I was recently invited to take the “Page 69 Test” for my new novel, The Fall. Since I rarely get invited out, I put on my best slacks & my cleanest dirty shirt, and decided to give it a shot. The idea is simple. You turn to page 69 of your book and discuss how it is (or isn’t!) representative of the rest of the book. I was also asked if it would encourage a reader to keep reading. One would hope so.
Here’s the link to the site, which is part of the “Campaign for the American Reader” initiative, where you can find many other examples from a wide range of authors.
And here’s what I wrote:
The conceit for The Fall is that a boy, Sam, is writing in his journal. He’s reflecting upon the events of the past year, piecing together the narrative entry by entry, writing about events which led to the tragic death of his secret friend, Morgan. I write “secret” because that’s one of the book’s themes, one of identity, and of owning one’s own actions. The things we did and didn’t do. The footprint we make in the snow.
My editor at Macmillan, Liz Szabla, made the decision not to have the book over-designed; to my pleasure, the book is straight-forward. We didn’t jump through hoops to make it look like someone’s faux-journal. There is on some pages a fair amount of white space, and that’s the case in this instance.
On page 69, Sam basically fails to write. The page is nearly blank. He does write, “I need … I need … I need … something.” There’s a bit more, but that’s essentially it for page 69: It conveys, I hope, Sam’s struggle and failure to write. The idea is that he’s promised himself to try to write in that journal each day, focusing on Morgan, for at least fifteen minutes. Some days are better than others, and on this day nothing comes easily for Sam. This page, this emotion, directly follows upon the events and feelings of the previous pages, so my intention is for the reader to “get” why Sam can’t write that day. Will the reader be curious enough to keep reading? I sure hope so. Part of the book’s appeal is in the format, it’s loose and easy, and it zips along at a swift pace. Some pages include poems and snippets; others offer more traditional, expository narratives. He tells the story in a variety of ways. There’s no reason to stop reading. The craft is in the slow accumulation of detail, the sedimentary layering of thoughts and feelings, as readers slowly learn more about Sam’s role in Morgan’s life and death. The things he did and didn’t do. His footprint in the snow.
For more reviews and information about The Fall, you can stomp on this link with both feet while shouting loudly, “Cowabunga!”
It’s summer and I’ve put the blog into idle. Just puttering along, blowing white smoke, probably burning oil. Been neglecting everybody’s favorite feature, “Fan Mail Wednesday.” But I had to share this one from Dain, who wrote from Incheon in the Republic of Korea.
Dain followed up with an email, worried if his letter had arrived. It did, and I’m sending my reply via snail mail next chance I can get to the post office. I would have done it sooner, except that it requires that I get out of my pajamas. In the meantime, here’s the electronic version.
First comes Dain, who writes with neat, precise handwriting, then my reply. That’s how it works here at James Preller Dot Com!
Thank you for a spectacular letter. I would give my right arm to have neat handwriting like yours. (You should know, of course, that I’m a lefty; I’m not that crazy.)
I appreciate your thoughtful reading of Bystander. I respected your admission: “I was a bully, a victim, and also a bystander.” I think that’s true for many of us, at least in brief flashes of our lives. I can certainly identify with the role of each character in the story. We are all flawed in some respects.
To answer your questions:
When it comes to Griffin’s punishment, I saw this as a closed system between the young people, so there wasn’t ever going to be a “punishment” from an authority figure. It is a story without justice. To me, that’s true to life. It doesn’t often come wrapped neatly in a bow.
By making Griffin’s father a violent person, I wanted to highlight the vicious cycle of violence. That while we must all be responsible for our own actions, research shows that there is a connection between the “target” and “bully.” Often when someone is a victim of violence in his or her life, that same person will turn around and bully someone else. At first, that infortmation didn’t make sense to me. Wouldn’t a victim be the last person to bully someone else? But thinking deeper, I thought: Of course, they are powerless in one area of life. And what are they going to do with all that hurt and anger? It has to spill out somewhere. So it began to make more sense. In the book, it is not an accident that on the day after Griffin is given a black eye by his father, he acts angry and cruel toward David. “Let’s play pretzel.”
Thinking about this topic, and researching it, I quickly realized that I could write a hundred different stories that approached bullying in different ways. No single story can provide a complete picture. For this one, my focus went to the bystander, the witness, because I think that best represents the majority of us -– and that’s where the ultimate power is, and therefore the hope for positive change.
