Tag Archive for Growing up on Long Island

Father’s Day Tribute: Dad Used to Cover the Lawn with Horse Manure & Other Atrocities

 

NOTE: I first posted this on my blog back in 2011. Figured it was worth bringing back today, as we warm up for the weekend ahead.

Dad was the father of seven children, a veteran of World War II who served in the Pacific. After the war, he graduated from Boston University in two and half years, because why in the world would anybody want to waste another minute in school. There was a life to be lived, a brass ring to grab, things to do. Let’s get on with it.

It was a different time, a different generation.

Dad settled with my mother on Long Island, became an insurance man, started having kids rapid fire in the Catholic fashion, built a business. I was the youngest in the family, the baby. On rare weekend days I’d tag along when my father needed to pop into his rented office on Wantagh Avenue for an hour or two. We never specialized in father-and-son type stuff, whatever that was, and I’m sure the word bonding did not apply to relationships back in those days, only glue, but I do recall those trips to his office. Dad’s place of business offered that most wondrous of commodities, office supplies — electric typewriters, staplers, a copier, boxes of paper clips and, best of all, tracing paper.

I marveled at its magical properties. Dad didn’t part with his supply easily, that stuff cost money, so I was thrilled and grateful whenever he brought a stack home. Those are nice memories for me, a lifetime away. I sometimes wonder: Whatever happened to that kid? That boy with the tracing paper? Where’d he go?

From around that time, somewhere in the mid 60’s, another day presses forward for attention. One spring morning we set off together — in the hazy gauze of remembrance, just me and dad — to a farm somewhere. Because dad knew a guy, a customer who had a stable and a few horses. He possessed, in others words, shit to spare. And the price was right.

I must have  been about five or six years old at the time, no older. We got to the farm, out east on Long Island probably, and I stood around while my father chatted with the owner of the place. Maybe I looked into the stable, fearfully eyed the horses. Did I want to feed one of them an apple? No, I did not. I was shy, watchful and quiet. Eventually my dad keyed open the car truck, borrowed a shovel, and filled it to the brim with horse manure. I stood by, mystified, awestruck. Trunk full, steam rising, we headed back home, where I watched my father spread the still semi-moist shit around the front lawn. It was good for the grass, he explained. Nature’s fertilizer.

My older brothers and sisters recall those times with profound mortification. Imagine the embarrassment they felt, the acute stabbing horror, especially those of a certain age, when the opinion of one’s peers meant only everything. I can’t say this plainly enough: My brothers hated it when dad spread horse shit on the front lawn — even worse, on hot days it smelled like holy hell, the stink filling your nostrils — and yet my father performed the same ritual every year.

And here’s the thing about my dad, really the essential memory of him. He didn’t care. Alan J. Preller simply did not give a hoot what anybody thought. He never did. He embarrassed us, he ticked off people, annoyed relatives, said what he thought and did what he did. Dad lived on his own terms, remarkably indifferent to opinion. And if that made him impossible at times, well, so be it. He wasn’t trying to please anybody.

My father passed away a few years back, coincidentally enough while spreading fertilizer out on the front lawn in Southampton, where he retired. He had moved beyond horse manure by then, thank God, nowadays they’d hang you in Southampton for that, but there was still no way he was going to push around one of those crummy lawn spreaders. No, dad preferred a Maxwell House coffee can, dipping it into a big bag of fertilizer, sprinkling it imprecisely across the yard with a grand sweep of his arm. And to be honest, it’s more fun that way. Believe me, I know.

There he was out on the lawn, doing what he always did, and that’s when his heart gave out, when he fell, when my father left us.

These days, when I’m particularly infuriating — insensitive, implacable, impossible — my exasperated wife, Lisa, will proclaim that I’m becoming just like my father.  I won’t listen to anyone, I’ll just do whatever I want. And as I age, it only gets worse. That’s her complaint. The funny thing is, I always hear it as a compliment.

Happy Father’s Day, folks. A good day to pull some weeds, mow the lawn, tend the garden and then, like my father often did, wander into the kitchen, reach into the bottom cabinet where he kept the bottle of Dewar’s, and announce, “It’s five o’clock somewhere.”

