My Brief History
as a Reader and a Writer
I was pretty much a reluctant reader until I was about sixteen, a junior in high school. Reluctant not so much because of skill (I'd always done well on the skills tests) but because, I think, of an environment that discouraged reading. Neither of my parents read and my dad was a particularly poor reader who actively disliked books and thought reading, if a person had to read at all, ought to be done at school. He encouraged any kind of physical activity, and I did love the outdoors. I did mostly physical things. Sports. Hiking. Playing in the woods. Anything.
So what happened at sixteen to change things?
I had a thought.
I think it was my first one.
That year I took a creative writing class, mostly because I'd heard it would be easy but also because I thought I might like it. I was wrong about it being easy, but right about liking it. In fact I liked it so much I began to realize that I didn't have nearly enough words to express what I wanted to express. That made me think and what I thought was this: I didn't know much. I wished I knew more.
What I did then was I started reading fiction. It taught me how to read other written works, gave me a vocabulary, engaged me in a way I'd never been engaged before in learning.
And I loved it. I loved pausing and considering a passage, thinking about words and language, puzzling over a character's action. Reading taught me practical skills such as critical thinking, sentence structure and paragraphing. It was my entry into all subjects and it was the beginning of the most important characteristic of a learner: curiosity.
So, for me, reading fiction has never been just entertainment. For me it saved me from, at the very least, the unexamined life and probably much worse. Fiction is important. The right book at the right time can change a life. I know because books changed mine.
I write books for adults and young adults. I like writing for teenagers because, well, old as I am, I still have a lot of the teenager in me. I hate to take out the trash and mow the lawn. I still can't help rolling my eyes sometimes when I hear something ridiculous. I, on occasion, complain about my parents to my friends. All of these in spite of the fact that I'm married, middle-aged, and a teacher myself.
I know a writer who once said that everyone is stuck at a certain age from their childhood and though they might hide it that is the age they remain all their life. His was something like twelve, I think. Though I would temper this a bit and say that a certain age might just have a disproportionate influence, I think he's right. Mine is sixteen, the year I had my first thought and started reading fiction.
As far as writing for young adults though, I stumbled into it. I thought I was writing an adult novel about someone who was seventeen, but when it didn't sell that way my wife suggested I try to sell it as a YA novel. I did and it did.
When I realized I might have written a YA, I started reading YA fiction, and was astounded by how many wonderful books and authors there are out there. To name just a few favorites: David Almond, Randy Powell, Laurie Halse Anderson, Kate Going, Angela Johnson, M.T. Anderson. I realized that there are few limitations on what you can write about when writing for young adults and in some ways the audience is much more open to writing that experiments with form and structure and genre. Certainly at that age a book is more likely to have a profound effect on a reader.
As a writer, my YA novels are aimed at the higher end of YA-dom, that 14 and up crowd and fall into the group of novels sometimes called “edgy”. My first novel, My Road Trip to the Pretty Girl Capital of the World, published a year and a half ago, is a novel about a seventeen year old who's having trouble at home, at school, an with the police.
He's typical in his adolescent confusion and his struggle to come to terms with the stranger he seems to have become to everyone, including himself, but perhaps his acting out is a little more extreme. There are many reasons for this, but the main one is he's adopted and, for whatever combination of genetic and environmental factors, he feels cut off from his family and friends.
One day he steals his dad's car and heads south toward Texas because he believes his birth parents live in Austin, but he is running away more than to anything.
Though the theme is serious, the treatment is somewhat softened by the comic aspects of the novel. The author's voice is Holden Caulfield-ish, the tone given to exaggeration for comic effect. And then there are the characters he meets on the journey such as a witch, a man who may or may not be Elvis Presley, a couple of winos, one cynical and one grandmotherish, and a giant's abused wife. They all travel together to Austin in a kind of Wizard of Oz fashion, all hoping to find something.
Eventually, they make it and Simon, MY PROTAGONIST, finds his birth parents, but of course he makes discoveries about them and himself that he didn't expect and then he makes choices that he wouldn't have anticipated before his journey.
I think this book came out of my own adolescent confusions at being adopted and at finding myself in trouble during those difficult adolescent years. But maybe it also came out of one of the first novels I read when I was sixteen. I don't even remember the title, but I remember it started something like “I stole my seventeenth car this morning.” Stole for a joy ride, it turned out, but somehow I knew that feeling, that sense of weary wrong-doing and of not being able to stop, weary or not.
