Josh Berk is the author of The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin (Knopf 2010), named a best book for teens of 2010 by Kirkus Reviews and Amazon.com. It was also awarded a Parent's Choice Silver medal, a starred review fromSchool Library Journal, and a perfect 10 from VOYA. His second comedy/mystery teen novel coming Guy Langman: Crime Scene Proscrastinator, will be published in 2012. He has previously been a journalist, a poet, a playwright, and a guitarist (mostly in bands known for things other than fine guitar-playing). He is a librarian and lives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, with his family.
I read on your bio that you're the child of two librarians and you're a librarian yourself. What sort of mysteries do you encounter (if any) in the library?
I work in a public library -- the most common mystery is "where is that smell coming from?" It's not always pleasant solving that particular crime, but it is part of the job and must be done. Research is a little bit like detective work, too. And then there is the never-ending mystery called "The Case of the Missing Funding."
How did the mystery of The Dark Days of Hamburger Halpin evolve? Which parts of the story intrigued you most as you wrote it? Did you always know who the killer was or did you play around with other possibilities?
The mystery evolved quite a bit! I actually had at least three different killers, in various drafts. I don't recommend that strategy because it can make you crazy, but weirdly it ended up creating a few plausible suspects so hopefully the ending surprises some people. The part of the story that intrigued me the most actually probably had nothing to do with the mystery, but was just the evolution of this weird friendship between the two main dudes. I had so much fun with their dialogue and shenanigans.
The idea of having a deaf teen as a detective is truly brilliant—it adds another level of complexity to the search for who killed Pat and plenty of challenges for Will. But it also allows him to have heightened powers of perception, which helps him. What aspects of writing about a deaf teen detective surprised you?
Well, thank you! This is an interesting question. There were a lot of interesting and fun things I learned about Deaf culture and Will was a lot of fun to create. But I think the most surprising thing was how much he ended up being like me! I honestly thought I was creating this distinct voice—an overweight, deaf, teenaged detective is not very much like me at all. But everyone who knows me that reads the book remarks that Will basically ended up being me anyway. Perhaps this is inevitable and every character we create is a reflection of our inner selves. Or perhaps I always just had the soul of a smart-ass deaf teenager living inside of me.
It almost seems like Will *has* to be an outsider in order to be insightful or observant enough to solve the crime. Do you think a popular kid could ever be a good detective?
I definitely was drawn to the idea of writing an outsider tale, and it dovetailed nicely with the idea of writing a mystery. Will is on the outside of things, always watching and observing, so it was natural for him to be a good detective. But, sure, I think any kind of character could be a good detective! A popular kid could probably be observant about certain kinds of things that other students don't see. He (or she) might have access to information and the ability to get through doors closed to other kids so, yes! Definitely. You have given me ideas :)
Throughout the book Will references the Hardy Boys books. Were these important for you, too? Do they hold up today?
I actually was more of an "Encyclopedia Brown" kind of a kid myself. I think it's because I had a short attention span. The Hardy Boys were on my mind at the time I wrote the book because I had just taken a history of children's literature course and we did a fascinating unit on The Stratemeyer Syndicate. I read some of the Hardys for the class and found them so corny yet so weirdly compelling. I was laughing at the outdated language and goofy plot devices, but I couldn't stop reading until the mystery was solved! So when I started writing my own teen mystery, and I created a smart-ass main character, I knew at one point Will would say something like "What are we, the freaking Hardy Boys?" And then Devon was like "Yeah! Hardy Boys rule!" and that made me laugh, too, the idea that Devon would totally love the Hardy Boys and keep bringing them up. I think they do hold up, to an extent. Kids still check them out of my library from time to time and I always smile when they do.
I'm sure you hear this a lot but the hardcover and paperback covers are so different for this book. How come?
I think it might have been a difficult book to create a cover for. It's a mystery, yet a funny book, and appealing to young(ish) kids yet definitely peppered with some "mature" content. So the idea of the hardcover was to make it look fun and quirky, and it came out very cool in my opinion, but there was some feedback that it looked "too young." So for the paperback an effort was definitely made to reach teen readers who might like the book but would have found the hardcover jacket "too babyish." I think it came out very cool, too! It's all dark and moody and mysterious. My non-scientific findings show that it's worked; average age of fan-mail-writer has increased by a few years since we went to paperback for sure.
Do you see yourself ever turning back to the Hamburger Halpin characters in a sequel?
Sometimes I toy with the idea and it's fun to think about, but it's pretty unlikely, sad to say. I'm always happy when people ask though, so thank you for asking!
You have another YA mystery coming out this year. How is Guy Langman Crime Scene Procrastinator similar to and/or different from Dark Days?
GLCSP (the acronym just rolls off the tongue) is certainly similar in that it's a mystery with a lot of jokes set in a high school. Also, it has a teen boy narrator, who tells his story in a (hopefully) unique way. But even though it's definitely a funny book, it's a book that deals with depression and grief so has some heaviness (the emotional kind of heaviness, not the Will Halpin kind). The "whodunit" aspects recedes a bit and the character arc of this unique kid really becomes what the book is about.
And tell us about your middle grade mysteries coming out in 2013. Whew, you've been busy!
I wanted to try writing for younger readers for a while and my agent encouraged me to pursue an idea I had for some MG sports-themed mysteries. The first one is about a boy, much like I was at around 10 years old. Lenny is obsessed with baseball, but sort of stinks at it, and decides his dream career is to be a baseball announcer. He enters a contest and wins the chance to broadcast an inning of a Phillies game. While there, he witnesses the death of a star player and becomes obsessed with cracking the case. It's got some sports action, a lot of humor (especially the dynamic with Lenny's two best friends "Mike" and "Other Mike"), and a not-too-bloody murder mystery. A sequel is lined up for 2014 and I hope to write a bunch of 'em! Lenny and the Mikes are really fun and I'm a huge Phillies fan in real life so it's fun to write about.
Seeing as you are a librarian, do you have any other YA or MG mystery books to recommend to our readers?
Rosemary Wells, who is known for her picture books wrote a mystery I really love called When No One Was Looking. I also loved Tangerine by Edward Bloor. Please Ignore Vera Dietz by my friend A.S. King was an Edgar Award honoree this past year for YA! That book rules so hard. Also I still recommend The Westing Game to kids looking for a fun mystery. It won the Newbery in 1979 and it's still awesome. Oh, and I just started getting into the Enola Holmes mysteries. I love Sherlock so those are really cool.
Thanks, Josh, for submitting to this hard-hitting interview. Hopefully we have not scarred you with our razor sharp questioning. We're looking forward to your upcoming releases!
We're giving away a signed copy of THE DARK DAYS OF HAMBURGER HALPIN! To enter the contest, simply comment on any of the Sleuths Spies and Alibis posts between Wednesday, November 16 and Monday, November 21. Contest closes November 21 at midnight, EST. The winner will be announced on Friday, November 25. One comment = one entry in our drawing; limit one per day.