The Library Foundation’s Writer-in-Residence Emma Carlson Berne talks with Gene Luen Yang, author of the “Secret Coders” series.
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The Library Foundation’s Writer-in-Residence Emma Carlson Berne talks with Gene Luen Yang, author of the “Secret Coders” series.
Subscribe and leave us a review wherever you listen to podcasts.
I’ve always been a private sort of writer. I prefer the writing I do to be “not about me.” I write other people’s topics, because I’m a writer who is usually commissioned. Sometimes, my name’s not even on what I write—someone else’s name is, because the work is ghostwritten. And in the past, I’ve preferred it that way. When something personal creeps into my writing, it’s usually well-disguised. A person close to me died many years ago. I didn’t do much writing about this death. But in one of my novels, I found myself writing the death scene of a young, beloved horse. The scene spilled out of me as I was writing it. My throat was tight. I was writing about my family member, of course. Just in horse form.
Early in my residency, I spoke about a personal story I’d begun and had been unable to finish. Partly this is because writing is hard. Partly this is because I have a lot of other deadlines to meet. But mostly this is because the story is intensely personal and I’m scared of showing it to people. And if I finish it, I’ll have to show it. I mean, I do want to see it published—I guess.
What I’m really writing about in this post is fear. Writing down the scary stuff. Then showing it to people. Turning yourself inside out and letting people look. It’s embarrassing. But whenever I read something like that from a writer—where I can tell the writer is being real with me, not showing off, not cloaking herself in fancy language, but just talking to me real—I feel happy and comforted. And glad I’m reading her piece. And in the end, I feel closer to that writer. So maybe, if I finish this thorny, uncomfortable piece, I can bring a little of that feeling to whomever might read it.
In this episode of Inside the Writer’s Head, Writer-in-Residence Emma Carlson-Berne talks with Teri Robida, an editor at American Girl Publishing. They discuss the ins and outs of editing and publishing for the American Girl doll book series. Teri talks about the history of American girl dolls books and how they are unique from different publishers and presses. They also talk about what the job of an editor is like; from reading and developing stories to giving feedback with care. If you’re looking for great insight on publishing, and writing advice straight from an editor, this episode is for you!
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Thank you all so much for coming to the writer’s workshop on March 24! To say that I was nervous is like saying the Beatles were cute. But because of your benevolence and not my competence, I managed to get through it without total personal self-annihilation. And I hope a few of my fellow writers left feeling supported and confident.
I’m going to post my PowerPoint here on this blog, if you couldn’t make it, and for the next three posts or so, I’m going to put up chunks of the presentation, in the hopes that you will find it minimally helpful to your own writing process.
March 24 Writer’s Workshop: Killing the Mystery
Part 1: Creating a Protagonist
Creating a main character is one of the most important things you’ll do in creating a story. A main character is your everything—your driving force, your reason for a plot. I know some writers talk about making characters so real that they seem to speak to them and think on their own. I’ve been a writer for fifteen years and created many protagonists and I’ve never achieved this state. It seems pretty exciting, but I’m here to tell you not to worry too much about that. There are entire books written about creating protagonists. But we’re not going to get bogged down in trying to cover every aspect. Let’s just hit a few of the high points:
Your character has to want something.
This is the most important aspect and nothing else matters. What your character wants—and be specific—is going to be the entire driving force. He or she can want more than one thing, but it has to be clear. The plot is going to serve to drive the character toward what she wants-or away from it.
The character has to be active.
No one wants to read about passive. Your protagonist should be active, first of all, and this is something I’ve struggled with myself in my writing. No one wants to read about a character to whom things just happen. It’s much more interesting to read about someone who makes things happen. And this have to be positive—hell, it can be her very destruction. But instead of reading about someone who is kidnapped and rescued, it’s hell of a lot more fun to read about someone who is kidnapped and escapes. I’ve found myself often writing characters who seem to be wading through a veritable obstacle course of difficult other people and problems and I’ve had to ask myself what is she going to do to get out of this? How is she going to actively get what she wants?
Your character has to change.
Likewise, this is not groundbreaking theory, but it’s damn solid. You’re going to leave your readers pretty unsatisfied if they reach the end of your novel and damn if they aren’t reading about exactly the same character, right back in her room, in her bed. How boring. The character might change for the worse, for better, but he or she should be different by the end of the book. And how will he or she change—by the struggle to get what she wants. The process will change the character one or the other
Your character has to be someone we like.
Or at least we sympathize with. This is delicate ground – on the one hand, we the reader are going to be spending a lot of time with this character. So if he or she is irritating or dull or whiny, chances are, we’re going to put down the book. On the other hand, think of all the abhorrent characters in literature who somehow draw us. The ultimate example of this is Humbert Humbert, the narrator of Lolita. The man is a pedophile, a child molester and a total narcissist. Yet, somehow, he cleverly tells us his story so that we find ourselves fascinated by him. So don’t take this to mean that your character has to be Princess Pony Delight. But as a writer, we need to feel a connection with this person you’ve created.
