Archive for September 30, 2009

Fan Mail Wednesday #61

Wow, I’m busy today. I really don’t have time to mess around with . . .

Oh, right. You don’t care about that. You are a beast that needs to be fed, my monster under the floorboards, a fiery furnace that wants only one thing: Fan Mail Wednesday!

Back, Beast! Back! Maybe this email from Melissa in Florida with sate your gaping maw.

Dear Mr. Preller,

I have attached a letter I wrote you as my book report homework.  I will get extra credit if I send it to you. I have cc’d my teacher.

I am going to go to the library to get more of your books.


So I opened the attached document and found this:

Dear Mr. Preller,

My name is Melissa, I am 11 years old. I am in fifth grade in Clearwater, Florida.

Did you ever have a food fight? I never had a food fight.

Did you ever solve mysteries when you were a little?

I liked your book.

I replied:

Dear Melissa:

So. You liked my book. Sigh. Would it have killed you to lie a little? You could have closed your letter, “I loved your book.” Think of how much better I would have felt. But liked? Gee, that’s awfully close to a yawn. Very similar to: “Your book was okay, more or less.”

Or better yet, you could have told me it was the best book you ever read — and very probably the best book you will EVER read. That I’m terrific, sensational, stupendous!

Would that have been so hard, Melissa? It’s called “fan mail.” You know, short for FAN-atic. Let’s bump up the enthusiasm, shall we?

Now I’m depressed.

You see, that’s the way it is with authors. We are fragile flowers, shivering on cold nights, our teeth chattering in the wind. We need the warmth of constant love. And failing that, we’ll gladly settle for false praise! Remember that next to you write to Lois Lowry or Kate DiCamillo.

I previously answered your question regarding the food fight at some length in this greatly entertaining post, which you should read. Go ahead, click on that link; I’ll tap my foot and wait.

Hum-dee-dum, dee dum-dum.

As to your other question, Melissa, O Cold-Hearted Reader: Growing up, I was the youngest of seven children. While I never fashioned myself a detective in the mold of Jigsaw Jones, I absolutely did my share of spying. I specialized in finding Christmas presents far in advance of December 25th. It was naughty, sneaky fun — but made for some anti-climactic holidays. I also liked hiding under tables, eavesdropping. I discovered that if you are very quiet, very still, sometimes they forget you are there.

For a long time.

Sometimes, very long.

The truth is, Melissa, I once lived in a closet for three weeks. I was six. It got kind of sad after a while — but I’m better now! I’ve forgiven my parents. It was an honest mistake. They were busy. I sort of slipped their minds. It was during the 1960’s. A hectic time.



Sorry, silly mood today. Please check out my link for a more thoughtful answer to your question, with exclusive “insider info” on the making of that book.

My best,


P.S.: Now make sure your teacher forks over that extra credit!

When I Stood By and Did Nothing

As I write this, my bully-themed novel, Bystander, is due out in stores tomorrow, the 29th. There seems no better time to share John’s story . . .

During my work on the book, I naturally reflected on my own experiences with bullying. Different incidents I’d encountered, large and small. I remembered a boy in 7th grade, who was in my Junior High homeroom. To ensure his privacy, I’ll call him John.

John was teased a lot. He was short and unathletic. Defenseless, basically. In memory, going back through the gauze of thirty-five years, I remember John as an innocent, harmless kid.

Drawing by Minhoon Kim

I felt sympathy for him. I tried to be nice to John: I wanted to be somebody who didn‘t pick on him. So I talked to John and, I sincerely hope, showed him some kindness.

Now we fast-forward across more than three decades. Thanks to one of the popular social networking sites, I came across John’s name again. There he was. That same boy. So I wrote to him.

You see, I thought of John many times as I wrote Bystander. He inspired me and, in some minor physical details, helped stand in for the book’s initial target, David Hallenback. I imagined John’s pain and his rage. To my knowledge, John was never punched, never pushed. Just teased. Ridiculed. An object of humor.

Good times, good times.

I’d like to think that I would have stepped in if it went too far. Surely I wouldn’t have stood  by and watched if things got violent. And even as I type those words, I am reminded of Hemingway’s ending to The Sun Also Rises: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

In my brief note to John, I never talked about my life as a writer, or bullying, or anything of that nature. I told him who I hung out with in school, wondered if he remembered me, and concluded, “I just remember you as a sweet kid, curly hair, in some homeroom class or something like that.”