That someone had written a book that began with a mixture of the kind of bravado and shame I felt, surprised me, astounded me really. How could this author feel what I felt when I was the first one to ever feel that way? This novel cast a slight doubt on my sense of absolute uniqueneness and gave me perspective. More importantly, it chipped away at my sense of isolation
Though I don't remember the title, that book did change the way I thought. Another book, Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut opened up the world of the strange and unusual and allowed me to feel a little more at home in my world. Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, The Great Gatsby, Good-bye Columbus , Ann Tyler's and Larry McMurtry's early novels and many, many more gave me a community to belong to and all changed the way I thought, made me see myself a little clearer. A little, it's true but sometimes that's enough.
The idea for my second novel, still in manuscript form, came from when I worked at the University of Texas. I would walk by this section of the drag, a main street by campus, where the street kids were sleeping or getting up. What was so surprising was how many of them there were. Sometimes, twenty or more, half with dogs, waking on a sidewalk when they should be waking up in a bed, being called down to breakfast, being chided or coaxed to hurry along to school. The other surprising and appalling thing was how young most of them looked.
Seeing these kids was troubling. I remembered back to my own youth when, for a time, I'd been technically homeless, though really I was traveling, hitch-hiking mostly, willingly, if somewhat uncertainly and without any clear destination, around the country. At the time, I was older than these kids, eighteen and nineteen. Nevertheless, I saw then some of the same sort of kids then, though in fewer numbers, on city streets and interstates and even in smaller towns. Most were runaways or throwaways, many into drugs or other things. A lot were in one kind of trouble or another.
As often happens when you are traveling people talk to you and these kids, only a little younger than I, talked to me. I heard a lot of stories. Between the two things I thought maybe this is something I want to write about, maybe it's something I can write about.
When I thought I might write a novel with a street kid protagonist, I did some research and what I read was pretty chilling. A conservative estimate, because no one really knows (this comes from the group “Stand Up for Kids”) is there are 1.5 million homeless kids in this country. About a third, 500,000 are under the age of 15. Another statistic: 1 in every 7 kids will run away at least once before they turn 18, that according to the National Runaway Switchboard. Many go home or get some help from special services but it just points out how many kids there are who've spent at least some time living without a home.
My novel, Wonders of the World, revolves around a boy, Eric, whose father disappears when he turns twelve. The boy idolized his father, who could make stepping out the door of their house an adventure and made the boy's life seem large and full. When his father runs off, the boy feels his whole life becomes smaller. Then the mother remarries a man he hates and they have a baby and his mother seems intent on forgetting the boy's father and even the fact that the three of them once made a family. She has a new family and my protagonist, Eric, isn't part of it.
So he runs away because he can't stand living with this. That's how he ends up on the streets, and once he's there the story is about his struggle to get off and the failure of most of the street kids around him to do so.
He does find something though, much like I found reading and writing, that he can love. For him, he gets involved in a theater program that is using street kids to play the roles of street kids and discovers he feels most alive when he's on stage. He's pretty good at it, too. Sometimes just discovering that one thing is enough for a kid in trouble. It's all he needs to help him start making some right choices. In the end, that's what the novel's really about. A boy finding his way back from wrong choices by discovering one thing he loves.
In both my YA novels a boy finds himself living the wrong life. Bad things may have happened to him, but ultimately we're responsible for the choices we make and in these novels the characters make some bad choices. What helps them find their way back from those choices is finding something they can believe in and connect with.
So I go back to my own first thought at sixteen and the realization of how little I knew. Fiction is important.
A boy from Wisconsin recently wrote me. His letter began: Dear Brain. I really liked your book. In fact I liked it better than all the others. I'm writing a paper on it and I wanted to ask you some questions.
Fine I thought. Great But then I read the first question. It was a tough one.
Why should anyone read you?
My first thought was, good God I don't know. Maybe they shouldn't. But then I thought about my own love for reading and the answer was simple: we read fiction because we connect with it on some essential level. And that silent and powerful connection makes our world larger, makes our life richer. So all I could really say to him was I write the best book I can and if what I write gets to you in some essential way, if it pulls you in and then pulls you along, and you feel that—let's face it—magical connection between what someone has written and what you are reading, then read away. That's what I do.