Archive for Bystander

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #312: Follow-Up Questions After a Zoom Visit

Ye Olde Fan Mail Wednesday has been quiet of late for an assortment of reasons, including summer — all exaggerated by Covid. This past week I thoroughly enjoyed a  Zoom visit with 6th-graders who all read Bystander over the summer. The class was impressive, prepared, and focused. A pleasure all around. At the end of the visit, we still hadn’t gotten to all the questions. I agreed to answer the remaining questions via email. 

Here are the questions . . .

Good morning! I hope you had a great weekend. Here are some follow up questions from my students. Thank you again!

1. After Upstander, will you consider making a trequal?
2. Do you see yourself in any of the characters and why?

3. Is there anything you would want to change about the book? 

4. Do any of the characters/events relate to an event/thing that happened to you/others.
-aa
5. Do you get unmotivated when writing books? If so, how do you get motivated again.? 
6. When Griffin and David were talking in the book, were they able to connect because of any similar or shared experiences?
Thank you so much.
Alex

I replied . . .

I want to begin by thanking you for that Zoom visit the other day. I don’t often get the opportunity to do a deep dive on my books, and it’s a pleasure to talk thoughtfully about the art & craft & intentions that go into a work of fiction. 
We ran out of time and you still had a few questions. Let’s do this.
Would I consider writing another sequel to Bystander? Yes, if the market was there —- meaning if my publisher believed it was worth putting out, i.e., that they’d make money doing so. With Upstander, I began by thinking of it not as a “longer” story, but as a “larger” one. A bigger canvas. Everyone has stories. By focusing on Mary’s story, it gave me a glimpse into how to enlarge the canvas even further to accommodate future narratives. If there’s another book in the world of this middle school, I think it should be about Griffin. Honestly, I think Upstander has to sell enough to encourage my publisher, Macmillan, to keep going with it. I don’t control that stuff, I can only put it out into the universe and hope that readers will find my books in a crowded, cluttered world. 
Do I see myself in any of the characters? Well, yeah, sure. The writer Eudora Welty had a good line about this. She said, “In fiction, while we do not necessarily write about ourselves, we write out of ourselves, using ourselves.; what we learn from, what we are sensitive to, what we feel strongly about —- these become our characters and go to make our plots.” I really couldn’t say it better than that. There’s a part of me in every character, each one grew out of me. But as I’ve developed as a writer, across many years, I’ve learned to give those characters the space to be Not-Me, Not-Jimmy, and become their own fictional selves.
Would I like to change anything about the book? No, not really. Which is not to suggest that I think it’s flawless. Far from it. But I’ve learned to let it go, allow it to exist as it exists, and move forward. I don’t linger and look back too often. I did like how with Upstander I was able to add a new wrinkle to the ending, Eric’s wish for his father in the stands. While his exact wish doesn’t come true (at least so far, in the written record), now there is at least someone there for him, cheering. It pleases me when the two books “talk” to each other.
Do events/characters relate to specific events in my life? Yes and no. I mean, yes, of course, it all grows from my life experiences. For example: I was once mugged in NYC and when the thieves handed back my wallet —- sans money, of course —- I actually said, “Thank you.” What a well-mannered dope! I took that emotion and gave it to Eric on the basketball court, when Griffin returned his ball. But, again, this is important: readers seem to want to be able to trace these direct lines from real life to fiction. But I think when you are fully successful with a fictional story, those sources become obscured, more hidden, the lines disappear, and the characters operate fully in their own fictional world. 
Do I get unmotivated? Oh, yes, it’s a recurring problem. Sometime the problem is the idea, that I’m not ready to write it, or that my idea lacks layers, depth: something, in short, is missing. Another problem for me is audience. That nagging doubt that no one really cares whether I write another book or not. And I guess the answer to that is . . . so what. I’ll do it anyway. I’ll create something for the sake of the story, for the satisfaction of making something and putting it out into the world. Something that nobody else in the world could make. Would I love to be super popular, the worth breathless in anticipation for my next book? I think so, yeah. But in the absence of that, somehow I still have to keep going, keep writing. Write the poem, paint the picture, sing the song. There’s joy there, and happiness, and personal fulfillment —- regardless of audience or “acclaim” or awards or any outside approval. I find that to write requires a gathering of energy, enthusiasm. When that’s not there, the writing doesn’t go well. Sadly, I don’t know how to bottle it.
Regarding David and Griffin, that’s an interesting question. How were they able to connect? To be honest, I don’t think that I examined their relationship that deeply. To me, I saw it as Griffin, the manipulator, using David for his own purposes. David was a puppet on strings. As to why David allowed this to happen, I think it goes back to his desperate longing to fit in, for approval at almost any cost. That’s a dangerous place to be, the quality that made him vulnerable. And because Griffin is such a smart, perceptive guy, he recognized that vulnerability in David and used it.
Ah, I think that covers it. I just wrote almost a thousand words to you guys. You are probably sleeping already! Forgive me, I realize that I replied with a high-level of sophistication. I’d probably answer much in the same way to college freshman. I figure you are smart and should be treated that way. Have a good school year — and if any of you read Upstander, please feel free to write and let me know. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.
My best, 
James Preller
For Zoom visits,
educators and reading groups
may contact me directly
at Jamespreller@aol.com.
-NOT