I was stunned by John’s response. I’ve edited the following comments for the sake of brevity and anonymity, but otherwise won’t narrate much. John’s story speaks for itself.

Wow, Jim, it’s been 34 years. Now that’s insane. I never would have thought you would remember me. Yes, I remember you, too. You were quite funny. I looked at your pictures and you look the same,  a little older like all of us . . . Unfortunately, when I left Wantagh, I never looked back. I did not have pleasant memories of junior high. Being the sweet kid I was with curly hair which is straight now, unless I let it grow out. Many people that you may know or are friends with took advantage of my kindness both physically and mentally.

John, at this point in his response, named four people specifically. Popular boys, I knew their names. One of them was, in fact, a friend  of mine at that time. It occurs to me that if those four men were confronted with this story today, they might be surprised. Would they know? Would they even remember? John continued:

. . . that whole group was not very kind to me and really left a negative mark. If confronted today I would not be that sweet kid as you say. I don’t know but life goes on right. It’s been hard. I don’t wish what happened to me on any child or adult. In any case I am a lot stronger now and am not that easy going anymore. I would never let what occurred to happen again.

I wrote back to John, shared more memories and my sense of regret and failure — if only as witness. I was the “nice” guy who stood by and did nothing. I guess they don’t give out prizes for that. I apologized to him as best as I could. The pain was still so raw inside John, the anger so real. One mention of junior high and it all rose screaming to the surface.

John, thanks for your thoughtful, frank reply. I’ll be honest. I remember that. I remember how you were often treated unfairly. I think all of us have culpability, responsibility, for any bullying behaviors we witnessed. By doing nothing, we abdicated our responsibility, our humanity, and became just as guilty. Sometimes we fail to see how it feels for the victim; we lack empathy, compassion.

I don’t wish to share my full note to John, so again I’ve edited things out. I concluded:

I apologize for the hard times you had. I’m truly sorry. I hope that my memory is accurate, that I was kind to you. I always felt bad and tried to do the right thing, to treat you as the equal you always were. Thanks for reading this. And thanks, again, for writing to me with such heartfelt honesty.

John replied one final time:

Thank you for your kind words and you are correct, you were always nice to me not like the others. And if I never mentioned it THANK YOU. It was nice to have a friend or someone who may have not said anything but did not add injury, hurt or insult. Anyway I would love to read your book and if I could help you or anyone else in the future please let me know. It’s amazing sometimes why things happen in life and why people are brought together. God works many miracles.

For more background on this book:

Click here . . . or here . . . or here . . . or here.

Music Video Weekend: Ryan Adams, “When the Stars Go Blue”

“Where do you go when you’re lonely? Where do you go when you’re blue?”

I think about music all the time. Always have. Listen to it, read about it, close my eyes and feel it. I hate to say this, but I think I care about music the way Lewis Buzbee cares about books. And yet I’m not too clear on how that relates to this blog. It always feels a little self-indulgent whenever I talk about music and show clips. I think: There’s some reader out there who gets really annoyed whenever I do this.

But I.




By way of throwing a bone to that angry, hostile reader, I’ve moved “Music Video Friday” to “Music Video Weekend,” because somehow that fits better.

Anyway: I’ve listened to this song a lot over the past month or two. A truly sublime melody, deeply beautiful. For those new to Ryan Adams, please don’t confuse him with Bryan Adams (yuck). He’s done a lot of great work over the years, but I think his recent disk, “Easy Tiger,” would be a good place to start. The track below is from his 2001 disk, “Gold.”

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A tribute to the dash in the poetry of Emily Dickinson — plus, yes — a reminder — it’s not too late to bake your cake for National Punctuation Day!

I’m a day late on this one, as usual. And — oh, rats! — just as I feared — a dollar short. Yesterday was National Punctuation Day. Sorry if you missed it. As an author, I tend to think of every blessed day as punctuation day. But when pressed, I will confess to a favorite — the dash. Not to be confused with the hyphen, heaven forfend. But before I go there, to celebrate the dash in fine fashion, let’s get to the good news:

It is NOT TOO LATE to enter the National Punctuation Day Baking Contest!

