Tag Archive for Bystander 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

 

THE FALL in Paperback Has Landed: To Celebrate, Here’s a Super-Short Excerpt

As an author, even after all these years, I never quite believe it until I have the actual book in my grubby little hands. Well, the box arrived yesterday and a few books cooperated for this photograph:

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As a reminder, this book may be seen as a companion to, and extension of, the themes first presented in Bystander. If readers enjoyed that book, they could pick up this one next — though, admittedly, it’s a little tougher, a little darker. Or start with The Fall and ignore Bystander altogether. It’s your life!

Before I get to the excerpts, some review quotes:

 “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.

“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.

“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.

“With its timely, important message and engaging prose style, Sam’s journal ought to find a large readership.” (Fiction. 10-16) — Kirkus.

“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.

Now for the actual four-chapter excerpt, pages 151-158. Yes, each unnumbered chapter is super short:

 

FACE MEETS FIST

 

    In retrospect, I don’t think getting punched in the face was that bad. I kind of liked it. I mean, I’m not recommending it. “Oh, yes, you simply must try the Punch-in-the-Face, it’s divine. Far superior to the Knee-to-the-Groin and half the calories!”

     Fact: Fergus Tick went blam and I went boom. Hitting the ground was worse than the punch -– no disrespect to Fergus, who packs a wallop, but that concrete was hard.

     To my surprise, I did not see stars. Pretty little birdies did not circle my head, chirping tunelessly. None of the typical things I expected after a lifetime’s education watching Loony Tunes cartoons. I got hit, I fell, and my coconut throbbed but didn’t crack. That was it. Fergus’s fist caught me on the right cheek below the eye -– Fergus was a lefty, who knew! Maybe a tougher kid staggers back but keeps standing. Not me. I flopped like a spineless jellyfish.

     One punch and done.

     Message received, loud and clear.

     Surprisingly: Fergus was the one who looked frightened, and so did Athena, who stood watching. My confession in speech class shook them up. I had broken the code of silence. I said out loud what I had done to Morgan Mallen. I spoke the unspeakable. I owned the thing that nobody else wanted. And even though I didn’t point fingers at anyone else, I could see that it scared Athena to the core.

     She didn’t look so pretty from my viewpoint on the ground. She looked like she’d just swallowed a poisoned apple. There was something evil in her soul and she was rotting from the inside out.

     The fallout after Morgan’s suicide had not been a good experience for Athena Luikin. I watched her closely those days and weeks after Morgan’s death. I followed her movements, where she sat, what she did, and I saw that she had become damaged goods. If Morgan was the dead girl, Athena was the one we blamed. At first, Athena put on a brave face, the tough girl who didn’t give a hoot. Over time, cracks appeared. Everyone knew Athena was the one most responsible for harassing Morgan. In a way, she fell victim to her own game. Athena was tagged, too. Her tag read: BULLY. One by one, Athena’s friends faded into the background until she stood virtually alone, if not for the unwavering loyalty of Fergus Tick.

     Rumors went around that Athena was transferring to a private school in another town. “Good,” we said. One morning, a FOR SALE sign appeared on her front lawn. There was talk of a lawsuit, damages and courtrooms. The reign of the Queen was over.

     So there I sat on the ground, head going boom-ba-boom, ba-boom, ba-boom, fuzzzzzz.

  “Get up,” Fergus demanded.

     (So you can punch me again? I don’t think so.)

     “Leave him,” Athena said. “Come let’s go, Fergus.”

     And go they did.

     I waited for my head to clear. It wasn’t so awful, it felt like waking up any school morning, that torturous distance between head-on-the-pillow and feet-on-the-floor.

     I needed a hot shower. Or maybe a long hot bath. Morgan once said, “Baths make everything better.” It was time to find out if she was right.

     Despite all that, deep down, I felt fantastic. Like a million bucks. Terrific, awesome, happy.

     (How weird was that?)

     I wasn’t on the wrong side of life anymore. I was now an enemy of the bad guys -– and it felt great. I tasted something sweet in my mouth, a new flavor, but I couldn’t figure out what it was until I spat.

     Oh, blood.

 

 

I KNOCKED  

 

    I decided to do it. I had to.

     I stood at her front door yesterday.

     I breathed in and out, in and out.

     Steady as a willow in a hurricane.

     And I knocked.

