Cool enough for school
A local middle school teacher is also an author. Two of his dozens of books are on their second release.
David Michael Slater is an author of dozens of books and an English teacher at Pine Middle School. He never planned on being either, but he’s been teaching and writing books for close to 20 years. Now he’s an author in motion. The New York Journal of Books likened him to David Sedaris, and he’s awaiting a second run of his teen fantasy series, The Forbidden Books, and his adult dark comedy novel, Fun and Games, by Zharmae Publishing Press. He’s thinking of developing his teen series for the big screen.
Slater said he got where he is now because of a love of words, an obsession with the works of the legendary Argentine poet and author Jorge Luis Borges, and several instances of “smart luck.”
Born in Pittsburgh in 1970, he was never one for having a plan. Even now, he never outlines his work before he writes. He composes and revises his words as they come to him.
“I think I wanted to be a soccer player,” said Slater. “But not once I got into college, no.” He earned a degree in something called “organizational psych.”
As a junior at the University of Michigan, Slater spent a year abroad in Australia, where, on a whim, he wrote the beginnings of a play on the back of a magazine in an airport van. The resulting Gods and Cats was his take on the absurdist style of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a high school favorite he had rediscovered in college. The script eventually won a local theater competition and was produced in its entirety.
“That was the first thing I’d ever written and the first thing I’d ever produced,” said Slater. “So I got the wrong impression of how easy this was going to be, to write.”
Slater went to the University of Pittsburgh to complete a full year of English courses in order to change his major. In 1993, his plan to pursue a doctorate in English took him to his first, and only, year at Carnegie Mellon University, where the extra reading section of a class syllabus introduced him to the works of Borges, known in the 20th century for his multi-dimensional works of fiction. His magical realism has heavily influenced Slater’s style.
“A lot of my books—there’s a vein of absurdity in them,” said Slater. “But what really unifies all of my work is a love of words, a play with words. Even my teen fantasy series, where there really is no absurdity, they’re all books about books. There’s some sort of magic to the words, and that’s Borgesian. Every single one of them starts with a Borges quote in them.”
After watching friends and peers struggle to balance work, graduate study and post-grad career prospects, Slater decided a doctorate wasn’t for him. He had found success in publishing several of his own Borges-inspired short stories in obscure literary journals and decided to go into teaching, a stable career that would allow time for other pursuits.
“I want to know what I’m doing tomorrow because I want the time to write,” he said. “And I used it like crazy. I got a lot of writing done in those early years. Writing was also a big deal helping me teach.”
After completing his master’s at Lewis & Clark College in Oregon, Slater immediately took a job in the Beaverton, Oregon public school system, where he would remain for 16 years. For 13 of those, he taught seventh grade English. While he had worked with children before and liked his job, he found the realities of disengaged students and an overburdened school system draining.
“I had a lot of teachers burn out around me,” he said. “And I often told them, ’You need something else.’ Having writing was always something else.”
During those early years of teaching, it occurred to Slater that one of his many fantastical fictions might translate to a children’s book. In 2000, he penned the first of his 17 published picture books, Cheese Louise.Smart luck
In Beaverton, Slater would also begin work on his young adult series, The Forbidden Books, and his critically acclaimed adult novel Fun and Games. Both works received quiet first pressings by small publishers. The Book of Nonsense, the first of the Forbidden Books series, was originally published in 2009.
Now, Slater has come across a rare opportunity, a second release. Zharmae Press, the new publisher, re-released The Book of Maps, the fourth book of the series, in July, and Fun and Games will hit the market Nov. 17.
A dry, witty, coming-of-age story based in 1980s Pittsburgh, Fun and Games follows the story of young Jonathan Schwartz, a Jewish kid with a decidedly American brand of family dysfunction, courtesy of his manipulative sisters and Holocaust-survivor grandparents.
Slater called the book, “geographically biographical,” in that many of the settings described in its pages are true to life.
“I’ve told people, ’It’s like my life but much funnier, and much more sad,’” he said.
The Forbidden Books series is Slater’s effort in the tradition of series such as Harry Potter and The Golden Compass, which he said were influential to his writing process. The original idea, however, came from one of Slater’s Borgesian short stories about a magical book that can rearrange the words on its own pages.
In pitching some of his picture books to small animation studios, Slater happened across a former studio executive named Kevin Bannerman, who requested the opportunity to develop The Forbidden Books for a movie script—a venture that is still in the works.
Slater’s latest successes, and his career as a whole, may look like happenstance, but that is only half true. He subscribes to a combination of opportunism and dogged perseverance, an ethos he calls “smart luck.” One way he strives to combine work and luck is by ignoring the standard advice to pitch his stories to just a few precisely targeted publishers.
“There’s no way I’d be published if that was all I did,” he said. “How are you going to find someone with some goofy reason to publish your book if you don’t knock on 10,000 doors?”
After pursuing any and every option, Slater has earned an impressive resume and critical praise.
But the road hasn't always been an easy one. He has two large binders full of rejection letters, over a thousand of them, which he uses to teach students and young authors—be persistent.
“You have to have talent, but persistence is every bit as important,” Slater said. “There are very few people where success comes immediately as a result of talent.”