Archive for May 15, 2012

Fan Mail Wednesday #149: “Can you give me a book.”

I get this question from time to time. I always find it funny, kind of. Well, not really.

Unfortunately, I am not in a position to give this child a book, and had to say so.

Snaps: Visit to Conrad Weiser Middle School

Last week I enjoyed three days of school visits in Pennsylvania. It was nicely varied, since the first day was at a K-6 elementary school. On a visit of that nature, I do three completely different talks to a variety of ages, which helps me from becoming too terribly sick of myself (an occupational hazard, I’m afraid). The next two days were at middle schools, and to my great pleasure included giving writing workshops to small groups of students (about 25-30 each).

While I do have doubts about my ability as a writing teacher, I have to admit that I must know something, all these years and books under my belt. Mostly though, I really think these students want a moment to shine, and share, and it’s my honor to try to support them in their efforts. I just want to find the good qualities in each shared sample and encourage, encourage, encourage.

At one school, Conrad Weiser Middle School in Robesonia, PA, the day began with a general presentation for grades 5-8 in a large auditorium, filled with somewhere around 650 students. Not at all scary, but . . . you really don’t want to bore 650 middle school students.

And I don’t even juggle.

Oh, and get this: At the 3rd school, Brandywine, the school jazz band played (I think) “Birdland” and (I know) “Rockin’ Robin” while the students filed in. That was a first for me — a warm-up act! Wish I had a photo of those guys, they were excellent, and reminded my of my son, Gavin, who plays guitar in his middle school jazz band.

Don’t tell my kids — especially Gavin — that I show pictures of them to crowds like this, their smiling gobs on ten-foot screens. They would be mortified. In fact, Gavin’s default position these days, when it comes to his father, is mortification and embarrassment. Sigh.

On every trip, you make some friends and then never see them again. So here I am, wearing my current go-to sweater, still a little glassy-eyed from my recent (losing) bout with pneumonia, with a couple of students and librarian Kathie Matthew. Don’t go by his expression, the guy in the left is actually thrilled beyond belief. Okay,  maybe not.

Without Kathie’s enthusiasm and energy, the whole trip would have never happened. So thanks again for a great day, Kathie. God bless librarians, each and every one!

Brief Excerpt from BEFORE YOU GO, featuring “Pictures of You” by the Cure

I received a note today from a friend who read an advance copy of Before You Go (July, 2012).

She wrote, in part:

Dear Jim,

I just want to thank you for sending the advance reader’s copy of  Before You Go.  From the start I found the book simultaneously compelling and anxiety provoking, since it was clear one of the main characters would wind up dying in the shotgun seat.  But I read on, and along the way enjoyed seeing the world through Jude’s eyes.

Although the protagonist is a boy, I think Before You Go will especially resonate with girls, since much of it is about the complex interrelationships between the characters. But both boys and girls are nicely drawn.

Thanks again for sharing Before You Go — with this book,  Bystander, and Jigsaw Jones, I’m becoming quite a fan!


P.S.  I must confess I’d never heard of The Cure (what can I say? I think I missed most of the 80’s), but I’ve since listened to Disintegration.  You’re broadening my horizons!

A word of explanation: In an early scene to Before You Go, we meet the main character, Jude, as he rides a bus to Jones Beach for his first day of work. Jude plugs in the ear buds and listens to this song . . .

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The song became, for this book, and for me, the song. Somehow a guiding light, a sonic north star, the interior soundtrack of Jude’s heart and spirit. Thank you, Robert Smith and The Cure, awesome song. I can absolutely see my character sitting on that bus, head leaning against the pane, staring at the boats out on the water.

A paragraph from the book:

The bus came and everybody shuffled on board, feet dragging. Jude grabbed a seat toward the back, stuffed in ear buds, found The Cure on his iPod, gazed out the window for the ride south on Wantagh Parkway. Jude had been obsessing over the Cure lately, especially the best tunes off “Disintegration.” As a band, they peaked in early 90’s, but Jude liked them anyway. Music was music, it didn’t matter if a song was made fifty years ago in Liverpool, England, or behind some guy’s woodshed five minutes ago. The good tunes stuck and the rest dropped away. Some days Jude could listen to “Pictures of You” on an endless repeat cycle, losing himself in the interplay of guitar, synthesizer and bass. That the Cure’s songs were often dark, brooding and melancholy only made it all the better.  Jude had played guitar for eight years now, practicing four, five times a week. Guitar was his retreat. It was a door closing, shutting the world out, and a window opening, connecting him to something other, a rift in space through which he escaped for hours at a time. Jude felt, not without reason, that music had saved his life. But hey, music made everything better –- even bus rides to a particular version of sucks called My First Day on the Job.