     Bark, BARK, barkbarkBARKbark!

     I’d forgotten about Larry. The lunatic mop.

     I suddenly, fiercely, insanely wished I had a mint. I breathed into my open palm. Yuck, gross. How was my hair? What was I doing here?

     Time passed.

     And the door creaked open.

     The mother was standing there, wheezing slightly, sizing me up. The expression on her face said, What now, dear Lord, what now?

 

 

THINGS I LIKE  

 

     This is a list of random things I like.

     I like baseball games that last extra innings. “Free baseball,” we call it. I like weekends without homework, watching my little sister sleep with her puffy lips and how the saliva dribbles out of the corner of her mouth. I like my bed made with the blankets folded down nice and perfect, just right. I like the cold, numb feeling of a package of frozen peas on my swollen face. I like the last bell of the school day and the sound in the hallways of a hundred lockers slamming joyously shut and the big hum of let’s get outta here, let’s go. I like funny videos with absurd cats (I realize it’s a big joke to some people, but I do). I like memories of old vacations, camping trips and card games and nickel antes. I like the stars in the sky when the night is warm and silent. I like the sound of a swing and a miss on the baseball diamond, the absence of sound followed by a fastball popping into the catcher’s leather glove, the whoosh-and-pop combo. I like that just-beginning feeling when you see a girl and think, wow, that’s all, just WOW, and you know you have to find a way to stand next to that girl somewhere, somehow. I like a brand new box of my favorite cereal, when I know it was bought just for me. I like turning on the radio and a great song comes on that same instant. I like laughter, and promises kept, and friendly waves across open fields. I even like Morgan’s lunatic dog that barkbarkbARKed with the soul of wolf.

     I like being alive, and today I am, right now, saying yes to life. Yes, yes, and yes.

 
WORDS   

 

     Larry pounced on my shoes, barkbarkbARKing!

     “You remember me, don’t you, Larry?” I said.

     “And you are?” the mother asked.

     I didn’t have a good answer. And in fact, I never expected to see the mom. That wasn’t my plan. Yet here she was, a fairly gigantic woman in a huge floral housedress. She might have weighed three hundred pounds. She smelled of butterscotch and a scent that reminded me of Morgan, the faint whisper of booze.

     She eyed me suspiciously, the door only half-open, ready to slam shut.

     (I am Sam, Sam I am.)

     All I had to do was open my mouth. It’s all anybody ever wanted me to do, my parents, Mr. Laneway, Morgan. “Just talk,” they said. “It’s easy. Try it. Say one word. Start with your name . . .”

     Seriously?

     What good would that do? My name is . . .

     Use.

     Less.

     Ness.

 

YES, I LOVE TO DO SCHOOL VISITS -- EVEN SCARY MIDDLE SCHOOLS!

YES, I LOVE TO DO SCHOOL VISITS — EVEN SCARY MIDDLE SCHOOLS!

 

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #226: Word from an Aspiring Author

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Here’s a kind note from an aspiring writer.

Hi! My name is ___ and I am a fifth grader from Sacandaga Elementary school. I was sick when you came and I was so sad. I love to write and your books inspire me! I am reading Justin Fisher Declares War and it makes me randomly laugh! I love having your signature in it! I wish I could have met you! I write to get my mind off things. I am going to start a book called Fake inspired by Bystander! Please get back to me, wish I could have seen you!

Confession I never liked the cover to this one, was hoping for something much more funny and school based, but I do like the tag line: "Fifth grade is no joke."

Confession: I never liked the cover to this one, was hoping for something funny and school-based, but I do like the tagline: “Fifth grade is no joke.” Too bad you can’t see it. Grumble, grumble.

I replied:

 ____, what a bummer! I’m sorry you were sick, I could have used a friendly face in that rough crowd. Just kidding. Everyone at Sacandaga was great — in fact, I loved it so much, I even learned how to spell Sacandaga. When in doubt, type an “a.”

I wrote Justin Fisher immediately after Bystander, which was fairly serious, so I felt like writing something that was humorous and light-hearted. I’m glad you enjoyed both of them, my yin and yang. 

