|I spent the first eighteen years of my life in Decatur, Illinois, a
middle-American town in a time when teenagers were considered guilty until
proven innocent, which is fair enough. My mother read to me before I could
read to myself, and so I dreamed from the start of being a writer in New
York. But Decatur returned to haunt me, becoming the "Bluff City" of my
four novels starring Alexander Arinsworth and Blossom Culp. When
I was young, we were never more than five minutes from the nearest adult,
and that solved most of the problems I write about for a later generation
living nearer the edge. The freedoms and choices prematurely imposed upon
young people today have created an entire literature for them. But then
novels are never about people living easy lives through tranquil times;
novels are the biographies of survivors.
I went to college in Indiana and then England, and I was a soldier in Germany -a chaplain's assistant in Stuttgart ghost-writing sermons and hearing more confessions than the clergy. In Decatur we'd been brought up to make a living and not to take chances, and so I became an English teacher, thinking this was as close to the written word as I'd be allowed to come. And it was teaching that made a writer out of me. I found my future readers right there in the roll book. After all, a novel is about the individual within the group, and that's how I saw young people every day, as their parents never do. In all my novels, you have to declare your independence from your peers before you can take that first real step toward yourself. As a teacher, I’d noticed that nobody ever grows up in a group.
I wrote my first line of fiction on May 24th, 1971-after seventh period. I'd quit my teaching job that day, liberated at last from my tenure and hospitalization. At first, I wrote with my own students in mind. Shortly, I noticed that while I was growing older every minute at the typewriter, my readers remained mysteriously the same age. For inspiration, I now travel about sixty thousand miles a year, on the trail of the young. Now, I never start a novel until some young reader, somewhere, gives me the necessary nudge.
In an age when hardly more than half my readers live in the same homes as their fathers, I was moved to write Father Figure. In it a teenaged boy who has played the father-figure role to his little brother is threatened when they are both reunited with the father they hardly know. It's a novel like so many of our novels that moves from anger to hope in situations to convince young readers that novels can be about them.
I wrote Are You in the House Alone? when I learned that the typical victim of our fastest growing, least-reported crime, rape, is a teenager-one of my own readers, perhaps. It's not a novel to tell young readers what rape is. They already know that. It's meant to portray a character who must become something more than a victim in our judicial system that defers to the criminal.
Two of my latest attempts to keep pace with the young are a comedy called Lost in Cyberspace and its sequel, The Great Interactive Dream Machine. Like a lot of adults, I noticed that twelve year olds are already far more computer-literate than I will ever be.
As a writer, I could create a funny story on the subject, but I expect young readers will be more attracted to it because it is also a story about two friends having adventures together. There's a touch of time travel in it, too, cybernetically speaking, for those readers who liked sharing Blossom Culp's exploits. And the setting is New York, that magic place I dreamed of when I was young in Decatur, Illinois.
|Awarded the 2001 Newbery Medal for
"A Year Down Yonder"