Interviews - Daniel Galef

There are surprises in every issue but no bigger surprise in Issue 2 than the piece we received from Daniel Galef, the 15-year-old whiz kid and son of Issue 1 contributor David Galef.

Kugelmass: When I first read the piece you submitted to Kugelmass, there was no way I thought it was written by a 15-year-old. The sophistication of the humor, the vocabulary, the literary and historical references all struck me as not something a 15-year-old was capable of. So what gives?

Galef: I grew up in a very literate family. My father is an English professor and my mother an editor, and, from an early age, I loved to read. I was raised primarily on British fiction, by the time I was five never appearing without a book in the crook of my arm, a trend I have never abandoned. My hometown, Oxford, Mississippi, Faulkner's hometown and home to the University of Mississippi, was a great environment for these traits; I spent perhaps half my childhood on campus, among shady groves, brick courtyards with fountains, and the looming porticos of the Lyceum and University Library. I quickly focused on humor, having absorbed my father's cardboard box of MAD books in the attic, my own pocket book of Ogden Nash, and whatever I could find, preferably from at least a few decades before I was born.

Kugelmass: When was the first time you wrote something and said, "OK, this is no longer kid stuff. This is decent"?

Galef: I don't think I've ever written anything and classified it as any "stuff." While I'm sure one could find some point at which certain elements shift, it passed me unnoticed. My first "real" story (as opposed to a few earlier page-long humor pieces and five pages I wrote about krill when I was bored) I wrote in third grade. It was titled Earthworm Earthquake, about a bumbling earthworm superhero, and was written primarily in response to my best friend's straight-laced Super Bee, in which I saw earthworms as being unfairly stereotyped as the crooks. I eventually wrote five or six books about this character, two of which I got to read on the little stage in the public library. Though I've never stopped writing, I never published much, once, in elementary school, getting a poem in the Anthology of Poetry by Young Americans (to this day, it's the worst thing I've ever written, before or after). The first time I ever realized that writing could do anything but elicit laughs and tears (and, if carefully crafted, laughs and tears in the right passages) was in middle school, when a recycled piece about a barbershop won $50 in a competition held by the local Kiwanis club.

Kugelmass: How does a person like you fit writing into your life?

Galef: I've never had trouble finding time for anything. Now is my junior year of high school, and, as many will tell you, the course load is heavy and sheets upon sheets of tiny, pencil-in bubbles rain down upon the hapless scholar's head. However, I find plenty of time every day to fit in a few hours of writing, say, between finishing my calculus homework at 3 a.m. and retiring for twenty minutes of restful slumber, after which, of course, I rise to get an early start on the online chemistry course I'm completing outside of school. Really, it's quite easy to manage time with a well-kept planner, industrious attitude, and small bracelet that gives increasing electric shocks when you doze off (only $49.95 on Amazon, which means it ships free!).

Kugelmass: Do your friends/peers know this side of you? What are they (and others your age) doing while you craft pieces of fiction?

Galef: Most of my friends are very creative and intelligent, and many of them write, draw, or are artistic in other ways. Most people I know know that I write, though I doubt that many except my friends would guess that I write humor. At school itself, various clubs exist for people who share particular (in some cases, very narrow) interests. I know of clubs devoted to cartooning, chess, cinematography, and creative writing, of two of which I am a member, not to mention (but of course I will) the Math League, Mock Trial, Debate Club, and the Friends of Mills Reservation. Also, during at least part of the year, many of us fence (two hours a day, four days a week - 373% more badass than crew). Currently, I am co-authoring a short piece with a classmate, the sole goal of which (the piece, not the classmate) is to have no literary value whatsoever. So far, this has been promising, involving blatant archetypes and rip-offs from favourite books and movies, a green octopus, Professor Lawrence Higsfellow, whose top hat doubles as a three-tube radio, a velociraptor disguised as a University administrator, a submarine, a minotaur, and mysterious doppelgangers that come into existence whenever one of us misspells a character's name.

Kugelmass: Similarly, you're clearly a smart dude. Is this represented elsewhere in your life besides in your writing?

Galef: I love to learn, and always have. In moving to New Jersey, I worked over the summer to avoid losing the jump I had on mathematics, an advantage I achieved through extracurricular courses in elementary school, after being taught by my father how to graph in Cartesian coordinates and solve quadratic equations by trial and error. The result is that I never again have been bored in math. My weaknesses lie primarily in the social sciences. In the Daniology piece, I tried to maintain at least tenuous connections to actual history throughout. This was difficult, as I've never been very good at it, so I conducted a healthy month of research from print sources. Yes. No. I had Wikipedia open in the other window.

Kugelmass: What influence does/did your dad have on you as a writer?

Galef: My father has passed along to me many of his own books (for a few minutes, and don't bend it back like that!), and has also kindly allowed me to read some of his published work. He has a great, if disturbingly dark, sense of humor, and is always happy to answer some mindless question for the seventh time through his office door, so I can't see his gritted teeth. "Which vowel does the diaeresis go over? Does one capitalize 'none' in a title? What about 'no?' Well, it's sort of a proper noun. Say, are you working?" It has been said (by whom, I have no time to Google) that art is derived from suffering (or is it pleasure that's derived from it?), and my father has been incalculably helpful in my writing by selflessly providing that suffering.

Kugelmass: How did you come upon the idea to write the Danish piece?

Galef: In fact, the piece was not intended to be for print at all. My maternal grandfather's birthday, which was to be celebrated the day after Passover when the family would be together, was drawing nigh, and my family had decided that, instead of a cake, it would be appropriate for each of the far-flung family members attending to bring a cheese Danish from their region. Approximately a month before Passover, my grandmother called to ask that I draw up a short history of the Danish to pad out the otherwise weak theme. Unfortunately, the message was not passed along until the evening of Passover, when my progress was checked up on on the assignment I didn't know I had. We would leave the morning after Passover, and I would then be expected to present the history. That evening, I was chastised for leaving the Seder table every ten minutes to run upstairs and write a paragraph. It was coming along, but I sequestered a few of those who were in on the surprise to review it. "It's good, but I thought you were doing something, y'know, true?" "Danishes are sweet, you know that, right?" I'd never eaten a Danish! After that, I had to go back and rework a few things, and, by the morning, I had enough to present. Of course, after the party, I revised it considerably for submission, but it began as a requested page or two of actual cheese Danish history, which happens to be far too boring to be allowed to be true.



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