Archive for May, 2011

Monkey Brain Flinch?

Hard to know when to say when.  In this case, I have a hundred and thirty things to do and have fallen down due to some kind of crazy New York-based lung incapacitation that has limited my energy to one hour bursts.  When to say stop?  I’m talking about coffee, which makes me feel great for about ten minutes.  After that, my monkey thoughts take off in two-hundred directions but I can’t get the body to move.  I think this whole problem is related to some recent trauma I suffered while at BEA last week…

Here’s what happened:

1) My phone was run over by a car a few weeks ago.

2) It stopped working entirely while I was in New York last week.

3) I bought a brand new, excellent looking iPhone.

4) I plugged the new iPhone into my computer and my hard drive freaked, screamed in pain and died.

5) I have a book manuscript due in one month, which I’d been working on, which I hadn’t backed up on that dead hard drive.

6) My lungs stopped working and I’m drinking coffee all day long with seriously diminishing returns (and total wild monkey brain).

Out of haze, giant hand pinches my head

Next week is a big week.  Literary Death Match on Sunday, big meeting I want to attend Tuesday, Book Launch at Red Balloon on Friday and, I have to re-write a few hundred manuscript pages.  Should I stop drinking coffee now so that I have a low enough caffeine tolerance next week so that my  coffee might have some kind of longer-than-ten-minute affect?

Now, I’m not entirely sure what I’m writing about.  This might be a monkey brain flinch.  Hello?

The Crazy Weeks Begin

Steph and I move into this log cabin, which we get on June 1st, although the other Mankato lease doesn’t run out until June 30, which is good, because I’m in New York for BEA with Class of 2k11 for the whole week, which doesn’t give a lot of time for packing and moving, even though Steph and I need to pack up that Dinkytown office and the other Minneapolis apartment and move that stuff into another apartment in  another part of Minneapolis (and some of the stuff has to go to the log cabin in Mankato, because that cabin is huge), which has nothing to do with Sam and I going over to Times Square and renting that Crown Vic to drive over to that library in Huntington on Long Island (nice library).  Yes, I said Crown Vic.

Steph is blurry in cabin because it is so big.

Sam is in the foreground in Midtown where we got our Crown Vic

So That Post-Pubescent Boys Shall Read!

Between the ages of twelve and fourteen, I read a lot.  Sure, I played some video games and watched a lot of TV, too (we didn’t have cable, so I stacked a couple of VCRs together and copied several movies that I watched a thousand times) but, I’d get bored, eventually, and I’d read.

At 17, I looked like this and still wanted to read.

By fourteen, I’d read through all the fantasy I could handle.  I’d torn through I am the Cheese and Separate Peace and The Chocolate Wars and dipped into Salinger beyond Catcher in the Rye, although I couldn’t really get it.  Then I plunged into Vonnegut, which was good, but… I slowed down a bit, got less interested — there were almost no contemporary books, starring boys, that spoke to my central, very specific, teenaged concerns, which were largely existential: who am I? What is my place in the world? What am I supposed to do? What the hell’s wrong with me, because I know something is seriously wrong?

In some ways, I was a pretty mainstream kid: I played sports.  I played in the orchestra (bad cellist).  I joined clubs, etc.  I looked good on paper.  But, at the same time, I didn’t feel normal.  I was paranoid.  My feelings were bruised a lot.  I had the sense that I didn’t understand the world.  I showered twice a day, but always felt dirty.  I always felt on the outside of something.  Unpleasant.  These weren’t terrible times, at all, but I often felt terrible.  I could’ve used a good book…

Oh! I was so alone…  Um, wrong, dork.

Having taught 18 and 19-year-olds for the last six years, I’ve come to the understanding that this generalized sense of somehow being unfit is the most generalizable aspect of teendom.  It does not matter what demographic the kid comes from.  What gender.  What clique or sub-group of that clique.  When my students write about high school, most write about themselves as feeling like dorks, being dorks, standing on the outside looking in.

These days, there are lots of titles geared for teen girls that speak to this outsiderness.  There are not many for boys.  Why?

It is commonly understood in the book business that boys stop reading around the age of twelve.  Boys read Harry Potter, but stop after that.  The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series is wildly popular among 10-year-olds, but then boys stop reading.  Is this true?