Depending on what kind of person you are, Beginning A Novel can be either intensely exciting or extremely anxiety-provoking. I tend to steer more on the anxiety side of things, so when I’ve begun stories in the past, I’ve found the following thoughts helpful:
Fiction is a constant game of imagination. The key question is What if? What would that person reading on the bench do if I threw something at them? What would happen to me? What if I, a suburban young mom, threw something at this person and was arrested? What would a holding cell be like to a person like me? Why did I throw the loaf of bread at the person? Had I just discovered something about her? What?
Getting the idea in fiction is one of the greatest pleasures in writing. It’s like a giant game of curiosity on steroids and you have to be ready to play.
I’ve been prepping for the first Writer-in-Residence workshop this week, an experience which has been truly eye-opening. I am a self-taught writer, in a sense. My degrees are in English Lit and in Composition-Rhetoric, both of which are about words but neither of which center on writing as a craft. I’ve taken a few creative writing classes and I certainly learned how do graduate-level research (thank you, Miami University!) but I’ve never, let’s say, been through an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) program where you learn on a high level HOW.TO.WRITE.
Mostly, I’ve learned to write intuitively by being a lifelong reader and lover of words, people, images and ideas. But all of this to say that I’ve rarely before had to break down the writing process, think about it, put it into words and powerpoint slides and prepare to articulate those thoughts in front of a roomful of highly-educated adults.
One might find that task a touch daunting, perhaps.
But I have had to think through how-you-do-the-things-you-always-do in writing. Research, for instance. As I’m prepping the research section of my talk, I’m thinking about all the ways I do fiction research. I write books for kids, and on assigned topics, and often on short deadlines. So my research might differ somewhat from other fiction writers’. I spend as much time as I can getting to know the world I’m writing about. For instance, I’m getting ready to start a four-book series about a girl who solves mysteries at a dolphin sanctuary. I’ve never seen a dolphin sanctuary. I actually don’t know what one looks like. My experience with dolphins consists of Free Willy and whatever dolphin story is on NPR that day.
But apparently, I’m going to be writing about dolphins until July so I sure as heck better know what I’m saying. Since this is a book for kids, I started out by watching all of the kids dolphin movies I could find Netflix: the aforementioned Free Willy, Free Willy 2 (mind-blowing, I know), Dolphin Tale, Free Wily 116, you get the picture. Some Nova episodes about rescuing marine life. Videos of vets working with sick dolphins in sanctuaries. Recordings of dolphin sounds. And when I’m doing this, I’m trying to absorb in general what sanctuaries look like, how people hold dolphins, how the touch them, what dolphin faces look like, what their bodies must feel like, what kind of equipment people use when they work with dolphins.
I’d like to have a year to do research on dolphins and visit sanctuaries and interact with dolphins myself, but because I’m a commissioned writer—well, I do what I can. Work fast, work efficient and inject as much humanity and life into a manuscript as possible. Then move on to the next project.
In the first episode of Season 3 of Inside the Writer’s Head, the new Writer-in-Residence Emma Carlson Berne sits down to talk with Linda Leopold Strauss. Strauss authors children’s picture books, and talks about the unique writing and approval process for creating engaging illustrated stories for kids. She talks about the joys and challenges of working closely with another artist, an illustrator, to create a picture book. Strauss shares how her background has influenced her career, and how she uses it to enhance her storytelling for kids. The two authors also discuss their highest and lowest moments as writers, and how they moved forward through setbacks and challenges in their writing careers. Strauss’s six words of advice for a writer? “Read. Observe. Perfect. Don’t give up.” Listen in for this and more great writing insight!
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Hive mind – are you out there?
Folks, this is an interactive blog post, so wake up.
On March 24, I’ll be presenting my first writer-in-residence workshop at the Main Library, from 1-4 pm. Obviously, everyone should come. But before you do – talk to me.
I want to know—here in the comments section, or on Facebook at Emma Carlson Berne Books what you would like to hear about.
The goal of the workshop is to talk about what happens before the manuscript: getting the idea, conceiving of characters, doing research, outlining or not—everything that happens before you start drafting. We’ll discuss both fiction and non-fiction.
Now—your turn. What would you like to see covered? What questions do you have that you always wanted to ask but thought were too simplistic/dumb/obvious-to-everyone-in-the-room-but-you? What writing activities do you enjoy/hate? What don’t you want to hear about?
Talk to me!
I just this minute finished reading the first two chapters of Kurt Dinan’s second novel, WANNA BET? which he’s currently revising, and hopes to have to his agent in February. WATCH OUT, WORLD. IT IS SO GOOD. I realize I’m not exactly providing a Kirkus-level review here. Funny—so funny, real, poignant (though I kind of hate that word). You already love Boone by the end of page one. Kurt! You’ve produced brilliance!
And a good thing too, because this is Kurt’s official sign-off. With this blog post, he’s fulfilling the last requirement of his 2017 residency: the production and sharing of an original work. And it is an awesome one.
I’ve got a few questions for Kurt, and then read below for the chapters. You’ll be sorry there’s not more, just like I was.
Emma: Okay, let’s get right down to the truth: you told me, probably in confidence, which is made to be broken, that this book took you three years and eight beginnings. And yet it reads as effortless as if it sprang from you like whoever that Greek god was who was birthed from the forehead of his father. So tell us the process! What were the false starts? What’s changed? I’m dying to know because I love these pages so much.
