New York Times best-selling author Gregory Funaro grew up in Cranston and attended Cranston Public Schools, including George J. Peters – formerly West View Elementary School – Western Hills Middle School and Cranston High School East.
Last week, he returned to his old stomping grounds to speak to students about his book “Watch Hollow,” which was published in February.
Funaro is the author of several other middle-grade books as well as adult thriller titles, and he spoke to the students at both Western Hills Middle School and Park View Middle School during his local visit. He also took part in a book-signing event at Barrington Books Retold in Garden City on Friday evening.
Sixth-grade teacher Suzanne Murray arranged for Funaro’s visit after her sixth-grade students read “Watch Hollow,” researched the author and created artwork relating to the story. Two students, Allison Needham and Nadia Petrella, created life-sized artwork on one wall of the classroom depicting scenery from the story, the likes of which Funaro had never seen before.
“I’ve read all his books,” Needhem said excitedly after taking Funaro up to the classroom to see the wall. “This took us about three weeks.”
The pair also created a replica of the “Watch Hollow” book cover, which greeted Funaro at the entrance of Western Hills on March 7.
“I’m so touched by all of this,” Funaro said. “It’s so great to be here and to be back in Cranston.”
As a special thanks, Funaro gave the students the option to hear a chapter from “Watch Hollow” read aloud, or the prologue of the sequel to “Watch Hollow,” which will be coming out next year. All hands were raised to hear the prologue.
After reading aloud in his best British accent, Funaro spoke a bit about his life as an author, actor and drama professor before talking about his books and how he writes his stories.
“I started writing when I had an idea for a story that just wouldn’t go away,” he said. “It was never published, but it got me an agent.”
Funaro said it was the birth of his daughter nine years ago that led him to begin writing children’s books rather than adult thrillers.
Watch Hollow is a fictional town based on locations in and around Rhode Island, according to Funaro.
“I imagined it to be somewhere out on the western side of the state near the Connecticut border, like in Arcadia,” he said. “The name was a combination of Watch Hill down in Westerly and Sleepy Hollow, which is how I came up with the title.”
The middle-grades novel follows the adventures of characters Lucy and Oliver as their father, a clocksmith, is given a job to fix a clock in Blackford House, where they find themselves joining the animals who live in the clock out in the woods.
“It is somewhere between ‘Goosebumps’ and ‘It,’” Funaro said. “I chose animals for the clock animals that were indigenous species here in Rhode Island.”
He said the sequel continues to follow the pair, but adds two additional children and their governess to the mix.
“All kinds of craziness happens,” he said. “All these scary things start to happen when the children arrive.”
Funaro said when writing a sequel, the trick is to make it like the first, but different enough that it is not a repeat.
“It’s a fine balance,” he said.
Funaro opened the floor to questions from the students and was able to use that time to go more into depth about his books and his writing process.
It was then that he explained that “Watch Hollow” was a book that he was commissioned to write, rather than a book he had written and then shopped around to various publishers.
“That’s unlike anything I’d ever done before,” he said. “A senior editor at HarperCollins was a big fan of my book ‘Alistair Grim’s Odditorium’ and had an idea for a novel. The publishing company green-lighted the idea and then had to find an author to write the book. That author was me. It was hard because it was an idea with a bunch of elements but not a full story.”
Over the course of a year, in trying to get the book just right, Funaro wrote the beginnings of two different books, a whole book, and then a whole new book before finding exactly what was wanted.
When asked what types of emotions he hoped to portray in his novel, Funaro named two and then explained his answer further.
“Fear and hope,” he said. “Hope that in the darkest of times, there is always hope.”
When asked about his writing schedule, Funaro noted that as a parent of a 9-year-old who also teaches drama and acts, he finds that carving out specific writing time for his novels is important.
“I get up at 3 a.m. and I get in as much writing as I can before I get my daughter off to school, start my teaching and rehearsing of my plays at night,” he said.
The topic of writer’s block was raised. Funaro said it is real and something he has experienced many times.
“Writing can be tedious and you have to treat it like a job,” he said. “Some days you like going to work and some days you don’t. Some days I can write a paragraph and some days I can write two or three pages. Writing is not as easy as reading, and it takes confidence, hard work and focus.”
When asked if he plans out his stories from beginning to end when writing them, Funaro said he bounces back and forth between being a planner and a “panster” – someone who writes by the seat of their pants.
“I usually have a clear idea of where I want the story to begin and end, and sometimes I’ll do an outline but I’ll leave it vague enough that if I get a good idea I’m not shackled into that plan,” he said. “It’s kind of like planning a trip to Florida, and sometimes you end up in California instead, but it’s the journey that’s most important.”
Funaro offered tips for students who wish to do more writing.
“Read as much as you can,” he said. “Read all kinds of stuff and then start writing. The more you write the more confident you become and the better you get at it. It’s a skill that can be taught, but the discipline you have to have and the imagination piece can’t be taught.”
Copies of “Watch Hollow” are available for purchase at Barrington Books Retold. For more information about Funaro, visit gregoryfunaro.com.