I replied . . .
I replied . . .
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.
I replied . . .
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.
Anyway, 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.
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:
< snip >
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.”
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.
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:
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.
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?
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.
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 . . .”
What good would that do? My name is . . .
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!
____, 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.”