LISTEN NOW: Check Out My Interview on Spotify & All Your Wildest Dreams Will Come True!

Bob Nuse and Anna Van Scoyoc are librarians in the Mercer Country Library System. Which I believe is somewhere in deepest, darkest New Jersey.

I first encountered Bob in the early months of the pandemic. At the time, many of us in the children’s book world were trying to figure out how to proceed, how to connect, how to keep the book thing alive — and, yes, how to contribute something positive to this awful situation. I made a bunch of videos and created a Youtube channel. Bob began by enlisting authors to make short videos for their locked-out library patrons. That initiative eventually grew into a podcast, “Behind the Books,” which is extremely well done and  incredibly impressive.

I hope that other librarians take note of the possibilities (and contact me if you need a guinea pig).

When Bob invited me to talk about my new book, Upstander, a prequel/sequel to Bystander, I didn’t hesitate. After all, I have a face for podcasting. I hope you give it a listen. I’m on at about 14:30, so you can skip that other stuff and jump to yours truly. It’s a ten-minute conversation. We also talk a bit about my book of linked haiku, All Welcome Here

I’m usually somebody who can’t stand to look at or hear myself — I was on “The Today Show” once with Katie Couric, long ago, and I’ve never watched it. But here, thanks to Anna’s expert editing, deleting all my stammering, fumbling mutterings, I come off as sober and reasonably intelligent. I can live with that!

I assume you might need to open Spotify in order to listen. Not sure about that. Thanks again, Bob and Anna, I’m grateful for the work you do.

Chapter 5, UPSTANDER: An Excerpt

It’s not a simple thing, selecting the right excerpt to share. So many factors to consider. The selection can’t be from too late in the book, too riddled with spoilers. But you don’t want the isolated excerpt to mislead the reader into thinking, Oh, so that’s what the book is about! Because, obviously, it’s about so much more. This is but one chapter out of thirty-eight.

When reading aloud to large groups, I tend to go with two options: 1) Something funny, or 2) Something dramaticI think curious fans of Bystander might particularly enjoy Chapter 11, which details the origins of Griffin and Mary’s relationship. But I didn’t go with that here. Instead, we’re early in the book, a look into Mary’s home life. Is that the heart of the book, where our main character is more witness than participant? An innocent bystander watching the struggle between her brother and her mother? 

Sigh. Who knows.

Will six people even read this? Instead of “Who knows,” maybe I should have typed, “Who cares!”

The chapter below is just a taste of the writing, I guess, and some of the themes explored in the book. It’s a domestic scene, centered around a kitchen table. And that does feel right for many of my works of realistic fiction. I’m fascinated by closely observed moments that take place in families, the literature of the kitchen table.

