Joy Interviews Kim Tomsic for her new book: GUITAR GENIUS!

One of the things that always fascinates me is when authors I’ve loved in one genre or type of book try their hands at another. I’ve known Kim Tomsic as a middle grade novel author (her 11:11 Wish is absolutely adorable!) but now she’s written a truly fascinating nonfiction picture book called Guitar Genius: How Les Paul Engineered the Solid Body Electric Guitar and Rocked the World! It’s Illustrated by Brett Helquist and out now from Chronicle books. With non-fiction, I always want to know what drew the author to the subject, how they pared down an entire life to make it an engaging picture book, just right for a younger audience. So I was delighted when Kim was up for an interview!

Joy Preble: This is your first picture book, so congratulations on that! But I have to ask, why a biography for your first picture book? Just in general, what appealed to you about writing non-fiction? What was the most fun? What was the most challenging?

Kim Tomsic: Hi, Joy and the Brazos team! Thank you for inviting me to interview about my debut picture book Guitar Genius: How Les Paul Engineered the Solid Body Electric Guitar and Rocked the World! I’m especially delighted to chat with a Texas bookstore, since I graduated from The University of Texas at Austin. My degree is in History, which serves as a nice segue to answer your question, “Why a biography?” Easy—I’m a history-loving girl who delights in discovering the hidden nuggets that make a larger-than-life person more real and accessible, and man-oh-man, Les Paul was such a fun person to research! He was funny, persistent, dogged, smart, clever, and hardworking, but more than anything, he had a ton of grit and curiosity.

The most challenging part of my writing journey was wading through some of the misinformation about Les Paul. Here’s a shocking news alert—everything on the internet is not true. I wanted to nail down a 100% accurate account of his life. The best part of researching this story was forming a friendship with Sue Baker, program director of the Les Paul Foundation. Not only was Sue one of Les Paul’s closest friends the last ten years of his life, she has also become one of my life-long friends. Sue told me that Les had a way of connecting people, and he’s still doing so even after his death.

JP: How great that you were able to connect with someone who knew him well. And speaking of Les Paul, I was so excited to read this book and discover all his inventions and his wildly creative mind. Besides the basics that you’ve mentioned above, how did you decide that he would be the subject of your first picture book? What drew you to write about him in this format?

KT: I didn’t set out to write a nonfiction picture book. In fact, I was working on my novel, The 11:11 Wish, when my son asked me (for the bazillionth time) to go guitar shopping with him. Guitar shopping means I sit in Wildwood Guitars’ red vinyl chair for three hours at a time while my son tries every guitar, pedal, and amp the storekeeper will show him. One day, I asked my son “Who is this Les Paul guy whose name is on the really expensive guitars?” My son nearly fell out of his chair. Then he told me I couldn’t be related to him if I didn’t know who Les Paul was—thus began my research journey.  I uncovered one crazy Les Paul fact after the next—how he invented things as a kid, how he took apart his mother’s gadgets and repurposed them, how at bedtime he would tie a string to his big toe and dangle the other end of the string out his second-floor bedroom window with a note attached, advising the reader to tug if anything interesting was happening. Little Lester had my attention. But when I found out that his piano teacher sent a note to his mother that said, “Your child Lester will never be musical. Save your money, don’t send him for any more piano lessons” I knew this Rock and Roll Hall of Fame icon and musical wizard had a story to be told.

JP: These are such cool and funny anecdotes! Tell us a little about the process of paring down a person’s life and accomplishments for a picture book. I’m sure it has a fascinating set of challenges, including tone and word choice, among many others.     