When I was growing up, there wasn’t really a YA market, yet.  The few books that were aimed at me, I read, and I loved, and I read again (Vision Quest, for instance).  I’d have read a thousand of these kinds of titles if they were available.  Now, there is a giant YA market, but there are still relatively few books that intend to speak directly to boys. Why?

Again, the conventional wisdom: boys stop reading at 12.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid directly addresses the dorkiness of growing up boy.  And, even as an adult, I totally get Diary of a Wimpy Kid, enjoy the humor, but that book is not for a sixteen-year-old.  The extensions of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid vibe into the YA market (where more serious conflict can be shown) are few and far between… why?

Boys stop reading at 12?

My son is a smart thirteen-year-old.  He devoured Harry Potter as a middle grade reader.  Around the same time, he devoured any number of MG fantasy series.  Then he went through puberty and his concerns changed.  He stopped reading.  We couldn’t figure out why.  As I’ve started writing YA, I’ve handed him titles I’ve come across I think he might like (I really can only dig up a handful of books — King Dork, Going Bovine, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, anything by John Green, plus a few more — that suit him).  When I give him one of these, he is happily through it in a day or two, loves the thing, has no where else to go, then goes back to not reading much.

He’s older than 12.

My son runs with a crew of kids that play sports, play music, film and edit really goofy, hilarious video, are obviously smart, and don’t read much even though they all read until they were 12.  Is it because they’re biologically/chemically incapable picking up books now that they’ve hit publerty?  I don’t think so.

This is problematic.

You can’t wade through a week of news without seeing something about the importance of reading to academic success in high school and college.  It’s maybe the key factor.  I see it everyday in classes.  I teach creative writing, and many of my female students have grown-up reading YA by the ton-load, and they are generally better at grammar and usage, more capable of critical thinking and representing that critical thought on the page, and better-prepared generally to succeed in school than the males are. The males have mostly only read the books they’ve been assigned in school.

Here’s the thing, though.  If I hand the males a funny short story, they absolutely light up. Eighteen-year-old males can love reading.  They do when the material makes sense to them.

I don’t believe boys hit puberty and become biologically/chemically incapable of reading.  I don’t think we have the books.

So, writing books for boys is my mission now, largely because I would’ve been an even bigger, lonelier, weenier mess as a teen without books.  They made me human.  I’d like other writers I know to give it a serious try, write about teenage boys and their foibles without idealized haircuts or reliance on stereotypes (remember, most teens feel like outsiders).  I’d like high school teachers and librarians to hand good YA titles to boys (as surely many do) instead of pushing them up to adult titles where they can lose momentum (they have the rest of their lives to read adult stuff if they like to read).  And, parents, you should look for good boy titles and get them for your kids.

No, the publishers will not pay for the revolution, because they can fill their lists with books for girls they know will sell.  It’s up to us to make the market.

If all goes well, eventually, a break-out title will come around.  Because we parents and teachers and librarians have supported boy books, there will be plenty more great titles available for the our post-pubescent teens to read (critical mass).  And, like Harry Potter did for MGs and Twilight did for YA girls, the whole market will catch fire and our boys will be as smart and ready for life as they should be!

That’s my hope.  I’ll think some more about it.

May Insomnia

Hi.  I’m very tired of being awake.  It’s been a long night of trying different positions in my bed (back, front, side, scissor, toothpick, half-gainer, Indian elephant, dead albatross, slo-mo cherry bomb, angry toe-tuck, violent wildcat, etc.).  According to sleep experts, one of these positions should work, because living things sleep.

Bed Soaked in Turpentine

Vincent van Gogh soaked his bed in a kind of turpentine that knocked him out, which he really liked.  Unfortunately, the camphor chewed up his brain, so he cut his ear off, etc. and so forth.

I’ve done more sleep research. Several hours ago, for instance, I read that Groucho Marx could never sleep, and he’d get lonely in the middle of the dark night, and then he’d make crank phone calls. That reminded me of the Jerky Boys, you know, these crank callers, who achieved a modicum of fame years ago?  They made me almost die laughing when I was a young person, back in  the day when I could sleep like a baby, because I was a baby.