It is summer, school is soon to begin, and Mary makes the mistake of entering her own home . . . 

 

5 [marshmallows]

Walking home, Mary resolved not to think about Griffin Connelly. That boy had jangled her nerves. We have a connection. Yeah, right. She looked forward to popping a marshmallow—or, okay, three— into her mouth. Not at the same time, of course. Eating marshmallows always helped bring her world into balance. Namaste, Mary thought, grinning to herself. She imagined a chubby marshmallow, with little stick arms and legs, doing yoga. Downward dog, maybe, or meditating. That might be funny to draw. Ohmmmm. If she could think of a clever caption, it might even be a cartoon: the mindful marshmallow.

Mary kept a secret stash of marshmallows in the back of her bottom dresser drawer. The big, extra-fat ones they sold at Stewart’s for s’mores. Marshmallows were Mary’s weakness. But, seriously, that wasn’t the best way to express it: a weakness. It’s not like Mary wolfed down an entire bag in one sitting. It wasn’t a problem; she wasn’t in a marshmallow crisis or any- thing. Mary knew that sugar was super bad for you— everyone saw the same videos in health class—but a couple a day wasn’t going to kill anybody.

Mary then made the strategic mistake of opening the front door. Home sweet home.

Her mother’s voice came from the kitchen, sharp and urgent, “Are you high right now? Just tell me.”

“Jesus, Mom, no!” Jonny shot back.

They were fighting again. It felt as if the air in the house was crowded with charged particles. Mary could sense the electrons and protons ricocheting off the furniture like steel balls from a shotgun. The muscles in her lower neck tensed and tightened.

“You’re lying—” her mother shouted.

“Hi! I’m home!” Mary called out in her sunniest voice. It was as much a plea as a greeting: I’m home; you can stop now, please. Mary heard the rattling of dishes in the sink, the scraping of a chair across the floor, but no greeting in response. She waited, slipped off her sandals. This is ridiculous, she decided. I’m in my own house. I live here.

“If you love me, you’ll stop.” It was her mother’s voice, raw with emotion.

“I told you. I’m not using,” Jonny retorted.

Mary stood at the entranceway to the kitchen. Her mother leaned against the counter, arms crossed, scowling. Jonny sat at the table, cereal floating in a bowl of milk. He wore an unbuttoned cardigan sweater. Yes, in August. The rules of this particular contest: no punching, no kicking, just words. Winner takes nothing. Jonny tapped a spoon in agitated rhythm on his right thigh. That was his giveaway. The way his eyes darted and his body vibrated with pent-up energy. The muscles of his jaw tightened from clenched teeth.

“Don’t come in here, May,” Jonny warned, not looking in her direction. “Mom’s acting like a crazy person again.”

There was a prickly edge to his voice, like razors strung across wire. His hair looked oily and uncombed. His pale skin appeared nearly translucent, except for the dark circles under his eyes. Mary thought, Don’t pretend I’m on your side. I’m not your ally, brother. I’m not on anyone’s side.

“I don’t even recognize you anymore,” her mother said. “This isn’t you, Jonny. It’s not you.”

“Oh, Jesus, here it comes,” Jonny muttered, the spoon rat-a-tat-tatting against his leg. He raked a hand through his hair.

Mary’s mother stepped toward her only son, palms open. “You’ve got to listen to me, Jonny. We can’t go on like this.”

Jonny flicked the spoon into the cereal bowl, splashing the milk. The spoon bounced and rattled to the floor, hitting his mother’s leg. “I’m trying to eat one bowl of cereal in this insane house,” he roared. “So freaking what? I slept late. Lots of people do. Besides, I have a stomachache. It hurts. I probably have an ulcer. Do you even care? Besides, what temperature do you keep it in here? I’m freezing!”

