Tracey West is one of the newest additions to the gamebook-writing fold, though she has considerable experience writing children's series fiction, including books based on such popular properties as Pokémon and the Power Puff Girls. Her biggest interactive project at the moment is the Scream Shop series, and she was kind enough to take a few minutes to talk to me about her work. For further information on her projects and for contact information, be sure to check out her website at www.traceywest.com. If you feel the need to talk to me for some reason, I can be contacted, as always, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Demian Katz: First of all, what was your inspiration for the Scream Shop series?
Tracey West: Actually, my ex-husband, Terry West, came up with the basic idea quite a few years ago. He pitched it to an editor friend of mine, Bonnie Bader, as a straight horror series. Bonnie is a big editor over at Grosset and Dunlap, and shortly after she moved there she contacted us and asked us to develop it into an interactive series. Apparently, their sales people had been fielding requests from booksellers wanting more interactive stuff, and Bonnie thought the basic concept--a kid gets possession of a haunted item, adventures ensue--would lend itself to that format. Terry wasn't interested at that point, so I came up with a proposal. I'm glad they liked it!
Another reason Bonnie approached me is because I have had experience with other interactive books. I started out doing a series of Powerpuff Girls books for a continuity program, and then did a RollerCoaster Tycoon book for Grosset. So I knew how to work with the format.
DK: It's quite interesting (and encouraging) that at least one publisher perceives a high demand for interactive books; most fans seem to be under the impression that publishers view the format as risky at best. Do you know (and can you tell us) anything about sales so far?
TW: Not much. Writers are pretty much kept in the dark until we get our royalty statements, and I haven't got mine yet. But from what I hear it's generating a lot of interest in different sales venues.
DK: Any good news is welcome news. I was a little surprised at the fact that promotional material on the series doesn't seem to be readily available online; I couldn't even find a page for the Grosset and Dunlap imprint, and when I searched Penguin's overall site, I just got sketchy records for a couple of the books. Is there something I'm missing?
TW: No. Publishers do very little to promote paperback series, for the most part. They concentrate on hardcover. With paperback, they ship them out and hope for the best for the most part. It's a little crazy. That's why I have a website and do as much self-promotion as I can.
DK: There are currently five titles available in the series, and a sixth is on the way next month. Do we have anything else to look forward to after that?
TW: I'm contracted for book 7, which is titled Curse of Count Blood, and book 8, War of the Trolls. I'm not sure what will happen after that.
DK: I've been reviewing your books as they have been released (see this page). These reviews could be said to be inherently unfair because I am examining the books with the expectations, biases and experience of an adult. I do feel that for a child who hasn't seen something like this before, and considering much of the inferior work of the past few years, these are pretty strong books. All that being said, do you have any comments on my comments?
TW: Ouch, Demian! I just checked out your reviews. I'm confused by your comment above that "these are pretty strong books" when all of your reviews use the terms "disappointing" and "underwhelmingly average." Which is it? We writers have pretty thin skins. I need to go cry now...
Okay, I'm back. I'm not sure what to say except that I'm not sure where the source of your disappointment is coming from. I try really hard to make the choices organic to the story and true to the character, and also to have some surprising endings. What kind of choices would you like to see? What would make the books better? Go ahead and give me some pointers. In my defense, I'd like to say I like to spend a lot of time on characterization and try to add funny scenes and really tell a story--not just have action scene after action scene like some kind of runaway train. But maybe that's what hardcore interactive fans want? Let me know!
I think it's interesting that your two favorites--Eye Spy Aliens and Revenge of the Gargoyle--are the two I've enjoyed writing most so far.
Another thing I should point out is that I'm writing for a 4-6 grade audience, so there's a limit to what I can do with the choices; I can't let REALLY bad things happen to the characters ever--although sometimes that's implied.
DK: The fact that I've read so many of these books puts me in a strange position. I found the books to be disappointing and average in the sense that they are very reminiscent of titles I have read in the past. I feel that you've done a good job at making these respectable books with better-than-average characters and plots, but at the same time they haven't done a whole lot to expand upon the entire body of interactive work. Of course, at this point in time, the world of interactive books is more in need of reestablishment than expansion, so what you are doing is really the right thing... but as a long-time fan, I can't help wanting more, even if it's unrealistic. Hopefully that helps to explain the inherent contradictions in my comments on the books!