Here’s to you, old man. Cheers and memories.

Miss you!

The Amityville Horror House in “Before You Go”

Amityville_house

In my © 2012 Young Adult novel, Before You Go, a car full of boys drives off to Amityville to view the famous “Amityville Horror” house. It’s a minor scene, just something for my characters to do while driving around. Not coincidentally, it was a trip that my friends and I made several times when I was a teenager. Always dull and uneventful. I guess it was an aimless, Long Island-type of thing to do.

It gave us a destination, at least.

From the book:

When they reached their haunted destination at 112 Ocean Avenue in the town of Amityville, Lee killed the lights and coasted curbside. The boys stared out the windows at the old, silent house. It was three stories high with seven windows facing the street, a few tall trees and a low, neatly manicured hedge set off a few feet from the front of the house. At a casual glance, it looked about as scary as a cucumber sandwich.

byg-202x300They had all been there before, even though the drive to Amityville was more than half an hour. Thee was something magnetic about the place. The house was famous for its ghostly legends, and the second-rate Hollywood movie that was based on all the weird stuff that happened after the DeFeo murders back in 1974, scaring the living daylights out of the next family that moved in until, one night, they fled the house and never returned. No one would ever know what really happened.

Lee turned around in his seat to once again retell the tale, his voice hushed and mysterious, drawing out the words to build suspense. “So after the murders, the Lutz family moved in,” Lee began.

The boys had all heard it before, about as often as Green Eggs and Ham, but no one tried to Lee up. After all, it was his car and they were a long way from home. 

“I guess they got a bargain price,” Jude opined.

“Yeah, but after they moved in, all this sick stuff started happening,” Lee said. “Like, swarms of flies were everywhere, even in the winter. The father of the family used to wake up in a cold sweat every night at three fifteen — the exact same time of the murders. Green slime oozed from the walls. And one night they saw a demon’s face in the flames of the fireplace.”

HAPPY HALLOWEEN, BOYS & GHOULS!

GUEST BLOGGER: Lewis Buzbee Interviews James Preller About His Upcoming YA Novel, “Before You Go”

Greetings, I’m Lewis Buzbee, guest-blogger for the day.

Guest blogger: Lewis Buzbee.

It’s true, I’ve hi-jacked James Preller’s blog to bring you a very cool conversation with Mr. Preller (he makes me call him that) about his newest book, Before You Go (Macmillan, July 2012), which is his first Young Adult novel. I’ve taken control here because Mr. Preller is a very generous writer who frequently trumpets and supports the work of his fellow writers, and I figure it was time to hear from him. James has interviewed me twice, and our conversations have been so enjoyable, so thoughtful, I wanted to turn the tables, see what he had to say.

Before You Go, I must tell you, is a deliciously good book, whether you call it YA or not. It centers on a tough summer in the life of Jude, who has to face all of the toughest questions — what is love, what is death, what comes next? It’s everything a novel should be; it’s funny, moving, troubling, smart, and illuminating. Forget the labels, it’s a beautiful novel, and you should read it.

James, you’ve written picture books, chapter books, and middle grade novels; Before You Go is your first Young Adult novel. Why now?

Before You Go was the most logical step in a haphazard career path. You could argue that writing older and longer has been a gradual process for me, roughly parallel to the growth of my own children (Maggie, 11, Gavin, 12, Nick, 19). But you asked, “Why now?” and frankly I don’t have an easy answer for that. Except: opportunity. I’m lucky to have an editor, Liz Szabla, who doesn’t look to put me in a box or turn me into a brand. She supports my randomness.

How was writing Young Adult different?

I felt that writing for young adults came closest to my natural voice. I loved going back to my 16-year-old self, tapping into that rich and vigorous vein. So many ideas and feelings and memories bubbled forth. First love, big emotions, friendships, wild times, painful times, all of it. Location became central to this story, and I set it in my hometown, including real places I’d been. That trip out to the Amityville Horror House, for example, that’s something many of us Long Island kids did in our boredom, in our driving-around-looking-for-something-to-do lives. I am instantly transported back into that car with my high school friends, Kevin, Eric, Billy, and Jim –- a bunch of guys, a little lost, trying to figure out Saturday night.

