Archive for Before You Go

The Amityville Horror House in “Before You Go”

Amityville_house

In my © 2012 Young Adult novel, Before You Go, a car full of boys drives off to Amityville to view the famous “Amityville Horror” house. It’s a minor scene, just something for my characters to do while driving around. Not coincidentally, it was a trip that my friends and I made several times when I was a teenager. Always dull and uneventful. I guess it was an aimless, Long Island-type of thing to do.

It gave us a destination, at least.

From the book:

When they reached their haunted destination at 112 Ocean Avenue in the town of Amityville, Lee killed the lights and coasted curbside. The boys stared out the windows at the old, silent house. It was three stories high with seven windows facing the street, a few tall trees and a low, neatly manicured hedge set off a few feet from the front of the house. At a casual glance, it looked about as scary as a cucumber sandwich.

byg-202x300They had all been there before, even though the drive to Amityville was more than half an hour. Thee was something magnetic about the place. The house was famous for its ghostly legends, and the second-rate Hollywood movie that was based on all the weird stuff that happened after the DeFeo murders back in 1974, scaring the living daylights out of the next family that moved in until, one night, they fled the house and never returned. No one would ever know what really happened.

Lee turned around in his seat to once again retell the tale, his voice hushed and mysterious, drawing out the words to build suspense. “So after the murders, the Lutz family moved in,” Lee began.

The boys had all heard it before, about as often as Green Eggs and Ham, but no one tried to Lee up. After all, it was his car and they were a long way from home. 

“I guess they got a bargain price,” Jude opined.

“Yeah, but after they moved in, all this sick stuff started happening,” Lee said. “Like, swarms of flies were everywhere, even in the winter. The father of the family used to wake up in a cold sweat every night at three fifteen — the exact same time of the murders. Green slime oozed from the walls. And one night they saw a demon’s face in the flames of the fireplace.”

HAPPY HALLOWEEN, BOYS & GHOULS!

My Interview at “Author Turf”

I was recently invited for an interview by Brittney Breakey over at AUTHOR TURF. Brittney has really accomplished a lot with her site. It’s worth checking out. She’s recently interviewed Holly Goldberg Sloan, Sally Nicholls, Gennifer Choldenko, Jo Knowles, Kathryn Erskine . . . and my great pal, Lewis Buzbee.

For me, that’s a double-edged sword. I’ll be honest, I’ve always hoped to be the kind of person who somebody wanted to interview. It’s an incredible compliment. And a true honor.

In my career, some of the first work I ever did was interviews of authors for promotional brochures. I think Ann McGovern was my first interview, back when I worked as a junior copywriter for Scholastic. Or it might have been Johanna Hurwitz. I don’t think I saved them. This would have been in 1985, I guess. Life went on and I’ve interviewed some talented authors and illustrators over the years.

You’d think I’d have learned some things along the line, but my basic feeling is usually one of disorientation, a sense that I have no idea what I’m doing, most likely saying the wrong things, awkwardly. Oh well.

I do have lucid moments, times when I think, “Okay, not terrible.” But in general I can’t read things like this without wincing, without twitching and blinking too often. I don’t know, it’s weird. I try to be honest, authentic, and hope for the best.

Below, you’ll find a brief excerpt of a much longer interview. Click here for the whole shebang.

What’s the worst thing you did as a kid?

It’s interesting you ask this, because I recently wrote about it in my journal. A theme that I’m exploring in the book I currently writing (or should be writing), which is a quasi-sequel to BYSTANDER. I have superstitions about talking about books before they are finished, but I’ll say this: In the summer between 7th and 8th grade, a girl in my homeroom died unexpectedly. I didn’t know her well, and wouldn’t call her a friend. When I first heard about Barbara’s death, I was with a bunch of friends –- I can picture it vividly, a bunch of us lounging around — and I said something dumb, snarky, immature. Of course, the death of a peer was completely new to me, a big deal, and I didn’t know how to react. I still feel a sense of shame about it, across these forty years, that one dumb thing I said that no one else even noticed. I’ve been reflecting a lot about identity lately, the idea of self not as a revelation, but as a made thing. Something you earn. Bryan Stevenson gave an incredible presentation for TED Talks -– everyone in America should Youtube it -– and he said, “I’ve come to understand and to believe that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” That’s a huge, complicated, controversial idea –- and it speaks directly to the topic of my next book. [NOTE: I've embedded Stevenson's talk, below.]