Kurt: So my initial idea was to write a YA mystery novel with a guy and girl partnering up to solve a crime, but they clash throughout, ala Moonlighting, a show I used to love, and kids nowadays have never heard of. I had both of the characters in my head, but then really, really, really struggled with a mystery for them to solve. So I started writing scenes out of order just to be writing, would think, “Oh, I know how I should do it”, then start the novel over again, only to find out that, “nope, that isn’t it.” That’s pretty much my [stupid and horribly ineffective] writing process works. At some point, I realized the less mystery-centered portions I had were so much better than the mystery sections, so I decided to focus on those. There is a mystery in the novel they’re trying to solve, but it ends up being a lot more about Boone, the main character, dealing with all of these crap that’s avalanched on him in the last couple of years.
The two chapters below have been around for a long, long time, and I’ve revised them a great deal, which is probably why they read so smoothly at this point. I’m glad you liked them!
Emma: At the risk of sounding horribly jargon-y, these chapters have what editors love more than anything in the world: strong voice. I can hear Boone when he talks. The manuscript is utterly infused with him and he’s fully imagined. Talk to us about creating Boone and his voice.
Kurt: One of the things I do when I’m creating characters is to go find a picture of the person as I picture them. I knew I wanted Boone to be cocky, flirty, charming, but also a screw-up. Someone who people like in general, but who also receives a lot of eye-rolls, especially from girls. I’m not sure how I found this picture, but it was exactly what I was looking for.
That guy is Mark Hoppus of Blink-182 sitting beside Amy Schumer on a TV show they used to be on. His look and mannerisms in that picture is pretty much how I see Boone. As for Boone’s voice, I don’t know, I think I just use my own voice but amped it up a bit. That’s not exactly helpful or insightful, I know, but I have a hard time explaining how I come up with voice. I just sort of hear it once I can picture the kid.
The same thing happened with Darby, who isn’t in the first two chapters, but ends up partnering up with Boone. I knew what I wanted in Darby, a foil to Boone’s slackass nature, and also someone who’s a total ass-kicker. When I found this picture of Brett Anderson, the lead singer for The Donnas, I knew that was who I would picture as I wrote, and her voice came easily. Picture her having to deal with the picture above, and you sort of get the idea.
Kurt: I started this novel the same way I started DON’T GET CAUGHT, by making a list of things I like to read and watch, then paring it down to an idea I liked. I love detective novels and mysteries, and I love banter between members of the opposite sex, so that’s how I happened on WANNA BET? I did some outlining this time, but not nearly as much as I did with DGC. Like I mentioned, I made a list of scenes I would like to write or read or may need, then wrote them and later tried to string them together in a logical order. I tossed out soooo many scenes I’d written, but it helped me focus the characters and story. Probably the most difficult part of a second novel is worrying that I’m messing up what I succeeded with on the first novel. I struggled with “Is this as good as DGC?” and “Will readers of DGC like this or hate it?” a lot, but eventually I decided I just had to write the book I wanted to read. Heck, it worked the first time.
So, here you go, readers, the first two chapters of the novel that’s currently titled WANNA BET? I’m in the middle of revisions right now, and hope to have it to my agent by the end of the month. At that point, I know I’ll be in for more revising, but I’m happy with the novel, as a whole. Having the honor of being the Cincinnati Public Library’s Writer-in-Residence last year really motivated me to finish this. I would leave workshops energized by being around and helping other writers, so a big part of this is due to all of you who came to the workshops, sent emails, and who I had the pleasure of meeting. Thanks!
Literally and figuratively, my life is shit.
Look no further than the fact I’m currently standing in brown, lumpy water plunging away at a clogged toilet in the back bathroom of Garbage Mountain.
So a happy Tuesday to you, too.
The good news is that the lack of proper ventilation in here combined with the stench of self-loathing really has a way of bringing a Zen focus to life. I quickly find myself pondering the big questions like:
Is there a safe answer when Mom holds up a plunger and asks if I can do her a favor?
Would my summer plans be any less shit-centered if I hadn’t used my 121 I.Q. to fail all six of my classes?
Did my life really go off the rails a year and a half ago in tenth grade like people say, or was it long before that, possibly on the day I left the womb?
And probably the most important questions of them all–Why is it that some people wait an entire year before evacuating their bowels, and when they do, choose a public bathroom to do so?
Your guesses are as good as mine.
But honestly, given the choice of trying not to puke up my lunch in this stall or interacting with the general public, I say hand me my rubber boots and get out of the way, gag reflex be damned.
The sign out front of this twenty acre flea market may read Golden Mountain, but no one calls it that. To the citizens of Batesville, the one-hundred booths crammed into one long building is better known as Garbage Mountain, and for good reason–you name it, we’ve got it: two dollar t-shirts that disintegrate on first wash, throwing stars and nunchucks for the budding ninja, velvet paintings of the baby Jesus swaddled in an American flag, six dollar knock-off Air Jordans…you get the picture. The place is the embarrassment of Batesville and, unfortunately, the family business since Mom bought the place a year before Dad went to jail.
And yeah, my dad’s in jail. You mean yours isn’t?