Amityville: one exit in our driving-around lives.

Tell us where and/or how this story came to you?

After glancing through the pink-and-fanged world of Young Adult fiction, I felt a desire to write a realistic book, and a love story from a male perspective. There seemed to be many rescue-type love stories that were extremely romantic, but I felt as a guy, “There’s not one freaking thing here that my teenage self would read.” That’s a slight overstatement, but only slight. So that was the impulse, number one, but where was the story? I got the idea for a car accident out of two experiences: teaching my oldest son how to drive; and my recollection of two boys from my high school, Jesse and Mark, who died the first few months after getting their licenses. I remember driving by the tree where it happened, staring at that big oak, seeing where the bark had been chewed up by metal, imagining the horror. I got the idea to start the book with the accident, page one, then rewind six weeks into the past and tell the story from that point. We catch up to the accident about two-thirds of the way through, meet the characters, wonder who will be in the car and who will die, and so the book is divided into two parts, “Before” and “After.” Thus the novel’s opening sentence:

This is the moment between before and after, the pivot point upon which story, like a plate, spins.

I hoped the accident would give my story enough of a hook to keep readers hanging on, as this isn’t a story that offers one big action scene after another. It can’t be described as a typical book that average boys typically like. I don’t feel at all comfortable with these clichéd, empty-headed notion of what boys supposedly like.  As a guy, I’d like to proclaim, “We are more than just farts and fire trucks.”

Farts = still comedy gold after all these years.

I feel there’s a certain self-defeating, self-prophecy in a lot of publishing these days, i.e., boys are big galoots, so let’s give them farting fire trucks, or girls are princesses, etc. Funny, that’s not my memory of being a kid — I had all sort of interests.

When you first glance at a list of “books for boys,” well, yes, certainly, there are many appealing books on there. Action, sports, humor (bodily, mostly), and so on. But that kind of list depresses me, because it boils down boys to caricature. Boys only like X and Y and Z.

So while there is always a degree of truth to every stereotype, I know boys who are sensitive and thoughtful, funny and frightened, lonely and confused. Boys who don’t fit the mold. Or I should say, boys who can’t be contained by the mold; they keep surprising us in new ways. Our so-called “books for boys” should not pander to an extremely narrow view of what “boy” is and what “boy” can become. I am saying as a father and an ex-boy: It’s hard not to feel insulted. I don’t intentionally set out to write for “boy readers” or “girl readers.” I write about characters and situations; readers will relate or not. I don’t know which sex will read Before You Go, but I know the story involves boys and girls, so I’m hoping for a variety of readers. Fat ones, skinny ones — come all.

Didn’t anyone tell you that teenagers “just don’t read anymore?”

I can’t listen to that stuff. Statistics, numbers, none of it connects with what I do as a writer, or what any individual does as a reader. The thing for me about this particular “market,” as they say, is that I have no experience with it, and no idea who if anyone is going to read my book. This might sound phony, but I wrote this book for myself –- I wanted it to exist, and I took my time writing it, too. I’ve been involved in children’s publishing since 1985, much of the early years with book clubs, where there’s direct, immediate feedback from the marketplace. I usually have a pretty good idea when a book might sell or when it won’t. But for this novel, I haven’t a clue. But yes, certainly, I would love to get starred reviews and awards and all that stuff –- I’d love that — and I do wish for readers to find and enjoy Before You Go.

This seems a huge oversight, but didn’t your editors point out that there are no vampires in here, no angels, no dystopias? What were you thinking?

I was recently inspired by a blogger who encouraged us to “read out of our comfort zone.” You know, the books you don’t usually pick up. So I grabbed Laini Taylor’s The Daughter of Smoke and Bone –- which has gotten gigantic buzz, sold the movie rights, amazing cover. I was curious about what I might be missing.

