonderful to share with kids from that experience to help them celebrate their uniqueness!

    1. Thank you, Donna! That's what we do, right? Turn the world into stories.

  5. Nice to hear about someone who has been truly invested in learning their craft. Can't wait to read this on!

    1. Thanks, Julie! And I sincerely believe that we can/should never stop learning. Hemingway said it best: "We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master."

  6. Hah! Joe is a well as having an impressive writing background and fascinating non-writing background. Is there anything he can't do (besides blowing bubbles)? Can't wait to read Peanut Butter and Brains!

    1. Thanks, Teresa, I appreciate that! I cannot ride a unicycle, or hold my breath for more than 24 minutes, so...there's that. ;P

  7. Kids need tons of support to stand up for themselves!

  8. Great post, Joe. Looking forward to reading your book. And thanks for the advice, it's exactly what I needed to hear today.


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