Sunday, July 20, 2003

Writer makes a splash with mermaid story

Oakley resident says key to success in children's book market is to let your imagination take over

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Ellen Schreiber of Oakley has written books for young people ages 9 to early teens.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
| ZOOM |
The secret, Ellen Schreiber says, dropping her pink plastic "Hello Kitty" purse on the table, is to think young. "Me, I'm a long way from 15 years old, but I think more like a teen or a young adult."

Which explains how she was able to land a deal with HarperCollins for three novels aimed at the 9-year-old-to-early-teen market. And how she already has published three books in Europe, also for young readers.

Not bad for the 36-year-old Oakley author with no formal training as a writer. A Cincinnati native, she majored in theater at Northern Kentucky University, launched her career in Chicago with an assortment of comedic roles, then landed at Second City for a while as she evolved into a stand-up comedian.

"Really, stand-up is great gig for women just because there's such a shortage. They love to see you walk through the door. The downside is you're always on the road - you drive 12 hours to a gig, make $100 and then drive 12 hours home. That's rough.

"My act was a lot of 'single girl' stuff and clean for the most part, although it's really hard to keep it clean in today's comedy clubs. Comedy has changed so much since I was doing it. In today's climate, I don't know that I'd do it again because there's not much room for the really thoughtful stuff.

"But I have to say, in a way I miss the theater and the comedy circuit - I miss the social part, the family environment. Writing is so opposite, so solitary."

Yeah, but it pays the bills. Royalties are starting to roll in from her three books in Europe, and she expects them soon from her U.S. publications.

The first of the three, Teenage Mermaid (HarperCollins; $15.99), has been out since June 1 and if crowds at her signings - "much larger than I would have thought" - are any indication, it's going over well.

Mermaid is the story of 15-year-old Lilly, a mermaid who rescues 15-year-old Spencer when his surfboard flips and knocks him out. She revives him with a kiss and it's love at first sight.

Or maybe first gasp, since they're under water. After that, the two spend the rest of the novel trying to find each other, Lilly by using mermaid magic - it's disgusting: "octopus leg, the eye of a shrimp, the tongue of a frog ... a dash of herbs" - to grow legs for a day on earth, while Spencer just keeps wandering around looking, thinking she's a transfer student rather than a mermaid.

Get the skepticism out of your system. Yeah, it's far-fetched. Yeah, it's fantasy. Yeah, it's romance. But it's more than that, too.

It's imagination - a whole mermaid culture concocted out of thin air. It's a culture that parallels life on land - school, only the classes are in predators and prey; loud music, except it's underwater and it bubbles; the big game, but it's finball instead of football down there; the in crowd and the out crowd; teachers who just don't get it; parents who get it even less.

But at the end of the day, it's still Schreiber thinking like a kid who worries herself sick about what other kids think; a kid who just knows she's cool and anyone who thinks otherwise doesn't get it; a kid wishing she was older but afraid of what lies ahead; a kid wishing she was anywhere but where she is. "Everyone has had the same fears growing up, but we don't always remember them. I do, and draw quite a bit on that for the book."

Meaning Lilly is really Ellen Schreiber 20 years ago?

"No, not very much. I was never the rebel she is, but like her, I dreamed about a world beyond my conservative environment. Most of the characters in the book are total inventions, rather than people I remember growing up."

Schreiber's next book, due Aug. 1, is another juvenile number, this time a gothic romance called Vampire Kisses. It's another fantasy treatment, she says, but done around very real growing-up emotions. It's already on the street in Europe and doing well.

If you want the Schreiber autobiographical treatment, you have to wait until 2004 for Comedy Girl, all about a young stand-up comedian.

"It deals with more mature themes than the first two, and it is a pretty big chunk of me. She's a shy person who has to deal with it, like me in high school.

"For me working in theater and then doing stand-up helped me deal with my shyness. I don't think writing would ever help anyone overcome their shyness because it's so lonely. Especially the way I do it. I sit down, focus and become totally wrapped up in the characters. So much so that I completely forget others I've written about. I write obsessively and in spurts, and never map out the story in advance. I try to get inside the characters and let them write it."

However she does it, it's working. HarperCollins is shopping Teenage Mermaid in Hollywood, looking for the studio that could do it justice.

"I'm thinking it might work best as a computer-animated thing, like Nemo or Shrek. I'd love to do the screenplay because I've never written one and I'd like to try it," she says.

Whatever she does, she's going to have to budget her time carefully. There's Comedy Girl to finish. Johnny Lightning, a novel about a young rock star, is out in Europe and may come out here after some tweaking. She's also writing an adult novel and considering a sequel to Teenage Mermaid.

"I like those people. I think it's too soon for me to let them go."

Ellen Schreiber signs Teenage Mermaid at Barnes & Noble's Kenwood store, 7800 Montgomery Road, at 3 p.m. next Sunday. Her sessions usually include a Q&A session.


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