It’s a beautifully written story about angels and dystopias and underworlds and bizarre creatures and idealized romantic love, paranormal or otherwise, and on and on. And you know what? I was unmoved. I could admire much of it, particularly the language and the imaginative feat of creating an alternate universe. I respect it, but it’s not where I want to live as a reader. That’s not a criticism of the book, more a reflection of my own interests. Same thing with me as a writer. I am stuck with the person I am. Which does not rule out, by the way, magic realism or other elements of fantasy. See my comment about, re: haphazard career. I like to try new things, so I wouldn’t rule out anything. And to be clear: I’m glad I read Laini Taylor’s book.

Tolstoy said a writer can get lots of things wrong, but not the psychology, meaning, a work, no matter how fantastical, had to ring true to human life. This is what I find so wrong with so much vampire/fantasy/dystopian literature these days. It works on the page, but not in real life.

Realism is the coin of the realm, the heart of all fiction, including the most imaginative fantasy. It has to connect to the human heart, it has to feel true. That is, credible. In a book I’ve been writing for a long time, I began with an impossible idea. Something that couldn’t ever happen. But . . . what if? And the essential thing, I think, is to play that out as credibly as possible, there has to be a cohesive internal logic. It’s been a struggle, frankly, but I view that as a good sign. I believe a writer can accomplish powerful things in any genre, even if it involves, oh, fat vampires on a spa retreat in New Mexico. But sooner or later it’s got to deal with the human heart — or else who really cares beyond the momentary diversion?

You write: “He was in between, a lit fuse, a teenage rocket exploding, and he felt there was nothing for him on this Wrong Island.”

I am a child of suburbia and this book reflects that.

Wrong Island, New York. Levittown, specifically.

Many of my friends and I shared a sense of not belonging, of having inherited a world not of our making. I just wanted to get out, you know, create my own reality –- and I think a lot of teenagers feel the same way. Isolation, alienation, I used to think they were teenage feelings. But now at age 51, it seems like a lifelong perspective. You learn to become okay with not quite fitting neatly into the world’s puzzle.

It seems to me that, no matter outward appearances, this is how all teenagers feel, outside, stuck between childhood and adulthood, “in between.”

Literature is a powerful force –- the written word mightier than the sword, and all of that. Sometimes we forget it, but it’s still true. Ideas do change the world. Atticus Finch and how important it is to walk in someone else’s shoes, for example. To go somewhere else, or to be someone else, if only in your mind. To imagine the possibilities. That’s what’s so exciting about YA, this incredible in-between moment in a life. I was listening to a renowned speaker the other day and it’s clear that right now, today, the universally-accepted answer among educators is that kids need to read in volume. Don’t worry about what they are reading, so much as that they are reading. In other words, it’s about quantity over quality, to the point where quality isn’t even in the equation. And I get that, I really do, the way a young soccer player needs “touches” on the ball, and a musician needs hours with his instrument, but there’s a part of me that thinks, “Yeah, but that doesn’t connect with why I personally love books.” We also need soccer players, and musicians, and readers to love what they do . . . or else they quit.

Told in the third person, the novel stays with Jude’s character most of the time, but there are two places where you dip into his girlfriend Becka’s consciousness, and later we have access to Jude’s mother’s thoughts. Tell me about this choice.

I often begin my books by writing out of sequence and from spontaneous inspiration — building on random scenes and sentences — and as a result my rough drafts tend to lack consistency. But I revise continuously, endlessly, and over time the editor-in-mind cleans up the mess. Conventional thinking would have me “fix” all those lapses. Fortunately, I was able to talk over each scene with Liz, my editor. Sometimes I made those revisions, other times we mutually concluded, “No, this feels right, let’s keep it.” We have the same conversations about split infinitives, by the way. Oh, those are exciting times. Other editors might have told me those point-of-view lapses had to go. But as Thoreau said, “Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.” The guideline I try to follow is, “Does this work?” Another way of saying, I don’t pull every dandelion.

One of Steinbeck’s editors pointed out to him that a character early in a novel had blue eyes, but later brown, and was he going to fix that. I believe he told them to go to hell. All good books have flaws, which I believe adds to the sense of their rightness, oddly.

