Tag Archive for Bystander Sequel

Conversations with Myself: James Preller Interviews James Preller About His New Prequel/Sequel to BYSTANDER

Today’s a special day here at James Preller Dot Com. Over my career in children’s publishing, which began more than 35 years ago (gulp), I’ve interviewed more than a hundred children’s book writers and illustrators — many of whom were legends. My first interview came as a junior copywriter at Scholastic when I nervously sent out a carrier pigeon to author Ann McGovern (Shark Lady). I’ve since enjoyed long telephone interviews with the likes of Barbara Cooney, James Marshall, Ashley Bryan, Faith Ringgold, Karla Kushkin, Bernard Waber, Vera B. Williams, and many more. These days I post interviews on ye olde blog, including lengthy ones with James Bird, Lesa Cline-Ransome, Matthew Cordell, Ralph Fletcher, Jordan Sonnenblick, Wendell Minor, Deb Pilutti — so many. In addition, I’ve hosted contributions from Lois Lowry, Nick Bruel, Eugene Yelchin, Joseph Bruchac, Karen Hesse, Linda Sue Park, and on and on. 

You’d think maybe I’d learn a thing or two along the way.

But nope, you’d be wrong!

Not a thing. 

But then it hit me. The one person I’ve never interviewed, the one person who truly gets me . . . who completes me . . . 

I decided to interview myself.

Look! Here I come now!

 

 

James, thanks for stopping by.

You can call me Jimmy.

Same!

Or Jimbo.

Same!

That’s great. This is going really swell. When do the questions start?

Right about now. It’s been 10 years since you wrote Bystander. Many readers have asked about a sequel. But you always said no. What changed your mind?

First of all, that’s an awesome question.

Thank you.

I finally figured out that it wasn’t a longer story — it was a larger story. It wasn’t what happened next, after Bystander ended, it was simply a bigger canvas, stretched up, down, and sideways.

Genius!

I know!

But this time around, the focus is on Mary.

There were a couple of reasons for that. First of all, I always said that Mary was a minor but crucial character in Bystander. She was the character who changed the most. But also, I think, Mary’s character was a little underwritten. I had made the decision to follow Eric, and really hone in tight there. I felt there wasn’t time, in terms of pacing, to explore Mary’s world. So she was kind of left on the sidelines. This new book gave me a second chance to tell her story

The timetable for Upstander begins about six weeks before Bystander.

Yes. Working that out was a challenge. I took events that occurred in the previous book, pulled out a calendar, and worked backwards to figure out the dates. In my unedited manuscript, I wrote in the dates to help keep the narrative straight in my mind. We took that out for the final version.

It turns out that Mary has a lot going on in her home life.

She really does. And don’t you think that’s true for all us? We have these bright, shiny surfaces that people see — classmates, friends, neighbors — but beneath that, we don’t really know what’s going on with anybody. I mean, with Bystander, right in the beginning, we see Mary hanging out with Griffin and getting involved in a pretty awful situation.

Ketchup, yes, love that chapter.

Thanks.

No, you’re awesome. Seriously. I’m a big fan.

Thanks again.

No, really. I don’t know if you hear that enough, James. I feel like deep down inside you’re just a wounded bird . . . or a very sad baby seal . . . or . . .

Anyway — um, don’t grovel, Jimbo, it makes me uncomfortable — I felt that with this book I could explore that relationship. Why was Mary with those guys? That’s the prequel aspect, where we get to see Mary’s home and social life up close, including how and why she got involved with Griffin.

And about halfway through the book, you catch up with the Bystander timeline.

Yes, it was so much fun. I knew I didn’t want to just retell the events of Bystander from a different point of view. I wanted to cover new ground, painting on that bigger canvas. But at the same time, there were a couple of scenes that I had to revisit, which I think attentive readers of both books will really enjoy looking at and picking apart.

Bystander begins with Eric already covered in ketchup. In Upstander, you wrote the scene where it happened.

