Archive for The Fall

Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” as It Figures in My Book, “The Fall”

It began almost twenty-five years ago when I first started writing the Jigsaw Jones Mystery Series. I’d drop quick references to actual books that my characters were reading. Bunnicula, Shiloh, Nate the Great, and so on. Sometimes I’d do more with it, as in The Great Sled Race, where Jigsaw’s class is reading Stone Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner. In another example, The Case of the Buried Treasure, the students in room 201 had to do a “story maps” assignment based on Wolf in the Snow, the 2018 Caldecott Medal Winner by Matthew Cordell. This strategy was a nod of appreciation and a  way to connect the real world with Jigsaw’s fictional world. Maybe a reader would think, Hey, I read that book, too

I carried on that tradition over to longer works for middle-grade readers and beyond. It wasn’t a plan, exactly, it just sort of happened. In some ways, it poses a good question for a writer to ask of any character: What book would this person love? In Blood Mountain, there’s a former marine with PTSD. He’s living off the grid in the mountains. The dog-eared book he carries around is Lau Tsu’s Tao Te Ching. The fact of that book served as an entrance point into the struggles and mindset of the character.

For The Fall, I used Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. There was a time in our world when seemingly everyone read that book — I remember grabbing it off an older sister’s bookshelf. I decided to make The Bell Jar an important book for Morgan Mallen. It was fascinating for me to read it again through the eyes of that character. After Morgan’s death, by suicide, the book finds its way to The Fall’s narrator, Sam.

Here’s one passage where Plath’s book comes into play:

Morgan had marked up The Bell Jar here and there, little checkmarks and passages underlined.

The evocative, transcendent cover of the Japanese translation of THE FALL.

I never found my name in it. There was no secret message. Believe me, I looked.

“I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead” was underlined in red.

There was a loopy star next to “I wanted to be where nobody I knew could ever come.”

(Oh, Morgan.)

Another star: “I had nothing to look forward to.”

It was that kind of book, and I guess Morgan was that kind of girl. There was a sadness inside her, a darkness I couldn’t touch. Strange as it seems, all the while I imagined her reading those words, dragging her pen under important sentences, drawing stars in the margins.

Reading is the most along thing in the world.

But she was with me the whole time.

Weirdness. The book brought us closer, across time and impossible distance. We shared this.

=

 

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.

 “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.

“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.

NOMINATED FOR THE SAKURA MEDAL IN JAPAN!

YALSA “QUICK PICK” FOR RELUCTANT YOUNG ADULT READERS!

 

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #295: When Joseph Basically Asks Me to Do His Homework

 

It happens often enough that just about every middle grade and YA author has experienced it. The ever-so-brief fan mail from a student that turns out to be an indirect request to do their homework. On one level: Resourceful! On another: Hey, you’re not fooling me, I see what you are doing, think for yourself

Over the years I’ve responded differently, depending on my mood. For this one, I felt chatty and gave an honest answer. Yes, I wanted a good grade! When I received Joseph’s response, I realized I probably let him down. Oh well! You’ll see.  

Here’s the first note from Joseph:

Hello, James. I am a fellow student who’s in high school in my sophomore year, I was curious to ask some questions about your book, THE FALL. I wanted to know what type of rhetoric device fits well in this story?

Thank you!

Joseph

 

I replied: 

Ha, Joseph, I am so glad I’m not in high school anymore. I would have failed this assignment!

There are a lot of different rhetorical devices in the world, most of them I’m not ever consciously employing. Asterismos and eutrepismus, hypophora and parallelism, procatalepsis and tmesis.

Oh boy, good times.

Can you tell I had to look all those up? I mean, I’m pretty sure I’ve used them at different points in my career, but not quite knowingly.

I think a lot of what we do as writers becomes instinctive, based on years and years of reading. You kind of eat it. Digest it. Absorb it and internalize all those storytelling strategies. So when you are telling your own story — trying to communicate — you just reach for whatever tool seems handy at the time.

The biggest conceit to The Fall, the Big Device, is that it’s presented as if it were Sam’s journal entries. He’s recounting the events to himself as a way to understand this really big and terrible thing that happened. He’s processing and, in turn, owning responsibility for his role in Morgan’s tragedy. As readers, we are looking over Sam’s shoulder, going through that experience with him.

