Author Next Door Spotlight: Jeff Schatzer

Jeff Schatzer
Jeff Schatzer is a storyteller and author who finds inspiration in our country’s legends and history.

A northern Michigan resident, Jeff holds a BSBA, MBA and BSC. He started his career as a commercial writer, first writing about mundane subjects like water heaters and nails for a retail lumber and building supply outlet, that eventually evolved into creating speeches and corporate broadcast production. During his spare time he was writing fiction and submitting his literary ideas to publishers. After nearly 30 years of tossing rejection slips, one of his short stories was accepted by Lands’ End and he was on his way.

His first book, The Bird in Santa’s Beard, was originally self-published and later picked up by Mitten Press. The Bump on Santa’s Noggin (2006) followed, with The Elves in Santa’s Workshop four years later. His picture book, The Runaway Garden, (2007) won the State Library of Michigan as the One State: One Children’s Book for 2010.

Professor Tuesday's Awesome Adventures in History

Jeff began writing historical fiction in 2005 and published his young adult novel, Fires in the Wilderness, in 2009 followed by Professor Tuesday’s Awesome Adventures in History: Book 1, Pontiac’s War (2009), Professor Tuesday’s Awesome Adventures in History: Book 2, Migrating to Michigan (2010) and Professor Tuesday’s Awesome Adventures in History: Book 3, The Underground Railroad (2011).

He has shelved Professor Tuesday for now, and these days he is working on a mystery based in northern Michigan as well as a historical fiction about the 19th century adventures aboard a small cargo ship built in Detroit.

How did you become a writer?
I’ve been a dreamer my entire life, thinking in stories and ideas. Through the school years there were teachers who offered encouragement, who told me I should think about becoming a writer.  The words author and writer have a nebulous and fleeting feeling to them. I’ve found that I’m a storyteller with a love of our nation’s legends and histories.

My start in writing came as a “ham and eggs” commercial writer. My job was to write advertising and promotional copy for the Wickes Corporation, a national chain of retail lumber and building supply outlets. While I wrote boring stuff to make a living, any spare time I had was devoted to creating and submitting story ideas to editors and publishers. My commercial writing evolved over time from descriptive drama about 2 x 4 studs and efficient home water heaters to creating speeches, presentations, and corporate broadcast production. My advance in the literary world was considerably slower. It was only after 28 years of discarding rejection slips, Lands’ End picked up a Christmas story I submitted to them in 1998.

I sold another series of stories to the catalogue retailer a year later. Then my contact at Lands’ End lost his job and I never managed to connect beyond that point. Though it was a short run, I got a fuzzy seeing my name as an author next to Garrison Keillor’s in the catalogue’s index. The idea for my first picture book, The Bird in Santa’s Beard, came to me around 1998. I re-wrote and refined the story over the years as I searched for a publisher. When no one showed interest, my wife Debbie and I gathered creative friends and we self-published the book in 2004. My wife, bless her soul, managed to sell 10,000 copies of that first book out of the back of a red VW Cabriolet convertible in six months.

We were pursued by a couple of publishers and picked up by Mitten Press (now Spry Publishing) in 2005. Since then I’ve published three Santa books and a picture book entitled, The Runaway Garden. The garden book was selected for three national awards (USA Best Book Award, Mom’s Choice Award, and The American Horticultural Society’s Growing Good Kids Award) and it was chosen by the State Library of Michigan as the One State: One Children’s Book for 2010.

I began writing historical fiction for young people around 2005. After five years of listening to the stories of Michigan’s Civilian Conservation Corps Boys, I published my first chapter book for middle grade readers, Fires in the Wilderness. The book is a fictionalized account of the challenges faced by young men during the Great Depression when they worked on environmental projects in the CCC. In addition, I have written three books in a series titled, Professor Tuesday’s Awesome Adventures in History. The first covered Pontiac’s War of 1763 (prior to Michigan achieving statehood), the second was covered migration to Michigan (around statehood), and the third is about the Underground Railroad and how people from the Midwest worked together to help oppressed people find freedom. This particular book recently received a powerful review from the Frederick Douglass Foundation of New York. Plenty of other cool reviews are posted on my website. Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention the kindness, friendship, and loyalty of my friends at Horizon Books in Traverse City . . . God bless you all for holding to the book.

How do you write? What is your process?
I’m not much of a process writer to be honest. The best way to describe what I do is “grind a story.” I toss an idea about in my head. At times it’s almost like a movie I can watch and edit in my dreams. Once I’ve kicked an idea around internally, I take it out into the world. I discuss it with practically anyone else who will listen. After I’ve gotten feedback and milked ideas from others, I get to work. Writing the first draft represents the work phase of writing. Radio personality and overall good guy, Ron Jolly, once told me that one of his favorite authors told him that writing takes a lot of BIC (Butt In Chair).

