Fan Mail Wednesday: #15

Okay, imagine that I’m holding a large cardboard box filled with thousands of paper scraps. I roll up my sleeve, reach in my hand, stir things up a bit, and pull out a note. Wow — what are the odds? — this one comes from a young friend who lives in the area!

Mr Preller:

I read your book Along Came Spider. I thought that it was really great. I like how you added Sam L____ into your book. I picked up on that pretty fast. Why did you chose the name Satchel? I was also wondering did you use a part of the Bible in your book when Spider denies his friendship to Trey three times before feeling bad about what he had done?

Max

I replied:

Dear Max:

My compliments: You are an astute reader! Yes, our mutual friend, Sam, did inspire one attribute of the book character, Satchel Lewis. Not that Satchel is much of a presence. He is referenced only once, in a brief paragraph on page six:

Next to Joseph sat the kid in shorts, Satchel Lewis. He took pride in being the first boy in shorts after winter and the last in pants in the fall. He basically wore shorts unless it was, like, twenty degrees below and windy.

My feeling is that there are kids like that in every school. I’ve met so many boys who refuse to wear winter coats (too bulky), who walk around on snowy days wearing shorts and a light sweatshirt. (They are, I say with a shiver, certifiably insane.) I figured he was a type of kid that readers would recognize and think, “Yeah, that’s just like _____.” The trick with writing this type of realistic fiction, which is set in a typical school environment, is that it’s important for readers to identify with that world, to say, “Yes, I know this place; and I know a kid just like that.”

As for why I chose the name Satchel, no real reason, though I do admire the old baseball player, Satchel Paige, who once advised: “If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts.

I grew up on Long Island and went to St. Frances de Chantel, a Catholic elementary school in Wantagh, from grades one through six. From a young age I was aware of the Bible and the gospel stories concerning Jesus. When I was writing that particular playground scene, where Spider tries to distance himself from Trey, I was reminded of that moment in the Bible when Peter three times denies his association with Jesus. Also, I have to admit to being influenced by the soundtrack to the 1970 rock opera by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber, Jesus Christ Superstar. There’s a song on there called “Peter’s Denial.” I listened to it countless times while gawking at the lyric booklet, full of shock and amazement. Back then, as a nine-year-old, that album seemed so rebellious, so dangerous; my mother did not approve, but my four older brothers thought it was the coolest thing ever. Just listening to it seemed like a revolutionary act. So I put that echo in my book, that connection, loosely tying Peter and Spider together, because it felt right to me.

The core of Along Came Spider is about trying to do the right thing, trying to be a decent person in the classroom, on the bus, out on the playground. You know that question, asked by Cain to God: Am I my brother’s keeper? What is our responsibility to our “brothers,” in the broadest sense of the word? But sometimes even the best of us falter (yes, even future saints like Peter), because it’s not always easy to be good, and right, and just, and fair, and loyal, and true. The value is in the struggle. In the trying.

One last thing: Yikes, all of the above sounds like heavy sledding. I wanted the story to be light, and easy to read, and funny. A sugar-coated vitamin, I suppose. Hopefully it reads that way.

Thanks for writing.

JP

3 comments

  1. Doret says:

    Do you tell your fans when you post their letters? And I hope you don’t mind but I tagged you on my blog.

  2. jimmy says:

    I do let readers know about the public answer to their private question — and I give them full veto power. I also disguise names, etc.

  3. Doret says:

    And I thought those were their real names. I wish more authors posted fan mail. I enjoy reading the interaction, and its also nice to know authors answer their fans. I tagged you to post the Don’t Vote video, if you so choose.

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