Archive for Bystander

Sisters Love Their Big Brothers: Where Ideas Come From

Authors who visit schools get asked it a lot: 

Where do ideas come from

We get asked it so often, in fact, that most of us come up with pat little answers, neat and tidy, that allow us to move on to another question. Any other question, please. 

It’s not that we’re jerks.

The problem with the question is that, well, yeah, there are a lot of problems. To truly answer would take all day and would likely entail far more excruciating detail than any listener would care to endure. You’d lose everybody in the room. When I think of young readers and delve into what they really want to know when they ask that question, I conclude in a few different ways: 1) They don’t super care, it’s just an easy question to ask; 2) They somehow believe there’s one magical idea — a eureka moment! — rather than a slow accumulation of thoughts, impressions, insights, moments; or 3) The inquirers suspect that maybe there’s a secret they don’t know about: they look at their own lives, they look at the amazing books they love, and they just don’t see how one thing could possibly add up to the other. How does the fabric of my ordinary life become something quite as marvelous as a published book? And if that’s the puzzle, I’m not sure I can conjure a decent answer.

Where do ideas come from, anyway

Well, I’m currently proofreading the “first pass” of the typeset version of my next book, a prequel/sequel to Bystander, titled Upstander. To be clear, I’m looking at the words as they will appear in the final, printed book. It’s pretty much my last, best chance to make corrections and changes that won’t represent a giant hassle or extra expense to the publisher. In other words, if I change “swigged” to “gulped” nobody will get mad at me. 

So I’m reading the book again. Very carefully. It is about Mary, a middle school girl who played a small but crucial role in Bystander. Everyone has a story and I kept wondering about Mary’s. So I made something up. Her older brother suffers from a substance use problem. It’s about the challenges Mary faces in her crumbling home and at school with her friends and fellow students (the beginning of her friendship with Griffin, what really went on with bullying Chantel, and of course Eric, etc). But where’d that core idea come from? For starters, there’s the opioid crisis that’s been going on all around us, destroying lives and ruining families, sometimes devastating entire communities. For the moment, we’ve been preoccupied with more immediate horrors, but that doesn’t mean other problems have gone away. Ideas are all around us, as my pat answer goes. Not only that, but I think I have something to contribute to this particular conversation. The thing that every writer needs, something to say.

But I also have a specific experience in mind. I am driving my teenage daughter and two of her female friends somewhere. I listen to them talk (for some reason, they aren’t glued to their phones in this memory; lo, there’s an actual conversation!). It turns out that each of these three young woman, all fierce athletes, have something in common. They each have an older brother close in age. And without realizing it, they take turns swapping stories about these brothers — how one is on the spectrum, how another plays guitar and sings, how another is just super fun and a great friend. They laugh about the stupid things these brothers do. During that drive, one simple observation beamed into my skull: These girls absolutely and profoundly loved their older brothers. 

They looked up to them, too — with admiration, affection, pride, even a kind of awe. Maybe that’s youth, maybe that’s just the way some girls are, maybe life will get in the way over time. No matter. Because at that moment, I came away with something certain in my heart. Brothers are important and beloved.

Years passed. In a completely unrelated manner, I began to think about, for the first time, writing a sequel to Bystander, a notion I’d rejected for almost a decade. Suddenly, the time felt right. The idea was there.

I’d focus on Mary and her brother.

At least a shard of it can be traced back to that day in the car, zipping along, listening to three girls chatter about how freaking much they loved their brothers. Then I added some elements that would make that love more difficult, more painful, almost impossible.

So that’s where that idea came from. You don’t always have to travel to exotic places to find ’em.

 

 

NOTE: I have recently very much enjoyed doing book-specific Zoom visits with a Q & A format. Could be Jigsaw Jones, All Welcome Here, Blood Mountain, The Courage Test, Scary Tales, The Fall, Bystander, whatever feels right for your classroom. Contact me at jamespreller@aol.com and we can discuss it.

 

Fan Mail Wednesday #299: In Which I Answer 10 Questions About BYSTANDER

I was glad to receive this email from a teacher dedicated to the idea of online learning. I’d been invited to her middle school in Beacon, NY; it was on the calendar; and then the world hit “pause.”

As a bonus, there’s news in here about my upcoming book, Upstander.

She wrote . . . 

