Geoff Herbach is the author of GABE JOHNSON TAKES OVER (formerly FAT BOY VS. THE CHEERLEADERS) and the Felton Reinstein series, which starts with STUPID FAST. His books have won a Cybils Award and the Minnesota Book Award. He currently teaches creative writing in addition to working on more books.
1. GABE JOHNSON TAKES OVER is your first book starring a narrator other than Felton Reinstein. Was it difficult to leave Felton's voice behind?
It was hard in one way – Felton feels like my kid. I really love him! So, I actually experience sadness, like missing him, when I write sometimes. Gabe’s voice felt pretty natural, though. I didn’t find him rolling into Felton territory, because Gabe just naturally has a more organized mind. I do think Gabe would find Felton hilarious and vice versa, though.
2. GABE JOHNSON TAKES OVER was published in hardcover with the title FAT BOY VS. THE CHEERLEADERS. How does the new title represent the book better?
That’s a good question, for sure. Fat Boy vs. The Cheerleaders shows up as a newspaper headline near the end of the book. Gabe is both offended by it (because it’s mean and it doesn’t really represent what happened) and okay with it, because he thinks maybe the headline will get lots of people to read the story. In the end, I have to agree with his first response. The book is about him claiming his natural power, sort of re-claiming it after he’s been robbed of his dignity. I think Gabe would approve of new title. Because he does, in fact, take over. And, he wouldn’t want anything to do with dumb name-calling (he has to learn that in the book).
3. Was your high school experience more like Felton's or Gabe's?
I played football and ran track and wasn’t in the band, but I also was in choir and played cello in the orchestra… I think my natural nervous energy matches better to Felton’s, but I was actually more woven into the regular life of the school than Felton, so more like Gabe… I guess a combo! Both those guys make up weird swear words. I was definitely that guy!
4. You also teach creative writing and speak at schools. Have any students affected the way you approach your writing?
A kid in Lancaster, Wisconsin just told me about this Teen Court he’s a part of. It’s through the county and they actually work with juvenile offenders… I’m really excited about that. I’ve had other kids tell me about their driving habits and their soda machine habits and their Walmart walking habits and all of that stuff has gotten into books, so definitely. There’s nothing in the world as fun as doing creative writing exercises with teens at high schools and middle schools. Great stuff comes out all the time (and, yeah, I sometimes use it – I do ask for permission!).
5. Any upcoming projects you can talk about?
First, I’ve got this book about a kid named Taco coming. I’m in revisions on it now, and this kid is so relentlessly sunny in the face of relentless trouble…I just love him. He’s super buoyant. He’s totally deluded, but figuring it out. Can’t wait until Taco meets the world!
I’m also co-writing a book (actually three – Strange Times, they’re called) with former Blink 182 front man, Tom DeLonge. The books are going to be pretty great. They’re skater-y and funny and terrifying. Tom is a really, really energetic human and that’s flowing through what we’re doing. So, good stuff coming!
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Gabe Johnson Takes Over Excerpt:
That stupid pop machine. Stupid pop. It all started with that stupid—
Yeah, I hate that machine. For so many reasons.
First things first! That machine made me a junky! A pop junky! I’m not the only one in school either.
Back in May, me, Justin Cornell, and Camille Gardener did this pop study for health class. It was Camille’s idea because she turned into a health nut when her dad started organic farming last year. (Her dad grew like two tomatoes and one giant zucchini. Mr. Gardener’s not the greatest farmer in the world.) Anyway, out of Camille’s concern for health, she got us to study usage of the pop machine, her theory being that unhealthy kids would be the heaviest users.
Big, bad study, sir.
Mr. Luken, our health teacher, gave us passes to hang out in the cafeteria all day. We made a chart of jocks, brains, music geeks, gamers, burners, and others (sad sacks who are hard to categorize because they have no social connections to anyone) and we took note of who purchased a product from the pop machine and what specific product they purchased.
Almost nobody paid attention to us while we took notes. Only a couple said stuff like, “What are you staring at, dorks?” Seth Sellers, a jock, made fart sounds when he saw me.
This pop project was eye opening, sir.
After school that day, me, Camille, and Justin went to Bitterroot Coffee Shop down on Main Street to tally things up.
“Nick, Gamer, purchased three Pepsis in four hours,” Justin said.
“Kendra, Burner, four different pops in five hours,” Camille said.
“She’s pretty overweight,” Justin said.
“Not as big as Tiff, Other, who bought four bottles of Sierra Mist,” Camille said.
“Oh, Lord Mother of all Balls,” I said.
Camille plugged the data into a spreadsheet, squinting.
Justin shook his head, sucked his latte, and was all like, “Whoa.”
Then Camille sat back, sipped her green tea, and was all like, “Just as I suspected.”
I smiled and said, “Holy Mother of all Balls, right?” I drank a mocha with whipped cream, which has a million calories by the way.
Here’s the scoop, sir: Purchasers of pop at Minnekota Lake Area High School are fat asses, trailer park kids, addicted gamers, and burner chicks who eat cigarettes for breakfast. Dozens and dozens of these kids. Most of them went for seconds later in the day. Some for thirds. A couple fourths (me, for instance). Very few jocks purchased pop from the machine. (Seth Sellers bought one bottle of Pepsi late in the afternoon, so he was able to greet me with the aforementioned fart sounds.) Two cheerleaders purchased from the machine, but they both bought diet. That diet stuff will kill you but not make you fat on the calories.
What does that tell you, Mr. Rodriguez?
I tried not to show my concern, but Justin and Camille were clearly concerned.
“You drink a lot of pop, Chunk,” Justin said. “Could be part of the problem.”
“Oh, is there a problem?” I said. “I wasn’t aware of a problem!” I smiled big and raised my fat mocha like I was making a toast.
“There’s a problem, Chunk,” Camille said. “A big problem.” She didn’t smile. She didn’t toast me.
“I’m just sayin’,” Justin said.
Yeah. Really. A problem. I drank a hell--ton of Code Red Mountain Dew every day—four bottles, five bottles—and the only pants that fit me were stretchy pants (elastic waistband, sir).
I knew it too, knew pop was part of my issue. But see, I also thought it was part of my success. I was winning by buying all that pop! All the vending machine money went to fund the band! I’m a trombone player, you know? That’s one badass, hilarious instrument, right? Trombone! Awesome instrument. I love band so much, so I figured I was paying myself by drinking all that pop. Winning it huge.