Author, journalist Jake Halpern visits campus

Will Portman

By Allison Lazarus, Perspectives Section Editor, and Will Portman, Editor-in-Chief

Author, journalist, and radio producer Jake Halpern visited campus last Thursday, Feb. 18, speaking at a Middle School assembly (pictured) and meeting with about a dozen Upper School students to discuss his work and writing in general.

Halpern discussed his new fantasy novel Dormia (link), the first installment in a trilogy co-written with friend Peter Kujawinski that has been hailed by the American Library Association  as “a strong choice for readers still mourning the end of the Harry Potter books.”  Dormia chronicles the adventures of twelve-year-old Alphonso Perplexon, a sleepwalker whose powers emerge during periods of wakeful sleep.

At the Middle School assembly, Halpern took a rapt audience of CCDS fifth through eighth graders on an imaginative journey through the world of Dormia, sharing insight into writing techniques along the way, such as how to engage readers by building tension, and how plausible details provide the foundation for a good story.

In his informal conversation with Upper School students, Halpern offered thoughts on writing as an art and a profession, and reflected on his own impressive career.  Since graduating from Yale University in 1997, Halpern has traveled the world as a journalist, writing for The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, GQ, and other publications, and published two nonfiction books, Braving Home and Fame Junkies.  He is perhaps best known as a commentator on NPR’s All Things Considered and This American Life.  Additionally, Halpern teaches a course in journalism at Yale.

Halpern began the conversation with Upper School students by recounting his early writing career—specifying quickly that “writing didn’t come easily or naturally.”  In fact, he was only marginally involved in writing extracurriculars at his high school, though he “always loved stories.”  Until college, Halpern believed that he wanted to be a lawyer, but then changed his mind when he traveled abroad to Prague, wrote a screenplay about a one-armed girl and met a relative who was a Holocaust survivor.  Then, he joked, “I thought, law school?  Maybe not.”  He began his writing career as a journalist.

Halpern with US students
Halpern with US students

Though journalistic reporting and his current foray into young adult fantasy may seem disconnected, Halpern insisted that the vast differences between his various projects are what make his career meaningful.

“Somebody told me the key is to get a niche, like, you’re the science writer, or you’re the entertainment writer.  I have thoroughly ignored that advice… I like doing different stuff,” he said.

Dormia, Halpern’s newest novel, was coauthored with his close friend Peter Kujawinski.  When asked about the process of coauthoring a novel, Halpern admitted that conventional wisdom is that “it’s a bad idea.”  However, he insists that having a coauthor is like “having a workout partner” forcing him to stay on task.

Halpern and Kujawinski were able to avoid the usual pitfalls of collaborating on a novel by planning the book out in meticulous detail with a 100-page outline before actually beginning to write.  Halpern compared the process of working from this outline constructing a building: “We had built the scaffolding and so actually writing the thing was like putting up drywall.”

According to Halpern, the key to the success of their collaborative writing process was that neither author edited the other’s first drafts.  By the last chapter, Halpern and Kujawinski’s styles had “merged,” creating what Halpern called a “crazy hybrid style.”  However, Halpern emphasized the importance of the storyline in a fantasy novel over the style of the prose, saying, “It’s a fantasy book, it doesn’t need to be Hemingway.  The story will carry it.”

Halpern said that the ideas which eventually came to comprise the storyline of Dormia came from everyday sources, confiding, “I have a nephew who’s a crazy sleepwalker, and I always wondered if there were some deeper reason at play.”

He recognized the difficulties that many writers face in creating a story from scratch, saying, “It’s easy to come up with a great idea, but then you realize it’s Star Wars or Lord of the Rings … although everything’s derivative to some extent—everyone is subconsciously influenced by pop culture.”

Halpern said that he gets his ideas by “making myself sit down and write every day.  Because I’m a professional writer, I have to get this stuff done.”

Going further, he said he believes that “writer’s block is this kind of myth.  If you’re actually professional, and you’ve got to pay the bills, you’ve got to produce stuff.”

When asked for advice for aspiring young fiction writers, Halpern said that he is “a big believer in sketching out the story arc.  Otherwise you’ll have a moment where you get lost.”

He specified that nonfiction was a little different, saying that “chunks of the story have to be constantly rearranged like a puzzle.”

Halpern said that he believes that prospects for aspiring writers are as good as ever, even in the changing media environment, as “people always love stories, even though their form may change a bit.” The most important quality for a writer of any age, according to Halpern, is “being good at letting rejection roll off your shoulders.  That is crucial.  Instead, you have to believe, ‘This is a book that changes the world.’”

He quickly admitted that he was rejected all the time throughout his career, but was able to let the rejection “roll off his shoulders” and move on.

Halpern said he prefers writing fantasy books to nonfiction books, but, again, that the variety and broad scope of his subject matter and media is where he derives fulfillment and satisfaction as a writer.

“Even if, knock on wood, Dormia became the next Harry Potter, I’d still want to do nonfiction pieces,” he said.

Halpern said his favorite piece from his body of work is radio documentary for This American Life entitled “Switched At Birth,”  which can be found here.