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.
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!