Was there ever a time in your writing career where you wanted to seriously give up? If so, how did you find the motivation to continue?

Yes, I’ve wanted to quit. Absolutely. Mostly because it’s hard, and because I’ve felt (and still feel, though less so) insecure about my own ability –- that I was a pretender, a self-deceiver, a fake. Also, it’s a bunny-eat-bunny business that can crush your soul at times. As a husband and father, I’ve worried about my ability to provide for my family, to keep paying the bills. But that’s life, right? You have to keep getting up. You can’t just lie there on the canvas. That said: Every day I feel blessed that I can do this for a living. The hard is what makes the good.

What’s your favorite writing quote?

It’s not a quote, so much as an attitude about doing the work, a sort of blue collar distrust of pretentiousness. In a phrase, shut up, sit down, and write. Or not! But either way, shut up. It’s hard, writers are told that we need to promote ourselves, we need to “have a presence” on the web, we need to “get out there.” And I just keep thinking, we need to write great books. That’s all that matters.

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in writing? What comes easily?

The whole thing is a challenge. One thing about having published a bunch of things over a long period of time is that I’ve come to understand that each book is its own, self-contained thing. You write the story that’s in front of you. Then you write the next one. And the next. You don’t control what happens after that and, on good days, you accept that plain fact.

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BEFORE YOU GO: Running & Writing & Books (2 Quick Excerpts)

Over the past year I’ve twice crossed paths with a near-legendary editor, the much respected Christy Ottaviano. She works at Macmillan and, no, Christy can’t be blamed for any of my books. I follow her page on Facebook and just generally have a good feeling about her as a person. She seems nice.

On Monday, Christy wrote this:

I’ve been running all my adult life. I used to do it primarily for exercise, now I find I do it mostly for the peace of mind it gives me. My love of running has gotten more intense with age, perhaps because it is one of the few times during the day when I feel free of technology and the pressures of work and home. When I think of all the places I’ve visited or lived over the years, what’s imprinted in my mind in addition to the hotels, apartments, and houses are the various running routes I’ve repeatedly trekked — Cleveland Circle Reservoir in Boston; Henry and Clinton Streets in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, and now the small neighboring town on the water near where I live in Connecticut. In our busy lives, we are all running from here to there, so it’s rather ironic to me that running is exactly what I do to take my mind off all the running around. How does this post connect to writers? In all my time publishing books, I’ve only had the pleasure to edit one novel where the protagonist is a runner. Is that because running appeals to a more solitary adult sensibility? Probably, but it’s a fact that there are more teen runners now than ever before so young adults are happily embracing the activity. Maybe there’s a way to put their passion for the sport in your stories. For all the writers out there — just some food for thought…

I replied that the main character in BEFORE YOU GO is a runner.

Here’s two brief excerpts — brief, because we don’t wish to bore anyone here at jamespreller dot com! — excerpts, because we (the intrepid staff here at jamespreller dot com!) don’t want anybody to think I’m making up this running thing. Of course, you might say I make things up for a living. But I’m not making it up about having made something up about running. I really did make it up!

What? Nevermind!

First excerpt, pp. 104-105:

Jude hit the snooze button three times before rising. He felt sour, his mouth stale and parched, his teeth wearing sweaters after a night of too much rum and coke and heartache. The house was silent. Jude shambled into the bathroom for a long, reviving shower. It helped. Failing to find a fresh work shirt, Jude fished the cleanest dirty shirt from the hamper. Sniffed it, frowned: pretty ripe. The shirt matched his mood. Mad at the world.