This is serious business and yes, there are rules:


1. Entrants must send a recipe and a sample of their cookie, cake, pastry, doughnut, or bread baked in the shape of a punctuation mark to National Punctuation Day, 1517 Buckeye Court, Pinole, CA 94564.

2. Entrants must send two print photos—one putting the item in an oven before baking and the other taking it out when it’s done. Make sure we can see the baked goods clearly.

3. First-, second-, and third-place winners will receive a box of non-edible NPD goodies, and all entrants’ photos and recipes will be published on the National Punctuation Day website.

4. All entries must be received by September 30, 2009!

So get cooking, people! The website, founded by Jeff Rubin, is pretty terrific — and there’s even a free newsletter, The Exclamation Point! (How did you like that dash, folks? It worked, right? Less formal than the aristocratic colon, the  dash often serves much of the same function, the speaker gets that extra beat, the next thing is set off with time and space, yet it all feels natural and common, the way real folk sound and think — I think. The punctuation mark of true cognition.)

Of course, no one has done more for the dash than this woman:

Emily Dickinson, American Poet.

For more on Emily Dickinson’s radical use of the dash, click here — you won’t be sorry you did.

Here’s an example:

I cannot live with You —
It would be Life —
And Life is over there —
Behind the Shelf

The Sexton keeps the Key to —
Putting up
Our Life — His Porcelain —
Like a Cup —

Discarded of the Housewife —
Quaint — or Broke —
A newer Sevres pleases —
Old Ones crack —

I could not die — with You —
For One must wait
To shut the Other’s Gaze down —
You — could not —

And I — Could I stand by
And see You — freeze —
Without my Right of Frost —
Death’s privilege?

Nor could I rise — with You —
Because Your Face
Would put out Jesus’ —
That New Grace

Glow plain — and foreign
On my homesick Eye —
Except that You than He
Shone closer by —

They’d judge Us — How —
For You — served Heaven — You know,
Or sought to —
I could not —

Because You saturated Sight —
And I had no more Eyes
For sordid excellence
As Paradise

And were You lost, I would be —
Though My Name
Rang loudest
On the Heavenly fame —

And were You — saved —
And I — condemned to be
Where You were not —
That self — were Hell to Me —

So We must meet apart —
You there — I — here —
With just the Door ajar
That Oceans are — and Prayer —
And that White Sustenance —
Despair —

Editors often altered, or “regularized,” the eccentric punctuation of Dickinson’s poems, effectively distorting her work. For a brief but fascinating discussion of that, check this out.

What’s your favorite punctuation mark?

Checkers, President Nixon’s Dog . . . in BYSTANDER

My new book, Bystander, hits the shelves on Tuesday, September 29th, 2009. And that’s a strange thing for an author, because it’s an anticipated date but also anti-climactic. A smile followed by a shrug: Okay, so? What now?

Allow me to dwell on the book a little bit before rushing off to the next thing. Consider it the blog equivalent to chilling the champagne before the cork is popped and the hangover drops.

One of the pleasures that came with writing this book was the setting, my hometown roots of Long Island, New York. I grew up in Wantagh, “The Gateway to Jones Beach,” lived there all through high school, the same address, the same phone number.

For Bystander, while thinking of Wantagh, I called the fictionalized town Bellport, combining the names of two nearby towns, Freeport and Bellmore. In the book, Eric drives with his mother along Wantagh Parkway, visits Jones Beach, walks the boardwalk, and even references a restaurant where I used to wash dishes. I’ll save those memories for another day, perhaps. Because today I want to talk about President Richard Milhous Nixon’s black-and-white dog, Checkers.

I attended Wantagh High School, 1976-79. Immediately across from the front parking lot was the Bide-A-Wee animal shelter and  pet cemetery. Famous, in its way, because according to legend it was the third largest pet cemetery in the United States. Nothing to sneeze at, that. Sure, it wasn’t one of the Seven Wonders of the World, but it represented our thin slice of fame nonetheless. And the slice grew even thicker, thanks to the fact that President Nixon’s famous dog, Checkers, was buried there.