So here I am, plunging away at the porcelain and hoping Bernie in booth sixteen’s Miracle Household Products has an industrial-strength soap that can chemical burn this stink off me, when the bathroom door suddenly slams open. Apparently, Out of Order signs don’t mean what they used to.
I lean back to tell whoever it is to go use the bathrooms at the front of the building, when I see it’s Billy Gompers who’s trying to shove this scrawny freshmen kid, Andy So-and-so, through the tiled wall. Andy’s at Garbage Mountain because he frequents booth fifty-nine’s Comix Cornucopia, but why Gompers is here I have no idea. Someone must be hosting a seminar on How to Jumpstart Your Career as a Successful Serial Killer.
We do a little eye dance, Andy’s eyes pleading and Gomper’s eyes menacing, until Gompers says, “Mind your fucking business, McReedy.”
I don’t argue.
Billy Gompers has drum-tight, oily skin stretched out over an unnaturally lumpy skull that would make even the Elephant Man cringe. Add to that a caveman’s IQ and a great white shark’s compassion, and Gompers has a bright future ahead of him. Flashforward twenty years and you’ll find him working the graveyard shift at a tow truck company and spending his days euthanizing dogs at the animal shelter for fun.
So I return to CPR’ing the toilet like I’m trying to save its life and pretend the scene going on a few feet away isn’t really happening. Not that it’s easy.
“I don’t have any,” Andy says, all blubbery. “My mom actually watches me swallow the pills. I can’t palm them like I do at school.”
What follows is the loud, tell-tale umph of Andy taking a fist to the stomach.
“Shut up,” Gompers growls. “I want ten by tomorrow or you’re dead.”
“How am I supposed to do that?”
“Like I give a shit. Say you spilled them down the drain. Rob someone. Just figure it out.”
This time the umph’s followed by a pig-like squeal.
“Okay, okay, I’ll do it,” Andy whines. “Just let me go.”
This is vintage Gompers, not even taking the summer off from his goonery. You see this enough times and secretly hope the Andys of the world will do the planet a favor by throwing a lucky punch that accidentally crushes the bully’s trachea, but this, unfortunately, isn’t the Andy to do that.
And right here is where the drama should’ve ended, Andy cowering but alive and Gompers returning to his cage at the zoo, but then…
“And McReedy?” Gompers says.
“Clean this place up, you fucking toilet jockey.”
Now look, I’ve dealt with a lot in the last eighteen months–Dad going to jail, losing my friends, watching my grades plummet, and Mom and I moving out of our house and into a ratty apartment. I’ve even developed what one of the four failed therapists I’ve seen in the last three months called “apathetic anti-social behavior”, quack-speak for not caring about anything or anyone, which I’m not entirely sure is a bad thing. But letting Gompers feel superior to me? Well, I have to draw the line somewhere.
“Hey, Gompers,” I say, stepping out of the stall, “leave the kid alone.”
Gompers head snaps my way looking surprised. Or maybe confused. His face doesn’t lend itself to careful study.
“Or what, Boone? You going to kick my ass?”
“Of course not, fighting’s for animals. Besides, I need to keep my hands soft for your mom.”
Gompers’ mouth drops like he’s just taken a hammer to the forehead. Not that you could tell if he did.
“What the fuck did you say?”
He covers the space between us in three quick steps before shoving me hard. Then I’m pinned against the wall, staring at the smiling skull ring on Gomper’s middle finger that’s curled with the others into a boulder-sized fist.
“And you, Gompers,” I try to say without stammering, “are way too trusting of the school’s wireless internet.”
Gompers’ face goes all screwy, his fist on a countdown delay.
“What does that mean?” he says.
“It means when you try to sign into the school’s wireless network, you should make sure you’re not actually signing into someone’s hotspot. That’s like opening the door to your house and telling the neighbors to come in and take whatever they want.”
Gompers blinks hard. This is what I get for not dumbing things down to begin with.
“I’m telling you I’ve taken a good long look around your phone, Gompers. Especially your pictures.”
You can almost see the light bulb go on over his head.
“Bullshit,” he says.
Gompers stares at me with dead eyes but let’s go of my shirt. After a few thumb clicks and right swipes on my phone, I show him the screen. He stares at it for a full ten seconds without moving, then for some reason looks at the bathroom door like the answer to what he should do is written there.
“I have others, too,” I say. “A couple where you’re doing this weird Hulk flex thing, but this one right here is my absolute favorite. I especially like how you’re naked and kissing the mirror. You’re clearly very comfortable with your body.”
Gompers works his jaw back and forth as he’s no doubt watching the nightmare scenarios running through his head.
“Delete them. Now.”
“And deprive the world of these? That would be a crime.”
He clutches my shirt harder, saying, “Do it or die.”
“Oh, I suppose I could. For a price.”
“What do you want?”
“Leave the kid alone and go find someone else to bother.”
Unfortunately, yeah. What a tragic waste of good extortion material.
“You know I could make you disappear,” Gompers says.
“No doubt, man. You’re a beast.”
Andy sits in the corner doing his best Invisible Man impression, while Gompers weighs his options. I give a friendly smile knowing it might be the last time I get to do so with a full set of teeth.