In the kitchen, Jude gulped a tall glass of orange juice. A note on the counter informed him that his father had gone out for a long, slow run. His father ran to get away from it all, yet despite all the hours logged and miles slogged, he always returned to the same place; the road never rose to lift him to some new, shimmering elsewhere.

Jude considered himself a different kind of runner entirely. First of all, his father jogged; Jude ran. Big diff. His father was one of those old guys who stopped after his run, winded and panting, two fingers on his neck, counting the beats of his pulse while he stared at the watch on his wrist. Goofy shit, if you asked Jude. A lot of times, Jude headed out in just a pair of shorts. No shirt, no shoes, a barefoot runner in the burbs. Nobody could say nothing, because Jude was faster than them all.

——

Second excerpt, pp. 163-164, after an argument with his mother:

And he ran. Barefoot. Ran without hope, without destination . . . ran to burn off the anger, ran as if he were chased. He started out too fast, puffing hard like a sprinter, churning through the changeless sprawl, the suburban streets named after Civil War generals, Sherman and Grant, Thomas and Meade. Then came the streets with the names of colleges, Princeton and Adelphi, Yale and Amherst. Finally his gait evened out, the strides became long and powerful, his breathing regulated. Becalmed. He stopped for a moment, flicked a thumb across his iPod, found Arcade Fire, and turned it up loud. You don’t know how it feels, he thought. How it feels to be me.

Living with Tragedy

For the paperback publication of my young adult novel, BEFORE YOU GO, I was asked to answer a few interview questions for the back matter.

I didn’t really intend to share this here, but given recent events, and the fact I just stumbled upon it again, well, sometimes you have to trust in coincidence. Here you go:

Losing a peer when you are young is especially difficult. Do you have any advice for someone who has experienced this?

Advice? My first impulse is to give sympathy, to say how sorry I am, and to recognize that I cannot know exactly what they are going through. Life can feel impossibly hard at times. I remember when my oldest son — he’s in college now — was fighting cancer at age two. I was newly divorced, living in a stupid apartment, just a number of things going seriously haywire at the same time. My crazy “whirled.” There were days when I didn’t want to hang out or do much of anything. But here’s the thing: you do what you must do. The bare essentials. So I washed the dishes in the sink. Folded the laundry. Put on some music, flipped through a magazine, checked the scores in a baseball game, noticed how the leaves turned color outside my window. Life itself is this tremendous vital force. It leaks into everything. And if you allow it, life will pull you through. Before you know it, almost by accident, you are living again, swimming in that great river. You learn that the heavy weight you carry becomes lighter, more buoyant, and at times you temporarily forget. At the same time, the remembering is so important. Life shapes us, makes us who we are –- we endure the good and the devastating. The important thing, I think, is to keep your heart open, even though it hurts, and try to appreciate that you are loved. And, well, you put one foot in front of the other. Day by day. After a while you realize you’ve traveled a great distance. Your back has grown strong. And you are living again.

Check Out the German Edition of “BEFORE YOU GO.”

There’s really not a whole lot to like about writers, frankly. We tend to self-obsess. For example, try as I might to avoid it, I’ll sometimes wander over to Amazon.com to check out how James Preller, Inc., is making out in the sales ranks.

Then I look for Kentucky’s finest and tell myself that it’s never been about sales. It’s about writing from the heart, it’s about doing good work, it’s about . . . (and around that time I usually push aside the glass and just grab the stinking bottle).

I’m kidding folks!

But on a recent sojourn to the land of Amazonians, I discovered this:

What is it? It’s the German-language, ebook edition of Before You Go. And I have to say: I add NO IDEA there was a German anything for this book. Some people might assume that authors know about this stuff — that we’re consulted — but, nope, that’s not how the world works for most (if not all?) authors.

Mostly I’m just happy there’s an ebook German edition in the first place. That’s the sum total of my emotions on the topic: I’m cool with it.

