Friday, February 21, 2014

An Interview with Troy H. Gardner and Erin Callahan, Co-Authors of The Mad World Series

 As part of my journey toward getting my own book written and eventually published, I will be interviewing other authors, agents, and publishers to get their input on some questions that I and, presumably, many new authors have. For the most part, I will be asking these interviewees to share their experiences, good and bad, in the hope that those of us just starting out might learn a little.

Before I begin this interview, I should just say that I am now 50+ pages into my novel. Never before in my life have I gotten so far and I feel that the story is just writing itself at this point. Hopefully, with the help of this blog, I will not allow the typing to stop. I need to keep going.

Ok, enough of all that.  Our first interview is with Troy H. Gardner and Erin Callahan, co-authors of The Mad World series.  Their first book is Wakefield.
-When did you finally realize that you were going to be a published author?
TROY: The moment I realized it was when Erin forwarded me the acceptance email from MuseItUp Publishing. We came up with a batch of agents and publishers and split up sending query letters, so we ended up forwarding the rejections to each other like soldiers commiserating after a lost battle. I think Muse’s response was the very last one from the batch, and I assumed Erin had send me another rejection, but I reread the email (three times) before I felt victorious.

ERIN: I found out just a few minutes before Troy, but I don’t think it really sank in until we got the galley for Wakefield. At that point, the document started to feel like a real book.

-What was the most difficult part about writing your first book, Wakefield?
TROY: For me, it was getting the details down. There’s that saying “write what you know” because it’s so much easier to describe a house if you picture a place you’ve really been. My YA horror novel The Sylvanville Spirits was easy to write partly because I set it in a town very similar to one I’ve lived in. Wakefield is set in a facility for troubled teens. Thankfully, I knew nothing about such a place, except for misconceptions from the media. We set the book there because Erin and her husband worked at a similar location, so she knew all the ins and outs, but I had to check with the two of them on a hundred different little facts.

ERIN: Even though we’d had long conversations about them, it took me a while to get a grasp on our characters. Astrid’s voice came pretty easily to me, but I struggled with most of the secondary characters. I think they came off as one-dimensional in many of my chapters until we started revising. I also had to let go of a lot of academic habits that don’t lend themselves to fiction (like over-explaining everything), and get over my fear of actually putting words on paper and letting people read them. 

-When a new writer has a finished MS and decides it's time to try and get it published, what advice can you give them?
TROY: That’s a great question, because I remember being so excited to write a book, and then going through the months creating it, but then there comes a moment when you have a finished manuscript and you go, “Okay… now what?” Be prepared for a ton of research and rejection. Research submission techniques, publishers and agents. Any agent and publisher will tell you that they receive hundreds of book queries about projects that don’t fit them in the slightest. If you write a YA sci-fi book, for example, then you really should find publishers or agents who are interested in that, otherwise you’re wasting your time and going to get guaranteed rejections, which is only discouraging. You can also save yourself some problems down the road by checking out publishers’ reputations at Preditors and Editors (

ERIN: Troy’s advice is spot on and I’ll add that patience is the name of the game. It took us over a year of rejections to find a home at MuseItUp Publishing. Though I think finding an agent who
will present your work to a traditional publishing house is still the way to go if you can swing it, small houses, like Muse, that are willing to take a chance on new and inexperienced authors are a great place to get your feet wet. We’ve learned a ton from the editing and publishing process and I think it’s made both of us better writers. 

-What are some mistakes that you made as a first time writer?
TROY: We had too many characters for readers to keep track of, which was one of the great points our editor made. We ended up merging something like eight minor characters into three. Looking back now, the Wakefield title may have been a mistake from a marketing point of view because I’ve noticed books with more descriptive titles tend to do better.

ERIN: I agree with Troy that the title may have been a mistake. Though I think it makes sense to name each book in the series for a physical location since setting plays such a key role, it’s not the kind of title that’s going to grab the attention of a potential reader who’s browsing on Amazon or Goodreads. In addition to the title, there are oodles of sentences in Wakefield that make me cringe now. As an extremely inexperienced writer, I overused adverbs, relied too heavily on state-of-being verbs, and engaged in way too much ineffective telling verses evocative showing. But I think the fact that I can look at our early work and say, “I’d never write it that way now” means I’ve grown a lot as a writer.

-How difficult is it to write something new, that hasn't already been done and played out over and over again?
TROY: Since there’s billions of stories about every subject ever, it can be daunting to capture the originality. The most frustrating part is when you write something and describe it to someone, and they say, “Oh, that sounds just like (name of book or movie here).” If I know the book in question, I can quickly say that it’s completely different in feel, plot, tone, whatever, but if I’ve never heard of the book before, you start to panic.