Martin Luther King’s great quote, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
You might be interested to know that my new book, The Fall, coming out in September, approaches many of these same issues from the perspective of a boy who gets involved in cyber bullying with tragic results. The thing is, he’s a good kid who makes some bad choices. For me, as I wrote I discovered that the story was leading me to the importance of this character “owning” his actions, and ultimately to the essence of forgiveness. So, yes, I was nodding in agreement when you wrote in your letter about the importance of repentance.
Listen, Dain, thanks for patiently waiting several weeks for your reply. I very much enjoyed your letter -– all the way from Korea! -– and I wish you all the best.
A very impressed . . .
I was recently directed to a very impressive blog named Xpresso Reads, and happily discovered a positive review by Amy of my upcoming book, The Fall (September).
The money quote:
“I didn’t realize the emotional impact this book had on me until the very last sentence when it brought tears to my eyes. This was a heartbreaking and beautiful story about friendship, bullying, and the aftermath of all of it.”
Footnote: In the comments section, I came across a number of readers who mentioned the plethora of books these days about suicide and bullying. I felt compelled to add my thoughts to that discussion, and I might as well share them here.
So, um, here goes:
Hi, Amy. Thank you for the thoughtful review of my book, THE FALL. Just a little background here. When I wrote BYSTANDER in 2009, it was the right book at the right time — just before the issue blew up on the national media and the politicians got involved. Funding in schools, educators forced to address the issue, etc. To my surprise, I had stumbled upon an “it” topic.
In my visits to schools around the country, I was often asked about a sequel. I had no plans for one, not wired that way. But a few things started to happen in my mind. One, I saw the vilification of “the bully” and it didn’t easily jive with my perceptions. In most cases, I don’t actually believe in “the bully” per say; I understand “bullying” as a verb, a behavior, rather than as a label to stick on young person. So I began to think that if I ever approached the topic again, that’s where I wanted to go — from the perspective of a so-called bully. I wanted to write about it with sympathy and compassion, rather than finger-pointing and easy admonition. At the same time, I read some heartbreaking news reports about suicides, children who had been abused on social media, and so on. That’s how I came to write this book.
It is uncomfortable for me to feel like this book is part of a tidal wave of books on the topic. That’s never been how I’ve operated my career. My hope is that the first-person journal format brings something fresh and vital to the conversation.
Again, thank you for reading the book.
While you’re here, some other recent review quotes about The Fall:
“Readers will put this puzzle together, eager to see whether Sam ultimately accepts his role in Morgan’s death, and wanting to see the whole story of what one person could have, and should have, done for Morgan. Pair this with Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why (2007).” — Booklist.
“Told through journal entries, Preller’s latest novel expertly captures the protagonist’s voice, complete with all of its sarcasm, indifference, and, at the same time, genuine remorse.” — School Library Journal.
“With its timely, important message and engaging prose style, Sam’s journal ought to find a large readership.” (Fiction. 10-16) — Kirkus.
I’m happy about this positive review for The Fall in the July issue of Booklist.
Thank you, Teri Lesesne!
“Readers will put this puzzle together, eager to see whether Sam ultimately accepts his role in Morgan’s death, and wanting to see the whole story of what one person could have, and should have, done for Morgan. Pair this with Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why (2007).”
I’ll take it!
Here’s the whole shebang:
The Fall. Preller, James (Author)
Sep 2015. 256 p. Feiwel and Friends, hardcover, $16.99. (9780312643010).
Sam Proctor is just an ordinary guy, neither an athlete nor a scholar. He goes with the flow, which is why he was part of the gang who piled on a girl named Morgan. A few comments on her home page, some name calling—it was harmless, right? But the taunts and posts grew uglier until Morgan stepped off the town’s water tower and killed herself. Sam now wonders about his culpability. At first, he rationalizes: he wasn’t the worst of the bullies, and it’s not like he pushed her off the edge. In short, episodic chapters, Preller provides readers with a rare glimpse into the mind of a bully (though Sam would never admit he is one). The pace is fast, yet the story unfolds slowly, one piece at a time. Readers will put this puzzle together, eager to see whether Sam ultimately accepts his role in Morgan’s death, and wanting to see the whole story of what one person could have, and should have, done for Morgan. Pair this with Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why (2007). — Teri Lesesne
Good news for fans of BYSTANDER, or for those potential readers who have only, say, three bucks worth of curiosity about the book. Now’s your chance! The Kindle version of my novel has been selected by Amazon for its monthly special promotion. And no, I don’t know exactly what that means either, because I’m a book-book kind of person. Old face, old school, that’s me. I suppose you can upload the book to your gadget-thingy-whatchamacallit real cheap.