Please give me your address and I’ll try to get something in the mail to you one of these days. But be patient, I’ll be traveling soon. 
I’m always glad to hear from a fellow writer. And for the record, Fake is a great title.
 –
JP

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #220: “If You Don’t Like It, Write Better”

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While — sure! of course! — I always enjoy receiving a big, old, 8 1/2″ x 11″ envelope filled with student letters, I admit to mixed feelings. Yes, I’m grateful and honored. Yet I can’t help but recognize that this was the product of an assignment. Some letters can seem rote, and I get it. However, I recently received a particularly wonderful batch, 23 letters in all, filled with insights & curiosity & ridiculously kind words. Here’s the teacher’s cover letter and my response to the class . . .

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I replied at length:

Dear Ms. Becker & Students,

Thank you for that impressive package of letters. I’ve received similar packages before, but yours was particularly outstanding for the overall quality of the letters. They struck me as authentic, rather than, say, written by a bored kid going through the motions.

And, hey, if you were a bored kid going through the motions, good job, you sure fooled me!

I’m sorry to say that I simply don’t have the time to respond to your letters in the manner that you deserve. I apologize for my one-size-fits-all reply.

Several of you asked about a sequel, and I didn’t plan on one while writing the book. I was satisfied with the ending, leaving the future for these characters up to the reader. People ask what happens to them –- and that’s a nice compliment to give a writer – but the honest answer is that I don’t know. Or more to the point, I never got around to making up those stories. Books have to end somewhere, or else I’d be writing about Mary’s grandchildren.

Even so, I remained interested in the perspective of the so-called bully. That’s why I wrote THE FALL, which I see as a companion to BYSTANDER. Along the lines of, “If you liked BYSTANDER, you might also like . . .”

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Jessica asked if anyone helped me with the story: Yes, my editor, Liz Szabla, was particularly important with this book. Mostly her help was in the form of conversations. We talked about the ideas, our own experiences, things we’ve seen and felt. She didn’t really inject herself into the writing of the book -– she left that up to me – but she was a great sounding board. In life, it’s essential to have that person who says to you, “I believe in you. Go for it.” For this book, for me, that person was Liz.

Philip asked if I have “a secondary job in case book writing fall through.” That kind of made me laugh, while giving me a minor heart attack. Do you know something I don’t know? Philip even included a bonus scene, where I could glimpse a future adventure for Eric. I liked it; nice work. BTW, Philip, to answer your question: No, I don’t. And some days it scares me silly. No kidding.

Some asked about Eric’s father and how he might figure in the book’s ending, or, I should say, an alternative ending for the book. If you go to my blog and search, “My Brother John . . . in BYSTANDER,” you’ll get the background story about Eric’s father. It’s not a tale with a happy ending, I’m sorry to say.

Many of you said really, really kind things to me. I want you to know that I appreciate your kindness. In particular, Alyssa, thank you! Paige and Grace and Katelyn and Toby, you guys, too. The truth is, this can be a hard business sometimes. It’s not easy to make a living. It’s not easy to be rejected, or suffer poor sales, or watch a good book go out of print. I am often filled with doubts and uncertainties. There are times, especially recently, when I feel like a failure. Lately I’ve been thinking of myself as “moderately talented.” Nothing great, you know? Oh well. But this is what I do, what I love, and I have to keep working at it. I have a Post-It note on my computer that reads: “IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT, WRITE BETTER.” That’s what I’m trying to do.

My current mantra.

My current mantra.

I just wrote a book about a father and a son traveling along the Lewis & Clark trail. It’s a genre-bending blend of nonfiction and fiction, a story of family, a wilderness adventure –- whitewater rapids, an encounter with a bear –- and, I hope, a quest for the real America. The book, titled THE COURAGE TEST, should be out in 2016. After that, I wrote a pretty wild story that’s set in the not-too-distant future. And, yes, there are zombies in it –- but it’s not their fault! I’m also trying to write haikus, making a small study of them, because I’ve got the seed of an idea. They are not as easy as they look!

The next idea is always the flame that burns the brightest, that keeps creative people moving forward -– making paintings, performing in plays, practicing the guitar, telling stories. We all have to find the thing that makes us happy. And if you are lucky enough to find it, then hold on tight.

Thank you –- each one of you – but I’ve got to get to work! I’m sorry again for not writing to you individually. Thanks for understanding.

James Preller

 

BYSTANDER Selected for Kindle Monthly Deal Promotion This July — Only $2.99 (Cheap)!

9780312547967Good 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?

Oh well.

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