ERIN: I love this question. Troy and I have had pretty heated discussions about this because he has admitted he doesn’t mind relying on the tried and true, while I frequently try to push the envelope and end up in wacky territory that’s bound to alienate or confuse readers. We balance each other out fairly well, because readers like what seems familiar even if they’re also craving a new twist on an old favorite. I’ll also second Troy’s frustration with, “Oh, that sounds just like…” When we starting writing Wakefield, I actually did some pretty extensive research to ensure the concept was unique. Then, about a year after we started writing it, a YA series with a very similar concept came out. I freaked out a little, then bought the book and realized it was quite different from our series in terms of tone and overall story arc. That said, reviews have still compared our series to that one. There’s only so much you can do.

-Was there an author and/or book that you read growing up that made you say, "I want to try and do that,"?
TROY: I can’t think of any one book in particular. My mom’s an avid reader and so she took me to the library a lot when I was a kid (back in the days before Amazon and ebooks). I read quite frequently and just started coming up with my own stories.

ERIN: I don’t think I can pinpoint a single book or author, but I reread some of my favorite YA books while I was in college, including The Goats by Brock Cole, Wise Child by Monica Furlong, and The Cuckoo’s Child by Suzanne Freeman. Around that same time, Troy told me about The
Perks of Being a Wallflower, which kind of blew me away. I remember thinking, “These books are great. Maybe someday I’ll write YA fiction.” But that probably would have remained a daydream if Troy hadn’t said, “Hey, we can do better than Twilight.” 

-What audience is the Mad World series geared toward?
TROY: Our series is aimed at readers who want more than cookie-cutter klutzy teen girl falls for dreamy perfect guy who acts as a portal into a world of wonder. The books are subtle and so we’re geared toward readers who like to focus on characters’ journeys and relationships (friendships are important too, not just romance). It’s planned out as a six book series, and so the stakes, action, and romance are slowly developed to better pay off than having explosions in every chapter.

ERIN: LOL. I laugh because I see Troy trying to justify the pacing of the series, which a few reviewers have complained about. But I fully agree with him. All of my favorite books reveal themselves slowly and explore characters deeply. We write for readers who value those same things. I used to say our series was for fourteen-year-old girls, but everyone reads YA now, so I’m not sure we’re writing for a specific demographic so much as inquisitive readers who appreciate nuance.

-Favorite kind of cheese?
TROY: The sharper the better.

ERIN: Agreed. If it’s cheddar, it must be sharp. I also enjoy the smokiness of gouda.

-Best album of the 90's?
TROY: It’s a tie between David Bowie’s Hours… (1999) and Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell II: Back into Hell (1993).

ERIN: Awesome question! Since Troy cheated and picked two, I’m going to do the same. I’ll go with Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998) and Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted (1992).

-Anything else you want us to know about this (or other) books?  Why should we go out and buy it?
TROY: If you don’t have the time for novels, you can always check out my shorter fiction. I have two ghost stories (The Locked Door and The Control Room), as well as a series of fantasy/comedies about fairytale creatures working as office drones (Guardian of Cupid’s Heart and Guardian of Suffrage Celebration).

ERIN: While Troy plugs his short fiction, I’ll continue to plug Mad World. If you have an interest in epic stories with compelling characters, you should check it out. If you’re not yet sold, come peruse the amusing characters interviews on our website. We also have character compiled playlists you can listen to via Spotify.

A little about Wakefield:
Orphans Astrid Chalke and Max Fisher meet when they’re sent to live at Wakefield, a residential and educational facility for teens with psychiatric and behavioral problems. Astrid’s roommate cuts herself with anything sharp she can get her hands on and Max’s roommate threatens him upon introduction. Just as Astrid and Max develop a strong bond and begin to adjust to the constant chaos surrounding them, a charming and mysterious resident of Wakefield named Teddy claims he has unexplainable abilities. Sometimes he can move things without touching them. Sometimes he can see people’s voices flowing out of their mouths. Teddy also thinks that some of the Wakefield staff are on to him. At first, Astrid and Max think Teddy is paranoid, but Max’s strange recurring dreams and a series of unsettling events force them to reconsider Teddy’s claims. Are they a product of his supposedly disturbed mind or is the truth stranger than insanity?

Where can I get it?


Thank you Troy and Erin! 

Please check back soon for updates on my journey and more interviews for new authors!!!


  1. Thanks for having us, Tom. 50+ pages is great, keep the momentum going!

  2. I loved the Q&A, especially
    -What are some mistakes that you made as a first time writer?
    -How difficult is it to write something new, that hasn't already been done and played out over and over again?

    I had the pleasure of interviewing Erin & Troy myself some months ago, while reviewing their first 2 books. Their answers are always spot on.

    Good luck on your first novel!