“It’s set at seventy-two degrees—”

“It’s too cold. I get the chills living here. It’s ridiculous, Mom. I’m nineteen years old. I party a little bit. A regular, normal amount. It’s one of the few things in the world that actually feels good. That’s my big federal crime, Ma? That I go out with my friends?”

“Your friends,” her mother scoffed. She brushed the thought away with a wave of her hand.

“Yeah, my friends.” Jonny rose to his feet, his movement sudden and alarming. “Real people who actually care about me.”

Mary stood paralyzed, watching it all. They had forgotten she was there. She had become invisible in her own kitchen.

Mary’s mother stepped back. She brought a hand to the side of her head, trying to collect her thoughts— or to keep them from exploding. With obvious effort, she adopted a softer voice. More soothing, calmer. “Jonny, please, listen to me. Please. You need help. I think you have a prob—”

“Oh no. No, no, no. I’m not going back to that place,” he said.

Her mother held out a hand, patting the air. “Okay, okay, just . . . sit . . . okay?”

“You can’t make me. I’d rather die than go back to Western Winds,” Jonny replied. He sat back down. Swiveled his head, stared coldly at his sister. “Good luck when I’m gone,” he said. “It’ll be just you, Mom, and the Garden Gnome in this demented house.”

The Garden Gnome was Jonny’s nickname for Ernesto, their mother’s boyfriend. Ernesto was short and paunchy, and he wore a scraggly, elfish beard. Not his fault, but those were the facts. Mary stifled a grin. She caught herself and flashed a time-out sign with her hands. “Stop,” she said. “Just stop.”

She crossed to the refrigerator. Grabbed two clementines, checked her phone, looked from her mother to Jonny. “I’ll be in my room,” she announced. “Headphones on.”

Fan Mail #311: A Class in Queens, NY, Reads BYSTANDER

 

As the school year winds down, I received a bunch of letters from a classroom in Forest Hills, Queens, NY. They all read Bystander. I don’t think it makes sense for me to share them all here, but I did write a group response that you can find below. But to give you a taste — and hopefully a laugh — I’ve included Daniella’s very kind note here. You can tell that she’s a writer, too. It’s pretty terrific . . . 

 

  Dear James Preller,

    Bystander is such an interesting book! Everything leading up to certain points, that was amazing! Some things were expected, and that’s okay because everything else was completely unexpected, and that is one of the amazing things about your book!
Everything happening in the book was completely necessary to the plot, and I just love that. It wasn’t all ‘He ate dinner and then went to his room and studied’. No, there was actual detail. And you only included things like that (of course, filled with detail) when it really mattered!
So if you get letters from people saying that they don’t like your books, just ignore them. They don’t know what they’re saying. Their opinions make as much sense as a thriving Penguin in the desert.
-Daniela B

 

I replied . . . 

Dear Mr. Lynn, Alex, Cameron, Leanna, Jason W, Abril, Sophia, Daniella, Raiya, and, whew (!), Cassandra:

Well, that was an entertaining bunch of letters, thank you all for sending them. And also for reading my book, Bystander. I appreciate that more than I can express.

I hope you don’t mind that my reply comes in the form of a group letter, rather than individual responses. I’m on a tight deadline right now for my next book —- getting slightly anxious about it, honestly —- so I thought this would be the most efficient approach. 

But first, hey, Forest Hills! My parents grew up in Queens and my favorite baseball team plays in Flushing. Rhymes with pets. 

Fun fact: Out on Hillside Avenue, there’s a number of Little League fields named after my grandfather, Fred Preller, who was a NY State Assemblyman for 22 years. The complex used to be called Preller Fields, but recently another politician glommed onto it, so now it’s called Padavan-Preller Fields in Bellerose (right off the Cross Island Parkway).

Anyway! 

Alex liked the suspense of the scene where Eric sneaks into Griffin’s house. There’s an expression, “Bad decisions make good stories.” I think that’s part of what’s going on in this scene. I’ve heard from some adults who were critical of Eric’s actions. And I’m like, “Hey, don’t blame me, he’s the one who did it!”