Right, you want to honor the mistakes. It’s a matter of taste. I compare it to music. Some bands are really polished, everything sounds perfect, slick and smooth, labored over in the studio, whereas other artists prefer to keep the rough spots, the grit –- they resist the surface sheen and focus more on making that direct emotional connection, warts and all. There’s a native distrust of polish and shine and, more significantly, even of that part of the brain, the parent-in-the-mind, where something essential gets lost in the refinement process. Most of the Beat writers felt that way. Perfection has a certain blandness, don’t you think? Don’t get me wrong. I work very hard to make the book the best it can be –- according to my own taste and ability — so I can’t pretend that my failures are intentional.

Much of the first half of the book takes place at Jones Beach, where Jude has his first job in a grease palace by the sea.

That was my summer job, age 16, flipping burgers, hauling garbage out to the Dumpster, sneaking out beer in big, plastic mustard jars. The sun, the heat, the beach, the bikinis, and that first paycheck.

I knew it would make for a vivid setting for a teenage story, that classic dumb summer job we all suffered through and secretly loved. Jude is not me, he’s his own character, but I worked that job, I know that world.

That’s the Field 6 concession stand at Jones Beach.

You’ve spoken previously about that reader who is, how did you put it, able to be bored, that is, able to enjoy being bored and sink deeply into a book, let the hours go by.

A lot of ways to answer this, and I’m afraid I might try them all, so you better grab a chair. More and more, I see writing is an act of faith, a trust. This comes back in some ways to the boy reader, which is a code, by the way, for the impatient reader, the barely-willing-to-put-up-with-it reader. And we’re told that the way to reach this hard-to-reach reader is through short chapters, lots of action, one conflict after another, etc. It rewards a certain kind of typing. But I feel as a writer and as a reader, that I’ve always (also) liked the slow parts. There are forty books in the Jigsaw Jones series, and the mystery is always the engine that drives the action forward. But my favorite parts are often the closely-observed, domestic moments. Three brothers in a room, or the parents painting a bathroom together, or the conversation at the dinner table. I saw one of my writing heroes in New York City back in the late 80’s, the great Roger Angell. During his talk, Angell compared reading to being a baseball fan, which I am.

Baseball fans and avid readers both share a willingness to be bored.

He contended that both occupations are for people who are not afraid of being bored. I’ve never forgotten that observation. I’ll quote Angell here, because I have a recording of that talk and I recently transcribed it: “It really is one of the great pleasures of baseball. If you sit there in the early innings, there’s that wonderful time when you wait and see what kind of game this is going to be. Every game is so different from the other, and you need those early chapters, sometimes very slow moving, in order to lead up to the end of the book, the end of the game.” First off, that’s brilliant. And so true. To me, at any given moment a story moves horizontally (the plot advances) or vertically (characterization deepens). Those directions are not mutually exclusive, the line may be slanted, but that’s basically the two main thrusts. I’ve always been drawn to the slowing down, the sinking into character and setting, more so than the headlong forward rush to the next big climax.

For example, there’s a small moment in Before You Go, a few paragraphs early on, when we see Jude at home for the first time, and we meet his mother. His father has already told Jude that she is in bed with a headache, not to be disturbed. So Jude enters the house after his first day of work, tired and dirty. I love that mother and son are separated by a shut door, the staging tells us all we need to know.

In the hallway, he paused outside the closed door of his parents’ bedroom, tilted an ear, listening for movement.

“Jude?” his mother called.

“Yeah, it’s me, Mom,” he answered. “How you feeling today?”

A long silence. “I’m sorry, I’ve got nothing for you in the kitchen,” she finally said, her voice muffled, as if groaned into a pillow.

“That’s okay, Mom, I’m good,” Jude replied. He considered telling her about work, how some girl saved him from getting pummeled by a trio of behemoths, but it felt awkward trying to talk through a door. He placed his right hand on the door as if to push it open, and he saw his fingers as the legs of a fleshy spider perched there, tingling. Jude rested his head against the jamb, shut his eyes. He waited in the hush for something to happen, some change to occur, but nothing did.