Another device that comes to mind, which I used in one spot of the book, the “Not Me” chapter, is that Sam writes as if he’s on trial, addressing the jury. And you, the reader, of course, are on that jury. I didn’t carry that device throughout the book — I think it would have felt forced — but it seemed right at the time. And as readers, we are making those judgments of each character. Sam is acutely aware of being on trial.

Sam includes a few of his own poems, the way someone like Sam might. Maybe there’s a name for that, maybe it’s a rhetorical device, I don’t know. I just wanted to show Sam’s depth of feeling, how this stuff was pouring out of him, how he thought and felt, and the simple poems, again, seemed right for this journal format. It’s what I did as a kid in my journals, anyway.

Hey, Joseph: You forgot to tell me how much you loved the book! Don’t you know that’s how you are supposed to begin these letters? It’s a rhetorical device called “blowing smoke up someone’s butt.” Writers love that stuff. It gets our attention! And we immediately think, “What a smart young fellow!”

Next time: 1) Begin with a compliment; then 2) Ask me to do your homework!

(By the way, the above numbering technique is an example of eutrepismus, separating speech into numbered parts. We all do it, but 99% of us have never heard the name before. That’s writing, I think.)

All good things,

James Preller

Joseph politely replied the next day:

Thank you so much! So sorry, but this book was inspiring though haha! Its just I had include one Rhetorical Devices. those are 1. Repetition 2. Parallelism 3. Slogan and saws 4. Rhetorical questions

I had to choose one of them and explain why I chose it and how you used it in this book.

Oh well, I tried!

Fan Mail Wednesday #290: An 8th Grader Responds to THE FALL

Here’s a long, insightful one that an 8th-grader read for Health Class after reading The Fall.

 

Dear Mr. Preller,

Hey Mr.Preller! This is an 8th grader from O’Rourke Middle School in Burnt Hills New York. My name is _______, writing to you about the book you wrote called The Fall. Outstanding book by the way! I really enjoyed reading it. This book, as you obviously are aware of addresses a lot of health topics, such as suicide, online bullying and many more. These factors made it perfect for choosing as far as the book I had to read for health.

The topic that I would like to talk address first in this book is the suicide. This is a very sad and realistic tragedy, but I must ask, why do you think in your professional opinion that Athena would make that hateful gesture by making that game? That question was just out of curiosity, and I know that it sadly does happen in real life, but was there any specific reason that you were inspired to write that? I really hope that didn’t come off as rude, I meant it in the kindest way possible.

This book, I feel is important for young people to read because of a few reasons: First, a lot if kids who are in their teenage and adolescent years struggle with depression and being bullied and, unfortunately, contemplate suicide. Second, I think the pressures that today’s society put on kids makes them think of suicide because they think there may be an easier way out. Did you know that there is 1 in 65,000 kids ages 10-14 that die from suicide every year? And that Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death for 15-24 year olds and 2nd for 24-35 year olds?

My mom works in a school with young children and there are a lot more kids each year that need support for mental health reasons. She talks to me about the pressures that school, even at a young age, and the rate of learning and expectations, puts a lot more pressure on kids today. Each year more and more kids need mental health support and we have to ask ourselves, why?? Is it the growing pressures of school and the expectations that school and home puts on us? Is it the online social media that is so relevant in kids lives today? Is it a combination of both? Everything is thrown into kids faces. Be better, work harder, have the most friends, or you will amount to nothing. These are important questions we need to ask ourselves and find some answers to.

Kids lives are much harder now than they were when my mom was in school. When she played a sport, you didn’t have to try out to play. You just played. Now if you don’t play a sport all year round, and travel on a team, you don’t get picked to be on a team. You also get told by coaches that you need to play all year to get good enough to amount to anything. What happened to playing sports for fun? And just to get outside, make some new friends and play a casual game? Is this added pressure adding to the stress and kids feeling like they just aren’t good enough?

There are so many ways kids can reach out for help. First, I think parents should limit the amount of social media that kids are exposed to. The more accounts they have, the more likely that they are to have someone bully them and do hurtful things. Online bullying, in my opinion is worse than face to face bullying. People that don’t even know you can bully you and there is no way to stop it, other than get off social media. At least with a face to face bully you can try to stand up to them. Second, I think schools need to be more involved with their students and get to know them more. Make connections. The more adult connections a student has, I feel, the less likely they will be bullied or be tempted to bully. Last, I think kids have to remember that school is such a small part of their lives. Once they walk through the high school doors at graduation, they get to start over. Who they were in high school does not matter at all. If they were a nerd, they were smart, and will get a good job and start a new life!!