Comment: Looking at this now, I realize that I’m such a music guy. As a reader, I’m often bored by passages about furniture and Sally Mae’s wardrobe. The parts that, as Elmore Leonard famously described it, readers tended to skip. It just wasn’t important to me. But the music a character listened to? The tunes on his mix-tape? Those are telling details, things I want to know. I feel that way at the gym. I want to tap an ear bud-wearing stranger on the shoulder, ask, “What are you listening to? What sounds are you putting into your skull right now? Who are you?”

“Pictures of You,” lyrics

I’ve been looking so long at these pictures of you
That I almost believe that they’re real

I’ve been living so long with my pictures of you
That I almost believe that the pictures are
All I can feel

You standing quiet in the rain
As I ran to your heart to be near
And we kissed as the sky fell in
Holding you close
How I always held close in your fear
You running soft through the night
You were bigger and brighter and wider than snow
And screamed at the make-believe
Screamed at the sky
And you finally found all your courage
To let it all go

You fallen into my arms
Crying for the death of your heart
You were stone white
So delicate
Lost in the cold
You were always so lost in the dark
You how you used to be
Slow drowned
You were angels
So much more than everything
Hold for the last time then slip away quietly
Open my eyes
But I never see anything

If only I’d thought of the right words
I could have held on to your heart
If only I’d thought of the right words
I wouldn’t be breaking apart
All my pictures of you

Looking so long at these pictures of you
But I never hold on to your heart
Looking so long for the words to be true
But always just breaking apart
My pictures of you

There was nothing in the world
That I ever wanted more
Than to feel you deep in my heart
There was nothing in the world
That I ever wanted more
Than to never feel the breaking apart
All my pictures of you

Photo: Curl Up to a Good Book

A librarian friend sent me this photo.

Proof that cats, like mothers, have great taste when it comes to 2012 YA debut novels.

Einstein on the Beach: How a Quote Informed a Scene from BEFORE YOU GO

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.

It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion

is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe,

is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”Albert Einstein.

It’s a simple quote, really, and I came across it when reading his biography, brilliantly written by Walter Isaacson.

And I kept returning it to my mind when I was writing the closing chapter to Before You Go. The scene takes place on the beach, Jones Beach specifically, a place I know well. It’s a feeling, too, not just a place. Because when you stand at the edge of the world like that, the ocean crashing before you, it’s impossible not to feel like a tiny part of something enormous and beautiful, the power and wonder and vastness of nature. The mystery of God or whatever you want to call it.

And I wanted the book’s endnote to convey some sliver of that. When I look at my notes on the final galleys, I see that I fussed with that passage to the last. Deleted a comma and the word “and,” cut a compound sentence into two short ones. I toyed with gilding the lily on the line, “There was another world across it,” but I suspect I got talked out of that by my editor, Liz. Or, hey, sometimes I have the sense to talk myself out of those things. Understatement, you know — it’s what all the kids are clamoring for.

Understatement and subtlety, that’s where the money is!

This brief passage doesn’t live up to the great Einstein quote. I know that. But the echo is there for me and, I hope, reaches readers in some serpentine way. Just the sense of that word, mystery. The ocean gives that to me, and to many other people I know. A sense of peace, and calm, and belonging to some greater thing.

So two teenagers walk on the beach, a broken-up couple heading to the shore:

Becka led the way through the dark, down the long West End beach toward the ocean. Jude smelled the briny air, tasted seaweed on his tongue before the ocean’s hum had even reached his ears. His vision limited to shades of gray and black, Jude sensed something in the distance that couldn’t be seen, something vast and mysterious called the Atlantic. There was another world across from it. He reached out for Becka’s hand. They walked barefoot and together to land’s end.

And again, a few pages later, with Jude alone, I reached for it again . . .

He didn’t know what would happen with Becka. Maybe that’s why he needed to be alone on the beach, to watch the sunrise, to be okay with himself, despite everything. Sometimes life seemed impossibly hard, full of car wrecks and souls that shined like stars in yellow dresses. So much heartbreak and undertow. Jude bent down, picked up a smooth white stone, measured its heft in his hand. And he reached back to cast that rock as far as he could.

Just to see the splash.