Also, it’s interesting to see a different cover design. One early idea that I floated for the cover of Before You Go was to do something with real models, very loosely based on the classic Bruce Springsteen cover shot for “Born to Run.” Remember that? It was a groovy, wrap-around, gate-fold deal, and one of the great rock covers ever, in my opinion. Just look:

I saw Jude and Corey filling in for Bruce and Clarence. The black and white thing, the dynamic of friendship, the comfortable leaning on each other relationship, in a phrase: best buds. Another obvious approach for the cover was something with a beach setting. (Supposedly when the designer looked at that approach, it was deemed “too girl” for this book, though I never saw those treatments, and they were probably right, since “too girl” was not what we were going for.) Instead my publisher created something dark and moody with a traffic light, which was pretty arresting, too, and totally unexpected. Then they informed me that it was going to be the cover. The decision had been made. Thinking fast, I said, “Okay!”

I tell you this, Dear Reader, not at all in complaint. I’ve always maintained that this blog was about pulling back the curtain in the land of Oz, showing how it really works for a guy exactly (precisely) like me. There’s not a whole lot of consulting going on. You write the book. And the inside of the book, I think, is yours. But the cover, that’s the publisher’s. And you must trust that everyone working on the book — and there are many smart, dedicated people working on “our” book —  will do the best job they can in publishing it. So you say, “Thank you very much,” and in my case, you mean it. You truly are thankful, grateful, happy.

It doesn’t mean that I love everything all the time. It’s not in my nature to love everything all the time. That sounds awful. Making a book is a collaborative process, with the editor as the central person who touches on every aspect. I just write the damn thing.


Fan Mail Wednesday #163 (from “the oldest teenager”)

Here’s one . . .

Hi!  I work in a library, and I JUST finished “Before You Go” – I realize you may be hoping for actual young adult readers instead of one who is, ummm, still emotionally at the teen level, but I have to tell you I thought the book was very, very good.  It was both poetic and philosophical, yet fast-moving and interesting; loved all the little touches and references to song lyrics.  I also have to say, having already lost both my parents, the book made me cry… you did a great job describing grief.  I also appreciated, as an agnostic (a militant one – “I don’t know and you don’t either!”, as the joke goes), the difficulty but truthfulness of living with doubt, versus the calming yet false sense of religious certainty — though still keeping oneself open to light, love, and growth. I hope one of these days I’ll write as well, although I don’t have children and won’t be able to write well about ‘modern youth’ — and back when I was a youth, I wasn’t modern for the times either :)

Anyway, I don’t do a good job of my wish to tell authors “good job!” and I’m wanting to change that, so here I am – “good job!”

Bibi
Our Library’s “oldest teenager”

My reply:

Bibi,

Thanks for that great note. I appreciate your resolution to tell authors, “Good job!” It’s something I don’t do enough of, either. Lately I’ve been on fire reading books, thrilled from one book to the next, excited and energized. But do I send a nice note like Bibi, saying “Good job”?

No, I don’t. I do not. But I sure am glad I got one from you.

I’m glad you picked up on the spiritual questions in the book. As a kid, raised Catholic, I did so much of that kind of thinking, questioning, wondering. I tried to write this book as honestly as I could, full of doubt, and yet — as you said so eloquently — open to light, love, and growth. I’m glad that part shined through, to you at least.

My oldest son, age 19, is a two-time cancer survivor. He was diagnosed with leukemia at 26 months. I remember how I felt when some people would say to me, “He’ll be fine, I just know it.” Empty assurances, platitudes. As if they knew anything. At times I  wanted to punch those well-meaning people right in the nose. Grab them by the shoulders, shake them hard, and say, “You don‘t know. No one does. We don’t know. That’s the deal here. It’s the essence of this experience, he could die, he could live, we don’t know. And you can’t take that away from me or my family. We have to live with that unknowing. Which, to me, is everything. Where do you go from there? How do you live a good life on this earth, here, today?

Thanks for writing,

JP

Here’s a clip I like of Richard Feynman, sharing his thoughts on the subject.

“You see, I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong.”

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Review: “Before You Go” — Librarian as Matchmaker

Naomi Bates is a librarian in Texas, and she has quietly kept up a nice blog, YA Books and More, where she reviews current books and digital media. She was recently kind enough to read my book, Before You Go, and give it a review.

