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I’m not talking about people here (I’m 6’10”, so that would be self-loathing). I’m talking about businesses. Call it the Dilbert effect: as corporations grow bigger and bigger, their decision-making processes tend to become more short-term. Less strategic. Less innovative. Dumber.
Specifically, I’m talking about book publishers.
In a week that has seen the advancing merger of two of the industry’s hugest players, Penguin and Random House, it’s worth asking if this sort of gigantism is good or bad for the flow of good books. I think it’s actually, potentially, good — and not in spite of the dumbness. Because of it.
My favorite story about the notebooks I've used and filled, in my life as a writer, is about the time I asked the U.S. Customs agent to please open my carry-on bag. “I have to show somebody,” I said.
Two years earlier, I had left my job editing a weekly newspaper in New Jersey because I wanted to write books. To do my first one I had made my way down the Persian Gulf on an old steamship, up through Pakistan into its Northwest Frontier, then finally into the disputed region of Kashmir.
In our networked world we have tremendous capabilities for interacting — on a wide level, if not a deep one — that are new in our history and are reshaping our culture. Does this mean writers should be asking readers to help us create our books?
Discussing on school visits how a writer works, I often show off my little notebook. I’ll pull it from my pocket so kids can see. It’s a Moleskine, the old-fashioned kind, with no lines and no spiral binding. In the front I put ideas and observations, and in the back goes information: addresses, book titles, friends’ birthdays that I mean to remember but usually fail to.
In here, I’ll say, holding up the book, is generally where an idea, for a character or a detail or even a whole story, will first take root. And that’s true — or it can be, if I actually take the time to read through a notebook once it's full. Usually the little dog-eared things sit around gathering dust on my desk until I finally put them in the box in the closet with the others.
So today, if you don’t mind, I’d like to read through the one I filled most recently.
Because I write young-adult fiction, I’ve had a number of conversations with adults who’ve said, “Oh, I read YA novels all the time! They’re so much more fun to read” (or “better stories,” "less depressing," “more ... I don’t know ... meaningful?”) “than adult fiction these days.”
I’m not saying this happens all the time, but it happens. So this week, when I saw the headline “Young Adult Books Attract Growing Numbers of Adult Fans” on an online news article, I quickly pulled up that piece. And apparently, this phenomenon is fairly widespread.
As I took my walk in a light gray rain this morning, I got to thinking about a writer/artist and his books that became my friends, way back in some years of my life when I needed them.
As a confused kid in an alcoholic household (both my parents were pretty serious drinkers), I found refuge in Okefenokee Swamp. It wasn’t the real place, down on the border of Georgia and Florida, which I entered whenever I could; it was the brilliantly charactered, swamp-animal world created and sustained for 25 years by cartoonist Walt Kelly in his comic strip Pogo, and in nearly four dozen book-length Pogo collections.
It can seem these days like everyone who’s involved with books is saying the business is changing in bewildering ways. Will there even be books in five or ten years? Of course there will be — but will there be printed books, like we’re used to?
Well, of course there will be. Amid all this energetic flux, books still mean very important things to people. Reading is not going away; mainly, we're getting a new range of choices for how to access and take in the books we want to read.
I’ve got a young-adult novel in process that is set in northwestern Pakistan, in the frontier city Peshawar that has been a hotbed of Muslim extremism — and is also a fascinating, hospitable place where I spent time as a young writer, in the early 1980s.
My novel is set during that time, when Peshawar was headquarters for the rising international effort, regarded by many as a holy war, to push the Soviet Union’s invading army out of Afghanistan next door. That campaign gave birth to Al Qaeda, and had a huge impact on the spread of radical Islam and international terror. My book, which centers on four teenagers — an American boy, an Afghan boy who is a refugee in Peshawar, and a Pakistani brother and sister — is, I hope, a suspenseful story that will illuminate for young-adult readers the intense struggle of ideas and ideals that was building up in Peshawar at that time.
With an American embassy and consulate burning in the Muslim world this week, my project seems all the more important to carry through. I'm about to start revising the novel, with an eye toward publishing it a year from now — but will American teenagers be willing to read a story that’s set halfway around the world?
That's a question I’ve begun to answer, or try to, through a new social-media project that I started last week at www.Facebook.com/LongStrideBooks. As a writer of realistic fiction for young adults, I’ve always involved readers in my process — and Facebook gives me the chance to do this in a whole new way.
The great humorist James Thurber once wrote, about his friend and New Yorker office-mate E.B. White, who of course wrote Charlotte’s Web and decades of great stuff for the magazine, that White was (if I remember this right) “afflicted with a dizziness that resembles ordinary dizziness only as the mist resembles the rain.” Reading anything by either of those guys, you often have to stop and wish you could just once write as naturally and also as memorably as they did every week ... but what I’m trying to get at here is that for the past couple of days, I’ve been suppressed by a sort of flu that resembles an ordinary flu only as ... well. You get the idea. I don't know what the hell it is, but I've got it.
When I’m sick enough to finally lie down but okay enough to read, I go to the writers who tell good stories and whose work feels as if you’re flowing along listening to, spending time with, a great friend. I think the best writers may be the ones we want to read when we’re sick, because they lift us up — and what’s more worthy than that?
