Tell us a little about your novel, Why I Fight?
Well, let’s see, it’s my first novel. It’s considered Young Adult and geared toward reluctant male readers. It’s about a boy named Wyatt Reaves who lives on the road with his traveling salesman Uncle Spade. Wyatt’s a quiet, kind soul who is just looking for his place in the world. He’s very tall, over feet by the time he’s in his early teens, so his uncle takes advantage of that and trains him to be a bare-fist boxer.
Fighting is not admired in my social community, but it was a common and acceptable experience when I was growing up. What inspired you to write a story about a kid that starts fighting for money?
I know this is going to sound funny, because I’d heard other writers talk about this happening and chuckled to myself, but the story told me it had to happen. I listened to Wyatt and he led me in that direction. I really didn’t want to write about fighting. In fact, I tried to get around it. I wrote scenes where Wyatt just carried on with his uncle without the fighting, without the income and the only answer to that, if I stayed true to both characters, was that Uncle Spade would have ditched Wyatt if he were useless. So I had to learn about fighting. I’ve never been around fighting before—I grew up in a middleclass academic family—so I had to interview some folks and read up on it. But now, I consider that part of the fun of writing, exploring the possibilities of the world you’ve created!
I am personally very drawn to both reading and writing coming of age stories. Why did you write a coming of age story?
Okay, to be fully honest, I didn’t think that was what I was writing. I balked at the suggestion by my agent that she wanted to try to sell my book as Young Adult because it was a coming-of-age story. I really hadn’t been paying attention to that section of literature while I was writing the novel and had no idea how much it had exploded and expanded and become so diverse. I’m so excited to be included in that group now, of course. The thing that’s so much fun about coming-of-age stories, for me, is that they are such a vital, dramatic and universal part of any person’s life. We all have one to tell. So even if Wyatt lives on the road and fist fights, there is still something there for any reader to empathize with if they see through the details to the emotions and struggles behind it all.
One of the things I loved about this novel is that it feels like the main character is talking directly to me. How does this writing style make the novel stand out from other books?
Thanks! I’m glad you felt that. I guess I’ve always written first-person narrators very close to the bone. And even more so with Wyatt; it’s what makes him truly unique, I think: his voice. My amazing editor, Richard Jackson, really worked with me to hone that voice. One of the first things he asked me when we started working together was, “Who is Wyatt telling this story to?” My answer was, “A stranger on a bus…. That’s the only way he’d be willing to admit to it all.” Richard’s response was, “Well, that’s not what you did. So let’s get to work on that.” My heart sank, but then began the first of three completely new drafts that forced me to check what why said to that stranger: Would he admit to killing animals? Would he swear? Would he lie? And how long would a stranger listen? It was a truly intriguing process and something I’ll use on the new novel I’m working on as well.
Sometimes when I’m writing about a character, I listen to music that I think my character like. What songs would you want as the soundtrack to Why I Fight?
Okay, what I imagine on the soundtrack to WHY I FIGHT is not necessarily what I’d listen to while I wrote, but what I remember on the radio on road trips when I was a kid: classic rock, glam rock, heavy metal, all the stuff Uncle Spade would listen to, you know, because Wyatt certainly never got to have control of the radio. What I listened to while I wrote was things that made me feel the words, but were in no way connected to the story. You’re going to laugh, but I listened to a lot of Brazilian music, like Samba and Bossa Nova. I didn’t know the words, but they were like poetry. I also listened to a lot of old jazz, like Billy Holiday and Louis Armstrong. I’ll have to try that with my next novel, listen to what the main character is listening to.
I don’t know about you, but I have about three different stories whirling in the back of my head while I’m currently working on one. Are you working on another novel now?
Yes, the new one takes place in Spain, so I’ll try listening to Flamenco and gypsy music to get into main character. I lived in Madrid for almost three years and so I’m finally writing about what it’s like to create a home so far from home. But, I’m like you; I’ve always got a bunch of things floating around in my brain while I’m working on the book. I have to have a few short stories going or they’ll become like flies buzzing in my ears.
I always like to hear about the beginning of an individual’s career path. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Well, I first thought I should be a cartoonist, but I wasn’t that good at the drawing. I do come from a long line of storytellers. But I remember writing stories even in elementary school. I used to write a paragraph on a note card and pass it to my friend Kathy Atkinson, then she’d write the next paragraph and give it to me. Also, my grandmother told me that for every story I mailed to her, she’d write down one of the stories from her very interesting life. I never got any of them in the mail (and I was pretty ticked about it) even though I kept mailing her what I’d written. And then, when she died, we found a notepad on her desk full of handwritten stories, and on the top of the first page it said, “For Jeffrey.” I guess writing has just been something I knew I would do.
I like to end my interviews with a ridiculous question. If you were a mythical creature, what would you be?
Ooh, that’s a good one! The first one that popped into my head was a griffin. That’s the eagle/lion, right? I would want to fly and be cool and ferocious. Ew, but I don’t think I want a beak. So maybe Pegasus. A winged Palomino. There we go. I’m good with that.