That’s a good thing, right?
Wait a minute, what’s eight percent of $2.99?
Thanks for stopping by, and don’t forget to support your local, independent, brick-and-mortar bookstores. Our communities need ‘em, our world needs ‘em.
Here’s some old, dusty reviews for the discriminating reader . . .
“Preller has perfectly nailed the middle school milieu, and his characters are well developed with authentic voices. The novel has a parablelike quality, steeped in a moral lesson, yet not ploddingly didactic. The action moves quickly, keeping readers engaged. The ending is realistic: there’s no strong resolution, no punishment or forgiveness. Focusing on the large majority of young people who stand by mutely and therefore complicitly, this must-read book is a great discussion starter that pairs well with a Holocaust unit.” —School Library Journal, Starred Review
“Bullying is a topic that never lacks for interest, and here Preller concentrates on the kids who try to ignore or accommodate a bully to keep themselves safe. For Eric to do the right thing is neither easy nor what he first wants to do, and the way he finds support among his classmates is shown in logical and believable small steps. Eminently discussable as a middle-school read-aloud, [with] appeal across gender lines.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Preller displays a keen awareness of the complicated and often-conflicting instincts to fit in, find friends, and do the right thing. Although there are no pat answers, the message (that a bystander is hardly better than an instigator) is clear, and Preller’s well-shaped characters, strong writing, and realistic treatment of middle-school life deliver it cleanly.”—Booklist
“Plenty of kids will see themselves in these pages, making for painful, if important, reading.”—Publishers Weekly
“An easy pick for middle school classroom and school libraries, this book is a worthy addition to collections focused on bullying and larger public libraries, especially those with an active younger teen population.”—VOYA
School Library Journal reviewed The Fall in their July issue and it’s a good one.
The money quote:
Um . . . I did like that word though.
There was a complete sentence:
“Told through journal entries, Preller’s latest novel expertly captures the protagonist’s voice, complete with all of its sarcasm, indifference, and, at the same time, genuine remorse.”
There were other kind sentences, too. So why hold back? Here’s the whole dang thing below.
Thank you for the thoughtful review, Kimberly Ventrella, whoever you are!
I really hope this book finds an audience. Fingers crossed.
PRELLER, James. The Fall. 208p. ebook available. Feiwel & Friends. Sept. 2015. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780312643010.
Gr 6-9–A compelling look at the aftermath of bullying, from the bully’s perspective. Sam Proctor thought it was funny the first time he posted a hateful comment on Morgan Mallen’s social media page. It was just a game, after all, and superpopular Athena Luiken said it was his turn to play. Even after Sam befriends Morgan and starts hanging with her outside of school, he continues to post anonymous trash on her page. When Morgan jumps off of a water tower and kills herself, Sam is forced to confront his actions and wonder if a bully can every truly be forgiven. Told through journal entries, Preller’s latest novel expertly captures the protagonist’s voice, complete with all of its sarcasm, indifference, and, at the same time, genuine remorse. Readers will relate to the teen, who’s less a bully than an average guy who gives in to peer pressure and inaction. This fast-paced story will spark discussion on cyberbullying, depression, and how to deal with tragic events. However, the ending introduces an element of magical realism that dampens the impact of an otherwise persuasive realistic tale. VERDICT While the conclusion falls short of the strong setup, this book stands alongside other well-crafted titles on bullying, such as Dori Hillestad Butler’s The Truth About Truman School (Albert Whitman, 2008) and Preller’s Bystander (Feiwel & Friends, 2009).–Kimberly Ventrella, Southwest Oklahoma City Library
Donovan, an 8th-grader, writes of Bystander:
Thanks for your thoughtful, perceptive reading of the book. It’s all any writer can ever hope for: an insightful reader.
While many have asked me about a sequel, no one has ever suggested a prequel. So congratulations on your original mind. I blogged about the origins of Eric’s father a while back, so I’m including that link here; you might find it interesting.
In life, we have an inner default setting that returns to “fairness.” We want things to work out. It’s why the idea of karma is popular with so many people. And I recognize that this book doesn’t satisfy that longing. The world remains unsettled and off-balance. Griffin doesn’t seem to learn anything. For a variety of reasons, he remains on the wrong path. Such is life!
I am not a Disney-type writer, where everything works out beautifully in the end, wrapped in golden paper, tied with a bow. It wasn’t in me to write a book where Griffin learns valuable lessons and at the end everybody is friends. Sure, sometimes that happens. But sometimes, and quite often, it doesn’t. We all encounter various Griffins in our lives. I think, at best, we learn how to minimize their impact; we avoid them, protect ourselves and others. We don’t give them power over us. That was part of David’s mistake. His well-intentioned but ill-advised yearning for acceptance gave Griffin too much power.
