Saturday, October 30, 2010

Andrew Smith: In His Words

As a student in Western Connecticut State University's MFA in Creative and Professional Writing program, I have been afforded numerous opportunities the average pretend writer of the street doesn't get. One of these has been the opportunity to discuss writing with some amazing published writers. One of those writers, Karen Romano Young, who suggested this blog topic to me and is currently my mentor as I try to find my place in today's literary market, put me in touch with another such writer--Andrew Smith.

Through my connection with Andrew, I've been able to get my hands on and review The Marbury Lens in advance of its release, and have now even had the opportunity to interview the man, the myth, and the legend on life since returning from Marbury, writing, the YA market, and a bunch of other stuff and junk. So without further adieu, here is my interview with Andrew Smith, author of Ghost Medicine, In the Path of Falling Objects, and the forthcoming The Marbury Lens.

I know you've said that you didn't set out to be a young adult author. What do you think it is about your writing that made the powers that be classify it as YA?
To be honest, I wrote my first novel, Ghost Medicine, on a kind of a dare from a lifelong friend who is the published author of something like 20 nonfiction books. Although I had written numerous novel-length manuscripts in the past, I never thought about publication until I was challenged into it. So, when I wrote Ghost Medicine, which was a story I'd been thinking about for quite some time, I didn't think about genre or audience at all -- I just thought about writing a book that I would pick up and read if I saw it in a bookstore. When I finished the book and started thinking about finding an agent, I asked my friend to look over initial drafts of a query letter, and she said something like, "Oh... this sounds like YA. Be sure you query agents who represent YA."

Though you may not have gone into Ghost Medicine thinking YA, by the time you sat down to write The Marbury Lens, had that changed at all?
Well... yes and no. I had a multi-book contract with my publisher, and the books were already written and submitted. I was going through a time when I felt like I really needed to tell this story, so I sat down and began writing it. Without going into too many details, I will say that there are elements of The Marbury Lens that are intensely personal -- demons I felt it was time to exorcise.

I never thought anyone would ever pick this thing up as YA. In fact, I never set out thinking about publishing it at all -- it was more like a therapy trip for me. I mean... come on! This can't be YA, can it? Anyway, during the writing process, my editor, out of curiosity, asked me to tell her about what I was working on. So we spoke over the phone, and I told her this story -- The Marbury Lens. She wanted to see it right away.

I wasn't finished writing it at the time. I think I sent her about 150 pages initially, and I was certain she was going to say something like "What the fuck is this?" But, like I said, I didn't want to get it published, anyway, and we have a relationship, I think, that runs a bit deeper than just an editor/writer relationship, so I wasn't afraid of exposing my inner haunts to her.

Basically, she said give me this now. So I finished the book and gave it to her. Then I dedicated it to her. Nobody else would have ever gotten that thing out of me. I am terrified about it being published, too. I cringe every time somebody else reads it. I hate talking specifically about it. I sometimes think the book is trying to kill me.

How much thought, if any, do you give to your audience as you write?
I think about my audience constantly. It is an audience of one, and he is a picky snob when it comes to reading. He is not at all impressed by cookie-cutter novels and has absolutely no time or patience for things that are trendy.

Do you think that being a teacher influences your writing in any way? Do you have your students in mind to any extent while you're writing?
If you're going to have a day job, being a teacher is probably the best day job -- on so many levels -- for a writer. You get to hear so many stories every day, you stay in touch with the ways people actually say things, and there's gobs of time to write all year round. As far as having my students in mind when writing, I'd have to say no to that.

There is some "edgy" content in The Marbury Lens, including graphic, gory violence and a near sexual assault. Do you think this will increase it's appeal to young adults or make it harder for them to get hold of?
The "edgy" elements in The Marbury Lens weren't included to attract readership. If that were the case, they would be -- by definition -- gratuitous. I had a real struggle when writing the book about how far was too far, so I asked advice from a number of people, including teens, bloggers, teachers, librarians, authors, and booksellers. I wanted to know what other people thought about the inclusion of sex, violence, and swearing in a novel that is principally about teenagers. All of the advice I got made me feel a little better... that I wasn't committing some vast moral transgression by writing what I believe was honest prose.

