Archive for Bystander

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #265: After the Skype

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Fresh from my Skype visit, I received this kind note from North Carolina, which is an actual state in the United States.
 
Thanks again for the wonderful Skype session today!  My classes had some great discussions about the responses that you gave to their questions!  It was an incredible experience for them, and me!
 
I would love to purchase a Bystander poster.  Please let me know if you have such a thing to offer.
 
I finished The Fall today.  I loved it, too!  I ordered The Bell Jar because I am very curious after you referenced it several times in the text. 
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I am attaching a photo from our session today.  Our media specialist may have more, but this is the only one that she sent me.
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I am looking forward to ordering your latest book!   Also, my students are begging me to read The Fall to them.  I have asked our guidance counselor to read it first to make sure that she thought it would be ok as a read aloud.  It obviously touches on a more sensitive topic than Bystander. It will definitely be made available for checkout to my students either way.
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Thanks so much! 
 
Susan
 

I replied . . .

Dear Susan,

Thank you for this note and the photo. Was I really that dark during the Skype? Or is it just the photo? I wonder if I should focus on proper lighting in the future.
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I enjoyed the questions and the experience, thank you for making it happen.
 
9781250090546.IN01I appreciate your thoughts on The Fall. I understand where suicide is a sensitive issue, and should give any educator pause before sharing the book with a large group. However, The Fall was (loosely) inspired by real events. These terrible things happen. The book is not really “about” the suicide, but goes deeper into the potential implications of cyberbullying, i.e., how we treat each other. Honestly, for me, the deepest theme in the book is forgiveness.
 
I’m proud of that book and know that many readers, generally grades 7-up, have been enthusiastic about it. The book was nominated for the Sakura Medal in Japan and listed in the 2017 ALA midwinter meetings (by YALSA) as a “quick pick” for reluctant readers.
 
If this is any help, I’ve listed some review comments below.
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“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.
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“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.
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“With its timely, important message and engaging prose style, Sam’s journal ought to find a large readership.” (Fiction. 10-16) — Kirkus.
 
 “It was 2:55 am as I finally gave up on the notion of sleep.  Having started reading THE FALL by James Preller earlier in the day, I knew sleep would not come until I had finished Sam’s story.  Now, having turned the last page, it still haunts me and will for quite some time.”Guys Lit Wire.
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“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.” — Expresso Reads.
 
Thank you, I hope our paths cross again.
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James Preller
And yes, Dear Readers, there’s even a postscript — because Susan wrote back with this . . .
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I agree with everything that you said about The Fall.  Our guidance counselor is halfway through it and says that she absolutely loves it!  We both agree that it does not focus on the actual suicide.  The theme of forgiveness, as well as students realizing what could possibly happen as a result of bullying is very powerful.
 
My students are begging me to read it, so I feel almost certain that it will happen!
Thanks again for being so approachable!  We met with a parent this morning and all she said her son was talking about last night was the SKYPE with you!  This is such a powerful opportunity for our students, and I feel very fortunate that I was able to make it happen!

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #264: Bystander on Long Island

 

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Here we go . . . my 10th year of sharing a small selection of my fan mail on the interwebs. An honor I never take for granted.

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I replied . . . 

 

Dear Samantha,

Thank you for your impressive, typed, two-page letter. It’s nice to hear from a reader on Long Island, my old stomping grounds. I was born in Wantagh, emptied garbage cans at Jones Beach, road my bicycle to the mall, and, yes, even hung out at President Nixon’s dog’s grave near my high school. My mom, age 91 (long, slow clap for that!), lives out in Greenport on the North Fork. Wine country, I guess. So I still find myself out there, though I now live in upstate.

I’ve been to Commack, and not just to drive past (though, yes, I confess: mostly that). I vaguely remember doing a school visit out there at some point. It all tends to blur. So we have that in common, the Island and good bagels.

9780312547967Anyway, I’m glad that Bystander made you reflect a little bit on your own life. I agree with your thoughts about social media, how bullying is actually more subtle, less obvious than what we (typically) see in movies, i.e., the big dumb kid shoving someone into a locker.

I feel there are endless ways of writing about bullying, a million stories to tell. No book can hope to say it all. I sometimes think that Mary was the secret hero of Bystander, though I suspect her story is under-written; it mostly takes place offstage. For better and for worse, I decided to focus primarily on Eric. When a book or movie can get us to think, to make connections, to become aware, that’s a very good thing. That’s art, right? The movie you see and keep wondering about days later. The poem that makes us shut to book and gaze out the window, wondering.

Ultimately, I tried to write a good, fast-paced, involving story. The rest is up to you.