“Come on,” I say. “Get out of here and I’ll delete the pictures. This is a no-brainer, so it’s right up your alley.”
“Why should I believe you?”
“My word’s good. Have you ever heard differently?”
Gompers puts his greasy face inches from mine and breathes on me hard. Now I’ll never be able to grow a decent beard.
“You’re nothing,” he says.
“No argument here.”
Gompers literally snarls.
“I’m going to kick your ass someday, Boone.”
“Of course you will, man. You and everybody else.”
He stares at me one final time, the alpha dog fighting to hold onto his last bit of self-respect. Then he steps away, but not before flicking my nose with what has to be a bionic finger. I feel something in my nose give, like some tiny damn collapsing, followed by the start of a slow trickle.
“You’re dead if these spread.”
Gompers steps back as the trickle speeds up. I want to pinch my nose closed but rabid animals don’t respond well to sudden movements. Gompers looks down at Andy, then back at me, and gives a small shake of his head.
“I can’t believe I agreed to this,” he says, which makes no sense, but if you huffed as many paint fumes as Gompers you won’t make much sense either.
When the bathroom door shuts a few seconds later, Andy lets out a sigh that could turn this cinder block room to rubble. I clamp a hand over my nose and go to the mirror where the thin stream of blood is already halfway to my lip.
“Oh God, thanks,” Andy says. “He was ready to kick my ass. He’s been taking my Adderall for weeks.”
“Yeah, I’m really happy for you,” I say, jamming a twisted piece of paper towel up my nostril. “And now he wants to kill me instead.”
“So you’re really Boone McReedy? I’d heard you’d dropped out of school or something because your dad went to prison–”
“–and then you freaked out at a party–”
“–and broke a bunch of windows–”
“Listen, do you want me to get Gompers back in here?”
Andy shuts up, but not for long enough.
“I feel like I should pay you or something.”
“How much do you have?”
His face says it all.
“Of course,” I say. “Look, if you don’t have money, at least tell people what I did for you. I’d rather they know about this rather than that other crap you just mentioned.”
“I can do that,” Andy says, and after a few more groveling thank-yous, I’m once again alone again with my thoughts and an impressively clogged toilet.
I have to admit it’s been a fun few minutes. It’s good to know I still have it, but that’s not me anymore. I’m more the stay-the-hell-out-of-everyone’s-business-so-I-can-waste-my-life-in-peace type of guy. All I really want is to be left alone with my apathetic anti-social behavior until I can get the hell out of Batesville and start over somewhere else. Somewhere I’m more than just Boone McReedy, son of a felon father and junk-peddling mother. Somewhere no one knows my endless list of screw-ups. Somewhere I can be someone else.
Of course, first I have to finish cleaning this bathroom.
And raise enough money to get out of this town.
And somehow graduate high school.
But first things first.
With a quick couple of taps on my phone, I post the pictures of Gompers online for the whole world to enjoy. I may have said I’m a man of my word, but that doesn’t extend to assholes like Gompers.
Does that mean I have death wish?
Are you saying you don’t?
My reward for successfully swamping out the bathroom is the privilege of spending the next two hours sweating my ass off in Bolan, the sixty-five foot tyrannosaurus smiling down at the entrance to Garbage Mountain. Officially, my job in Bolan’s brain is greeting customers entering the building. Unofficially, my job is inhaling the carcinogenic fiberglass particles flecking off Bolan’s innards while I smoke pot and watch old movies. I’m definitely employee of the month material.
Working inside Bolan might actually be tolerable if I had a real view of Batesville, or as most of us call it, Masturbatesville. Instead, all I have is the sad scenery of Garbage Mountain’s potholed parking lot and its spattering of cars. Well, that and a view of Treasure Palace, the newer, cleaner flea market right across the street that opened last year. Who would have thought one town could support multiple entrepreneurs selling dolls made out of socks and bedazzled hemp purses? The obvious answer is, it can’t. A quick car count comparison between parking lots is all you need for proof.
“What do you think, Rock?” I say. “Six months, tops?”
From his hook on the wall, Rockefeller stares at me with lidless eyes.
“Fine, nine months,” I say. “But that’s the most I’m giving this place.”
Rockefeller, a shrunken head the size of a softball, was a gift from Thurman, owner and operator of booth fourteen’s Smoke Shop. Thurman says the head was once attached to the body of Michael Rockefeller, heir to an oil fortune who went missing in New Guinea in the sixties and is thought to have been eaten by cannibals. The story has to be bullshit, and I’d ask Rockefeller for the truth, but he’s tightlipped about things since his lips mouth is sewn shut. Still, what Rockefeller lacks in storytelling abilities, he makes up for in judgmental stares, so he’s not a completely worthless roommate.
Today, the two of us are busy doing our part to ensure Garbage Mountain’s success by watching The Sting on a portable DVD player on loan from booth twenty-one’s Vintage Tech. Rockefeller’s completely engrossed in the movie, unable to take his eyes off it, literally, while I finish off this joint I started a week ago. I’m halfway to the moon when a red Corolla pulls into the parking lot and two long and wonderfully tan legs appear. I fumble the joint onto my lap almost lighting myself on fire, and lean out of Bolan for a better look. The girl’s only one step away from her car, and already she’s scoring high on the Boone McReedy Dream Girl List:
Close to my age? Check.