KT: Lester Polsfuss (aka Les Paul) is a fascinating guy with a-million-and-one crazy yet true tales, so it was extremely challenging to pare down his life to a focused story, until I noticed the heartbeat— PERSEVERANCE—is the common thread throughout his life. As a child, little Lester was told he’d never be musical, yet he taught himself to play the guitar. He was told his guitar wasn’t loud enough, so he engineered a way to amplify the sound. He was told it was impossible to play both sides of the harmonica and his guitar at the same time, so he invented the flippable harmonica holder. As an adult, when he nearly electrocuted himself to death, he put in the work to recover and continued inventing. When he shattered his right arm in a car accident, he had the medical team set his arm at a right angle so he could keep strumming his guitar. When Gibson said no thank you to his “broomstick” aka “The Log”, he stuck with his creation for ten years, until Gibson finally wanted to work with him and produce a solid body electric guitar .

In essence, Les was someone who faced ridicule and was told his ideas were either dumb or impossible, yet he proved everyone wrong. The hope and promise of his story of perseverance was something I wanted kids to be able to access—seeing the impossible become possible.

The tone and word choice in Guitar Genius came from curating Les Paul’s world. My research included digging into what life in Waukesha, Wisconsin in the 1920s looked and sounded like, so I could understand the colors and textures of his childhood. Then I spent time looking into Chicago and New York in the 1930s and so forth. I also had to gain a slight understanding of how gadgets of the day worked—the candlestick telephone, a player piano, a phonograph needle, etc. Furthermore, Sue Baker served as a valuable resource in recounting the stories Les told her, but I also listened to every Les Paul interview I could find, and I watched the documentary, Chasing Sound,at least ten times. In all these instances, I listened for  words that reflected the language and sounds from the various periods I reference in the book.

JP: Wow! That is all so very fascinating! No wonder you’ve written such an amazing picture book. By the way, I’m also a fan of your fun and magical middle grade fiction. I loved the 11:11 Wish, and I just raced through my advanced copy of The 12th Candle, which was such a delight! Beyond what you’ve already answered above, how is the creative process different writing picture book biography than it is writing frothy middle grade fiction?

KT: Thank you so much for your compliments! I’m so excited for The 12th Candle (Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins October 8, 2019) to make its way into the world. Is it weird that I want to either (a) tell a true story or (b) write a story with sparkly magic? Ah, and your question is fantastic. Honestly, the creative process is different and yet the same. It’s the same in the sense that in both instances, I search for word choices, verbs, and structure that will take the reader on the best possible journey. I love composing a character bible when creating fiction, sketching a character from top to bottom, inside and out. But I still need a character bible with nonfiction, it’s just all the work of filling in the blanks comes from research rather than my imagination. It’s also nice with a nonfiction biography to have a fully fleshed out person as well as a roadmap to serve as some structure. The biggest difference in writing nonfiction is being confined to the facts—no wishing candle or magic clock to wreak havoc and/or jazz things up. That’s why it’s essential for me when writing nonfiction that I pick someone or something that I’m so excited about that no additional magic is required to keep me hooked.

JP: Well, I appreciate both forms, but I do have to say I’ve always been a fan of magical stories, both growing up and now as an adult. What were your favorite books as a child? Did those titles influence the writer you’ve become?  

KT: My favorite books from my childhood include Bread and Jam for Francis by Russell Hoban, Barbar the Elephant by Jean de Brunhoff, Are You There God it’s Me, Margaret? by Judy Blume, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle by Betty MacDonald, and Freaky Friday by Mary Rodgers. It wasn’t until I read all of Richard Peck’ books to my son (especially Blossom Culp, A Long Way from Chicago, A Year Down Yonder, and A Teacher’s Funeral) that I knew I wanted to be a writer.

JP: What else would you like us to know about Kim Tomsic and what’s coming next?

KT: What else:  There is a teacher’s guide for Guitar Genius available on my website, and by the way, I love school visits!

What you’ll see next: In 2021, I have another narrative nonfiction picture book releasing with Chronicle (beautifully illustrated by Hadley Hooper) called The Elephants Come Home. I can’t wait to share this book with you!

JP: Thanks for such a great interview, Kim!

GUITAR GENIUS is on our shelves now!


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