Naomi concluded:

Preller begins this book with a powerful scene and ends it with one as well.  What makes this book a recommended read is not necessarily the characters or the style of writing but the book itself.  With short chapters, it’s easy to digest and an excellent pick for a reluctant reader.  Jude’s character is one that guy readers will relate to, from the video games to music to his conversations and interactions with his friends.   This, too, makes it the perfect book for a guy.  I could relate well with the characters and the plot without becoming overwhelmed with intentional theme.  This is a book that could be read in a day or two…quick, fast and pretty tasty.

Thanks, Naomi. I’m grateful for that.

I used to experience a disconnect of sorts when I read reviews from librarians. They just didn’t read the same way that I did. As an extremely slow reader, I couldn’t understand how some librarians could consume so many books rapid-fire. I am friendly with one librarian who reads more than 300 books a year — next, next, next, next, next. That sounds awful to me. I need the empty spaces, the pauses, the reflection time. But it dawned on me that librarians often read with another ultimate reader in mind. “Oh, this will be good for Tamara, she loves adventures,” or “This might be the book for Lars, he’s got the same sort of deadpan sense of humor,” and so on. Whereas I read for myself, and often I read to feed the writer within me. It’s not better or worse, just very different. What I’m also trying to say is that I appreciate the librarian’s perspective, and the essential role she plays — of match-maker! — the person who helps bring books and readers together.

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One other aside: While some might consider this “a guy book,” I don’t believe I’ve seen one review written by a guy. Such is the YA world. Honestly, I don’t think this is a title with huge, across-the-board appeal to girls or guys. Hopefully there’s the right reader out there for it, one here, one there, though I can’t say with any certainty who that kid might or might not be. I’m grateful for any librarian, or bookseller, or parent, who helps lead a reader to it, puts my book in some kid’s hands, and says, “I think you might like this one. Somebody dies.”

“The Swimmer” in BEFORE YOU GO

Burt Lancaster starred in a literate little 1968 film called “The Swimmer,” based on a short story by John Cheever. I’m certain that I watched the movie as a kid, probably on The 4:30 Movie during Burt Lancaster week. Growing up, I don’t have many memories of Mom ever telling me to turn off the TV, except when dinner was ready, so I saw pretty much everything. Unlike much of it that never left an imprint, “The Swimmer” always stuck with me (btw, it’s currently available on the cinematic wasteland known as Netflix Instant).

Here, check out the trailer.

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That inspired device — swimming home by pool-hopping across the neighborhood — initiates a journey into the past for Ned Merrill, a journey of self-realization and heartbreak. The movie did not make much of a splash at the box office, though some critics liked it and, from what I can gather, it still has it’s devotees. According to Variety: “A lot of people are not going to understand this film; many will loathe it; others will be moved deeply.”

I’m telling you this because I gave the movie a subtle nod in Before You Go. In this scene, Corey and Jude are hanging out on the roof of Jude’s house, which was something I used to do as a teenager, just get on that roof, look down on suburban Long Island, and dream of my escape.

“Check out that sweet swimming pool behind Ansari’s house, all lit up with floodlights.” Corey whistled. “Man, that water is calling my name. We should grab Vinnie and the guys, sneak out, and go pool-hopping some night. I wonder how many we could do. What do you think, Jude, if we swam our way across town? Hopping from pool to pool. That would be a trip.”

In the book, they don’t make that journey. The idea begins and dies right there on the roof. But I got it from the old 4:30 Movie, and can still hear that great theme song today, because it’s from the soundtrack of my life.

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Why a Character Talks about Kurt Vonnegut in BEFORE YOU GO

For starters: I’ve always done it.

Always? Yes, in fact, always. It’s a tradition that started when I was six months old and referenced Go, Dog. Go! during a Skype with Granny. I continued to do it with my Jigsaw Jones series, and carried it over to Justin Fisher Declares War and other books. Basically, I like giving the nod to real books that I’ve enjoyed. It’s also, hopefully, a way of linking to the reader, by mentioning a title that perhaps he or she has read. In the case of Kurt Vonnegut, it fit Corey’s character — he would like Kurt Vonnegut and, I think, that inclination would tell us something about Corey. You are what you read, and what you eat, and what you wear, etc. As I wrote of Corey in the book, p. 81: “He had the rule-hating gene in his double helix.

