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Debut Author Interview: Cliff Burke and An Occasionally Happy Family Giveaway

Happy Monday Everyone! Today I’m excited to have debut author Cliff Burke here to share about his MG contemporary, An Occasionally Happy Family. While the story sounds like it has its sad moments, it also sounds funny. I could use a funny book this summer and am excited to read it.

Here’s a blurb from Goodreads:

Gordon Korman meets The Great Outdoors in this funny and moving debut about a boy who goes on a disastrous family vacation (sweltering heat! bear chases!) that ends with a terrible surprise: his dad's new girlfriend.

There are zero reasons for Theo Ripley to look forward to his family vacation. Not only are he, sister Laura, and nature-obsessed Dad going to Big Bend, the least popular National Park, but once there, the family will be camping. And Theo is an indoor animal. It doesn’t help that this will be the first vacation they’re taking since Mom passed away.
Once there, the family contends with 110 degree days, wild bears, and an annoying amateur ornithologist and his awful teenage vlogger son. Then, Theo’s dad hits him with a whopper of a surprise: the whole trip is just a trick to introduce his secret new girlfriend.  
Theo tries to squash down the pain in his chest. But when it becomes clear that this is an auditioning-to-be-his-stepmom girlfriend, Theo must find a way to face his grief and talk to his dad before his family is forever changed.

 Hi Cliff! Thanks so much for joining us.

 1. Tell us about yourself and how you became a writer.

Hi Natalie! Thanks for having me on your site. I started writing in school and was always excited whenever we moved into creative writing in elementary/middle school. I wrote a lot of baseball stories, fantasy tales that involved Santa delivering presents every day, the story of a monster that took over the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because it didn’t rock enough. But when I got older and continued studying English in college, the focus shifted to literary analysis. I followed course and stopped creative writing, focused on trying to deconstruct Kafka and modernist poetry. 

It wasn’t until more recently, when I started teaching 6-7th grade writing, that I thought I might have the ability to write a full-length book that could be published. I was inspired by my students’ creative energy and how involved they got during our writing units. They brought back my own joy for writing, and I began drafting short sketches and stories to serve as mentor texts for assignments, mostly just trying to get laughs (while still teaching the fundamentals of building characters, dialogue punctuation, setting the scene, etc.), and went from writing short sketches for my classes to drafting a book.

2. I bet younger kids would love a story about getting a Christmas present every day. Where did you get the idea for An Occasionally Happy Family?

There are a number of things that inspired me, but the most direct inspiration was a trip I took with two friends through three National Parks. As we were hiking, we kept passing traveling families where one of the parents would be really excited and trying to pump everyone up, but everyone else was visibly bored, or exhausted, or tired of talking to each other.

So that was the first kernel – a family trip with a parent who is excited, and two kids who were maybe excited at some point but had reached the end of their appreciation for hiking in nature.

Originally, I intended the book to be a divorce story, with the father dragging his kids from one park to the next en route to California, where he would introduce his new girlfriend, but the more I wrote, the more I added more details of my own life into the story, and decided that it is more compelling as a chronicle of a bottled-up kid who wants to let out his feelings about the loss of his mother.

3. It sounds like you had to balance Theo dealing with grief and many funny moments on their trip. Share a bit how you decided to balance that out.

I started the book as pure comedy, so when the memories of Theo’s mother and the mixed family reaction to it started to bubble to the surface more in drafting, I tried to write them as directly and truthfully as I could, without thinking about whether they interrupted the flow of jokes/situations. So, I had a lot of chapters of comedic scenes and then some background and some more emotional scenes, but they weren’t really inter-mixed.

Once I started editing, I used the Gary Shandling method (which he shares in one of the various Larry Sanders Show DVD boxsets) of holding up each character’s response and asking - would they really say a laugh-line here or would they respond emotionally? By going through the draft specific to how Theo, and then Laura, and then their dad would respond to each scene, I was able to better mix the comedy with the characters emotions – and, specifically, the slow unraveling of Theo’s feelings about his mother.

4. The Gary Shandling method sounds like a good. Many writers, including me, have trouble writing funny stories. Does humor come easy to you? What tips do you have for those of us who would like to add this into our stories?

I think humor might come quicker to me as a life-long comedy fan and someone who has always been interested in figuring out how comedy works (see the Gary Shandling thing above –in additional to watching all 9 hour of DVD extras, I also watched the 4-hour documentary about his life and read the accompanying book of interviews – and this is just Gary Shandling). I’ve also dabbled in stand-up comedy over the years – winning a college comedy contest, performing in Hong Kong and around Cleveland – and that’s given me a good sense of what lines will get laughs. While there’s a big difference between performing comedy and having it sit on a page, I trust that if I read a line aloud and laugh, that it will also get a laugh (likely more muted, or just an acknowledged mental ‘ha’) from a reader.

As for tips, I think reading/watching/listening to things that are funny and paying attention to what, exactly, is making you laugh – wordplay, harsh truth, rat-a-tat language – is a good place to start. Some very funny writers I personally ‘studied’ while drafting – Elif Batuman, Charles Portis, John Swartzwelder. I also recommend the classic comedy-writer technique of asking someone to read something, sitting in the room next to them and listening for laughs. If so – victory. If not – keep workshopping.