I also thank all those people in the acknowledgments section of the book (and I happen to be blogging about that this week, too).

As for Freddy's assault toward Jack, did you ever consider going  all the way and having Freddy complete the act? Why did you not have the full act occur?
The human eye has a blind spot in it. The brain automatically corrects for this and fills in the missing pieces. I leave blind spots in my writing. For some people, these ambiguities are frustrating. Others are engaged by them. I do this intentionally, and it is not a mistake. How do you know Freddie didn't -- as you say -- complete the act? Because of Jack's denial of it? Do you think Jack would tell? Even his best friend? Why do you think so many of these kids who were victimized by priests never came forward for decades? Do you think there was some kind of hysteria or falsely contrived memory?

On the other hand, assuming your interpretation -- that the sexual nature of Freddie's assault (because it was a sexual assault, no matter how far he took it) stopped before a certain point -- does the limit of his violation in any way contribute to a lessening of the consequence to Jack, and ultimately to Freddie? These are just things that I wonder about, as a writer -- specifically what you say by NOT explaining something. Like the beginning of The Stranger by Camus. People have been arguing for decades what's going on there. Hopefully, people will be theorizing for a long time about Jack and Seth, about Jack's becoming a "monster," and about what he really does to those boys in the last sentences of The Marbury Lens.

The three novels seem not only different in subject matter, but almost completely different genres (especially Marbury which has a sci-fi side to it). Why do you think some authors are so attached to one genre, while you seem to move easily between different ones?
I don't know about the "move easily" part. I recently whined to my editor that it feels like I've been stuck in Marbury for the past 2 years. Thankfully, the next novel, STICK, is a postmodern thing with some experimental structuring in the narrative. So... different again.

Why do I think some authors are so attached to one particular genre? Well... the not-so-diplomatic answer is because they just keep telling the same story over and over. They just change the names and places. It's very easy, and it's low-risk, especially if you find some financial success and have bills to pay, so you look at what you produce as being little more than another day at the job. I know that might not be a very nice thing to say, but you asked what do I think. Just because I think it doesn't make it right or true. But I don't read books by authors who do that shit.

What was your experience like dealing with agents, publishing companies, and editors when working on The Marbury Lens? Did you have any struggles dealing with the racier issues, the switch to a sci-fi style novel, and the overall uniqueness of the plot and setting(s)?
Surprisingly, no. But nobody so much as whispered or hinted that I take out any of the sexual content or descriptions (Jack and Nickie have sex in the second half of the book, and it's pretty graphic), and I thought they were certainly going to ask me to reduce my f-bomb count, but they never went there, either. It amazes me what that number (the f-bomb count) turned out to be, because I don't notice them so much. But, trust me, there's a lot of fucking f-bombs in the book.

If you were Jack and Connor, would you be able to resist going back to Marbury?
Of course I would go back. How could I stop myself. I go back every night when I'm lying in bed, trying to go to sleep. That's what the book is really all about. It's not about putting on glasses and going into an alternate universe, it's about not being able to let go of things, revisiting the things that fucked you up, wondering about how things might be if you were born someone else, and all those issues are wrapped up nicely inside a thick coating of self-doubt, teenage rage about being ignored, the adolescent wondering about sexuality, if you're normal, being afraid of connecting with someone and exposing your vulnerabilities. Yeah... welcome to Marbury, Jack. And fuck you, too.

What are your feelings on the debate between teaching young adult to students and the importance of teaching them the literary canon?
Today's literary canon is more like a water pistol. So many of the good books have been replaced. But more significant than that is the idea that kids are no longer developed and encouraged through their adolescence to keep alive the love of reading that they had when they first began to read the simplest words. Kids love to read, and they will always love to read when they have choices presented to them by a knowledgeable and capable guide. Parents don't do this so much any more. I'm not bagging on parents, though. I can't even begin to tell you how many teachers tell me they "hate" to read, not to mention how many English teachers have never read anything that wasn't forced onto them by some institution or state agency.