And, absolutely, I do it for myself. I read Vonnegut in my teens — my generation’s YA — and still do. Still admire the man, the writer, the rebel mind. I don’t know how many teenagers read him nowadays, but I know I shoved Slaughterhouse-Five and Sirens of Titan into my oldest son’s hands.

——-

BEFORE YOU GO reviewed in The New York Times Sunday Book Review

I’m stepping out from under my self-imposed Cone of Silence . . .

. . . to share the happy news that my new Young Adult novel, Before You Go, will be reviewed in the upcoming New York Times Sunday Book Review. In fact, the way these things work, it’s already online.

For authors, the NYTBR is still the paper of record, and it’s a great feeling to be included in that conversation.

When you tell people that you write children’s books there’s a variety of reactions and non-reactions. Some folks are impressed, even jealous. Others are mute, mystified, and possibly suspicious. The conversation quickly shifts. But a review in the Times is the kind of thing that even Uncle Hank in Elmira can respect.

Money quote:

“Preller makes us care about these people.

We wonder about them when they’re gone.”

Here’s the link to the full piece, which includes a review of Two or Three Things I Forgot to Tell You by Joyce Carol Oates. Some nobody, I guess.

But seriously, Joyce Carol Oates and me. As if we were equals.

More relevant passages:

Preller has created the kind of male protagonist mothers will love for their daughters. Jude is gentle, thoughtful, nonsteroidal and blessedly free of strut. He’s got good friends who don’t tempt trouble, or, at least, don’t tempt all that much. In fact, they are not “geeks, not freaks, not burnouts. In that sense they were like the color black, actually an absence of color, defined by what it was not: not blue, red, orange, green, heliotrope or puce.”

Moreover, Jude is respectful of the girl he likes, and (bonus points) he’s chosen the right girl, the utterly likable Becka. Most of Jude’s friends know his little sister died seven years ago when Jude was only 9 years old. What they don’t know is just how responsible he feels.

The car accident will, of course, change everything; how could it not? It will test Jude’s faith in the world and his relationships. And if sometimes the exposition grows oversaturated with details about, say, beach-side concession stands or boy-quality zombie talk; if the language doesn’t quite lift off the page as much as it might; if, at times, the action slows just a bit too much, Preller makes us care about these people. We wonder about them when they’re gone.

I’m grateful to Beth Kebhart for this kind, thoughtful review. It shouldn’t, but it means a lot to me (I tell myself to be impervious to these things, the accolades as well as the slings and arrows). But still: the Times! Validation, recognition, whatever you want to call it, sign me up. Though I’ve been involved in children’s books for half my life, first publishing an 8″ x 8″ picture book, Maxx Trax: Avalanche Rescue! in 1986, and later writing the Jigsaw Jones mystery series — 40 titles, 10,000,000 sold — I did not get reviewed until 2008 with Six Innings, an ALA Notable Book. If you write paperbacks, as I did, you are something of an ugly step-sister.

So the review process is a relatively new experience for me. Beth’s quibbles with the book (oh, we’ll call them quibbles, whispered softer than complaints) strike me as accurate, and certainly fair. Maybe the narrative is a little slow in parts, maybe there’s too much Jones Beach nostalgia. Too guy? I’m not sure about that (but I’m a guy). It is what it is, and I’m okay with it. Overall, my first YA has been a learning experience. I tried to write the best book I could, I really did strive to make those words lift off the page — and sometimes, here and there, maybe they do. And maybe I stumble at times, stagger around. All these years, still an apprentice. Thanks, Beth Kebhart, for the helping hand, the nod and smile across the cluttered room. At the very least, I’m grateful to have something to show Uncle Hank next time I’m up in Elmira (though, to be honest, we’ll probably skip the literary concerns and complain, instead, about the sorry state of our New York Mets).