I know. The cruelty of that scene was unpleasant to write. Not fun, but I felt it had to be done.

Mary’s older brother, Jonny, has a substance use disorder.

Yes.

Why did you go there?

Substance abuse is a pervasive illness in our world, but it’s also a hidden disease, all too often associated with stigma and shame. We don’t like to talk about it. But people are sick and suffering and dying. I felt that with this topic, I had some things I wanted to say. I wanted to humanize the victims and also show how their experience affected the entire family.

We see it through Mary’s eyes.

Exactly. Mary doesn’t fully understand everything that her brother is going through. But she feels it, and she sees what’s happening in their home. Here’s the thing: I grew up as the youngest of seven children. Five of them were more than 7 years older than me — they might as well have lived on different planets. So I was very aware of watching these older brothers and sisters living mysterious lives that I could barely comprehend. I’d be six and watch my sister wearing lipstick run off in a car with her boyfriend. Or, disturbingly, see a brother get into a physical altercation with my father. Or hear loud music bleeding through the walls. So I guess that’s a familiar perspective for me, observing the complicated, confusing lives of my older siblings.

How did you research the topic?

I read a lot of incredible books, told from various perspectives. I also hooked up with a man, Young Do, who runs a treatment center in downtown Albany. We talked, had lunch, I visited the center, and Young read the finished manuscript. I was lucky to meet up with him. In fact, a personal experience that Young told me about — how he used to get locked out of his house, needing to wake his brother to let him in — inspired the opening scene of Upstander.

So if anything in the book is wrong, can we blame him?

Yeah, totally.

         

 

We learn a lot more about Chantel in this book.

Yes, I felt that was important. Readers needed to know more about that story and Mary’s part in the cyberbullying. I was glad to get to know Chantel better, spend time in her kitchen, meet her family, describe her tennis game.

Is that how it works for you? You put two characters together, they start talking, and the scene writes itself.

Ha! Not quite. I do all the work. But I will say that it was a blast to revisit old characters. Hakeem plays a larger role in this book. Eric, of course. And then there’s the school resource officer, Mr. Goldsworthy. He played a small role in Bystander, but I think we get a richer picture of him in this book. I’m proud there’s a positive portrayal of a compassionate police officer in this book. Just putting that out in the world feels right.

For all his flaws, Griffin becomes something of a sympathetic character by the end of Upstander.

I hope so. He’s got a lot going on in his life, too. You know, I hate putting labels on people, stuffing them into little boxes. Griffin as “the bully.” Because that’s not how the world works. Bullying is a verb, not a noun. It’s a behavior, not a person. Griffin Connelly is a lot of things — Whitman’s “I am large, I contain multitudes” — so I really wanted to show his range and, again, his humanity. I didn’t want him to be reduced to the role of big, dumb, slobbering bully. Life is far more complicated than that. At the same time, he’s responsible for his own actions and he did some very uncool things. 

Well, it looks like we’re out of time.

Yeah, I’ve got a thing.

Me, too.

But thanks for having me over. No one ever asks to interview me.

Yes, I know, sad.

But this has been enjoyable, talking about the book. You asked great questions. Super insightful.

Really?

Oh, yeah. You were incredible.

Aw, I thought you were incredible. Can we hug?

Gee, you know, I’m still waiting on that second vaccine shot to kick in. You understand. 

Sure, pal.

Let’s just say that we’re both wonderful and leave it at that!

 

 

UPSTANDER is available now for presale where all books are sold. Educators may be able to acquire advance, unedited PDF files, for free, via NetGalley. Not exactly sure how that works. I truly appreciate your support. The book officially publishes May 11th. While it is a story that stands alone — you don’t need to read Bystander to enjoy it — I’m hoping that fans of Bystander will get a huge kick out of it.

Both books were listed as Junior Library Guild Selections.

 

The full cover art for UPSTANDER, including flap copy, etc.