Rather than daily routines, schedules, and outlines, I am more maniacal about writing. When a story is gnawing at me, I spend long days and nights holed up in my space. When it comes to the actual task of writing, I pretty much follow Stephen King’s approach. After writing with the door closed, I open the door and share my work with my wife and trusted friends. Once I get the input and feedback I want, I close the door and finish the book. This usually goes through multiple iterations, but you get the idea.

When I get a chance to speak with young writers, I love to talk about the fun of re-write. (I can’t tell you the number of people who are shocked to find out that writers don’t just sit down, write a book, and move on to the next project.) There is a tremendous amount of re-writing and perfecting that goes on when you are putting together 30,000 words, 120,000 words, 300,000 words or more. To me, it’s the re-writing process that generates moments of inspiration and creates some of the best ideas. Incidentally, all this adds to the BIC, but it makes the process more fun and the outcome more rewarding.

Who are your favorite authors?
My tastes in reading are eclectic and far ranging, yet my heart favors Midwestern authors/themes. I like the north woods feel of Steve Hamilton’s work. Michigan authors Gloria Whelan and Christopher Paul Curtis are two of my favorite writers for young people. Chris Van Allsburg, author and illustrator of The Polar Express, Jumanji, The Sweetest Fig, etc. is a genius in my view.

My inspiration and fascination is in history. When I’m not researching in libraries, I spend the majority of my reading time with history books printed prior to the 1950s because details about the past are more pronounced and vivid in those books. Because I am working on a project about a small Michigan merchant vessel that was caught up in a war, I’ve been reading a great deal on the history of sailing ships on the Great Lakes. One of the best written and presented books I’ve found was done by Don Bamford, Freshwater Heritage: A History of Sail on the Great Lakes. Military and political histories are also favorites on my shelves. Not surprisingly, that list includes Doug Stanton, David McCollough, and Nathaniel Philbrick.

What authors have inspired you?
Every author who writes a compelling and absorbing story offers inspiration to me. Recently, I came upon a book by Robert Greene, Mastery. In his book, Greene described the universal elements that line the path to mastery of skills like writing, sports, etc. That book offered significant inspiration to me.

Much of my personal inspiration and motivation comes from seeing young readers and writers at the moment of discovery, that moment when they realize the enjoyment of story and how to create it.

What books are on your bedside table?
I just finished Mayflower, by Nathaniel Philbrick. Now I can’t wait to go to the May, 14 NWS event to purchase Bunker Hill. Philbrick has an amazing gift for organizing information and presenting historical accuracy in his work.

When I work on writing projects, most of my reading if focused on the nature of the work. These days I am reading a combination of maritime history and non-fiction crime. Some writers include: Tom Budiansky, George C. Daughman, Ian W. Toll, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, and Don Bamford. This reading covers a wide waterfront of material, everything from works on body trauma created by gunshot wounds to naval engagements under sail.

What writing projects do you have planned next?
The plural is appropriate. I’ve been working on a murder mystery for about a year. The project has been great fun because it is set locally and features some regional history and facts that will surprise the reader. I’m about 60,000 words into it with an estimated 90,000 or so to go. I know exactly how it’s going to end; all I have to do is write all the words to get there. The pending title is Deadly Blue.

I have also just started a work of historical fiction about a Quaker businessman who built a small cargo ship in Detroit in the early 1800s. The book will be titled Boys’ War because of the critical roles played by boys in shipping and naval military history. In my mind this book is akin to a real life saga of Hunger Games.

His latest book, Professor Tuesday’s Awesome Adventures in History: Book 3, The Underground Railroad (Spry Publishing, 208 pages, $14.95, hardcover), is the story of two middle-grade students who want to learn about the Underground Railroad. With the help of an eccentric professor named “Tuesday,” they discover the past and learn how people of all backgrounds, races, and religions worked together to help escaped slaves find freedom. The students learn lessons from the past as they discover their own courage and strength. It is available at Horizon Books as well as through Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and Spry Publishing.

Enjoy reading and writing. These skills are like many others. The more you practice, the better you get. Stephen King noted that in order to be a good writer, you must first be a good reader. I agree totally.

With regard to the task of writing, I encourage young writers to play with details. If you are writing about a terrible monster, I want to know what it smells like, looks like, feels like, sounds like, etc. The only way to do that is through descriptive writing. Give readers a total experience.

As importantly, I like to show young writers a draft of one of my chapter books to demonstrate how many edits and changes are made during the writing process. Writing is a work that is more love than labor. Still I’ve never written anything perfectly the first time. The work comes to life in the re-write. It takes a lot of love to bring a book to life.


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