Likewise, I agree, it would have been nice if David accepted Eric and Mary’s offer of friendship. They tried. But at that moment, David wasn’t ready. I have theories on why that is, but I’ll let you puzzle that out for yourself. I think there’s still hope for David, but perhaps he’ll be best-served if he finds a new friend who was not involved in this episode of his life. Who knows? Not me!
While I did not write a sequel to Bystander, I just wrote a book that returns to many of the themes and ideas of that book from a completely different perspective. It’s called The Fall and comes out late this summer, or early September. It’s written in the first-person, all told from the journal of one boy who was directly involved in bullying with tragic results. I think you’d like it, and I think you’d like him – even though he makes some awful mistakes.
P.S. Of course I read your letter, I was glad to get it!
Kally is the wind in my sails today:
You had me “incredible.”
Thank you for that gushing letter. I don’t know that I quite deserve that kind of praise but, hey, I’ll take it.
You know, I love my job. I’m grateful and appreciative of the opportunities I’ve been given by my publishers over the years. I get to write books. Me, of all people. I hope I never take the privilege (and responsibility) for granted.
At the same time, it can be a tough business. Many people mistakenly believe that authors are wealthy, but that’s generally not the case. Paying the bills comes with a lot of stress for me, even after all these years; nobody gets into this line of work for the money. That’s why a letter like yours can mean so much to an author. Like wind in my sails. So seriously, sincerely, authentically: thank you.
David is one of the most complex characters in the book. His desire to belong, to be accepted as part of Griffin’s circle – a world into which he does not rightly fit – really creates conflicts for him. I think that was the deep background behind the cemetery scene. Also, research shows that people who are bullied often turn around to bully someone else: the vicious circle, where helplessness and anger and humiliation seek some sort of outlet, somewhere/anywhere.
To my mind, those factors informed that scene. Yes, Eric didn’t deserve it. But life is full of many injustices, both small and large. Sometimes as readers, the scenes we don’t “like,” or that disturb us in some way, are the ones that leave the biggest impression on our minds.
P.S. Funny thing about your name. I recently rediscovered this old Hip-Hop song and it’s been in rotation around my house for weeks. So, in your honor, Mr. LL Cool J . . .
Here comes Fan Mail Wednesday and a letter from Kate, who was late for a very important date.
Thank you for your kind and very well-written letter.
Before we get into the meat of your missive, let me assure you that it is never too late to wish me a happy birthday. Or, for that matter, to send an expensive birthday present. In fact, here at jamespreller.com, it is our policy to accept birthday presents up to 120 days after the deadline. If you go beyond that date, not to fear, your gift will be considered a pre-birthday gift in advance of the real one.
Just wanted to make that clear: STILL ACCEPTING GIFTS!
Okay, back to business:
It’s hard to understand the motivations behind bullying. In general, I view people as basically “good,” and that most school-age bullying is a result of poor choices made for a variety of reasons: insecurity, anger, a desire for popularity, whatever. I don’t like to label anyone as a “bully.” Bullying is a verb, a behavior; not a noun, or a person. I have a gut reaction against labeling in general, putting complex people into little boxes. We play many roles in our daily lives: teammate, daughter, friend, students, baby-sitter, etc. Walt Whitman wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” For that reason, I don’t like to say that anyone is just a bully, because they are so much more than that, usually simultaneously.
One of the things I discovered in my research was counter-intuitive (which means, btw, “the opposite of what we might expect”). I learned that people who are bullied will often turn around to bully someone else. At first, I thought that was strange. Wouldn’t they know how it felt? Wouldn’t they be the last ones to inflict that same harm on someone else? But it turns out that the “target-bully” is fairly common dynamic. You are bullied here, so over there you turn around and bully someone else. In one area, you don’t have control over the situation — a horrible, helpless feeling — but in the next, you do gain that upper hand. Also, what does anyone do with all that anger and resentment bottled up inside? Where does it go? So the target returns home and picks on the kid down the street. Or the boy who has a rough time at home goes into school and turns the tables on someone else. Life is so complicated, we simply don’t know what others are going through. That’s why I’m reluctant to judge.
I’m glad you seem to have “gotten” the ending. I didn’t attempt to answer every question. The story is a slice of life, a moment in time. What happens next? That’s up to you to think about and debate, if you wish.