End of list.
What can I say, I’m easy to please.
Add to the fact that this girl is summer-time cute, has dyed-purple hair, and is wearing a Titus Andronicus t-shirt, and I’m ready for us to start house hunting. When she reaches the talk box, I flip on the ancient audio system and say, “Well hello there, young lady. Welcome to Golden Mountain.”
It’s not my smoothest line, but I’m hobbled by having to use my dinosaur voice. When in Bolan, you talk like Bolan. It’s dinosaur law.
The girl looks up for some sign of life, but there’s nothing to see but Bolan’s smiling mouth and maybe some residual pot smoke. The mystery girl should count herself lucky because if she saw me in all of my sweaty glory, her knees would instantly buckle.
“Is that you, Boone?” she says.
I squint into the sun half-blinding myself. She’s not someone I recognize, so she must’ve read about me on one of the many fan sites set up in my honor. Risking life and limb, I lean forward, supporting myself on one of Bolan’s canines, and shout down in my normal voice, “Yeah, it’s me.”
Oh, Boone McReedy, you silver-tongued devil, you.
“I’m Leyla,” she says, and gives me this half-smile that’s a real punch in the gut. Then she reaches into her back pocket and pulls out a pink piece of paper.
“This is from Mo. There’s a show tonight.”
Mo, short for Mohammed, is one of the few remaining friends I have, and even then, calling him a friend is a stretch. Mo’s a 5’5, glasses-wearing, first generation American with Iranian parents, a pedigree that would normally get his ass kicked here in moronically conservative Batesville, but Mo’s status as a certified rock star protects him. His band, My Demonic Foreskin, plays a vast catalog of pop punk songs largely centered around Mo’s inability to get laid. It’s not a situation I see being rectified anytime soon. Flashforward twenty years and Mo’s probably still tragically virginal, but runs an insanely successful recording studio with a twelve-month waiting list.
“He’s playing at The Underground around nine,” Leyla says. “Are you coming?”
“I’m not sure,” I say. “Will you be there?”
Above me, Rockefeller’s look says he’s not impressed.
“Give me a break,” I tell him. “I’m out practice.”
“Yeah, I’ll be there,” Leyla says. “I’ll even buy you a drink if you show.”
“But what if I told you I’m the president of Students Against Drinking?”
“Then I know you’re not the real Boone McReedy,” she says. “But something tells me you are.”
This time the smile is a full-on blazer hitting me south of my belt. I’m about to render her completely helpless by ratcheting up my flirting to Olympic levels, when I’m interrupted by a boy, probably six, and his mom, definitely dumpy, coming up the sidewalk. Leyla steps aside, and I drop back into Bolan’s mouth.
“Are you the last dinosaur alive?” the boy says into the talk box.
“Yes, and if you eat your vegetables and listen to your mom you can live as long as me,” I tell him.
“How old are you?”
“I’m 65 million years old. In fact, today’s my birthday.”
“You can’t be that old. The earth’s only been around for 6000 years.”
“Who told you that?”
Now look, like any sane guy, I want the kid and his mom gone fast so I can get back to all that’s important and meaningful in life–i.e. talking to my soon-to-be wife, Leyla–but sometimes I can’t stop myself. So I say to the boy, “Well, it sounds like maybe your mom needs to study the fossil record a little more closely.”
Even from up here I can see the kid double blink.
“She should read Dinosaur in a Haystack by Stephen Jay Gould,” I say. “Brent’s Book Nook and Bait Shop in booth thirty-three should have it. Tell your mom to buy a copy. And you have a great day here at Golden Mountain.”
The mom, who I’m willing to bet has never passed a Krispy Kreme without buying out their inventory, stares up at Bolan, but I’m well-hidden. Then she grabs the kid’s hand and starts dragging him back toward the parking lot. Of course that’s when the two-way clipped to my belt crackles to life.
“If they leave, I’m deducting from your paycheck whatever I estimate they would’ve spent. Do you understand?”
Mom may own Garbage Mountain, but Opal’s the brains behind the operation. She’s also a thousand years old, and the reason I fully support the Eskimo tribes who shove their elderly out to sea on icebergs.
I give a lengthy sigh before announcing in my Bolan voice, “All little boys entering Golden Mountain today will receive a free ice cream at I Scream, You Scream located in the food court. Come help me celebrate my birthday.”
The boy looks up from the sidewalk, and when his six-year-old brain processes what he’s just heard, he’s immediately on his feet, pulling at his mom to get inside. Things go epic tug-of-war then, the mom yanking him toward the car, the kid going boneless on the sidewalk, refusing to get up even as his mom’s threat-begs increase in volume. Seconds before the kid goes into an all-out tantrum and starts wailing, the mom relents and starts for the front door. The pissyness is still all over her face, but she’s going because he’s stopped making a scene. If I’ve learned anything in his job, it’s that people are easy to manipulate if you know what they want. Parents want obedient children, kids want ice cream. The equation isn’t that complicated.
“One free ice cream, that’s $2.95 from your paycheck,” Opal says.
“Doesn’t sound free to me,” I mutter.
Rockefeller grins at me.