My best,

James Preller

Fan Mail Wednesday #244: New Thoughts on a Sequel to “Bystander”

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Here’s a letter with a familiar request, but it’s written in such a way that I’m forced to rethink my standard answer. Maybe Rowan is right. Maybe there should be a sequel to Bystander.

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Hello. My name is Rowan and I am a 7th grader at ______ Middle School. Our school recently read Bystander for our Community Read, and I LOVED it! I have read some of your fan mail on your website, and have noticed that many people have requested a sequel. Although this might not have been your original intent, I know that many people would enjoy it. I was very saddened to find out that there wasn’t a sequel, because I would really love to know more about the characters. Mary and Cody in particular. The way the book ended just left you wanting more. Even if you are not interested in a second Bystander, I would love it if you would reply with possible ideas for the second book. Thank you for your time.
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Sincerely,
Rowan
 
I replied:
 

Rowan,

Thanks for your email.

I appreciate your thoughts on a sequel. And you are right. Though a sequel wasn’t my original intent, maybe it is something I should consider more seriously.

My bias against sequels is that so many seem like a crass money grab, where the only motivation is to cash in on the popularity of the original. There’s got to be a better reason than that. Writing a book is a huge commitment, a lot of time & energy goes into it, you more or less live with the thing for months, and I need a deeper reason to sustain that kind of “all in” focus.

Though, hey, don’t get me wrong. Money is important, I have bills just like everybody else (and two more kids to get through college). I’m not above money — or donations if you’ve got any to spare!

Anyway, okay, I will sincerely give it more thought. I think you are perceptive, in that I slammed that door shut without ever seriously giving the idea a serious chance.

I used to answer that if I did go back to a sequel, I’d want to tell it from the bully’s POV (point of view). Because I don’t like slapping that label on anybody. We all wear many hats, “I contain multitudes,” as 9781250090546.IN01Walt Whitman said. Nobody is just a bully, just a target. So I felt there was potential for a story there, bringing out the complex dimensions in a seemingly shallow, unlikable character.

However, I feel like I did that in The Fall, which I hope you’ll take a look at. In some respects, I see it as a companion book to Bystander, or at least a complementary read. I take the so-called bully’s POV, and the story is revealed entirely through his journal entries.

But back to Bystander: You are right — again! — about Mary. I think her story is under-developed. Much of what happens with her is off-stage, as the expression goes. We hear about it, but don’t witness it. At the time, I chose to hone close to Eric and his perceptions. I’m also glad to hear you mention Cody. In fact, I believe that Mary and Cody are the two characters who change the most over the course of the book; you can see their growth; in that respect, they are the most interesting. As readers, it’s always good to look for that, the areas of change and transformation. Cody surprised me. When I started the book, I didn’t intend for him to go off in that direction.

I will say that I don’t mind it when readers half-complain that the ending to a book left them “wanting more.” It sure beats the alternative! I like movies that keep me thinking days and weeks and months after I see them. Good stories should trouble our minds that way. You want the story to live on in the mind of the reader/viewer. If it all gets wrapped up too completely, like a seal box, there’s no room for rumination.

It’s best to leave some windows open.

I promise to open my heart to the idea of a sequel. If you have ideas, I’m all ears. I pay $6 — American cash money! — for any truly amazing idea. After royalties, of course.

a-shocked-chickenThought: Maybe there’s a degree of fear involved in all this? Maybe I’m just chicken? I wrote a good book that people seem to like. I don’t want to mess that up.

I wonder if my publisher would want one? We’ve never seriously discussed it.

My best,

James Preller

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #243: From Johanna in CT

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I recently turned 56. That’s 8 in dog years, or time you start thinking about getting a new puppy. You know, to ease the transition. It’s disconcerting to discover that I’ve been getting a little weirder over the years. A tad stranger. Or maybe that’s just the liberation of time, of caring less what might be misconstrued, of feeling free to speak my (scattered) mind. It might be a good thing, writing-wise. Anyway, I sometimes feel a little sorry for the poor kid who sends me a beautiful letter and receives whatever I might dash back. When it comes to answering fan mail, I’m not a machine. There’s no brilliant strategy here. I just start typing and try to keep it real. For better and for, I’m sure, worse.

Here’s the opening of Johanna’s two-page letter, followed by my reply:

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I replied:

Dear Johanna,

Thank you for your well-written (typed!) letter.

While reading it, I found that I admired you quite a bit. Not because you liked my book. I’m not that shallow. But because your words revealed a pensive, inquisitive, open mind. An admirable brain & spirit!

I don’t know. I’m fumbling. What am I trying to say?

I’ll never forget when a friend in college said to me, in a casual, offhanded sort of way, “Oh, I learned that question yesterday.”

