Middle-grade author Rachel Renée Russell may be a self-described dork, but it must be pretty cool to be uncool: Since its debut in 2009, her Dork Diaries series has sold more than 15 million copies, spent more than 230 weeks on The New York Times bestsellers list and been translated into almost 30 languages. To top that off, Lionsgate recently acquired the movie rights to the series, with a film set to release in 2016.
If it seems unbelievable that this type of success would burgeon in just over five years, that’s because it didn’t. Russell’s journey to becoming a bestselling author began around the age of 12.
Sometime in middle school in Saint Joseph, Mich., Russell decided to craft her first book for kids. She kept writing through college at Northwestern University. But after receiving harsh criticism from a creative writing professor there, her confidence to pursue the craft as a career waned, and she opted to go into law instead.
Russell knew, though, that the career she settled for was not the career she was meant for. In the late 2000s, after spending 20-plus years as a bankruptcy lawyer, raising two children and going through a divorce, Russell returned to her first love: writing.
The Dork Diaries are the humorous journals of Nikki Maxwell (named after Russell’s younger daughter), a socially awkward 14-year-old who’s adapting to life in a new city and a new school. Each book recounts one month of Nikki’s misadventures in the form of illustrated journal entries, which detail everything from her run-ins with resident snob MacKenzie to her desperate attempts to get her mom to buy her an iPhone—you know, typical middle-grade crises.
“The reason why I was motivated to write Dork Diaries was because of my own daughters,” Russell says. “I was in an upper-middle-class neighborhood with an upper-middle-class public school, and my kids just were weird. Actually, they weren’t weird—they were smart, they did their homework, they were really good kids. But for some reason, both of them got bullied.”
In addition to the regular series, Russell has written two companion books—Dork Diaries 3½: How to Dork Your Diary and Dork Diaries: OMG! All About Me Diary!—which encourage kids to express themselves through journaling.
Russell’s daughters, now adults, have become directly involved with creating the Dork Diaries: Erin contributes to the writing, while Nikki has taken over the illustrating. The eighth book, Dork Diaries: Tales From a Not-So-Happily Ever After, hit shelves in September, and Book 9 is scheduled for a spring 2015 release.
Here, the soft-spoken 54-year-old Russell talks with WD from her home in Virginia about the challenges of writing for a young audience, future plans for her writing, and showing the publishing industry that it’s actually cool to be dorky.
You were a bankruptcy lawyer before the Dork Diaries series took off. When did you stop practicing law?
After the first book [Dork Diaries: Tales From a Not-So-Fabulous Life] hit The New York Times bestsellers list, I phased out my practice. The book was released in June of 2009, and we hit the bestsellers list probably in the first week. At that point it became obvious to me that I could actually make a living as a children’s author. I thought, Well, I won’t take any new clients, and I’ll finish up the cases I have. And within a year or so I was an author full time.
What made you want to write?
It was something I always wanted to do. The first book I really remember writing was about my [twin] brothers. It was their birthday, and as a gift I made a book called The Ronnie and Donnie Book. It was a picture book of maybe 10 or 15 pages about the fact that they liked Frosted Flakes and they liked playing cowboys. It was a really cute, badly written book that they really enjoyed. [Laughs.]
I probably did a book a year all the way to adulthood. For my daughters, I made a book for each of them maybe every couple of years. It was something I enjoyed doing.
But around the time my kids got to high school, I stopped doing those little hobby books and was basically working my butt off trying to get them through college.
During the time they were in college, I was alone at home and had a lot of spare time. That’s when I started to seriously think about writing again, and I joined an online book club—an African-American children’s writers group—[in 2008]. To help support each other, we would do manuscript swaps. I didn’t have a [complete] manuscript, but I would swap chapters. And when I did, I would get such positive reinforcement from the group. They would say, “Oh, this is so funny, I cried,” or, “I was laughing at work,” or, “I was laughing on the bus,” or, “I let my daughter read this and she thought it was really good.” I got such very, very positive feedback that I thought, Hmm. Maybe I can actually get something published.
In the series, you capture the voice of kids in middle school, especially girls, so well. Do you have to do much research?
In the beginning, not a whole lot. [My daughters] were both “drama queens” [as kids]. When I was just starting to get into this, I thought, This is what I’ve been living for many years. Now that they’re grown up and on their own, I do have to work a little bit harder to stay current. Even with the slang, I have to run it by my daughters. But now that they’re older, I usually talk to my nieces, who are now tweens. And I watch a lot of Disney. [Laughs.]
How difficult is it to write for that audience?
To me, it’s easy. I found that being a mom, middle-grade is really comfortable for me because I don’t have to get into the things that young adults start to experiment with. And, of course, middle-grade is Disney and Nickelodeon, and it’s good and clean and still really sweet. I’m most comfortable in that environment.
What’s the pace of publishing the Dork Diaries?
We’re publishing two books a year, but that means we’re actually writing three books a year. I don’t know how it comes out like that! But that’s what’s been happening for the last five or six years. We have a book that comes out in June and another that comes out around October every year. It’s very intense. But I enjoy writing. It’s worth the headache and worth the grueling schedule.
What are some challenges of writing a series?