Nothing ever did.

I’m proud of that little encounter. “I’ve got nothing for you,” she says. To like my book, I think you have to enjoy those quiet moments. You must have the patience of a baseball fan. Admire the way a pitcher drops that 0-2 slow change just off the outside corner, low and away, trying to entice the hitter to chase. The art, the craft, the whole of it. In this scene, I’m plunging downward, not across. It’s slow, not fast. And I need a reader who is okay with that. I have faith that that reader exists, just as any reader must have faith in the writer –- that eventually he’ll deliver. But nonetheless, I wrote it anyway. That’s the thing. You just write. Because it’s what you do.

What I’ve Been Working On: A Brief Sample

In college I had a teacher, Dr. Pat Meanor at Oneonta, who said something that I’ve always taken to heart. He said if you want to write, then you had better shut your mouth. Don’t talk about it. Otherwise all that creative energy escapes out your mouth instead of your hands (writers, after all, work with their hands).

I’ve been reluctant to talk about works in progress ever since. It feels to me like misplaced focus. So easy to talk about it, much harder to sit down and do it. Besides, as everybody knows, talk is cheap, the purview of phonies. The only thing that matters is what you get down on the page. Yet this blog is intended, in part, to document “the writer’s life.” So here’s a quick update.

This summer, I have two hardcover books coming out. First there’s A Pirate’s Guide to First Grade (Feiwel & Friends), a picture book illustrated by Greg Ruth. I think it’s a lot of fun, with real kid-appeal, and Greg Ruth is a brilliant artist. For more on that, click here.

Justin Fisher Declares War! (Scholastic), a middle grade sequel-of-sorts to Along Came Spider. It’s set in the same school and a few characters from the first book reappear in minor roles. This is my Rebound Book after Bystander, which was a far more ambitious novel. That is: Justin Fisher Declares War! is lighthearted, easy-to-read, funny, fast, almost frivolous. NOTE: In no way do you need to read Spider in order to enjoy Justin. The book stands on its own.

What am I writing now? Well, I’m thrilled to be working on my first YA, involving characters ages 16 years old. It’s been a liberating experience as a writer, and I feel as if I’m working in my natural voice. I’ve been pushed and stretched in new ways, and it’s taken a while to find myself on terra firma. I’ve splashed around a bit. Maybe that’s appropriate, because the book is set on Long Island, with many scenes at Jones Beach (my old haunt); it involves a boy-girl relationship, a car crash, summer friendships, and other stuff. The truth? I don’t want to talk about it; I want to write it. So that’s what I’ve been doing.

Below you’ll find a brief sample from an early chapter. Remember, this is YA and contains some language. I must emphasize, we’re talking Unedited First Draft. I’ll certainly make many changes in subsequent revisions before I send this to my editor, ultra-cool Liz Szabla, who has not read a word of it yet. Absolutely no one has seen this before. Raw output. Maybe it all gets scrapped; too soon to tell.

Jude squeezed his eyes shut, blinking away the sun’s glare, and waited for the eight-fifteen-in-the-freaking-morning bus. On a Saturday, no less. The stop was located beneath the elevated Long Island railroad, with rails that hummed overhead and stretched across the length of the island, connecting the farthest points east all the way to Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan. Ever since his family relocated to the island five years ago, New York City had beckoned to Jude, offering an exotic world of freedom and possibility. The city stood as a skyscrapery refutation of his suburban life, escape only a train ticket and 45 minutes away.

He sat cross-legged on the curb, leaned back on his hands, and scanned the road for coming traffic. Most people around here drove like psychopaths and Jude wasn’t eager to have his legs run over. It might ruin his weekend, the bleeding stumps, all that dragging around. Better, he thought, not to get run over in the first place, so he cast a wary eye down the road. Today was the first day of the rest of Jude’s life and he would spend it at Jones Beach – starting a new summer job at a concession stand. Nobody’d want to miss that kind of excitement. Barely awake, he had dressed in the required dweebware, a uniform of black pants and orange t-shirt. Because, like, naturally you wear black pants to the beach. Jude Fox was on his unmerry way to becoming a minimum-wage flunky, a hot dog grilling, soda spilling concession stand worker. Greatness to follow.