5. Sounds like you’ve done a lot of the reading/watching/ listening to comedy and that it really helped you get how to write comedy. From reviews of your ARC, it sounds like you really have gotten the dialogue and voices of Theo and his sister right. Did that come naturally to you? Does it help that you teach middle grade social studies and writing?

Thank you! Teaching at the middle school level certainly helps with staying current in phrasing the language and judging what would be an authentic response for middle-school-aged kids in 2021. It can be difficult with slang and cultural references because they change so quickly from the time of drafting to the time of publication. I had to update some of the social media references during the last stages of copy edits to include Tik Tok and mention that everyone hates Snapchat now.

But a lot of the interplay between the siblings comes from my real-life sister and I as kids. Not the words, exactly, but some of the ways we used to annoy each other even if there was always an understanding that we wouldn’t go too far into out-right, bone-deep criticism.

6. I bet teaching middle graders has helped you get their voice and dialogue right. Jim McCarthy is your agent. How did he become your agent and what was your road to publication like?

Jim is a fantastic agent, and I was lucky to find him through a long query process. I used MSWL (Manuscript Wish List) as my guide for finding agents to query. I went through every single agent on the site, and slowly gathered a list of 100 MG agents who had an interest in comedy/contemporary stories. From there, I further narrowed to one agent per agency that I would query – which I read was a rule of thumb. However, Jim was the ONE exception to the rule. I already queried and was rejected by another agent at his agency, but waited seven months, sent to Jim and he called me within 12 days with an offer.

From there, we went back and forth on edits for about six months, improving the plot and characters. Then it went out to a batch of ten editors and one of those ten – Amy Cloud at HMH (now Clarions Books) – said yes. From there, Amy and I went back and forth a few times with more revisions and edits, and she really helped me to deepen and highlight the emotional aspects of the book and focus on Theo’s journey. In the end, there were 53 versions of the book on my computer, and I’m very grateful to Jim and Amy for guiding me through them all.

7. How did you initially celebrate the release of your book and market it both pre-and post-release? Is there anything you wish you would have done differently?

Release day was a normal school day for me, so I had my usual schedule, but got a lot of messages from friends, family, and parents of students throughout the day, which were very gratifying. Thanks to other authors online, I knew the best way to celebrate is with a cake and a little quiet time. After school I took some time going on a walk alone to reflect, and then returned home to a beautiful cake and even more kind notes and texts.

Pre-release, I reached out to my favorite local independent bookstore, Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, to run a pre-order campaign. I make some stickers and Big Bend National Park pins for that and did a countdown on Instagram with a new detail about the book for a week before launch day. I’ve since been on a podcast, had several interviews (including this one – thank you), and a few virtual book-talks with schools running summer reading programs in Texas. I don’t know how much I’ve moved the sales needle through these, but have sincerely enjoyed all of them, and hope to do more – especially virtual or real school visits – in the near future.

 9. Celebrating with cake sounds awesome. Especially chocolate cake. What are you working on now?

I’ve been working diligently on a second middle grade novel over the past few months. Now that it’s summer and I’m off from teaching, I’ve been writing six days a week and am very near to the end. I don’t want to say too much about it in case it never comes out, but it is a similar mix of comedy and sadder familial elements which follows a twelve-year old boy who joins his best friend on a month-long farm-based summer program in rural France. There’s a chateau, goats, many cheeses, and other international travelers who figure prominently into the story. Paris also appears at the beginning and end, but I will say no more.

Thanks for sharing all your advice, Cliff. You can find Cliff at https://www.cliffburke.com/ or follow him on Instagram or Goodreads

Giveaway Details

Cliff has generously offered a hardback of An Occasionally Happy Family for a giveaway. To enter, all you need to do is be a follower of my blog (via the follower gadget, email, or bloglovin’ on the right sidebar) and leave a comment by July 24th. If your e-mail is not on your Google Profile, you must leave it in the comments to enter the contest. Please be sure I have your email address.

If you mention this contest on Twitter, Facebook, or your blog and/or follow me on Twitter, mention this in the comments and I'll give you an extra entry for each. You must be 13 years old or older to enter. The giveaway is international.

Marvelous Middle Grade Monday is hosted by Greg Pattridge. You can find the participating blogs on his blog.

Upcoming Interviews and Giveaways

Wednesday, July 14th I have an agent spotlight interview with Analieze Cervantes and a query critique giveaway

Friday, July 16th I’m participating in the Sip Sip Hooray Giveaway Hop

Monday, July 19th I have an interview with debut author Alysa Wishingrad and a giveaway of her MG fantasy The Verdigris Pawn

Wednesday, July 21st I have an agent spotlight interview with Mary Cummings and a query critique giveaway

Monday, July 26th I have an agent spotlight interview with Allison Hellegers and a query critique giveaway

Sunday, August 1st I'm participating in the Apple a Day Giveaway Hop

Wednesday, August 4th I have an interview with debut author Laura Rueckert and a giveaway of her YA fantasy A Dragonbird in the Fern and my IWSG post

Monday, August 9th I have a guest post by debut author Rochelle Melander and a giveaway of her MG nonfiction Mightier Than the Sword: Rebels, Reformers, and Revolutionaries Who Changed the World through Writing 

Hope to see you on Wednesday!