“See more glass,” said Sybil Carpenter, who was staying at the hotel with her mother. “Did you see more glass?”
“He watched them holding themselves with their noses into the current, many trout in deep, fast-moving water, slightly distorted as he watched far down through the glassy convex surface of the pool, its surface pushing and swelling smooth against the resistance of the log-driven spiles of the bridge. At the bottom were the big trout. Nick did not see them at first.”
The first passage is from “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” the opening story in J.D. Salinger’s collection Nine Stories. The second is from Ernest Hemingway’s post-World War I story “Big Two-Hearted River,” and it’s in pretty much all his collections. Like a lot of writers who came of age in the late 20th century, I was hugely influenced by Hemingway and also a lot by Salinger, though it’s always been harder, for me in the latter case, to say how. Then recently I read something about a connection the two men made during World War II. That led to my re-reading Salinger this week, and thinking about what now seems a clear connection between what these two enormously influential writers were trying to do.
Through the aches and complications, the confusions and the slipped-away times of our lives, there are certain books that, if we’re lucky, stay with us. We can go back to them, and we remember.
Remember what? For everyone, of course, that’s different — but in the books that stay like lodestones in our lives, I think we once discovered, and can rediscover, an experience of opening truth. That’s why we remember them, I think, and why we tend to keep them close — because on first reading they lit up our jumbled reality, they opened an awareness that life does have that within it which is genuine and worthy. We lose that awareness, it gets confused and we can’t find it; but we can still open these books. Or we can discover, with tremendous gratitude, a new book that has this kind of meaning for us.
In the sense of an actual object, sitting on the couch by me now is my most favorite book of all.
It was a small thing, a little observation by a character in a book. I wasn’t sure which book, or even if I’d really read it; maybe I had only dreamed of reading it. But for years and years I remembered the passage. It affected me, stayed with me. It was about living simply, about paying attention. It was about beans.
Summer is a time for dreaming, as I noted last week, and a lot of people dream of writing a book. If you take that plunge (a nice image for August, don’t you think?), then see it through until at last you’ve got your finished manuscript in hand, what’s your best path to publication?
I said last week there are two basic ways you can go: seek publication in the increasingly corporate world of traditional publishing houses, or go independent.
Summer is a time to remember our dreams. We get the chance, if we’re lucky and can manage it, to sit back a little bit and think about what we want to accomplish, what we’ve dreamed of doing.
For a lot of people, a big dream is to write a book, or books. Quite a few have started their first; some have even finished it, or have brought it far-enough along that they’re thinking about publishing. And like a lot of working writers, I get the question fairly often: How can I, or should I, publish my book?
I’m in a lucky position — I get to see schools, middle schools mostly, do genuinely creative things to engage young readers with the realistic YA novels I write. What have I learned? Is there a thread of insight I can pass along about what works?
At the end of the just-past school year I had the chance to think about that, and to offer an answer.
This year's Father’s Day is my first without my dad, Peter Wilhelm, who passed away in Florida almost a year ago. He was 85. When I visit schools these days, and young people ask me how I got started writing, I tell them first how I got started reading — and that was because my dad was the best reader I ever knew.
In The Revealers, my middle-school novel on bullying, one small clique of athletic boys has a nickname, the Jockrots. The name has been given to them — mostly privately, kept to himself — by a smaller boy, Elliot Gekewicz, whom the athletes pick on and tease with cheerful relentlessness. Reading the book, I learned today, got one classroom of fifth graders talking in great creative depth about the gathering cliques in their grade — so they gave each of those groups a nickname, too.
I heard about this when I spent the morning with the fifth grade at Northfield (Vt.) Elementary School, all of whom had read The Revealers. Inside the school, teacher Craig Fuller’s classroom vibrates with projects and process. It was in here that Mr. Fuller and his students spent two days of their language-arts time recently having this clique-naming and -describing discussion.
On a memorable long weekend in early May the past several years I’ve taught fiction writing at Bread Loaf, the mountain campus of Middlebury College that is rightly famous in the literary world. The occasion is the annual New England Young Writers Conference. On a Thursday each spring (this year, it happened last week), talented high school writers from all over the Northeast and even farther — I had a student this year from Paris — travel up the winding road to Ripton, Vermont to work with professional poets, novelists, playwrights, and journalists over three-plus days that tend, you hear this over and over at the conference, to change people’s lives.
Picture the setting, because Bread Loaf itself is a revelation.
Doug Wilhelm's 14 books for young readers include 13 works of fiction. His YA novel The Revealers (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003) deals with bullying, and has been read and discussed in hundreds of middle schools across the U.S. and internationally. True Shoes, Doug’s new sequel to The Revealers, is an ensemble story that looks at the choices young people are making — positive and negative, creative as well as cruel — as they use today's networked technology.
A full-time writer and editor in Vermont, Doug is a former journalist and Boston Globe reporter who has been producing publications for nonprofit organizations for over 25 years. Today he runs Long Stride Books, an independent publishing company that is distributed by Small Press United, a division of the Independent Publishers’ Group. True Shoes is published by Long Stride Books and distributed by IPG.