The morning sun shone not high above the horizon, garish and bright, so Jude stepped back into the station’s cool cement shadows. It was going to be a hot one, the first scorcher of summer; not a cloud in sight, just blue June skies. In truth, Jude didn’t hate the idea of working. He’d heard that beach jobs could be okay, even fun. But Jude was a realist; he knew it would basically suck. Had to, right? After all, he’d heard people complain about their jobs all his life, why should his job be any different. So he could not help but wonder if taking this job had been a mistake. Sometimes it felt to Jude that he was just like those trains overhead, traveling along between two steel rails, the course of his teenage life mapped out long ago. No steering wheel, no brakes. Jude followed the path carved out for him, no different from anybody else. In two years, college; after that, marriage, kids, and it’s a wonderful life.

These are the thoughts you have when you wake up too damn early on a Saturday.

Stories Behind the Story: The Case of the Snowboarding Superstar

As part of a continuing (read: sporadic) series of posts, I take a look back at old Jigsaw Jones titles with the intention of providing my Nation of Readers with more “extra juicy” background info.

If you are like me, you might gag at the thought of yet another writer describing his “creative process.” There is something oh-so-wearying about it. The phrase, “Don’t be a gasbag,” leaps to mind. But let’s see if I can pull this off without too much self-aggrandizement. The simple truth is that I am proud of this series and I sometimes (often?) wonder how much longer they’ll be around. I see this blog as document, as archive.

Today’s title is seasonally appropriate, Jigsaw Jones #29: The Case of the Snowboarding Superstar. It begins with Jigsaw chatting with two of his brothers, Daniel and Nick, as they prepare for a family ski vacation.

Some background: My father was a veteran of World War II, who returned home, got married, went to college on the G.I. Bill — a great investment by the Federal Government, by the way — and looked with my mother for a nice place to settle down and raise a family. Suburbia, preferably. He found a newly-built home in Wantagh, Long Island, designed after the Levittown model (for a fascinating history on that, click here). They bought a three-bedroom house for somewhere along the lines of $12,500.

One problem: My parents kept having children. Seven in all. It got crowded. At one point when I was still quite young, my folks slept in the back bedroom, my two sisters (Barbara and Jean) shared a small room, three boys had the front room (John, Al, me), and my father turned the garage into a bedroom for the oldest boys (Neal and Bill). I have strong memories of those early childhood days, sharing that crowded room with two big and somewhat mysterious brothers.

Below, here’s my whole family except for Mom, 1967. We always dressed that way! I shared a bedroom with the two goons on the right — don’t let the ties fool you.

The dynamic in the book’s first chapter, with two older brothers schooling Jigsaw, springs directly from my sense of those times.

They are teaching Jigsaw how to talk cool, in the snowboarder’s hipster jargon:

“Let us quiz you, Jigsaw,” Nick said. “What do you call someone if you don’t know their name?”

I thought for a moment. “Dude,” I answered.

“Excellent!” Nick cheered. “What’s a face-plant?”

“It’s when you fall into the snow face-first.”

“Awesome, Jigsaw,” Daniel said. “Totally gnarly!”

“Gnarly?” I asked. “What’s that?”

“It means very, very cool,” Nick explained. “Do you smell me?”

I sniffed, confused. “What?”

“Do you smell me?” Nick repeated. “It means, do you understand?”

“Not exactly,” I groaned.

In the next chapter, Jigsaw gets to try out his new language skills on Mila Yeh, his partner and best friend:

“I’m jealous,” Mila complained. “I wish I were going  on a ski trip.”

“Snowboarding,” I corrected her.

“It sounds hard,” Mila said. “I hear that beginners fall down a lot.”

“Maybe,” I said. “But I think it will be sick.”

“Sick?” Mila asked. “Who’s sick?”

“Not who,” I said. “It. Snowboarding will be sick.”