Pro Tips: Finding Inspiration at Home & Across the Street

Every once in a while I talk “writing process” in the hope that educators or readers might find it remotely interesting. I even include Pro Tips! Anyway, ahem, there’s two paragraphs in Upstander (Macmillan, Spring ’21), a sequel to Bystander, where I can directly trace my inspirations. One inspiration comes from artwork by my daughter, and the other is from my neighbor across the street. For our purposes, we’ll call him Bill LaDue.

In Upstander, Mary is struggling with a number of challenging issues. A minor arc is her relationship with her mother’s boyfriend, Ernesto. Of greater importance to the novel is her older brother’s substance use disorder, its impact on the family, as well as Mary’s shifting friendships at school.

Here’s the unedited scene, just two paragraphs that will appear in the middle of the book. I don’t think you’ll need additional setup:

On the day before her brother moved out, Mary sat in the backyard at a reclaimed picnic table that Ernesto had “rescued” from someone’s garbage pile. He did that a lot. Drove around in his pickup truck on garbage day, often returning with curbside items of questionable quality. A riding lawn mower that “only” needed a new fuel pump and starter switch; a boat that leaked; a set of ancient, rusted golf clubs; a battered ping pong table that lacked a net. He has a weakness for broken things, Mary mused. The thought sank down into her belly, like a small stone dropped into a well, and it made her appreciate Ernesto just a little more.

Mary set out her art supplies. Paper, brushes, watercolors. She painted a seated female figure, facing away, balancing a stack of rocks on her head. It was a strange, almost magical image and it pleased Mary to make it. An hour passed. Very quietly, Jonny sat down beside her. He wore pajama bottoms and a T-shirt. His hair was wet from the shower. Mary didn’t comment, but she felt surprised. He didn’t usually show much interest. Why was he here?

 

It’s important to me that even minor characters are, to the best of my ability, fully realized. It’s a source of pride, actually. Who was this Ernesto guy, dating Mary’s mother and spending time in her house? Finding the answer was deceptively simple: Make something up! After all, that’s what writers do. 

I looked across the street at my neighbor’s house, the fabulous LaDues: Bill, Erin, and Charlie. Bill is a good man, a friend, funny and kind. And he has a thing for curbside “garbage.” He’s constantly pulling over for discarded curbside items, seeing value where the original owners did not, and hauling the derelict items home. Bill’s pals gently tease him about this affliction. The boat that doesn’t float, the four riding lawn mowers all in some state of disrepair, and so on. Just today, Bill posted this on social media:

He wrote, with more than a little self-awareness:

Cleaning out the camper. I kind of feel like I absolutely need each and everyone one of these things: 2 extra sets of golf clubs, 8 or 9 coolers, a bevy of beer brewing equipment never used, 2 ironing boards (Erin’s), cushions for a hanging chair (we no longer have the chair). Hey, you never know when this stuff might come in handy.

 

So that’s Bill. And now, because Bill lives across the street from me, that’s Ernesto, too. And as Mary comes to understand it: He has a weakness for broken things.

Yeah, that’s the key to whole character. It’s all you really need to know about Ernesto. I love him for that quality. Ernesto sees the potential, the upside, in everything and everyone. It made Mary appreciate Ernesto just a little more. And it’s something I admire about my neighbor Bill, too; he’s a romantic at heart, an old softy, bless his soul.

Mary, like my own daughter, Maggie, likes making things. She draws and paints and sews and creates. When it came time to describe one of Mary’s paintings, since that’s what she was doing in this scene, I thought of one that Maggie made last winter, which now hangs in her bedroom:

 

I guess I didn’t have to “make something up” after all!

Funny how that works.

So that’s today’s Pro Tip, young writers. Take a look around, be a sponge, soak it all up. As my neighbor Bill attests, “Hey, you never know when this stuff might come in handy.”

Maybe writers are junk collectors, too.

 

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!

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.
 –
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