Once again, I really like this book and I also enjoy the fact that the book is not too long, just around two-hundred pages is perfect for me! If I may ask, what do you think your favorite part of this book that you wrote was? I think my most favorite part of this book was definitely when Sam started to feel remorse for Morgan and started feeling bad that he missed an opportunity. I also feel that it was good in the sense that he felt that it was partially his fault, and in a way I think it kind of is. The reason I make this claim, is because not only did he take part in the bullying game started by Athena, but he also kind of dipped out whenever anyone was near him when he was with her, it was almost like he felt ashamed to be near her, or embarrassed to be near her. I feel that just because he didn’t want to be next on the bullying list he excluded her, which I feel partially lead to her death.

I am so glad that I get to express my feelings with the author of this amazing book himself! I would also like to express how I feel about the main character himself, I feel that he was a good kid, but I also feel that he was too little too late in the act of caring for this poor girl. Then after her death, he decided to visit the place of the her death and stand right where she stood, people who have the guts to do that typically care very much about the person, which is why I don’t understand. If he cared about her, then why did he wait until she was dead to show it? In my honest opinion about this book, I would rate it a ten out of 10. I think this book deserves an award, just because it displays real world problems, and serious health topics that need to be addressed nowadays. I think that Sam’s biggest character strength, was his sympathy, although he was too late with his sympathy, he stilled showed it even though Morgan was deceased.

I also want to help people I know by telling them if they ever need someone to talk to, the suicide prevention line is always open for someone to listen. They can be reached at 1-800-273-8255. I hope my letter prompts some good discussions about the topic of suicide in your book.

Yours truly, Gabriel

I replied: 

Dear G,

I’m so glad you read The Fall.

I was inspired to write that book for a couple of reasons. I had already written Bystander, which took a look at bully-related issues. While not a sequel, I do see The Fall as something of a companion book, a further exploration into that specific darkness.

I’ve never felt comfortable with putting the label “bully” on any young person. Bullying is a behavior, a verb, not a person, not a noun. We are all complicated people, with countless characteristics and attributes. No person can be accurately labeled and put in a box: THE BULLY. We are many things. Walt Whitman: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Friend, teammate, pet owner, son, poet, etc. Usually a so-called “bully” is a good person who is making some poor decisions. I believe we are more than our worst act.

So, there was that, the nagging idea that I wanted to give a sympathetic look at someone who bullied another person. Sort of rescue him from that narrow stereotype. Try to show the complexity of the issue, how a “good kid” can do a bad thing.

Then, one unforgettable day, I read about a 12-year-old girl who had committed suicide by jumping off a tower. The report stated that she was “absolutely terrorized” on social media. I immediately ached for that poor girl, her friends, her family. But I also thought of all those kids who wrote mean things to her on the internet, life’s little cruelties. Now they had to live with the consequences of those words. The things they did and didn’t do.

In my entirely fictionalized book, I didn’t try to explain the full reasons for Morgan’s suicide. I don’t think we ever really know why someone takes that final step. A chemical imbalance? Deeper issues at home? Bullying at school? It’s so hard to say. And, ultimately, I decided that wouldn’t be the focus of this book. I mostly wanted to tell Sam’s story, how he comes to “own” his actions, take responsibility. The book surprised me because, at the end, it becomes a meditation on the nature of forgiveness.

You are right that Sam fell short. Too little, too late. I think he tried his best to do the right thing. Life is hard, difficult, full of pressures, and we all make mistakes. I respect the process Sam went through on his own, with his journal, to honor, and remember, and account for Morgan.

Your mother makes a great point about anxiety and the pressures that so many young people seem to be experiencing. It’s hard to understand where, exactly, that comes from and what we can do to help.

G, your letter clearly demonstrates the work of a bright, active, perceptive mind. I was very impressed with it, and I’m grateful to have found a reader such as you. I fear that I failed to address all of the many ideas included in your letter, but hopefully you’ll be satisfied with this response.

Have a great summer! And look for my new book, Blood Mountain, coming this October. My wife says it’s my best book yet. I think she’s right!

James Preller

Fan Mail Wednesday #289: About That “Happy/Sad” Thing

 

I enjoyed this letter from Sasha, who does things, like margins (for example) a little bit differently — which is a good thing, btw.