   

Dear James Preller,
Due to circumstances, the students were so disappointed that they missed an opportunity to hear from you.
We just finished your story about a week ago. We all really enjoyed it! Attached below are some questions the 6th grade students came up with. 
We would love to hear from you, if you have  a chance.
Hope all is well. Stay Safe.
Best Regards,
Rachel V & the 6th Grade Class

 

I replied . . .

1. Is this story based on prior experiences that you had?

Not directly, no. Of course, real people and true experiences are often the starting points for any work of fiction. But the story is made up.

2. What was your inspiration to create Bystander?

At the time, I’d been writing a lot of Jigsaw Jones books, gearing my work for younger readers. My three children were getting older, moving beyond elementary school. I wanted to try writing something that was longer, deeper, for an older audience. After casting about for ideas, and doing a variety of research, the theme of bullying presented itself. Most importantly, I felt that I had something of value to contribute to that conversation.

3. Are you currently writing any books?

Always! That is, there’s always something in the works. Right now I’m at the very early (and often utterly miserable) stage of beginning a book. I have the kernel of an idea, a middle-school athlete who suffers a severe concussion, but that’s about it. The characters are barely breathing, the details are fuzzy. In more exciting news, I’ve completed a prequel/sequel to Bystander, titled Upstander. It’s a stand-alone story about Mary that begins before the Bystander timeline, overlaps a few key scenes, and extends a bit beyond it. Mary has her own story to tell, her own family struggles to overcome. We also learn more about Griffin, and Chantel, and Eric, and the rest. Right now, I’m waiting to see what my publisher, Macmillan, comes up with for a cover. Got any bright ideas? My most recent published book is Blood Mountain, a wilderness survival story involving two siblings lost in the mountains. I love that book, exciting and suspenseful!

4. Is the main character, Eric, based on you?

Not really, no. His role is primarily that of witness. He’s new to the school and meets all these characters for the first time. And just like the reader, Eric has to decide what he thinks about these people and how they act toward each other. I did loosely base Eric’s father on my brother, John, who also suffered from mental illness.

5. How old were you when you realized that you wanted to be an author?

Not until college. I’ve met authors who knew from a very early age that this is what they wanted to do. They loved the smell of books and visiting the library and all of that. I just wanted to stomp in puddles and play baseball for the New York Mets. I will say this: you start by being a writer. Author is a result of being successful, and accomplished, at that. Focus on being a writer. Buy a journal, a cheap composition book, and fill it up with words. Rinse and repeat. It’s available to anyone who wants it.

6. How long did it take you to write this story?

I took a few months researching the topic, visiting schools, speaking with experts, reading books, etc. During this phase, I brainstorm ideas in a notebook. Eventually, one day, I’ll start to write. It might be a snatch of dialogue, the beginning of a scene, random ideas that get more fleshed out. All in all, I think the book took me about six months before I sent it to my editor. Then I receive her comments and suggestions, then line edits from copyediting; it’s a whole extended process.

7. What inspired you to write this book?

At the time, I think there were a lot of weak ideas about bullying being presented in books and television and movies. The stories didn’t seem grounded in reality. And, yeah, I pretty much hate it when everybody just hugs at the end, “Let’s all be friends!” That’s not my understanding of how the world works. When you write a book, for me at least, there’s a process in the beginning when I don’t know if it will actually become a book or not. I might get bored, I might become overwhelmed, I might have nothing to say that hasn’t been said already. But after reading and thinking about bullying for a few weeks, I knew there was a story here that I wanted to tell. And one thing was sure: they weren’t all going to hug it out at the end.

8. What is your favorite part about the book?

I love the opening two chapters. It feels very cinematic to me, especially chapter one -– I can see it, and I hope the reader can see it -– and I think it’s a strong, captivating beginning. I don’t need books I read (or write) to be nonstop action. But it is a plus when you can grab the reader from the get-go. Also, I have a clear memory of writing the fight scene that takes place by Checker’s gravesite (which is a real spot, btw, in my hometown of Wantagh on Long Island at the Bide-a-Wee Pet Cemetery). I loved writing that scene. At the time, I’d written a lot of Jigsaw Jones mysteries. In those books, everybody is nice! Kind, thoughtful, compassionate, friendly. It was refreshing to finally let the dark side come into my writing. My main character down on the ground, spitting blood. Yes, that was a good day!

9. Was the story based on experience or was it something you made up?

I made it up, informed and inspired by a lot of research. Again: made up, but grounded in the real world.