The most challenging is the grueling schedule. [And] the deadlines. We’ll have a deadline for a first draft, a deadline for a second draft, and a deadline for edits. It’s physically draining. Sometimes I’ll work a 12-hour day. Sometimes, people who write series will say that they have a hard time keeping up with characters, or keeping up with what’s happened. But that’s not really a problem with me. Of course, [writing a children’s series] is not as complicated as if you were writing, say, a fantasy.
You started out illustrating the Dork Diaries, but now your younger daughter, Nikki, has taken over the illustration. What’s it like working with her?
It’s really nice. I actually love working with [my daughters]. It’s exciting, and I think they like working with me, too.
And your older daughter, Erin, helps out, too?
Yes. Erin is an assistant writer. She helps me directly. [But] I work more closely with Nikki. I’ll tell her what chapters we’re writing, and I’ll send her art instructions [for what] I want her to create. Generally, anything that she draws is because Erin and I tell her [what’s] happening.
So the writing comes first.
Pretty much. Then, once we get the illustrations back, we’ll sit back down with the manuscript and go through and edit it. But we probably only go about a chapter at a time.
[In the beginning], my editors and I sat down and tried to figure out the most efficient way to get the first draft of a manuscript done, and they suggested to write the whole thing [and] then go back and put the illustrations in. That does not work. [Laughs.] I’ve tried it a couple of times. If I had to write a Dork Diary without the illustrations, I would never finish it. I think it’s just seeing the artwork that inspires more writing. … I don’t get more than maybe a chapter ahead of Nikki. I don’t know if it’s a crutch. I’ve even said that maybe Nikki is my muse, or her artwork is my muse. I don’t know. We’ve tried over and over again to get the manuscripts done and put the illustrations in later, but Dork Diaries cannot be created in that manner.
Have you ever considered writing and publishing in another genre?
I have! I probably could very easily go to easy readers next, something between middle-grade and picture books. … I might seriously try young adult at some point, but I’m a little nervous about young adult because I think the older teenagers are going to read it and figure, Oh, this is silly.
But with the Dork Diaries, you do touch on some serious issues that cross over to the YA audience.
Thank you for telling me that! I’ll have to remember that. Of course, when I look at the bestsellers list and there’s Divergent and Twilight and Harry Potter, I’m like, Am I ready to dive into that? I don’t think so. [Laughs.] Harry Potter started off as middle-grade, but, of course, as he aged, [the series] became more young adult. But when I look at Divergent, or even The Fault in Our Stars—there was the bedroom scene—I’m like, Ahh! I’m a mom! Even though my oldest daughter is married now, you’d think I could get over it, but, still. [Laughs.] So when I look at the content and the pacing and the romance in the young adult category, I get a little nervous. But it’s something that I would like to do at some point—or at least try.
You’ve talked before about how the Dork Diaries protagonist, Nikki Maxwell, is white, but you’re African American. Do you feel that authors should step outside of their comfort zones and craft characters of races and ethnic backgrounds that differ from their own?
They have to do what they’re comfortable with. Authors of any race and gender should write—number one—what their heart and brain are leading them to write, and—number two—what they’re passionate about.
When Nikki Maxwell popped into my head, she was a white girl. I don’t know why, but she just was. I could’ve said, “No, I’m going to make her Black because I’m Black and my daughters are Black.” But I thought, Well, I’ll write her and see what her voice is like. Then I started writing, and it was really comfortable and I enjoyed it. …
Authors of any race should be able to write other races. We see [white] authors writing people of color [all the time], so, to be fair, people of color should be able to write other races [as well]. It shouldn’t be a rule that if you’re Black, you should only write Black characters, but if you’re white, you can write Native American, or African American, or Asian or Latino. That’s why it irritates me a little bit when people make a big deal out of it. [Laughs.] I don’t mind getting asked the question, but then I’ll have people say, “But why are you doing that?” and I’m like, “Wait a minute. Why is it that as a Black author I have to be limited, but other authors are not?”
Do you feel that minorities as a whole are underserved by the publishing industry?
Oh, most definitely! There’s always the fear that [a book with] an African-American character is not going to sell as well, or is not going to be as well-received by readers or the book-buying population. I can understand that, but I think some of it is created by the publishing industry.
There was a bookstore—I think it was Borders—that would file all of the African-American books together in one section. If the books were nonfiction, I can see where it would make sense, because you do have African-American history. But [they] put all of the African-American books in the same section for fiction—which would not be such a problem for an adult author. But if you’re a children’s author, more than likely, the kids are going to be hanging out in the children’s section [where your books aren’t shelved]. …
Then you had to worry about publishers thinking that your book is not going to sell to anybody but Black people—and of course you want to sell to everybody. You want your book to be embraced by everybody in the world. As an African-American author, there are challenges.
What are your future plans for the Dork Diaries series?
We have a movie coming out. It goes into development in 2015 and it will be released in 2016. Book 9 is the last book in the current contract we’re in, so hopefully we’ll be getting a new contract from Simon & Schuster.
What other advice can you offer writers?
Write what you are comfortable with, write what you’re interested in and what makes you happy. Because if you are enjoying the writing experience, you’re probably going to be more successful with it. And finish it! Even on my [current] book, I have to remain disciplined and get the things done. So write a book you personally enjoy writing, and remain disciplined to get the manuscript completed. WD