I looked the Jerky Boys up on the internet and — this is not a surprise — found them and most of their old stuff on youtube.  I didn’t remember the swearing and other offense that surely made The Jerky Boys exciting and dangerous to me back when I could sleep.

Upon listening again, I didn’t find them very funny, at first.  But I had time on my hands, so I kept listening.  Soon, I couldn’t breathe,

Earth Rise

because I was in stitches or I need stitches some place, because, now I think I have a hernia from laughing very hard in my bed.  It hurts. Is it funny or  am I going crazy like van Gogh (without the talent and turpentine)?

Wait, no.  The Jerky Boys are funny and they teach a writing lesson.  That must be why I’m awake.  Oh yes.

Yes, they use a funny voice. Voice is important.  Yes, the crank call stranger danger raises the stakes (reality TV trick, of course) and that gets my business in a bundle.  Good situation.

But, here’s the real deal: what really makes it all work is the concrete image: crank call to roofing company where man explains, in part, that his own wife tried to fix the roof by slopping around hot stuff, but she didn’t know what she was doing, so the man threw her off the roof down to the  yard.  Funny.

Crank call to piano tuner because the man has rottweiler stuck in his piano.

A fashion model describes his runway routine: soaks himself in lamp oil (not just any oil) and then sets himself on fire (and beats dressed up monkeys and chipmunks).  Specific images.

Who knows?  Is this a lesson?  Is that sun?

The Birds Are Chirping.  Good morning.

Finally! Stupid Fast Book Launch…

STUPID FAST BOOK LAUNCH!

JUNE 10, 2011, 7-8:15ish

RED BALLOON BOOKSHOP

891 GRAND AVE. SAINT PAUL, MN

RSVP ON FACEBOOK, IF YOU’D LIKE OR…

SIMPLY SHOW UP OR…

SEND ME YOUR ADDRESS AND WE’LL SEND YOU A REALLY NICE-LOOKING MAIL INVITE! (EMAIL ME FROM THE CONTACT PAGE).

SO, LISTEN…

I really like reading out loud.  Back in the day, I liked reading stories in bars, a lot.  I don’t do that much, now, because I’m writing books aimed at teenagers.  I’m really writing for teenage boys, because books were so important to me when I was a teenage boy.  People really need to keep writing for teenage boys, even if the publishing world can’t afford to market much at them (and, well, some in this world maybe dislike teenage boys, or, at the very least, think they’re somehow mentally disabled, which isn’t true).  Soo…

Back to it.  I really like reading out loud and I don’t do it as much as I used to and so, on June 10th, at 7pm, I’m going to read Stupid Fast out loud, very loudly, and I can’t wait.  Then I’m going to eat some cake.

Why are the stakes so high?  Why will I read so loudly?  I’m actually not a teenager, and Recorded Books, who is producing the audio book for Stupid Fast didn’t ask me to perform it, which makes very good sense, since I’m fairly old, but, so, I really want to prove I can read this sucker and read it great.

All of this to say: If you come to Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul, MN on June 10 at 7pm, I will read my buttocks off for you.  Do you know how much I miss you?  I’d really like to see you.  And, if that’s not enough, there will also be delicious cake available, so you can eat cake, too. Go ahead and RSVP on Facebook.

Felton in Stupid Fast runs up this Big M.

Stick a carrot in me: a personal 20 year Ulysses anniversary

In the spring of 1991, I made a pretty serious decision: I joined the Ad Club at the University of Wisconsin — Madison.  I put on some deodorant.  Did some laundry and then attended a few meetings where they served crackers and Cokes.  In the second meeting, I broke out with a bunch of chuckling, sweet-smelling, copywriter wannabes.  We started working a campaign for American Airlines that would be used for some kind of kick-ass ad competition the following fall.  “Nothing But Blue Skies…”  We worked hard.  And drank Cokes.

Advertising.  Copy writing.  Stringing some words together.  Adding up to what?  Money, hopefully.