That’s too glib, of course. But when you write books, and invent hundreds of characters, you can’t possibly have them all do and say the “right” things all the time. That would be booooring and unrealistic. Also, yes, I sensed that it would be a pleasure to write —- a suspenseful scene that would get the reader leaning in. Nobody wants to read about perfect people who always do the right thing all the time. That’s a pro tip: Invent a character and have them make a poor decision. What happens next?

Sophia, Cassandra, Abril and Daniella all commented on my writing. For sure, that’s an ego thing for me, I confess, but I do love hearing that. I try very hard to write my best, with rich images and vibrant language. For Bystander, I was also intensely focused on delivering a fast-paced plot to keep readers turning the pages.

These days, I think my book Blood Mountain might be the best written one of all. A brother and sister (and their dog!) become lost in a mountain wilderness. It’s creepy in parts, suspenseful and tense —- a survival thriller! You might like it.

Jason dug the book’s “different vibes” —- I like that!

Daniella made my favorite comment of all: “So if you get letters from people saying that they don’t like your books, just ignore them. They don’t know what they’re saying.

Ha, ha, ha. Love that, Daniella!

Some of you, Raiya, and others, commented about possible sequels. It’s interesting to speculate on what happens to the characters after we close the book. I consider that a compliment, that somehow the character remains alive in (some) readers’ minds. The good news is that we just published Upstander, a prequel/sequel to Bystander that revisits many of that book’s characters in a new story focusing on Mary. It was named a 2021 Junior Library Guild Selection and I’m very excited about it. The book is so new (about 2 weeks) that I haven’t yet heard from one student who has read it. If you do read it, let me hear from you. Just zing me an email!

But please understand that I’ll be following Daniella’s advice. If you don’t like it, I’ll just think, “Well, they don’t know what they’re saying!”

More Preller Trivia: My son, Gavin, 21, just came out with a record. You can listen to it on Spotify, iTunes, Pandora, all those places. He records under his own name, Gavin Preller, and the album is called “There Is Wonder.”

My thanks to your teacher, Mr. Lynn, for sharing my book in his classroom.

Have a great summer. After this year, I think we all deserve it.

My best,

James Preller

An Author’s Guide to Simultaneously Reading BYSTANDER and UPSTANDER

After writing Upstander, a stand-alone prequel/sequel to Bystander, I had a vision. Wouldn’t it be cool, I thought, if my publisher printed them up as one book? Kind of shuffled them together into one big fat novel.

Would it even work?

I thought to myself, yeah, it just might. Both are in 3rd person, and the shifting perspectives should be familiar to any experienced reader.

But why wait on the vagaries of publishing? They’ll never do it anyway. But we can. Here’s one method for reading the books simultaneously (not that you have to). There’s some scene overlap, from different perspectives, which might be interesting or redundant, I don’t know.

.       

 

So if you are nutty enough to do this — and I hope that some of you are — here’s how I think it could work. Please let me know, Dear Nutty Reader, if you do it. Both books are also available on Audible, for you reading-with-my-ears people.

 

THE SIMULTANEOUS APPROACH

To Reading These Two Books Together

Upstander: Chapters 1-20

Bystander: Chapters 1-2

Upstander: 21

Bystander: 3-4

Upstander: 22-24

Bystander: 5-6

Upstander: 25

Bystander: 7-11

Upstander: 26-27

Bystander: 12-15

Upstander: 29-30

Bystander: 16

Upstander: 31

Bystander: 17-20

Upstander: 32

Bystander: 21

Upstander: 33

Bystander: 22

Upstander: 34

Bystander: 23-24

Upstander: 35-36

Bystander: 25-32

Upstander: 37

Bystander: 33-34

Upstander: 38

 

THE END!

 

Do you think there should be a 3rd book that focuses on Griffin? I guess that depends on if anyone reads Upstander. I promise it won’t take me 10 more years to write. 

Visual learners might be impressed by my fancy chart. I paid a design company 500 balloons for this bad boy. Worth it, right?