10. What inspired you to start writing books?

After college, I got a job as a junior copywriter for Scholastic, a leading children’s book publisher. That was my first experience with the world of children’s books. The first time I read Where the Wild Things Are, George and Martha, Owl Moon, Frog and Toad, Doctor DeSoto, all those classic books. I thought to myself, I want to do that. And while I’ve never quite reached those heights, here I am, still standing, after having published my first book in 1986. A survivor. It’s not nothing.

 

THANKS FOR READING MY BOOK! HAVE A GREAT SUMMER, GOOD TIMES ARE COMING OUR WAY. WE’RE DUE!

UPSTANDER: Six Books That Helped Me Write a Prequel/Sequel to BYSTANDER

Writing a novel usually begins for me with reading. Here are six books that I’ve read, in addition to other research, to help me write my current work-in-progress.

     

               

Again, it’s like falling down a well. I could keep reading endlessly, blow deadlines year after year; the more I learn, the more there is to know. For this topic, it is truly a deep, dark well. A heartbreaking place I found hard to climb out of.

Then as a writers, at a certain point, we need to push that aside — take what we need for the story, for the characters, and start writing.

When I wrote Bystander, I came away with the feeling that I could tell a hundred different bully-themed stories. Each one different, with countless variations and permutations. You can’t say everything there is to be said; you have to make choices. Decide that this is the story I’m going to tell, and every word in it must serve that particular story. But I am always haunted by the fear of getting something wrong, or missing a critical insight, a layer of perception. I want to do a good job. 

For this book, I have a seventh-grade character whose older brother is dealing with substance use problems. He’s not the main character, but his struggles have a profound impact on the middle school-age girl, Mary, who is the featured character of the book. 

Mary O’Malley first appeared in my book Bystander. This is a prequel/sequel to that story in that it takes place along a similar time-frame — before, during, and after the events first explored in Bystander. There’s some overlap, a few of the same scenes are revisited from a new perspective, but on the whole this story stands on its own.

Working title: Upstander.

You heard it here first.

Everyone has a story. 

Any luck, look for it in 2021.

Still Accepting (and Enjoying!) Skype Visits

I recently Skyped with this wonderful group of students and, toward the end, snapped a few photos of my computer screen. These young people were impressive in every way: great demeanor, attentive and courteous, insightful questions, joyful vibe. It felt good all the way through, a true pleasure. This 6th-grade class is taught by the most excellent Ms. Kramer, and the Skype was arranged by Barbara Scott, from PA’s Waldron Mercy Academy. They were especially interested in hearing about my plans for a sequel to Bystander

No, it’s not finished yet. Hang in there.

I enjoy Skyping. Typically I accept a modest (negotiable) honorarium. The conversations run for 30 minutes and employ a simple Q & A format. My strong preference is to work with a group that has read the same book, to give our conversation shape and focus. I’ve Skyped about Bystander, The Courage Test, Jigsaw Jones, Scary Tales and more.

So far, because it’s new, no Skypes yet on Blood Mountain. Boy, I’d love to have that conversation. Just zing me an email and we’ll figure it out.

I was glad to receive a follow-up note from Barb shortly after the visit: “Thank you for such an interesting and engaging Skype visit with our students. They truly enjoyed it, and they are not an easy group to please!”

The feeling is mutual, and I’m not so easy to please, either. Who wants to be “easy to please” anyway? 

Here’s those terrific kids again, waving good-bye . . .

 

 

GOOD NEWS: Finally, An Audiobook of BYSTANDER!

A question I’ve been asked many times over the years goes something like this: “Our school is featuring your book, Bystander, in our ‘One Book, One School’ project. We want every student in grades 6 and 7 to read a copy of your book. However, because of the wide range of reading abilities, we wondered if there’s an audiobook available?”

And I’d always apologize, say that I wish there was, but . . . well, for whatever reasons . . . no. There was no audiobook.

Occasionally I’d follow that up with a plaintive, bleating note to my editor — okay, maybe I’d whine a little — asking why and why not. There were many reasons why such a thing should exist. It’s a book that sells reasonably well, year to year. A perennial. And besides, if we believe in the topic of the book, of the message and the meaning, it made sense to provide an audiobook. Not for nothing, but sometimes those students who struggle in school end up being the targets of bullying behavior. An audiobook seemed to me like, well, the right thing.

But no, I’d apologize over and over, no audiobook exists. Sorry!

Now on October 29th, 2019, that sad story gets a happy ending. Finally, there’s an audiobook for Bystander.

I haven’t heard it yet. Available through the usual places, produced by Audiobooks. Fingers crossed.