Before that spring, I’d been a lackadaisical English Major more interested in growing a Trotsky goatee, wearing combat boots, and smoking cigarettes while posed in a thoughtful posture (to look serious) than I was about reading 19th Century British Lit.  I liked English Major Girls very much, though.  They also smoked cigarettes and they were crazy and funny and unpredictable, which tripped my daring danger switches in a most excellent way.  They liked my combat boots.   And, I had taken a creative writing class, which I liked a bit (I actually thought I’d be a poet, because I could turn something superficially decent out in a few minutes, which made the English Girls like me even more — I did not have the attention span for even short short fiction).  “I am creative, sort of,” is what I thought.  I like smoking and sitting outside. After a few years, there was malaise, because, between girlfriends, I realized I wasn’t sure what I was doing with myself.  “Do I even like reading?” I wondered.

Over winter break Dad asked: “Are you really passionate about anything besides English Major Girls?”   I thought: watching televised baseball and football in my underpants, but didn’t say that.  I said, “Hmm… I don’t think I have a soul.”  He suggested I go into advertising.  “You do write some cute poetry,” he told me.  “That could be a useful skill.”

And, so, I tried.  And, the Advertising Girls smelled very different than the English Girls.  They were lotion-y and they wore shoulder pads and slippery stockings.  They were not unpredictable.  They bossed me around, which I sort of liked.  They pretty much hated all of my ideas.  But, they liked that I looked artsy-fartsy.  “I interned in Chicago last summer! All the creatives looked frumpy like you!  Well not quite as frumpy, but pretty frumpy!”  That was enough to make me feel I’d found my place (for a few minutes).  I considered asking several of the Advertising Girls out.  They all looked the same and smelled great and bossed me around.  Any one of them would’ve been fantastic on a binge drinking date.  I attended a few more meetings and laughed and laughed.  And felt good about myself and my prospects and about the girls and their shoulder pads.  And then I felt dizzy.  And then stopped washing my hair and my clothes and started drinking beer at noon.   Then I stopped leaving my apartment, because I couldn’t get out of bed.

Over spring break, Dad asked me if I wanted to interview for an advertising internship.  I said, “Mmmyeahhhmmm.”   He wondered if I needed a new wardrobe.  I said, “Ohhhhhhshhhitttballsss…”  He stared at me.  I stared back. Then he asked if I’d ever read Ulysses by James Joyce.  “What?” I asked.  “Your mother has a copy.  Go to the library and get a guide, though.  It’s too hard on its own. You should read it.” Dad seemed serious.

Back at home, I found this:

The family copy was beaten to crap. Both my parents had studied lit in college and both, it seemed, had read this book.  I turned open the first page, read the first section, got a chill, even though I barely understood what I was reading, then decided to drop most of my classes and smoke some more cigarettes.  I also played some Frisbee.

When summer came, though, I did go after Ulysses. I actually couldn’t stop thinking about it.  Between shifts carrying crappy furniture out of dirty houses for St. Vincent DePaul’s, I read a guide book and drew lines on a Dublin map to track where characters were, and spent hours on single pages of the book.  Some days I made headway.  Others I got gummed up and completely stuck and frustrated (and passed out under trees where I read).  Then I’d hit sections that flew and made me cry laughing and I’d read all night.  What I knew in the morning: I somehow deeply loved Leo Bloom.  I loved his wife, Molly, even though she made me ache.  I loved Stephen Dedalus like he was my family.

By the end of the summer, after I finally finished, after I totally fell apart reading Molly’s Yes Soliloquy, I still had no idea what I wanted to do with myself life-wise, but I knew something: the whole world is broader and deeper than I could imagine.

I went back and finished my English degree (and did far better).  I added a Sociology degree, because I felt like the world was even bigger.  Then twenty years passed.

On my good days, I’m still challenged by this book, challenged to see deeper into enormous tragedy and beauty in tiny lives and gestures.  On my good days, when I’m not murdering myself with Facebook and email and ESPN, I think: I can do a hell of a lot better.  I want to know a hell of a lot more.

This summer, a group of grad students and I are going to read Ulysses together.  We’re going to talk about the thing as we go.  We’re going to share annotated reference materials and maps.  My hope is that this twentieth anniversary read will deepen what it did for me when I was just another smelly dude in combat boots back in the day.  I am very ready to give in to it again.