Saturday, March 7, 2009

Interview with Ben Esch

Ben Esch is the author of Sophomore Undercover, which was released by Disney-Hyperion last month. You can find him on myspace here and facebook here. Also, be sure to check out his main website and play the Sophomore Undercover video game!


What sets Sophomore Undercover apart from other YA novels?

There's a lot of great books in YA, but I think Sophomore Undercover is different because it is exactly the kind of book that I wanted to read when I was a teenager but could never find. I think Sophomore Undercover hits a lot of different notes than a lot of the books that are out there right now, and I really wish I could send this book back to the fifteen year old me. Hopefully some kids out there who are like the fifteen year old me will find Sophomore Undercover and enjoy it. That's my goal as a writer.
I would also like to sell enough books so I can buy a jet ski. That's my second goal as a writer.

If you had to create a soundtrack Sophomore Undercover, what would be on it?

I guess I'll just have to go with the music that I listened to when I wrote it, which was basically Ratatat's "The Classics" on loop. Also, and this is kind of embarrassing to admit, but when I was feeling blue, I used to blast that Taylor Hicks song "Do I Make You Proud." I said, pretty embarrassing, but that dude can sing.

Are you working on any new YA novels? If so, can you tell us a little about them?

Yes, I'm under contract with Disney-Hyperion for another novel. We're still hashing out some of the details, but I'll be posting updates about this on my website ( very soon.

What are your favorite YA books/authors?

There are a ton, but I'm just gonna stick to the highlights:

King Dork by Frank Portman. The first YA book that I ever read, and how I found my agent. I don't think I ever would have gotten published without this book.

The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex. Adam is the most talented guy in the entire YA world and possibly the nicest person I have ever met. Smekday is particularly cool, because Adam breaks up the text with really great illustrations and comic book panels.

Girls for Breakfast and Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before by Dave Yoo. Full disclosure: Dave is my favorite writer in the entirety of young adult literature. His books have a mix of humor and heart that's really unique and awesome. You really need to read these books.

I could go on with this all day, but some other writers that are rad: Emily Ecton, Paula Yoo, Jonathan Stroud, Sonya Sones, MT Anderson.

If SU were made into a movie, who would play the characters?

Dixie: I'm not sure. Somebody from Nickelodeon I guess? I kinda stopped watching that channel ever since they canceled "Clarissa Explains It All."

Huggy Bear (the hippy school counselor): John C. Reilly or Philip Seymour Hoffman., it has to be Zach Galifianakis. This role was made for him.

Rick (jock/bully): Brian Urlacher from the Chicago Bears with a blond wig.

Mrs. Trasker (Dixie's journalism teacher): Sharon Stone or Glenn Close.

Sergeant Presto (Dixie's dad): The guy who played the dad in Twilight or Tom Selleck.

Brandon (Dixie's older brother): That hunky guy from Twilight. I understand he's popular.

Can you summarize the plot of Sophomore Undercover?

Here's what the people at Disney-Hyperion worked up, and they do a much better job at explaining it than me:

For fifteen-year-old, adopted Vietnamese orphan Dixie Nguyen, high school is one long string of hard-to-swallow humiliations. He shares a locker with a nudist linebacker, his teachers are incompetent, and he's stuck doing fluff pieces for the school newspaper. But Dixie's luck takes a turn when he stumbles across one of the jocks using drugs in the locker room; not only does he finally have something newsworthy to write, but the chance to strike a blow against his tormentors at the school as well.

However, when his editor insists he drop the story and cover homecoming events instead, Dixie sets off on his own unconventional--and often misguided--investigation. He soon discovers that the scandal extends beyond the football team to something far bigger and more sinister than he ever thought possible. Once he follows the guidelines of his hero, Mel Nichols (journalism professor at Fresno State University and author of the textbook Elementary Journalism) this high school reporter just might save the world. That is, of course, if Dixie can stay out of juvenile hall, the hospital, and new age therapy long enough to piece it all together.

Part social satire, part teen-mystery parody, and wholly hilarious, Sophomore Undercover is a dazzling debut that will make headlines with teens everywhere.

What's the biggest obstacle you've had to overcome to get to where you are today as a published author?

The biggest obstacle was deciding that I wanted to be a writer and that I might be good enough to make a living writing books. I know that sounds pretty simple, but it took quite a while to drum up the confidence to believe a career as a writer was possible and even longer before I would admit it to anyone outside of my immediate family.

Up until the book sold, when people would ask me what I did for a living I used to stare down at my feet and mumble something like "oh, I just kinda do this and that" which is pretty embarrassing when you run into your old teachers at the supermarket.

Did any of your inspiration for this novel come from real life experiences?

Well, Sophomore Undercover is set in my home town, and pretty much all the characters are based on people I grew up with, so yeah, my real life experiences were a huge inspiration.

However, I'm not a Vietnamese orphan and I never worked for the school newspaper, so a lot of this was just make believe, too. Make believe is an underrated but essential part of fiction.

How long did it take you to write Sophomore Undercover?

The first draft took about six months or so. Granted, this was a pretty rough draft.

It took me another three months of revisions before I got the draft to a place where I felt I could show it to an agent.

After I hooked up with the agent, it was another seven months of revisions before he felt like we could sell it.

And then after the book sold to Disney-Hyperion, I probably went through another four or five rounds of revisions with my editors over the past year and a half.

So...I guess that makes the grand total of time to get the final book about two and a half years or so. Wow. That is staggeringly long. You kinda lose track of how much time these things actually take.

Do you have any advice or comments for aspiring novelists and the book blogging community?

My key advice to both writers and bloggers is the same thing: Write what you like.

If you're interested and passionate about a subject, that's really going to show through in your writing. Plus, if you're writing a book, you're going to be stuck with this thing for the next few years, anyway. You might as well make sure it's about something that you really like.


Thanks for the interview, Ben! Be sure to keep an eye out for my review!


  1. Your right,, Taylor Hicks THE DUDE CAN SING!!!!

  2. yay for Ben Esch. good interview