Monday, December 21, 2015

Five Questions With Clay McLeod Chapman, Author Of The Tribe Trilogy by Robert Lettrick

Clay McLeod Chapman, author of The Tribe series
This week I had the good fortune to conduct a short Q&A with middle grade author Clay McLeod Chapman, scribe of The Tribe series for Disney-Hyperion which Booklist called “a comic Lord of the Flies for the modern era…” 

First, a bit about the series from Amazon:  "All Schools are the same and Spencer Pendleton expects no less from Greenfield Middle. But Spencer hasn't met them yet-the Tribe, a group of runaway students who hide out in the school. They live off cafeteria food, and wield weapons made out of everyday supplies. No one seems to know they exist, except for Spencer. And when the group invites him to join their ranks, all he has to do is pass the initiations...and leave his life behind. Can Spencer go through with it? Better yet, what will happen if he says no?"

Sounds great, right? On to the interview.

 1). I recently read Homeroom Headhunters, book one in The Tribe series from Disney-Hyperion, and highly recommend it to the Project Mayhem crowd.  What struck me is how expertly you were able to combine several genres into one fun read. The book has mystery, horror, a smidge of romance and a ton of fantastic humor. But throughout the series you also touch on some serious topics, namely bullying and alienation. Why did you decide to tackle those particular issues and what message do you hope you were able to convey to your readers, specifically those who may feel like your main character Spencer Pendleton, an outsider.  

First off -- let me just say thank you for the kind words on Homeroom Headhunters. Having never written for the middle grade crowd before, I really wanted to write a book for that mythological creature -- the Reluctant Reader -- that wouldn't sound like some old dude talking down to a bunch of younger dudes and dudettes. I wanted it to feel a little dangerous, where the reader would ask themselves -- "Should I be reading this? Am I allowed to read this?" But if my readers caught whiff of a Message or Moral, I fear I'd lose them -- so I decided to get a little messy, where the "bad guys" are really human beings and the "good guys" make bad choices, blurring the line a wee bit between them. And doing it with a sense of humor. I think comedy is the perfect sucker-punch for talking about deeper themes. If you can get your reader laughing, you can slip in something a little more serious, a little more challenging, on its coat-tails... "A little bit of sugar makes the medicine go dooooown."

2). The subtitle for the second book in The Tribe series is Camp Cannibal. When people read my books, particularly the one featuring rabid squirrels, they’re always a little amazed that Disney would publish such edgy stuff (no talking candlesticks here). Because we both write under the Disney banner, I wondered if your readers reacted in a similar way to your second title choice and to some of the darker aspects of the series. How do you manage to walk that line without crossing into YA territory?

I remain flabbergasted to this day that Disney even let me in the building, let alone publish three novels under the expansive banner of Mickey's ears. I figured it was illegal. I'm still waiting for a cease and desist letter. Kudos to my editor for wanting to rock the boat. It's still up for debate whether we rocked a little too hard and capsized, but heck. 
Listen... The book isn't going to be for everybody. But for those who find the book and feel like it speaks directly to them, you've just enlisted a Reader for Life. And that makes all the difference. I didn't set out to write something that everyone would like. I wanted to write something that somebody would love. And that meant drawing a line in the sand. If the reader is willing to cross that line, we're going to go on one heck of an adventure. And for those who don't want to cross that line, that's totally okay with me. I can recommend a bunch of books with talking animals...

3).The Tribe III: Academic Assassins, the final entry in the series, is available for purchase now. What are some specific ways you evolved as a writer over the course of the trilogy?

It's still up for debate how much I've evolved. Regressed might be more apt. But, that said, I never ever wrote from the perspective of one character -- in this case, my anti-hero Spencer Pendleton -- for this much literary real estate. I clocked in 1000 pages with this guy. I've raked this dude over the coals. He's come out the other side of three books, beaten and bruised, and hopefully a little bit more mature. Just in time to go to high school. Fingers crossed. 

4). You're a middle grade author, but you also produce The Pumpkin Pie Show for theater, and you write for movies and comics. I read that you're currently working on Self Storage, a rom/com/zom six-part graphic novel for Michael Bay’s company 451 Media (issues #1 and #2 are in comic book stores now) and you’ve written some stories for Marvel. My question: How do the writing processes for comics and theater differ from writing for middle grade books? Which one flows most naturally for you? Okay, that’s technically two questions.

To stay alive and still tell the stories I want to tell, I've come to learn the best move I can make is say YES to every opportunity that comes my way... It's led to some pretty wild opportunities, such as writing musicals, comic books, movies, and middle grade novels... Not to mention everything in between. Some projects have crashed and burned, glorious failures -- but more often than not, they've opened doors to new grooves. I love comic writing. But writing for the screen helped teach me how to write for comics and theater helped hone my first person narration-style for novels and so on. I like to blur the lines between mediums as much as humanly possible. I'd argue Homeroom Headhunters is best read aloud. 

5). As if you’re not busy enough with your own projects, you also teach writing at the Actors Studio MFA Program for Pace University. What’s the best piece of advice you offer your students that could also pertain to writing middle grade books? Any sage bit of wisdom Project Mayhem’s followers may not have heard before? No pressure or anything. 

Totally no pressure! No pressure at all... My sage advice for writers? I said it above, but I'll say it again: Just say YES to every opportunity that comes your way. For middlegrade writers, I think the best thing I can throw your way is don't talk down to your reader. Talk up. Or eye to eye. These readers are more savvy than I think they sometimes get credit for. I want to honor the reader, respect the reader. Which is to say no novel, no book should try to reach every reader out there. I'd be happy to reach just one. And who knows? Maybe more will come. I'd rather be ten people's #1 book than a hundred people's #10... 
And for the folks at Project Mayhem: Do your homework. Love your mama. And keep your firecrackers at home. 

You can learn more about Clay and his projects here:


  1. Great interview, Robert and Clay. Tons of quotables. I particularly liked: "I think comedy is the perfect sucker-punch for talking about deeper themes," and "I didn't set out to write something that everyone would like. I wanted to write something that somebody would love."

  2. Thanks, Michael! Clay offered a lot of great insight.

  3. Great interview! I hadn't heard of this series but you can bet I'll be checking it out. A comic Lord of the Flies for the modern era? Heck yea! Plus I just love characters raked over the coals. :) Good luck with the series!

  4. Don't talk down is a good advise. Great interview. Thanks.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!