This dog was no mere pet, for it managed to play a key role in winning sympathy for Nixon in the hearts and minds of American voters. I am referring, of course, to the famous “Checkers Speech” of September 23, 1952 (see clip, below). A speech that any American history buff well knows, for it helped save Nixon’s political career.

For a while, at least.

The speech was also significant, I should add, because, to quote Michael Kramer’s Communication Nation blog, it “changed forever how politicians used television in public persuasion.”

By high school, I was aware of the circumstances of Nixon’s speech, its historical significance, and so thought it was pretty cool — in a total goof kind of way — that the aforementioned dog was buried nearby. From time to time, on breaks from the drudgery of classes, my friends and I might wander into the cemetery . . .

pass deep into the vast grounds . . .

and finally reach our destination, toward the way back. This:

I remembered the grave usually had small American flags at each side, which my research confirmed, lending the site an odd sort of patriotic gravity. We remained suitably morose, lazing on the grass, killing time.

I set a pivotal scene at this exact location, this specific and somewhat bizarre place from my youth. To set up the excerpt, let me explain that Eric is being led into the cemetery by David Hallenback, who wishes to show him something both private and important.


They hopped a short fence and entered the grounds.

“Where are we going, exactly?”

“It’s back here. You’ll see.”

Despite its proximity to the school, this was actually Eric’s first time inside the cemetery grounds. It wasn’t that creepy, the way a real cemetery –- a human cemetery –- could sometimes be. Eric couldn’t get too worked up about a dead Siamese cat. Still, he marveled at the size of some of the headstones. There were a few that were really huge. Most of the gravestones were modest in height, about thigh-high, but they were thick and looked heavy. They were light brown or gray, with a few shiny black ones sprinkled in. Each had the dog’s name engraved into it, complete with year of birth and death, and the last name of the owner.

Eric thought it was kind of comical. It was a cemetery, and that’s serious stuff, but the names on the tombstones were, like, Sparky and Mugsy and Luther and Bubbles.

A few had pictures of the (dead, buried, rotting) pet, and there were even little statues of dogs and cats at some of the grave sites. Eric noticed fresh flowers at a couple of sites and that gave him a chill, the thought of some lady weeping at a grave site over poor old Mr. Chuckles, the world’s perkiest Yorkshire Terrier.

He thought of Mrs. Rosen, the noon aide whose dog died over the summer. When she had talked to Griffin that day, she seemed really heartbroken over it. Maybe her dog was buried in here somewhere. What was its name? Daisy. He remembered something his father said, back a years ago when Eric was lobbying hard for a pet. Eric’s dad replied, “Dogs are built-in heartbreak. Ten good years, two bad years, some giant vet bills, then they die and break your heart. It’s not worth it, believe me.”

That was sooo his father. Mr. Half Empty.

“I wish I had a dog,” Eric said.

Hallenback remained quiet, distant. He hadn’t said a word since they entered the cemetery. Something on his mind, Eric surmised.

When they neared the far corner, Hallenback steered them to a low, granite tombstone. Several small American flags –- the type that kids wave at Fourth of July parades –- were planted in the ground at each side of the site. The tombstone read: CHECKERS, 1951-62, NIXON.

“Is this it? This is what you wanted to show me? Where President Nixon’s dog is buried?”

Hallenback appeared distracted, not listening. He was looking off in the other direction. A group of five boys emerged from the far side of the cemetery.

Eric knew each one of them. They were led by Griffin, with Cody at his side. By the look on their faces, Eric could see they meant trouble.

Hallenback was going to get creamed.


Here’s a brief excerpt from the televised Checkers Speech, featuring most of the best lines in a classic of American rhetoric, including:

One other thing I probably should tell you, because if I don’t they will probably be saying this about me, too. We did get something, a gift, after the election.

A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention the fact that our two youngsters would like to have a dog, and, believe it or not, the day before we left on this campaign trip we got a message from Union Station in Baltimore, saying they had a package for us. We went down to get it. You know what it was?

It was a little cocker spaniel dog, in a crate that he had sent all the way from Texas, black and white, spotted, and our little girl Tricia, the six year old, named it Checkers.

And you know, the kids, like all kids, loved the dog, and I just want to say this, right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we are going to keep it.

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