Thanks so much to Andrew for his kindness and candid answers. Get yourself a copy of The Marbury Lens as soon as you can.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Marbury Lens

I can't tell you how long it's been since I picked up a book that I couldn't put down. You know the kind. The kind where you finish what you planned to read at 11, but you just have to keep going, so four chapters later it's 12:30, and your next day is shot. Well, actually I can tell you. It was, like, a couple days ago. And it's called The Marbury Lens.

I was lucky enough to get my hands on a advanced reader copy of Andrew Smith's latest effort (thanks Andrew), and found myself unable to put it down until the very last line. The story differs a bit from Smith's past novels (Ghost Medicine, In the Path of Falling Objects) with a bit of a science fiction twist.

I've tried writing a plot summary a number of times, but no matter how hard I try, I can't do it without giving away something I wouldn't want to know as a reader. So, we'll just say that Jack finds a portal to another world, with another Jack, and can live in both worlds. Though Marbury is no Eden--imagine a white desert wasteland with no food, water, or clothing where "devils" hunt people just to do so, and the carnage is devoured by dog-sized, roach-like "harvesters." Um, and lots of people are dead, so there's mad, crazy ghosts, yo.  WTF!

As horrid as Marbury is, Jack can't keep himself from going back. Could you? I think the best thing about the novel is how each situation just begs for you to consider what you would do in the same situation. If you had this magic in your pocket, could you keep yourself from using it? I mean, interdimensional travel is pretty badass, n'est pas? I'd be there, no matter who cracked out the other dimension is.

The story is dark and brings you to places you probably don't want to go inside your own mind and heart, but ignoring those places and pretending the world is a safe and happy place isn't good for you either. In the end, Marbury, and Jack's battle within himself as he tries to stay away and preserve his relationships and sanity, become more than a literary metaphor. They become a metaphor for what's going on inside you as you read the book and deal with your own demons. Reading Marbury isn't just an adventure, it's a personal emotional journey for the reader. Smith forces you to deal with your own "devils" before you're engulfed by the harvesters in your own life. It's an experience, but not one for the faint of heart.

The prose is just as melodic and poetic as Smith's previous works, so if you're put off by sci-fi, don't be scared away from this novel. It's about as realistic as apocalyptic, interdimensional travel can be. The short paragraphs, short chapters, and rhythmic pacing make the 350+ pages go by quickly, and the carefully unraveled mystery will have you turning the pages at record pace.

But perhaps the strongest facet of the novel is Smith's ability to make the reader feel the same jones for Marbury as Jack, while giving that same reader enough to look forward to in our world to keep it interesting when not in Marbury. The ultra-interesting, sexy, and lovable Nickie (she's also British--how cute) and the relationship with his best friend Connor make for an interesting narrative grounded in what we see as reality, while the adventure and action in Marbury keep pulling us back. In the end, I was left sad I'd never see Marbury again, as grotesque a place as it is, because I was done with the book.

Now, I have to give you fair warning. If you're one of those beach-reader types that like everything clear cut with a nice little bow on top, you're looking in the wrong place. There's enough ambiguity to drive some mad, while others will revel in Smith's gift--letting us figure things out for ourselves. This is a smart read as much as it is a fun one.

The Marbury Lens is YA, but will hook teens and adults alike. While the violence and action can be graphic, and there's enough cursing and sex to turn off prudes, it's nothing teens haven't heard or seen before on the old boob tube. All in all, I liken it to a complex, dark concept album by a raunchy rock band, so if you like to think and explore the demons alive and well in our own dimension, in your own life, The Marbury Lens is for you. I'm not saying it's life changing, but it's a start.

The Marbury Lens is out November 9th from Feiwel and Friends Book, an imprint of Macmillan. Visit Andrew Smith's blog at

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Who Am I?

When I finished my first manuscript for Scout's Honor, which is now in the hands of two agents, I cried. Not because I just finished a novel. Not because I wrote a book. But because the story and the ending made me cry. It was at that moment that I was absolutely sure I'd written a literary masterpiece for the ages. But I was also absolutely sure that it was poorly written, lacked believability, and had to be absolutely the biggest floppy turd of a book ever written. Could it even be called a book?

