Phoenix’s alt-lit luminary discusses his debut middle-grade novel Train I Ride.

Paul Mosier

Written by Jason P. Woodbury Category: Spotlight Issue: June 2017
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Photo By Brandon Tigrett | Photographed at Press Coffee Roasters

Novelist Paul Mosier has never been drawn to the conventional: The lifelong Phoenician’s debut book was narrated by one character’s pet fish. So it’s not surprising that Train I Ride (HarperCollins, $16.99), his first foray into the children’s genre, doesn’t feel like a typical story for young readers. Named for the opening line of Elvis Presley’s 1959 recording of “Mystery Train,” Mosier’s protagonist Rydr carries a load of heartache with her on an Amtrak ride from California to Chicago, along with a SpongeBob SquarePants watch and a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. Mosier explains the book’s origins and how he made the move into writing for young people.

Where do you like to hang out and write in Phoenix?
Lux and other coffeehouses. Lately I’ve been at The Coronado a lot. I usually have fried cauliflower tacos and white tea. I like Ollie Vaughn’s. I like Green. [Phoenix] Public Market Cafe – I’ve been getting a lot of good stuff at that long counter. I think that’s where I get the most of my prose writing done. Either there, or on my couch after my girls have gone to bed, 11 o’clock to 2 in the morning.

Does writing in public inform what you write?
Every now and then I’ll see or hear something that’s made its way into a story. I had a conversation with a barista about Count Chocula cereal, and Count Chocula figured prominently into the first book I wrote, Breakfast at Tuli’s. I think small things will make their way in. I tend to inflict my own tastes on my protagonists. They tend to hang out in places which resemble where I hang out. They listen to what I listen to, they eat what I eat, although I don’t eat Count Chocula.

Train I Ride takes place on a train. Have you always been attracted to locomotives?
I’ve always liked trains, my whole life. If I’m going to be late driving somewhere in my car, it might as well be because I was looking at a train, waiting for it to pass.

You began writing books for adults, but segued into writing for younger readers. How did that happen?
I read the Lemony Snicket books and Harry Potter [series] to my two girls. Then I read them a book called Junonia by Kevin Henkes. It was quietly poetic. It kind of put me in the mindset that I could write for that age group with the emotional depth that would be required to have a really satisfying experience. Not that silly books aren’t also satisfying. But I think you could make a case that To Kill a Mockingbird is a middle-grade book, because of the age of the protagonist. I think it’s arguably a really excellent middle-grade book.

In other words, middle-grade books don’t have to condescend to kids.
I think my favorite compliments I’ve received in reviews are about how I wasn’t talking down to the reader. I think kids are smarter than they’re often given credit for. They have the ability to feel.

The title comes from a line in the song “Mystery Train,” which was recorded by Junior Parker before Elvis recorded it, and based on even older songs. How did you fall in love with it?
I first heard it by a Tucson band called Doo Rag, featuring Bob Log. My wife and I saw them in an alley when we were first dating in 1993. They played a very quick version – “Train I Ride,” which they attributed to Mississippi Fred McDowell. But I really love the Elvis version [of] “Mystery Train.” It’s really clean. I heard it once on Fresh Air – Terry Gross played it and the Junior Parker version side by side, and that lyric passed through my mind. “Train I ride, 16 coaches long.” I thought, “That sounds like a good first line.” Who said it? Boy or a girl, man or a woman? Why are they on that train? What’s their story?