TW: Yes, this helps explain things. Thanks! I guess I never set out to expand the entire body of interactive work, just to write good stories. But I do agree with you that some of the choices and plots could be more challenging or game-oriented. I am starting War of the Trolls very soon--maybe you'll see an improvement.
DK: I see that before Scream Shop, you contributed a volume to the interactive RollerCoaster Tycoon series. Was this your first foray into interactive writing, and if not, what else have you done in the genre?
TW: As I've said above, I started with a Powerpuff continuity series. That means the books are sold through a special program and get sent to your house, so you can't get them in stores.
DK: Is this program still in existence? If so, where does one sign up?
TW: I don't know if the PPG program still exists.
DK: Beyond the Powerpuff Girls, you have written books for an impressive number of high-profile licenses like Pokémon and Scooby Doo. Do you think there's any possibility of interactive books associated with these lines? I still feel, for example, that there is great potential for genuinely interesting gamebooks based on the Pokémon series.
TW: That's up to the publishers. If they see an audience, they'll try to please that audience. I guess if Scream Shop takes off, or books like the RollerCoaster Tycoon series do well, they'll keep doing more. Part of the reason I think publishers shy away from them is because it's difficult to find writers who will tackle them, or editors who know what to do with them.
I do know that one publisher is coming out with an interactive series based on a major TV show, but I don't think I'm allowed to talk about it at this point. I'd take that as a good sign regarding things to come, however.
DK: Did you first come across interactive books during your writing career, or were they among your childhood reading choices? If you used to be a reader, do you have any particular favorites or memories?
TW: I never read the CYOA series as a kid; I graduated high school in 1983, so I think they were a little after my time. I've been an avid reader ever since I learned how. I loved Roald Dahl, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, and Louise Fitzhugh. I also loved Ellen Raskin, who wrote The Westing Game and The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel). Those novels are like huge puzzles the reader gets to solve. They're awesome.
I also read all of the Encyclopedia Brown books by Donald J. Sobol, and always got frustrated because I could never figure out the answers to anything.
DK: Do you have a preference for writing linear or interactive novels?
TW: Hmm. Writing interactive novels is much more difficult, because I'm coming up with one beginning, eight middles, and 16 endings, and you want all of the stories to be equally compelling. Sometimes I think about how nice it would be to take, say, one of the story threads and just turn that into a book all by itself. When you're doing all these different threads, the story gets rushed sometimes. That's frustrating to me.
DK: Do you have any particular strategies for keeping track of story threads and decisions while you write?
TW: I'm a visual thinker, so I use a giant grid with 144 squares--one for each page in the book. Each book has three main story paths, so I use different colored post-it notes for each of those paths. Then I plot out the different threads using the post-its in advance and create an outline from that. Then I use the outline to create the finished book.
DK: It is my impression that the publishing industry just keeps getting harder to break into (and it's never been especially easy). That being said, do you have any advice on pitching a series like Scream Shop?
TW: Yes, publishing is difficult to break into. I'd suggest joining the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. They can help you get an agent, meet an editor, give you advice--it's a way to get the connections you need to break in.
DK: Forgive me for the clichéd question, but I'm interested to know--have you read any good books lately, interactive or otherwise?
TW: Let's see. I'm a big fan of Terry Pratchett, and his latest, Monstrous Regiment, is on par with his best. I also read a lot of mysteries. Lately I'm into MC Beaton. I guess her mysteries are more about character and setting than trying to actually figure out the mystery, but that's just fine with me. Maybe that explains why Scream Shop is the way it is.
DK: Thanks very much for taking the time to talk to me. Any final thoughts?
TW: Yeah. Please don't use the phrase "underwhelmingly average" next time you review one of my books.
Sorry. Told you writers were sensitive.
DK: For somebody who always tries to be nice to everyone, I can be a rather ruthless reviewer. Fortunately, most authors seem to forgive me, and several even talked to me because of it, so I guess it's not all bad.
TW: No, it's not all bad.
I guess I'd be interested in knowing exactly what interactive book fans are looking for from the books... what kind of experience you're hoping to have. If anyone would like to address that question, you can email me through my website, www.traceywest.com. I'm about to start plotting out War of the Trolls, so now's a good time to get your comments in.
[Demian's editorial note: I made several suggestions of my own at this point, but I've removed them from this interview to avoid influencing anyone else's thoughts (or generating excess boredom).]
TW: Thanks for the interview, Demian. Take care!