“Oh, shut up,” I say.
I look back at the talkbox expecting to see Leyla, but she’s halfway to her car.
“Wait, where are you going?” I shout.
“See you tonight,” she yells back. “Check out the flyer.”
She’s weighed the flyer down with a rock on the talkbox, and I’m seconds from leaping six and a half stories to get it, when Opal interrupts yet again.
“I need you inside, Boone. Maggie dropped a gallon of vegetable oil in Popcorn Perfection.”
This is my life.
I grab Rockefeller off his hook and climb down into Bolan’s stomach. This space isn’t nearly as cramped as upstairs, and is big enough to contain a small desk, two chairs, and a lamp. A stack of half-read detective novels from the Book Nook sits near the exit, alongside a plastic container filled with Little Debbie boxes and individual chip bags. Movie posters with Han Solo, Jack Sparrow, and James Bond cover Bolan’s insides, and dozens of cassettes from booth six, Everyone Loves Music, lay scattered by an old boom box. Bolan’s the greatest secret clubhouse a boy could ask for.
Before leaving, I hang Rockefeller over the table like a grotesque chandelier, and pull an envelope from my pocket. I toss it towards the Nike shoebox in the corner containing all of the other unopened letters Dad’s sent me from prison in the last year. Some people just don’t know how to take a hint.
I exit out the door which is wonderfully located where Bolan’s asshole would be if he were real, and go grab Leyla’s flyer. More important than the names of bands playing tonight is how’s Leyla’s written her name and number at the bottom. My professional handwriting analysis skills tells me she wants me bad.
Opal’s standing just inside the entrance of Garbage Mountain, scowling at me like I’m late for curfew. She’s wearing a blue and white polyester get-up that makes her a walking firetrap. Too bad I left my lighter in Bolan.
“Is she in there?” I say, motioning toward the office.
“Yes, with the lawyers, so don’t bother her.”
Mom’s meetings with Mr. Stuffy and Ms. Uptight have been more frequent lately, and it’s easy to understand why. Garbage Mountain’s bleeding money. Not only are we losing booth owners to Treasure Palace, but at least a dozen of our residents haven’t paid for their rental space in months. Mom should kick them out, but she’s too nice. Real world business has no room for Mom’s overly compassionate heart.
Opal says, “While you were taking your time getting here, Brenda called from The Mud Hut to say they have a clogged sink. But start with the vegetable oil spill. And I need you to do the night deposit tonight.”
“It’s not my turn.”
“Reggie’s unavailable, so you’ll do it. Or are you too busy curing cancer or maybe finishing your opera?”
Jesus, just something else to waste my time. Night deposit means dropping a cash-filled, padlocked nylon envelope at the bank box with the day’s proceeds, which after a good weekend can run up to twenty thousand dollars. A Tuesday drop though is considerably less though, even if it’s matched with Monday’s take. Say maybe five thousand dollars. Regardless, it’s monkey work, and I’m the head chimpanzee.
“Don’t forget, Boone,” Opal says again.
I nod and walk away without saying goodbye. That’ll show her.
As I walk across the complex, I’m under constant assault with smiles, hugs, and hellos from the booth owners. Yet another thing easily blamed on Dad. Once he was arrested, I quickly became the adopted child of a community of misfits. The offers came fast and furious from all over the Mountain:
Stephanie, who spent her teenage years being shot out of a canon with a traveling circus, told me to stop by her BBQ stand anytime for a free meal.
Dave of Dave’s DVD Den said I could borrow from the pirated movie collection he keeps for trusted customers.
Miss Jenny, who has an eye tattooed on her forehead, offered free tarot readings.
Bob the Bargain Man told me his friend ran a police car auction, which led to my first car, The Destroyer.
And so on. The only way I could have stronger roles models would be by joining a biker gang.
I spend the rest of the afternoon unclogging sinks, emptying garbage cans, and hating life. After the mandatory two-hour waiting period passes, I send Leyla a painstakingly crafted text of “Hey, this is Boone”, and wait for her reply. I kill the last hour of my shift wandering the stalls, specifically Grandma’s Curios in booth thirty, which mostly sells household items with googly eyes glued on them, and booth eighteen, Adam’s Invention Mania, where you can buy such essentials as credit card-sized mini-deodorant for your wallet or a tuba-shaped toothpaste dispenser called Tuba Toothpaste. And people wonder why Garbage Mountain is a sinking ship.
I’m on my way out when I walk past booth forty-four’s America Rocks! where Roadie’s closing up for the day. He’s in his normal uniform of black jeans, black boots, and a Harley Davidson shirt. The only way he could look any manlier would be if he was wrestling a bear while eating sheet metal. American Rocks! is easily the most popular booth at Garbage Mountain because the world can never have enough rolls of toilet paper with the President’s face on it or pictures of a vengeful bald eagle shitting on whatever country we hate this week. Roadie also holds a license for every job on the planet where its necessary–driving a semi, marrying people, conceal and carry, disposing of toxic waste…all of it. Flashfoward twenty years and Roadie’s commanding an empire of counterfeiters, gun nuts, and master criminals.
“Big plans tonight?” I say.
“Yeah, your mom has me working late,” he says.