HeatherLuby said...

We just took a family vacation to Rocky Mountain National in June with 2 kids (12 & 15) and I was totally the excited parent dragging some less than enthusiastic travelers 😂 It was during that heat wave in June. This book sounds like a perfect read for my incoming 7th grader.

Angie Quantrell said...

This sounds wonderful! I need some comedy in my life as well. and hiking! Congratulations, Cliff!

I tweeted this and I follow by email, Natalie. :)
angelecolline at yahoo dot com

Max @ Completely Full Bookshelf said...

I've seen a bunch of enthusiastic reviews about this book, so it was very interesting to read this interview! It was interesting to hear about how Cliff Burke balanced the comedic moments with the more sensitive ones throughout the story. And the book he's working on now sounds intriguing as well! I'll pass on the giveaway, but thanks for the great interview!

Computer Tutor said...

Nice to meet you, Cliff. I love that you were inspired by your students. 6/7 graders--they are so capable of great writing. I have heard of the Gary Shandling method. Thanks for the intro.

Greg Pattridge said...

Great interview with a lot of depth in Cliff's answers. The book sounds like it has the perfect combination of humor and drama. Thanks for featuring on MMGM.

Jennifer M said...

I am excited to learn about this book and have added it to my "to read" list. It will definitely be a book I need for my class library as we study national parks.

Chaya said...

I've been dying to get my hands on this book! Hoping I win!

Danielle H. said...

I enjoyed getting to know this author and reading about his background in comedy. I've wanted to read this book since I first read about it. I love humorous and emotional books as well as our National Parks. I follow Natalie on Twitter and shared on tumblr: https://yesreaderwriterpoetmusician.tumblr.com/post/656522734159937536/debut-author-interview-cliff-burke-and-an

Fundy Blue said...

Another great interview, Natalie! And congratulations on your debut book, Cliff! It always amazes me how hard writers work, especially on the non-writing efforts to get a book published and to promote it. Yes, I'd dearly love to enter the giveaway.

Empty Nest Insider said...

Congratulations on your debut release, Cliff! Writing comedy can be very challenging, and it seems like you've certainly done your homework. It's incredible that you performed stand-up in Hong Kong! I'm sure you'll continue to inspire middle-graders, as well as, people of all ages. Thanks for the great interview, Natalie!


traveler said...

Congratulations! What a wonderful book which is so special. I would give this to my grandsons to enjoy. Thank you so much for your creativity. saubleb(at)gmail(dot)com

Sue Heavenrich said...

Oh, I love Big Bend! What a gorgeous area! But I can understand how indoor folk might find it a bit ... intimidating. Thanks for the great interview with Cliff.

Melanie B said...

Thanks for the great interview, and thanks for the chance to read this wonderful story!
Following your blog via email.
Shared via twitter: https://twitter.com/craftychicky58/status/1414676818490269698
Email: melanie_brac (at) yahoo (dot) com

Patricia T. said...

Congratulations, Cliff! Boy can I relate to most of this story. My father took us on six-week camping vacations during the summer to the National Parks -- never visited Big Ben. We had a camping trailer with beds that pulled out. I remember waking up to a mama bear and two cubs looking for food under my side of the bed at Yellowstone. I remember not getting out of the car at Zion because there were snakes (lizards) running everywhere. I preferred a hotel with a swimming pool. My dad being thrown from a horse at Mesa Verda. But, there were good memories too. This sounds like a perfect summer read!


I’d love to win; the book sounds great!

Hello Elizabeth James at gmail.com

Liz A. said...

Writing comedy is hard. It sounds like a great book.

tetewa said...

Congrats on the release, sounds like a fun read!

Stephanie Owen said...

Congratulations, Gordon! I'd love a copy of this for my reading class! owens@wsd3.org

Book of Secrets said...

I enjoyed reading this book very much — listened on audio, actually! The balance of humor and serious emotions was perfect. I didn't realize this was Cliff's debut novel. Loved it!

Rosi said...

I have been hearing about this book and really, really want to read it soon. The title is great and the cover is eye-catching. Thanks for an interesting interview.

J Lenni Dorner said...

Looks like a cool book! Love the idea.
Wow, you've got some cool giveaway blog hops coming up.
Thanks for visiting me this month.

Shamaila J said...

Great interview! It sounds like a great book. shamaila.siddique@gmail.com

Susan Johnston Taylor said...

Congrats, Cliff! Great title. susanejohnston AT gmail.

Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction said...

This is a great interview! Wow, 53 versions of the book is actually reassuring to those of us who are still working to get published. Writing can be a long process!

nicole @ feedyourfictionaddiction . com