In that vulnerable state, I was told that I should market it as YA. It was about teens. I hoped teens would read it. In fact, my students were part of the reason I wrote about a teen in the first place. Perfect. YA is all that's selling. I'm YA, fo shizza!

Then, while shopping the manuscript to an agent, I was further told that the market is really open for young, male voices in edgy YA. Publishers are searching for stuff for guys to read. The YA market is saturated with girly stuff and edgy is in. YA needed to toughen up. Kick some ass. And, furthermore, publishers are looking for "regular" writers writing about teens to sell as YA, not YA writers writing what they think teens want to read. Teens want to read about themselves and their issues, but want the hard edge and complexity of adult writing. This I heard, this I thought sounded amazing, and this I latched onto. I became William C. Friskey, edgy YA writer.

I'm now a semi-finalist (top 10 out of "hundred") in a Red Room short fiction contest for a story about a fifth grader dealing with love and loss with a historical tinge. It's certainly not YA. But I bet young adults would enjoy it. In fact, the actual young adult I know that read it really loved it. Of course she really loved Scout's Honor, too, which I'm peddling as YA.

At the summer residency for my MFA program at Western Connecticut State University, I finished second in a flash fiction slam. The judges all made it a point to talk to me after and tell me how much they enjoyed the story. Was it YA? Not at all. It was a somewhat dirty humor piece about internet lust and clueless maleness. But you know what? Teens would love it. Their parents and schools might not like that they love it, but they would.

I'm currently working on a twisted, dark, supernatural and sexy tale that I think teens would love. But it's content is so taboo and some of the sex so graphic that in a workshop at that same residency I was told that it was definitely not YA. But I know that teens would like it. And I think of it as really edgy, trendsetting YA. But I'm usually wrong about everything, so who knows?

So, what the heck am I doing with my life. All my future ideas involve teens except a couple. So am I a YA writer? What the hell am I? What should I do? Why am I getting so old? And, more importantly, why do I care?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Fix Me

I am broken.

Not in the "I-am-giving-in-because-my-will-is-broken-and-I've-given-up-on-humanity-so-you-can-now-brainwash-me-with-your-sugary-morning-cereals-and-Lexus-commercials" kind of way. Far from it. You won't get me that easy. I'm just defective. A product of faulty wiring.

See, I'm incapable of being offended. I'm lacking the gene. It's like my metaphorical gag reflex was not installed in me at birth (or whenever the hell your gag reflex develops). None of the words on George Carlin's list make me blush. Not even a bit. I listen to Slipknot, a band with lyrics such as "I wanna slit your throat and fuck the wound" and Murderdolls, a band that cheers "Murder to the left/Murder to the right/Hello/Goodbye/Die, Die, Die!" to a catchy punk/pop guitar hook and orders "Bow down and bleed for me!"

Not offended.

I get the tongue and cheek hilarity of it all. I sing along in the car with the sunroof open like it's Katy Perry lamenting about the trials of being a California Girl.

Sex jokes? Funny. Racist jokes? Well, not funny but not offended. It just gives me fodder to make fun of the racist. Go ahead. Make fun of me. Think of a way. I just don't care. Try me.

I don't know what's wrong with me. Perhaps some emotional scaring from childhood has given me this psychological defense mechanism. Throw all the naughty words at me. Give me "fuck, shit, pussy, dick, cunt, cock, clit."

Whatever. Not offended.

What about crazy, sexually disgusting things out there in fetish land? Look them up: "blumpkin, donkey punch, dirty Sanchez."

It's all good. Not offended. Laughing, actually.

South Park? Mild. Family Guy? Tame. Faces of Death? Now that's entertainment! See. Nothing. Jam all the profanity, sexuality, and down right dark and twisted perversion down my throat you want, not even a little choke. Nada!