Mila frowned. “I don’t get it.”

“It’s the opposite of wack,” I explained.

Okaaay,” Mila murmured.

“Do you smell me?” I asked.

Mila sniffed. “Well, now that you mention it, you do smell a little ripe.”

Don’t they have a nice friendship? Anyway, some random things:

* I loved the setup for the book, with Jigsaw away from Mila for the first time. It gave the book a different shape — and put Jigsaw in a tough situation. After all, this was #29 in the series, so I was eager to find new ways to keep it fresh. I know that some successful series, like The Magic Tree House, tend to follow a more rigid formula. And I understand the reasons why that’s appealing and reassuring for young readers. But it just wasn’t me. For better and for worse, I kept trying to mix things up.

* Mila mentions to Jigsaw that she’s practicing for a piano recital. Her song will be “The Maple Leaf Rag.” This comes from my son, Gavin, who also played that song in a recital.

* Grams and Billy are left behind to “mind the fort.” This expression, used by Mr. Jones, was something my father commonly said. I love his old verbal habits, the phrases he often used, and I try to keep them alive as best as I can — more than ever now that he’s gone. It’s a way of keeping that connection alive. I hear those phrases and think of Dad, all the more so when his words come out of my mouth.

* I once edited a book on snowboarding, written by Joe Layden. I learned a lot about the sport in the process, so it was comfortable territory for me to explore in the context of a Jigsaw Jones mystery.

In my story, a star snowboarder named Lance Mashman (love that name!) is at the lodge for an upcoming exhibition. However, someone steals his lucky bandanna — and with it, his confidence. While working on No Limits, I was impressed by many of the top female snowboarders, such as Shannon Dunn and Victoria Jealouse. They had a vitality and strength that inspired me, qualities I love to see in my own daughter. Also, they conveyed a refreshing take on competition, much different than you normally hear in the context of traditional athletics. So I invented the character of Tara Gianopolis, a rival to Lance, and a very cool young woman:

Illustration by Jamie Smith — crudely scanned.

“But you two compete against each other,” I said. “You are enemies . . . .”

Tara shook her head. “Man, you don’t know much about snowboarders, do you? This isn’t like football or basketball. We’re athletes, but we’re just trying to be the best we can be. It’s about nailing a backside rodeo or pulling off a perfect McTwist. It’s not about winning medals or beating people. It’s about freedom and creativity.”

“So you don’t care if you win?” I asked.

“I care, I guess,” Tara said with a shrug. “But as long as I ride well, I’m okay with whatever happens.”

* One of the suspects turns out to be Lance’s manager, Bubba Barbo, named in honor of my former editor, Maria Barbo. Once again, that’s a great aspect of writing mysteries. The genre forces the detective out into the world, this moral compass encountering life, making observations, going places, meeting new people all the time. As a series writer, that holds tremendous appeal — new characters in every book. Here’s a snippet from a conversation between Jigsaw and Bubba:

“It sounds like you think Lance is annoying,” I commented.

Bubba growled. “I don’t think he’s annoying. Lance is annoying. He’s always late. He drives me up a wall and across the ceiling.”

“You don’t like him?” I asked.

Bubba made a face. “Whaddaya, kidding? I love the kid,” he said. “Lance has talent. He’s a genius on a snowboard. A great athlete. And besides that, Lance has heart. He’s good people. You know what I’m saying?”

Yes, I knew what Bubba was saying. “I heard that he fired you this morning,” I said.

Bubba stepped back, surprised. Then he laughed out loud. “Lance fires me every week and twice on Sunday,” Bubba claimed. “It doesn’t mean anything. We’re a team.”

For fun, here’s a clip of Victoria Jealouse (and others) in action:

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Click below for other posts in this series. Some day I’ll get around to every book:

Jigsaw Jones #7: The Case of the Runaway Dog

Jigsaw Jones #15: The Case of the Haunted Scarecrow

Jigsaw Jones #16: The Case of the Sneaker Sneak

Jigsaw Jones #28: The Case of the Food Fight

Jigsaw Jones #10: The Case of the Ghostwriter