“Nothing worth going into. What about you? Please tell me you have something fun planned.”
“Maybe. I’m not sure yet.”
“What do you mean, ‘maybe’? You’re seventeen, it’s the summer…what else do you need? You should be out causing trouble.”
“What a waste,” Roadie says. “Some scrawny kid walked by earlier and said you saved his ass in the bathroom. That true?”
“Someone forced my hand,” I say.
“You used to be like that all the time.”
“That was before I realized the world was shit.”
“You know,” he says, “if everywhere you go smells like shit, maybe you should check your pockets.”
“What does that mean?”
“Figure it out.”
“Not my strong suit.”
“Not everything’s a joke, Boone. Most things, yeah, but not everything.”
We’ll have to agree to disagree on that one. You watch your dad get taken out of the house in handcuffs and then tell me the world isn’t one big joke. As will seeing him sentenced to prison and then losing all of your friends as a result. So I have a reason for not giving a shit, which is more than most people can say. In fact, I’ve simplified it to three simple words that’s the perfect response anytime anyone asks me Why?
Because screw it.
Why do you skip school, Boone? Because screw it.
Why did you fail junior year, Boone? Because screw it.
Why do you want out of this town forever, Boone? Because screw it.
Because screw it, what’s the point?
Because screw it, none of this matters.
Because screw it, you try caring giving a shit and putting effort into life, then find out the world isn’t what you thought it was and see how you feel.
Because screw it.
So I’m being honest when I tell Roadie that maybe I have plans tonight because I’m not sure if I’ll actually go to The Underground. Because the truth is, it’s been forever since I’ve been out socially, and the friends I once had aren’t friends anymore. Let’s just say that when Andy wasn’t exaggerating when he mentioned me losing control and destroying someone’s house at a party. So while the thought of Leyla and all of her hot glory is tempting, it doesn’t take long for me to put her and Mo and The Underground far from my mind.
But then Leyla texts me back.
Still coming, right?
And I could make up an excuse and not go, choosing instead to do the night deposit at the bank and head home to do what I do best these days–get high, play video games, and end the evening with an enthusiastic solo date with my always-willing left hand. But tonight, I don’t. Instead, I wash up, change into a non-feces smelling shirt, and stuff the bank deposit under my front seat until the morning before driving directly to The Underground.
Why, you ask?
I could launch into an eloquent speech about living life to the fullest or Leyla’s promised presence or being tired of feeling sorry for myself, but none of that would be true. No, if you’re wondering why I go The Underground that night, the answer is three simple words. Say them with me–Because screw it.
So, first of all Kurt had the flu. Way to go, Kurt!
Kurt Dinan and I were supposed to have an event together on Saturday, January 20. We were going to have all kinds of fun and ask each other snarky questions and he was going to read from his mind-blowing, brand-new second novel. But at the last minute, he thought he’d weasel out of this by getting the flu. Nice one, Kurt. We see right through you. You really think a 104 degree fever is a reason not to go to our event?
So, we are going to have the event later and I hope you all will come and listen to us fumble around trying to articulate our thoughts. We’re writers, folks, not speakers! We get red in the face and talk into our laps and spill coffee when too many people look at us.
But one thing did happen on Saturday, January 20th, and it did not involve the flu. It involved my first office hours at the Corryville Branch library, and I have to say, it was SO MUCH FUN. Partly because I got to see the incredibly beautiful and special Corryville Branch, where I had never been, and I have to tell you, if you get a chance to go there, then go. It will fulfill all your secret wishes about what a library should look like. Grand, stained-glass rotunda – check. Glassed-in reading room, check. Out of the way nooks where you may or may not find a strange, possibly haunted book, check.
The rest of the fun from the office hours came from you, all the other writers who brought their work. I am so very glad you did! We read pages together, we tossed around ideas for improvement, and I attempted to answer questions. And we had an interesting moment about halfway through. I was reading a writer’s work, which was a really intriguing novel about a woman living in 1930s Cincinnati. And this work—the pages that she brought—were really detailed and well-thought out. But there was this moment about halfway through in which the protagonist is remembering a moment of abuse from her childhood. The writer touched on a gruesome detail—that abusive Uncle Otto had chased the young protagonist with a broken beer bottle. Then, “he caught her,” the writer wrote.
“What happened after he caught her?” I asked.
“Well, I didn’t want to get too gritty,” the writer told me. (Or something like that.) “I felt like it would be too upsetting.”
There was a key moment there. “I didn’t want to get too gritty.” That is exactly when you should keep working. In fact, that moment when you come up to the gritty detail in your writing, or the thing you think you shouldn’t say—that moment when you feel that stoppage—that is the moment when you should put that detail down on paper. Because what you’re feeling, as writer, is power. You know that detail has power and strong emotion—that’s why you’re holding back.
And really, folks, who wants to read milquetoast writing? I don’t. No one does. People want to read powerful words that mean something. Don’t be afraid of the powerful words, or the gritty details, or the upsetting strong emotions. Your reader won’t be afraid of reading them. Just the opposite. They’ll be staring into the page, seeing the story happen, with their heart racing a little, in that way that happens when the best stories overtake us. Don’t deprive your reader of this experience. Write the gritty details.