So it baffles me. Blows my mind. Totally fucks my shit up when people get offended by books. I was reading Doing It by Melvin Burgess, a cheeky chap to say the least, waiting for the offensive, disgustingly revolting sexual rampage that I'd been promised by several online warnings about the book's content. Where is it? It fades to black more often than a 2-10 boxer. Sure it says dirty words leading up to the super-sexy, and maybe being turned on by sex between a cougar teacher and dumb kid should make me feel bad about myself, but the actual deed isn't really described. No biggie. Even if it was, I wouldn't mind so much. And it's even written in British!

Then I thought about what would happen if I sent a copy home with a class full of high school freshman. The fallout would be immeasurable. If I had another job lined up, it would make for a fun social experiment. I wonder what it is that makes some so ultra-sensitive and others so ultra-numb (or cool as I like to see it). Did I not mature properly? Or do I possess some wisdom the average Joe on the street can't even understand since it's just so fucking amazingly profound and someday I'll be hailed as a prophet or something and statues of me milking cows in a girdle will be built from sea to shining sea and in amber waves of grain?

Or maybe I'm just broken.

Fix me, please? Thank you.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

What Do You Want From Me?

As a self-proclaimed YA writer, though I converted, I've been driving myself crazy trying to find out what the hell YA is, what are the criteria, and do I fit them. What I've figured out so far, through reading just a few titles on both sides of the divider, is that YA is simply stuff and junk that teens would like to read.

Sounds impossible, right? How the hell do I know what the little ankle-biters want? I'm pretty sure they don't even know what they want half the time. Well, it turns out in four years of teaching, and countless years in retail bossing the little whipper-snappers around, I have a pretty good feel for what they like.

Since they seem to be incurably negative,* it's probably easier to talk about what the don't like. What they don't like is stereotypical teens. What they don't like is being portrayed as only caring about their cell phones and their iPods. What they don't like is having to stop every five seconds because they don't know a word or to re-read a passage because the sentences are a page long and wind around themselves twelve times over. In short, they don't like pretentiousness.

I know they do like funny. They like to laugh. Not pretentious, complex humor that we all know isn't really funny, but we laugh at it anyway so we don't look like the beer drinker among wine aficionados. Sure, you may say, "they just like immature potty humor and curses!" Well, potty humor and curses are fucking funny.

They also like when teens talk like teens. This goes back to pretentiousness. They don't like some teen rambling on like Edgar Allan Poe or F. Scott Fitzgerald or a seventeen year-old saying things like, "I'm not quite sure" or "You don't say." They just want to punch him in his fucking mouth. To tell you the truth, so do I.

They do like sex. They do like drugs. They do like edgy content, but to tell you the truth, so do adults. Compare plots. Which do you want to read? Drug dealing pimp falls in love with his drug addicted cutter of a prostitute or Johnny gets a new iPod for Christmas and thanks Mom and Dad with a big hug. They cry. Unless the crying has to do with the abuse Mom and Dad bestowed upon Johnny when he was younger and Mom is addicted to meth and Dad wears women's underwear to work, who gives a fuck?

I bet you like sex, don't you?

Now that you mention it, I don't think adults like pretentiousness much either. I think the average reader out there doesn't want to get on the plane with a paperback novel and Webster's latest tome. In fact, they'd probably have a kindle and dialed up on their laptop, but either way, it's a big inconvenience. Can't we have thought-provoking reading that doesn't involved talking in knots?

Therefore, it is my contention that YA literature is literature that human beings would like to read, rather than literature that human beings force themselves to read. Maybe all that's not YA us big boys and girls have just been forcing ourselves to swallow like all those vitamins and colon-cleansing bio-whatevers** they've been trying to sell us. Maybe we could all learn from teens.

Who knows?

*I know not all teens are negative. I know one in particular that is always keeping me from being negative and shedding the positive light on me and all that stuff. I'm just sayin'.

**Listen people. If a dude goes on TV and tells you to buy a pill from him, take it, and then examine your own feces so you can see all the black, disgusting sludge that now comes out because it is "cleansing" all the gunk that's built up in your shit track or whatever, and you don't realize that the pill is just causing your shit to turn into black, disgusting sludge instead of the cute little loafs you're used to pinching, you deserve to have black, disgusting sludge pouring form your asshole 24/7. K? K.