Why are some of us drawn to sadness?

Note: I mistakenly wrote on the back of Sasha’s letter, so some blue marker shows through. Go ahead, sue me.

 

 

I replied . . .

 

Dear Sasha,

Thank you for your spirited letter — so much of your personality came pouring out, like rain through a screen window. My favorite line: “I legit loved the book!” 

The happy/sad feeling? Oh yeah, I know that one very well. I’ve always been drawn to so-called “sad” things. In music, film, art, whatever. It might be my Irish ancestry, I don’t know. People will say, “Oh, I only want to see happy movies.” But to me, a lot of those “happy” movies just strike me as, yawn, really fake and superficial. I get bored. One thing about sadness: like laughter, it’s a true emotion –- and when we share a truth, any truth, it connects us as human beings. And that makes me happy. So, yeah, the happy/sad thing.

I’ve been hearing a lot lately about the idea of books as mirrors and/or windows. It’s an interesting way of looking at literature and how it functions in our lives, building self-perception and empathy. Some books reflect back upon us –- we see ourselves, perhaps in a new light -– while others help us see into new worlds. I like it.

The beautiful, haunting cover of the Japanese translation of my book, THE FALL.

Another happy/sad book of mine you might like is The Fall. It takes the issue of bullying to a darker place than Bystander, and ends up as a meditation, of sorts, on forgiveness. It’s told from the point of view of a boy, writing in his journal, after a girl’s death. The book won a YALSA award and, strangely, was nominated for some big award in Japan. I suspect they have a misfit/bully problem over there, too. I also have a new book coming out in October, Blood Mountain, a wilderness survival story with a brother, sister, and dog lost in the mountains. Super fast-paced adventure with some good writing, too.

I loved your letter, Sasha. All good things,

James Preller

GUILTY AS CHARGED: “The Wizard of Oz” named most influential movie of all time

According to the researchers at the University of Turin in Italy, The Wizard of Oz has been named the most influential movie of all time. This was determined by the amount of references made to it in other movies (47,000 were reportedly taken into account in the study).

Rounding out the Top Ten were:

1. The Wizard of Oz

2. Star Wars

3. Psycho

4. King Kong

5. 2001: A Space Odyssey

6. Metropolis

7. Citizen Kane

8. The Birth of a Nation

9. Frankenstein

10. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

 

One thing that happens to a writer after a lifetime of words have been spilled — in my case, I published my first book in 1986 at age 25 — you begin to see patterns in the work. Sometimes it’s a worrying thing, falling back on familiar phrases or images, a troubling sense that you might be repeating yourself. That’s a sign of a lazy mind, returning to the old bag of tricks, and I try to be vigilant against it. And yet at the same time it makes perfect sense. If a writer is drawn to water images, for example, and spent a lifetime moved by water, heart filled with water, it only makes sense that watery imagery would leak into the writing.

I can see that with references in my books to The Wizard of Oz, which I’m sure I’ve done multiple times. Most recently, in Better Off Undead, I borrowed the basic plot structure from the film and loosely applied it to my story: the assembled characters going to meet the Wizard.

Here’s a page from The Fall, a book that’s based on a boy’s journal entries. This page contains the entire chapter:

I’m sure I’ve casually sprinkled references to the iconic movie in other books — did I ever use it in Jigsaw Jones? I can’t remember — though none spring immediately to mind. Oh, wait, there’s a brief reference in The Courage Test, page 169: “She leans into the camera. Her face looms larger, Oz-like.”

So many huge, iconic moments in that film. Think of the yellow brick road. The wicked witch. Dorothy’s quest to return home. Clicking her heels together three times. Flying monkeys and fierce, apple-tossing trees. A tin man absent a heart. The quest, the mission, the dark passage. What a story!

And my favorite: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” That line kills me every time. Maybe I’ve said it a hundred times. Probably more. It’s an idea that comes up a lot, perfectly illustrated in that one revealing scene.

Oh yes, for me, there’s no question: The Wizard of Oz is clearly the most influential movie of my life.

Lastly, okay, I admit the list is pretty ridiculous and not an accurate measurement of a film’s “influence” on popular culture. Metropolis over Jaws? The Birth of a Nation more influential than The Godfather?

Oh well. As long as The Wizard of Oz comes out on top, I’m good with it.