41m-cvcfcxl-_sx337_bo1204203200_It struck me as funny. The idea of learning a question. Aren’t we supposed to learn answers? Figure stuff out? Know things? And now I think . . . well, yes and no. A big part of life is learning the questions. And one of the biggest is, What do I do with time here on Earth? How should I spend my days? How do I treat others? What does it mean?

I don’t think a book, or an author, or anyone else can provide us with the answers. We find those inside ourselves. We discover, we learn, we grow. And it all begins with the search -– the seeking, the quest! –- the quest/ions –- the inner desire to think and learn. You’ve got that, I could instantly sense it, and that’s a great quality to have. It’ll take you far.

Anyway, I’m sorry; feeling weirdly philosophical today. Maybe it was the tone of your letter. You seem to be the kind of person who enjoys that sort of conversation.

Oh, hey, not to turn this into a commercial, but you might also very much like my book, The Fall, which touches on some of these same themes but goes to a darker place. Check it out at your school or town library. Or hey, go buy it in paperback for $6.99 and line my pockets with gold.

I really appreciate your (deep!) thoughts, thanks.

James Preller

 

WRITING PROCESS: About that Epigraph

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An epigraph — neither an epigram nor an epitaph — is that short quote  many authors use at the beginning of a book. It can be most anything: a song lyric, a line from a poem or novel, a familiar adage, whatever we want it to be.

It can be seen as a book’s North Star, both inspiration and aspiration. A source or a destination, a map or a summation. It can be a joke, a statement of theme, or an obtuse and too-erudite dud.

An epigraph is one of those small parts of a novel that many readers (and some writers) ignore. No problem. Like the spleen, an epigraph can be removed without any real loss of function.

Yet it can serve as a signal in the night, like an orange flare screaming parabollically across the sky. An indicator of intention.

It can be a thread to pull, a riddle to unravel, or a key to solving the book’s enigma.

Personally, I’m a fan. Epigraphs have played a larger role in my books as my career has crabbed sideways.

That said, I don’t believe I hit a home run with the epigraph in my book Six Innings. It misses the mark. So we won’t talk about it. And I’m not sure that the epigraph for Bystander was particularly successful:

 

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Where you been is good and gone

All you keep is the gettin’ there.

— Townes Van Zandt,

“To Live Is to Fly”

 

I love that song by Van Zandt and it lingered in my mind during the writing of that book. To me, those two lines represented the plasticity of the middle school years, that intense period of becoming, and of life in general. “The journey itself is home,” as Basho wrote. I think that’s especially true when we are young, trying to figure things out. Anyway, it’s a good quote, but perhaps not especially germane to the book. It doesn’t shine a ton of light.

Moving right along . . .

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For The Fall, I employed the dangerous double epigraph. Maybe it’s a matter being unable to decide, but I liked the way these two worked together. These quotes speak directly to the book’s main ideas: responsibility and identity.

As an aside, I’ve been catching up with Westworld recently — so much fun — and was pleased when Bernard asked Dolores to read the same passage from Alice in Wonderland.

“Who in the world am I?” Good question.

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In a eureeka moment, I found what I believed was the perfect epigraph for The Courage Test. The book was basically done — written, revised, and nearly out the door when I rediscovered this long forgotten quote while at a museum:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

— T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

My book was about just such a journey. The main character, couragetestfrontcvr-199x300William Meriwether Millier, was named after the explorers, William Clark and Meriwether Lewis, who figured large in the story. And at the end of the book, Will returns home to the place where he started with new insight. The epigraph fit like a glove. The only problem might be, is it too pretentious? T.S. Eliot? The Four Quartets? In a book for middle graders? What can say, it spoke so eloquently to the story that I had to include it.

I also feel good about the epigraphs to my upcoming book, Better Off Undead, (Fall, 2017). It’s a book that’s set in the not-too-distant future and features a seventh-grade zombie as the main character. It’s a wild plot that touches upon climate change, spy drones, colony collapse disorder, white nose syndrome, forest fires, privacy rights, airborne diseases, beekeeping, crude oil transportation, meddling billionaires, bullying, makeovers, and the kitchen sink. There’s also a plot device that links back to “The Wizard of Oz,” the movie.

I don’t have a cover to share at this point, these are the two epigraphs:

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What a world, what a world.

— The Wicked Witch of the West,

“The Wizard of Oz”

 

and . . .

 

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

— Leonard Cohen,

“Anthem”

 

For this book, I’m also tempted to tell you about the dedication — which is also concerned with the future of the world. But let’s save that for another post.

Do you have a favorite epigraph/book pairing you’d like to share? Make a comment below. Please note that new comments need a moderator’s approval before the comment appears. This helps limit the whackjobs and crackpots to a manageable few, seating for everyone, sort of like Thanksgiving dinner at the relatives’ house. Cheers!