Ben Schrank on the Art of Compartmentalizing

By Maryann Yin Comment

Novelist and publishing executive Ben Schrank has mastered the art of compartmentalizing his life.

During business hours, he is the publisher of Penguin Young Readers Group Razorbill imprint, but he has maintained a writing life as well. Farrar, Straus and Giroux will publish his adult novel (Love Is a Canoe) in February.

We caught up with him to ask about how he manages to juggle these two different roles.

Q: How did you land your book deal?
A: My wife ran into [literary agent] Suzanne Gluck at a party and they talked about what I was up to. I ended up sending Suzanne the book and she said she wanted to represent it. We went through a lot of revisions but eventually she sent it out. A bunch of different people liked it but Sarah Crichton seemed to like it the best.

Q: For you, what are the differences between a good children’s book and a good adult book?
A: The answer changes every week or two. I still think it’s fair to say that for much of young-adult fiction, there’s a kind of examination of feelings that tends to need a resolution. The best young-adult fiction does have some resolution in the story and I suspect maybe that’s less true for adult fiction.

Q: In your opinion, what traits should a writer have if he/she wants to be successful?
A: I think habits are important. The convention is to write all the time regularly (everyday) to remain focused. I think “not quitting” is the key. I read a piece in the New York Times book review about a guy who went into writing nonfiction because he didn’t understand people and he’s discovered that in college. I feel like the reverse because I went into trying to write fiction because I didn’t understand people when I was in college.

Q: In your opinion, what traits should a publishing executive have if he/she wants to be successful?
A: I think it is this constant mix of looking for work that you’re excited about publishing and then taking yourself out of it and saying, “Will the world be excited to welcome this work?” If a publishing executive just buys things [they] love to please [themselves], certainly for adults working in children’s books, if you can’t find an audience for it, you’re not necessarily doing a service to the author or the publishing house.

Q: What type of work schedule do you install for yourself between your duties at Razorbill and writing your own work? How do you maintain a balance?
A: I’ll just wake up really early and write my book before I came to work everyday. So I’d get an hour or two hours every morning and then I’d come to work and work a full day. And then I’d work a little bit on weekends…I think some people are fluid from moment to moment. I’m not able to do that so I end up compartmentalizing pretty aggressively … I think that ability to be good at compartmentalizing has become habitual certainly in publishing.

Q: What inspired you to write Love is a Canoe?
A: What inspired me was an image of a boy literally in a canoe with his grandfather talking about relationships. That was a jumping off point; I wrote a lot of short stories around that idea and I kept sort of unfolding that until there was a bigger multi-strain story.

Q: Is it written in vignettes then you would say?
A: There’s a book inside the book called Marriage is a Canoe. That ends up looking a little like vignettes or chapters of this book within a book. Love is a Canoe is the larger story of what the characters end up doing with Marriage is a Canoe.

Q: Any predictions on what you think the next “it” trend will be in children’s publishing? We’ve gone through vampires, werewolves and dystopia; what do you think is next?
A: I think a book that is coming up soon that we think could be big is Falling Kingdoms, which is like Game of Thrones for teens. We have a book called Origin that is about a girl who is bred to be an immortal in the Amazon jungle; it’s kind of a cautionary tale about playing with Mother Nature. I think this idea about playing with Mother Nature that is not about the future but is about our present could be a big trend. And then more grounded fiction is something we’re always looking for.